Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Love isn't easy in life's last stages

Finnish director Klaus Härö's My Sailor, My Love tells the story of an aging sea captain who's given a last opportunity to find love. James Cosmo plays Howard, a retired sailor who lives in a poorly kept house on Ireland's Achill Island. Weighed down by Howard's need for care, his  daughter Grace (Catherine Walker) hires a housekeeper (Brid Brennan). Quickly (perhaps too quickly), the cantankerous Howard lowers his guard and develops a relationship with Brennan's Annie, an older widow. The relationship paves the way for another rare look at aging people who still need human contact and intimacy. The movie's piano score has a sentimental, soothing quality that works against a screenplay that tackles tough issues. A nurse by trade, Grace's over-commitment to her father's care estranges her from her husband (Aidan O'Hare) and eventually wrecks her marriage. For his part, Howard isn't totally honest with Annie nor was he a great husband to his late wife. Although Haro moves quietly through the story, he allows volatile complexities to simmer. Grace has been imprisoned by a caretaker image she can't relinquish. Genial when he begins to break through his isolation, Howard's loneliness isn't without an element of selfishness. Jealousy and recrimination surface as Grace becomes increasingly resentful of Annie's role. Haro's visual choices (shots of the rugged Irish coast serve as interludes between scenes) aren't always inspired and the movie's conclusion won't come as a surprise. Still, Haro's recognition of  double-edged emotions (love and need, for example) keep this well-acted movie from drowning in sentiment.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

He's gay in the world of Lucha Libre


     Never let it be said that the movies can't teach us things. How useful those things might be is another question. 
    Putting aside discussions about relevance, I should say that until I saw Cassandro, the story of a gay man who conquered the world of Lucha Libre, I didn't know that Mexican wrestling was a thing -- a very big thing. 
    I also didn't know that the word "exotico" refers to wrestlers who act in effeminate ways, donning garish costumes in defiance of the macho standards that dominate the ring. I'm not even interested in American wrestling, so it's hardly surprising that my ignorance extended to another country.
     Now I know a little bit.
       But about the movie:
       Gael García Bernal stars as Cassandro, a.k.a Saúl Armendáriz, a resident of El Paso who, from an early age, knew two things: He was gay and he wanted to be a professional wrestler. 
     As directed by Roger Ross Williams, the movie provides Saul with  motivation for his dream, something to do with impressing the severely religious father (Robert Salas) who rejected him for being gay. 
      Theatrical and unashamedly outlandish, Lucha Libre compares to the world of comic books; matches are replete with heroes and villains who elicit heavy vocal responses from avid audiences. 
     Sporting blonde hair, Bernal plays Saul without affectation. He's another movie guy with a dream -- only a very specialized one.
    The movie makes it clear that Cassandro is a kind of living fiction, a character Saul invents to distinguish himself from other "exoticos." Cassandro would become the first exotico who didn't automatically lose to macho opponents. He'd turn convention on its head and become a crowd favorite.
          That's pretty much the story.
          Two women play important roles in Saul's life.
         A strong Perla De La Rosa portrays Saul's mother. She accepts her son's gayness but cautions him about the dangers posed by a society in the grip of rigid definitions of manhood. She's part mother, part pal.
         Saul also develops a relationship with Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), his trainer. Sabrina helps sharpen Saul's moves and watches as he realizes that he'll benefit from making the transition from a third-tier wrestler named El Topo to the flamboyant Cassandro, an altered version of a  name he got from watching a TV show.
      Saul's life as a gay man isn't neglected. He develops a romantic relationship with a wrestler called El Commandante (Raul Castillo). As a gay man who's married with children, Castillo's character lives a tormented dual life. He presents himself as straight in the wrestling ring. 
      Saul knows who he is and has no problems with it.
     Perhaps as an extension of Saul's clear-cut identity, Williams turns Cassandro into a role model for young gay men who might be hesitant about coming out.
     Audiences familiar with Lucha Libre may get more out of Cassandro than I did, but Williams's mixture of wrestling and kitchen-sink drama proves entertaining enough, a tribute to how people who seem incompatible can learn to appreciate one another.
     A footnote:  At the end of the movie, you'll see a photo of the real Cassandro. The wrestler's bulk made me wonder whether Bernal wasn't too slim for the role. You can decide for yourself.

