Thursday, May 6, 2021

Bullets and brawn: Guy Ritchie's latest


Take a look at the picture that accompanies this brief review. That's Jason Statham in another tough-guy movie from director Guy Ritchie. If you know the work that Statham and Ritchie have done together (1988's Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was their first movie), you pretty well know what you'll be getting with Wrath of Man, a remake of Cash Truck, a French thriller from 2004. Statham plays a character named "H." It doesn't take long for H to find himself in a position in which he must avenge the death of his son, a hapless bystander during an armored-truck robbery.  Wrath of Man goes easy on Ritchie's customary eye-popping flourishes. Here, the director pretty much relies on stony-faced characters and a revenge saga that contains few new twists but is told with darkly expressed competence and  a familiar disregard for chronological order. Not surprisingly, Ritchie pours on the violence, which becomes increasingly easier to tune out as the movie progresses. Ritchie and Statham have made four films together, although it's been 15 years since their last collaboration. This time, Statham and Ritchie deliver the expected goods, the worth of which depends on your tolerance for this kind of movie. Oh, by the way, other actors crop up from time-to-time. Among them: Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, and Scott Eastwood. You can place bets on who in the supporting cast will make it to the finish line.

Billy Crystal tackles aging, dementia

    In Here Today, Billy Crystal plays a comedy writer who’s beginning to suffer the effects of dementia. To compensate, Crystal’s Charlie Burnz follows the same route to his office every day, reminding himself what to do at every turn. If he diverges, he's lost.
   He’s increasingly forgetful and some of his colleagues on a cable show that resembles Saturday Night Live think he's lost his edge.
  Crystal, who also directs and who co-wrote the script with Alan Zweibel, gets to the heart of the story when Charlie meets Emma Payge. (Tiffany Haddish).
   Emma's former boyfriend won a lunch with Charlie, one of his idols,  at a charity auction. An angry Emma shows up instead. Before the lunch, she never even heard of Charlie.
   During lunch,  Emma has an alarming and not especially funny allergic reaction to a seafood salad and must be rushed to a nearby hospital. Charlie generously pays her medical bills. 
     No charity case, Emma pays Charlie back in installments, providing an opportunity for the two to become real friends.
     Later -- to demonstrate the closeness of their bond -- Charlie and Emma even spoon (their word) a little. Of course, they don't push toward anything more serious than a comforting cuddle. And, no, I can't think of the last time I heard the word "spooning" used by anyone.
    It's difficult to imagine that a movie such as Here Today won't step  into puddles of sentiment. It does.
    Recurrent flashbacks show Charlie's relationship with his beloved wife (Louisa Krause), who's seen mostly in the prime of her youth.
    Like many who face their final days, Charlie wants to make things right with his grown children: a resentful daughter (Laura Benanti) and a son (Penn Badgley) who thinks Dad doesn't value his work as a budding architect. 
     Broad comedy sometimes swamps sentiment. The movie puts a lot of energy into a scene in which Emma accompanies Charlie to his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. She commandeers the mic, delivers her version of Janis Joplin's Piece of My Heart, and gets everybody moving on the dance floor.
     Scenes at the show where Charlie works made me wonder whether the entire movie shouldn't have taken place in that environment. He may be an ancient in a world full of young comics but Charlie knows that many of them greatly overestimate their talents.
     It's nearly impossible to watch Crystal without smiling, which makes the movie’s obvious contrivances feel less brittle. In Haddish, he's found a gutsy actress willing to dive into the movie's more improbable moments without blinking.
     Odd-couple sparks aside, Here Today carries the weight of genre  shtick that's older than Crystal and Haddish put together: You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry. That sort of thing.
     I did laugh a few times. And I felt Charlie’s pain when he couldn't remember the names of celebrities at a Lincoln Center panel honoring one the films he'd written. Did I cry? Not even close.
     In short, my heart was not warmed as surely was intended. Still, I'm happy to report that my fondness for both performers remains undiminished.

