Thursday, November 30, 2023

A grim helping of John Woo action


Director John Woo returns to Hollywood action with Silent Night, a movie that evokes memories of Woo's work during his bullet-riddled days of Hong Kong action, not to mention Hollywood efforts such as 1997's Face/Off.  Memories, however, aren't enough to carry Silent Night across the finish line.
   Woo is an undisputed master of action, but in a year when John Wick: Chapter 4 set a high bar for inventive over-the-top  gunplay and fighting, outrageously violent movies have their work cut out for them, Silent Night included.
   The story: Joel Kinnaman plays a father who sinks into despair. How could he not? Kinnaman's Brian lost his young son when rival gangs raced through his neighborhood firing at each other. Brain gave chase and was shot in the throat by a gang leader who left him for dead.
    Brian survives, but a bullet that lodged in his throat damaged his vocal cords, preventing him from speaking and leaving Kinnaman to squeeze all the gloom and despair he can muster   into Brian's expressions.
    Not surprisingly, living with a man who's deeply embittered about his son's murder exhausts Brian's wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno). When she leaves, Brian is free to do what the main characters in such movies do: seek revenge or, if you're more high-minded, a crude form of justice.
  Brian's quest for vengeance, preceded by vigorous training, leads to a major body count and several displays of the violent ingenuity that made Woo famous during his Hong Kong heyday, which is when I became a fan. 
    A sketchy screenplay sets up the movie's vengeful rampage. But after its explosive opening, Silent Night takes too long to reclaim the only reason for its existence: exaggerated action and wild violence that employs a battered red Mustang, knives, and several varieties of firearms. 
     That's Woo, I guess, but a relentlessly grim tone tamps down the movie's kick. Silent Night struck me as more morose than exciting, a genre exercise that lights a fuse, but, unlike Woo's best work, doesn't blow us away.

Inside a Michelin three-star restaurant

 In the Michelin three-star restaurant Le Bois sans Feuilles, no detail is too small to receive concentrated attention. If you enter the kitchen, you might hear the chefs mulling the merits of using shisho or passion fruit in dishes that have yet to earn a place on the menu. 
 I've never been to Le Bois sans Feuilles, which is located in central France, and probably never will. Lunches are priced in the 300 plus Euro range, and wines, of course, will significantly augment the bill.
 The restaurant doesn't stint on service. Sommeliers will guide you through the best wine parings for the meal you order. The wait staff is intimately acquainted with every dish and ready to accommodate any allergies or preferences you may have. Advance notice appreciated. 
 No, I've never been to Le Bois Sans Feuilles, which has been owned by the fabled Troisgros family for generations. Fortunately for me and other moviegoers, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has. A specialist in lengthy films with fly-on-the-wall flavor, Wiseman has made a four-hour documentary called Menus Plaisirs -- Les Troisgros, an immersive elook at how a great restaurant operates.
   A word of caution: Fly-on-the-wall cinema is an illusion; nothing about Menus Plaisirs should be considered haphazard.
  As with Wiseman's previous work (City Hall and In Jackson Heights are two examples), the director offers no narration and no title cards to establish locations or introduce characters. Wiseman doesn't give guided tours; he provides extraordinary access to worlds we might otherwise never penetrate -- not with so much detail.
   Menus Plaisirs  also tells a generational story, introducing us to Michel, the Troisgros family elder, his two sons, a daughter, and Michel's wife. All are part of the family business.
   But it's the chefs who command the most attention. Cesar now serves as head chef at Le Bois Sans Feuilles, one of the several restaurants owned by the family. Leo, a second son, runs another of the family's restaurants.
   As a trio or sometimes individually, father and sons also visit businesses that supply their restaurants with cheese, wine, and beef, all run by people who treat their jobs as callings, much in the way the Troisgros family approaches its businesses. 
    If you're not a culinary expert, some of the dishes --  veal brains, for example -- may prove challenging, but Wiseman, now 93, makes no judgements about any of the Troisgros culinary preoccupations.  
    Should you find any of them a little too refined  ... well ... that's your problem. Among other things, Michel seems like a nice fellow, always eager to chat with customers. He's accessible and the atmosphere at Le Bois San Feuilles, located in a rural area and featuring open space in both the dining area and kitchen, doesn't seem designed to intimidate. 
    Devotees of food television know that watching meals being prepared can be captivating. I'm not one of those folks, but there's something mesmerizing about seeing the Le Bois sans Feuilles staff cook snails in pools of butter or construct (I don't know what other word to use) complex desserts. 
    Wiseman shows what's required to run a renowned restaurant; the Troisgros mixture of experience, intuition,  innovation, and commitment to quality explains how the family's success has been maintained and passed from one generation to the next.
   Le Bois sans Feuilles was awarded its three stars in 1968 and has held onto them ever since, a rare accomplishment that underscores the relationship between high standards and greatness.
    As I watched the film, I wondered. Is one possible without the other?

