Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The visual dazzle of another 'Spider-Man'


   At two hours and 20 minutes, Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse is too long, too glutted with characters, and too stuffed with visual invention to keep track of it all. 
   You'd think that a couple of hours would be sufficient to complete a comic-book story, but no. Across the Spider-Verse ends with a cliffhanger that sets up the next installment. 
  OK, those are my main gripes, but it's also worth noting that Across the Spider-Verse mounts an all-out effort to dazzle the eye, simulate a comic-book environment, and flood the screen with vivid swaths of color.  At its best, the movie entertains and impresses in roughly equal measures.
   The story? Well, there's a lot of it.
   I'm sick of multi-verse movies, but this Spider-Man doubles down on space/time hopping, zipping through numerous dimensions at breakneck speeds. 
   Characters also abound. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), now 15, still occupies the story's center but Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who's also Spider-Woman, grabs significant screen time, as well.
   Miles and Gwen come from similar backgrounds. Gwen's father (Shea Whigham) is a cop who learns about his daughter's identity. Miles, on the other hand, keeps his Spider-Man secret from his police captain father (Brian Tyree Henry).
   A rooftop party celebrating Dad's NYPD promotion is artfully rendered with Mom (Luna Lauren Velez) adding welcome Latin flavor. 
  The Brooklyn portions of the movie, where Miles tries to balance school with superhero chores, have their charms, and, to be honest, the movie's many parallel universes can overwhelm in ways that sometimes made me wish the story never had left home.
  This edition amplifies its diversity, making room for a Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), for Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), a.k.a. Spider-Punk, and for Issa Rae, a Spider-Woman character who looks as she might have leaped from a '60s movie. 
  Villains dot the teeming landscape, as well. They include The Vulture (Jorma Taccone) and The Spot (Jason Schwartzman). The Spot allows the animators to swell the screen with cleverness; the character's spots become holes, portals if you prefer, that swallow opposition, projecting them into new dimensions.
  Oscar Issac gives voice to Spider-Man 2099,  a superhero who has convinced himself that he's responsible for maintaining the multiverse, a responsibility that has distorted his values and inflated his ego.
   Enough.  The filmmakers seem committed to the idea that there can't be too much of a good thing. I think some pruning might have helped, but Across the Spider-Verse reflects a commitment to a visual vision that's meant to dazzle the senses -- and often does.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A father/son comedy that sinks

    Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco stars in About My Father, a comedy about a second generation Italian/American who wants to marry a Waspish young woman (Leslie Bibb). 
   The story's prospective fiancee identifies as an artists but makes paintings that illustrate little more than narrow imagination.  It risks overstating the case, but the same might be said of a movie that can’t escape its formulaic culture-clash arc.
  Sebastian's Sicilian immigrant father (Robert De Niro) built a life in Chicago as a hairdresser, a trade he still plies. 
   After a brief setup, De Niro's Salvo Maniscalco insists on  accompanying his wary son on a visit to meet the prospective in-laws, a preposterous group. Dad (David Rasche) runs a hotel Chaing. Mom (Kim Cattrall) is a US Senator. 
    Two brothers complete the cast of characters. One, an Ivy-League empty head (Anders Holm), has gone into the family business. The other (Brett Dier) aspires to be a spiritual healer, soothing himself by playing sound bowls. 
    Maniscalco, who wrote the screenplay with Austen Earl, slathers the story with class consciousness. Salvo insists that his son won’t fit into an upper-crust mold. He thinks his in-laws will view Sebastian as an intruder in a world of gated communities. 
   The major comic set piece, viewable in the trailer, tries to make a broad splash. On a yachting outing with his in-laws,  Sebastian dons  jet boots that propel him out of the ocean. His private parts are exposed (thankfully not to us) to the on-deck observers when his bathing suit slips.
   Directed by Laura Terruso,  About My Father gravitates toward such broad strokes as it moves toward its predictably sentimental ending. 
   De Niro probably could sleepwalk through these kind of comic roles but doesn’t. I guess that's something.
   Set during the course of a Fourth of July weekend, the movie’s main virtue is its brevity. About My Father lasts for one hour and 29 minutes.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A CIA operative on the run for his life

