The Beguiled

One of the problems with heading off to see a movie like The Beguiled is that you might not be exactly sure what “beguiled” means.  Well, let me assure you that 45 minutes into this one you will have a pretty good idea.

The film is set at a boarding school for girls in rural Virginia some time at the back end of the Civil War.  One of the girls is out picking mushrooms and she happens upon Colin Farrell under a willow tree with a badly wounded leg (Farrell has the wounded leg, not the willow tree).   She assists the blue-bellied Yankee back to the seminary, and what unfolds from there is pretty much what you might expect when Colin Farrell is introduced to a group of mostly sheltered females ranging in age from pre-pubescent to Nicole Kidman.  There are a couple of catches, of course.  Firstly, it’s 1860s Virginia, not Hollywood, so the hostesses are trying to maintain a level of decorum commensurate with Southern ladies.  Secondly, despite the masculine intrigue, they aren’t quite sure if the cad soldier will rape and murder them given the chance.

The film is beautifully shot, both the outdoor shots and the interior of the household.  Despite the expanse of the wilderness, there is a claustrophobic vibe running throughout, with themes of being locked in, what it means to be locked in, and the precarious nature of locks recurring again and again.   The vulnerability of a female seminary on the outskirts of a warzone is continuously reintroduced, vis a vis both the Yankee in their midst and the Rebels that happen by.  Ultimately, the movie explores many themes relating to communication, trust, friends and foes, and group behavior (among others) with startling levels of sexual tension and stark, brutal reality helping to set and re-set the background mood.  The state of beguility, it turns out, might just affect your perspective and behavior.

The acting is great, led by the amazing Nicole Kidman and almost equally amazing Kirsten Dunst, who may or may not be competing for the soldier’s affections. Kidman is certainly not sheltered in her role as the decisive head of the operation, and I think what is going on in her head makes for the toughest read in the movie.  In contrast, Elle Fanning is cast as just old enough to drop a handkerchief, and she is pretty much as transparent as they come.  I’m not sure who all those younger girls were, but they didn’t skip a beat, either.   And, Farrell is gorgeous in his role as the Dubliner mercenary, showing a range from sensitive to psychotic.  Director Sofia Coppola is pulling the strings here, and I continue to enjoy the films she is putting out.

This soars over the $5 bar and is pretty much as good a movie as you are likely to see in the theaters.  Big ups from the L&D crew.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie certainly lives up to its name as both being a movie and being rather epic.  The movie is an extraordinarily true-to-the-books adaptation of the popular Dav Pilkey series, meaning that it is just a little bit funnier and a little bit more insightful than what you are expecting.

For those of you who haven’t raised any boys in the past 10 years, the movie, like the books, follows the trajectories of fourth-grader pals, George and Harold, perennial goofabouts and also author and illustrator of the Captain Underpants comic series.  The grade-school setting is boilerplate, replete with droning teachers (e.g., Ms. Ribble, never gets old), know-it-all classmates, tattle tales, interminable assemblies, and, of course, office visits to the boys’ principal rival, the inept and borderline evil Principal Krupp. Spoiler alert (not really), Principal Krupp ultimately takes on the alter ego of the good Captain Underpants himself in real life, as the kids would say, taking on threats ranging from vengeful Turbo Toilets to adversaries that include Bionic Booger Boy and the evil Professor P.P. Poopypants (connoisseurs will note that the movie deviates from the series here, with the expanded name of Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants Esquire).

If all of this sounds sophomoric to you, then you get the point exactly. This movie is made for people who can’t withhold a smirk when talking about planet Uranus, which includes boys from the ages of 4 to about, well, you get the idea.

As for the movie itself, I have seen it twice and laughed through it both times.  The coloring is really well done and the animation is pretty fluid.  There are also elements from the books and otherwise that mix things up, such as a Flip-O-Rama sequence and a hilarious sock puppet interlude that has the vibe of a diorama come to life (I still don’t understand the point of the sock puppets, and am guessing there isn’t one other than it was visually hilarious).  The story is not terribly sophisticated and kids will generally relate both to the settings and to the humor.   Fortunately, it is not terribly preachy, either, which is probably annoying for the kids and is definitely annoying to me.   So, what it really kind of amounts to is about 90 minutes of fart jokes and ridiculousness.

