Friday, March 1, 2024

Another film occupies its own world

 


   No one is likely to accuse Julio Torres, the writer/director of Problemista, of lacking ambition. 
   In his mischievous debut film, the former SNL writer and creator of the sitcom Los Espookys, tackles the maddening complexities of emigrating to the US, the insular hypocrisies of the art world, and the coming-of-age problems of one young man.
   That's a lot and Torres’s movie can't handle it all, even with humor and bold, if often silly, displays of creativity. The movie can feel like a scrapbook of ideas set aside for another day.
   Like many immigrants, Alejandro, played by Torres, has a dream. He aspires to design toys for Hasbro, a career that might be an overreach. Consider the duplicitous Barbie-like doll with fingers crossed behind her back, for example. Or how about the truck with the flat tire, intended to teach kids a cautionary lesson?
  To support himself, Alejandro works at a company that freezes corpses for future unthawing. He soon meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a former art critic whose late husband's body resides at the facility from which Alejandro is in the process of being fired.
   Sporting an unruly crop of red hair and a badly curdled temperament, Elizabeth obsessively works to establish the reputation of her recently departed husband (RZA), an artist who specialized in paintings of eggs nestled in billowy folds of fabric.
   Thanks to Swinton's embrace of her character's fury, Elizabeth blows through the movie with tornadic force.  A sharply offensive woman, she cuts no one any slack. As a character, Alejandro can't compete with her.
   Now and again, Alejandro communicates with the doting mom (Catalina Saavedra) he left in his home country of El Salvador. She believes she can solve any problem her son might encounter, a conviction that has diminished Alejandro's capacity for self-assertion.
   Lacking much by way of ordinary reality to play against, Torres's whimsical approach swamps the movie.  And at times, the movie goes self-consciously bonkers, notably in its depiction of a character called Craigslist (Larry Owens), a surreal embodiment of the website devoted to classified advertising.
   Despite Elizabeth's scourge-like presence, the film's overall tone is only mildly satiric, a movie that too often feels as if it has taken its own idiosyncrasies as its subject.
  Torres treats the film like a playhouse for his imagination. For me, the movie’s ideas, though sometimes clever, didn't always translate into enough laughs: The net result: Problemista left me wishing Torres better luck next time.




Monday, February 26, 2024

'Dune: Part II': a stunning epic

 

 Huge in scale, long in the telling (166 minutes). and sporting arcane references from author Frank Herbert's landmark 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune: Part II has arrived. Don’t fret. Director Denis Villeneuve, who released Part One in 2023, delivers a movie with enough visionary heft and action to justify its epic scope.
  I thought Villeneuve's initial effort represented a marked improvement over David Lynch's 1984 sci-fi foray into Duneland, making the most of a drama steeped in intrigue and boasting enough bizarre-looking characters to sustain several otherworldly parade floats.
   More action-oriented than Part One and benefiting from cinematographer Grieg Fraser's stunning desert imagery, Part Two tells a story even non-fans should be able to follow as opposing planets in a vast galactic empire vie for control of melange, a rare spice that serves as an emblem of power.
   In this edition, we spend more time with the Fremen, desert dwellers of Arrakis, the planet where spice is mined and refined and where the heartless Harkonnen have become an occupying force.
    Much of the movie involves efforts by Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) to earn a place among the Fremen. Paul wants to join their fight against the Harkonnen, led by the blubberous Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard).
   Eventually, the Baron unleashes his nephew Feyd-Rautha, a sneering, sadistic villain brought to frighteningly sharp life by Austin Butler.
    Villeneuve keeps a large supporting cast from swamping the various throughlines. A dust-covered Javier Bardem adds humor to his portrayal of Fremen leader Stilgar. Dave Bautista brings bulky menace to the role of Beast Rabban, another Harkonnen sadist, and a subdued Christopher Walken turns up as the emperor who presides over a vast planetary imperium. Josh Brolin returns as Paul's one-time mentor.
    With all that out of the way, let's get to the heart of the movie, provided by Chalomet and Zendaya, who plays the Fremen warrior Chani, a young woman dedicated to ridding the Fremen of oppressive colonial rule. 
     Paul, who earns the Fremen name Usul, and Chani fall in love, allowing the movie to raise questions about Paul’s loyalties. Is he for Fremen freedom or will he use their belief in him to augment his power? Can the aristocratic Paul be trusted by the justifiably suspicious masses?
    Much is made about whether Paul might be the messiah some of  the more fervent Fremen have been awaiting, allowing the movie to touch on additional issues concerning the dangerous ways religious and political aspiration can corrupt each other.
    The stakes may be starkly drawn, but characters are nicely shaded. Rebecca Ferguson returns as Paul's mother, encouraging his ambitious side and sometimes finding herself at odds with her son.
     Part Two thrives on scale, booming set-pieces (a gladiatorial battle with, alas, a crowd that looks CIG-generated), and the summoning of giant sandworms that live beneath the surface of Arrakis and are the source of melange, the spice with near-miraculous powers.
       For all its intricacies, betrayals, and plotting, the story retains its thematic resonance. What moral prices must be paid to control the spice.
      Now, after almost six hours of movie, Dune isn't finished. Questions remain for Paul, Chani, and the entire empire. Expect Part Three. I find that a bit dispiriting. If a story can't be told in six hours, maybe it's a miniseries.
      But the world of Dune remains intriguingly complex, full of characters whose roles shift and evolve. Credit Villeneuve with filling the screen with enough exotic flavor and bold action to keep Dune vividly alive through two helpings. 
      There's no reason to think he couldn't do the same in a third.


