‘Skyscraper’ Rises to the Occasion

‘Skyscraper’ Rises to the Occasion

Two plot points serve as bookends for the plot and theme of writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper. They’re mercifully on time and surprisingly simple yet effective. I wish the movie’s gratitude theme was layered with more complexity. But this economical movie is the year’s best action picture I’ve seen.

Also, refreshingly, the movie’s primary callback does not relate to an initial flashback scene at a Minnesota cabin, featuring an act of self-destruction which is both devastating and, alarmingly, common, especially among white men. I really like that Thurber (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) has the courage to start with a nuanced depiction of someone who has lost himself in despair. It makes a brief and powerful lead-in and counterpoint to the main character played by Dwayne Johnson.

I like this because it laces the toe-tingling Skyscraper with the gritty realism the film needs to cash in on itself. Crucial to this is Neve Campbell as the Johnson character’s wife and mother to their twins. Unlike Ant-Man 2, the kids are not precocious (so don’t expect miniature 47-year old-ish children like you see all over today’s TV and movie kids). They don’t panic, scream and talk like they watch South Park. They’re like kids.

Skyscraper takes place in Hong Kong, where mother and kids join Johnson’s ex-Marine during his final interview for a security job protecting the title’s magnificent tower.

This building, created by an industrialist (Chin Han) and known as the Pearl, is made to “touch the sky”, as media personalities rave in a montage about the skyscraper as it debuts in the formerly British city. It’s true that I could see some of the major plot twists coming (you probably will, too) but there are fresh moments and enough proper setup, characterization and action to earn your engagement.

Johnson’s affable screen persona, as paper thin as ever and a similar role to the one he played in San Andreas, is pretty vanilla, so don’t expect his character to be as biting as John McClane in Die Hard. Johnson doesn’t wisecrack. He flexes his muscles instead, showcasing his physique and contrasting it with tenderness here and there.

It’s Neve Campbell as the good wife, who happens to be a war veteran and military surgeon, who adds height and weight to Universal’s Skyscraper. Campbell’s performance stands out, especially the early scenes, and it’s a pleasure to watch a woman on screen that isn’t relegated to behaving like a man-hating sociopath or a kickboxing, “bad ass” superheroine. Byron Mann stands out, too, as a police inspector, acting with his face, though he’s not given nearly enough to do.

Graphics, drawings and various pieces lay out the building’s design, which includes a virtual reality experience as the cherry on top. Conflict comes in a relatively implausible way but Thurber lets scenes play and does a good job with exposition. In short, Skyscraper is not an incoherent mess like a Marvel movie. You can tell who’s fighting. You see what’s happening. You care about the characters. You grasp the plot.

Every aspect of Skyscraper is well done, except for an over-the-top, stereotypically “bad ass” Asian female character who pops in as if from another movie that’s trying too hard. This villainess can’t see with one eye past her godawful 1990s’ haircut but she kills as if with omnipotence and precision.

Effects are good, not overdone like most pictures in the genre. Thurber’s script is often both witty and smart, from a dig at facial recognition technology to consistency in the Johnson character, essentially a self-made man (he’s handicapped by an injury, a detail which dovetails into the theme). This upscale security guard apologizes to Hong Kong’s policemen as warranted yet he knows how to tap the building’s elaborate system including for its “electromagnetic induction”.

Johnson’s security man plays on masculinity that’s extremely tough but highly sensitive, as against the false feminist charge that masculinity is “toxic”. He expresses love easily and meaningfully, reminds his son that “it’s OK to be scared” and he does so without trivializing masculinity, men or the role of emotion. His wife, for her part, is no docile woman waiting to be rescued; she takes responsibility for her family as much as her husband does. She does so without hesitating to defy the state.

As a romantic couple, you might say that Skyscraper is the antidote to the same studio’s overrated Get Out, which opposed interracial coupling.

I enjoyed Skyscraper so much that I think it’s already 2018’s third best picture, behind Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (which is perfect, especially if you want to affirm the childlike) and at the top Love, Simon (which is also perfect, especially if you want to feel good). Skyscraper (pay attention if you love skyscrapers and are still outraged about losing the Twin Towers) is almost the perfect action film, especially when you want to reboot, remake and rebuild.

Streisand’s ‘A Star is Born’ (1976) Falters

Streisand’s ‘A Star is Born’ (1976) Falters

The second remake of William Wellman’s historic A Star is Born (1937) suffers from the same or similar problems as the Fifties’ Judy Garland vehicle. Going with the same iconic title as the original and the 1954 film, the 1976 version also puts spectacle over substance in key respects. It amounts to a star vehicle for Barbra Streisand, a talented singer, actress and comedienne who went on to direct pictures. Executive Producer and leading lady Streisand all but directs this movie, too.