Gerard Butler action movies aren't among my favorite ways to spend a couple of hours. Butler's latest -- Kandahar -- didn't do enough to change my mind, although it contains a couple of impressive sequences and a few moments in which the characters try their hands at meaningful conversations. Butler plays Tom Harris, a CIA operative who helps set the stage for the US to blowup an Iranian nuclear facility. In the process, he implicates a journalist (Elnaaz Norouzi) who's taken prisoner by the Iranians and pretty much drops out of the movie.  After the initial job of sabotaging a nuclear facility,  Harris wants to return home. Not so fast, says his boss (Travis Fimmel), who throws a bunch of money at him and assures him that a "final" mission will enable him to care for his estranged wife and teenage daughter. Iran again becomes the target, Harris heads for Afghanistan where he hooks up with a translator (Navid Negahban) and prepares to cross the border. The operation goes belly up and Harris's goal narrows: get out of the country alive. An assassin (Ali Fazal) follows in pursuit trying to cash in on capturing a member of the CIA. Director Ric  Roman Waugh (Greenland) makes good use of the movie's desert locations (the film was shot in Saudi Arabia) but his attempts at freshening a familiar genre don't go far enough.

Men with mountains to climb

    A novelistic story about two friends, The Eight Mountains focuses on Pietro who we first meet as an 11-year-old boy whose mother takes him to the Italian Alps to escape the summer heat of Turin.
    The story, which begins in 1984, follows Pietro’s life into his 40s, charting his on-again/off-again friendship with Bruno, who enters the movie as a wild child of the mountains.
   Father/son themes underlie the story. As a boy,  Pietro can’t quite meet the expectations of his father (Filippo Timi,) an engineer who works in a factory but prides himself on his mountaineering skills. Timi's character is tied to his job, enjoying only occasional visits to the Acosta Valley, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Ruben Impens.
    The adult Pietro narrates the story, which may remind some of the work of Elena Ferrante, whose My Brilliant Friend charted a life-long friendship between two women.
   Early on, the movie has the feel of a boyhood idyll as Pietro and his new friend Bruno play and explore the mountains. Bruno, the last child in the depopulated rural village, lives with an aunt and uncle. 
    As time progresses, we learn that Pietro doesn’t want to be like his father, a conflict that seems to involve a son’s disdain for a father who sacrificed his true calling for a workaday life. Dad failed to give full vent to his yearning for connection with the natural world.
   The adolescent friendship between Pietro and Bruno hits a snag when Pietro, the beneficiary of class privileges unavailable to Bruno,  objects to his parents offer to bring  Bruno to Turin for schooling. Pietro argues that school and the city will corrupt Bruno's free-spirited nature. Or maybe he's jealous because Bruno, by temperament, might be the son his dad wished he had.
    The cast does a fine job of conveying the passage of time. Lupo Barbiero and Cristiano Sassella play Pietro and Bruno as boys. Andrea Palma and Francesco Palombelli take over during the adolescent years, and Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, make dominant impressions playing the friends as adults.
     After a 15 -year pause in their friendship, the men reunite when Pietro's father passes away. Pietro learns that his father left him a pile of rubble on a mountain where he planned to build a home.  Pietro and Bruno  join forces to build the house, which becomes a touchstone from which each man’s life unfolds. 
   Pietro becomes a world traveler and writer, eventually finding a place in Nepal.  Bruno tries his hand at farming. He marries becomes a father, makes cheese, and upholds the agrarian virtues that he sees as his natural calling -- until a lack of business skills undermines his efforts and leads to tragedy.
  Directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, working from a novel by Paolo Cognetti,  might have done more to sharpen the movie's themes. They move slowly, sometimes skipping transitional material, thus giving the movie a vaguely episodic feel. 
   Still, The Eight Mountains becomes a moving story about  the bond between two men who sometimes are kindred spirits and who, even when compelled by qualities that push them apart, remain bound to each other. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Can a trans woman go home again?