When a queen becomes a diplomat

    It's cheap and probably lazy for a reviewer to call attention to a movie's title, but ...
    A movie titled Queen Marie of Romania doesn't automatically suggest a compelling hour and 50 minutes at the movies. Unfortunately, this Queen can be as prosaic as its title.
    Odd, too, because the story take place at a pivotal moment during the days following World War I. The leaders of the Western World have gathered in Paris for a peace conference at which many borders will be determined. They were, in effect, carving up the world.
    Director Alexis Sweet Cahill focuses on Romania's battle for recognition. The Romanians wanted approval to establish a unified country with borders that would include Transylvania and more. They wanted to rid themselves of what they viewed as the Hungarian occupation of part of their country.
    These are not topics with immediate urgency for most American audiences and Queen Marie is too mired in period-piece trappings to make them feel vivid. 
     Mixing stilted English, Romanian, and smatterings of German, the movie becomes a tribute to the determination of a single woman, Queen Marie of Romania, played here by Roxana Lupu.
     English-bred and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Marie was no pushover. When Romanian diplomats failed to persuade the assembled delegates to recognize a unified Romania, she traveled to Paris where she wowed the Parisian press with a mixture of charm, grit and guile.
    The Romanian royals provide a bit of family drama. The king (Daniel Pier) seems responsible but wimpy. Prince Carol II (Anghel Damian) angers his parents because he's dallying with a commoner. The lead Romanian diplomat (Adrian Titieni) fumes with frustration because no one at the Paris conference takes him seriously.
     Several historical figures round out the history lesson. Sporting a massive walrus mustache, Ronald Chenery portrays George Clemenceau, France's prime minister. Richard Elfyn plays Lloyd George, Britain's PM, and Patrick Drury appears as Woodrow Wilson. 
    The movie trots out these big-name historical characters mostly so that Queen Marie can stand up to them. By the end, she has put all of them in their places as she goes about serving her people, as she refers to her mission.
    Narrow and aristocratic, the movie lacks the sweep of history. At the time of the conference, large numbers of Romanians were starving and Hungarian forces were ravaging Bucharest. 
     Though referenced, the suffering of the Romanian people takes a backseat to Marie's proto-feminism and to the lavishly displayed Parisian and Romanian settings -- hotels and castles fit for ... well ... a queen.
     Oh well, a missed opportunity. As rudimentary as it is decorous. Queen Marie over-explains, under-dramatizes and generally fails to catch fire.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

He took up all the air in every room


  “He had a strong smell about him. He smelled how he looked. Like a spotty rebel filled with angst.”
      I discovered this quote from actress Hanna Schygulla while browsing the Internet after watching Enfant Terrible, a feverish, swirling look at the career and personal life of the late German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
     Fassbinder makes a tempting movie subject. Aside from being a brilliant filmmaker, Fassbinder had an unfailing flair for the notorious. After lots of wild, dissolute living, Fassbinder died of a drug overdose in 1982. By then, he had made more than 40 feature films, a staggering number for a director who was only 37 when he died.
     I’ve seen Enfant Terrible described as a biopic. For me, that stretches the term, unless it’s possible to make a biopic about a person’s furious temperament. 
    Director Oskar Rohler and actor Oliver Masucci's introduce us to a Fassbinder who lends himself to a cascade of   descriptions: He was defiantly gay, quick-tempered, self-centered, rude, cruel, greedy when it came to cocaine and alcohol, and ferociously committed to making movies.
     Fassbinder’s work always made me think of writers I’ve known who are both smart and quick, the ones who can be good without the nagging indecision that slows the rest of us. 
     Rohler’s ultra-theatrical approach assumes familiarity with Fassbinder’s work and his artistry. It's a movie for Fassbinder aficionados, and full appreciation requires some knowledge of the roiling cultural scene that dominated Germany during the days when the New German cinema was beginning to stamp (and sometimes stomp) its presence on global cinema consciousness.
     Put another way, if Enfant Terrible were a college course, it would require prerequisites. Those steeped in Fassbinder’s work will recognize the names of some of Fassbinder's regular actors or the characters meant to represent them. Schygulla, for example, isn’t named. 
     The movie also watches Fassbinder at work on various of his movies.
     Filmed on sets and built around Masucci's necessarily out-sized performance, Enfant Terrible asks us to spend a couple of hours with a mostly unpleasant companion as it tumbles through Fassbinder’s career, which included the suicidal deaths of two lovers. 
    The key to Masucci's portrayal of Fassbinder lies in its inescapable physicality, an increasingly ample belly, a crop of uncombed hair, a drooping mustache, and a face that someone once described as looking more “Mongolian” than German. 
  Known for the Netflix series Dark and for playing Hitler in 2015's Look Who's Back, Masucci sports a look that might have inspired Al Pacino’s costume in the much-maligned Cruising, a 1980 movie about gay leather culture. 
    At times, Fassbinder’s behavior seems entirely boorish, which is why Schygulla’s description to a Guardian reporter stopped me.
   Enfant Terrible may not be a great or even a good movie. There’s only so much abusive behavior that viewers can tolerate without feeling that they, too, are being abused. And the characterization of Fassbinder doesn’t so much evolve, as spread like an indelible stain.
    But Enfant Terrible does capture something essential about Fassbinder. It makes you feel exactly what Schygulla had in mind, the smell of the man.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 5/7/'21: -- 'The Human Factor' and "Duty Free'

