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Updated: 2017-03-24T09:27:00-05:00

 



Power Rangers

2017-03-24T09:27:47-05:00

Loud, trashy, sweet and weird, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers reboot “Power Rangers” is not merely an ideal film for rambunctious and undemanding 12-year olds, it actually sees the world through their eyes. In theory, the heroes are high school students. But they’re actually a Disney Channel-styled fantasy of the splendors that await kids when they finally become full-fledged teenagers and can Do Whatever They Want. These heroes are misfits. They gather in detention in their high school, a scenario that promises to turn into “The Mighty Morphin Breakfast Club Rangers.” Lo and behold, that’s what you get: a mix of shenanigans, heart-to-heart talks and widescreen punch-outs between monster battles.The team consists of Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery), the future Red Ranger, a juvenile delinquent with a barely disguised noble streak; Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), aka Pink Ranger, a depressive who’s in detention for texting an embarrassing private photo of a classmate; Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler), aka Blue Ranger, who’s got a spectrum disorder in this version; Becky G as Trini, the soon-to-be Yellow Power Ranger, who stays a blank slate until the movie fills in her backstory during the second half; and Ludi Lin as Zack, the Black Ranger, who was African-American in the original TV series but has been cast as Asian here. The teens are trained by Zordon (Bryan Cranston), sole survivor of a prehistoric battle that ended with a meteor wiping out the dinosaurs. He wants them to defend the Earth against his nemesis, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), by karate-kicking and body slamming Rita’s beloved stone golems, then joining forces to defeat a gigantic golden warrior called Goldar. There's a plot about the Rangers trying to protect a crystal hidden inside a Krispy Kreme donut shop, and a detailed mythology about the life force of planets, but while Rangers purists will appreciate the fine points, the film doesn't get too hung up on them. The best way to save humanity, Zordon explains, is to kill Rita. To drive this point home, the film repeats the phrase “kill Rita” so often and with such zeal that it becomes a shared joke between the movie and the audience. “Let's go and do the one thing that's been asked of us and kill Rita!" Jason exhorts his colleagues. “I shall destroy Rita myself!” Zordon proclaims when the training isn’t going so well. The “stronger together” message of the original show has been given a post-Obama makeover here, sometimes convincingly, other times awkwardly. The film’s marketing hypes the fact that Trini has been re-imagined as the first openly gay superhero in movie history, and that is quite a milestone; but if you go out for popcorn in the scene where that’s established you might not figure it out, unless you detect the undertones of Sapphic menace in the scene where Rita bullies Trini in her bedroom. (It’s like when Paramount congratulated itself for making Sulu gay in “Star Trek Beyond” when all it did was give audiences a two-second glimpse of a photo revealing that Sulu's significant other was a man. Um, thanks?) Billy, however, becomes a genuinely memorable character, thanks mainly to Cyler’s heartfelt performance (which overcomes a lot of fuzziness about what, exactly, the character’s condition is). And the screenplay makes this cheerful kid the heart and soul of the group, and sometimes its comic relief, without sapping him of dignity. Zack fares well, too: he loudly advertises himself as the “crazy” one, but in private moments he cares for his sickly mother with the same grim matter-of-factness that the title character of "Logan" brought into Professor X’s room along with meals and meds. (Zack and his mom speak Mandarin with English subtitles, a nice touch.) Writer John Gatins and director Dean Israelite make sure to take the characters’ emotions seriously even as they celebrate the ridiculousness of everything else. Nailing the tone in a film like this is so important that if you manage it, the audience will forgive missteps. T[...]



