Thursday, May 16, 2019

John Wick's body count continues to rise

Keanu Reeves returns as the assassin who fights for his own survival in Chapter 3 of a series that's propelled by well-choreographed violence.

I'm not sure that John Wick has entered the highest ranks of iconic action characters, but he sure qualifies as one of the breed's most violent. If Keanu Reeves, who plays Wick, were paid by the number of dead bodies his character leaves in his wake, he'd be one of the richest men in Hollywood. In John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum, Wick's assailants fall like swatted flies.

Here's the Wick drill: Run. Pause. Put a gun to the head of an opponent. Fire once. Move gun. Fire again. Run some more. Repeat. And that's only the film's first half hour.

Directed by Chad Stahelski, Chapter 3 skillfully spreads two hours and 10 minutes of choreographed violence across the screen, continuing the series' bow at the altar of Hong Kong action where this kind of filmmaking first made its bones.

The screenplay for Chapter 3 isn't likely to wow anyone with either subtlety or plot. It provides a serviceable clothesline on which the film hangs its bloody accomplishments, all executed with obvious aplomb.

The point of movies such as this is to serve up the kind of massive violence that makes audiences laugh at the sheer audacity of the achievement -- and also wince on those occasions when things get particularly macabre: a sword through the gut, a knife slammed directly into a skull or a head cracked open with a blunt force blow applied to a library book that has been shoved into someone's mouth.

I mean all this as praise for the stab-kick-shoot-and-run brand of cinema that the John Wick movies have been selling since the original debuted in 2014. You have to give a bit of twisted credit to a movie that manages to work horses into the action while teaching an important lesson: Never stand behind a large animal that's capable of kicking you to next county.

All you need to know about the story is that Wick has gotten himself crosswise with the High Table, an organization that governs the world's assassins. He begins the movie with a $14-million bounty on his head. So, he runs, fights, gets bloodied and does his best to survive. The formula remains clear: Wick's survival requires the deaths of many others.

The movie sprinkles all this with a variety of characters designed either to help Wick or to kill him. Halle Berre shows up as Sofia, an assassin with two attack dogs that have been trained to latch onto an assailant's crotch. Anjelica Huston plays a ballet director who also runs a Russian mob operation. No judgment. Lots of people in the arts have to find ways to supplement their income. Mark Dacascos portrays Zero, a fighter who wants to bring Wick down even though he admires his prowess.

Some of the regulars show up, as well. These include Winston (Ian McShane), as the manager of the Continental Hotel and Lance Reddick, as the hotel's concierge. The Continental, you'll recall, is a safe zone where assassins can recharge their batteries without fear of being killed.< I doubt whether aspiring actors are going to be studying Reeve’s line readings and there’s no question that Chapter 3 overdoes its brutal thing. By the picture’s late going, I began to become — if not bored —- a bit indifferent to all the mayhem.

It's also worth noting that for all its action, Chapter 3 qualifies as something of a place holder, setting up the next movie which promises to be an even greater ass-kicker than this one. Maybe that movie will be called John Wick: Chapter 4 -- He Kills Everyone.

Can he be saved from death row

Strong performances but director Edward Zwick's anti-capital punishment movie is too on-the-nose.

Director Edward Zwick takes a direct hit at capital punishment with Trial By Fire, a drama based on the real-life story of a Texas man who was sentenced to die for a heinous crime. Todd Willingham was convicted of starting a fire in which his three children died.

Zwick serves up the drama in three acts. In the first, we meet a Texas couple, a low-down George and Martha -- Willingham and his wife (Emily Meade) -- who engage in no-holds-barred screaming matches, some of which turn physical.

Tragedy strikes early. Willingham wakes up one morning to discover that his house is on fire. When he can't save his children from the blaze, he winds up being charged with arson and murder.

At Willingham's trial, Zwick exposes gaps between the facts of the case and the testimony of police, witnesses, and experts. To make matters worse for Willingham, his alleged crime is viewed as horrible enough to deprive him of any public sympathy.

The movie's third act takes place in a Texas prison where Willingham awaits execution on death row. Still seething with anger, he fights with other inmates but insists on his innocence.