Friday, November 24, 2023

An offbeat look at celebrity culture

   Dream Scenario, an inviting display of imagination from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, latches onto a rich idea and has fun playing with it.
   Nicolas Cage portrays Paul Matthews, a tenured biology professor at a small college. Paul bores his students and deludes himself about the book he hopes will lift him from academic obscurity -- if only he could write it. Bald and bearded, Paul has been relegated to life's sidelines.
  And there he remains until he learns that he’s cropping up in the dreams of strangers. Not one or two people, but a legion of folks for whom he’s become a new kind of creature — a dream celebrity.
   Borgli also introduces us to Paul’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement). Paul's sudden notoriety will plague all of them.
    Not surprisingly, Paul's celebrity attracts an ad agency that wants to set him up with an endorsement program.  Paul’s life as an academic who studies the adaptive power of evolution? Who cares?
    Michael Cera has a nice turn as the head of the agency, a new-breed kind of exec who would be unrecognizable to the suits who ruled during Madison Avenue’s heyday. 
   Cage deftly handles Paul’s foundering as he suddenly becomes a known commodity or, more precisely, a commodity many imagine they know. Ironically, Paul has done nothing to achieve fame other than play recurrent roles in people’s dreams.
    At first, Paul appears in dreams as a passive, ineffectual observer. Eventually, he starts playing murderous roles in horrible nightmares. Borgli skillfully visualizes all of this — although the film's modest quality helps keep effects from dominating.
   As the story progresses, Borgli broadens its scope, taking glancing blows at academia, cancel culture, viral online exposure, student over-sensitivity, and misplaced judgments, people refusing to take responsibility for their dreams. 
    The idea of how a mass phenomenon involving dreams develops remains a mystery Borgli has little interest in solving. Why bother? There's no need for an explanation.
    Fair to say that Borgli doesn’t quite know how to end a film in which cleverness sustains a steady level of amusement rather than becoming a self-conscious expression of trendy social criticisms.
    Borgli gets more out of his premise than you might expect; he turns a film about dreams into a nicely wrought commentary on current realities.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