A Rising Star: Riley Keough on “The Discovery”

2017-03-24T08:47:47-05:00

Riley Keough had an amazing 2016, landing a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Starz’s “The Girlfriend” and an equally-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for “American Honey.” Moving out of the shadow created by her family’s legacy (she’s the granddaughter of Elvis Presley), Keough continues her streak, appearing in last month’s “Lovesong,” and playing a crucial role in next week’s “The Discovery,” co-starring Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, and Robert Redford, which premiered at Sundance, where the actress spoke to us. In the film, Keough plays someone working with Redford’s doctor, who has conclusively proven the existence of an afterlife and now wants to prove exactly what happens next. It’s a relatively small part, but Keough does so much with it, proving that she remains one of the most interesting actresses of her generation. And she’s just getting started. With “Girlfriend Experience” and “American Honey,” can we start with what 2016 meant to you? What was that year like? It’s weird because I’ve been doing independent film for eight years. I was just doing my thing, and, all of a sudden it was just a bigger deal than normal. [Laughs] I was totally surprised. I don’t know. It’s weird. Why did it all come together? It was a mixture between timing and the roles and life and what’s happening in the world. It’s just timing. Also, if you do good work long enough it gets recognized. Totally. What does the awards recognition mean to you? I don’t know. It was really great because I felt really supported by Independent Film, which was really cool. That made me really happy. The Spirit nomination meant so much to me. I watched it for years and was like, ‘That’s the room I want to be in. These are the people that I like.’ It’s just really special. It’s funny because I don’t know how I feel about awards necessarily. I was actually trying to figure out what it means to me because it’s not something I’ve thought about much until it happened. You can’t plan for it. Totally. I think I have to simplify it because people can get weird about it. For me, if you get awards or nominations, it does help you do more. I was talking to Andrea about this at Cannes, and she was like ‘Awards have helped me further my career.’ And just to be recognized by people you look up to is really nice. You’ve done Sundance a few times. How is this Sundance different? It’s an emotional thing for me. I love Sundance so much. I love being around people who love film so much and their energy. So I always love being at Sundance. It’s definitely one of my favorite festivals because it feels alive and excited. I really love it. It’s different in a couple ways. It’s different in that my schedule is a little more chill. I just have this and I’m more supporting so I’m not obliged to do everything. Last year my schedule was really crazy. It was fun but I can be able to see movies this year. Last year, I wasn’t able to see anything and you feel like an idiot. People are like ‘What have you seen?’ And you’re like, ‘My own movie? Three times?’ Also, it’s nice to be here right now where we’re all so, I think, like-minded. We’re still just doing our thing and trying to change things in the world. It’s a very supportive community and I feel really lucky to have that, especially today. We’re all trying to put our attention to art. Let’s get to the movie. What attracted you to this project? I love Charlie. And, also, I read the script, and it’s something I’ve never seen tackled directly before. What’s that? The afterlife. And not being super-ambiguous about it. This is what happens. It’s an interesting take on it and I’ve never thought of it before and I think of a lot of things. [Laughs] Pat myself on the back. It was a take I had never really seen. Also, there’s this element to it that was about family emotions and it was purely just sci-fi. It was in this sort of genr[...]



