Thursday, May 23, 2024

The life of a faux hit man

 

   I'm generally sympathetic to movies that arrive without proclaiming themselves to be major cultural landmarks.
   Although it played at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, director Richard Linklater’s Hit Man arrives without a pushy pedigree. It does,  however, have a taste for devious fun, which turns out to be better than a ton of hyped-up flash.
    Based on a true story adapted from an article in Texas Monthly, Hit Man introduces us to Gary Johnson (Glenn Powell), a college professor who does gig work for the New Orleans Police Department. 
   Sitting in a truck equipped with recorders, Johnson joins a team that documents sting operations that nab those looking to hire killers to solve their problems.
   The movie’s major twist occurs early on. Johnson is asked to fill in for a detective (Austin Amelio) who built his reputation by posing as a hitman, but who has been suspended for using excessive force. 
   Powell gives an engaging performance as a philosophy professor who blossoms when he assumes different identities -- adopting new attitudes along with them. He learns that every encounter requires a pitch-perfect performance. He brings a lively imagination to the task, and his life is energized by  newfound success.
    Angry that he's been replaced by a "non-professional," Amelio's Jasper never joins the Johnson fan club. He represents potential trouble.
   Complications arise, and it's here that the movie presumably veers from Johnson’s real-life story. In Linklater’s telling, Johnson falls for Maddy (Adria Arjona), a woman who wants him to kill her abusive husband. 
   Instead of busting Maddy, Johnson tells her to leave the lout.  He's infatuated, and we know that sex and love will follow -- not with Gary Johnson but with his cool alter-ego hitman, Ron.
  Johnson's on a slippery slope: He begins to become the roles he's playing, a kind of quiet endorsement of the fake-it-'til-you-make-it school of philosophy. Can the ruse be sustained? How and when might it all blow up? 
   Linklater plays with issues of identity, dangles red herrings, and piles on twists — not all of them credible. But Powell’s appealing string of poses and ploys keep Linklater’s Hit Man on an entertaining track. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The origin of a post-apocalyptic warrior


