Thursday, July 29, 2021

'The Green Knight' casts an eerie spell


   Alluring and visually arresting, The Green Knight takes place during the time of Arthurian legend but hosts no knights in shining armor. The armor is tarnished, as are the lives of most of the movie’s characters.
   Although it boasts a fair measure of squalor, mud, and brutality, Green Knight hardly qualifies as realistic. Based on the 14th Century poem, Gawain and the Green Knight, the story lives entirely in the realm of legend.
  The Green Knight of the title appears early in the movie so there’s no spoiler in telling you that he’s a creature with a tree-like body and a head made of bark. He creaks when he moves. Know this, though. As writer/director David Lowry treats The Green Knight, he's no joke -- and neither is a movie that haunts, unsettles, and holds us in its visionary grasp.
   The story follows a simple enough outline.
   On a Christmas morn, The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) shows up at King Arthur’s court. He addresses the Round Table, asking whether anyone will accept the challenge he’s about to throw down. Perhaps motivated by ambitions to become a knight, only Gawain (Dev Patel) responds.
   Here’s the bargain: Whatever Gawain does to The Green Knight, he’ll have to submit to the same fate a year later. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who picks up his detached cranium and departs, laughing as rides his horse into the mist.
   If the general arc of the story is straightforward, the details sometimes blur the border between mystery and confusion. Scene-to-scene, Green Knight becomes increasingly strange as Gawain — once a carousing youth who liked to drink and womanize — tries to demonstrate his honor.
  After a year of being treated royally, he heads (you’ll pardon the pun) for his promised rendezvous with The Green Knight.
   It’s not exactly a pleasurable trip. Gawain encounters vandals on the road who leave him for dead. Barry Keoghan has a compelling turn as The Scavenger, one of the thieves who attack Gawain. 
    Gawain also meets a woman who says that she’s St. Winfred (Erin Kellyman). She wants him to retrieve her skull from a pond. He says she already has a head. It looks like I have a head, but — trust me — I don’t, she tells Gawain. 
   When he meets a nobleman (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Alicia  Vikander),  sexual currents begin to flow.
   Sarita Choudhury appears as Mother/Morgan Le Fay, a witch, a seer and Gawain's mom, dual faces of the same character. 
   Sean Harris's King Arthur can seem riven by doubt. For the record, the movie refers to him only as King. He's also Gawain's uncle.
   I haven’t even mentioned the talking fox that becomes Gawain’s companion.
   That may sound Disneyesque, but again take heed: Nothing about Green Knight has a family oriented feel. Lowry not only wants to tell a mythical story, he wants to create a mythical reality — and he comes very close to succeeding at a task that could have gone terribly wrong.
     Lowry nicely fits the characters into the environment. 
    As Gawain, a bearded Patel winds up with a tortured face you might see on a religious icon. 
   The Green Knight may be an angel of death — or at least that’s how I saw it.
    There were times when I wished Lowry had restrained the impulse toward mystery — at least a bit. The dialogue often seems whispered as if the characters are living in a secret world that we can’t totally penetrate. 
      You need to be comfortable with that feeling to go along with Green Knight. For the most part, I was and I did.
    Reservations? Some. Dimly lit images make you long for the presence of a bit of clarifying light — even though electricity had yet to be invented. I understand the impulse to place a mythical tale in a naturalistic environment, but enough is enough.
    Various sections are titled but the headings sometimes flash by too quickly for easy reading.
    Viewers may be puzzled by the movie’s ending, which is subject to interpretation, but the overall message speaks with power. The world may be forbidding, but Gawain can’t escape the most essential condition of the human contract: He must die.
   What is the honor that Gawain sought to achieve on his journey? Perhaps nothing more than being ready when the time of departure arrives. In the end, debts must be acknowledged: Payment is due.

Matt Damon meets Marseille in 'Stillwater'