What “Julie’s Greenroom” Teaches Us About the Importance of the NEA

2017-03-24T16:18:54-05:00

For anyone whose childhood was enriched by the maternal warmth of Julie Andrews or the humanistic ingenuity of Jim Henson’s Muppets, the new Netflix show, “Julie’s Greenroom,” is guaranteed to be a joyous experience. Andrews co-created the series along with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton (“The Very Fairy Princess”), and Judy Rothman Rofé (“Madeline”), and stars as Miss Julie, the head of a performing arts workshop for youth. Her latest class consists of five children and a duck splendidly performed by Muppeteers, who bring their felt-and-foam marvels to life with an attention to nuance that would’ve made Henson proud. There’s a light in their eyes that is unmistakable, and it is conjured by every tilt of the head and upturned eyebrow, causing them to seem more vividly alive than countless CGI characters. Having memorably guested on “The Muppet Show,” Andrews has a natural chemistry with her pint-sized students, treating them as she would any human performer, while gently reprimanding her mischievous dog, Toby (John Kennedy), who also happens to be a puppet. The first 13 episodes of “Julie’s Greenroom” debuted on March 17th, and though the series is every bit as delightful as one would expect, it succeeds as far more than a nostalgia-fest. In fact, there may not be a better defense for saving the National Endowment for the Arts than this program, which has coincidentally arrived during a period in which the President of the United States has proposed cutting it for the first time in history. Since its founding in 1965, the same year Andrews starred in “The Sound of Music,” the NEA has played an essential role in launching the careers of filmmakers and other visionaries whose work has left an indelible impact on the world. So many artistic institutions wouldn’t be in existence if it weren’t for the NEA, and the same could be said of programs such as “Sesame Street,” which provided me with the formative building blocks of education long before my schooling began. How fitting that the first episode of “Julie’s Greenroom” is entitled, “The Show Must Go On,” reflecting the sentiments of the class as they’re forced to scrap their plans for a “Wizard of Oz” production after a burst water pipe destroys their costumes and sets. This loss presents them with an opportunity to create their own original musical from scratch, and the premise of their show, it turns out, couldn’t be more topical: it’s about how all of the arts from a once-happy kingdom have been stolen by a mean ogre. Yet even when their resources are limited, the kids learn that they can transform ordinary objects into great artworks by infusing them with their imagination.After Julie’s assistant, Gus (Giullian Yao Gioiello) leads the students—and the kids at home—in warm-ups, each episode offers a “master class” on a particular facet of a theatrical production, from screenwriting to rehearsing. The classes are taught by special guests, most of whom we learn are alumni (a.k.a. “Greenies”) of Julie’s class, whose backgrounds are glimpsed in photo montages, showing young viewers that these accomplished talents were once kids too. Idina Menzel kicks things off by encouraging the kids to discover the untapped possibilities in the world around them, leading to a later episode where the cast of STOMP utilizes various items in Julie’s office to create a percussive symphony. Tituss Burgess stops by to show the kids how costumes can place them in “someone else’s shoes,” altering their identity even through the multiples uses of a scarf. Violinist Joshua Bell performs a thrilling solo while reassuring the kids that a broken string isn’t the end of the world. There’s an especially lovely moment where ballet dancers describe how music can tell a story on its own, focusing on the notes in “Swan Lake” that anticipate the emergence of the princess. The importance of teamwork is emphasized in screenwriting sessions from [...]



Life

2017-03-24T09:48:50-05:00

After the relatively warm-and-fuzzy space odysseys of “Arrival” and “Passengers” it’s salutary to see a relatively big studio sci-fi picture in which the final frontier is once again relegated to the status of Ultimate Menace. Genre thrill-seekers disgusted/disappointed by “Prometheus” but still salivating like Pavlov’s Dog at the prospect of “Alien: Covenant” might find “Life,” directed by Daniel Espinosa, a satisfactory stopgap measure, a cinematic Epipen of outer-space mayhem to steady the nerves until the ostensible Main Event. As for myself, I’ve been gorging on such fare since before “Alien” itself—“It! The Terror from Beyond Space” and “Planet of the Vampires” were among my various cinematic bread and butters as a young maladjusted cinephile. As such, “Life” struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat. The picture takes place almost entirely on a claustrophobic, labyrinthine space station; director Espinosa and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey have a lot of fun in the early scene “floating” the camera along with the space station crew. Ryan Reynold’s cocky Roy is the cowboy of the bunch; he goes on a spacewalk to catch an off-course capsule full of research materials straight from Mars. Cautious medical officer David, played by an often bug-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal, is initially the fella who says things like “We weren’t trained for this.” Rebecca Ferguson’s Miranda plays den mother to him and others. Science dude Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), paralyzed from the waist down, loves zero gravity conditions, and initially loves the single-cell organism (named “Calvin” by a group of contest-winning schoolchildren down on home sweet Earth) he’s wrested from a sample of Martian soil. Two other crew members are played by Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada, the latter back in space for the first time since Danny Boyle’s 2007 “Sunshine.” You may remember the nickname “Dead Meat” from “Hot Shots,” or the phrase “Bantha Fodder” from one of the “Star Wars” movies. However. One of the bigger-name crew members does get to play (spoiler alert, sort of) a reprise of the Steven Seagal role in “Executive Decision.” That’s because little Calvin suddenly starts growing awful fast. At first it’s kind of like a living version of those icky sticky wall-tumbling toys. Which is bad enough. Eventually it grows into a tentacled cross between a mutant lotus and an irritated cobra. It’s pretty gnarly. But early on I thought, let’s face it, it ain’t Giger. Or Giger-league. And without that you’re always going to suffer by comparison. The other effects and settings are solid but unextraordinary, although the hiccupped blood bubbles that float around after escaping from Calvin’s victims are a nice ghoulish touch. There’s also the constant, insistent score by Jon Ekstrand, bearing down right from the opening and not doing much for the cause. There are some disquieting bits—the early scene in which the maturing Calvin grabs on to Hugh’s gloved hand and simply will not let go is a nice burner, for sure. But the movie’s story “beats” are inescapably commonplace. (There’s even a bit derived from “The Thing From Another World” in which one ill-advised character contemplates Calvin’s scientific awesomeness.) Either screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick haven’t got the goods, or there really are only so many things you can do with a homicidal space creature and a manned ship. It doesn’t help that just as the movie should be hurtling toward its climax, it pauses for some character development. A children’s book that makes a Chekhovian appearance in the “first act” holds the key to survival in the final one, and I didn’t buy it. What the filmmakers don’t understand is that when you try to add overtly cerebral notes to ruthless B-picture scenarios, you actually wind up making your final product d[...]



