Post Date Apr 21 — The Huntsman: Winter’s War

The Huntsman: Winter's War Movie Review“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is for people who liked “Frozen” but thought it wasn’t angry enough. It’s a sorta-prequel, sorta-sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” and it’s a total mess. The costumes are gorgeous, though. My 1 1/2-star review.

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Post Date Apr 15 — Rio, I Love You

Rio, I Love You Movie ReviewThese “Cities of Love” movies — collections of shorts that pay homage to a specific place — keep getting worse. “Paris, Je T’aime” was hit-and-miss but had plenty of charm. “New York, I Love You” strangely failed to capture the essence of a city that’s been depicted on film countless times. The latest anthology, set in Rio de Janeiro, has the glossy emptiness of an tourism promotion video. My review.

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Post Date Apr 11

Revisiting Ice Castles

If you were a little girl in the 1970s like I was, you probably loved “Ice Castles” and watched it a million times — whether or not you’d ever actually set foot on the ice yourself.

You know that aspiring figure-skating champion Lexie Winston (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is going to take a hard fall while landing a jump that leaves her nearly totally blind, just as she’s on the brink of superstardom, yet you’re gripped with suspense as it’s about to happen. You know she’ll trip on the congratulatory roses tossed from the crowd once she stages her hard-fought comeback, and that her hockey-player boyfriend, Nick (Robby Benson), will walk onto the ice to lead her to safety before stunned onlookers. (His closing line, “We forgot about the flowers,” has an understated poignancy.)

Merely clicking on the link to this story probably has put the “Ice Castles” theme song, “Through the Eyes of Love,” in your head, and it’ll probably stay there for the rest of the week. (You’re welcome.) Like so much about the film, the soaring ballad is so completely of its time: a Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager collaboration, sung by Melissa Manchester, which earned an Oscar nomination for best original song.

Clearly, I have a ton of fond memories of this movie, but I hadn’t seen it in a really long time and I hadn’t seen it since my son and I started figure skating ourselves a year ago. (Not that we skate together — although that could make for some awesomely awkward, “Arrested Development”-style creepiness.) And so when I saw that the New Beverly Cinema was showing “Ice Castles” last night on a double bill with the Richard Dreyfuss-Amy Irving piano romance “The Competition” (which I’d never seen), I knew I had to go, even if it meant sitting by myself and crying alone like a loser. (Thankfully, my fellow critic and dear friend Amy Nicholson joined me.)

I was curious to see whether it still held the same emotional impact that it did when I was a romantic little girl in 1979 — whether nostalgia would win out over my more critical instincts, or whether it would hold up despite seeming so dated. Looking back, my fellow critics were not terribly kind to “Ice Castles.” It’s at 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with my dear, departed friend, Roger Ebert, giving it two stars out of four and saying: “One of the melancholy aspects of `Ice Castles’ is the quality of talent that’s been brought to such an unhappy enterprise.”

What I discovered in revisiting “Ice Castles” is that it’s pure sports-movie formula about a gifted athlete who rises and falls and rises again, but it’s got such strong performances and a vivid sense of place that it makes you want to root for this underdog to succeed. Despite the inherent melodrama of the story, director and co-writer Donald Wrye stages and shoots it all in a lean, unfussy way. (Wrye also directed a 2010, direct-to-DVD remake of “Ice Castles,” which I’ve never seen and wish I didn’t even know about.) His low-angle camerawork during Lexie’s performances and Nick’s hockey games gives those scenes a natural, propulsive energy. And he doesn’t rely too heavily on blurry images to give us the sensation of Lexie’s muted perspective, but does so just enough to indicate her disorientation and fear.

The fact that an actual figure skater plays the lead role — not an actress pretending to skate — lends a great deal of authenticity. Johnson had skated competitively and performed with the Ice Capades before making her film debut here. Her character experiences a massive arc, requiring her to show a great deal of range, and Johnson rises to the challenge admirably. She’s vibrant and appealing, which goes a long way.

It helps a great deal that Johnson’s got such strong support around her, including Benson as her playful but supportive boyfriend, Tom Skerritt as her overprotective, widower father and the great Colleen Dewhurst as a cantankerous former skating champion who now runs the bowling alley/ice rink in small-town Waverly, Iowa, and serves as Lexie’s coach. (Please tell me that such places actually exist in real life.) Jennifer Warren brings sophistication and smarts to the role of the big-time coach who plucks Lexie from obscurity and places her on a path to stardom.

But the one element that really clanged for me this time was Lexie’s fling with the sports reporter (David Huffman) who’s tracking her meteoric rise: a) She’s only 16 and he’s got to be in his 30s, and b) he’s doing a series of pieces on her and then squiring her around to high-profile events. Just icky all around.

