Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A clever 2nd helping of 'Inside Out'

 Pixar carries the central idea behind the original Inside Out movie -- mastering the art of emotional balance -- over to Inside Out 2, but the number of emotions in play proliferates.
 Don't be misled. This isn't a case of sequel bloat. Now 13, Riley -- the character around whom the story revolves -- enters adolescence, a reliable platform from which to expand the palette of emotions the movie transforms into characters.
  The original characters -- Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Liza Lapira), Sadness, Phyllis Smith) and Fear (Tony Hale) -- return but they must make room for newbies that include Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), and Ennui (Adele Exarchopoulos).
  New voices and clever visual strokes (making the stream of consciousness literal, for example) add to the movie’s pleasures. Ditto for a depiction of a Sar-Chasm.
   The story centers on a weekend long hockey camp to which Riley (Kensington Tallman) has been invited. 
   A familiar question arises. Will Riley try to win favor among the camp’s most popular player (Lilimar) or will she remain loyal to her two besties (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green and Grace Lu), both of whom will be separating from Riley in the fall. They'll be attending a different high school.
  Visually, Pixar employs a mixture of cartoon simplicity, technical prowess (great displays of ice skating), and whimsical asides, a brain storm that’s depicted as a real storm, for example.
  Mostly, the story focuses on tensions between ever-0ptimistic Joy and frantic Anxiety, an orange-colored character that resembles an exploding turnip.
  Some of the characters add cartoon flourish, notably Bloofy (Ron Furnches), an all-blue variation on Goofy, and Pouchy (James Austin Johnson), a helpful fanny pack containing items that figure into the plot. 
    The competing tendencies vie to determine which of them will take control of the brain console that guides Riley's behavior -- or will Riley be able to make her own decisions?
     As expected, an instructional message looms. Riley must preserve the qualities of character that defined her childhood while accepting the characteristics that emerge during her teen years. Can all the forces that rumble around her psyche get along?
   In all, this second helping  — delivered under the direction of Kelsey Mann — keeps faith with the spirit of the 2015 original while offering fresh perspectives, a welcome change for a sequel.

A mother and her dying daughter.


 Well, at least it's not the same old, same old.
 We're talking about Tuesday, a story in which a mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) struggles with her terminally ill 15-year-old daughter (Lola Petticrew). The premise may not sound novel, but director Daina O. Pusic begins with a wildly allegorical gambit: Death appears as a talking macaw that grows or shrinks in size.
  The bird (a visual effect voiced by Arise Kene) displays a variety of personalities. It can be comforting, ominous, naive, or exhausted.
   How could it not be weary? The macaw has spent centuries working overtime as he attends to the dying. He remembers the historical figures he helped usher into the great beyond, Jesus included.
  The bird's design avoids suggestions of cuteness. Gawking and even ugly, the nameless macaw speaks with a voice that sometimes degenerates into an incomprehensible growl. A cacophony of human voices buzz inside the macaw's head, a woeful chorus of sufferers pleading for release.
   The human characters in the sparsely populated movie also include a nurse (Leah Harvey) who tends to Tuesday when her mother leaves home to sell household items and personal treasures to help pay for her daughter's care.
  A scene in which Louis-Dreyfus's Zora visits a taxidermy shop to sell a pair of stuffed rats dressed as Catholic bishops sums up what she's been doing since she quit her job to tend to Tuesday.
    For much of the movie, mother and daughter have different relationships with the macaw. For Tuesday, the bird is a companion and a curiosity. 
   In an amusing scene, Tuesday creates a makeshift bird bath in a bathroom sink so the bird can wash away the dirty residue of its grim occupation. She also introduces the macaw to vaping.
    Mom, on the other hand, resists the bird's doom-struck call. A physical battle with the macaw results in a horror-tinged gross-out scene in which an unrelenting Louis-Dreyfus taps her inner rage.
   Unlike her daughter, Zora can't accept the idea that death is inevitable, universal, and, in some instances, a welcome end to suffering.
    Since the movie premiered at last fall's Telluride Film Festival, much has been made of Louis-Dreyfus's performance. Leaving the comedy vibes of Vice and Seinfeld behind, a haggard-looking Louis-Dreyfus plays a woman whose denial curdles into ferocity,
    At times, Louis-Dreyfus's performance flips over the top but she delivers in the key moments; Petticrew deftly combines the traits of normal adolescence with a growing acceptance that her time has come. She approaches the end without fear.
    Pusic, who lives in London and hails from Croatia, brings a bit of bleak Eastern European flavor to a story that treats magic realism with matter-of-fact bluntness. No explanations. No apologies. The macaw delivers death. That's that.
    Some viewers will laugh and shed tears. I can't say I did much of either. Still, I appreciated the creative audacity of a first-time director who tackles a question many would rather avoid: Does mortality mean anything in a universe too vast to notice our puny sorrows?