Thursday, February 22, 2024

A disappointing 'Drive-Away Dolls'

 


   I'm not sure how to classify Drive-Away Dolls, a solo directing effort by Ethan Coen, half of the great Coen Brothers team. The brothers are now working separately. Coen wrote the screenplay with his wife Tricia Cooke.
   Drive-Away Dolls almost feels like a Coen Brothers movie, maybe the rough draft for one. Remember, I said almost. Intermittently amusing in a deadpan way, Coen's episodic comedy drifts toward disappointment.
  Coen has described Drive-Away Dolls as a "queer" movie, a caper tale centered on two unabashedly gay women, the flamboyant Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and the more reserved Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). 
  When the movie opens in 1999, Jamie has just dumped her girlfriend, a uniformed cop played by Beanie FeldsteinJamie departs the apartment they shared as Feldstein's character sobs hysterically and pries a dildo (a gimmicky gift from Jamie) off one of the walls. 
  The story then leaves Pennsylvania, taking to the road as Jamie and Marian head for Tallahassee in a drive-away vehicle they obtain from a low-rent business run by Curlie (Bill Camp).  
   The dour Curlie insists on not being called “Curlie” even though his name is embroidered on his shirt. First names are too familiar for a first meeting, Curlie insists.
  That should give you an idea about the humor.
  Unbeknownst to Jamie and Marian, a suitcase has been placed in the trunk of the Dodge Aires they're driving. A suave gangster (Colman Domingo) wants the suitcase back. He dispatches two goons  (C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick) to retrieve the goods.
  What's in the suitcase? The contents of the suitcase constitute one of the movie's surprises, a joke that you'll have to discover for yourself.
  Qualley dominates as a woman who dedicates herself to freeing the spirit of the more sensible Marian, encouraging her to approach sex with libidinous abandon.
  For the most part, sex is presented with raunchy comic flare as the movie looks to find its footing. A digressive story works its way through stops at lesbian bars, a make-out session with a girls' soccer team, and an eventual face-off with the women's inept pursuers. 
   Matt Damon shows up toward the end as a senator with an interest in acquiring the suitcase.
   Coen's willingness to indulge in the ridiculous offers a degree of fun as he goofs on B-movie tropes, but, in sum, Drive-Away Dolls comes off as a ragged, 84-minute helping of comic overreach.
     The main characters are up-front about their lesbianism or “queerness,” if that’s more appropriate. But like it-or-not assertions of sexuality aren’t enough to keep much of the rest of the movie from feeling stale.
    