And what’s wrong with that?

Ghost in the Shell

I came into Ghost in the Shell with high expectations and left a little disappointed.  The movie itself is visually stunning and Scarlett Johansson is a bona fide action hero, but the story was meh and to me that was the difference between it being good and great.

I have two main gripes.

The first gripe is that I knew too much about what was going on – the trailers gave away enough of the plot so that when the turn came it lost its impact. Johansson’s cyborg with a human brain character is the logical conclusion of Jason Bourne arc (or at least the penultimate stage of that arc), and the trailer plot giveaways let us know that there is some deep dark secret in the character’s past, a la the Bourne universe.  The upshot for me is that I kind of knew where we were headed, and when we got there I wasn’t sure who to root for or whether it really mattered one way or the other (indeed, this particular brand of ambiguity was probably the deal-breaker for me; the moral dilemmas presented didn’t have me torn so much as they had me yawn, have I seen this film before?).   It wasn’t all the trailer, though, within the first five minutes of the movie I leaned over to L and said, “oooh, the bad guy,” so that plotline was about as surprising as bad breath on a lost dog.

The second problem, ironically, is that I didn’t know enough about what was going on to find it interesting.  Some of the more positive reviews I’ve seen seem very conversant from the source material, including this one from the A.V. Club.  I haven’t seen Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi animated feature, played a video game influenced by it, or have any clue about Masamune Shirow’s manga series or any of the later animated adaptions coming from that, so I’m sure there are all sorts of bon bons in the plot and the cinescape that fans enjoyed and I didn’t.  Sometimes when I watch superhero movies with comic book nerds they will be pointing me to some interesting or even delicious asides that add to their enjoyment, but such hat tips to the source material should enhance the enjoyment for the true devotees, not be decisive in terms of the overall enjoyment of the film.  Certainly not in a hyped up, would-be blockbuster such as this.

But the movie was not without its charms and I mostly enjoyed watching it, despite the absence of real intrigue.  Whatever Japanese city that was was really super cool, and the holograms and flying saucers and buildings and riverfront shots and all that were really spectacular, like Blade Runner with 21st-century special effects.   Equally spectacular were the hairdos of many of the main characters, particularly the Pilou Asbæk and Beat Tikano (Dudes, great hair!!!!)…. leaving one to wonder why Johansson didn’t ask for some hair work herself, as her synthetic wig thing was about the only non-jaw dropping thing about her.  I guess as long as I’m nit-picking the star, I’d say she was saddled with this lumbering gait, like she was wearing wet shoes, that was never explained, but it didn’t seem to affect her when she was kicking ass and taking names, which she did a lot of.

Way over the $5 bar, sure, and I’m sure I’ll catch it again when it’s on the tube, but I was expecting better.

Kong

Kong: Skull Island.  The scenery is pretty spectacular. The monkey isn’t bad. There are many moments of surprise, intrigue, shock and awe (as well as “aw, that’s gross”).  But the storytelling is poor and that sinks the project.

The movie is set in the final days of the Vietnam War and with its constant allusions to Apocalypse Now forces us to ask where the line is between “homage” and “painfully derivative and stupid.”  From the choice and use of music to the helicopter sequences to the journeys up and down various bodies of water to the napalm detonations to the singularly obsessed military officer, there are many points of comparison (though never even remotely favorably).

Of course, it is difficult to compete with the classics and, in fairness, there are a few bright spots.   Samuel L. Jackson has some good lines in a pretty cool trip through the clouds.  There are some good action sequences, particularly with the big guy tossing stuff around with the accuracy of Greg Maddux and his UFC-style grappling with various slimy creatures.  I also really liked the island itself, particularly the glow of the nighttime lights.

Unfortunately, the list of things to object to runs so much longer that I’m not even sure it’s worth dredging them up.   John Goodman is completely wasted.   John C. Reilly is worse than wasted, as his lines and his story trajectory are painful. The Brie Larson “anti-war” photographer angle is even less developed than her would-be romance with the  pro-war mercenary Tom Hiddleston character (If Kong had accidentally squished the Larson character in his clenched fist, that would have really made up for a lot of the movie’s other shortcomings).  John Ortiz, who I loved in Drop, has no discernible role. Indeed, there must be four or five story arcs falling into the categories of undeveloped, underdeveloped, stupid, insulting to the intelligence, and poorly thought out (most falling into several of these categories) passing time until we get to the climactic sequence.

