Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Terrific ‘Last Jedi’ thrills with new faces, old favorites + spectacular action sequences

By Steve Crum
A new Star Wars movie, particularly another chapter in the mainstream series, is an EVENT—in caps. Such is the terrific Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The event two years ago (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) focused on Han Solo’s return and ultimate death. This time, in Chapter VIII, it’s the appearances of Leia and her brother, Luke. Whether death is involved with either will not be divulged in this piece. 
Director/screenwriter Rian Johnson (2012’s  Looper) has truly delivered the galaxy goods on this event—the second installment of the sequel trilogy. The timing is important, since The Last Jedi clearly serves as the transition from the Star Wars of Luke, Leia and Han to a new generation of heroes: Rey, Finn and Poe. Being the second part of a trilogy, The Last Jedi advances conflicts that rose in The Force Awakens. Most importantly, major issues are resolved in this installment. 
In other words, it does not end in a cliffhanger like The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  So fear not. Waiting three years to see if Han Solo would be freed from that block of carbonite was excruciating.  By the way, we only have to wait two years for part three of this trilogy. Did I say "only"? 
While there are relatively new faces at the X-wing and thereabout, including Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, expect a slew of long familiar ones, from Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher's Leia (now General Leia Organa) to R2D2 and Anthony Daniels’ C3PO. Chewbacca is back too. On the evil side, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren emerges big time. If you recall, he killed his papa, Han Solo, in the last episode…much to his mother Leia’s suffering. 
Brand new to the Star Wars universe are Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (of the Resistance) and Benicio del Toro’s underworld con man and slicer. 
Yes, The Last Jedi has deja vu plot elements echoing the origin of Darth Vader and the dark side of The Force. Instead of the evil, controlling Emperor Palpatine, we now have Supreme Leader Snoke (realized by Andy Serkis via computer imaging). 

Red is a dominant color in The Last Jedi. Snoke surrounds his throne with a barrage of lightsaber wielding guards, outfitted in vivid red. A key sequence late in the film takes place on what at first appears to be an ice planet, but in actuality is covered by white salt with a blood red undersurface. It is reminiscent of the great ice planet battle in The Empire Strikes Back since there are again giant walkers attacking the rebels. The splashing red creates a stunning effect. 
Much, maybe too much, of the story occurs on a desolate, rocky island wherein Luke has lived for decades. As the last Jedi of the title, he is summoned by Rey to return to the Rebel Alliance/Resistance to help defeat Snoke and his onslaught. He resists, and he resists. Let’s just say he reaches a Jedi compromise that would make Obi-Wan Kenobi proud. (And what a spectacular sequence that is.) 
The action and subplots are involving…IF you are a Star Wars fan. Otherwise, you need to watch the previous installments. Even if you haven’t seen another Star Wars flick, you will be delighted with the introduction of the little, cute, bouncy, flying Porgs, which will soon hit toy store shelves—if not already there. I prefer the ice foxes, called “crystal critters” by Poe. 
Prepare to be both dazzled and saddened by The Last Jedi’s treasures. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A-

Friday, December 1, 2017

Though contrived, ‘Wonder Wheel’ has stunning color, Kate Winslet as pluses

By Steve Crum
Despite stars Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake, the real celebrities in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel are his cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, and Suzy Benzinger, Allen’s longtime costume designer. Then there’s the fantastic filming location, Coney Island. 
Storaro’s opening panorama shot of Coney Island in blazing color is awesome, as well as his stunning use of color hues during dramatic scenes.
In this 53rd Allen-directed film (including his TV work), the focus is on a 1950 summer at Coney Island in Brooklyn. More specifically, it is a drama/character study whose central figure, Ginny (superbly played by Kate Winslet), is a lost soul married to Jim Belushi’s Humpty. (Yep, that’s his name.) He’s a carousel operator, and she waitresses at Ruby’s Clam Shop. Not only do they work at Coney Island, but live above the amusement park’s noisy shooting gallery. They and Ginny’s son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), while away their days in unique ways. 
Humpty enjoys fishing off the pier with buddies. Ginny thinks she has found true love and lust in an affair with lifeguard Mickey, effectively realized by Justin Timberlake. And middle schooler Richie is fired up about…fires. The young pyromaniac starts them whenever and wherever he can. A unique family, indeed. So when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) knocks at his door after a decade, things change. That she is on the lam from the mob adds another layer of uniqueness. 


Woody Allen sets up a shot with Kate Winslet and Jim Belushi.

