Thursday, June 8, 2023

A Holocaust story falls short


    The German/Russian/Belarusian movie Persian Lessons begins with a title card telling us that the movie was inspired by true events. Opening credits also tell us that the movie was based on a story by German screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase. 
   As things stand, we're left to guess where inspiration leaves off and fact begins, a problem for a film that deals with a subject that suggests heavy historical obligations. 
   Director Vadim Perelman tells the story of Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a Belgian Jew who, along with a group of Jewish captives, is about to be shot by German soldiers. Gilles pleads for his life by insisting that he’s Persian not Jewish, an Antwerp resident of half-Iranian background.
  As luck — or massive contrivance — would have it, a German officer at the transit camp where the soldiers are based has made it known that he wants to find a Persian prisoner who can teach him Farsi. The soldiers deliver Gilles to the officer (Lars Eidinger), who lays out the rules under which Gilles, who now calls himself Reza, will fulfill his instructional duties.
   Eidinger’s Koch has a personal reason for his request. He plans to move to Iran after the war, join his brother, and open a German-themed restaurant or maybe he’s just looking for a post-war escape hatch.
     Gilles, of course, knows nothing about Farsi and must make-up a fake language to trick Koch into keeping him alive. He also must remember what he’s told Koch so that he doesn’t expose his ruse.
     Gilles' system for memorizing his verbal inventions turns out to have significance beyond the poor man's survival and, in a way, provides some justification for what we’ve been watching.
    Biscayart creates a character burdened by the anxieties of mastering the calculations that will keep him alive. Eidinger has the more difficult job of making Koch credible.
     At a couple of points, Gilles is almost exposed but the screenplay contrives to rescue him. Luck, of course, can play a role in life but drama is another matter.
    As for the Farsi lessons, they seldom seem convincing; Koch limits his understanding of Farsi mostly to the accumulation of nouns. Tree. Table and such. We're reminded of the way toddlers learn language through the repeated naming of objects, but the lessons don't seem to go much beyond that.
     Persian Lessons works best as a disquieting portrayal of the relationship between a Nazi officer and his prisoner; that relationship  softens as Koch begins to see Gilles’ humanity, particularly when it becomes clearer that the Germans are losing the war.
    Despite interest generated by the uneasy relationship between its two main characters, Persian Lessons falls short. Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) relies on a premise that seems too shaky to support a film about a such a daunting subject.  
    Persian Lessons doesn’t t`otally collapse but it wobbles under the weight of the contrivances required to keep it going.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

He revolutionized the world of Cheetos

Earnest and likable, Flamin' Hot marks the big-screen directorial debut of actress Eva Longoria. It’s easy to see why the story of Richard Montanez (Jesse Garcia) appealed to Longoria. Montanez's life offers an opportunity to look at the achievements of a hard-working janitor who rose to the higher ranks of the Frito-Lay company by inventing a product (Fammin’ Hot Cheetos) and helping the company market it to a growing Hispanic audience. The marketing of any kind of Cheetos doesn’t strike me as a cause for cinematic celebration but Longoria compensates by turning Flamin’ Hot into a story of personal triumph. Garcia conquered the long odds of being poor, dabbling in the drug life, not graduating from high school, and growing up with an abusive father (Emilio Rivera). Garcia comes across as a nice guy who loves his loyal wife (Annie Gonzalez) and avidly seeks help from an engineer (Dennis Haysbert) at the Frito Lay factory where he quickly becomes a model employee. It's also refreshing to see a movie, even one with cornball tendencies, in which Mexican-American characters draw strength from their culture. If you browse the net, you'll find stories that question how Flamin' Hot Cheetos were invented. Still, I liked the characters and took the movie as an ethnically-oriented feel-good entertainment that wants to underscore the potential of workers who typically are overlooked. A proviso, though: I couldn’t suppress second thoughts about the supposed glories of snack food. To borrow and distort a famous phrase Allen Iverson used in discussing  his attitude toward practice, "We're talkin' about Cheetos, man. Cheetos."  *
*Full disclosure. I’m not a big Cheetos fan, but if I eat them, I prefer the original Cheetos. No Flamin' Hot Cheetos for me. 

Remembering Yogi Berra as a great player

Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, best known simply as Yogi, caught for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963, still banner years for baseball’s all-American popularity. The title of an engaging documentary about Berra, It Ain't Over, comes from one of the many Yogi-isms that have become part of popular lore, whether he said them or not. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”  Stubby or powerfully compact if you prefer, Yogi was a great baseball player who — according to the documentary — became a cartoon version of himself, so much so that his game skills have been overlooked. Berra won three MVP awards and owned 10 World Series Championship rings. He caught the only perfect game in World Series history, Don Larsen’s 1956 triumph against the Brooklyn Dodgers. A St. Louis native,  Berra made his splash in the Big Apple until he got crosswise with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. In 1985, Steinbrenner fired Yogi, at the time the team's manager. Annoyed by shabby treatment, Berra stayed away from Yankee Stadium for 15 years. Berra, who died in 2015 at the age of 90, monetized his lovable side with commercials for Yoo Hoo, Miller Lite, and Aflac. The animated hit “Yogi Bear” never won his favor. Director Sean Mullin includes interviews with some of the usual suspects, notably Billy Crystal and Bob Costas. Some Yankee favorites chime in. Among them: Tony Kubrick, Willie Randolph, and Mariano Rivera. Lindsay Berra, Yogi’s granddaughter, boldly states the documentary's theme: Berra’s on-the-field accomplishments have been overlooked. She keynotes the argument by noting that Berra wasn’t included in a 2015 All-Star Game ceremony honoring a quartet of great living players; Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. Mullin includes a highlight reel’s worth of baseball footage, and enough Yogi-isms to satisfy. Some may wonder exactly how the prowess of a Hall of Fame player can be said to have been overlooked but the movie’s thesis is less important than the way it brings Berra to life and once again recalls the days when baseball really was the national pastime.*