Late in his 12-year stay on death row, Willingham encounters Elizabeth (Laura Dern), a woman with whom he begins a correspondence. Initially wary, Elizabeth soon sets out to prove Willingham's innocence, a task that puts her in touch with key players who helped put Willingham on death row.

All of this plays out in ways that make the movie feel longer than its two hours, perhaps because Zwick digresses with flashbacks and because some parts of the story unfold independently of one another.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that Zwick ultimately takes a shot at Texas-style justice and the state's then Governor Rick Perry. He also designs the movie to show one of the major flaws in the argument for capital punishment. Death sentences can involve overzealous police work, shoddy defense counseling, and corrupted witnesses. Valid arguments, of course, but they give Trial By Fire a position-paper aura.

O’Connell and Dern give fine performances, as does Meade, as Willingham's wife. Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai) has an eye for a good story. But heavy-handed didacticism makes parts of Trial By Fire feel rigged, costing the story some of its power. As a result, Trial By Fire's anti-capital punishment stance most likely will speak only to the already converted.

'Shadow,' a darkly hued stunner

Director Zhang Yimou's latest stands as a foray into intrigue, warfare, martial arts and cinema aesthetics.
It's arguable that Zhang Yimou, who made his reputation as part of China’s vaunted fifth generation of filmmakers, never has equaled the achievement of some of his early work: movies such as Red Sorghum (1987) Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991).

A series of smaller, less formally structured movies such as To Live followed Zhang's international breakthrough. Then, he shifted gears. In 2002, he released Hero, a martial arts spectacle. Now comes Shadow, Zhang's latest costume/martial arts drama, a darkly hued epic in which heightened moments of intrigue play against fight sequences that are vivid, memorable and inventive.

Some rightly have seen the movie as a return to form for Zhang after 2016's deeply miscalculated The Great Wall, which starred Matt Damon as a white warrior battling monsters on (what else?) The Great Wall.

Set during China's Three Kingdoms period, Shadow pits rival factions in a battle to control a city that will cement the unity of the Kingdom of Pei. An insufferably egotistical and apparently incompetent leader, the king of Pei (Zheng Kai) wants peace at any price. He refuses to engage the other side in combat, even after its leader insults the king’s sister (Xiaotong Guan) by proposing that she become a concubine for his son.

Such is the story’s framework, but the spine of the tale involves the king’s main warrior, Commander Yu (Chao Deng). Gravely wounded in a battle that precedes the movie, the Commander wants to fight the foe for possession of the city of Jing. But — and here’s the plot’s main twist — the Commander is a doppelganger, a peasant selected by the real Commander who has been too weakened by battle wounds to carry on. Chao plays both roles.

The ruse forces Yu to feign a relationship with the Commander's beautiful wife (Sun Li), a woman known for playing zither duets with her husband. Not surprisingly, the double begins to fall for the Commander's wife, a woman he tries to keep at a distance.

Seasoned with high-toned melodrama and a purposefully exaggerated performance style, The Shadow builds toward an incomparably presented siege of Jing featuring images that are unlike anything I’ve seen before, including the use of umbrellas that open into a whirl of lethal blades. Zhang also offers an ingenious take on warfare's fabled Trojan Horse.

But it’s not just the weapons that make victory possible, it’s a martial arts move discovered by the general’s wife, a sashaying maneuver that adds thematic heft. Based on distinctly feminine gestures, this signature martial arts move looks almost comical when executed by men. No matter: Defeat can be avoided only if the feminine and masculine are conjoined.

The Shadow lies somewhere between the grandeur of Shakespeare and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, but the movie emerges as a visually towering work, perhaps even a fertile middle ground between Zhang’s earlier and later efforts. Searing battles bolster an intimate drama about power grabbing at the royal court.

Now 69, Zhang fuses spectacle and drama in a work that brims with intrigue and visual invention and reminds us what can happen when a master makes a movie that's steeped in conflicts so grand they feel as if the world's entire order hangs in the balance.

