CVIndependent

Tue11202018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

The Wife is one of those movies that strikes me as something that would’ve worked better as a play.

I enjoyed it on some levels, and some of the performances are quite good, especially Glenn Close as the title character. However, other performances feel like they are being played for an audience on a stage rather than on camera. I’ve read that members of the cast rehearsed for weeks before cameras rolled, and The Wife displays evidence that sometimes you can be a little too polished—and come off as too melodramatic for a movie. That melodrama could play well in an Off Broadway play, but for a movie like this? It’s a little too forced.

Close plays Joan Castleman, wife of the newly christened Nobel Prize for Literature winner Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce or, as I like to call him, Sam Lowry). The first hint of the golden work Close will do in this movie comes during an early moment when she picks up a phone to listen in as her husband is informed of his prize. Close does an expression that’s straight out of a master class in how to act with your face for a camera. It’s breathtaking.

As the movie starts to play out, one character in particular sticks out like a sore thumb: David, their son, played by Max Irons (son of Jeremy). This is not to say Irons delivers a bad performance; it’s just the wrong performance. There are moments when he comes off as too petulant and overacting. There are moments when he comes off as quite brilliant. I was able to accept his performance by pretending he was doing it somewhere in Manhattan for a live audience; it just worked better for me that way. Unfortunately, we are not supposed to play those sorts of mental games when watching a movie. The movie needs to flow as a cohesive piece, and Irons sometimes takes you right out of the film.

Close’s daughter, Annie Starke, plays a younger version of Close’s character; they both kill it in every scene, so much so that you have to dismiss the bad stuff and enjoy the greatness you are seeing. The two actresses help sell a story that is more symbolic than anything, an age-old tale about repression and insincerity. It’s been told before—this movie shares some DNA with Barton Fink—and it’s been told in better overall before, but Close and Starke make it quite electric at times.

Pryce is equally good as the alternately polite and selfish author with major personality flaws that make him a lousy husband and father. Credit goes to this gifted actor for making Joe a total ass, yet somebody you can’t help but feel a little sorry for.

As an investigative author hounding the Castlemans, the one and only Christian Slater makes his best cinematic impression in many years. His role is as clichéd as a role can get, but he makes Nathaniel Bone compellingly persuasive and nasty.

There are some great cinematic moments constructed by director Björn Runge that put The Wife over the top. One of the final shots of Close, with the Stockholm snow outside the window behind her, is a stunner. Her final shot … well, it’s a keeper for sure.

Moments like those help to sort of cancel out the moments that are stagey or a bit too farfetched. The Wife is very much worth seeing for Close, Pryce and Starke. They make you wish they’d take this story to the stage, where it probably belongs.

The Wife is now playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

I know Mister Rogers was a beloved children’s TV figure and a good man … but his show gave my young self the willies.

I was always offset by his sanguine tones, and those puppets freaked me out. The Lady Elaine Fairchilde puppet looked like a red-nosed alcoholic demon, the sort that would perhaps hide under my bed and steal the underwear off my butt while I was sleeping.

Don’t get me started on Captain Kangaroo.

As an adult, I’ve grown to have a much deeper appreciation for the man. He was a groundbreaker in children’s television, civil rights and the saving of PBS’ ass in general. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does an undeniably sweet job of showing what Rogers did to keep his show on the air all of those years. He didn’t always make the right moves, but he always seemed to course-correct.

It’s a fun watch, and a reminder that he was a very good neighbor, indeed. The puppets still freak me out, though.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

The hunt for Holocaust architect Adolph Eichmann is chronicled rather blandly in Operation Finale, director Chris Weitz’s lost movie starring Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley and Mélanie Laurent.

When Eichmann (Kingsley) is discovered in Buenos Aires living a modest life and working at an automobile plant, secret agents led by Peter Malkin (Isaac) and Hanna Elian (Laurent) set up shop where he resides. They hatch a plot to grab Eichmann and return him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

Up until the moment where they grab Eichmann, the movie is pretty good—but when the movie becomes about Malkin and Eichmann chatting in a dark bedroom, it loses its sting. A better movie would’ve had Eichmann standing trial for his crimes, thus educating those of us who haven’t seen his trial.

Too much of this film is spent showing Eichmann trying to persuade Malkin that he was just a normal guy taking orders. Hey, maybe that happened, but cover it in five minutes, and stay focused on what a monster this guy was. We already know he’s despicable, and I’m pretty sure the folks who risked their lives to grab him weren’t conflicted about whether he was really a nice guy forced to do a bad job. Yes, the movie shows a little bit of his trial, but this is one time where I found myself wishing that more of a movie took place in a courtroom.

Operation Finale is showing at theaters across the valley.