A Star is Born (1976) is a remake of the 1954 musical version more than it’s a remake of the original (judging by the trailer, Bradley Cooper’s 2018 version starring Lady Gaga looks to remake the 1976 adaptation). It starts at a hard rock concert with a Frisbee-type disc flying through the air, fireworks and, long before Steven Spielberg featured a similar symbolic ruse in Schindler’s List, a young girl with a red balloon wandering the aisles. Being that this is the 1970s, there’s a light show, too.

All the razzle dazzle is intended to build anticipation for the arrival of a rock star (singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, launching a high profile if brief film career). First taking a swig of liquor — before a beach ball goes through the roaring crowd — Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard performs in concert to a blaring, awful song.

So begins this vulgarized version, which replaces Hollywood glamour with the roar of the arena rock, cloaking Kristofferson with the reckless, drug-induced stupor of a rock star who’s lost his way. The problem is that, like the 1954 version, the audience never gets to see what audiences loved about his fading male star in the first place.

Add monster masks, throngs of female groupies resembling Manson Family-type hippie chicks with long, lifeless hair and vacant eyes as Kristofferson stumbles around a Hollywood club with a bucket of fried chicken and you get the spaced out vibe. But the Seventies hedonism goes on and on with the cocaine-sniffing rock star crashing a motorcycle off the stadium stage into the mindless Woodstock-type mob. Streisand, essentially as Streisand, looks on in wonder and horror.

Later, as the hedonistic rock star fires a gun at the reckless, helicopter media hovering over his home, amid sycophant and fan madness, he somehow senses his impending doom and seeks out Streisand’s hip lounge singer for more of the good thing he’s sampled. She’s not playing hard to get but Streisand’s liberated 1970s woman is drawn to the rock star, whose idea of a mea culpa is a case of Jack Daniels, just the same.

“Are you an alcoholic?” She wants to know. “Probably,” he tells her. Yet the show must go on. After all, her Esther Hoffman is impressed when he spray-paints her name on his household wall. Talk about the Seventies as an exercise in excess.

The writing, by Joan Didion among others in this Jon Peters production, is as bad as it sounds. During John Norman Howard’s courtship of Ms. Streisand’s Esther Hoffman, he tells her: “I don’t even know your Social Security number.” How’s that for a come-on? This unfolds in various stages of his undoing, and, of course, ascending steps toward stardom for her sexy, liberated female vocalist with the permanent wave.

Strangely, because the core of this story is alluring for several reasons, including complications of love, loss and the plight of the lonely artist trying to make it big (and who doesn’t; see 2016’s La La Land and 2012’s The Artist for riffs on this theme), A Star is Born ’76 manages to capture audience interest.

It’s a credit to Streisand and Kristofferson that their chemistry comes through. Candles on beer cans and other strokes of Seventies’ kitsch (look for the waterbed) lead to the romantic bliss embedded by the hypnotic hum of Barbra Streisand’s sterling composition, with perfect lyrics by Paul Williams, for the picture’s love theme, “Evergreen”. This song is as sublime for the movie as Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Way We Were” is for Ms. Streisand’s 1973 movie of the same name.

The schmaltz returns in the interplay at the new home on his sprawling ranch, while emerging pop star Esther plays dress up in a Superman t-shirt and they literally roll around in the mud. Cutesy photo opportunities come at the expense of character development, especially costing the depiction of the Kristofferson character’s inner turmoil and the Streisand character’s upward trajectory.

By the time she wins an award as he acts out, there’s no real sense of Esther’s songs connecting with the public. Esther’s self-realization, courtesy of his gentle coaching, and the prospect of them touring as a couple seals his doom.

A Star is Born is also not Barbra Streisand’s best performance. In some scenes, she’s stiff and cold. In others, she’s fresh, warm and as funny as ever. Kristofferson seems out of himself during most of the movie. He’s an artist and a real songwriter but his introverted torment is too often relegated to the sidelines for showy antics. The haunting melody and poetry of “Evergreen” make a climactic convertible scene, in which the grizzled star pops in an 8-track to play the new star’s song, which he wrote for her to perform, more impactful.

As Esther steps on stage to sing the last song he wrote about her to an audience for the first time, it ought to be heartbreaking. That it is more heart-aching than breaking shows what happens when filmmakers choose to craft a star vehicle instead of a tender, stern forewarning. For example, when Barbra Streisand sings what ought to have been a very meaningful line — “And I won’t look down” — the performance is about her, not about her honoring him and the us that they once had been.