One very weird summer vacation


   Emerald Fennell's Saltburn skewers those who aspire to the heights of wealth and privilege, with the writer/director indulging her taste for evisceration, exaggeration, and obvious provocation.
    Fennell focuses on Oliver Quick, an Oxford student played by Barry Keoghan. The bookish Quick, whose name sounds as if it were lifted from a Dickens' novel, attracts the attention of one of Oxfords  cool guys (Jacob Elordi). 
     Increasingly comfortable with his newfound acceptance, Oliver tells Elordi's Felix that he won't be going home for the summer, despite the recent death of his alcoholic father. He says he can't bear to be around his mentally deranged mother; he wants to keep his high-achieving life on track.
  Perhaps out of pity or maybe because he's kind, Felix invites Oliver to visit Saltburn, the massive estate where his family lives in aristocratic splendor and where Felix, despite his obvious entitlement,  seems closest to normal.
  Turns out the rest of Felix's family consists of bizarrely drawn characters, all vividly sketched in caricature fashion. Mom (Rosamund Pike) speaks through clenched teeth, launching acidic barbs in all directions; Dad (Richard E. Grant) seems monumentally out of touch; sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) reeks of trouble. Her mother describes her as "sexually incontinent."
  Two additional characters took up residence at Saltburn before Oliver's arrival. These hangers-on include another Oxford student (Archie Madekwe), a young man who's somehow related to the family and a family friend (Carey Mulligan) who insists on spewing repeated tales of the catastrophes that have befallen her. 
  The butler (Paul Rhys) seems to regard himself as superior to one and all. Perhaps he's the referee in a game in which the participants have lost sight of all boundary lines.
   OK, sounds like we're on the road to a broadly conceived comedy of manners but Fennell, who directed Promising Young Woman, has other things in mind. Her movie becomes increasingly bizarre -- perhaps even perverse. That shift gathers force when Oliver, whose creepy leanings already have been established, climbs into the bathtub where Felix recently had been bathing and, by the way, masturbating. Oliver starts to drink the bathwater as it swirls down the drain.
    Clearly, Oliver is not what he seems. You certainly wouldn't want to ask him how he spent his summer vacation.
    The detail about the bathtub might be a spoiler; I include it to ward off the squeamish and to demonstrate that Fennell specializes in sights intended to make us wince, perhaps the equivalent of the queasy responses elicited by graphically repellent gore in horror films.
    I'd be lying if I didn't say that some of this is entertaining and funny -- in a twisted sort of way. 
    Like Promising Woman, Saltburn wraps up with far-fetched twists that continue Fennell's outrageous march through developments that are meant, I think, to encourage us to look back and search for clues that might have tipped us off to where the movie was headed.
     On one level, Saltburn -- by including images that invite averted eyes  -- can be viewed as a movie that dresses for dinner and then throws up on itself. On another, it's a daring comic display of the base motivations that underly class privilege.
    Whatever view you take -- and I'd opt for the latter -- Fennell takes us on a ride that bounces over some wicked bumps. Obviously I can't know her intent, but by the look of things, I'd guess, as was the case in Promising Woman,  that she prefers comedy that leaves bite marks.

A marriage, a trial, and a complicated movie

 Director Justine Triet must have understood that we've all seen too many movies that try to dissect crumbling marriages. In Anatomy of a Fall,  Triet offers an absorbing look at a rocky marriage but with two major variations: First, the husband in this troubled duo is dead. And second, the wife (Sandra Huller) is on trial for his murder.
 Insightfully written by Triet and her partner in life, Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall raises customary questions about guilt or innocence.  Huller's Sandra and her attorney (Swann Arlaud) contend that Sandra's husband committed suicide. The couple's 11-year-old son (Milo Machado Graner) takes on an important role as the trial develops, but  it's the slow revelation of detail that carries the day.
   Triet wisely tamps down the conventional elements that easily could have defined her movie. Instead, she peels back layers that expose the complexity of a relationship in which Sandra's success as a writer and her husband's failure at the same endeavor caused friction, as did the move that brought them from Germany to a small French town.
    The key to the movie -- which won the Palm d'Or at last spring's Cannes Film Festival -- can be found in Huller's performance, which is deep without being showy. In interviews, Triet has pointed out that Sandra is no angel; the screenplay establishes her as a self-possessed woman who never insists that she was the perfect wife.
   Sandra's fate ultimately hinges on a recording that her late husband made during one of their arguments. He evidently hoped to use it as the basis for one of his stories. 
     The recording becomes essential to understanding the larger point Triet is making: Context changes everything. What might sound abrasive but common in an overheard argument takes on another dimension when it becomes part of a court proceeding.
     Don't fret, the movie doesn't leave us hanging. We get a verdict but the jury’s decision isn't really the point: Triet leaves it to us to pick our way through the messy aftermath of a marriage in which both husband and wife may have thought they were sacrificing too much for the other.
    Anatomy of a Fall isn't a movie for those who want definitive answers; it's for those who are more interested in asking questions as they turn the story this way and that.