Regular readers know that I can’t stand most found-footage films. I also bitch a lot about movies where the whole damn thing happens on a computer screen, with the director finding cute ways to never cut away from Skype, FaceTime, Words With Friends, etc., while the plot unfolds.

Well, Searching is strange, because I actually almost like the way director Aneesh Chaganty utilizes computer screens, apps and news reports to tell his story. I also really like the central performance by John Cho as David Kim, a slightly annoying parent who discovers through a break in technological communication that his daughter, Margot (Michelle La), has gone missing.

What I can’t forgive is the terrible detour the mystery takes into ridiculous, convenient and unimaginative territory. The screenplay really blows it in the end, and is further hindered by a stiff and strange performance from Debra Messing as a cop assigned to Margot’s case.

The film’s start is cute enough, with David and Margot having a harmless argument about Margot’s failure to take the trash out. The argument establishes Margot as a generally normal kid, while her father is a bit of a tight-assed paranoiac and kind of a daughter-stalker.

David’s overprotective nature has something to do with the loss of Pamela (Sara Sohn), his wife and Margot’s mom. Some of the movie’s more-touching moments involve David looking at old computer videos of Margot and Pamela playing piano. A video of David and Pam running together, with Pam stopping because she is too ill, reminds of the melancholy opening of Up.

Back to the main portion of the film: When Margot still fails to take the trash out, and then doesn’t respond to his various texts and calls, David starts to get very twitchy. He eventually calls in a missing-person report, and Detective Vick (Messing) comes on board. This is where the film begins to come apart.

Messing, unlike Cho and La, doesn’t come off as a real person using all of these gadgets and technologies; she comes off more like a big star making a one-dimensional cameo on C.S.I.: Bummed Out Cops. She has moments in the movie that are so tonally off that they become funny rather than serious. Messing has been great in past roles, but she is woefully miscast here.

That’s not entirely her fault; the story developments Searching employs in its closing act are some major bullshit. The film takes itself seriously; it’s not any kind of spoof or sly take on social networking and telecommunications, despite the aforementioned B.S. When the story goes off the rails, the movie becomes a lame joke.

Cho and La come through as champs. I actually think I could’ve enjoyed a simple film with these two communicating on their gadgets for one day about normal things, and dealing with the loss of Pam, without the missing-person element. The performers (and the director) pull off the feat of making FaceTime and iMessage communications semi-watchable without being too gimmicky … at least for a while. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Searching, in the end, is a movie that could’ve been so much greater—perhaps an indictment of our over-reliance on gadgets to communicate—if it had stayed away from the ridiculous. Turns out it’s just a third-rate thriller wrapped up in a snazzy modern bow. If this story, and its ending, were presented as a straightforward, linear movie without Facebook and FaceTime, it would be lambasted.

It’s not as bad as Unfriended, or your average found-footage movie, but Searching is pretty bad all the same. I’m seriously hoping that the existence (and moderate success) of films like this doesn’t lead to Hollywood scribes dusting off old, rejected TV scripts thinking they can repackage them as computer screen thrillers. Let’s stop with the computer-screen movies, OK? They’re just a tad hokey.

Searching is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Over Labor Day weekend, I binge-watched Ozark, a show about a Chicago family whose financial-expert patriarch, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), made the unfortunate decision to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. He eventually winds up in the Ozarks with his family, where he finds ways to launder more money through the lakeside businesses he gobbles up.

The first season worked just fine. Bateman himself directed a couple of episodes that I found to be generally gripping, and Laura Linney had some great moments as Wendy Byrde, mother and wife. Julia Garner was very good as Ruth, a local looking to ride Marty’s fake wealth into a better life.

As for the just-released second season … I am four episodes in so far, and it stinks.

It’s all about the Byrdes being stuck in the Ozarks and trying to manipulate their various schemes, with the first few episodes trying too hard to explain what happened in Season 1. It’s a show in which it seems like the writers are desperately worried about reminding viewers about all the past details. Hey, let it fly; we’ll figure it out.

The first season focused on criminal activity in the small territory. The second goes into state government and political intrigue as the Byrdes try to build a casino. The dialogue gets dumber and dumber as the show wears on, and it becomes a slog.

I don’t like what I’m seeing. Ruth has become nothing but annoying; Marty and Wendy are just running around over-explaining why they are bad; and Trevor Long’s increased screen time as Ruth’s disgusting dad is unwelcome.

I hope things get better in the final six episodes of Season 2, If they do not, Ozark will have been better off as a limited series rather than a continuing entity. It’s stretching its premise to extremes that are not at all entertaining.

Ozark is currently streaming on Netflix.

It’s tough being a puppet these days. After what seemed like a return to puppet glory with The Muppets in 2011, the cinematic Muppet momentum ended three years later with Muppets Most Wanted—and then the 2015 TV series tanked.