    In StillwaterMatt Damon gives one of his best performances as a determined father who wants to free his daughter from a French prison. 
    The young woman (Abigail Breslin) was studying in France when she was convicted of murdering her girlfriend. Once all over the story, the French press has lost interest. Breslin's Allison is in the fifth year of a nine-year sentence.
    An unemployed oil-rig worker, Bill travels from Oklahoma to Marseille where he might have become the proverbial fish out of water had he not been so intensely focused. With a drawl and a jumbo-sized helping of politeness, Bill almost seems afraid that any slip-up might cost him his recovery from alcoholism, as well as from his own stint in prison.
   The city of Marseille co-stars, lending the movie texture and grit. A rich sense of location penetrates nearly every scene. The protocols for visiting a French prison, the feel of a coffee shop frequented by the city's large Arab population, and the cramped quality of the modest apartment in which Bill eventually lands all help create authenticity.
    Director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) tries to take a meaningful look at what it means to be a guy like Bill, an American who says he didn't vote for Trump but qualifies the statement by pointing out that as a former prisoner, he couldn't vote at all.
    Bill's a good ole boy who wasn't always on his best behavior.
    Things don’t always go well for Bill in France. In his search to clear his daughter, he winds up in the inhospitable Kalliste neighborhood where he's beaten badly enough to land in a hospital. He's looking for Akim (Idir Azougli), a guy who might hold the key to his daughter's release. 
    Bill receives help when he meets Virginie (Camille Cotton of Netflix's Call My Agent), an actress who lives with Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), her eight-year-old daughter. 
     Both Cotton and Siauvaud give performances that feel as lived-in and real as the city itself.
   A single mom, Virginie translates for Bill and winds up renting him a room in her apartment. He begins to develop a tender relationship with Maya, clearly compensation for the many years in which he neglected Allison. 
   It’s difficult not to notice the story's resemblance to the highly publicized Amanda Knox case -- but Allison's guilt or innocence almost seems beside the point. It's Bill who gives the story its focus.
    Written by McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, and Marcus Hinchey,  Stillwater may best be viewed as a character study that probably would have benefited from a few less strains, a little less reliance on coincidence and contrivance.
    And not all the movie's themes are adequately explored.  At one point, Virginie is put off by Bill's insensitivity toward Arabs, but McCarthy isn't interested in the political gap between an Oklahoma oil worker and a cosmopolitan French woman.
    Even in the movie’s less credible moments, Damon completely inhabits the role of a man battling to move beyond a past he regrets. Bill wants to expand his stunted emotional horizons with Virginie and her daughter. Damon makes us feel Bill trying to change -- even when he doesn't know quite how.
    Maybe that's why it doesn't seem implausible when the relationship between Bill and Virginie takes a romantic turn.
    I wish Stillwater were a sharper movie, but Damon -- looking bulky and thick -- fully commits himself to a role that gives him a chance to do some of the strongest work of his career. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

'Jungle Cruise' loads up on action

   I'm skeptical about movies developed from theme park rides and Jungle Cruise did nothing to change my mind. But, hey, I’m realistic enough to know that such opposition only results in lost battles.
   Besides, the news isn't all bad. Though variable as a series, Pirates of the Caribbean produced some enjoyable entertainment.
   Considering that Disney has few if any equals when it comes to cross-marketing, it's hardly surprising that the company has forged ahead with Jungle Cruise, casting Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in lead roles. 
   If you've seen the movie's trailer, you might think Jungle Cruise was going to be a brash take on African Queen, the 1951 movie that paired Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. 
    No way. The movie seems closer in lineage to Raiders of the Lost Ark -- only tapped down a few pegs on the age and inventiveness scale.
    The result is a movie full of action but lacking any real distinction.
    The story follows Lily (Blunt) on an Amazon adventure (that's the river, not the shopping site) in which a rogue skipper (Johnson) agrees to use his barely functional vessel to guide the adventurous Lily on a search for The Tree of Life.
   Rejected by London's scientific establishment, Emily persists, exploring the river with her brother (Jack Whitehall), a foppish fellow who eventually discloses the reason for his refusal to marry the eligible women who have been pushed on him.
   Director Jaume Collet-Serra sets up a mildly antagonistic relationship between Johnson's Frank and Lily -- the kind we instantly know is destined to turn verbal sparring into love.
   Feigning shock at the sight of a woman wearing slacks, Frank calls Lily “Pants.” She retaliates by creating a diminutive for the word "skipper." She calls him “Skippy.”
   But Jungle Cruise hardly qualifies as a love story; instead, it uses the fabled river as an excuse to move from one action set piece to another.
   The movie takes place in the days before World War I but seldom feels anchored in any historical period -- unless its mid-20th Century Theme Park.
    Perhaps to up the funhouse ante,  the movie introduces a ghostly crew of conquistadors led by Aguirre (Ramon Martinez), an explorer who 400 years ago was cursed by the indigenous people of the Amazon for going on a killing rampage  after he was refused access to the Tree of Life. 
   If you like your movies seasoned with bugs and snakes -- CGI, of course -- you'll find plenty of those as well as the obligatory sequence in which Emily goads Frank into navigating his ramshackle boat through treacherous rapids.
   Frank, who has a pet jaguar named Proxima, harbors his own secrets and ambitions.
   The movie works overtime in its efforts to ensure us that we needn't take it seriously. Frank specializes in corny, eye-rolling jokes and the antic action seems more inspired by Chuck Jones than Disney.
   To add variety, the screenplay introduces a German nobleman played by Jesse Plemons, who demonstrates that he might be able to find a spot in Mel Brooks' s The Producers should anyone decide to take another run at that material.
   Johnson delivers Frank’s most caustic lines without ever making him less than likable. Blunt does her best to create a real character. Whitehall, a comic by trade, adds humor -- most of it pretty obvious.
   Nobly motivated, Lily wants to help mankind conquer disease, which differentiates her from Plemons' character who's only interested in acquiring power.
    Efforts at feminist assertion and sensitivity toward indigenous culture play second fiddle to the massive labors that apparently went into creating what surely was intended as an "exciting'' spectacle.
    I wouldn't say Jungle Cruise gives fun a bad name, but the characters and story are strictly off-the-rack. Put another way: Jungle Cruise isn’t up to the best Pirates of the Caribbean standards. 
    I leave it to you to decide exactly what that says about the world in which we find ourselves.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