With songs by Williams, Leon Russell, Rupert Holmes, Kenny Loggins and others, and with Ms. Streisand’s very thoughtful commentary track and additions to the DVD features, including her disclosure that the ranch house was inspired by her home with Jon Peters and that she had wanted Kris Kristofferson to write the “Evergreen” lyric — he wrote one but didn’t think it was good enough — A Star is Born is worth a look, but it could’ve been great.

Judy Garland Dominates ‘A Star is Born’ (1954)

Judy Garland Dominates ‘A Star is Born’ (1954)

Hollywood’s first remake of William Wellman’s searing 1937 tragedy, A Star is Born, neither enhances nor detracts from the original. Director George Cukor, working from Moss Hart’s screenplay (based upon the original script), mixes music into the story, which remains essentially intact. If this sounds clunky, so is the remake. A Star is Born (1954) lacks chemistry, characterization and cohesion. It’s a star vehicle for Judy Garland and by now everyone knows about that legendary wreckage. It’s impossible to watch this and not think of the real life tragedy of Judy Garland’s life.

Indeed, known facts undercut the theme. Knowing what one knows about Garland and her abused, molested, drug addicted life trivializes what might have been a great motion picture. Hart, Cukor and Garland were extremely talented. Others, such as co-stars Jack Carson, Charles Bickford and James Mason as an alcoholic movie star who discovers Judy Garland’s Esther Blodgett, also have ability. They’re lost in a movie that’s constantly doing to its star what it’s dramatizing as destroying its leading man. The incessant push and pull of publicity, promotionalism and working an artist too hard — before the ends of Marilyn, Elvis and Whitney, to name a few — lies beneath the surface of Cukor’s colorful extravaganza, in which there’s too much Judy Garland performing too many songs, few of which advance the plot.

This is the primary problem with 1954’s introspective version of A Star is Born, which, as rendered here, glamorizes suffering, the opposite of the thematic purpose of William Wellman’s stunning portrait of what moves the movie star. The lights of Los Angeles glimmer in the distance of this picture, as spotlights suddenly pierce the dark night’s sky—and the audience is plunged into Hollywood as a circus of posers.

“He’s here — he’s drunk” introduces the fading movie star known as Norman Maine (Mason) before the show thrusts the audience into chaos.

Enter Judy Garland as the song and dance performer who coaxes the drunken fool offstage — she comments to her bandmate that, drunk or not, Norman Maine seems nice. The problem is that he’s not nice — and Jack Carson as the studio’s publicity chief and Maine’s babysitter, knows it — and Cukor’s extended setup makes Mason’s Maine too vile and disgusting to redeem.

Ditching an integral hometown subplot from the original, this approach robs the remake of its reason for being. A Star is Born goes right into Esther Blodgett’s makeover into Vicki Lester without sufficiently establishing what’s there to make over.

The stars do their best to play the romance but they never get the screen time to show how deep is Norman Maine’s and Vicki Lester’s love, so there’s lacking the sense of their desperate need to get away from show business. Maine molests and cavorts at will. Garland’s Lester is a musical powerhouse, if a maudlin powerhouse, and 1954’s A Star is Born is too much her movie. After he hunts her down following the opening debacle, he hears her sing without an audience, pledges to make her a star and tells Esther Blodgett to sing “for herself”, which she proceeds to do after admitting that her inner state is confusion and that she feels most alive when she sings.

Vicki Lester and the movie too abruptly dispense with the man who believed in her. In nested stories within stories depicted in Vicki Lester’s songs, which go on and on in an entertaining if detached and meaningless montage — at one point, she sings about being melancholy, which displays pure melancholy — A Star is Born dims its glow.

Even after her character sings about a new world opening up to her, as Norman Maine’s finally released from the burden of being Norman Maine, her response is more song and dance. That she does this in a dazzling display which tickles her man is fine. But it casts her character adrift and reminds that audience that the movie exists to serve Judy Garland’s musical numbers, not the other way around. This renders her “new world” star ignorant. When she gets a smack in the face, it is not shocking.

Love is not enough to stop someone wonderful from ceasing to love himself, it turns out. That Judy Garland of all actresses realizes this in her big meltdown scene, foreshadowing Malibu’s winds of change and a robe on the rocks, as James Mason writhes in agony at the wreckage of his life, ought to have underscored the line that a disowned self fades with “not with a bang but with a whimper”.

Instead, this overproduced A Star is Born, putting a troubled, fading star at the center of a film about reclaiming life, flickers the illusion that suffering can be glamorous — forgetting that it superficially seems that way until it happens to you.

