Friday, April 12, 2024

Bob's Cinema Diary: April 12, 2024 -- 'Arcadian' and 'Damaged'

 Arcadian



Nicolas Cage
 headlines  Arcadian but the character he plays spends much of the movie off-screen and unconscious. Cage plays Paul, a father who flees an unspecified apocalypse with his two infant sons. The movie quickly leaps ahead to show how Paul and his now teenage sons (Jaeden Martell and Maxwell Jenkins) survive an onslaught of buggy monsters who seem to attack mostly at night. After an injury leaves Paul in a near comatose state, the kids take over. Sandwiched  between post-apocalyptic survivalist drama and straightforward horror, Arcadian benefits from the naturalistic performances of its young cast. Paul's sons are joined by Charlotte (Sadie Soverall), a girl from another outpost. She and Jenkins' Tommy try to be typical teenagers even as a hellish catastrophe unfolds. Director Ben Brewer skimps on explanations and shortchanges the initial potential of what might have been a more developed story about a stern but loving father trying to save his sons. In short, a movie whose narrative insufficiencies limit its chances for success.

Damaged


Director Terry McDonough tries his hand at a hardboiled serial killer movie that transports a Chicago detective (Samuel L. Jackson) to Scotland. Jackson's Dan Lawson, an alcoholic cop who still has some detective chops, has a reputation for investigating serial killings and for overstaying his welcome on the force. Acting as a consultant, Lawson teams with Scottish policeman Glen Boyd (Gianni Capaldi) in the hunt for a killer who dismembers his female victims as part of what appear to be perverted religious beliefs. The movie receives a substantial boost when Vincent Cassel shows up. Cassel plays Lawson's former Chicago partner, a French-born detective who left police work, moved to England, and still retains a bit of charm. An international flavor doesn't enhance a grisly tale, and the actors are limited by a screenplay that places them in too many improbable scenarios to keep the movie from misfiring.


Thursday, April 11, 2024

Carnage at home in ‘Civil War’


   A bit of background on director Alex Garland's Civil War before we plunge ahead. When the movie opensTexas and California already have seceded from the Union. Florida lags closely behind.
  Armed conflict has broken out between the two-state Western Forces and the US government which is led by a president who has violated the constitution by taking a third term and disbanding the FBI.
  As a result, a brutal civil war has pitted American against American in ways so chaotic it has become difficult distinguish friend from foe or even to tell what's at stake.
   What exactly caused this catastrophe and what has turned parts of the country into battlefields remains a mystery. Garland evidently wants us to see the movie's vicious conflict as a warning, a flashing red light about the dangers of venomous division.
  What transpires is startling. If I had to pick a single word to describe Civil War, it would be "shock." 
   The movie chronicles the horrors of war by following a quartet of journalists: a battle-hardened war photographer (Kirsten Dunst), her reporter partner (Wagner Moura), and an aspiring young photographer (Cailee Spaeny) who regards Dunst's Lee as role model. Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a grizzled New York Times reporter, rounds out the quartet.
  The journalists drive from New York toward Washington, DC., taking a roundabout route through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. A disquieting variation on familiar genre ensures, a road movie -- only this with bullets and blood.
   Henderson's Sammy wants to reach Charlottesville, VA, the front line in this ill-defined war. The others want to interview the president (Nick Offerman) who has avoided the press for 14 months and who opens the movie rehearsing a duplicitous speech about the government's impending victory.
    Evidence of war and plunder scar the countryside. Garland deftly creates the kind of ravaged landscapes we've become accustomed to seeing in movies set on foreign soil: a badly damaged JC Penny's, a football stadium housing refugees, and a roadside attraction called Winter Wonderland, now the setting for a sniper fight.
   In its most disturbing scene, the journalists encounter a uniformed soldier (Jessie Plemons) whose eyes are hidden behind red sunglasses. The solider terrorizes them in ways that suggest a rogue form of extreme right-wing insanity. 
  Generally, though, the movie has little to say about politics or political views. Garland must be betting that a series of horrific episodes will establish the movie's bona fides as a cautionary, anti-war tale that's sufficient unto itself.
   Asking a movie to explain a Civil War might be too much. But asking "how" the events of the movie came about seems fair. How did the Western Force become a well-equipped and well-trained army? Is it composed of  rebellious members of the US military who have seized everything from armored vehicles to helicopters?
   Rather than dealing with such questions, Garland  focuses on the journalistic psyche. Dunst's Lee tries to school Spaeny's Jessie about the dangers of emotional involvement, even as her defenses begin to crumble. Moura's Joel craves the adrenalin rush of combat, and Sammy functions as the movie's sage.
   The performances strike the right notes, notably Dunce's. Lee tempers her cultivated disengagement from horror with concern for Jessie, a young woman who quickly loses her innocence. Jessie learns to accept the job's prime mission: Get the photograph.
   When it comes to fear and tension, Garland's movie proves devastatingly effective but the violence has some of the same impact on us as on the movie's journalists; it holds our emotions in check.
  I wondered about another aspect of the movie. These journalists are witnesses to horror. But for whom? Infrastructure has been impaired. Internet connections surely have become patchy. Who will see  the photograph we see, Lee's in color, Jessie's in black-and-white?
   Or is that the point? Are we watching journalists running on automatic pilot because they don't know what else to do? Are they covering the war or are they action junkies who have no convictions about the fighting? Do they use press credentials to shield themselves from harm while leaving questions of moral responsibility to others?
  Garland goes all-in on vivid depictions of the havoc wrought by an ill-defined war in which nearly everyone seems armed with an automatic weapon. 
   But to achieve anything approaching greatness, the movie needed to do more than turn familiar American geography into scenes of horror and estrangement. 
    Garland's vivid picture of war culminates with shattering action in the streets of Washington, but we probably should have learned more about the people who are fighting and the journalists who are covering them.
    Civil War has undeniable attention-riveting power. Maybe it's asking for more than is possible from a movie that lives in a world of disordered immediacy,  but I wish I hadn't found Civil War more harrowing than heartbreaking.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Sasquatches searching for hope