 If this review were a trial, we'd begin with stipulations, agreements that we can accept (or should) without argument.
  1. Few, if any, filmmakers are as skilled at creating propulsive action as George Miller, who offers some of the best bone-crushing, metal-bending sequences ever brought to the big screen.
  2. Not many filmmakers are as committed to harsh truths as Miller. When it comes to post-apocalyptic life, brutality reigns.
  3. In catastrophically depleted environments,  competition for resources feeds cruel compulsions to dominate.
   I begin this way because Miller has created four Mad Max movies that have offered sustained thrills while helping to redefine post-apocalyptic cinema.
   You can bet that Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, Miller's latest and a prequel to the widely acclaimed Mad Max Road Fury, will deliver the goods as Miller  plunges into a forbidding hellscape where sentiment is as scarce as good grooming.
    Amid the rubble and mayhem, Miller also has insisted that his movies offer the kind of hyper fun that results from wowed appreciation of chases, crashes, fights, and collisions delivered at breakneck speeds.
   So where am I going with all this? What's my verdict on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the story of a girl who matures into the teenager who'll become the warrior woman played by Charlize Theron in Fury Road?
   I saw Furiosa in IMAX at an evening screening after having awakened in Virginia at 5 a.m. EDT for a return flight to Denver. I was tired and jet-lagged, but my eyelids never drooped. A thudding persistent score, the ominous sound of a truck horn, and the roar of motorcycle engines enliven the forbidding  landscapes Miller creates so well. 
   And yet, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that some of the thrill is gone. Ditto for the exhilarating sense of discovery that Road Warrior initially brought. Don't take this as a pan, I said "some" of the thrill -- not all of it. 
    Furiosa begins with Alyla Browne playing Furiosa as a child who is taken from one of the last remaining flourishing spots on Earth, an Edenic green spot. After marauders capture Furiosa, her mother mother (Charlee Fraser) rides a horse and then a motorcycle to the rescue. Mom's efforts go awry -- but not without giving the movie a gripping prologue.
   When the story begins in earnest, Furiosa has been taken prisoner by Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), a ruthless warlord who lost his family and, as a consequence, decided that nothing but merciless violence will conquer his grief. Hemsworth seems to have fun with an outsized role, tempering Dementus's casually expressed sadism with humor.
   The movie eventually focuses on Furiosa's development. She starts as a crafty child devoted to keeping her green homeland free and hidden from those who would exploit it. She evolves into a warrior determined to avenge the early-film death of her mother at the hands of Dementus.
   As part of her development, Furiosa -- now played by Anya Taylor-Joy -- also becomes the pupil of a skilled driver who serves as a mentor (Tom Burke). The two might have made a great team for an entire movie instead of enriching one episode among many.
    Furiosa's story takes place against the backdrop of a brewing war between the forces of Dementus and those of Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme). 
   Immortan Joe, you'll recall from the previous movie, presides over the Citadel, a fortress built into a cliff. The Citadel dispenses water to the rude and scoffing multitudes, the various tribes that roam this diminished world. 
    Taylor-Joy may not be as physically imposing as Theron, but she brings intensity to a role in which she speaks little, at times posing as a wily young man to escape the fate of young women destined to be held in a harem Immortan Joe uses for breeding purposes.
    No point recounting all the action, except to note that a highlight includes an attack on a speeding silver semi-truck by parachute-wearing warriors. Dementus rides in a chariot drawn by three motorcycles. A variety of  jerry-rigged vehicles revive the junkyard chic that has been a Mad Max staple.
    Some of the character names clue you into the nature of those who populate Miller's expansive desert environment: The People Eater, Organic Mechanic, Rictus Erectus, and Vulture. I had to consult the credits to catch all of these names, but it doesn't matter; it's their fierce looks that count.
   I wish my enthusiasm for Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga weren't tempered by the sense that the movie -- which includes chapter headings -- didn't always display the brisk ingenuity that audiences discovered in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) back when Mel Gibson, the original Mad Max, had yet to become a divisive figure. 
   But if Furiosa has fallen off a bit, it hasn't broken into shards. Miller's skill and vision keep familiarity from breeding contempt -- even if we don't always invest in the fate of this teeming screenful of characters, desperate souls for whom good will isn't even a vague memory.
   Most of Furiosa takes place on arid terrain its characters call the Wasteland. For them, the name fits. For Miller, it's territory he still rules.

  

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Amy Winehouse's brief, wild life


   Amy Winehouse may not have lived long enough for her considerable talent to mature. She was 27 when she died from alcohol poisoning in 2011. Her early demise makes Winehouse a problematic subject for a biographical movie. 
   Fair to say, Winehouse's life had only one act -- albeit a wild one.
   In some respects, Winehouse revivified a rock n’ roll cliche — lacing her stardom with an unholy triumvirate: sex, drugs, and alcohol. Her inspirations derived from sources as diverse as rapper Lauryn Hill and singer Sarah Vaughan. She didn’t want to be pinned to anyone's genre bulletin board.
   Defined by uncompromising independence and a powerful voice, Winehouse blazed bright; she was nominated for eight Grammys and won six of them. 
   Back to Black tells Winehouse’s story, serving it in jagged chunks that seem appropriate for a singer/songwriter whose Rehab can be read as an anthem of spirited defiance. 
   “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No. No. No.’”
  The movie’s title — taken from Winehouse’s 2006 album of the same name — suggests dark currents. Winehouse’s journey toward oblivion centers on a startling and dynamic performance from Marisa Abela, who sings the movie’s musical numbers. No lip-synching here. 
   In this telling, Winehouse draws inspiration and affection from her grandmother, Nan Cynthia (Lesley Manville), a nightclub singer who functions as a mentor to Winehouse, a Jewish girl from North London who's often shown wearing a conspicuously displayed Star of David.
   Winehouse also receives support from her dad (Eddie Marsan), a dedicated father who tries to keep Winehouse on track, no easy job considering Winehouse went to great lengths to prove she was no Spice Girl pop star.  As is frequently the case with headstrong rebels, Winehouse clashed with those who wanted to shape her career.
  Much of the movie centers on Winehouse’s heated but disastrous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell). Blake charts his own course through the world of drugs.
   Credit O’Connell with generating the bad-boy charm that Winehouse found irresistible. Put it this way: Their relationship wasn’t the stuff of rom-coms.
     I can’t say “no no no” to Back to Black, probably because I’m too much of a sucker for courageously immersive performances, and Abela certainly gives one. But director Sam Taylor-Johnson, working from an episodic screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, creates a movie that often feels so scattershot and confrontational you may want to push it away.
     By the end, that's what I found myself doing.