A collection of "Perfect Days'


 I’m late to the party reviewing director Wim Wenders' Perfect Days, which had its premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, traveled the fall festival circuit, and finally found its way to theaters. 
   Simply put, as it should be in this case, Wenders tells the story of Hirayama (Koji Yakusho),  a middle-aged man who cleans amazingly well-kept and beautifully designed public toilets in downtown Tokyo.
    The idea of clean public restrooms proves a revelation. Who among us hasn’t submitted to pressing bathroom needs despite serious reservations we may have had about the available facilities?
   Wenders wrote a minimalist screenplay with author Takuma Takasaki and adopts a style that many critics have compared to Yasujiro Ozu, the great chronicler of family life in Japan who died in 1963. 
  Perhaps so, but Wenders seems to gravitate toward an outsider's view. He's an outsider here, as he was to American culture in Paris Texas (1984) or even in 1987's  Wings of Desire, set in Wenders' home country, but still reflecting Olympian distance from its characters.

   Perfect Days is about noticing the unnoticed. If you were to see a person meticulously cleaning toilets would you ask yourself, "What is the totality of this person’s life?" 

     Subsequent questions might follow: Is this person humiliated by what might be regarded as  “lowly” work? Is he ever disgusted by it? Does he aspire to more? Does his work breed contempt for those who create the dirt he strives to eliminate?

   Wenders applied his imagination to the task, and, in so doing, has created a movie that only hints at answers. Hirayama is a bit of a blank, a character defined by a series of small actions and routine.

 Hirayama awakens at the same time everyday. He trims his mustache before leaving his small apartment, furnished with bookshelves, a sleeping mat and not much else. The plants he waters are his only companions.

  Each morning, Hirayama buys a drink from a vending machine, boards his truck, and drives to work. En route, he listens to tapes of rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He lives in a world of oldies.

   On the job, Hirayama has minimal interactions with a more voluble co-worker (Tokio Emoto). When he breaks for lunch in a surrounding park, he takes photos of the swaying tree tops. 

  Contrary to expectation, Hirayama isn’t a hermit or misanthrope. He’s a loner, taking his evening meals  in an underground mall restaurant. He bathes at a public bathhouse. He doesn't seem lonely.

  When the film brings Hirayama into contact with a niece (Arisa Nakano), he's unexpectedly open. He later meets with the sister from whom he’s estranged. It's clear that she represents something he wants no part of.

   Whatever the reasons for Hirayama's rejection of his earlier life,  he has reduced his days to repetition and pattern. Rather than presenting him with suffocating constriction, his choices seem to have made life manageable, maybe even deeper.

   Consider: There's much to be gained by simply observing the same trees every day, watching light bounce around their leaves or observing how wind changes their posture. If Hirayama were an artist, no one would find his behavior odd.

   Maybe all we need to know is this: Hirayama had one kind of life. Now, he has another. He lives with concentrated attention in a city that affords him the anonymity he seems to need.

  We can't fully understand what all this means to Hirayama, and Wenders mostly keeps it that way. If he's an outsider, so, too, are we. 

   Or maybe I'm overthinking this. Maybe all Wenders is doing is answering a simple question: How does one man live? It's enough for a movie that resists the usual dramatic touchstones, opting instead for singularity, an undiluted look at a man thoroughly committed to the choices he’s made.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Bob’s Cinema Diary: February 16, 2024 -- 'God & Country,' a documentary, and 'Monolith, a drama set in one location



God & Country

Religion and politics can make for a toxic mix, something the founding fathers of our enduring but often wobbly nation understood. Director Dan Partland, in a documentary produced by Rob Reiner, delves into the fervor that lights the Christian Nationalist fire. Does Partland's God & Country preach to the secular choir? Not entirely. Some of the best voices in this volatile documentary are raised by people of faith, notably Rev. William Barber, New York Times columnist David French, author Jamar Tisby, historian Anthea Butler, and sister Simone Campbell, a nun, lawyer, and activist. An  equal number of fiery voices spout their nationalist convictions with tub-thumping fury. The gist of their proclamations include the claim of direct instructions from God, the assertion that the U.S. is a Christian nation, pro forma condemnations of abortion and Joe Biden, as well as unwavering allegiance to the MAGA movement. Served in large doses, so much Christian Nationalism will leave many viewers fearful about a country founded on the genius idea that church and state should be separate. I don't think Partland aims to change any minds. Instead, he sounds a warning about Christian Nationalism and explains its origins, linking it to racism inflamed by school desegregation. Put another way, the film sounds an alarm for everyone who subscribes to a common sense bromide, "You go to your church. I'll go to mine." To which I'd add, "or no church at all." Partland's incendiary documentary reminds us that if the US falls apart, it won't be because of any external enemy; it will be because of intense factionalism, in this case represented by extreme Christian Nationalism.