Considering this stalling of The Muppets franchise, it seemed like a good time for a former Muppet stalwart, Brian Henson (son of Muppet founder Jim), to take puppets in a more-adult direction. After all, Jim Henson had a more-adult incarnation for The Muppets in mind way back in the 1970s when they appeared on the first season of Saturday Night Live. (It’s true!) A raunchier band of puppets would be a fine addition to the Henson legacy.

That is, it would be a fine addition had Henson Alternative—an “adult” branch of the Jim Henson Company—made something better than The Happytime Murders, a listless, joyless, humorless exercise in how not to make a puppet movie.

The film is set up like a Muppets movie, with puppets interacting with humans—but Kermit and company are banned from the set in favor of bland, seriously unfunny puppets that fail to distinguish themselves in any way. Brian Henson directs, his first big-screen directing gig since Muppet Treasure Island, and it’s a lost puppet cause. Henson’s directing chops have not aged like fine wine; they’ve aged like a mango that got lost in the back of the refrigerator six months ago.

Melissa McCarthy—having a disastrous year with this and the terrible Life of the Party—takes the lead human role as Det. Connie Edwards, former partner of puppet cop-turned-private investigator Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta).

The two team up again when puppet cast members of ’80s TV show The Happytime Gang start getting the cotton pulled out of them in a series of visually uncreative deaths. (OK, the one puppet getting shredded by band of dogs led by a Boston terrier made me chuckle a little, but it’s only because I have a Boston terrier currently living in my home, and I’m pretty sure she would shred a living puppet if given the chance.)

While there are hints of some funny premises—for example, Connie got a puppet liver transplant, so she’s tragically addicted to sugar—none of them are taken to fruitfully funny extremes. That’s because writer Todd Berger’s screenplay thinks gags should be a laugh-getters just because they’re naughty. There’s no room for wit or depth in his land of puppetry, just F-bombs and silly-string ejaculate. Frankly, I’m surprised the film doesn’t have an overload of puppet farts. (Actually, puppet farts might be funny. They’d sound like wind passing through sheets left out on a line to dry on a sunny summer day.)

Other human actors looking totally lost include Joel McHale as an FBI guy. (I couldn’t help but notice that McHale’s hairpiece/transplants look less convincing than the hair on the puppet heads.) Maya Rudolph fares a little better as Philip’s human secretary, but Leslie David Baker appears to be in serious pain delivering his typical police-chief lines. Elizabeth Banks gets the worst gig as Jenny, the only human member of the Happytime Gang, who is forced to make out with Philip.

I am very much up for some nastily funny puppet activity. I think Team America: World Police is one of the 21st century’s funniest movies, and The Happytime Murders had good people involved. Alas, a mundane McCarthy and babbling felt heads lead to what will stand as one of the year’s lousiest movies.

I’d say nothing that nothing good could come out of The Happytime Murders, but maybe its failure will create a hankering for the return of Kermit and friends. Regardless, something tells me if McCarthy gets a script for a new Muppet movie by courier in the future, she’s going to kick that courier in the nether region.

The Happytime Murders is playing at theaters across the valley.

Moll (Jessie Buckley), a loner, meets Pascal (Johnny Flynn), another loner, and they seem to hit it off as the film Beast gets under way. He’s mysterious and he has kind eyes. However, he also poaches animals and has a controversial past—which is brought to her attention by authorities after they have gotten romantic.

Local girls are disappearing and winding up dead, and Pascal, who has a criminal past and fits the profile of a serial killer, is now a prime suspect. That puts a damper on the romance, obviously, as Moll struggles to find out who she is really in love with—and whether or not he’s capable of such heinous acts.

Michael Pearce has made a chilling, effective thriller, thanks to a cool, stylish and quiet directorial style that works beautifully with the stellar lead performances. The effectiveness of a movie like this relies upon the director’s ability to keep the viewer in the dark—and Pearce does this admirably.

The film is constructed in a way that diminishes the importance of guessing who the killer is, because you are so taken in by the duo at the center of it all. Buckley and Flynn make Beast something well beyond your typical whodunit, with searing performances.

Beast is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on Sept. 4.

Alpha, a story about the first personal interaction between man and dog, is a winner if 1) you are a dog person, and 2) you can watch a movie taking place 20,000 years ago and believe that the inhabitants could have such stylish leather jackets.

The jackets really are pretty cool—made of buffalo hide, I presume, with lovely fur collars. I think I would buy one if I saw it on Amazon (with fake fur and leather, of course). There’s no way somebody could’ve put these things together way back then, without a sewing machine. If so, that person was the Versace of the day.