So the verdict here is to keep the $5 in your pocket.  How this isn’t completely panned on Metacritic is definitely a mystery.  I would have walked out, but when I looked over my colleague was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake him up.

The horror, indeed.

John Wick, Chapter 2

We ventured out to see *John Wick, Chapter 2* this past Thursday, a testosterone-fueled affair where all but two of the principals are males.  The first is the target of a hit, and she demonstrates her defiance by stripping naked for the protagonist and jumping in a tub.  The second is a mute who is pretty masculine in her own right, with cropped hair and a conventional men’s suit.  She’s also tatted up.   What is going on with her is not exactly clear. The love interest is actually just a picture of his former love interest (who must have died in the previous movie?) and probably doesn’t count as a character, unless you need at least three females in the film to get it green-lighted in Hollywood these days.

Not that I was expecting it, but not a real feminine touch here.

The real love interest, it turns out, is John Wick’s dog, who behaves a lot like a woman typically behaves in these affairs — follows the hero around and focuses its attention solely on the hero (in this case literally sitting at attention until it is told it can do otherwise). The dog doesn’t have a name, either, which is both mildly comedic and instructive.

What the movie lacks in women, it makes up for in action, and in spots the action is brilliant.  The initial chase scene contains several moments where L&D (and our special guest, A) jumped out of our seats or covered our faces or shouted “OH!” and generally reacted in ways men react when they see another man take a direct and unexpected shot to the nutuals.  This is John Wick at its best.  The film also featured dozens of shots where the victim’s brain and skull spatter out the back of the head.  For example, Mr. Wick might angle the gun below a victim and the bullet would come out the back of the victim’s head, along with residual brain and skull, sort of like seeing the silhouette of water out of a fountain.

In fairness, most of the victims had it coming.

Speaking of fountains, I also liked the scene where hero and one of the villains were shooting at each other blindly through the fountain.   Why they were being so coy in the station a minute earlier and then start blindly shooting at each other out in the open is an unanswerable question, and if you see the film, you will not be able to answer it, either.

This is pure, live-action comic book.   Which, I gather, is pure live-action first-person gaming these days.  If you like watching people play first-person shooter video games, this is the movie for you.

But for the rest of us, even low expectations going in wasn’t enough to save it.  This movie has no heart.  The story isn’t interesting.  The characters aren’t interesting.  The great Ian McShane gets to play a priggish bore, like Teddy Bass running his own retirement community or a modern-day Al Swearengen who doesn’t allow swearing within his club. The only grasp at sex appeal in the entire affair is immediately supplanted with noirish bloodletting.

And even the villain isn’t that villainous,  at least not in a way that inspires true audience animus or awe. Aren’t great action movies as much about the villain as the hero?  Darth Vader, the Joker, Hans Gruber, Sam Gerard.  That’s probably as much of a deal breaker as anything.

Heart and a good Villain.  We will return to these themes in future posts, I’m certain.

As for the verdict:   For me, the movie was saved by low expectations and I got my $5 worth.

It passes the time.

It shocks.

It awes.

And then, like it never happened, I go home and forget all about it.

Unfortunately, my colleague was expecting more and was sorely, sorely disappointed.   So, plan accordingly.

Collide

There are many, many things colliding in the new Hollywood mashup Collide, coming soon to video near you.

The movie is set in Germany of all places, following the trajectory of Casey Stein, a reasonably good-looking American ex-pat with really big blue eyes (Nicholas Hoult).  Casey is involved in some illicit activities, acting as the pickup boy for the the underworld boss, Gerun (played by Ben Kingsley). At first glance, Kingsley seems  to be reprising his role as the bumptious bald guy from Sexy Beast, only with a different accent and a gaudier wardrobe, something along the lines of “Evil Bono” (ht: L). In this case, however, Kingsley is less worried about recruiting henchmen than he is about getting a fair cut from his boss, the trucking magnate Englishman thugmeister, Anthony Hopkins (played by Anthony Hopkins).  The uneasy tension sets the stage for a mutinous collision, of course.