A Malaysian movie makes its mark

 Tiger Stripes from Malaysian writer/director Amanda Nell Eu, takes us places we haven't been before -- not in terms of its subject (an adolescent girl's transition to womanhood) but in terms of milieu and the specific horrors confronting Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), a 12-year-old girl whose first period earns her the scorn of girls who once were friends. Eu makes Zaffan's independence clear from the start; she's a free-spirited kid who faces the meanness of a schoolgirl (Deena Ezral) with whom she has grown up. The movie also reflects ingrained prejudices about female sexuality found in some parts of Malaysian society. Zaffan's mother greets news of her daughter's menstruation less than sympathetically. "You're dirty now," she tells her daughter. Gradually, Zaffan’s raw, angry nature emerges, turning her into a kind of demon who, late in the movie, is subjected to an exorcism, clearly the last thing she needs. The filmmaking sometimes shows ragged edges but Tiger Stripes sticks with you, and Eu and Zairizal create a portrait of an intensely independent young woman fighting to keep her physicality from being suppressed.

A father/daughter journey into the past

 I wish I could give a ringing endorsement to Treasure, director Julia von Heinz's story about a Jewish woman who travels with her father to Poland during the 1990s. Unfortunately, the movie's obvious sincerity is tempered by too many notes of sentimentality. Sentiment seems out-of-place in a story about a widowed Holocaust survivor (Stephen Fry) and his daughter (Lena Dunham), a journalist who wants to learn about her family's past. In adapting a 2001 novel by Lily Brett, von Heinz evokes the pain of the Holocaust but the movie winds up scratching the surface -- which is not to say that some of those scratches don't sting. Fry's Edek Rothwax and Dunham's Ruth Rothwax visit Poland soon after the Russian grasp of its former satellite countries has faded. Dad, who insisted on accompanying his daughter, hires a driver (Zbignew Zamachowski) because Polish trains elicit too many memories of the German transports that took his relatives to death camps. Von Heinz draws the movie's father/ daughter conflict in less than tempestuous terms. Fry's portrayal of Edek borders on the folksy, and Dunham's playing a character who doesn't have a firm grasp on her identity. A meeting with the Poles who occupy the apartment where Edek grew up can't quite embody the difficulties some Poles have with Jewish visitors. It needed more development.  I can't say that I wasn't moved by Treasure. But as someone who has traveled to Poland and visited some of the same places as this father/daughter duo, I expected more from a film that's tackling the pained relationship of a parent who wants to protect himself and his daughter from an indigestible and horrific past. 

Friday, June 7, 2024

'The Watchers': Moody but that's it


Steeped in mysterious folklore and dodging in and out of the shadows of an Irish forest, The Watchers marks the feature debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, the daughter of M. Night Shyamalan. (M. Night served as one of the movie’s producers.) The set-up goes something like this: The owner of a Galway pet shop asks one of his employees (Dakota Fanning) to deliver a parrot to a customer in Belfast. Fanning's Mina drives through the countryside with the parrot, possibly the film's most interesting character, but loses her way upon entering a forbidding forest. Mina soon finds herself trapped in a bunker-like cabin with three strangers (Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouere, and Oliver Finnegan), none of whom have been able to escape the forest. Each night, creatures dubbed The Watchers gather to observe those who are trapped in The Coop, which is what this forest redoubt is called. The Watchers view these unlucky characters through a two-way mirror that serves as one of the walls of this strange one-room outpost. Shyamalan's screenplay, an adaptation of a novel by A.M. Shine,  gives Mina a backstory, but for much of its one-hour and 42-minute running time, the movie tries to build suspense with sound design and by offering quick glimpses of The Watchers. The approach is too familiar to create much excitement, and the movie's drawn-out conclusion offers a far-fetched serving of mythology, as well as the introduction of a new character (John Lynch)The Watchers has some atmospheric richness but the characters aren’t intriguing and the movie’s mixture of fairy-tale and horror tropes proves difficult to swallow.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Viggo Mortensen directs a Western