‘Old’ clould have used some new tricks

      Imagine if you aged 50 years in a single day.
      Or -- on second thought -- don't bother because if you buy into M. Night Shyamalan's Old, you'll be taking a trip that's often more ludicrous than scary, mind-expanding or (heaven forbid) insightful.
     The movie begins when a family arrives at a tropical paradise, an upscale resort with a genial manager and all the amenities anyone could want. 
    Mom (Vicky Krieps) found the place online. Her husband (Gael Garcia Bernal) seems wary, but the two children -- a six-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter -- are primed for fun in the sun. 
    Well, sort of. We quickly learn that Mom and Dad are keeping a secret about Mom’s health from the kids.
    On the morning after their arrival, the hotel's manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) suggests the family visit a beautiful beach, a secluded spot he recommends only to special guests.
    The vacationers are driven to the beach along with another couple and their daughter. Before long, a couple of additional beachgoers arrive, rounding out a cast that includes Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Aaron Pierre.
    Once at the beach, the characters begin a mysterious aging process that baffles and unnerves them. Don’t blame lack of sunblock.
     Those who try to escape immediately black out only to reawaken on the beach, trapped again in a rapid-aging nightmare by a steep cliff wall that makes the beach mostly inaccessible.
    Shyamalan employs make-up and adds new cast members to create the aging process, which includes episodes in which Sewell's character,  a surgeon, steadily loses his grip.  A girl becomes pregnant after starting the movie as a pre-schooler. The bones of a vain woman (Abbey Lee) calcify, turning her body into a mangled heap. 
     More cliched than perceptive, the movie has little to say aging, a topic that might given the movie real weight.
    None of the performances are notable, and I stopped trying to keep track of the cast other than to note that Alex Wolff has a somewhat extended turn as the boy of the early scenes at age 15. 
    Enough. Shyamalan has a hit-and-miss track record that includes movies such as Glass, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, and of course, The Sixth Sense. 
   Less mystique-oriented than some of Shyamalan's work, Old makes a lame attempt at social relevance, basing its screenplay on  Sandcastle, a graphic novel written by Pierre-Oscar-Levy and Frederick Peters.
     Not to disappoint his fans, Shyamalan gives Old one of his signature twists, a  big late-picture reveal that's easy enough to predict and which falls flat.  
     The finale strives for moral complexity but proves as unconvincing as the rest of a movie that already has drowned  in shallow thematic waters.    

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A look at a master of dance


The great choreographer Alvin Ailey died of AIDS in 1989 — but neither his name nor his fame have diminished in the 32 years since his demise at the age of 58. The documentary Ailey uses an interview with Ailey and with figures from the dance world -- Judith JamisonBill T. JonesGeorge FaisonCarmen de Lavallade -- to bring the life and work of Ailey into contextualized focus. The movie opens in 1988. Cicely Tyson is seen paying homage to Ailey at a Kennedy Center Honors program. Tyson states the movie's theme: Ailey, she says, is both Black and universal. Director Jamila Wignot's documentary sets about proving  both halves of Tyson's statement. Another way to look at Tyson's remark would be to say that because Ailey's work deeply reflects Black culture and the conditions with which he was raised, it sounds notes of sorrow, celebration, and reverence that can touch any heart.  Ailey’s story demonstrates that the universal often derives from the particular. Ailey was born in Texas in 1931, moved to Los Angeles with his mother in 1942, and later to New York, where -- in 1958 -- he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Wignot devotes considerable time to the creation of Ailey's Revelations, a 1960 ballet regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century dance. We also learn about Ailey's company and how it viewed a director who felt at home with his dancers but maintained a distance that allowed him to create his vision. There are clips of dancing (now and then) and a view of Lazarus,  a piece that's being choreographed by Rennie Harris to celebrate the company's longevity and ongoing relevance. The company continues today under the direction of Robert Battlebut there's little doubt that it's Ailey's name that has become synonymous with inventive, groundbreaking dance, Black culture, and high artistic achievement.