Trace Lysette, a trans actress, takes the lead in Monica, the story of a trans woman who's alienated from her family. The drama is set in motion when Monica is invited by her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning) to travel from LA to  Ohio to visit her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson). We assume that, at least on some level, Monica craves reconciliation and acceptance from the woman who kicked her out when she was still a kid. Lysette cloaks Monica's feelings behind defenses that presumably have been years in the making. It's a legitimate acting choice but one that makes the character less intriguing while adding to the frustration that can result from the insularity of director Andrea Pallaoro's approach. Early on Monica reveals a bit of desperation, making repeated calls to a boyfriend who recently dumped her. Late in the movie, she travels to a nearby town for a night of sexual escape. Mostly, she cares for her mother as she tries to adjust to staying in the house where she grew up. She never tells her mother who she is and Pallaoro maintains ambiguity about whether Clarkson's character ever recognizes Monica. Monica springs fully to life when she plays with her niece and nephew, but she seldom lowers her guard. Credit the supporting cast with nice work. Monica's sister-in-law (Browning) and her brother (Joshua Close) may not fully understand Monica but they try to be helpful. Pallaoro finds tender moments but too often, the movie fails to click, perhaps because Pallaoro's insistently muted style (he's not much interested in verbal confrontation) keeps Monica from fully plumbing the expected  emotional depths.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

A slender but smart comedy

"The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
    So goes Humphrey Bogart's famous line from Casablanca, a smart reminder about the importance of personal problems in a world full of trouble.
    It's a memorable line. but don't repeat it for the characters in director Nicole Holofcener's You Hurt My Feelings, a comedy about characters suffering through what might be called mini-crises.
      Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Beth, a writer whose first book, a memoir, scored a modest success. Beth revealed that her father often was verbally abusive, not exactly a shocker on the level of being chained in a cellar, but it evidently did the trick.
      Riding a small wave of success, Beth tried her hand at a novel. Her agent wasn’t impressed.
     Already depressed and facing a growing loss of confidence, Beth suffers more mood deflation when she overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) tell her brother-in-law (Arian Moayed) that he didn't like the book either.
     Don's confidence also is beginning to crack. Patients say he's not helping them, and one couple (Amber Tamblyn and David Cross) spend session after session trading bitter barbs. When they finally decide to quit therapy, they deliver Holofcener's best joke.
      Beth's interior designer sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) seems to operate on more solid ground than the rest of the cast, even when a client tests her patience by insisting that she find just the right lighting fixture, one that reflects the client’s true self.
      The woes continue. An actor, Sarah's husband (Moayed) is shattered when he's fired from the play in which he finally found work. 
      For Beth, Don's overheard confession proves confounding, particularly because he consistently praised her work during the writing process. 
       And if he lied about that, what else might he have been lying about? 
      Another question arises: When should encouragement be subordinated to the honest expression of one's feelings?
      Beth herself is a chronic over-praiser. Her son (Owen Teague) works in a pot shop. She's sure that the play he's writing will be terrific.
     Only Beth and Sarah's mom (Jeannie Berlin) can be counted on not to hand out plaudits.
      Slender but enjoyable, You Hurt My Feelings doesn't feel like a movie that wants to change anyone's life. Even better, it only takes Holofcener a refreshing one hour and 33 minutes to involve us with characters who have trouble seeing beyond the narrow frame of their own lives.
      That wouldn't be us, would it? 

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Stifled identity in a Pakistani drama

Set in Pakistan, Joyland introduces us to characters struggling to be themselves. Tradition,  social pressures, and personal failings block the way to self realization. Saim Sadiq directs in a no-frills style that focuses on Haider (Ali Junejo), an unemployed Lahore man who's married to a working wife (Rasti Farooq). Haider and his wife live in a cramped apartment with his patriarchal father (Salman Peerzada). Haider's brother (Sohail Samir), wife (Sarwat Gilani) and their kids also share the apartment. The pressure to have kids and uphold the family name doesn't need to be spoken, a problem for Haider who avoids sexual contact with Mumtaz, his wife. The drama advances when a friend helps Haider land a job working with an erotic dance company. Although he’s shy and not particularly talented, Haider learns to dance with Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman who’s working to pay for the surgery that will complete her transition. A stern task master, Biba sees something in Haider and the two begin to fall in love. Sadiq builds to a shocking scene in which Biba and Haider learn something about each other -- and about themselves. Named for an amusement park where Haider’s family spends an evening, Joyland is anything but cheery. Sadiq touches many bases here — tradition, patriarchy, sexual orientation, lack of economic opportunity and arranged marriage. Instead of being swamped, he effectively tells a story in which the uneasy conflation of all these elements breeds a tragic outcome. Joyland leaves us in a mood of sad reflection.