Monday, November 20, 2023

Leonard Bernstein's dizzying whirl of a life

   Bradley Cooper’s Maestro is many things -- sometimes all at once.
  Cooper directs and stars in a kaleidoscopic look at Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most famous American classical music personality of our time.
 Bernstein, of course, didn’t confine himself to the classical canon. He composed for Broadway, notably creating West Side Story’s brilliant score. He also became a literate spokesman for the classics, explaining them to children at his famous Young People’s Concerts, which were televised in the 1950s and early '60s.
 Cooper has produced an avid work that, until its morose final act, moves at headlong speeds. Most of the first part of the film is presented in black and white, shifting to color for its second half and concluding with a lingering death scene that’s nothing short of operatic -- at least in its agonizing length.
   Right off, Cooper establishes Bernstein’s attraction to men. A  bisexual, he married Chilean actress, Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan in one of the year’s best performances. Mulligan's Felica bristles with fast-talking charm, sophistication, and intelligence; she's almost the living embodiment of a character Katharine Hepburn might have played at her wittiest best.
   As much as anything, the movie is about the marriage between two people who loved each other, although one of them (Bernstein) seldom was wholly there for the other. 
  But don’t pity Felicia. She knew who Bernstein was when she married him, and Cooper and Mulligan make it clear that the two care about each other. Lenny, as he was known to friends, and Felicia were soulmates; she did what many women did for men and some still do; she subordinated her rising stage career to the demands of husband and family. 
    Mulligan’s performance is a marvel, but what about Cooper, who initially drew criticism for donning a prosthetic nose that some thought would over-emphasize Bernstein’s Jewishness? Forget the nose, it’s a non-issue. Cooper’s performance captures the nasality of Bernstein’s speaking voice; he's true to Bernstein's vigorous conducting style which hovered somewhere between possession and aerobics.
   But the performance takes some getting used to. In the film's early going, I found Cooper’s dead-on portrayal distractingly unrelaxed. Bernstein can seem so precisely drawn that it’s like looking at a portrait in which the edges have been too sharply defined. 
   But that’s the point, I suppose. Bernstein was on the move, sampling life and deep-diving into music, which was the core of his life, maybe even his entire life
   When he conducts Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at Ely Cathedral in England, Bernstein's famed physicality attains full force. It wouldn't feel entirely out of place if Cooper were to conclude the scene with an apotheosis, something as grandly magnificent as  Bernstein’s direct ascent into heaven. 
    Just kidding, but it's difficult to overstate how transported Bernstein seems to be by the music's power.
    What the film lacks (and it’s an important deficiency) is an assessment of why Bernstein was such a significant figure musically, and you won’t learn much about Bernstein’s interpretation of classical pieces. If you're interested, you can find plenty of that on YouTube.
     I haven’t made up my mind about all of Cooper’s directing choices. The opening sequences include shifts from one location to another that  storm onto the screen with the verve of someone bursting into a room, and the ways the characters snap off their dialogue, sometimes felt overdone. I wondered whether Cooper wasn't guilty of too much self-conscious wielding of the cinematic baton. 
     But then again, that’s part of Cooper’s interpretation of the screenplay, which he wrote with Josh Singer, and Maestro boasts too many commanding scenes to ignore: Bernstein lying to his daughter (Maya Hawke) about his sexuality or an argument between Bernstein and Felicia that takes place in the Bernstein’s Central Park West apartment while a snoopy float from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats by. True to his free-wheeling spirit, Bernstein at one point fantasizes that he's one of the dancing sailors in On the Town, another Broadway production for which he wrote the music.
     Maestro goes down more easily if you accept the fact that it’s not a conventional biopic. It's an immersion in Bernstein’s emotionally charged life, his roving eye for bed partners, his bouts of depression, and his ferocity about music. 
    Cooper doesn’t dwell on the social constraints that kept Bernstein closeted — at least to the public; he leaves it to us to remember that attitudes toward gay people were quite different in 1943, the year Bernstein made his debut as a conductor with the New York Philharmonic, a last-minute substitution for an ailing Bruno Walter. 
      At one point, Bernstein’s sister (crisply portrayed by Sarah Silverman) tells Felicia, who's a bit down, that she shouldn't be surprised. Surely, she understood what it’s like to be caught in Bernstein’s orbit. 
    That’s what Cooper does. He catches us in Bernstein’s dizzying orbit. He suggests that Bernstein’s career sprang from a life lived at spin-cycle speeds that left both joy and pain in its wake -- for others and for Bernstein himself.