Viggo Mortensen directs and co-stars with Vicky Krieps in The Dead Don't Hurt, a Western that looks as if it's trying to follow in the footsteps of genre-busting exercises such as Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. Defined more by silence than dialogue, the acting in The Dead Don't Hurt, a bit like the movie itself, can border on self-consciousness. Approached with a hyper-awareness of period detail, the movie works its way through two hours and nine minutes, employing a structure that involves abruptly inserted flashbacks. The basic story: A Danish immigrant, played by Mortensen, and a French Canadian woman of independent spirit, portrayed by Krieps, meet in San Francisco and migrate to a frontier outpost in Nevada where Mortensen's Olsen owns a dilapidated cabin. Krieps's Vivienne tidies up, adding warmth to the bleak surroundings, but Vivienne resists domestication -- not that Olsen tries to force it on her. Immigrant soulmates, Olsen and Vivienne try to define new lives in the West. When Olsen joins the Union Army to fight against slavery, Vivienne -- now alone -- has a predictably violent encounter with Weston (Solly McLoud), the town's bully and part owner of the bar where Vivienne has landed a job.  To further complicate matters, Weston's dad (Garret Dillahunt) is in the midst of a shady deal with the town's mayor (Danny Huston). Mortensen strains to defeat Western romanticism as The Dead Don't Hurt builds to the inevitable confrontation between Olsen and Weston. Mortensen only partially succeeds at subverting the genre's macho cliches by tossing a strong woman into a male-dominated pressure cooker. Delivering some of her lines in French, Krieps gives the movie's best performance, but The Dead Don't Hurt seems to be aiming for more than it delivers. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Some spark in a superfluous sequel


  Early in Bad Boys: Ride or Die, the fourth in a series of Bad Boy films that began in 1995, Marcus Burnett, a Miami detective played by Martin Lawrence, has a near-death experience. It’s tempting to view the entire movie as a near-death experience for a buddy team (Lawrence and Will Smith) that has passed its expiration date.
   It doesn't take long before another character — the late Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliono) -- appears in a video he made prior to his death. Do I hear a death rattle here as well?
   OK, enough gloom. Ride or Die is no action comedy masterpiece but -- and this comes as a surprise --  the movie holds its own. Credit directors Edil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who made the last movie, with breathing life into an unnecessary sequel in which Smith’s character issues a number of apologies and is slapped in the face (three times) by Lawrence’s character. 
   Any connection to Smith’s Oscar fiasco may be purely ... well ... you know.
   Our beloved cops are getting long in the tooth. Smith's Mike Lowrey struggles with remorse and panic attacks, and Marcus, now a grandpa, suffers a heart attack while dancing at Mike's wedding. Mike marries early in the film, perhaps so that his new wife (Melanie Liburd) later can be placed in danger, thus raising the personal stakes for Mike.
    When Marcus recovers, he believes that he's impossible to kill. It's not his time, so he stands on the ledge of the hospital roof to prove his theory.
    The story tasks Mike and Marcus with clearing the name of the late Captain Howard, assassinated in the last installment. The captain has been linked to drug cartels. 
   A ridiculously complicated script concocts a scheme in which a former special forces officer (Eric Dane) becomes the primary villain.
    When the Florida law enforcement establishment tags Mike and Marcus as corrupt, they scurry to evade capture while also working to clear Captain Howard’s name.  
     Smith and Lawrence remain the main draw, but other actors punctuate the film's heavy and excessive gunfire. Rhea Seehorn, of Better Call Saul, turns up as Howard’s daughter, and Vanessa Hudgens reprises her Bad Boys work as a Miami cop.
     John Salley does cameo duty as Fletcher, a character who has branched out from the first two movies. Tiffany Haddish turns up as a stripper, delivering some off-color humor -- hardly a novelty in Bad Boys movies.
     Mike's son (Jacob Scipio) finds his way back into the plot, adding a slightly serious note to the proceedings.
     Frenzied editing defines much of the action, and the story culminates in an abandoned amusement park that’s home to a giant alligator. 
      You know the drill. A helicopter spins out of control. A small plane crashes into a building. Automatic weapons are fired. Stuff blows up.
      Smith and Lawrence generate enough comic chemistry to keep this Bad Boys from going totally bad but it’s difficult to watch Ride or Die without wondering what’s at stake beyond kick-starting the summer box office with an outsized helping of fan food. Think of it as a formula movie -- albeit with a bit of spark.
      One more note: Smith never has trouble commanding the screen -- even when he's in easygoing mode. Martin brings most of the comic juice to this edition. For my money, he's  the best Bad Boy.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