Meanwhile, Casey has his eye on the good-looking American ex-pat bartender, Juliette (Felicity Jones), who doesn’t approve of his profession.  So, head-over-heels in love, Casey goes straight and starts working as a salt-of-the-earth guy in one of the many jobs available to Americans in European metal scrapyards, while the couple do the efficient German thing and fall in love over the course of a couple minute montage.  But, alas, their booze-fueled affair hits an icy patch, and the couple find themselves in the need of a very quick cash infusion, setting Romeo back to the underworld for that one last big chivalrous score. The cliches come Fast & Furious, and what ensues is the aforementioned gangster-heist-car chase-action hero mashup, with cars traveling at blistering speeds down the autobahn and things crashing and blowing up here and thar, leading to the climatic collision between the principals.  I’m guessing you can guess what happens from here.

One change from this standard formula is that Hopkins’ henchmen all have dark hair and steely blue eyes, sport monochromatic clothing, and excitedly shout things out in German during some heated moments, adding (probably inadvertent) comic effect to the extended manhunt. (It is possible these henchmen are all played by the same actor, with a beard tacked on at times to mix things up; the credits for actors was much shorter than the list of stuntmen).

Some of the sequences are done really well and, coupled with Hopkins in a fabulous light-blue suit and Kingsley parading around in high-end pajamas, hopped up on gop, it makes for a rather enjoyable, at times laugh-out-loud funny, 90 minutes or so.

I can think of worse ways to spend my $5, but I’m not so sure I’d spend too much more than that on this film.

Gold

Gold-Matthew-McConaughey

Gold is the third straight movie we’ve seen that focuses exclusively on a single character obsessed with conquering his world (see also *Live by Night* and *The Founder*). In this case the character is our main man, Matthew McConaughey, as a mineral prospector whose Nevada ‘plays’ have come to an end by the late 1980s, so he sets his sights to his dreams about the vast untapped wealth of rural Indonesia. From that point, the movie splits its time between the lushness of the jungle in one part of the world, to the arid semi-mountainous climes of Nevada in another, to the concrete jungle that is Wall Street that bankrolls the whole affair.

Actually, that is not quite right.  There are two candidates for main character, which the viewer has to sort out on their own.  The first candidate, of course, is McConnaughey as Kenny — a rambling guy with a protruding gut, a spectacularly receding hairline, and a tooth issue that I can’t quite put my finger on, who is often seen sporting tighty whities that are neither tight nor white. There are very few if any scenes where Kenny isn’t the focal point, and he is mostly fun to watch.  Big props to him for looking pretty much like a fat guy on a bender  from wire to wire in this one. The other main character is Edgar Ramirez as the gold whisperer, Michael Acosta, who gets to play the sharp-dressed man here, and is beautiful doing so.  I still can’t decide if he nailed it with his performance or if he kind of sucked. I’m leaning toward nailed it, with the suckiness coming more from some unevenness of the plot and pacing and incidentals.

Continue reading “Gold”

REVIEW: Live By Night

The L&D Report made its first trip of the year Thursday to see Ben Affleck’s new vanity project, *Live By Night*. Affleck plays the Boston Irish war hero cum petty thug cum Prohibition-era gangster hellbent on revenge (but with a heart of gold!). With a run time of just under four and a half hours, this sprawling epic is all over the map more than anything we’ve seen since Ibn Battuta. The plot itself is neither interesting nor surprising (though admittedly I was surprised it didn’t end sooner) and hardly worth recounting.

There were a few aspects where the movie excelled. There were some great long shots of Florida drives, some reasonably cool costumes (that generally made Ben Affleck look super good), and a really extraordinary car chase that had me seriously amped. There were also several supporting actor roles that were well played, including Brendan Gleeson as the police chief dad in mourning, Chris Messina as Affleck’s colorful Florida sidekick, and Titus Welliver as the grape-brained racist killer dude with this lip deformity thing.

Even so, most of the characters were caricatures or worse. The usually reliable Chris Cooper at one point breaks down crying, and it isn’t clear if it’s part of the story line or whether he can’t believe he’s stuck in that role. It doesn’t get any better for Cooper and he ends the movie in a completely debased and degraded state, which is I’m guessing how most audiences will feel walking out of the theater.

Let’s just say that this movie definitely didn’t hit the $5 value bar, and L&D Reporters will not be catching this when it is rerun on TNT, which will probably be coming sooner than you might think.