Friday, June 11, 2021

The traps of gang life

 Set in Toronto and New York, Akilla's Escape takes a big leap, beginning with Jamaican politics before jumping to urban gang life in the US and Canada. The movie wants us to make a connection. Akilla’s Escape plays on two tracks. In one we meet, Akilla, a 15-year-old whose father (Ronnie Rowe, Jr.) runs a hard-boiled gang. He also  tries to school his son in what he regards as warrior values. This part of the movie is set against a similar story about Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a Toronto teenager who also finds himself caught up in gang life.  The grown Akilla (Saul Williams) -- now moved to Toronto -- becomes involved in Sheppard’s life when their paths cross in a drug transaction. Williams gives a quietly solid performance as a man who understands Sheppard's problems. He wants out of the marijuana business, which has wearied his soul. A strong Mpumlwana plays dual roles, appearing both as Sheppard and the young Akilla. This sometimes proves disorienting but it underscores the movie's point about the continuing cycle that envelops young black men who fall into the gang-controlled drug trade. Sheppard's aunt (Donisha Rita Claire Prendergast) asks Akilla to rescue her nephew from the drug barons who are trying to locate the boy as part of their attempt to retrieve looted cash.  In trying to save Sheppard, Akilla is also trying to finds his own salvation. It's a powerful theme, even if director Charles Officer sometimes loses its thread.  Still, credit Officer for bringing a sense of tragic realism to what could have been one more thriller with nothing to say.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

'In the Heights' hits lots of high notes


     With In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda established himself as a major figure in American musical theater. Miranda followed In the Heights with Hamilton, the production that took Broadway and then the nation by storm. 
    Now In the Heights has reached the big screen where it serves as a vibrant celebration of the Washington Heights neighborhood that has become a center of New York Dominican culture, broadened here to encompass a variety of Latino ethnicities living in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
    The message behind the energy that director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and a fine cast bring to the movie involves identity and assertiveness, insistence of characters on building lives in New York while keeping their culture close at hand.
   A large-scale ensemble piece, the movie nonetheless centers around Usnavi de la Vega played by Anthony Ramos in a commanding performance. Ramos narrates the story and also participates in the tale as a bodega owner who, in the movie's framing device, tells a group of youngsters how he wrestled with the idea of giving up his New York business and emigrating to the Dominican Republic to open a nightclub.
    Scenes in the bodega make good use of Gregory Diaz IV, who plays Sonny, Usnavi's teen assistant, a kid who wants to legalize his presence in the US, attend college, and make a life for himself.
    Chu introduces the movie in a way that makes it clear that he's telling the story of a neighborhood, showing us a block springing to life on a hot summer day. To underscore the challenges of big-city living, a crippling power outage looms.
    A large case keeps things lively, but a few of the performances must be highlighted.  Leslie Grace plays Nina, a young woman who has returned to the neighborhood after dropping out of Stanford, where she didn't feel accepted and where she felt she was betraying her roots. 
    Nina's father (Jimmy Smits) owns the cab company where Nina's boyfriend (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher.
    Most of the movie's themes revolve around the issue of flight, how to balance aspiration with faithfulness to heritage.
    -- Smits's character is ready to sell his business to finance Nina's tuition.
    -- Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) runs the local hair salon and is thinking about moving her business to the Grand Concourse, abandoning Manhattan for the Bronx.
    -- Melissa Barrera portrays Vanessa, a young woman who wants to abandon the Heights to establish herself in the downtown fashion world.  
     The beating heart of the neighborhood belongs to Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a Cuban-American woman who has no children but who has become a grandmother figure for the entire neighborhood.   
     Merediz sings one of the movie’s key songs, Paciencia y Fe  (Hope and Patience), which Chu stages in a New York subway station.
    Chu adds some nice graphics and effects flourishes, one involving a spinning manhole cover, another enabling Grace and Hawkins to scale the side of an apartment building as they sing a love duet. 
     Other highlights include a number at the local pool, where the characters wondering what they'd do if they had a winning lottery ticket that would pay $96,000.
    Miranda appears in the role of Piraguero, the guy who sells flavored ice from a pushcart.
    When I lived in New York, Washington Heights was known as an Irish neighborhood, a fact to which the screenplay makes glancing reference. Smits’s character bought his business from an Irish-American who was moving elsewhere.
    The movie's themes aren't exactly groundbreaking, but new voices give the entire enterprise an invigorating feeling of freshness.
     Chu and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the movie's screenplay, might have done a bit more to condense a two-hour and 23-minute run time, but In the Heights stands as a rich and spirited entertainment that brims with love for a neighborhood and the people who populate it. 
    Oh, and did I mention that it’s also a lot of fun?