Men in cars blowing things up


    First off, Roman Numeral fans: It's Fast Ten, not Fast "X," which sounds like the name of a quick-acting laxative. 
    Fast X, the latest in the Fast & Furious series, goes all in on preposterous over-stated action while acknowledging a trio of virtues: family, honor and faith.
    These virtues, and just about everything else, play second fiddle to blasts of fiery action. Let's be real, though. When a round, Volkswagen-sized bomb rolls through the streets of Rome, it's unlikely anyone will be pondering the qualities that define moral excellence.
   Fast X, by the way, is the first of two movies. It's no spoiler to report that director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) concludes his two-hour and 21-minute collection of explosions, gunfire, and insanely reckless driving with a cliffhanger. 
   Less fun than the best efforts of the franchise (take your pick), Fast X includes familiar characters, pays homage to past favorites (even offering a glimpse of Paul Walker) and drops cameos like breadcrumbs along its destructive path.
   Early on, Dom and Letty (Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez) are happily raising their son Little Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) in Los Angeles. Grandma Toretto (Rita Moreno) presides while the Fast family (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, and Nathalie Emmanuel) gather to hoist a few brews.
    It doesn't take long for the team to encounter this edition's villain. Dante (Jason Momoa), a Brazilian maniac, wants to avenge his father's death at the hands of the Fast team more than a decade ago.
    Credit Momoa with upping the movie's silliness quotient. Dante displays a mincing quality when it suits him. The most eye-catching scene occurs when Dante, his hair tied in schoolgirlish top knots, paints the toes of a corpse. 
    Other characters elbow their way into a fragmented plot, some with larger roles than others. Charlize Theron gets significant screen time as Cipher, a brilliant hacker and martial arts maven of variable loyalties.
    Michael Cena reprises his role as Jakob Toretto. In this outing, Jakob tales flight with Little Brian, who becomes a prime target in Dante's revenge plot.
    Blink and you'll miss Helen Mirren, who shows up as Queenie Shaw. Her son Deckard (Jason Staham) has a bigger presence in the movie, which adds Brie Larson as Tess, a rogue agent who works with Dom against the Agency's chief (Alan Ritchson).
    Ah yes, The Agency. Having once enlisted the Fast team's help, The Agency wants to corral Dom and his cohorts, giving them double trouble. Both Dante and the Agency are out for blood.
     Leterrier takes the action global, offering set pieces in Rome, Turin, London, Brazil, and at Hoover Dam. Cars drop from planes, fly off cliffs, and rumble up stairways. Downshifting earns a supporting role.
       Is any of this believable? Of course not. 
       But we've stopped expecting credibility from a franchise that has grown increasingly massive, including more paraphernalia, and turning itself into a mixture of demolition derby and Mission Impossible.
       Your job, should you choose to accept it. Sit through a movie that batters as much as at buoys and which has gotten so stuffed, it barely has room to accommodate the characters that once gave it a bit of humanity.


Thursday, May 11, 2023

'The Next Chapter': a page not to turn


Surely, someone could find something better to do with Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda than plop them into Book Club: The Next Chapter, a hokey sequel in which members of a Los Angeles book club swap books for travel to Italy. A post-Covid comedy, the story centers on a bachelorette trip the four friends make preceding the wedding of Fonda's Vivian, a woman who has resisted marriage but finally has agreed to settle down with her fiancĂ©, Don Johnson's Arthur, a character from the first installment. Bergen's Sharon, a retired judge hands out snark -- or at least this movie's  version of it. Keaton's Diane has a relationship with Andy Garcia's Mitchell, another leftover from the first installment. To travel, Steenburgen's Carol must leave her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) at home; he's on the upswing after a recent heart attack but she's worried about him. Once in Italy -- notably Rome, Venice and Tuscany -- the women meet various men, including one of Carol's old flames, a chef played by Vincent Riotta. Giancarlo Giannini shows up as a good-hearted cop. Life for the women isn't always easy what with stolen luggage, a night in the slammer, and suggestive jokes that can seem more adolescent than mature. The result: a featherweight comedy with a picture postcard soul. What else to say? Only that filmmakers either can't find or are ignoring better material for gifted actresses who have been on the planet for 70 years or more.