Trapped in an alienated life

 

  Director Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow offers an impressionistic view of what it means for a disaffected teenager to become obsessed with a single TV show.     
   Beginning the movie in the 1990s, Schoenbrun -- a trans* director who says the movie is personal but not specific to her life -- introduces us to Owen, a character who's consumed by a weekly TV show called The Pink Opaque. Owen lives more in the show's world than in what we generally, and often casually, refer to as "the real world.”
      Played as a seventh grader by Ian Foreman and later by Justice Smith, Owen discovers the show when he meets Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a sardonic gay ninth-grader whose self-imposed isolation bristles with defiance.
    I Saw the TV Glow leans away from trans issues, opting for a broader display of adolescent dysphoria as experienced in the conformist-driven climes of suburbia. 
 You’d think by now, artists might have gotten past using suburbia as a metaphor for stifling conformity but Schoenbrun makes an unnamed suburb ground zero for a woozy exploration of memory, time, and alienation.
  The movie wallows in uncertainty. Significantly, Owen has latched onto a YA-oriented program aimed at girls, an interest that earns his father's derision and suggests that Owen might be standing on shifting gender sands.  
  "I like TV shows," Owen says, when asked if he likes girls, an answer that’s both revealing and evasive.
  The Pink Opaque, by the way, centers on two teens (Helena Howard and Lindsey Jordan) who form a psychic bond, whatever that might mean. 
  The acting is purposefully flat, and, aside from a screeching scene near the movie's end, mostly, uninflected --  "zombie cool” tempered by a plaintive quality Smith brings to the role of Owen.
   If you see the movie and are puzzled by it, you won't be alone. As for me, I can’t say I much cared about the characters Schoenbrun creates, although Owen’s vulnerability can be touching. 
    Maddy is Owen's major connection to others. She eventually disappears, leaving a burning TV in her backyard as a memento of abandoned adolescence. She'll return a decade later, only to increase Owen's abiding confusion.
    I Saw the TV Glow may speak most clearly to those who already share Schoenbrun’s view of the deracinated quality of contemporary life or who overdosed on TV during the 1990s. Maybe it will speak to  those who fear, as happens in the TV show within the movie, that some form of monster inhabits every story. 
   After an amusing beginning, the movie drifts into what struck me as a string of self-conscious attempts to avoid a conventional storyline. Rather than following a narrative-driven map, the movie offers a flow of images that resemble dreams or memories, which, I’d argue, is just another kind of trap. 
  At one point, Owen says he doesn’t look inside himself because he’s afraid of what he might find, maybe nothing more than the TV images he's digested. He shows few signs of emerging from the estranged shallows of his existence.
  Schoenbrun plays with many themes but I Saw the TV Glow seems less interested in involving us in the experiences of its characters than in looking for a language in which to express how they experience the world. 
   By showing Owen’s marginal jobs, the movie makes a clever comment about the cultural shift away from movie screens to the kinds of screens you might find in a game-filled arcade where stimulation proliferates at punishing levels.
  Overindulgence in fantasy may block obsessives from seeing themselves but you wonder whether they can see anyone else, either.  
   So much for I Saw the TV Glow. What some will see as an affecting exploration of alienated spirit also can look like an advanced case of millennial tunnel vision. 
    All I can say is that the movie increasingly struck me as a dreary jumble of ideas and impressions to which I said, "no thanks." Not my cup of depression.