And in retrospect, the choreography and costumes all look so quaint. Lexie’s big move is a double axel and she tries to prove she belongs with the big-city girls by landing a triple; these days, triple-triple jump combinations are standard for elite skaters like Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold. Lexie’s signature blue dress with the prim, white collar is meant to be old-fashioned and set her apart as a farm girl, but even the fancy, bedazzled dresses the top skaters wear look hilariously cheesy today.

But the chance at greatness — the aspiration toward being the absolute best at something — still resonates, regardless of aesthetic trappings. And that’s why “Ice Castles” still soars today.

Post Date Apr 9

Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry Movie ReviewSTX Entertainment
Rated R for for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use.
Running time: 95 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

Bring Dramamine if you’re planning on seeing “Hardcore Henry.” And do NOT meet up with friends for drinks beforehand.

This extra-violent extravaganza of first-person action filmmaking is not for the faint of heart, and it surely is not for anyone under age 17. (Your tweens and teens may think it looks fun, or dope, or whatever the kids say these days with their rock ‘n’ roll music. Say no. This is a very hard R.) At the same time, it’s probably also not for grown-ass people like yours truly. It is pummeling. It is punishing. It is nauseating and headache-inducing. I was seriously discombobulated walking back to my car afterward and was in a pissed-off mood the rest of the night. Maybe that’s the point.

But if you’re in the sweet spot of its target viewing audience — video game enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s, and more than likely male — then “Hardcore Henry” is for you. Now get off my lawn.

Writer-director Ilya Naishuller, a 29-year-old Russian who’s also the lead singer of the punk band Biting Elbows, has come up with an inventive premise and an intriguing mystery that grab your attention — at least for the first 20 minutes or so. But the film’s relentless, repetitive violence quickly grows numbing and even boring — which, theoretically, is not what you’re looking to achieve in a high-octane action flick.

“Hardcore Henry” is predicated on a gimmick — albeit, a clever gimmick — but there’s not much more to the movie than that. Naishuller attached GoPro cameras to a bunch of stuntmen to create the sensation that we are experiencing everything our protagonist, Henry, experiences: all the running, jumping, climbing, chasing, crashing, fighting, shooting and killing. We never see his face and we don’t even hear his voice because he doesn’t have one. We are learning everything right alongside him. We are essentially watching someone play a first-person shooter video game on a giant movie screen.

The film begins with Henry waking up in a lab with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A beautiful, blonde scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennett), is attaching high-tech prosthetic limbs to his battered, tatted body — and she says she’s his wife. But he quickly realizes he’s in danger and must go on the run throughout Moscow from the various bad guys who are after him, including a diabolical albino with telekinetic powers (Danila Kozlovsky) and his army of cyborg henchmen. Luckily for Henry, though, he’s a killing machine — part man, part science experiment — which makes the vast majority of “Hardcore Henry” a non-stop bloodbath.

The curiosity of who he is, how he got in this condition and what the crazy bad guy wants is compelling for a little while. But — spoiler! — the movie never answers these questions in a way that’s even vaguely satisfying. The story is totally subordinate to the spectacle. It is the McGuffin. The dizzying visuals are all that matter — but they’re not enough to make us care.

Henry also visits a Russian brothel where dozens of women are dressed (or, rather, undressed) identically in nothing but black panties and platinum blonde wigs. It screams of misogyny, but it’s probably also yet another intentional element in recreating the video game sensation. Various characters do massive amounts of drugs, which I guess is supposed to be edgy. Oh yes, and there’s a ton of language, but that seems almost quaint compared to the other hardcore activities going on here.

One bright spot is Sharlto Copley’s performance as an odd dude named Jimmy, who shows up along the way in various disguises and voices to give Henry clues as to where he needs to go and what he needs to do. Copley gets to play it broadly, mix it up and have a little fun as an “Easy Rider”-style hippie, a punker, a coke fiend in a leopard-print banana hammock and more. He is a welcome source of lightness and humor.

I admire the ambition, the vision and the level of planning it took to pull off such massive, intricately choreographed set pieces, but I can’t exactly say I enjoyed “Hardcore Henry.” By the end, when Henry is fighting off an endless onslaught of white-suited cyborgs on a Moscow rooftop, it’s just impossible to look directly at the screen anymore, and only partly because of the motion sickness that results in doing so.

Post Date Apr 1 — Meet the Blacks

Meet the Blacks Movie Review“Meet the Blacks” is, fundamentally, a spoof of “The Purge” in which a black family moves from a violent section of Chicago to a wealthy enclave in Beverly Hills and finds it’s even more dangerous for them there. But if this is going to be your premise — whites killing blacks out of snobbery or intolerance — your humor better be pretty sharp and sophisticated. Instead, “Meet the Blacks” gives us fart jokes and tired pop-culture references. My one-star review.

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