CHiPS

2017-03-24T10:44:57-05:00

Action-comedy "CHiPS" is a buddy film about overcompensating characters that seems to have also been made by overcompensating comedians. Unfortunately, the movie frequently devolves into the same chauvinism and homophobia that star/writer/director Dax Shepard sometimes half-heartedly mocks. This isn't a knowing parody of a beloved show, a la the 2012 reboot/parody "21 Jump Street"; it's a sample of the brain-dead entertainment against which its creators are supposedly reacting. Painfully unfunny sex jokes ensue soon after Jon Baker (Shepard), a former pro-motorcycle rider turned straight-laced rookie highway patrolman, teams up with an undercover fed who goes by the name of Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (Michael Peña). Ponch is on the trail of a group of dirty cops led by Vic Brown (Vincent D'Onofrio) and reluctantly enlists Baker's help. That blind trust is supposed to be a remarkable sign of good faith given how much of a wreck Baker is; he's addicted to painkillers and can't bear the thought of breaking up with his estranged wife (Kristen Bell). Ponch's sex addiction and generally reckless behavior presumably complements Baker's whole uptight vibe. Ultimately, the worst thing that happens to these men—between seemingly inconsequential confrontations with Kurtz—is that women constantly fling themselves at them. This could be funny if the film's characters seemed to be in on the joke, but they're usually exhibiting the same insecurities they're supposedly sending up. In a scene that's prominently featured in the film's trailer, Ponch falls face-first into Baker's naked crotch while he tries to bring his then-incapacitated partner to his bathtub for a soak. This scene is supposed to be the tipping point for the two characters: Ponch can't possibly be homophobic because he and Baker bond at the absurdity of making face-junk contact.  Unfortunately, there's nothing funny about the parade of bare breasts and over-sexed, under-developed female characters that Shepard uses to perpetually re-affirm Ponch and Baker's heterosexuality. These guys may worry about each other's sexual preferences, as we see in the scene where Ponch gasps at the sight of Baker and his colleague's fully-clothed genitals touching each other when they embrace in the men's changing room. But Baker is almost immediately pounced on by Ava (Rosa Salazar), a fellow cop who just happens to be a motorcycle buff. Ponch is similarly sized up and treated to nude photos three times throughout the film, a running gag that climaxes as poorly as it begins. The fact that these guys have attractive women practically begging to strip and/or pose for them would be funny if Shepard actually did something with Ponch's sex addiction or Baker's timidity.  But more often than not, Shepard uses his characters' neuroses as hooks that he can hang a bunch of lame sex jokes on. These jokes, collectively, make "CHiPS" look like a broad comedy about one thing: straight men who can't bear the thought of being presumed homosexual. There's the out-of-nowhere joke where two Spanish-speaking car mechanics joke about Baker's presumably small penis while Ponch translates everything they say into disingenuously complimentary English. And there's the gag about Ponch getting a woman to perform anilingus on him, a joke that backfires immediately because Ponch insists that he likes to give as well as receive since all modern couples do it. And, as if that joke's unpleasant reliance on the juvenile assumption that being kinky must be icky, there's also the out-of-context scene where Ponch and Baker are ogled by Ava, fellow lady motorcycle cop Lindsey (Jessica McNamee), and by a gay cop who is in barely any scenes, and exclusively identified as gay. This last gag is especially telling. It feels like Shepard's defensive way of warding off criticism that the film is reveling in, rather than parodying, such piggish sexism. After all, how could the film be [...]