Some movies clearly try to say something but still leave me wondering whether they were worth the trouble. 
   I won't provide examples because if you’re interested in movies, you have plenty of your own.
   For me, Sasquatch Sunset is one of those movies that has a point to make yet I found it as unsavory as it is amusing. This oddball entertainment was made with humor, much of it reflecting gritty appreciation of the excremental or sexual. 
   The costumes and make-up are convincing, particularly faces that make the sasquatches ready for their close-ups. Situated somewhere between humans and apes, the movie’s sasquatches wander through forests, foraging for food, working out conflicts, grunting, and eventually encountering evidence of human intrusion into their world. 
   Directors Nathan and David Zellner found a crew of willing actors to hide behind all the makeup. Jessie Eisenberg, Riley Keough, and Christophe Zajac-Derek deserve credit for joining the Zellners' adventure.
   Presumably, the sasquatches are meant to represent a form of "natural" living.They make what appear to be minimal attempts at building shelters and at least one of them is a bit of an authoritarian. 
    You get the idea. The Zellners are up to something and it would be unfair — despite vulgar jokes about defecating and urinating — to dismiss their efforts. 
   Still, I couldn’t relate. I found the movie repetitive as it struggled to be more than a one-joke affair that built toward a conclusion that features a punchline some will find meaningful. I found it wan.
    Sasquatch Sunset is roughly 90 minutes long. I watched the whole movie but half way through found myself ready for something in which it was the job of humans to gross me out.

Seydoux anchors a masterful movie

 

  Cinema tells the truth. Cinema also lies. Nearly everything we see on a screen can be viewed as a form of deception. Cinema is the art that teases us into thinking seeing is believing. At its best, cinema demands second thoughts.
  Director Bertrand Bonello knows this — or least I think he does. Bonello begins The Beast, which takes place during the course of several time periods, by showing actress Lea Seydoux taking directions in front of a green screen. 
  One of the best actresses working today, Seydoux is supposed to show fear. A monster lurks. Her eyes and her body react to the unseen menace, but, then, aren't all the worst monsters invisible?
  Immediately, we know we're watching a movie, that we're about to enter an illusory world in which even fear can become a performative act. 
  Bonello has made a version of a time travel movie that doesn't treat time travel as a self-consciously employed conceit. The movie takes place in the present, in the past and in the future. It takes place in Paris and Los Angeles. It pushes against constraints.
  Bonello manages all this by focusing on Seydoux's Gabrielle who, in 2044, lives in a society that wants her to purge herself, to purify her DNA so that she finally can abandon her doom-struck propensities. By becoming a blank slate, she'll find happiness and success.
  Gabrielle reluctantly agrees and immerses herself in a  tank where she floats while listening to intermittent instructions. The movie floats along with her. Bornello never totally clarifies what's happening; he threads the movie's central conceit throughout, offering hints more than explanations.
  Bonello bases the movie on a 1903 story by Henry James. The Beast in the Jungle tells the story of a man immobilized by the fear that something catastrophic will happen, something "prodigious and terrible."
 