Quoting Mickey, who also speaks to us as narrator, “It just seems to go from one drama to another.” That pretty well sums up Allen’s screenplay, which comes across as pretty contrived and a bit too “unique” for its own good. The overlapping plot lines trail on without resolution, becoming more of a psychological study of Ginny and the sad existence of those around her. 
Still, Kate Winslet captures Ginny well, including her Brooklyn dialect, not easy for a Brit, and her frumpy body language. Mourning her own birthday celebration, she responds to the comment, “Turning 40 is a milestone”: “No, it’s a tombstone.” (A great Woody Allen line, if ever.) Obnoxiously insecure, she is self-centered with desperation. Like the park’s 150 foot ferris wheel of the film’s title, life turns.
As Ginny’s character ultimately morphs into a rough blend of Blanche Dubois and Norma Desmond, one speculates on her fate while admiring Winslet's acting chops. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B-

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Dickens’ inspiration for ‘A Christmas Carol’ realized in ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’

By Steve Crum
Do not expect spectacular visual effects like materializing ghosts in The Man Who Invented Christmas. For that matter, forget about being transported via time machine to the past and future. But it is also true this is a movie involving Ebenezer Scrooge and Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Based on Les Stanford’s historical fiction book of the same name, this film adaptation is closer to being a stage production than a digital effects-driven fantasy.
As such, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a handsomely filmed and solidly acted 104 minutes. Compelling? Well, so-so. A unique take on the familiar Charles Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol? Definitely. 
Be forewarned: If you have neither read the book nor seen one of the 200-plus film and stage productions, forget about seeing this one. You just won’t get it. 
The Man Who Invented Christmas is aptly named since the film’s plot involves the six desperate weeks Charles Dickens had in 1843 to create what would be finally titled A Christmas Carol. It became his best remembered work, and a holiday season must-read and must-see. During radio’s golden heyday in the 1930’s and ‘40s, it also became a must-hear. 
Through screenwriter Susan Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri, we first see Charles Dickens (well played by Dan Stevens) during one of his touring lectures, playing to an audience packed with those who want to see and hear the author of the best selling novel, Oliver Twist. At this point, Dickens and his manager are in turmoil. Since Oliver Twist, Dickens had authored three books—all rejected by publishers. His professional fate now rests on creating a new novel, and the deadline grows near. 
At this point in the film, Dickens’ creativity mixes with his personal life at home in London. He is surrounded by a doting (and pregnant) wife, several children, servants, and his live-in parents. His relationship with his deadbeat father John (Jonathan Pryce) is strained. And there are bills to be paid. 
There is sage advice I was once given when writing fiction: “Write about that which you know.” Dickens fully recognizes such, and begins creating characters to drive a plot around a central Christmas theme. “Get the name right,” he says, “and if you’re lucky, a character will appear.” 
The characters’ names and personages are therefore based upon those who he knows…from relatives to strangers. His thoughts are then visualized for us. For example, one gent he briefly meets becomes Scrooge (finely portrayed by Christopher Plummer). Eventually, all the characters come to Dickens’ mind, and adapted into his new book. They even hang around his study, invisible to others since they are solely in his—as they say—mind’s eye. 
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a well crafted film with gorgeous period settings and costumes. I guess there is nothing really wrong about it resembling a high budget Hallmark Channel movie. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B-

Friday, October 20, 2017

Realistic firefighting sequences help carry above average ‘Only the Brave’

By Steve Crum
Two factors elevating Only the Brave above the norm are the film’s location photography and realistic forest fire sequences. A third factor is the story’s basis, the history of Prescott, Arizona’s elite firefighting squad, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Add to that a competent ensemble cast led by Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, and Taylor Kitsch. 
The film is really a gritty, action oriented war film with battles between the courageous firemen versus the deadly flames. Taking place during 2013 and before, the focus at first is on Eric “Supe” Marsh (James Brolin) and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). Eric is a seasoned firefighter. He is also driven to have his unit designated “hotshots,” a moniker given to first responder, front line firemen. He knows his men are more than capable to fulfill that dangerous job. But he must first convince his good friend and mentor, Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), to go to bat for him with the city’s mayor to financially back such a move. 
As the story unfolds, we get to know a half dozen of the squad pretty well, particularly “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller). In fact, it’s the work of Teller that carries Only the Brave. It is his character who goes through the greatest transformation—from druggy to Hotshot. In between, his personal life is further stressed by an old girlfriend’s pregnancy. Teller does a marvelous job, and is a charismatic actor.
As referenced, Only the Brave is a war movie. Like military servicemen, the firefighters undergo their brand of basic training, which becomes a real trial for still drug recovering “Donut.” We see the men, the solders, repeatedly drilled to learn their tools of trade, essentially their weaponry—from spade diggers to flame throwers. We observe “Supe” doing the battle plan logistics…except this general leads from the front. 
There are three or four forest fire sequences before the devastating Yarnell Hill Fire that caps this 133 minute film. By that time, we better know the heroes and their waiting back home families. And that also encompasses the movie’s weakness, the script. The screenplay, while based on fact, is cliché ridden and too often predictable. Nonetheless, there are emotional portions that are heartbreakingly tearful. 
Director Joseph Kosinski’s imagery clearly outweighs Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay. It should be no surprise that Kosinski’s background is in computer graphics and computer generated imagery. He sure knows his stuff with digital forest fires. They look too real. 
With this summer’s wildfires still terrorizing our Pacific Northwest, Only the Brave is timely if not redundant. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B