The Most Hated Woman in America

2017-03-24T08:38:47-05:00

“My mother pissed off a lot of people, especially those she was close to.” There’s an undeniable wealth of storytelling to be culled from the life of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a talk show regular and fighter for religious freedom who was kidnapped in the ‘90s and held for ransom. She fought back against what she saw as the hypocrisy of a religious community that shunned her after a second pregnancy as a single woman, starting a legal battle to remove prayer from schools and the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Realizing she could make a profit as an anti-religious leader, she founded American Atheists, getting donations large enough to make her rich, and a target of those who wanted her cash. She was once called "The Most Hated Woman in America,” and the Netflix Original that tries to tell her story takes that name as well. I said tries because you have learned about as much reading this intro as you will about Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the course of this disappointing, narratively flat film. Melissa Leo plays the controversial figure, although she’s often forced to fight through bad, old-age makeup to convey character. We see Madalyn at several key points in her life, but the majority of the film focuses on the kidnapping in August of 1995 by David Waters (Josh Lucas), Gary Karr (Rory Cochrane) and Danny Fry (Alex Frost), a trio of guys who just wanted to get $1 million and head for the border. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Oddly, no one seemed to care that Madalyn, her son Jon (Michael Chernus) and her granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple) were gone. Murray O’Hair had pulled publicity stunts in the past, so the cops didn’t investigate her disappearance, even though her ally Roy (Brandon Mychal Smith) knew that she wouldn’t leave her beloved dogs at home. Rob went to the press, getting in touch with San Antonio reporter Jack Ferguson (Adam Scott), who agreed that something didn’t look right, and started publishing stories about the Murray O’Hair disappearance. This “investigative” thread is used narratively to allow us into flashbacks about key moments in Madalyn’s life, like her activism for religious freedom and the estrangement from her son Bill Jr. (Vincent Kartheiser), who now runs a fight for religious inclusion in the school system. Perhaps most bizarrely, director Tommy O’Haver uses a lot of clips from Murray O’Hair appearances, such as when she popped up on “Donahue” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” A 90-minute film should never include this much recreated footage you could find online. The fact is that O’Haver and co-writer Irene Turner never settle on an angle from which to tell this story. The history of Madalyn’s life has a direct, then-this-happened biopic style. The film in which Adam Scott appears has a totally different tone, almost an outsider look at a crazy movie that could have worked on its own. And then there’s the most frustrating film of all, the kidnapping tale that feels like it needed to have dark comedy elements like “Fargo” or “Bernie” but just comes off as flat and manipulative. Oh, I forgot one film—the story of an estranged son. This is the most bizarrely melodramatic arc, as if O’Haver thought it would add emotion to a story, but he doesn’t have enough time to devote to it for it to register beyond a cautionary tale on how not use a manipulative score. Clearly, any one of these films might have worked. Make the kidnappers the protagonists and tell the story of a trio of ne’er-do-wells who stumble into a life-changing crime. Make the journalist the protagonist, and procedurally show us how he solved the kidnapping the police ignored. You could even tell the life story of the O’Hairs in a way that focuses on her family, and ends with the headline-grabbing kidnapping. You simply can’t tell all of these stories effectively in a 9[...]