Friday, June 4, 2021

A foray into a New York subculture

Manhattan can be a peculiar place, a teeming impersonal hunk of urban landscape that's conducive to the formation of what can seem like thousands of subcultures. That was true when I lived there in the '60s and '70s and it's evidently still true, at least judging by Port Authority.  Set partly in the Kiki ballroom scene, the movie features a notable performance from Lenya Bloom, a model and actress who became the first trans woman to star in a movie at a major festival when Port Authority had its debut at Cannes in 2019. Bloom portrays Wye, a trans woman who's part of the Kiki ballroom scene, which seems to consist primarily of  LGBTQ+ young people who create family structures for themselves. Paul (Fionn Whitehead) stumbles into this world after arriving in New York from Pittsburgh. He’s supposed to be met at the Port Authority Bus Terminal by his half-sister. When she doesn’t show, Paul falls in with Lee (McCaul Lombardi), who earns a meager living doing less-than-honorable work for landlords. Wye treats Paul with concern that he badly needs and romance looms. Director Danielle Lessovitz doesn't dot every "i" or cross every "t" but her story immerses us in a scene that most of us only know from documentaries about vogue dancing. The central relationship between Paul and Wye feels a bit undercooked and it takes an improbably long time for Paul to realize that Wye is transgender. But Lessovitz strikes a strong note by reminding us that people the larger society tends to marginalize often find one another, building sheltering worlds in the bargain -- in other words, Port Authority qualifies as a real New York story.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Myth and romance mingle in "Undine'

    It takes near foolhardy courage to make a contemporary romance that wraps present-day realities around a fairy-tale spine. Director Christian Petzold (Transit) takes the dare with Undine, the story of the relationship between an industrial diver (Franz Rogowski) and Undine (Paula Beer), a woman who delivers lectures about the history of Berlin.
    Oh, and by the way, Undine is a water nymph.
    Rogowski's meets Undine after she's been ditched by Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a jerk who we later learn is married and cheating on his wife. 
    Rogowski and Beer light sparks as their romance plays against a backdrop of daily life. If you know the Undine myth, you know that Undine is fated to kill any lover who's unfaithful to her. 
   Confident in his approach, Petzold makes no apologies for the movie's folkloric elements, allowing them to turn up in the midst of a story based in Berlin and the surrounding countryside. He presents the mythical without fanfare. 
   The movie’s appeal has less to do with its story or any mythology than with the charm of its two leads, with the poise Petzold brings to his filmmaking and the grace notes he sounds. 
    Watching Christoph welding underwater as he helps repair a turbine immerses us in a dark silent world of mystery. 
    Petzold's story includes elements of deceit and vengeance but also reaches for exalted levels of devotional love, the kind that you might expect to find on an opera stage.
   At its best, Undine flows and floats its way through an unconventional story that like the models of Berlin that Undine uses for her lectures knows that many layers lie beneath its contemporary surface.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