The Human Factor

Beginning in 1991 and running through the final days of President Bill Clinton's first term, The Human Factor takes a fascinating look at diplomatic efforts to forge a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. In some ways, The Human Factor qualifies as the ultimate insiders film with a variety of US diplomats revealing the moves and countermoves that created a process that ultimately failed. Israeli director Dror Moreh doesn't deal with Palestinians, although the various diplomats elaborate on Palestinian views. He focuses entirely on various US teams. Among those interviewed are Martin Indyk, a US diplomat with a self-explanatory title: US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, a post he occupied from 2013 to 2014, and Aaron David Miller, a 24-year veteran of the State Department. The movie spends more time with Clinton's efforts than with previous attempts at peacemaking, although it charts James Baker's Middle east efforts as Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush. The movie proves invaluable for many reasons aside from demonstrating the frustrating difficulties of trying to make peace in the Middle East. It highlights the personalities of the principal players including Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin and brims with fascinating detail: Told he couldn't wear his pistol at the Rose Garden ceremony where he was to shake hands with Rabin, Arafat suggested he'd settle for an empty holster. The request was denied. The differences between Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, and another Israeli  PM, Ehud Barak, proved particularly consequential when the talks landed at Camp David. Moreh skillfully uses photos, news footage and interviews to create a sense of intrigue even though we know that all these efforts will end in failure. Those interviewed reflect on their experiences with insight, and a fair measure of self-criticism, and The Human Factor reminds us that if negotiations are to reach anything resembling compromise, each side must be prepared to feel some serious pain.

Duty Free

When director Sian-Pierre Regis's 75-year-old mother was laid off from a hotel housekeeping job she'd held for more than 30 years, he decided to pick up a camera and make a film. Rebecca Danigelis, who moved to the US from Britain when she was 28, survived two marriages, gave up a daughter to a sister living in England when she became too ill to care for the child, and raised two sons, one of whom suffers from schizophrenia and is still partially supported by her. Regis helps his mom become computer literate so that she can apply for jobs but also decides that after years of sacrificing, Mom deserves a reward. He begins a Kickstarter campaign to fund a year in which his mother would be able to realize her bucket list, which includes items ranging from milking a cow to visiting England for a reunion with her now-grown daughter and other family members. She also tries Hip Hop dancing and sky diving in Hawaii. Regis's concern for his mother can be affecting but Duty Free remains a limited documentary, perhaps because learning about Danigelis' often-difficult life struck me as more interesting than watching her jump out of an airplane.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