*I mention "trans" only because Schoenbrun talks about it in interviews and, I think, equates the state of emotional indeterminacy that we find in the movie to her own experiences prior to making a decision to transition. More simply put, Schoenbrun talks honestly about her experiences prior to becoming a trans person.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

An involving 'Planet of the Apes' tale


   Kingdom of the Planet of Apes brings welcome freshness to a franchise that began in 1968. A mashup of big issues -- the tyrannical perversion of once-noble ideals, among them -- add thematic weight to the movie's vividly imagined surface.
  Employing ever-improving motion capture technology, director Wes Ball tells the story of young chimp Noa (Owen Teague), an ape who wants to please his father, the head of the Eagle Clan of apes, now the planet's dominant species. 
    Ball quickly informs us about the world we're in. A mysterious virus has caused humans to regress. They're no longer able to speak. The same virus has givenapes the ability to talk, although they retain many of their animal traits.
   A masterfully conceived cliff-climbing sequence introduces Noa, whose village soon will be ravaged by a band of masked-ape marauders. After the devastating raid, Noa embarks on a quest to rescue captured members of his clan, including his mother (Sara Wiseman).
  Noa isn't alone on the road. He's joined by a sagacious orangutan (Peter Macon's Raka) who introduces him to the now-forgotten philosophy of Caesar. A key figure in several previous movies, Caesar promoted pacifism and compassion among apes. 
  A young human (Freya Allan's Mae) rounds out the traveling trio. Although she looks like a feral creature, Mae harbors a secret. Once revealed, her intelligence shocks Raka and Noa, a familiar but still satisfying series ploy.
   Focusing almost entirely on apes, Kingdom doesn't want for a convincing villain. The ferocious Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) tries to entice Noa, who's eventually captured, into becoming an ally. Proximus wants to penetrate an abandoned human facility that houses technology he believes will enhance ape capabilities, and, more importantly, secure his dominance as king of all apes.
   Ball handles the movie's action -- a battle on a bridge and the ultimate confrontation between Noa and Proximus -- with skill and verve. 
    Will we see Noa again? The finale, set in Proximus' seaside city, exposes Mae's previously hidden motives, leaving the door open for additional movies.
     It's too early to complain about the length of summer movies (Ball's runs for two hours and 24 minutes) or to cavil about the endless perpetuation of big-screen series. Ball deserves credit for making room for genuine character development and for minimizing human presence.
    The eerie beauty of its landscapes, some dotted with the lonely remnants of human construction, add to the movie's power. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes proves a worth addition to a long-running series that still has life in it -- even if it takes a big CGI boost to create it.
   