This "Spirit' need to be more untamed

 Middle-of-the-road live-action movies seldom delight. Same goes for middle-of-the-road animated features,  and that's the category in which the new movie Spirit Untamed landsA predecessor movie -- Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron -- debuted in 2002. Now comes another helping that tries to touch as many bases as possible, mixing a multicultural cast of characters with lots of action and a girl-power pep talk. A wild horse befriends Lucky Prescott, (voice by Isabela Merced), a 12-year-old girl who travels west with her aunt (Julianne Moore). Lucky is supposed-to visit her father (Jake Gyllenhaal), a decent but broken man who hasn't recovered from the loss of Lucky's mom,   a trick-rider who was killed in an accident. Lucky quickly makes friends with two girls (Mckenna Grace and Marsai Martin) in the small town where she lands. She also defies her dad, who warns her to avoid Spirit, a wild horse that winds up in the town corral. Lucky's mastery of riding goes from zero to highly skilled within an improbable few minutes. The plot takes an adventure turn when Lucky sets out to rescue Spirit from a rustler (Walton Goggins) and his dastardly gang.  Little about the animation feels particularly special. Even with some mild ecological concerns, Spirit Untamed feels like multiplex filler. In the absence of any other kid-fare, Spirit might suffice, but it's mostly a negligible hunk of family oriented entertainment.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

‘Cruella’ adds new flair to a Disney stalwart

    Watching Emma Stone and Emma Thompson clash provides sufficient reason to see Cruella, a lively, surprisingly mordant story about how the famed Disney villainess Cruella De Vil became such a narcissistic queen. 
   Set in London during the 1970s, Cruella may be one franchise-based Disney movie that leans decidedly toward adult appreciation with its sharply drawn characters, lavish production design, and costumes that have been created with irresistible flair.
   Normally, costumes shouldn't trump the actors but, in the case of Cruella, they assume the status of a character. You might even say that the movie is about two women and the clothes they wear.
    Designer Jenny Beavan does a terrific job creating the movie's fashions, which are shown at parties, balls, and in the daily flow of the Baroness's life. Inventive and almost plausible, the costumes become testimonials to sartorial wit and imagination.
    Director Craig Gillespie (I Tanya) fuses coming-of-age tropes with a story that evokes memories of The Devil Wears Prada, meaning that the movie has a kind of insiders kick you won't find in the 1961 animated original, 101 Dalmations. 
    In this case, the movie's giant-sized supply of narcissism resides in the ostentatiously attired person of The Baroness (Thompson). An imperious fashionista, The Baroness's iron-fisted rule over haute couture remains unchallenged, even as punk culture and thrift-store chic begin their ascendance.
    Looking as if her face has been cast in bronze and sporting a bee-hive-sized mound of hair, Thompson creates a character of sharp edges, venomous bite, and casually expressed sadism. Let's just say that she takes the idea of being dressed to kill a little too literally.
   Egotism aside, the Baroness has an eye for original talent, especially if she can exploit it. She's quick to spot the latent genius in Stone's Estella, the young woman who -- as the story unfolds -- morphs into Cruella.  
    Early on, Estella can be found working in a department store where she scrubs floors. During a drunken evening locked in the store, she creates a window display with enough originality to impress the Baroness. Estella's rise to stardom begins.
     But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Cruella's plot kicks off with a young Estrella defying school rules. After the death of her mother, the newly orphaned Estella finds a London-based support system built around two larcenous characters, Joel Fry's Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser's Horace. This comic duo eventually serves to tweak Estella's diminishing conscience.
   Once Estella becomes an employee at the Baroness's fashion house, we know that she'll eventually eclipse her mentor. Born with two-tone black and white hair, Estella dons a wig until her metaphorically divided mop-top emerges and she fully  transforms into Cruella.
     Stone handles the transformation well as Estella happily learns to focus her more vindictive impulses.
     This shift and a predictable plot reveal trigger the melodramatic revenge saga that dominates the movie's final act, which suffers from a bit of bloat. But kudos to Disney for not forcing Gillespie and a strong cast into Disney straitjackets. 
    Among other things, Cruella dedicates itself to the notion that there's something both ridiculous and amusing about clothing that eschews function in favor of ornamental arrogance. 
    I'm not saying that Cruella trashes Disney. The movie acknowledges its Disney past but mostly succeeds in taking it to entertaining new levels. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Expect jolts. Surprise? Not so much