Man Shapes Life on Earth in ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (1978)

Man Shapes Life on Earth in ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (1978)

This year marks 40 years since Paramount Pictures debuted its other big box office hit in 1978. Heaven Can Wait, not to be confused with the delightful Ernst Lubitsch comedy with the same title, was released within weeks of Paramount’s popular musical Grease. The light comedy, written by Elaine May and Warren Beatty, who also directed the motion picture with Buck Henry and took the lead, begins with an establishing shot of Los Angeles.

The movie opens without music, as if to underscore the remoteness of its main character, an athlete who plays the saxophone (badly) named Joe. This familiar tale blends elements of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Guy Named Joe. Beatty doesn’t stretch the material too thin. His professional football player lives by himself in a modest home in the hills, where he goes by a lonely but healthy routine, which he shares with his best friend and co-worker Max (Jack Warden in a career best performance).

While playing saxophone alone on his birthday, well past the expiration date stage of playing pro football, coach Max drives up in his Ford to bring Joe a birthday cake and a life-changing bit of good news. As Joe takes the jolt in stride, preparing for a pivotal opportunity which is an integral part of what makes this bittersweet romantic comedy one of the best movies of its time, he enters a dark tunnel. From the other side, it’s clear to the audience that a reckless driver enters the same tunnel seconds later.

The sound of silence follows the sound of mangling metal and sound is crucial in Heaven Can Wait, which indulges one’s senses in sweet, sloping dips, circles and loops. Then, Buck Henry appears with the manner of an efficiency expert or government bean counter. Soon, Henry’s escorting Joe to a place in the skies, where, with crisp sound punctuated by stretches of silence as if in a dream, the pair come across a supersonic jet boarding recently deceased passengers.

Joe refuses to board. Henry’s bureaucrat responds with a stern warning, causing his superior (James Mason in the perfect character role) to arrive on scene to correct any misunderstanding. Joe’s dressed down by celestial custodians: “Do not question the unifying principle.”

Joe merely wants to play ball, doing his workout, telling them he’s got to get ready for the big game, doing pushups in the cloud. This stylized take on a supernatural being and afterlife depicts heaven as fallible. Mistakes are made. Joe, who’s just had his second chance snatched away, responds to the injustice like a quarterback. The specter of an afterlife cutting short his life on earth circuitously stimulates him.

This is the main theme of Heaven Can Wait. That life should be passionate, strong and animated by the highest love — that life ought to be chosen consciously, embraced and lived fearlessly. Beatty, Henry and May keep the focus on life on earth, how and why man regards, chooses and lives it and why life on earth is all that matters. Details unfold around Joe’s embodiment of a wealthy businessman whose wife (Dyan Cannon, personifying the predatory spouse) and secretary (Charles Grodin, nailing the second-hander) are having an affair and plotting to murder him. It’s in their subplot that Ayn Rand makes an appearance for the sake of irony (“Pretend you’re reading The Fountainhead!”)

Joe’s first response to murder is to call for help. This speaks volumes about his character, which remains intact in each body Joe’s soul possesses. When a beautiful anti-capitalist (Julie Christie) shows up to challenge an imminent displacement caused by one of the businessman’s plans, his leadership skills come into play.

Against the murderers, frauds from every angle and ultimately inconsequential, Warren Beatty‘s quarterback’s single-mindedness prevails with mastery of the arrangements for his new life. So, the upshot is that an athlete yearning for life re-activates himself with an almost godlike ability to set forth an extremely selfish pursuit of happiness.

Heaven Can Wait captures this with lightness, peppering scenes of Max and Joe discussing the afterlife with a harp in the background. Throughout the film, jaunty jazz and light classical music accompany and accentuate smooth, gauzy pictures. Crisp editing in a montage adds to the movie’s dreamlike aura.

Even as an eccentric businessman, whose body the audience never sees, Joe’s ability radiates. As he makes connections, Joe becomes more human, less rote. He falls in love.

“Don’t be afraid,” someone says. Like the harp, the sheen and the music, coupled with the tenderness of Warren Beatty in a kind of alternative ending role to his young jock Bud in Splendor in the Grass, the theme that going boldly, refusing to live in fear, in the pursuit of being alive is embroidered into every scene.

Look for cameos by players for the Los Angeles Rams and NBC Sports broadcasters such as Dick Enberg and Bryant Gumbel. But revel in the portrait of a man emboldened by the idea that reality to a certain degree is the ultimate arbiter, who takes up the romantic notion that one can always make one great play in the big game. Heaven Can Wait coasts, unspooling benevolent humor, along the way.