Impressive battles mark 'Napoleon'

 At a time when arguments about authoritarianism have swamped much of the public discourse, it's easy to understand why director Ridley Scott was interested in bringing a story about Napoleon to the screen with the always nervy Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. 
 Phoenix remains one of Hollywood's most adventurous actors. In Napoleon, he creates a lumbering, dour general who became an emperor with a weakness, an over-reliance on his wife, Josephine (a sly Vanessa Kirby). 
  For Napoleon, Josephine functions like a good-luck charm. He needs her. He pines for her while doing his day job; i.e., conquering the world.
  Sex scenes between Napoleon and Josephine demonstrate his lack of subtlety and her lack of interest. Taking Josephine from behind, he approaches sex as if he were leading a charge on the battlefield. 
  Assertive and ambitious, Josephine shows only passing interest in fidelity. Not surprisingly, Napoleon isn't happy about his wife's digressions -- or much of anything else for that matter.
  Though never dwelled on, the movie finds time to make a joke about Napoleon's fabled lack of height, but mostly Napoleon is the boulder around which the rest of the movie flows. 
  The movie could have been called The Battles of Napoleon. Scott stages sweeping battle sequences that include Napoleon's triumph at Austerlitz and, of course, his downfall at Waterloo. 
    I'm no expert on 19th Century military maneuvers but Scott seems to be; he understands the tactics employed in each battle. In a stunning sequence on a lake during Austerlitz, canon balls crack the ice as bleeding soldier's sink into the freezing depths.
    Scott's mastery of scale makes us aware of how brutal, open-field warfare could be. During the course of Napoleon's epic career, about three million soldiers (French and otherwise) died on battlefields. 
    A note here: At a time when action sequences often degenerate into indecipherable blurs, Scott gives a master class in how they should be done. 
    The movie leaps through history as if it were in danger of evaporating. It's left to Phoenix to sketch Napoleon's character with scowls, exclamations that can sound anachronistic, and the establishment of a bulky presence.
    A leader at the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon rose out of France's post-revolutionary chaos to become a ruler who, in this rendering, seems more persistent than cunning. He was also legacy conscious. Distraught because Josephine couldn't provide him an heir to his throne, Napoleon divorced her; he quickly found a substitute who sired a son.
   It's indicative of both the film's focus and failings that few of the supporting characters in Scott's large cast are given much opportunity to standout. At times, the characters seem buried under churning hunks of French history, which slide by like chunks dislodged from a melting iceberg.
   Admirable in bits and pieces, some spectacular, Napoleon left me feeling as if I'd watched a slightly cynical historical recreation rather than a brilliant reinterpretation of history. And for all its attempts to remind us of old-fashioned epics, one can't help but be surprised that Napoleon doesn't make a deeper impression. 
    A four-hour version of the movie will be seen when it's released on Apple TV+. I'm eager to see it because even at two hours and 38 minutes, this one feels truncated. I couldn't help thinking that there must have been more to this conquering egotistical lout than Napoleon reveals.
     Unless Scott wanted to tell us that history sometimes can revolve around an oafish leader -- providing, of course, that he has an army at his disposal.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