Gabrielle shares this crippling anxiety, most keenly expressed in early 20th century sequences in which she meets Louis (George McKay) at a party. 
   In this incarnation, she's married to a successful business man who runs a doll factory. She's also an accomplished pianist who's struggling to master the music of Arnold Schoenberg.
  McKay's Louis reappears in each of the film's episodes in different guises but he’s always around to remind us that this relationship with Gabrielle -- passionately yearned for by each of them -- resists consummation. 
  Bonello uses the Great Flood of Paris in 1910 to create an eerie coda to the episode. Louis visits the toy factory. Gabrielle's husband leads a minimal tour, but Louis and Gabrielle are stranded when the factory floods and the electrical system shorts. Fire breaks out.
  Bonello includes a haunting underwater sequence in which bodies turn into a kind of doomed floating poetry. It's a great bit of filmmaking -- tense, horrifying and beautiful.
  There are other kinds of death at work here, not the least of them, the elimination of the human personality in a world of AI and androids, a world that attempts to manipulate people for their own good. 
  During the future segment, Gabrielle meets an amazingly empathic woman who calls herself a "doll" (Guslagie Malanda). The "doll," probably an extremely life-like android, will do anything to provide Gabrielle with  happiness.
  When the movie shifts to Los Angeles, Gabrielle has become an aspiring actress who's working as a model. She's house sitting in a sleek modern home where she's isolated.
   In this variation on Bonello's theme, Louis has become an enraged, self-justifying incel who believes he has earned the right to kill women. He makes Gabrielle his target.
    Tense and bordering on horror, this section of the film introduces Gabrielle to Dakota (Dasha Nekrasova), a model who suggests that Gabrielle consider body-altering plastic surgery, another refusal to accept bodily limitations.
    Bonello moves toward a bitter finale that doesn't quite resound the way we expect, but gets the job done. 
     The Beast employs lots of moving parts and I'm not sure all of them are joined with finesse. No matter. Bonello  exploits, teases, and explores the beautiful fluidity of cinema and Seydoux provides him with the center -- wavering, malleable, erotic, and conflicted -- the film needs. 
      In a way, The Beast is an acute analysis of cinematic possibility and the ongoing battle to retain some measure of humanity -- for Gabrielle, maybe for all of us.
  

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Mood can't carry 'Omen' prequel

 


  I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that Omen enthusiasts populate the MovieVerse, fans who enjoy repeated visits to the chilly hunk of 1976 horror that spawned several additional helpings.
  Still, fan service alone can't explain The First Omen, a moody but muddled prequel to the original, which acquired some of its cache from the presence of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. 
 Arkasha Stevenson makes her directorial debut with a single task: To explain how the Antichrist Damien arrived in the world before being adopted by Peck's character, who secretly substituted the infant for the baby Remick's character lost during childbirth.
  In this edition, Nell Tiger Free stars as Margaret, a novitiate who arrives in Rome in 1971 to "take the veil." She's welcomed by Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), a high-ranking churchman who believes Margaret has a special destiny. 
  Nuns in movies always seem to require stern superiors. In this instance, Sonia Braga lands the job. Braga portrays Sister Silva, head of the creepy orphanage where much of the story unfolds.
  Early on, Margaret meets another novitiate (Maria Caballero), an aspiring nun who's intent on sowing some wild oats before taking her vows. 
  Agreeing to join her for an evening of clubbing, Margaret dons a sexy outfit that had me wondering whether First Omen might be ready for a touch of satire.
   Forget that. The movie seldom lets us forget that evil lurks, even it takes its time making an entrance.
  At the orphanage, a sympathetic Margaret becomes fascinated with Carlita (Nicole Sorace), an orphan who's regarded as a troublemaker. Carlita insists that she's seeing terrible visions. 
   About midway through, Margaret is sought out by Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), an excommunicated priest who warns Margaret about a secret cabal that has hatched a cockeyed plan for restoring the primacy of a church that's losing its power. 
   I can't say more without introducing spoilers but the more you think about The First Omen, the more preposterous it may appear to be.
  That's not to say that Stevenson doesn't have chops: She infuses the movie with dread -- and Mark Korven's suggestively ominous score adds flavor. Free's portrayal of Margaret's climactic aria of trembling, moaning, and quaking possession provides another highlight.
  First Omen offers some grisly sights, a fiery suicide and an auto crash that severs a body in two, among them. A few of the jump scares deliver the right jolts.
   The story, which can confound as much as it clarifies, heads toward a finale built around a weird birth ritual that goes heavy on blood, slime, and gore, which could be the name of a band if punk rock ever makes a comeback.
   I wish I could have taken The First Omen as seriously as it takes itself, but, for me, the movie seemed to carry on a heavy flirtation with horror hooey that even its rich atmospherics couldn't always mask.
   