   I suppose it makes twisted sense that the first film I've seen with an audience since the start of the great Covid pandemic is a sequel, namely A Quiet Place Part II
   Sitting in a multiplex with a state-of-the-art auditorium, I felt an alarming sense of deja vu. Rather than feeling elated about returning to the theatrical experience, I felt as if nothing had changed in more than a year.
    I wanted renewal. I got more of the same — which makes a decent lead-in to the review of Part II.
   Director John Krasinski follows the unexpected success of the 2018 original with a movie in which the technical achievements -- the use of sound in a story about  ferocious  aliens with heightened hearing abilities  -- built unnerving levels of  suspense. 
    In case you've forgotten, another reminder: The Quiet Place aliens respond to noise. Make a sound and they'll hunt you down faster than you can switch from here to another Web site.
   And, no, I'm not suggesting you try that.
  In the first outing, Krasinski concocted a movie in which waiting -- the simple act of having to be silent -- crackled with suspense and we marveled at the ingenuity required for a mother and father (Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt) to save their family.
    Now,  the attacks and their attendant noise constitute the main event: Noises trigger the attacks which proceed with fury and lots of of flashing teeth and claws. In 2021, the aliens are more than ready for their close-ups.
    Fans of the first installment also remember that Krasinski's character died in that movie. Perhaps to serve as a refresher, Krasinski opens Part II with an action-filled prologue in which he appears.
    Fast and efficient, the prologue gets things off to an ominous start, introducing a couple of major characters whose issues echo throughout.
    As a kid whose Little League game is interrupted by an alien invasion, Noah Jupe's Marcus must overcome a quivering lack of confidence. Millicent Simmonds portrays Marcus's sister Regan, a teenager who can't hear but who has enough smarts and courage to see things through.
    Once the opening fades, Krasinski leaps ahead to the time when Blunt's character, her three children (one still an infant) are on the run without their late father to help. Most of the pre-invasion world has fallen into that most sacred of movie territories, wanton disrepair.
   This is not to say that Krasinski totally succumbs to second-movie fatigue. The set pieces -- Regan entering an empty (wanna bet?) train car and Blunt racing toward safety carrying oxygen tanks -- are effectively tense. If you like jump scares, you won't be short-changed.
   The story derives most of its momentum from a plotline in which Regan attempts to find a safe harbor for her family. 
   She's joined by a former neighbor. Emmett (a bearded Cillian Murphy) reluctantly offers the wandering Abbott family shelter before joining Regan in a search triggered by a clue: a perpetual broadcast of Bobby Darin's Beyond the Sea
    Could it be a message about a place the aliens have yet to reach?
    Putting the movie's characters into separate story arcs doesn't always pay off.  A cross-cutting series of sequences that shifts between Jupe and Simmonds has a pro-forma quality about it and the movie's ending feels as if someone simply decided it was time to go home.
     Part II probably will make some noise at the box office and may encourage conversation about the ways in which a movie about disruptions to normal life resonates during the time of Covid. 
     I was jolted. I felt some of the more suspenseful moments but I wish I could tell you that in its fleet 97 minutes, Part II approached the surprise level of the original.
     Like the aliens that attack suddenly and at warp speed, Part II moves quickly but leaves little in its wake. Adding nothing much by way of depth or discovery, Part II feels more like an encore than a great sequel. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