Monolith


Monolith
focuses on a disgraced journalist (Lily Sullivan) who’s licking her wounds at her parents' isolated but austere home. In an effort to reclaim her reputation, Sullivan's character (referred to only as The Interviewer) dives into the turbulent waters of podcasting. She works on Beyond Belief, a series in which she applies investigative skills to oddball stories.  She interviews characters (always heard and never seen) in pursuit of a story that will reopen doors for her. Early on, she encounters a woman who tells her about a 20-year-old event involving a rift with the wealthy family for whom she worked. At the heart of the story: a mysterious black brick that contains indecipherable writings and exposes those who possess them (there's more than one brick) to bizarre visions. A warning from aliens? Obscure art objects? Australian director Matt Vesely blurs the line between reality and paranoia, and fabrication and truth, putting Sullivan’s character into an increasingly agitated state. He opens up a one-woman show by allowing his camera to explore the house, observe  the journalist’s computer screen, listen to her phone calls, and see the many text messages she receives. Monolith ultimately works better as a character study of a desperate woman than as a fully realized sci-fi thriller, but credit Vesely with getting further than you might expect from a minimalist approach.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Snared in the Spider-verse web

    Just when Oscar season has diverted attention from the ever-accumulating mountain of superhero movies, we get Madame Web. Like other entries in this highly variable genre, Madame Web seems designed to expand the list of characters who, in this instance, spin their way through other movies.
   Dakota Johnson joins Sony's version of the Marvel-verse as Cassandra Webb, the daughter of an arachnologist who, in the movie’s Peruvian prologue, discovers a rare breed of spider and dies during child birth.
    Leaping ahead, the story charts Cassandra's development from a career as a New York City EMT to her belated emergence as Madame Web.
     It doesn't take long for Cassandra -- better know as  Cassie -- to discover that she has the power to see into the future, a capacity depicted in abrupt flashes that hit the screen with the force of pumpkins smashed against walls.
     Plot twists lead Cassie to take charge of three teen-agers (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor, and Isabela Merced) who are destined to play roles in the spider-verse's unfolding future.
     Responsible for the death of Cassie's Mom and some awkward early picture exposition, the movie's villain (Tahar Rahim) gains spider powers. He's able to walk on ceilings, for example.
     So where were we? Does it matter?  
     Not really, but for the record, Cassie becomes the girls' protector, forming a familial group dedicated to ... what? ... maybe future movies.
      At least in the early going, director S.J. Clarkson tries to ground the movie in recognizable reality. Cassie and her EMT partner (Adam Scott) deal with big-city perils, but the movie eventually forgets about Scott's Ben Parker, a name that provides a clue about the interconnected spider-verse Clarkson weaves.
     Only box office indifference will end the Marvel onslaught. Meanwhile, lame dialogue, a pervasive lack of wit, and an inability to overcome Marvel fatigue keep this one from going anywhere. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