Kenneth Branagh takes Poirot to Venice

 Kenneth Branagh continues his Agatha Christie preoccupation with A Haunting in Venice, his third in a series of films based on Christie novels. As is the case with much of Christie's work, Haunting  delays its big revelation until the end, allowing ace detective Hercule Poirot finally to disclose whodunit. 
  I won't do that with this review. Here's my take: Haunting is an adequate -- though hardly exhilarating -- thriller seasoned by supernatural suggestion that goes against the ultra-rational Poitrot grain.
  As a director, Branagh, who also plays Poirot, takes advantage of otherworldly possibilities, trying for a few jolts and a large helping of eeriness. But the film doesn't register as a superior slice of horror, if that's what Branagh had in mind.
    Christie purists will note that Branagh has based his film on the author's novel, Hallowe'en Party, and shifted its location from England to Italy. By confining most of the tale to the creepy confines of an old  palazzo, Branagh misses an opportunity. The labyrinthian alleys and byways of Venice could have augmented the movie's mystery and terror.
    The story begins in 1947 when Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer played by Tina Fey, invites Poirot to a Halloween party. She wants the great sleuth to expose a psychic (Michelle Yeoh) who claims to communicate with the dead, one of whom happened to be the daughter of the palazzo's owner (Kelly Reilly). The girl, we learn, entered the realm of the departed after committing suicide.
    Not surprisingly, the mystery doesn't end when Poirot discover that the psychic is a fraud. The plot contrives to allow Poirot to do what he always does: hunt a killer. 
    The visual atmosphere ranges from dim to dark and Branagh also employs a charged angle about the palazzo's past. At one time, the place housed orphans who were abandoned to die. Their ghosts are said to have haunted the place ever since. 
    The supporting cast of characters -- or more precisely suspects  -- includes a visiting American (Kyle Allen), a psychologically damaged physician (Jamie Dornan), his precocious son (Jude Hill) and others who expand the list of red herrings.
     We're meant to wonder whether a stream of mysterious occurrences will shatter Poirot's commitment to reason, causing him to rethink his rejection of otherworldly claims. Let's just say that Poirot's skepticism, forged by many murder investigations, has deep roots.
      Earlier in this review, I called Haunting adequate,  hardly a ringing endorsement for a whodunit that generates too little concern about who  committed the dastardly deed.
     It's not so much that we figure things out early on; it's that we're not given enough reason to immerse in the gloomy game Poirot must play.


A story that takes flight -- in space

A Million Miles Away, the story of a migrant kid who dreams of  becoming an astronaut, touches nearly every base that normally turns me off. It can be simplistic and unabashedly inspirational. But director Alejandra Marquez Abella infuses her film with so much sincerity, it's difficult to resist. Michael Pena stars as real life astronaut Jose Hernandez. Hernandez's story serves as a tale about a persistent kid who works hard to realize his dream and as a celebration of hard scrapple ethnicity. Hernandez's background gives the story its flavor, turning the movie into a triumph not only for an extraordinarily determined young man but for people, who like him, haven't typically been associated with the space program. Once Hernandez becomes an  engineer, he and his wife Adela (Rosa Salazar) raise five children. Although he's successful,  Hernandez clings to his goal: He keeps applying to NASA. After 12 rejections, he's accepted into a NASA training program, and we see some of its challenges, learning to function under extreme pressure, for example. A Million Miles Away isn't deeply nuanced, but it clearly charts a life that went from a village in Michoacan, Mexico, to farm work near Stockton, Ca. to college. Hernandez eventually landed a job with a government-funded firm dealing with security issues. NASA awaits. It's quite a journey and A Million Miles Away, based on a memoir Hernandez wrote, does everything it can to honor it. 

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Emotion turns maudlin in 'Sitting in Bars'

      Based on a true story, Sitting in Bars with Cake focuses on two friends who decide that taking homemade cakes into bars makes for a great way to meet men.
    Free cake evidently provides an irresistible lure, although the idea of bourbon and water with a slice of cake coated with pumpkin frosting strikes me as a desecration of two pleasures.
   The movie begins with so much peppy cuteness it makes you wonder whether screenplays can have dimples.  The screenplay, by the way, was written by Audrey Shulman, who wrote a 2015 book about her experiences.
      Schulman's plan: Take 50 cakes to 50 bars and see what happens.
     Yara Shahidi and Odessa A'zion play cake-baking Jane and cohort Corrine, roommates with low-level jobs at an LA talent agency where they work for a flinty but good-hearted boss (Bette Midler). 
    What begins as comedy (with lots of cake pictures) turns serious when Corine is diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Director Trish Sie (Pitch Perfect 3handles the switch without destroying the movie, and — truth be told — the downturn comes as  a relief from the movie’s undimmed early brightness.
      Disease also expands the story, bringing parents into the mix David Negahban and Adina Porter play Jane's parents. They expect their daughter to enroll in law school. Martha Kelly and Ron Livingston play Corine's mom and dad. They want her to survive her bout with cancer.
    Some of Sitting in Bars effectively tugs the heart strings, although by the end of its over-long two-hour length, the movie becomes more maudlin than it needs to be.
     Both A'zion and Shahidi make their presences felt, A'zion as the demonstrative Corine and Shahidi as the shy Jane. Bits about self-realization are added for flavoring and topicality.
   While paying tribute to female friendship, Sie tackles a serious subject. But Sitting in Bars breaks little new ground. It often feels like another addition to the now-familiar young woman with cancer genre.
    To be fair, though, for some, Sitting in Bars will succeed in icing its cake with lots of tears. 