Dig Two Graves

2017-03-24T09:48:49-05:00

In a way, it makes sense that “Dig Two Graves” takes place mostly in 1977. Granted, it isn’t specifically tied to that date—people aren’t seen going to “Star Wars” while listening to Pink Floyd’s “Animals” and talking about the previous evening’s episode of "Three’s Company." But it does serve as a reminder of a time when a low-budget item like this could turn up, without loads of pre-release hype, and impress genre film buffs with its combination of smart storytelling and effective low-key performances, as led by a reliable supporting actor making the most of a rare lead role.  Set in a tiny Midwestern town, the story begins as teenager Jacqueline “Jake” Mather (Samantha Isler) is preparing to take a high dive into the local quarry, the kind of heedlessly stupid act tpeople that age are famous for doing. When she hesitates at the moment of truth, her brother Sean (Ben Schneider) agrees to jump with her but at the last second, she chickens out and watches as Sean jumps into the water and never comes out. With the help of her parents and especially her beloved grandfather (Ted Levine), who is also the town sheriff, she tries to move on but she is, of course, all but paralyzed with grief and guilt, all the more so since Sean’s body was never recovered. One day, while walking home, she crosses paths with a trio of creepy gypsy moonshiners who live on the outskirts of town and show her a startling magic trick before making her an incredible proposition by claiming that they have the power to bring Sean back to life. There is a catch, of course—for the magic to work, another life needs to be sacrificed in exchange. They even have an ideal candidate in mind in Willie (Gabriel Cain), a geeky classmate with a barely disguised crush on Jake that she could easily use to lure him out to the quarry and give him one simple push that no one would ever find out about. Jake is appalled with the suggestion, of course, but just the possibility of having Sean returned to her is enough to inspire her to begin thinking about the unthinkable. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that her grandfather has a connection to the gypsies from a long-buried tragedy from 30 years earlier (which we see in a series of flashbacks) and that the fates of both Jake and Willie may be tied up in events that were set into motion long before they were even born. “Dig Two Graves” is nominally a horror movie but it is not one filled with gratuitous gore and cheap shocks. In fact, the more overtly horrific moments on display are probably the least effective in the film. It's probably closer in tone something like the Stephen King novella The Body (the inspiration for “Stand By Me”) in the way that it quietly observes Jake as she finds herself coming of age while simultaneously struggling with both her grief and the great moral dilemma that has been presented to her—the horror arising not from some monster but by how easy it is for her to consider an unspeakable act in order to end her own suffering. Hunter Adams, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Phillips, keeps the story moving at an unhurried pace that fits the material nicely and manages to move deftly between the two timeframes. In addition, the film, thanks to effective production design, is unusually successful in the way that it convincingly conjures up not one but two period time periods, an effort that is all the more impressive when you consider that it was done on what I can only presume was a relatively small budget. The film is also anchored by two strong performances. The first is by Samantha Isler, a young actress who was not previously familiar to me but whose work as Jake is really impressive in how she exquisitely conveys the huge and painful emotions she's wrestling with, while at the same time coming across as a real teenage girl without any of the expe[...]