Directed by Albert Hughes (From Hell, Menace II Society), this is a sweet hypothetical story about a boy, lost in the wilderness after a hunting trip gone awry, befriending a wolf. It’s not a syrupy-sweet story; the two go through hell trying to find the boy’s homeland during the onset of winter. But if you are a dog person—and I am—the gradual warming of their relationship as they rely on one another to survive is nothing short of adorable and powerful.

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is on his first buffalo hunt with dad Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). He’s a good kid, but he’s a terrible hunter—and winds up critically injured on a cliff, far out of rescue’s reach. A distraught Tau leaves his presumably dead son and goes home to bang rocks together, or whatever they did in those days. However, Keda isn’t ready to die. A vulture peck on his lip wakes him up; a flash flood creates enough of a cushion for his fall; and he has a new lease on life.

Unfortunately, that new lease involves a lot of vicious animals trying to eat him, with his escapes hampered by an injured foot. One such attack, by a pack of wolves, results in the pack leader wounded at the foot of a tree Keda scampered up to escape. Rather than driving a spear through his wounded foe, Keda takes pity and carries the wounded wolf to a nearby cave.

Things start off with a lot of snarling and growling as Keda tries to establish himself as the master of the situation. Gradually, Alpha (as the dog is eventually named) comes to appreciate Keda’s tendency to provide food and water while only occasionally acting bossy. The two join forces, take turns saving each other’s lives, and become pals.

There obviously was a first time that a man walked up to a dog-like creature and thought, “Say, I would like to play fetch with this beast, as long as it doesn’t bite my face off. Maybe if I give it a biscuit, it will like me?” That dude probably got his face bitten off … but, as we know, dogs became man’s best friend over time. The film contains its interpretation of man’s first tug-of-war with a dog, man’s first game of fetch with a dog, and man’s first campfire snuggle with a dog. Aww!

Hughes doesn’t simply rely on a sweet story. His movie is often gorgeous-looking, featuring majestic landscapes, excellent CGI work and a damn fine dog as the title character. Smit-McPhee (the boy who cried “Papa!” in The Road) is onscreen for almost every scene, and although he’s relegated to a fake caveman language for his dialogue, he delivers some career-best work here, and sufficiently carries the human half of Alpha’s story.

Cavemen movies usually suck. 10,000 B.C. sucked. Caveman starring Ringo Starr sucked. Quest for Fire starring a pre-Hellboy Ron Perlman really sucked. So it’s refreshing to see a film set in prehistoric times that actually engages, provides some thrills and warms the heart.

After the credits rolled on this one, I promptly drove home and gave my little dog some extra treats and belly rubs. Dogs are awesome, and Alpha is a decent-enough guess at what our first hike with one of them was like. Now, if I could just get me one of those snazzy buffalo jackets …

Alpha is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, sets his sights on The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones with Disenchantment, his latest animated series. While the finished product looks a little rushed on the visual side, there are enough good laughs to make the series a success.

Bean (the voice of Abbi Jacobson) is the restless daughter of King Zog (John DiMaggio). With her assigned demon, Luci (Eric André), at her side, and Elfo the elf (Nat Faxon) as her sidekick, she sets off on a series of adventures.

The humor is part The Simpsons, and part Monty Python (there are actually a lot of “not quite dead” jokes), with more hits than misses. André is a constant laugh-getter as the wisecracking demon, while DiMaggio is very funny as the unorthodox king.

Hopefully, Netflix will straighten out the visuals in future seasons and make this look more like a grown-up cartoon and less of a rush job. As it stands, it’s still better than Game of Thrones. I just don’t understand the appeal of that show.

The first 10-episode season of Disenchantment is currently streaming on Netflix.

Kelly Macdonald is terrific in Puzzle as Agnes, a mother of two and wife to Louie (an also-excellent David Denman). Agnes is loved by her family, but they tend to not pay attention to her at times—and she’s beginning to lose interest in their mundane routines.

She finds solace in jigsaw puzzles, and realizes she has a talent for putting them together fast. She sees a posting for a person looking to find a “puzzle partner,” gives him a call, and strikes up a friendship with Robert (Irrfan Khan), an eccentric millionaire with a shared fascination for puzzles. As the two meet twice a week to train for a puzzle competition, things go beyond friendship, and Agnes is forced to make some decisions about her home life.

Marc Turtletaub’s minimalist direction is perfect for this story, which plays a lot better than it sounds. Macdonald is first-rate during every second she’s onscreen—especially in her scenes with Denman and Khan. Khan brings a lot of dimension to Robert, who is basically a nutty, lonely guy. Denman does a remarkable job of making Louie likable, even if he is a bit of a dick at times.

It’s not a film I was especially anxious to watch, given its premise. I was pleasantly surprised.

Puzzle opens Friday, Aug. 17, at theaters across the valley.