From the mundane to the mysterious





   Somewhere around the middle of Evil Does Not Exist, the latest film from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, I thought I'd mistakenly stumbled into a Japanese version of a Frederick Weisman documentary, a careful detailing of the issues and personalities at a high-stakes community meeting.
   I thought of Weisman when Hamaguchi's fictional work arrives in a small town outside Tokyo for a meeting between the village residents and representatives from a company that wants to build a "glamping" site. No, I'd never heard the term either.
   As it turns out, glamping refers to luxury camping for high-end travelers who want to commune with nature without sacrificing comfort or safety.
   The locals are unpersuaded by the faux friendliness of the company's two representatives (Ryuji Osaka and Ayaka Shibutani). Actors who've been hired to make the case for the camp, they're ill-equipped to talk about construction issues.
   The reps face challenging questions about the placement of septic tanks, the possible misuse of post-pandemic grants, and other matters that threaten the environmental balance the villagers hope to preserve.
    The meeting clearly defines one of the movie's themes: the corruption of nature by businesses that attempt to grease the wheels of profit with ample helpings of blather.
    Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), the movie's main character, lives in the village with Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), the eight-year-old daughter he frequently forgets to pick up after school, perhaps because he's busy selling wood and pure stream water to a local noodle restaurant. 
    Hamaguchi adds layers of complexity. Moved by the villagers, the two company reps experience pangs of conscience. They wonder whether they aren't helping despoil the small forest settlement that was established by the government after the land was ravaged during World War II.
       All of this may sound prosaic, but winds of mystery blow through the film as Hamaguchi skillfully and subtly asks us to acknowledge another character, the landscape. Takumi's daughter, a child at home with her natural surroundings, augments this thematic thread.
      When her widowed Dad is late to pick her up after school, Hana walks through the forest alone, a Little Red Riding Hood oblivious to possible dangers. She's been cautioned about attacks by wounded does trying to protect their young after attacks by hunters.
     And then, there's the title. What the hell does it mean? How exactly does the film deal with such a provocative claim? Does Hamaguchi want to caution us against drawing hard conclusions about which of his characters might be right or wrong?  And if  there is no evil, can its opposite exist?
     The ending of Evil Does Not Exist has an inscrutable quality that's out of synch with much of what precedes it. I have ideas about what Hamaguchi wants to say but I wouldn't argue with anyone for whom the finale proves an enigmatic dealbreaker. 
    Hamaguchi's previous movie -- Drive My Car -- won high praise from many critics, myself included. I can't say that Evil Does Not Exist lived up to my expectations for this talented director, but I couldn't dismiss it, either. 
    Evil Does Not Exist gives us plenty to chew over, whether you leave the theater baffled by its ending or eager to bore more deeply into Hamaguchi's intentions. I'd say a filmmaker of Hamaguchi's caliber deserves the latter.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

'Fall Guy' doubles down on action

 


   
     Love is in the air and so are many flying bodies in The Fall Guy, an action/romcom in which Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt generate plenty of chemistry. 
   Fresh from his Barbie turn as Ken, Gosling brings shabby appeal to his role as a top stunt man going through a rough time. Blunt responds as an ambitious movie director who can control a set but can't entirely manage her emotions.
   Romance aside -- and, in this outing, it too often falls from view -- The Fall Guy comes across like prep work for summer at the movies, a time when mayhem tends to turn plots into burdensome afterthoughts.
     I had hopes, though. The Fall Guy might have been an engaging look at the lives of stunt men, those stalwarts who create heart-stopping effects that rely on human effort rather than CGI manipulation. 
   Instead, the movie comes across as an over-amped serving of action. Its most arresting footage can be seen in the clips that accompany the end credits, snippets that reveal as much about moviemaking as the movie itself.
  The Fall Guy gets off to a good start with Gosling playing Colt Seavers, a respected stuntman who’s asked to repeat a stunt involving a dizzying fall. 
 Colt works as the stunt double for Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a high-profile action star whose ego has expanded along with the box office receipts he generates. Because he thought too much of Colt's face could be seen during the first attempt, Ryder demands a do-over.
   The second fall goes badly. Colt breaks his back. His pride and body wounded, he retreats into solitude that destroys his relationship with Blunt’s Jody Moreno, who at the time was a camera operator.
   Eighteen months pass and Colt, now working as a valet, is asked to travel to Australia to do stunts in  Jody's Metalstorm. She's making her directorial debut with an action-packed picture populated by aliens and the space cowboy who fights them. 
  But wait. The film’s producer (Hannah  Waddingham of Apple's Ted Lasso) summoned Colt without Jody’s approval. Jody's still brooding about how Colt gave up on their relationship.
    And so it begins. What, you ask? 
    A cluttered story that swamps the relationship between Colt and Jody in favor of stunts that spill over into the movie's "real-life" plot, which surfaces when Colt is asked to find Ryder. The moody star has disappeared.
    A former stunt man who directed Brad Pitt in Bullet Train and who has served as Pitt's stunt double, director David Leitch provides a bit of welcome information for movie fans.
    Leitch clues us in about cannon rolls, stunts in which cars are flipped. He breaks the rules by showing us, as the saying goes, how the sausage is made when Colt is flung against a rock after being set on fire. Wires yank other folks out of scenes, and we see the exhilaration generated by the timing and teamwork that accompanies the success of a complicated stunt.
   But, oh, that convoluted storyline. 
    I half wondered whether the movie that Jody films might have been more fun than the mystery the film revolves around; i.e., what’s really behind Ryder’s disappearance? 
   Leitch sets up the action in ways that are supposed to be funny; sometimes they are; sometimes they aren't — at least that’s how I saw it. I thought Leitch did a better job in Bullet Train.
     The Fall Guy delivers action while trying (vainly, I think) to poke fun at Hollywood’s obsession with stunt-and-grunt moviemaking.
    The result: a noisy, sometimes battering mashup of romance and action that shortchanges the former to serve the latter. For all its stunts, flash, and glamor, The Fall Guy feels undernourished, a blaring helping of commotion sans much of anything resembling sustenance.