Wilson

2017-03-24T09:00:12-05:00

Just in case you are wondering, “Wilson” is not a sequel to “Cast Away.”However, those who are white male jerk-averse, especially since there seems to be a surplus of them lately, might prefer the company of Tom Hanks’ silent volleyball buddy over the latest iteration of a kooky curmudgeon as unfiltered instigator of awkward confrontations and general annoyance.But if anyone can make such a character not just amusingly tolerable but even somewhat sympathetic, Woody Harrelson—who rarely gets his proper due for his vital contributions to movies ranging from the "Hunger Games” franchise to last year’s “The Edge of Seventeen”—would be a good choice. He fully exploits his sarcastic delivery, scalawag smirk and an effective pair of cartoonish horn-rimmed specs to make his bitter and lonely middle-aged loser a droll companion. That is, if he doesn’t sidle up to the seat next to you on a near-empty bus and gripe your ear off about all and nothing. This is not a new invention by any means. Lionel Barrymore’s misanthropic Mr. Potter followed the dramatic blueprint laid down by cranky penny-pincher Ebenezer Scrooge, while Walter Matthau injected a sardonic humorous element to the archetype in “The Odd Couple,” “The Bad News Bears” and “Grumpy Old Men.” Meanwhile, Billy Bob Thornton took middle-age misbehavior to the next foul-mouthed degenerate level in “Bad Santa.”Lately, taking on such cranky roles has almost become a rite of passage for actors, mainly male but also female, of a certain AARP-eligible demo. Where would Robert De Niro and Shirley MacLaine’s late-life resumes be without such temperamental old-timers? Bruce Dern and June Squibb groused their way to Oscar nominations in “Nebraska” and Bill Murray has simply spun his younger wise-guy persona into similar sterling senior moments on screen. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman went for it and scored a hit with “The Bucket List.” Kathy Bates (“About Schmidt”) and Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”) have struck gold in irascible lady roles. Heck, Larry David has been playing a heightened version of his uncensored, off-putting self in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO since 2000 and it is about to return for a ninth season.One reason why these characters are perennials? They actually ring true. As anyone who has been in the presence of those enjoying their golden years, people often act as if their advanced status gives them license to say whatever they want, non-PC consequences be damned. I myself have been known to make a somewhat inappropriate comment or two. Basically, it's now or never. As adapted by Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”) from his graphic novel and directed by Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”), this hard slap at the perceived stupidity of the world by a disenfranchised citizen pitches its black humor in appallingly funny if occasionally poignant episodes as we get to know the title character’s Minnesota-based urban milieu. That is, before the plot opts for cop-out sentimentality and begins to melt into goo.Much like Thora Birch’s Enid in “Ghost World,” Wilson’s street-corner apartment atop an out-of-business karate studio is awash in flea-market finds and old paperbacks stuffed in every corner with a large poster of “Moby Dick” as the centerpiece. There is no hint that Wilson ever had a vocation of any sort. A plus: He loves his dog, a wire fox terrier named Pepper. A minus: His wife left him 17 years ago after she ran off to Los Angeles, aborted their baby and became a drug addict and possibly a prostitute. His life, such as it is, turns upside-down when his only friends decide to move and he gets a call that his father is near death in a hospital. His planned bedside reconciliation with his dad sadly arrives too late. Wilson is so desperate for companionship, he seeks out a shady child[...]



I Called Him Morgan

2017-03-24T08:38:47-05:00

The jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan made exuberant music. Sufficiently exuberant and catchy that he achieved that rarity, getting a post-bop tune on the pop charts at the near-height of U.S. Beatlemania. The 1964 tune was called “The Sidewinder” and in a way the blessing of its popularity was a mild curse because it put Morgan in the awkward position of trying to follow it. Hence, LPs with titles such as “Tom Cat,” “The Rumproller” and “The Gigolo.” Not bad records—the tunes were catchy, and Morgan was such a spectacular trumpet player that he was always worth hearing—but not ones that necessarily “advanced” his music. By the late ‘60s he was once more exercising his musical voice with less self-consciousness about scoring a hit. (His 1970 “Live at the Lighthouse,” which pairs him with the ever-inventive reed player Bernie Maupin, is terrific.) But that voice would be silenced in 1972, in a tragedy of errors recounted in painful detail in this gripping, empathic documentary directed by Kasper Collin. The linchpin of this movie is not Morgan himself; it’s not even Helen More, the woman who shot Morgan at the now-legendary jazz saloon Slugs on a snowy night in February 1972. Rather, it’s a cassette recording of an interview with More conducted by Larry Reni Thomas, an adult educator who met More in North Carolina, her home state, in the early 1990s, and helped More get a high school equivalency. “She wasn’t academically distinguished, but she was definitely street smart,” Thomas recalls. When More found out that Thomas was a jazz enthusiast, Lee Morgan’s name was mentioned. “I knew the story,” Thomas says. More told him that she was the surviving component of the story, and offered to tell her side to Thomas. The cassette, full of feedback, revealing More’s voice as slurry, sharp, tinged with regret, sometimes fond, and more, serves as the only narration in the movie. The rest is taken up with interviews and archival footage. The most affecting interviewees are jazz greats Wayne Shorter and Albert “Tootie” Heath. Saxophonist Shorter came up with Morgan in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and Wayne speaks of Lee with a warmth and immediacy that one associates with a best friend. Near the end of the movie, Shorter, now 83, talks of how often he thinks of Morgan, and how often he says to people even now, “You should have known Lee Morgan.” In the archival clips and the generous snippets of music in the film, you are given some idea why: Morgan played with a remarkably clean tone (like so many of his peers, he was deeply influenced by the virtuosic Clifford Brown, whose death in 1956 at age 25 in an auto accident robbed jazz of a true great) and quicksilver energy. His playing had heat and humor. He had taken to bandstands before he was even 18. And like too many of his peers, he succumbed to substances and sensations of all sorts—Albert Heath recalls speeding in cars through Central Park’s roads in the wee small hours of a New York morning—and got a bad heroin habit. “What are you doing, Lee?” Shorter recalls thinking, while looking at a picture of Morgan from 1960 in which the trumpeter has a huge bandage wrapped around his head. Lee had shot up and dozed off—resting his head on a working radiator. The burn was such that he combed his hair forward the rest of his life to cover it up. Morgan’s addiction made him so unreliable that Blakey fired him from the Messengers along with pianist Bobby Timmons. (Timmons, whose soul-jazz tunes such as “Moanin’” achieved mainstream success not unlike that of “The Sidewinder,” died two years after Morgan, of cirrhosis.) It was Helen More, several years Morgan’s senior, who discovered him at his most down and out, picked him up, formed a partnership with him, and helped him get healthy and pro[...]