'My Big Fat'' attempt at third sequel


   Pretty scenery. Plenty of nicely styled pictures of food, and --- well ... I think I'm out of reasons why we have a My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3
   Void of anything resembling tension, this third edition sends the Portokalos family to Greece to visit the village of the late Mr. Portokalos. Seems Papa P. kept a diary about his immigrant American experiences. He wanted one of his childhood friends in Greece to have it.
   What's billed as a reunion is organized by Nikki (Gia Carides), a local who lives in Dad’s old village, a spot abandoned by most of its former population.
  Aunt Frieda (Maria Vacratsis) remains, probably so that the town has a grumpy/lovable crone. Every village needs one, particularly in movies that feast on cliches.
   So, what do we learn? Paris  (Elena Kampouris), daughter of Toula (Nia Vardolos) and Ian (John Corbett) has just completed her first year of college. 
   There might be a relative (Joe Fantone) no one knew about, and the primping but likable Nick Portokolos (Louis Mandylor) returns to do more primping. 
   Andrea Martin reprises her role as the acerbic Thea Voula, a genial sourpuss of a character. 
   Varololos wrote and directed this comically bland sequel and ethnic  celebration with a heavy foot on the stereotypical pedal.
    Vardalos adds a few new wrinkles, referencing Syrian refugees who've landed in Greece, for example. But it's difficult not to see Part 3 as more of the same --  absent Papa Portokalos who was played by Michael Constantine. Constantine, who appeared in the 2002 original and in 2016's sequel, died in 2021.
   Colorful in the way of picture postcards, this third helping isn’t likely to ruffle many features; it feels like one big fat selfie of a movie.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

When a mom tries to be a detective

Hilary Swank is 49 years old. Jack Reynor is 31. That means if Hilary Swank is going to be believable playing  Reynor's mom, she would have had to given birth to him when she was 18. Possible of course, but Swank doesn't exactly look like the mom of a 31-year- old police officer, which is what Reynor plays in The Good Mother. Confused about the relationship at first, I adjusted. But was it worth the bother? A misfire of a thriller, The Good Mother tells the story of Swank's Marissa, an upstate New York journalist who tries to solve the murder of her younger son, a troubled kid who seems to have gotten lost in the drug trade. Turns out the late son's girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) is pregnant with a baby that will be Marissa's grandchild. It's always a bad idea for reporters to play cop, especially if the reporter happens to be drinking too much, which is the case with Marissa.  That doesn't stop Marissa from joining forces with Cooke's Paige as they try to find the killer. Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte takes a down-and-dirty approach to Albany, the city where this dime-a-dozen drama occurs. But atmospherics can't mask an increasingly unbelievable story that, at one point, finds Marissa racing through the streets carrying a baby in a car seat. Not the best way to trail someone. Might as well ask someone to play football while pushing a stroller. The movie's central mystery remains murky, even after a big reveal, and The Good Mother joins the ranks of darkly hued thrillers that vanish into their own gloom. 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