No remorse, not much credibility either


The only rooting interest  I found in Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, the latest  thriller based on (what else?) a Clancy novel, was  Michael B. Jordan. A fine young actor, Jordan probably could benefit from becoming the key figure in another franchise, adding diversity to the group of actors who have played Clancy heroes. Other than that, Without Remorse clocks in as a brutal thriller in which Jordan plays John Clark, a Navy SEAL who feels betrayed by his government and possibly by a CIA agent (Jamie Bell).  The notion that the true patriot finds himself in opposition to both foreign enemies and a conniving US government laces through all of Without Remorse, which also features Guy Pearce as the Secretary of Defense and Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim) as no-nonsense SEAL commander who understands Clark's fury. After being misled about the Syria-based mission that opens the movie, Clark's real suffering begins: When a team of assassins tries to murder him in his suburban home, his pregnant wife is killed. Though wounded, Clark kills most of  the assassins. One (Brett Gelman) escapes. Sent to prison, Clark makes a deal that springs him, becoming the rogue who seeks vengeance -- with help from his military friends. Many bullets are fired as director Stefano Sollima delivers a by-the-numbers thriller that may please action fans but can’t shake the feeling that it rolled off the Clancy assembly line. A recall may not be necessary but a sequel would require significant improvement.

A house with a creepy secret

 Fresh from her Oscar-nominated turn as Marion Davies in Mank, Amanda Seyfried turns up as a troubled spouse in Things Heard & Seen, a movie that takes a stab at serious horror but can't puncture the  fog of cliches that settles over it.
    Adapted from a novel by Elizabeth Brundage, the story follows Seyfried's Catherine Clarie when she accompanies her husband (James Norton) to a small college in upstate New York in the 1980s. 
     Having just earned his doctorate, Norton's George makes a big impression on the head of his department (F. Murray Abraham), an academic with a keen interest in the spiritually oriented philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. Abraham's character also conducts seances. 
     Hey, somebody has to believe in ghosts,  otherwise a major part of the movie would qualify as an exploration of clinical insanity, which — come to think of it — might have been more intriguing.
     Perhaps to abet the movie's spiritual/paranormal flirtations, George professes an interest in George Inness, a 19th Century  American painter and devotee of Swedenborg with a talent for creating eerie landscapes.
    It doesn't take long before the fishy stuff begins. 
    Catherine abandoned her career restoring art to support George's professional life. Instead of expressing his gratitude, George gaslights her.
    Annoyingly affable, George barely conceals his dark side. He blames his wife's mounting unease on her eating disorder, a serious subject the movie irresponsibly neglects. 
   The isolated house into which George moves his wife and four-year-old daughter (Ana Sophia Heger) has a secret history, and the supporting cast suggests other avenues of exploration that mostly fizzle.
   Another couple (James Urbaniak and Rhea Seehorn) become part of the new arrivals' social network. George does waste much time before diving into hanky-panky, starting an affair with a young woman (Natalia Dyer) who works at a local stable.
    Alex Neustaedter portrays a handy man who works on the Claire home; he knows the secrets of the house and is sympathetic to Catherine. 
    Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini rely on at least one unforgivably convenient plot development and, most unfortunately, aren't always able to draw a clear enough line between what might deemed ghostly and what's just plain goofy.

Movie about a hitman misses badly

 It's almost a rule. An actor or actress wins an Oscar and the next time we see him or her in a movie it's a dud. In the depressingly dreary  VirtuosoAnthony Hopkins, recent winner of the best actor Oscar for his work in The Father, plays a mysterious Vietnam vet called The Mentor. During a scene set in a cemetery, Hopkins talks about his character's Vietnam experiences, delivering a monologue that sounds as if Hannibal Lecter is auditioning for the role of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Listening to The Mentor describe a massacre of civilians in which he participated becomes a self-conscious aria of Hopkins' speak. Hopkins isn't the main event in director Nick Stagliano's misfire. Anson Mount portrays the assassin who takes his assignments from the Mentor. After an early picture job results in some disastrous collateral damage, the assassin is sent to a small town to kill someone identified only as White Rivers. He arrives at a diner where he scopes out the clientele and meets a waitress (Abbie Cornish) who seems attracted to him. Throughout what seems intended as a guessing game about who’s trying to kill whom, the assassin talks to himself in what becomes the movie's monotonous narration. He blandly recites dialogue that sounds as if it had been lifted from Assassination for Dummies. He reminds himself that he's a professional. He emphasizes the need for perfection and precision. He should have reminded himself to inject some life into a movie that's pretty much DOA.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/30/'21 -- 'Outside Story,' 'Percy vs. Goliath' and 'Four Good Days’'