I, Olga Hepnarova

2017-03-24T08:37:47-05:00

With its studied black and white look, its focus on a tormented young woman and its concern with crimes of the past, the Czech film “I, Olga Hepnarova” might remind some viewers of another recent Eastern European import, Poland’s “Ida.” Yet that film, an international box-office hit that won the foreign-language Oscar, was a fiction brilliantly fashioned into searing drama. Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s film, on the other hand, narrates a true-life crime but fails to provide an element that might’ve lifted it above tasteful art-house ordinariness—an engaging point of view. With a fictional film, identifying the story’s climax would constitute a spoiler. But “I, Olga Hepnarova” is based on events that are well-known in some parts of the world. In 1973, the title character, then 22, drove a truck through a crowd of people on a Prague street, killing eight and injuring 12. Captured immediately, she offered no defense and invited the death penalty, becoming the last woman executed in then-Czechoslovakia. Before her crime, and indicating its premeditated nature, Olga mailed a statement to newspapers in which she explained her actions as revenge for a lifetime of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of many people. In its final scenes, the film quotes this document verbatim. Prior to that, for most of its length, the story dramatizes the unhappy life that left Olga (Michalina Olszanska) so embittered and angry. Even as a teenager, she demonstrates her desperation by attempting suicide. This brings her nothing but a contemptuous dismissal from her mother, who says she lacks the willpower for such a decisive act. She gets no comfort elsewhere at home, either, and there’s even a hint her father is abusing her. Temporarily committed to an asylum, she’s the girl that everyone else loves to pick on. Is it because the other girls sense she’s a lesbian, or because she refuses to participate in the after-hours sex games they indulge in? Whichever, they gang up and beat her severely in the bathroom, and the authorities offer nothing to help her. Out on her own, she usually lives alone and gets various jobs, including truck driving. She also begins to act on her sexual desires. In one rock and roll club—among various period settings the film persuasively evokes—she meets an attractive blonde girl and begins an affair. But the girl eventually breaks it off, saying that Olga smells of motor oil. There are few bright spots in this life. In fact, the only one of note is a fleeting friendship with an older man named Miroslav (Martin Pechlát), who seems genuinely kind though this doesn’t begin to rescue Olga. Mostly, the tale is a steady, unrelieved chronicle of her miseries, one that can eventually leave viewers thinking, “Okay, we get the point—maybe we should move on to the story’s crime-and-punishment phase?” Olszanska is a very assured young actress whose absorption in the part of Olga leads her to master the art of long stares that suggest an infinity of inner trouble. But this is not the same as having an interestingly written role to inhabit. For much of the film, she wears a dark bob that inevitably recalls Anna Karina in Godard’s films of the ‘60s. The comparison, though, leaves this protagonist seeming too much a referential aesthetic object, not enough a real person. Indeed, the film’s entire style—its long takes, deliberate compositions and elegantly understated monochrome images—suggest that it was meant to evoke any number of arty French New Wave and Eastern European classics from the ‘60s and ‘70s. As a gloss on such movies, it’s impressively modulated. But the approach leaves the whole feeling overly academic, more an accomplished thesis film than a present-tense breakthrough. Filmmakers including Bresson, Fassbinder, th[...]