Time travel with a difference

See You Yesterday has a great main character and a pleasing home-grown feel.
The movies have a new heroine. She’s Claudette, a science whiz portrayed by 19-year-old Eden Duncan-Smith. Claudette even has a sidekick. He’s Sebastian, played by Dante Crichlow. These two budding geniuses attend New York city’s vaunted Bronx High School of Science. They’re super-smart and college bound. They also reside in a Brooklyn neighborhood where encounters with the police sometimes turn fatal.

The new movie See You Yesterday mixes sci-fi (time travel) and social anxieties in ways that are fresh and ultimately telling. Director Stefon Bristol gives a down-home spin to an implausible premise when Claudette and Sebastian invent backpacks that will enable them to travel backward in time — albeit only for 10 minutes of the previous day.

Before Claudette and Sebastian embark on one of their brief journeys, Claudette's brother (Brian Bradley, a.k.a., Astro) is killed by an overeager cop. Claudette wants to return to the scene of the incident that cost her innocent brother his life. Can she save him and restore order to her disrupted world?

A simple premise is enriched by the screenplay's smart observations about kids, responsibility and the thorny issues involved in trying to come to grips with inconsolable pain.

These bright black kids (in itself a worthy addition to the screen) never are separated from the world in which they live. They may be book smart but they’re hardly naive about the neighborhood they inhabit, a part of the city where solid family life can be juxtaposed with street encounters that easily can go bad.

Produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday doesn’t try to overpower the audience with typical time-travel tropes and overblown special effects.

Wisely, it stays close to its two main characters and, in the end, has more to say about how young people deal with injustice than about what it means to crack open the space-time continuum.

Put another way, this helping of sci-fi is bathed in the persistent intelligence of its main character, a commanding teenager with more on her mind than finding the next big party.

Nicely assembled and fleet at 86 minutes in length, See You Yesterday avoids the pre-packaged feel of a high-concept product that has been rolled off a studio assembly line. It's a home-grown kick.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The long voyage to nowhere

In this Swedish movie, space is not the final frontier; it's a punishment.
Not known for sci-fi movies, Sweden enters the fray with Anaria, a movie with a space-travel premise and a depressive soul that could have been channeled from the movies of another Swede, Ingmar Bergman. The story takes place aboard a spacecraft that begins a 23-day voyage to Mars. The passengers plan to start anew, the Earth having been ravaged. But a collision with space debris throws the craft off course. So begins a journey toward nowhere. The story centers on a character called MR (Emelie Jonsson), a woman who works in the part of the ship where passengers experience hallucinatory trips through their own memories, many involving Earth before whatever apocalypse made it uninhabitable. Directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja nicely establish the onboard environment, a cross between a shopping mall and a theme park that seems to have been designed by someone for whom consumer friendliness had become a religion. When things go wrong, the story works its way through a variety of problems that hinge on the ability of the crew and its captain (Arvin Kananian) to maintain hope. But the vast emptiness of space makes a mockery of hope, particularly when course correction efforts must be measured in years. The directors do a good job presenting the slow unraveling of both the onboard environment and the ship's many passengers. Alliances come and go. A cult forms. MR establishes a relationship with a female crew member. Imagine an entire goalless lifetime in which you’re adrift in an unfathomably large cosmos. Sound familiar? If so, it’s because the movie clearly has deep philosophical ambitions. Anaria gets its ideas across but doesn’t make them as deeply felt as material such as this probably requires. The film’s final image comes close to being haunting, but the entire idea of a going nowhere generates a bit of inherent boredom that sometimes clouds the journey.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

They con their way to laughs

Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson play clashing con artists in The Hustle, a reasonably entertaining comedy.

The Hustle -- a comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson -- remakes 1964's Bedtime Story, a movie that itself was remade as 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a much-praised comedy that starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Clearly, the aim here was gender reversal with women taking the lead as dueling con artists locked in a competition meant to tax all their felonious skills.

The comedy derives from a classic oil-on-water clash of personalities that are embodied in Wilson's unashamedly crude Penny and Hathaway's ostentatiously sophisticated Josephine.

Though uneven and burdened by a coda that works against the movie's feminist tilt, the comedy benefits from three attributes: An inviting setting -- Beaumont Sur Mer (a fictional town on the French Riviera) -- and two all-in performances from Hathaway and Wilson.