They recall their days in Nazi Germany

    As people in their 80s and 90s, they've had plenty of time to reflect on what it was like to be young in Hitler's Germany. They've also had time to consider whether their actions, particularly those who served in the Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS, made them a party to Nazi crimes, particularly the Holocaust. 
   In recalling their childhoods, many talk about how they enthusiastically joined Nazi organizations for kids, graduating at 14 to the uniformed ranks of the Hitler Youth. They liked the camaraderie, the sense that they were part of something larger than themselves.
   Some of the men who served in the military have become masters of moral compartmentalization. They were proud to serve the Fatherland but felt shame at what Germany did to Jews.
     Many of the interviewees in director Luke Holland's documentary Final Account say they felt  powerlessness to challenge Nazi rule, unable to do anything about the crimes that some of them admit to having seen or even to have helped perpetrate. 
   At least one former SS man refuses to dishonor the memory of Hitler, although he says that the Jews should have been deported en masse rather than killed. 
   Another insists that no more than a million Jews died in the Holocaust. Six million? Never happened, he says.
   Still another says that he allowed himself to be blinded to the brutal truths of the Third Reich.
   The film progresses from the 1930s to the height of the war years and into the first decade of the 21st Century, inviting us to ponder the expressions on the faces we see. Is that a half-smile? If so, what does it mean? How much are those who speak allowing themselves to see?
   Holland keeps his film on an even keel, punctuating interviews with images of the German countryside, historical footage (some of it in color), and views of various German concentration and death camps.
    Shot mostly in 2008, Final Account represents a somber distillation of the hundreds of interviews the director conducted. Holland died last year at the age of 71. During his teen years in England, he found out that his mother was a Jewish woman forced to flee Vienna to escape the Nazis.
    Final Account boasts two valuable achievements: It augments the historical record and challenges us to engage with essential questions about complicity, responsibility, and guilt.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

'Army of the Dead' has some bite


     Director Zack Snyder, whose recently released, re-cut four-hour version of Justice League excited his fan base, elevates Army of the Dead with visionary flourishes and gory zombie verve. 
   Hollywood's symphony of flesh-eating violence has become all-too-familiar but Snyder renews interest by enlarging the obvious and tossing a couple of genres (zombie and caper films) into a blood-splashed blender.
    After a nifty prologue, the story begins in earnest. Casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires Dave Bautista's Scott Ward to enter quarantined Las Vegas, a city that has been overrun by zombies. The job: to survive the undead predators and retrieve $200 million Tanaka left in a vault at one of his hotels.
    To accomplish his task, Ward assembles a hard-boiled crew consisting of Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), who previously worked as mercenaries with Ward. Also along for the ride are a wiseass helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro), a safecracker (Matthias Schweighofer), and a sniper (Raul Castillo).
    Lily (Nora Arnezeder) leads the group through the wreckage. She works as a coyote smuggling folks into the forbidden zone.
    Ward's daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) also joins the zombie-fighting entourage. She doesn't get along with her dad but wants to rescue her pal Geeta (Huma Qureshi), a woman who's stuck in Vegas and has no idea that a super-lethal clock is ticking. 
    To put a halt to the zombie apocalypse, the US has committed to nuking Vegas on the Fourth of July. When the deadline is moved up, the invaders are left with only hours to grab the money and run.
     Not all the zombies are staggering, mindless chompers. Zeus (Richard Crettonne), the roaring king of the zombies, is deeply offended when his queen (Athena Perample) loses her head, which one of Ward's crew keeps for reasons that I won't reveal here.
     Part caper movie, part dystopian nightmare, part spoof, and part barrage of automatic weapons fire, the movie delivers a satirical blow to an easy target, a Las Vegas complete with its own zombie Elvis impersonators and a ferocious zombie tiger named Valentine. 
    Snyder, who directed 2004's Dawn of the Dead, also served as  cinematographer for Army of the Dead, which allows him to take part credit for some of the movie's teeming canvas: Zombie hordes, ravaged casinos, and hotels reduced to rubble create an unruly backdrop of decay.
     Army of the Dead is designed to be part of a franchise. I don't know how I feel about the prospect of more of these movies but this one allows Snyder to assemble an overflow of genre ingredients and give them a swift, often amusing kick -- providing, of course, that you can consider anything about a movie that lasts for two hours and 28 minutes to be "swift."