As it does, 40 years after it debuted in movie theaters, Warren Beatty’s most life-affirming film, with slapstick, skilled screenwriting and gorgeous leads, cinematography and a bright, white-yellow glow, renders a picture about loss, loneliness and alienation, too. It comes in the form of Mr. Beatty’s handsome, simple Joe. It comes in the solitary struggle of Julie Christie’s Betty Logan.

But it comes, and necessarily so, most poignantly in the arc of the character played by Jack Warden. His Max is a wonder to watch. Max is filled with love for his young friend Joe and the sense of childlike play at the beginning of the film. Max turns sad and grieving in the middle. By the end, he is shocked, sobered and wiser, if left alone with the saxophone with which he first found Joe at home, This bittersweet fable about life and the fear (and fact) of losing it. Heaven Can Wait, is not downward. It is also not ridiculous. This is an accomplishment, particularly for a modern film about achieving, remaking and choosing passion and clarity in life.

There’s a magical quality to Heaven Can Wait. It isn’t made with magical realism like today’s absurdist films. It’s made with realism, it’s stroked with romantic optimism and it’s as clear as the sound of footsteps in a long and empty hallway. This, in essence, distinguishes Heaven Can Wait from the heartache of Somewhere in Time, the lessons of Hearts and Souls, the triumph of the ordinary in Defending Your Life, each indelible magic-themed movies about the power of free will. Heaven Can Wait casts a glow of California sunshine, evoking Elysian Fields amid its lines of scrimmage, letting three lonely souls play softly at the matter of life and death. It’s the rare film about heaven that leaves you feeling on top of the world while keeping a sense of the world as it is.

‘The Incredibles 2’ Satisfies

‘The Incredibles 2’ Satisfies

With the same voice cast and writer and director, Brad Bird, as the 2004 original, this Pixar sequel, which is being released 14 years after its animated characters debuted, offers more of the same. By my estimate, and I enjoyed The Incredibles with qualifications, this one’s both more manic and more purposeful.

An introductory sequence with a villain called the Underminer gets the action going as the main superheroes engage in the strangely mid-20th century designed metropolis. Brad Bird and crew, chiefly aided by designer Ralph Eggleston and composer Michael Giacchino, re-establish that there’s a law against superheroes enforcing the law. The gist is that they’re too destructive and may pose a threat to the public. Certainly, there’s evidence of both in opening scenes.

The plot this time is a campaign to undo an asinine law. The Incredibles 2 gets credit for this alone.

The bizarre prospect of a technologically advanced if aesthetically retro society in which super humans are prohibited by law from exercising their abilities sets the movie’s tone. This includes, among various other parts, a business proposition for the superheroes, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, known by their real identities, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) with their three kids, Violet, who struggles to date a boy she likes, Dashiell, who struggles with math, and Jack-Jack, a toddler who struggles with developing powers.

The essential pitch to these down and almost out superheroes (he’s superstrong and she’s elastic) is to trade a cushy lifestyle in exchange for incredible feats that win people over, enticing politicians to undo the law banning superheroes. It’s an interesting premise that keeps the audience looking for a twist. When a twist comes, as I knew it would (and you, too, will probably see it coming), it further animates the action, which is pretty much always in progress.

What happens after that is best left unexamined, here and probably after the movie, a B-movie like the first one and at best disposable entertainment. The sequel, like the original, is refreshingly absent stupid pop-cult references. The only real-world plug is an utterly organic nod to the American TV cartoon Jonny Quest.

Instead, The Incredibles 2 features clever points about nihilism. A villain known as the Screenslaver jabs at today’s mass mindlessness, inducing more mindlessness to make the point with the line that most people don’t know how to “break a sweat and participate in life”.

Don’t mistake this film for intelligent satire, however, as the mania grates on the nerves and strains the eyes and brain amid its sensory assault of visually arresting trains, boats and planes and, of course, cars. There’s a dig at feminism and its dogma that sisterhood is omnipotent if you think about it. There’s an anti-twist when, shockingly, a businessman doesn’t become a villain.

Designer Edna Mode (voiced by writer-director Brad Bird) appears in what amounts to an extended cameo as a cartoonish version of how a libertarian might depict Ayn Rand in caricature. Mode’s a wealthy, childless, pageboy hairstyled individualist who’s thrilled at the sight of any display of ability. It’s telling about this movie series that this minor character tends to garner more enthusiasm than its leading characters.

Yet the most impacting subplot involves the central role reversal. Mother strikes out to win the bread, for a change, while Father has a parenting meltdown that yields a lesson or two. None of it feels manipulative. With other side characters returning and a pair of siblings voiced by Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener among others, The Incredibles 2 satisfies as a family-oriented action matinee.