Clad in costumes that amount to a one-woman fashion show, Hathaway employs a variety of accents, mostly to good comic effect. Wilson adds plenty of ribald energy.

The con jobs carried out by these women aren't especially convincing and a major gag (Wilson's character feigns blindness) flirts with questionable taste, but Hathaway and Wilson work well together and there are enough chuckles to satisfy amusement-hungry appetites.

The story revolves around a competition in which the two women, who are battling for possession of the same luxe turf, try to con a young app developer. Alex Sharp brings gee-golly innocence to his portrayal of a tech whiz with money.

The big gags sometimes feel like examples of sketch humor dropped into the story. At one point, the women wrangle high-priced engagement rings from various marks -- notably, a Texan played by Dean Norris. Penny poses as Josephine's crazy sister, a mad woman who purportedly accompanies any marriage to the lustrous Josephine. Once exposed to Penny, the enticed fiances can't flee quickly enough.

Director Chris Addison doesn't seem to be chasing cinematic history; the movie makes no attempt to conceal its escapist impulses, so even if The Hustle fails to enter the pantheon of great comedy, it proves reasonably entertaining. Moreover, its two stars manage to dispel the aroma of familiarity (what another con-job movie?) that could have put a choke-hold on their efforts.

A movie that can't match an extraordinary life

Ralph Fiennes directs The White Crow, a choppy bio-pic about ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Actor Ralph Fiennes again moves behind the camera to direct The White Crow, the story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. But rather than soaring, his movie slogs, perhaps because an extraordinary life deserves an extraordinary movie. Structurally choppy and unevenly acted, The White Crow seldom gets beyond adequate.

Aside from his dance career (or perhaps in conjunction with it), Nureyev became an international celebrity after defecting to the West in 1961. Regarded as one of the premier male dancers of his day, Nureyev turned his back on the Soviet Union while touring with the Kirov Ballet in Paris.

In the White Crow, Fiennes touches on various incidents in Nureyev's life. But he doesn't infuse his movie with any overriding point of view about artistry, politics or even the world of ballet.

Burdened by flashbacks to Nureyev's childhood, the movie features a Nureyev played by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko. Ivenko's Nureyev comes across as a vibrant, assertive young man with a killer stage presence that sometimes made up for a lack of technical polish, at least in the dancer's early years.

Working from a screenplay by playwright David Hare, Fiennes treats Nureyev as kind of "it" boy of the dance, a sexually fluid young man who begins to discover the world in Paris, making frequent trips to the Louvre. He also immerses in Parisian nightlife, usually in the company of the young woman (Adele Exarchopoulos) who eventually helps stage Nureyev's defection, which takes place at a Paris airport and constitutes the film's high point.

Fiennes himself makes an appearance as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev's Leningrad-based instructor who's something of a sad sack, a less-than-charismatic soul. Recovering from an injury, Nureyev moves in with Pushkin. The proximity leads to an affair between Nureyev and Pushkin's wife (Chulpan Khamatova), not exactly the best way for a young dancer to thank his mentor.

The movie gets close to a subject that needed more examination: the complex relationship between Nureyev and a Soviet minder (Aleksey Morozov) who has difficulty reconciling his duties (preventing defections) with Nureyev's free-spirited nature.

Fiennes includes dance sequences that reflect an appreciation of dance by doing what should have been done throughout the entire movie: Dances are mostly presented whole, not chopped into bits that disrupt the narrative flow.

The White Crow also touches on Nureyev's bisexuality. (He died of AIDS in 1993.) And as portrayed by Ivenko, it's clear that Nureyev may have thought that his talent justified his self-involvement. He didn't seem to think much about others.

The movie seems to assume that we already know that Nureyev was a major figure in dance. Lacking, however, is a feeling for the fascination that brought Fiennes to this project in the first place. Too much of the time, The White Crow is a movie without a sense of the imperative.