A word on Cinema Diary. You may wonder why some movies receive full reviews and others show up in this abbreviated format. Lots of reasons. Some of the involve the number of movies being released in a given week. Eight this week, for example. Some of the reasons for the Diary relate to when I've seen a particular movie and how many more movies I need to watch prior to the weekend.
At the same time, honesty compels me to say that the directors and actors who made these films didn't make them to be regarded as secondary efforts. I don't. At the same time, I've yet to find a way to cope with weeks that are flooded with new movies.

The Outside Story 

Movies don't get much more streamlined than Outside Story, a look at a man (Brian Tyree Henry) who locks himself out of his Brooklyn apartment, interacts with his neighbors, and wonders whether he should have broken up with his girlfriend (Sonequa Marin Green). Henry's Charles seems to be a nice guy, a film editor who specializes in assembling visual obituaries of celebrities. The key to the movie involves Henry's performance as a stressed-out but nice New Yorker who has encounters with a cop (Sunita Mani), a neighborhood kid (Olivia Edward), and an older woman (Lynda Gravatt) whose husband recently died. Director Casimir Nozkowski, who also wrote the screenplay, has a nice feeling for the idiosyncrasies of neighborhood relationships but he can't prevent the material from feeling a bit thin. Henry, currently on view in Godzilla vs. Kong, holds the movie together. Although the movie contains some conflict, the stakes feel pretty low -- which can be viewed as a blessing or a severe limitation or perhaps a bit of both.

Percy Vs Goliath

After seeing Christopher Walken miscast as an Irish farmer in Wild Mountain Thyme, I was dubious about Percy Vs Goliath, the story of a Canadian farmer who takes on the Monsanto in a prolonged court battle over patent rights involving canola seeds. But damn if Walken doesn't pull it off, doing credible work as Percy Schmeiser, a farmer who inadvertently planted Monsanto GMO seeds that had blown onto his property from a neighbor's farm. The result:  a prolonged suit. Roberta Maxwell portrays Schmeiser's wife Louise. Zach Braff signs on as the small-town lawyer who represents Schmeiser, and Christina Ricci appears as an environmental activist who encourages Schmeiser to challenge Monsanto. She also helps him take is story global with a visit to India. The story of a little man fighting a major corporation isn't exactly fresh but director Clark Johnson does a good job presenting complicated issues as Schmeiser's case makes its way to the Canadian Supreme Court. 

Four Good Days

Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it can breed fatigue when it comes to movies. Glenn Close and Mila Kunis play mother and daughter in an addiction drama about a young woman (Kunis) nearly ruined by drugs. Kunis' Molly wants to make another stab at kicking her habit so she asks her mother, Close's Deb, to take her in. This time she really means it -- or so she says. Director Rodrigo Garcia doesn't skimp on realism: Kunis has been given rotting teeth and a distressingly scrawny look. Deb blames Molly's addiction on the doctors who prescribed an Oxycontin regimen after a skiing injury. Since then, Deb has left her husband (Joshua Leonard) and her two kids. The title stems from the offer Molly receives from a detox doctor: If she can stay clean for four days, he'll give her a shot that will keep her from getting high on heroin. If she takes the shot before her system has been cleansed, she could die from its effects. Close and Kunis deliver strong performances but the movie can't escape the dogged quality of the storytelling.  It's difficult not to feel a bit guilty about wanting a fresh charge from an addiction movie, particularly one based on a true story. Still, we feel a bit like Deb feels when Molly shows up at her door after 14 failed attempts at rehab. What? You want us to go down this movie road again?