   
     


He seeks revenge in 'Monkey Man'

   

 Dev Patel makes his directorial debut with Monkey Man, a movie that sometimes looks like an Indian variation on the orchestrated frenzy we find in John Wick movies. 
  Whatever Patel is trying to accomplish in Monkey Man, he’s in a hurry to do it. The rushed immediacy and rapid-fire editing of early scenes allow little time to relax.
   A minimal storyline soon emerges. Kid (played by Patel) hustles to survive on the mean streets of an Indian City where wealth and luxury contrast with abject poverty.
  Kid knows how to live with pain. He earns money in bare-fisted fights in which he wears a gorilla mask. Usually, he’s beaten to a bloody pulp in front of jeering crowds who bet against him.
  The movie's real agenda emerges in a fragmented flashbacks to Kid's life as a child. Kid, we learn, aims to avenge the death of his mother (Adithi Kalkunte). She was killed by a brutal police chief (Sikandar Kher) for resisting his sexual advances during a raid aimed at dispersing the poor community where she lived.  
  Kid’s mother represents a near fairy-tale innocence that connects Kid to a lost past, as well as to mythology that references Hanuman, a Hindu deity. 
  At times, the narrative feels as if it's bouncing off walls.. At one point, Kid acquires a sidekick (Pitobsh Tripathi) who adds comic leavening but quickly vanishes.
  Patel wisely slows his freight train of movie down when a badly battered Kid finds refuge with a guru figure (Vipin Sharma), who takes him on a drug trip and encourages him to connect with this noble warrior self — or some such. 
 Throughout, Patel creates a character fueled by seething, concentrated anger that makes Kid immune to distraction.
  Kid shows some humanity when he takes care of a street dog that appears during scenes in which he lands a job at a  posh nightclub, which also functions as a high-end brothel where his enemies engage in debauched amusements.
     A final showdown offers two pivotal confrontations. The Wick movies allow us to feel the exuberance that the filmmakers put into concocting increasingly creative action sequences. Here, that feeling comes across as tight-jawed resolve.
     References to the city’s impoverished underside are vivid but fleeting. The movie also weaves its way through political references involving a corrupt leader (Makrand Deshpande) who claims allegiance with the common folk.
   If Patel wanted to blend culture and genre, he does so successfully in a scene in which Kid trains on the heavy bag to the beat of an encouraging village drummer.
  The movie's unevenness occasionally creates a sense of jagged freshness but the frantic action comes with a price. Kid may be discover the person he was meant to be, but we're left wishing we had something more substantial to take from the movie's violent onrush.