A May/December rom-com


  The Idea of You returns Anne Hathaway to the rom-com arena as a 40-year-old woman who falls for a 24-year-old member of a boy band (Nicholas Galitzine), one of those manufactured groups that inspire seventh-grade girls to plaster posers on their bedroom walls.
  A May-December romance revolves around the increasing sexual and romantic assertions of Hathaway’s recently divorced character. As you might guess, the wounds of divorce serve as a mandatory marker for an impending rebirth.
 To add complication, Hathaway’s Solene has a 16-year-old daughter (Ella Rubin) and a judgmental ex-husband (Reid Scott) who left her for another woman. 
 The movie’s cute-meet takes place at Coachella, the music festival to which Solene reluctantly escorts her daughter and several friends. Solene mistakes Galitzine’s private trailer for a public bathroom, generating a cute meet initiated by the desire to pee. Hey, whatever gets you there.
  Solene owns a successful art gallery in LA. Conveniently, she employs able assistants who allow her to pursue the burgeoning romance when Rubin’s Izzie leaves for summer camps. Solene travels with Galitzine's Hayes on the band's European tour.
  Adapting a novel by Robinne Lee, director Michael Showalter presents Galitzine’s Hayes as a self-aware young man who yearns to transcend the  limitations of a career built around boy-band superficiality. He’s looking to enrich his life with something genuine.
  The movie’s two stars generate chemistry while the plot tilts into topicality. The romance becomes tabloid fodder during the European tour.
   Obstacles arise on cue, and as the story evolves, the movie loses some of its early comic flavor without inspiring much by way of serious consideration.
   These days, my expectations for rom-coms are pretty low but this one has an inherent problem: Hathaway, an Oscar-winning actress and A-Lister, outshines Galitzine, who's asked to play the kind of star who makes women weak-kneed. 
    Let's leave it at this: A pre-summer bauble with a sturdy rom-com structure, Idea of You understands that it needs to be a bit more than eye candy -- or maybe that's just Hathaway at work.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Boys being boys in public housing

 


Set in 1992, We Grown Now takes place in Cabrini-Green, a now-defunct Chicago public housing project that began with high ideals and wound up as a hotbed for crime. The story centers on two boys, played with engaging naturalism by Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez. Ramirez's Eric lives with his widowed dad (Lil Red Howery); James' Malik lives with his mother (Jurnee Smollett), grandmother (S. Epatha Merkerson) and his sister (Madisyn Barnes). The families struggle but they're  strong and resilient, and the boys know how to have fun. They use old mattresses as landing pads for playground leaps they refer to as “flying.” Relying on atmosphere and the realism of its performances, director Minhal Baig’s episodic movie fully embraces the boys' world. The movie follows them as they skip school or try to understand the hand they've been dealt. Baig sounds tough notes when one of the boys' classmates is shot and killed. She also stages a police raid in which cops search the projects for drugs, wrecking apartments and showing no regard for the lives they're disrupting. The apartments are neat and homey, islands of normality. Tears flow at the end after  Smollett's character makes a pivotal choice. When Baig refuses to let boyhood be smothered by the harsh surroundings of public housing, We Grown Now is at its best.