*If you were a kid living in the shadow of New York City, in my case northern New Jersey, during the 1950s,  questions of identity revolved around three possibilities. Did you root for the NY Giants,  Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Yankees? I was a Giants fan and like many of those who rooted for National League teams I hated the imperial Yankees with their massive stadium and conquering ways. Reflecting on it, though, I can’t recall anyone who disliked Yogi Berra. He was a Yankee, sure, but as a likable guy, a great catcher, and a terrific clutch hitter, even Yankee haters gave him a pass. 

Monday, June 5, 2023

'Master Gardener' intrigues, confounds


    Sometimes I wonder how keenly Paul Schrader, like some of his characters, feels what it’s like to reside alone in a dimly lit room with an alarming lack of amenities. I thought about this after watching Joel Edgerton in The Master Gardener, the third in a string of movies Schrader began six years ago, the other two being First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021).
   Schrader is one of the few directors who seems to pursue his interests wherever then take him and they often take him to dark places. Remember this is the guy who wrote Taxi Driver, perhaps director Martin Scorsese's most luridly compelling movie.
    In The Master Gardner, Schrader, as he often does, charts another search for redemption. But the movie resists categorization. Despite the specificity of its settings -- a garden tended by Edgerton's Narvel Roth,  a few downscale southern neighborhoods, and several last-resort motels -- Master Gardner can't be taken as realistic. 
   The Master Gardener isn't exactly dreamlike either; it occupies a world scoured of human bustle and although the characters don't always make sense -- at least when you step back for further reflection -- Schrader encourages buy-in while you're watching.
    Working minimally and with his emotions clipped as tight as his slicked down hair, Edgerton plays a former Neo Nazi living in the witness protection program after turning on nine of his former colleagues. Narvel since has tried to rehabilitate himself by becoming a skilled gardener: He heads the team that takes care of a showpiece garden for a wealthy woman (Sigourney Weaver).
    Sigourney’s Norma Haverhill (yes, the name sounds Dickensian) saw something in Narvel and took a chance on him -- or maybe she got an erotic charge from sleeping with a guy with a spray of SS and white supremacist tattoos that are revealed when he removes his shirt. Narvel's torso has become a poster for his past. Usually, he keeps it covered.
      None of the characters are easily understood. Weaver's Norma has a cruel streak fortified by flinty determination. Norma can be beneficent but she's also threatening and severe. She doesn’t like to be questioned.
   The arrival at the garden of Norma's grandniece, a mixed raced young woman played by Quintesssa Swindell, gives the story a jolt.
   Norma instructs Narvel to take Swindell's Maya under wing, educate her in the horticultural arts, and prepare her to inherit Gracewood Gardens. He obliges.
    A fast learner, Maya adapts to the gardening life and begins to develop a close relationship with Narvel.
    Despite bits of gardening information that are dispensed during Narvel's narration of the movie, Schrader isn't content simply to putter around the garden. When he brings Maya's drug-dealing ex boyfriend (Jared Bankens) into the story, the winds of corruption begin to ruffle the flower petals.
     The plot, such as it is, finds Narvel and Maya getting crosswise with Norma. Putting on her most judgmental face, Norma expels them from the garden, turning them into an unlikely Adam and Eve.
    Time for the elephant in the room.
    How can an intelligent woman of color, even one such as Maya who’s addicted to drugs, fall for an older man who happens to be a former white supremacist? Narvel is supposed to have seen the error of his brutal ways, but Edgerton keeps us away from Narvel's inner life. Flashbacks to Narvel's violent racist days haunt him but he carries himself stiffly, like a dutiful soldier who's following a new set of orders.
     Perhaps we’re meant to think that Narvel channels his former racist fury into a commitment to protecting Maya, a woman whose existence represents the racial mixing he once despised. 
    But Maya isn't a helpless damsel in distress; she's got some fire of her own. She doesn’t ignore Narvel’s past. Still, it’s a stretch to think she could live with it.
     Schrader builds toward a violent confrontation. In Master Gardner, violence can be both destructive and purgative.
    Schrader mixes beauty and shabbiness and leaves us to ponder deep questions: Can the most rotted among us find redemption? Can the corruption of the world be detoxified by those who've helped corrupt it? Can what has been destroyed by hate be restored by love?     
     So where do I stand on the movie? I'll say only this:  It sometimes can be better for a movie to be interesting than gratifying and whatever else I thought about The Master Gardener, I did find it interesting. 
    Such a movie, even when not fully realized, can reflect the uncompromising integrity of the artist who made it. That’s something to consider.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The visual dazzle of another 'Spider-Man'


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

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A father/son comedy that sinks

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A CIA operative on the run for his life

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

Men with mountains to climb

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

Friday, May 19, 2023

Can a trans woman go home again?


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