An odds-defying athlete gets her due

 Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, died in 2003 at the age of 98. Ederle's obituary in The New York Times included this defining sentence, "her feat, which she did only once and under horrendous conditions, made a memorable contribution in an age when many found it difficult to take female athletes seriously."
  After an initial flood of attention, Ederle failed to "sustain the lofty place in history of another hero of the 1920s, Charles A. Lindbergh," the Times article also noted.
   Put succinctly, Ederle did not become an enduring household name.
   A new movie, Young Woman and the Sea, tries to redress that slight with a biopic that underscores the difficulties Ederle faced because of prejudice against women athletes, in part due to backlash from the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920.
   Director Joachim Ronning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) brings a spirit of female empowerment to a conventionally told story that stars Daisy Ridley, best known for her Star Wars workas "Trudy" Ederle,
  A childhood bout with measles impaired Ederle's hearing. Her mother (Jeanette Hain) had to overcome resistance to involve her daughter in organized swimming. After a steamboat accident claimed many lives, the elder Ederle insisted that her daughters learn to swim — or so the movie has it. An eager Trudy didn't take much convincing.
    Ederle's father, a German-immigrant butcher played by Kim Bodnia upheld traditional Old-World values, hoping his daughters would agree to arranged marriages.
  Ederle's inauspicious beginnings built toward triumph with an appearance in the 1924 Olympics, where she won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay. She quickly decided to add the English Channel to her expanding resume.
   A by-the-numbers approach to Ederle's story is augmented by performances from Hain as Ederle's stern, determined mother, and Tina Cobham-Hervey, as Ederle's sister and confidant. 
   Additional cast includes Sian Clifford as Lottie Epstein, Ederle's first coach and swimming instructor, Christopher Eccleston as the bigoted coach who sabotaged her first attempt to swim the Channel, and Stephen Graham as the colorful male Channel swimmer who took charge of the boat that guided Ederle in her Channel swim.
    Ridley shows plenty of pluck, but the actors are all constrained by the point-blank quality of the writing, which focuses more on the inspirational qualities of Ederle's story than on any deep probing. 
   Some of the movie's details -- the invention of a two-piece bathing suit, for example -- add interest, as does a warm-up swim she made from New York to New Jersey. Ederle also seems to have been obsessed with the 1921 song, Ain't We Got Fun.
     Cinematographer Oscar Faura reportedly filmed in open Black Sea waters, a decision that enhances the swimming scenes. Anyone who has battled waves and undercurrents knows how arduous ocean swimming can be. 
     Ederle's plunge through a sea of jellyfish and the nighttime disorientation she felt while tackling shallows off the Dover coast create tension, but the movie mostly functions as a belated ticker-tape parade to a self-assured, odds-defying woman.
     Before the closing credits, you'll see poignant black-and-white footage of the real Ederle and the real New York City ticker-tape parade she received --reminders of a now-faded moment of national celebration and exuberance.
     Young Woman and the Sea blends old-fashioned style and inspirational ambition in ways that may connect with audiences or, at minimum, introduce them to a neglected bit of popular history. Maybe that's enough.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The life of a faux hit man


   I'm generally sympathetic to movies that arrive without proclaiming themselves to be major cultural landmarks.
   Although it played at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, director Richard Linklater’s Hit Man arrives without a pushy pedigree. It does,  however, have a taste for devious fun, which turns out to be better than a ton of hyped-up flash.
    Based on a true story adapted from an article in Texas Monthly, Hit Man introduces us to Gary Johnson (Glenn Powell), a college professor who does gig work for the New Orleans Police Department. 
   Sitting in a truck equipped with recorders, Johnson joins a team that documents sting operations that nab those looking to hire killers to solve their problems.
   The movie’s major twist occurs early on. Johnson is asked to fill in for a detective (Austin Amelio) who built his reputation by posing as a hitman, but who has been suspended for using excessive force. 
   Powell gives an engaging performance as a philosophy professor who blossoms when he assumes different identities -- adopting new attitudes along with them. He learns that every encounter requires a pitch-perfect performance. He brings a lively imagination to the task, and his life is energized by  newfound success.
    Angry that he's been replaced by a "non-professional," Amelio's Jasper never joins the Johnson fan club. He represents potential trouble.
   Complications arise, and it's here that the movie presumably veers from Johnson’s real-life story. In Linklater’s telling, Johnson falls for Maddy (Adria Arjona), a woman who wants him to kill her abusive husband. 
   Instead of busting Maddy, Johnson tells her to leave the lout.  He's infatuated, and we know that sex and love will follow -- not with Gary Johnson but with his cool alter-ego hitman, Ron.
  Johnson's on a slippery slope: He begins to become the roles he's playing, a kind of quiet endorsement of the fake-it-'til-you-make-it school of philosophy. Can the ruse be sustained? How and when might it all blow up? 
   Linklater plays with issues of identity, dangles red herrings, and piles on twists — not all of them credible. But Powell’s appealing string of poses and ploys keep Linklater’s Hit Man on an entertaining track.