A tone poem set in the rural South

 Writer/director Raven Jackson makes her debut with the poetic All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, a movie that dispenses pungent fragments of story while serving up maximum helpings of atmosphere and African-American culture. Jackson gives tactile life to her look at young Mackenzie (Kaylee Nicole Johnson), a kid who grows to maturity in the rural South. Don’t let that synopsis fool you, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt avoids linear progression, allowing sensation to dominate, often through the use of exaggerated close-ups that demand immersive attention. Sometimes, Mackenzie helps guide us through the story. At one point, she watches her mother and father (Sheila Atim and Chris Chalk) dancing tenderly in their living room, losing themselves in each other's embrace. Three additional actresses — Mylee Shannon, Charleen McClure, and Zainab Jah — play Mackenzie as she advances toward  womanhood. Exchanges between Mackenzie and her sister (Jaya Henry) add a playful dimension to the world Jackson creates. Some of Jackson’s imagery — thunderstorms or close-ups of hands, for example — become repetitive and Jackson's bypass of exposition can blur the line between immersion and disorientation.  I’ve read that the movie’s title stems from the transplant to the American South of an African practice, finding particles of clay to eat, perhaps a suggestive way of saying that Jackson's characters are inseparable from the corner of the world they inhabit. Jackson treats life as a kind of nourishing soil that we can run our fingers through; though not always fully realized, Dirt Road hits its share of evocative and memorable notes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A ‘Hunger Games’ prequel lacks urgency


   Is there still an appetite for The Hunger Games
The makers of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes presumably hope so. 
   Unlike the four previous movies, this prequel doesn't center on a young rebel who must survive and triumph in a lethal contest. Instead, it focuses on a different series regular, Coriolanus Snow, played here as an 18-year-old by Tom Blyth.
     Anyone who's up to speed on the previous Hunger Games movies — and I can’t imagine others will be interested — knows that Snow will become the coldly cunning president of the dystopia author Suzanne Collins creates in her YA novels. Donald Sutherland played Snow in the earlier movies.
     Based on a Collins novel published in 2020 and directed by series vet Francis Lawrence, the movie seems an odd duck, a kind of extended backstory that reaches the screen 10 years after the last movie.
    Despite its Songbirds title, you may be surprised to learn that the movie sometimes feels like Hunger Games, the Musical.  Lawrence showcases several musical numbers by Rachel Zegler (West Side Story), who plays Hunger Games contestant Lucy Gray. 
     Zegler’s Lucy enters the games with Coriolanus as her mentor, the tribune assigned to guide her through the violent Hunger Games spectacle. We see enough of the games to get the point; they’re brutal and unforgiving and … well … a tedious nod to expectation.
     The story eventually illuminates Coriolanus's inner struggle;  his capacity for love and empathy bumps up against the brutal imperatives of his ruthless ambition.
    The supporting cast includes a notable contribution from Peter Dinklage who brings tormented depth and sadness to the role of a professor who instructs tribunes. Jason Schwartzman plays the game emcee, but the movie lacks the satirical spark that boosted the earlier movies and gave Stanley Tucci's performance its verve.
      Josh Andres Rivera has a nice turn as Sejanus Plinth, a rich kid who befriends Coriolanus. Although Plinth’s family can buy his safety, a sense of justice turns him into a rebel. 
       Viola Davis appears as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the person charged with spicing up the televised games, which, in their 10th year, have begun losing viewers. The decline invokes the story’s major question: Why are The Hunger Games necessary?
      The movie offers one answer; franchise-hungry Hollywood may have another.
       A plodding story becomes more interesting in the final going but not without raising another issue: length. At two hours and 37 minutes, the last segment asks the audience to stay involved past what feels like amore natural ending.
      I wouldn't say that Songbirds is dreadful, but like its lynchpin performer Jennifer Lawrence, it probably should have moved on. What's the point? The idea of exploitative TV as a social control mechanism seems like a dragon that already has been slain — or is that some other franchise?