‘Gran Turismo’ races on a formulaic track


     If I weren't writing about films, I doubt whether I’d see Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story,  the real-life tale of a young man who made the shift from an expert player of a popular car racing game to the high-speed world of the track.
     Gran Turismo probably will have its greatest appeal among those who spend hours trying to excel at PlayStation's popular pastime, which was invented by Japanese designers who spent years giving the game an astonishing degree of versimilitude.
       So what about the rest of us, those who don't play video games and who aren't especially interested in sports car racing?
        I guess the surprise is that Gran Turismo is watchable while being predictable. The movie makes little attempt to dig beneath the surface or say anything we haven't heard before -- and still manages to cross the finish line without being disqualified.
    Put another way, the movie is OK.
       Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) tell the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a kid who grew up in Cardiff playing Gran Turismo and dreaming of driving real races cars. 
     Working-man Dad (Djimon Hounsou) thinks Jann should continue his education. Mom (Geri Horner) seems more supportive. Jann's brother (Daniel Puig) ... well ... he's in the movie, too.
        Jann might have continued drifting and dreaming if it hadn't been for a slick promoter (Orlando Bloom) who sells Nissan on the idea of sponsoring GT Academy, a facility where talented gamers would be trained to drive real race cars. 
        Initially reluctant, a former driver turned chief engineer (David Harbour) agrees to train the young crew. No one else wants the job.
         The idea is that the game requires so much skill that the best sim drivers, as they're called, could make the transition from gaming cafes and isolated bedrooms to professional tracks.
         At two hours and 15 minutes, Gran Turismo doesn't skimp on training montages and racing footage as Jann progresses, eventually competing to earn his license as a professional driver while facing opposition from an arrogant driver (Josha Stradowski) who believes Jann's lack of experience will endanger other drivers.
         Obvious questions roar through the plot as loudly as the movie’s cars. Will Jann wash out or will he become a professional driver and, ultimately, a winner? Will Dad, a stern man who played soccer and who hasn't supported his son's ambition, eventually come around? Can the movie accommodate more product placements?
          As a failed driver who couldn't overcome a tragic incident in his past, Harbour gives his character old-pro flavor. The rest of the performances are up to snuff.
      It's unfair to criticize a movie such as Gran Turismo for being formulaic. There’s reassurance in familiarity. You can even anticipate some of the dialogue before the characters open their mouths.
         Of all the racing footage — much of it convincing — a crash in which Jann's car becomes almost vertical on the track  proves difficult to watch.  And Blomkamp ingeniously shows how Jann's mind works, turning real cars into blueprints of their game versions while driving on real tracks.
        Gran Turismo's B-movie plot doesn't mesh with what seem to be grander ambitions. The resultant movie suffers when it tries to inflate Jann's achievement into a broader endorsement of the kind of  bromides in which movies specialize. Dreams can become real. Stuff like that.
        Gran Turismo is best when it drives in its own narrow lane and doesn't try to turn Jann's story into a cheering session for every underdog.

Young gay women start a fight club

   If you haven't already, it's time you discovered Ayo Edebiri, the young comedian/actress who appeared earlier this summer in Theater Camp and who’s best known for her work in the acclaimed series, Bear.
  In Bear, Edebiri joins a beautiful ensemble as sous chef Sydney Adams. She scores again as a high school lesbian with a crush on a cheerleader in Bottoms, a risky comedy from director Emma Seligman, who directed the indie hit Shiva Baby.
   Working from a screenplay she wrote with Rachel Sennott, one of the movie’s stars, Seligman tells a boldly outlandish story about two   teens who feign a claim that they've experienced incarceration in “juvie.” Street cred established, they start a high school fight club for young women. 
   The duo wants to meet “hot” cheerleaders but sells the club as a feminist launching pad and mini-society for self-protection.
   Here, Seligman takes her biggest risk. The fight club is no feather-weight sham. These girls push and punch for real, usurping violent  strategies usually reserved for men. 
     The most obnoxious men in the movie are the school’s football players, who -- in blatant parodic fashion -- never take off their uniforms; even during classes, they refuse to shed the signature emblems of their identity.
    It’s far-fetched, of course, but Sennott, as the snarky PJ, and Edebiri, as the more wary Josie, are funny and engaging. They’re playing kids who have been tagged as “losers,” but both have an underlying sense of self that suggests they believe in their sensibilities, and the story eventually conspires to teach them that their adopted facades can be as much of a trap as football uniforms.
    Bottoms doesn't deal with the ways in which prejudice crushes young gay people. PG and Josie experience bigotry but they’re not isolated and they’re not jittery about declaring their sexual preferences. 
    Edebiri and Sennott, who starred in Shiva Baby, receive able support from Havana Rose Liu, as Isabel, the cheerleader girlfriend of the school’s principal jock (Nicholas Galitzine). Kala Gerber appears as Brittany, the cheerleader PJ is crushing on. 
     Ruby Cruz has a nice turn as Hazel, a club member who might be the most dangerously subversive of them all.
      Marshawn Lynch was never known for making public statements during his NFL career. Here,  the erstwhile Seattle star, known a plays a high school history teacher who accepts the role of faculty adviser to the fight club. Yes, he’s funny.
      Even ambitious comedies need plots and I wouldn’t say that Bottoms excels when it comes to storytelling, even though it stages an explosive finale with a riotous flavor that banishes any lingering thoughts of credibility.
      The physical violence — between club members and those deemed as antagonists — can cut against the comic grain. People really seem to get hurt; that may be part of Seligman’s strategy. She’s intent on upsetting an apple cart full of cliches about young women.
    Seligman eventually softens the proceedings to allow for genuine expression of emotion, a ploy that flirts with genre cliche.
    At  other times, the movie seems to be straining. Note the inclusion of a horny mom  (Dagmara Dominczyk) who's having an affair with Galitzine's high-school hunk of a character.
    Not everything about the movie works but Seligman,
Sennott and Edebiri are onto something and, like the characters they play, they’re ready to make their mark, even if it leaves a few bruises.