Thursday, June 20, 2024

She's old but don't mess with her


Jane Squibb,  the 94 year old actress who made a big-screen mark in Alexander Payne's 2013 film Nebraska, lands a starring role in Thelma, a movie centered on characters lucky enough to live into their 90s.  
   Although the movie begins with a serious problem (older people being bilked by unscrupulous phone callers), director Josh Margolin veers off into a Los Angeles-based caper comedy in which Squibb’s Thelma takes matters into her own hands. She pursues the swindler. 
   To conduct her search, Thelma commandeers a scooter — really a motorized wheelchair — from a friend  (Richard Roundtree) who resides in an assisted living facility. Roundtree’s Ben grudgingly joins Thelma on her quest. 
     Margolin jams the movie’s aging stars into a scenario in which they battle their infirmities while heading toward the confrontation that serves as the movie’s climax and provides a late-picture role for Malcolm McDowell. The screenplay also contrives to put a gun in Thelma’s hands.
    Fred Hechinger plays Thelma's feckless grandson, a young man in need of an ego boost. Parker Posey signs on as Thelma's daughter with Clark Gregg playing her son-in-law.
    The scam begins when Thelma receives a phone call saying that her grandson has been in a terrible automobile accident and needs $10,000 for a lawyer. In a panic, she  mails the money to a post office box. 
     Thelma makes a few nods toward the grief of losing family and friends as old age encroaches. Margolin also plays with action movie tropes, but mostly the movie proceeds as a lightweight trifle built around two strong performances that feel more credible than the plot. 
     In sum: three cheers for the plucky, engaging Squibb and for the dignified and still charismatic Roundtree. Two for the rest of the movie. Thelma marks Roundtree's last big-screen performance. The actor died in 2023.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The play's the thing in 'Ghostlight'

Modest but emotionally grounded, Ghostlight tells a story about an ordinary family coping (or not) with grief. Directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson slowly reveal the nature of the loss suffered by a suburban Chicago family in which Dad (Keith Kupferer) works construction, Mom (Tara Mallen) tries to hold the family together, and daughter Daisy (Katherine Kupferer) indulges in ample doses of teenage fury. Bordering on the trite and flirting with cliche, Ghostlight emerges as a good-hearted exploration of how an improbable foray into community theater unites a family. Kupferer’s Dan learns about a local theater group when group member Rita (Dolly De Leon) approaches him. After seeing Dan struggle with his temper, Rita invites Dan to visit the group’s rehearsal space. Perhaps sensing a route into emotions he’s been unable to express, Dan joins the group. He winds up playing the part of Romeo to Rita’s Juliet. The company consists mostly of older people who agree to bypass issues of age in their staging of Shakespeare's play. A back story about the death of Dan and Tara's son runs a parallel course to the play. The connection feels a bit forced, but the movie makes a touching case for art as a means of exploring parts of ourselves that otherwise might prove inaccessible. And, no, Dan doesn't become a new Olivier. Gradually, Kupferer shows how Shakespeare's language begins to speak directly to Dan. For the record: A ghost light is the only light that’s left on when a stage is otherwise dark and a theater is empty. Also, the roles of father, daughter, and mother are played by a real family. Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen are the real-life parents of Katherine Kupferer. 

'Bikeriders' revs a 1960s engine

  In 1953, Marlon Brando climbed onto a motorcycle and created Johnny Strabler, a character that became an iconic figure who still adorns posters in his leather jacket and tilted cap. The Wild One may not be a great movie, but it stands as a reference point for movies that try to capture the spirit of rebellious youths who impolitely ram their heads against the walls of social convention.
   Bikeriders -- from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Loving, Mud) -- opts for immersion in the midwestern motorcycle culture of the 1960s, basing its screenplay on The Bikeriders, a 1968 book by Danny Lyon. Lyon photographed and documented the lives of members of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club.  Nichols, who also wrote the screenplay, builds from interviews Lyons (played in the movie by Mike Faist) conducted from 1963 to 1967.
    A prime interview subject, biker girlfriend Kathy (Jodie Comer) becomes the viewer's guide through biker culture. Kathy knows the gang well because she married Benny (Austin Butler), the coolest gang member, a guy who'd rather be beaten silly than remove his Vandals jacket. 
      An actor's feast; Bikeriders boasts riveting, immersive performances from Butler, Comer, and Thomas Hardy, who plays Johnny, the founder of the Vandals -- as they're called in the movie. 
    Hardy can be one of the screen's most imposing actors. Intimidating as a violent leader inspired by The Wild One, Johnny expresses himself through action. When he squares off against an opponent, Johnny asks whether they'd rather fight with fists or knives. They'd be well advised to back down.
      Taking their cue from Lyons' photographs, Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone create a movie with plenty of dirt under its fingernails. Much of Nichols's episodic story unfolds in the shot-and-beer joint the Vandals adopt as their clubhouse. Riding their bikes in formation, they're a fearsome lot.
      As impossible to ignore as a piece of loud clothing, Comer’s clipped Chicago accent defines a character who's smitten by Benny, whose don't give-a-damn-cool and movie-star looks prove irresistible to her. 
      If it hadn’t been for sexual attraction, Kathy might never have encountered the Vandals; she could have been snapping gum with other girls at some local diner and talking about boys. Instead, she entered a world ruled by the bikers' idea of muscle and manhood.
      When I saw that the cast included Michael Shannon, I wondered how he'd fit into the gang. Not only does Shannon make an impression as Zipco, he also defines one of the group's sensibilities. Zipco hates pinkos, the word he uses to express contempt for loafer-wearing college types
       Other bikers include Brucie (Damon Harriman), Cal (Boyd Holbrook), and Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), a laidback West Coast arrival who joins the gang. These characters give Nichols an opportunity to explore group pressures. What happens when someone outgrows the gang and wants to leave, for example?
     The story narrows to a tug-of-war between Kathy and Johnny. Tired of trying to keep the Vandals going, Johnny wants Benny to take over the gang. Kathy wants him to settle down. She's had enough of the biker life.
     At the same time, the Vandals are morphing into drug-dealing rogues. Initially rejected by the Vandals, a Milwaukee rider (Toby Wallace) tries to redefine the gang, pushing it toward criminality. 
     For his part, Johnny has trouble relating to a new generation of young men who don't care about the unwritten codes by which the Vandals live -- not that the Vandals were angels before the influx of nihilistic newbies.
      Earlier, I described Bikeriders as a feast for actors. The cast swallows it whole. Even Butler's portrayal of a character that seems drawn from an amalgam of characters from other movies has the right kind of presence. He's more magnetic here than he was as Elvis.
      The trailer for Bikeriders bills the movie's characters as freedom-seeking rebels, but Nichols doesn't seem to be after a big statement; he accepts these characters as they are. But what should we make of them?
     That's where the rubber meets the road for me.  Are these riders relics from a moment that has passed its expiration date or do they have something more relevant and deeper to tell us? And who are these guys and what in their experiences made the biker life so appealing?
     Bikeriders documents the 1960s outlaw/motorcycle scene. The movie crackles with dramatic moments but doesn't have much of a dramatic arc. Rough naturalism and vivid performances give the film its charge, but sans a layer of countercultural romanticism (see Easy Rider) or a more compelling story, we're left to wonder whether there's anything left for the movie to latch onto.

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.