Wednesday, April 3, 2024

A potentially good story wasted


  Put Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in the same movie, and good things will follow. But wait. That's already happened. In 2021's acclaimed The Lost Daughter, both actresses earned high praise for playing the same character at different ages.
  Judging by Wicked Little Letters, a comedy also starring both actresses, the second pairing is far from a charm.
  Based on a true story, Wicked Little Letters transports us to small-town England in the 1920s. Life becomes tense when residents of the coastal city of Littlehampton start receiving a flood profanity-laced letters.
   An Irish immigrant with a young daughter, Buckley's Rose Gooding immediately falls under suspicion. Her staunchly religious next-door neighbor (Colman's Edith Swann) fans the flames of mistrust, pointing to Rose as the culprit.
   Working from a screenplay by Jonny Sweet, director Thea Sharrock errs by serving up the story's big reveal after an hour, leaving 40 or so minutes still on tap.
   Sharrock also relies too heavily on the presumption that audiences will be convulsed by hearing otherwise strait-laced characters spout the profanity found in the letters, which are often read aloud.
   Some of the supporting cast seems stuck in a kitchen- sink drama. Timothy Spall plays Edith's domineering father, and Gemma Jones appears as her cowed mother. 
  It falls to a local police officer (Anjana Vasan) to clear up the mess. Her superiors want her to follow orders, much as her late father, also a cop, supposedly did. They have no interest in seeing a woman take any initiative.
   Thematically, the movie seems intent on showing the commonplace misogyny that dominated the time, but these characters aren’t deep enough to fuel the kind of performances we expect from Colman and Buckley.
  Buckley finds herself in a one-dimensional role that leans heavily on showy displays of pluck. Colman? Well, she's had better parts. 
 In an early scene, Rose coaxes Edith toward spontaneity while the feuding women, still able to abide each other, walk on a pebbled beach. We find few such relaxed moments, perhaps because the characters are often being pushed around by a plot that lays on thick helpings of drama when it's not looking for laughs.
  Sharrock eventually starts speaking the language of caper movies, a tonal shift that may reflect an underlying confusion about what this broadly drawn comedy aims to accomplish. 
   By the end, a promising story has given way to blatant attempts at crowd-pleasing and the hopes I had for Wicked Little Letters had dimmed, faded ink on another set of high expectations.

‘Greatest Hits’ misses the mark



For a movie about unbearable grief and loss, The Greatest Hits turns out to be a surprisingly forgettable affair.
   Lucy Boynton plays Harriet, a woman who's. unable to recover from the death of her boyfriend Max (David Corenswet) in a terrible auto accident. 
    To make matters even more painful for Harriet, the songs she and Max once loved transport her to the past, episodes she insists are real. Now, if only Harriet could go back to the exact moment when she and Max met, she might be able to save his life. Suppose they had never done more than exchange a glance? 
   Harriet, who wears noise-cancelling earphones to avoid unwanted flashbacks, eventually meets David (Justin H. Min), a young man who falls for her. She's attracted to him but can't break the shackles of the past. 
   Austin Crute plays Harriet's best gay friend (of course, she has one); he urges her to move on.
    Director Ned Benson  (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) can't keep Harriet's visits to the past from feeling repetitive.
    In service of its title, the movie's time travel episodes are accompanied by a playlist that includes Ryan Lott, Roxy Music, Jamie xx, and Nelly Furtado. 
    Treating Harriet's problem literally (we watch as her present-day self relive moments in the past) diminishes the story's psychological potential as it moves toward a predictable conclusion.
     Put another way: Proust got more value from a single madeleine than this movie gets from all its songs together. Too highbrow a reference for a quasi-romcom? Probably, but if the pastry fits .... 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

An Iranian woman seeks her freedom

 


You'd have to have been living in an alternate universe not to know that many Iranian women face difficulties bred by oppression and patriarchal tyranny. So it's hardly surprising that writer/director Nora Niasari's Shayda provides another powerful example, this time focusing on Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi),  a woman who traveled to Australia  with her medical-student husband (Osamah Sami). When the movie opens, Shayda already has separated from her abusive spouse. She and her seven-year-old daughter (Selina Zahednia) live in a shelter that protects battered women. The story's considerable tension revolves around Shayda's attempts to be free. She has filed for divorce but fears that if her husband takes their child to Iran, mother and daughter will be separated forever. As the story develops, Shayda receives support from a friend (Rina Mousavi) who no longer lives a traditional lifestyle. She also meets a young man (Mojean Aria) who has spent time in the US and embraces modernity.  Ebrahimi carries the movie, infusing every scene with a mix of determination and dread. Initially, Shayda's husband claims to be receptive to change but he can't contain the rage that drives him. Nasari, who reportedly based some of the movie on her own life, may not break new ground, but with Ebrahimi's help, she makes Shayda's story feel alarmingly fresh.