Life on Mars is no day at the beach


    Few movies are as focused as Settlers and, in the case of this story about stranded Martian colonizers, that focus can be cruel and unremitting. 
    Settlers has little or no interest in the technology of survival -- a biosphere enables its inhabitants to breathe -- or in the earthly breakdown that brought colonists to Mars in the first place. 
    The movie's interests center almost entirely on what people will do to survive.
   Minimally populated and sparse, Settlers raises questions about whether the characters we see are the only residents of this desolate world. Might there be other, unseen colonists on the fabled Red Planet?
   Filming in a South African desert, director Wyatt Rockefeller turns Mars into a planetary frontier resembling an isolated outpost in the mythic Old West. 
     The story begins by introducing us to Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), and their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince).  
    For this trio, life has a bereft quality that's mirrored in the unforgiving Martian landscape. 
    One day, the trio -- sole occupants of the movie's biosphere-- sees the word "leave" scrawled on the transparent shield that separates them from the lethal Martian atmosphere. 
    A group of invaders wants to appropriate what might be the planet's last habitable space. They wear oxygen masks and are armed. A small battle ensues and a new character -- Ismael Cruz Cordova's Jerry -- enters the mix. 
    No fair telling exactly how but the power dynamics inside the biosphere shift as the story poses questions about how much the characters can accommodate themselves to the new reality of other people and the conflicts they breed.
     The only other creatures in the movie are a pig that Remmy treats as a pet, some chickens, and -- if you want to stretch the point -- a robot named Steve, a boxy machine with stem-like legs. Steve screams of low-tech inefficiencies but has just enough personality to prompt empathy.
     The actors are up to the task with Prince (familiar from The Florida Project) giving the film its anchor. As time passes,  Nell Tiger Free takes over the role of Remmy and Rockefeller moves toward the film's uncompromising conclusion.
   Settlers  doesn't entirely hold up when you begin thinking about its backstory, the groundwork that paves the way for Rockefeller's drama. Moreover, the movie  requires patience, particularly at times when the story loses its drive.
    But Rockefeller effectively abandons us in a forbidding environment with characters who are forced to confront themselves and make choices that spring from unalterable necessities. 
    As a result, we're left to wonder whether these characters aren't playing a terrible end game.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

New ‘Space Jam’ aims low on the age scale

   LeBron James and Warner Bros. 
   If you ask me what Space Jam: A New Legacy is about, that's pretty much all I have to say. 
   Beginning with an ode to LeBron's basketball achievements and then turning into a running advertisement for Warner Bros, the movie branches out from the original Space Jam, which was released in 1996 and starred Michael Jordon.
   Early in the movie, James stresses the importance of fundamentals on the basketball court, a view that's at odds with a film that's overwhelmed by flash and dash, razzle-dazzle,  moves that may make you long for a time out.
   Warner has moved Space Jam into the 21st century by sending LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) into a virtual world run by Al-G-Rhythm (Don Cheadle), a villain who resides in a giant server. Al-G feels slighted because LeBron has rejected a bid to star in a video world that Al-G has created. 
   The movie also features a father/son story. LeBron pushes his son to play basketball, to "put in the work." Dom prefers inventing video games. He doesn't want to be a mirror image of his highly disciplined dad.
    Once inside Al-G's computer world, LeBron becomes a cartoon figure -- at least some of the time and the movie cooks up a plot that pits LeBron and his cartoon cohorts (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, and others) against the Goons, a team of menacing opponents modeled on real players such as Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard. 
    Can LeBron act? It hardly matters. He only has to be LeBron -- or some version of LeBron, in this case, the dad who learns that he must respect his son’s ambitions.
   Perhaps to amuse adults and maybe to remind the world of a  proud Warner Bros. history, you'll find references to Casablanca and Mad Max: Fury Road. Did I mention references to Harry Potter, Superman,  Scooby-Doo, and oddly for a kids' movie, Clockwork Orange?
    The big basketball game might have capped a brisk 60-minute movie, but New Legacy runs for one hour and 55 minutes and the game feels endless.
    Director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Barbershop, the Next Cut) and a team of screenwriters push New Legacy toward the positive side of the value scale, but a message about allowing  young people to follow their interests seems muted in a movie whose style leans more toward agitation than illumination. 
    King Kong, Iron Giant, and others watch the big game from the sidelines. The stakes: If LeBron loses, he and his Tune pals will have to remain in Al-G's virtual world forever. If they win, they go home.
    Kids may respond to this amped-up cartoon, but for me,  a Tune victory and home couldn't come soon enough.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The life and times of Anthony Bourdain