An abridged view of Bob Marley's life


  Aside from a stop as one the Kens in Barbie, British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir might be en route to an icon-centered career. In Regina King's One Night in Miami, Ben-Adir gave an almost bookish spin to his portrayal of Malcolm X.  Now, he appears as Bob Marley in director Reinaldo Marcus Green's Bob Marley: One Love
  Speaking in Marley's Jamaican patois, Ben-Adir radiates the power of Marley's stardom, along with a sense that, like many stars, something about Marley evaded capture. Ben-Adir, by the way, did his own singing. 
   Far from a comprehensive biopic, One Love covers the years 1976 to 1978, referencing Marley's youth in vaguely drawn flashbacks. 
   The flashbacks -- like lyrics in a memory song -- too often leave us wanting more information about Marley's formative years and certainly more about the journey that elevated Marley and his band, The Wailers, to prominence in the reggae world and beyond.
    After an assassination attempt on his life during a period of intense political strife in his native Jamaica, Marley moved to London, where much of the movie takes place. 
   Green's major accomplishment involves allowing his movie to spin in Marley's orbit, giving us flashes of how stardom in Europe pushed him off-center. We also get glimpses of Marley's Rastafarian beliefs, his copious ganja consumption, and his interactions with the Wailers.
      Marley's wife Rita (a magnetic Lashana Lynch) gives the movie its steadiest beat. She eventually erupts over Marley's infidelities and excesses. standing her ground with fiery conviction.
      Even in a movie that covers only two years, it sometimes feels as if Green (King Richard) is skimming,   touching on Marley's multiracial background and his conversation to Rastafarianism. He was raised as a Catholic.
      Much attention is given to the creation of Marley's signature album, Exodus, and the movie's other musical numbers land on the right bases, e.g., I Shot the Sheriff, No Woman, No Cry, and Get Up, Stand Up.  Ben-Adir captures Marley's on-stage performing style, nailing the agitated moves that animated his presence.
      One Love culminates with Marley's triumphant return to Jamaica, where he was adored. Ben-Adir's performance, replete with winking humor -- makes clear why Marley became an admired avatar of liberation and of a pan-Africanism that melded spiritual and musical aspiration.
     Marley died from melanoma at the age of 36. Brief as it was, his life deserved a richer movie. Despite the virtues of its performances, One Love feels truncated, even fragmentary.
     For now, Marley's music will have to stand as his most enduring legacy.

Friday, February 9, 2024

When the partying gets too hard


 How to Have Sex should not be mistaken for a big-screen instruction manual for those hoping to spice up life in the bedroom. Director Molly Manning Walker delivers a movie that's less libidinous than woozy with drink, partying, drugs, and excess. The story, if it can be called that, begins when three British teens (Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, and Enva Lewis) arrive in  Greece for a bust-out, post-exams holiday. The girls are determined to have sex, or so they say, and McKenna-Bruce's Tara aims to lose her virginity, a reversal of the usual adolescent boy ploy. Two boys (Shaun Thomas and Samuel Bottomley) soon figure into the mix. The movie immerses us among partying teenagers whose lives unfold against an incessant baseline beat. At first, the girls operate at party peak but  something must shatter the upbeat throb of drunken teenage mania. It shouldn't surprise you to learn that the sex Tara finds has nothing to do with love, affection or even pleasure. McKenna-Bruce's performance deepens as the movie progresses. She hasn't done well on the exams that determine whether she’ll be college-bound. No amount of diversion can conceal her future, and it's possible we're meant to think that Tara finally attains some form of realization. Maybe How to Have Sex is a telling picture of young people, many of whom are on the cusp of ... well ... nothing much. Perhaps these kids party like there's no tomorrow because they can't envision one. Whatever Manning Walker had in mind, her movie struck me as too much of an ordeal. Mania has its place in movies but it also tends to breed exhaustion. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

A 45,000-year-old hunk of horror

 The inhabitants of the world created by first-time director Andrew Cumming in Out of Darkness -- a movie that travels 45,000 years back in time -- may be dressed in furs and armed with wooden spears but they communicate in ways that feel authentic. Avoiding cartoonish grunts and exaggerated gestures, Cumming presents the movie's  dialogue with subtitles. A language reportedly was invented for the movie, which begins when a group of wanderers arrives on a barren shore, six people who've risked death to avoid starvation. Led by Adem (Chuku Modu), these nomads wind up fighting a screeching demon that seems to be mutilating whatever game it finds. One of the members of the group (Sofia Oakley-Green) is called a "stray,"  a woman picked up along the way. Oakley-Green's character doesn't fit easily into the patriarchal hierarchy that has been built around Adem. When Adam's son (Luna Mwezi) is snatched, Adem begins the search for him. Much of the movie takes place in dark wooded areas as Cumming works his way through what plays like a routine horror scenario. Turning the "stray" into one of the most assertive of the travelers  adds a feminine twist to a story that tries to expand its way out of what initially appears to be a genre trap. Cumming has more in mind than gore and jolts, but it's not easy to escape the horror trap he's set for himself. I give him credit for trying and offer this footnote: Once you’ve finished watching, you may want to rethink the title's meaning.