Friday, August 11, 2017

WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS: 'The Circle' has its short radio run

By Steve Crum

A buncha stars gather in 1939 for an NBC radio broadcast, The Circle: (from left) Groucho Marx, Cary Grant, Lawrence Tibbett, Chico Marx, Ronald Colman (host), and (in front) Carole Lombard. The one hour show had different famous guests every week discussing current events and the arts in a round-table format. Sponsored by Kellogg's, The Circle is considered one of radio's celebrated failures, struggling for listeners from 1939-40. High pay for guests + low ratings tells the story.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS: The House That Jolson Built

By Steve Crum

Showgirl in Hollywood was a huge hit at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City during 1930. From 1928-33, the legendary live stage theatre was leased to Warner Brothers to show their early talkies. The Winter Garden had been one of Broadway's leading stages since the Shuberts owned it beginning in 1911. It reverted back to being a live stage venue in 1934.

Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler make a cameo appearance in Showgirl in Hollywood. Jolson, of course, is forever associated with the Winter Garden since he headlined several hit productions there in the 1910's-20s. It was Jolson who had a runway built down the center of the Winter Garden so he could essentially be among his audience while performing. His audiences reportedly went wild when Jolie ran and danced its length while singing.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ succeeds as vivid telling of WWII Allied defeat

By Steve Crum
Dunkirk is a nail-biting, spectacular recreation of WWII’s desperate evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British, French, Belgium and Canadian soldiers fleeing the Nazis at a decisive battle in 1940. The action takes place in the concluding 10 days of the tragic event, May 26-June 4, 1940. 
The brilliant Christopher Nolan, who directed, produced and co-wrote Dunkirk, has made the unreal and surreal seem real in such films as Memento, Inception, Interstellar and The Dark Knight. Now he succeeds at the daunting task of making a historic event seem vividly real through large scale WWII battle sequences. In Dunkirk, Nolan’s genius is equally adept at focusing on one-to-one human relationships. His films are heralded as Christopher Nolan films, box office magnets. While Dunkirk is not destined as a traditional summer blockbuster, it is nonetheless a must-see for its historical and artistic worth. 
Be aware that Dunkirk proceeds with sparse dialogue and no narration.
Taking place a little more than a year before The United States entered the war, the fact-based story opens in Dunkirk, France. Allied forces had been battling the Germans since the first of May, 1940. But the tide had turned in favor of the Nazis with the Allies suffering numerous casualties. Overwhelmed, a massive number of troops were driven to the beach awaiting ships to transport them a mere 26 miles over the English Channel to safety on Great Britain’s mainland. 
As Nolan’s film shows, the evacuation was fraught with problems compounded by frequent airplane attacks along the shoreline and on evacuation ships themselves. No sooner did a packed rescue ship set sail that German bombs fell and airplane machine guns blazed. Adding to the challenge was that few ships were available for the rescue, and few could not make it due to the Channel’s shallow waterline.
The military needed immediate help, so hundreds of civilian fishing and pleasure boats were sequestered to bring supplies from England to Dunkirk, and to transport as many soldiers as possible to safety. The smaller boats were unaffected by the Channel’s depth. So much for your mini-history lesson. Nolan’s film will clarify everything. However, because of the united military and civilian effort, 360,000 troops were eventually rescued. 
There is no main star in Dunkirk, but there are a couple of well known actors. Kenneth Branagh portrays the stoic Commander Bolton, the highest ranking Allied officer at Dunkirk. Mark Rylance is terrific as Mr. Dawson, a patriotic civilian mariner who captains one of the rescue boats. Noteworthy are young actors Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy. 
Nolan has chosen to tell Dunkirk’s story from three aspects—land, sea and air—and he keeps the tension going with separate story lines from one location to another, paced by Lee Smith’s Oscar caliber editing. 
Important to the film’s success is Hans Zimmer’s unique score, which becomes a living entity unto itself due to pulsating sounds. For example, during the aerial combat sequences, Zimmer’s music echoes the pilot’s heartbeat as well as his rapid breathing. Music = a sound effect. Oftentimes, the music has a metronome, countdown effect. The clock ticks as rescue time runs out. 
A real treat is to see gorgeous recreations of original WWII airplanes in dogfights. Christopher Nolan says he tried to keep the CGI to a minimum and use actual airplanes and ships.
One might expect the running time for a picture of this magnitude to be around three hours. Dunkirk is only 106 minutes long. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A-