     God, I miss that guy. 
     Odd thing to say about someone I never met, but that's how I feel about Anthony Bourdain, the TV personality who traveled the world. Bourdain ate and drank in numerous settings -- and he did it with acuity and generosity.
    Like just about every other fan of Bourdain's CNN Parts Unknown, I was shocked to learn that Bourdain had committed suicide. In June of 2018, he hanged himself in a hotel room in an Alsatian town in northeastern France.
   It was impossible to believe that a man who seemed so engaged with the world would voluntarily leave it.
    I suppose everyone who watches Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will be looking for clues about why he chose to end an amazing life in which he was, roughly in this order, a kitchen scrub, a chef, a heroin addict, a husband, a father, a lover,  and a celebrity.
   Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom and Won't You Be My Neighbor?) doesn't exactly answer the big question as he chronicles Bourdain's life. Bourdain was one of those rare people who didn't perform on TV: He lived on it.
   The closest we come to understanding Bourdain's death comes toward the end of the movie when Neville deals with Bourdain's relationship with actress Asia Argento, his involvement with the #MeToo movement, and the tangles of an affair gone sour.  
    An engrossing look at an extraordinary life, Roadrunner does a fine job showing how Bourdain's career unfolded -- not according to some planned trajectory but as something that seemed to happen to him as he became chef at Manhattan's Les Halles. His life changed when he forayed  into authorship with Kitchen Confidential, a compulsively readable insider's view of restaurant life.
    Before Parts Unknown, Bourdain had two other TV shows -- A Cook's Tour and No Reservations. He became the guy who'd try anything. To underscore the point, Neville shows us Bourdain in Vietnam where he ate the heart of cobra, telling us that he could still feel it beating as he swallowed.
    Bourdain did a lot of crazy things but avoided turning them into self-aggrandizing stunts. Adventure eating became a form of cultural sharing, a commitment to bonding with the people with whom he mingled. He wasn't just tasting food; he was tasting the world -- with a camera crew to record his observations, often delivered in beautifully written narrations.
    Neville tells about Bourdain's marriages and we learn that domesticity couldn’t survive a travel schedule that would have destroyed most of us. Bourdain realized that he had bypassed normality. 
    All of this is tempered by appearances from people who knew Bourdain. Celebrity chefs Eric Ripert -- who discovered Bourdain's dead body -- and David Chang and other pals. We also hear from former wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain and, importantly, from the producers and crew members who worked with him.
    So, no, there's no Rosebud moment in Roadrunner and we and Bourdain's legacy probably are better for the lack of it. Maybe that's the only gift Bourdain's terrible departure gave us. 
   We'll never really know why he ended his life, and that allows Roadrunner to leave us with an enticing plate of leftovers; i.e., plenty to think about: food, culture, celebrity, and what it’s like to ride a wave that never seems to break or settle on any shore.

Trying to understand life among trees

I've read reviews of Peter Wohlleben's 2015 book The Hidden Life of Trees that took issue with the way the renowned German forester tended to anthropomorphize nature. I don't know how to feel about that but watching Jorg Adolph's documentary -- also The Hidden Life of Trees -- the benefits of accompanying Wohlleben on a tour of many forests more than compensate for any reservations you might bring. Besides, at this point, anything that alerts us to our rapacious consumption of the natural world should be welcomed. I won't try to summarize Wohlleben's entire approach, but its essence involves the idea that trees are sentient beings. They have their own coping mechanisms and socialization processes and can care for one another. I'm probably guilty of oversimplification and it should be said that Wohlleben isn't against the use of wood, arguing instead for efficiency over speed. If we take our cue from trees -- which he describes as occupying nature's slow lane -- we would pay more attention to what we're doing to the world in which we live. Among the places Wohllenben visits, a spot in Sweden where we see 'Old Tjikko, a 9,550-year-old tree. It's helpful to think of forests as living organisms that can be used for human benefit but which must be respected -- not least of all because we need them to slow the impact of climate change. So file The Hidden Life of Trees under an ecological heading and, while you're at it, cross your fingers that it's not too late to heed its message.