Bob's cinema diary: 4/8/'19 Dogman and Charlie Says

Dogman

Marcello (Marcello Fonte) earns his living grooming dogs. But in the rundown Italian coastal town where Marcello lives, this simple occupation may not be enough to support an estranged wife and a young daughter. So Marcello occasionally sells cocaine. The great irony of director Matteo Garrone's Dogman centers on Marcello’s personality. Cocaine or no, he hardly seems a typical gangster. He's a simple, good-hearted fellow who tries to get along with everyone, including the town bully (Edoardo Pesce). Pesce's Simone becomes a kind of one-man scourge, attacking people, destroying property and generally terrorizing the town's residents. He's so much a nuisance that one of the town’s businessmen go so far as to propose that an assassin be hired. As the story unfolds, Garrone (Gomorrah) turns Marcello into an unfortunate sap whose innocence and rudimentary sense of honor only add to his troubles. Garrone’s narrative builds toward an explosive ending that leaves Marcello alone and abandoned against the decaying landscape of the town where he has tried so hard to fit in. Those familiar with Garrone's work will be tempted to read metaphorical meanings into a simple tale that takes place against a backdrop of ruined buildings. As we follow Marcello's story, hope gradually gives way to feelings of abandonment. Marcello displays sweet affection for dogs and for his daughter. Even so, Garrone refuses to see life in Italy (and perhaps beyond) through a lens tinted by optimism. In Dogman, Marcello’s love for others goes largely unrequited.

Charlie Says

Rather than try to explain Charles Manson, director Mary Harron's Charlie Says concentrates on Manson’s spell-binding relationship with the women who ultimately carried out or abetted him in the Tate/LaBianca murders, endlessly discussed crimes that left an indelible mark on American culture. The movie focuses on three women: Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon). After immersing in the cult-like atmosphere of the Manson family's California commune, Harron brings us to the murders. She follows the carnage with a lengthy section in which a teacher (Merritt Wever) tries to help each of the women -- by then imprisoned in maximum security -- achieve some degree of self-realization. Perhaps this is where the movie should have started. At it stands, Harron (American Psycho) doesn't provide a compelling enough reason for taking another drive through Manson country. And without more context, the free-floating atmosphere of the '60s -- manifested mostly through sex, drugs and the charisma Manson (Matt Smith) supposedly projected -- seems a trifle ridiculous. Last week, I wondered whether we needed another film about Ted Bundy (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile). I had my doubts, but in this case, it seemed clear that Charlie Says doesn't offer enough by way of insight to answer the question that inevitably seems to arise with movies about heinous crimes, particularly those that already have been the subject of enough books and movies to qualify as an industry: Exactly why am I watching?

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A comedy about a 50th birthday

Amy Poehler makes her directorial debut with Wine Country, a comedy about six friends who gather at a home in the Napa Valley to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of their number. When you watch Wine Country, it will be difficult not to see that the women on the screen -- a group that includes Maya Rudolph, Paula Pell, Rachel Dratch, and Ana Gasteyer, as well as Poehler and Emily Spivey -- are having a good time. That impression may result from the fact that some of these women evidently made a similar trip together in real life, which is where Poehler got the idea for the movie. She even makes room for old pal Tina Fey, who appears in a drop-in role as the owner the house the women have rented for their weekend celebration. Poehler makes sure that each of these women has a highlight moment with the best delivered by Pell, as the group's gay pal, and the always enjoyable Rudolph, as a woman who's secretly worrying about a possible health issue. Dratch portrays the self-effacing woman whose birthday the group is celebrating. The movie also includes a visit from a tarot card reader (Cherry Jones) and a cameo from TED Talks star Brene Brown. Jason Schwartzman signs on as Devon, the chef and chauffeur who comes with the rented house and who spends hours making paella for the group. The women are characterized in ways that reflect someone's idea -- actually screenwriters Spivey and Liz Cackowski -- about what might be on the minds of 50-year-old women: aging, careers, marriages, and relationships (or the lack of them). You won't hear anything resembling the kind of discussions that rely on high-flying bouts of imagination. More amusing than uproarious, Wine Country's cast sells this slender movie, which includes the usual "serious" counterpoint that seems to have become part of every comedy. The story resolves predictably, but the actresses who gather in wine country give the movie its kick -- not a major kick, but a kick nonetheless.