Thursday, September 23, 2021

A much-admired musical sags on screen


     I’ve never seen the stage version of Dear Evan Hansen, so I can’t compare the award-winning play to the newly released movie of the same name. But taken purely as a movie, Dear Evan leaves a lot to be desired.
     The movie’s morbid fascinations — teen suicide being principal among them —aren't easily digested, even in a quasi-musical that seems born of good intentions.
     Evan Hansen has been classified as a musical and it requires its actors to sing at various points. The tunes  often have a soft, weepy quality that befits the material but on-screen Evan Hansen doesn't seem like a musical -- or a superior teen drama.
     The story centers on Evan Hansen, a high school senior portrayed by Ben Platt, who also played Evan on stage. Platt, I'm afraid, has grown out of the role. He’s now 27.
    But the real problem with Evan Hansen centers on an awkward mix of ingredients: A high-school drama (the alienated kid finds a place in a well-defined social scene) doesn’t always mesh with the tragedy of teen suicide.
    Working from Steven Levenson's screenplay, director Stephen Chbosky relies on single conceit. Evan’s therapist has asked his massively insecure patient to write encouraging letters to himself. 
   One of his letters winds up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), an aggressively troubled kid. When Connor commits suicide, he’s found with one of Evan's letters. Connor had lifted the letter from a printer and refused to return to its author.
    Everyone thinks, the letter — a confession of torment which begins with the words "Dear Evan Hansen" — was written by Connor and that Evan and Connor must, therefore, have been friends.
    Suffering from a host of ill-defined psychological difficulties, Evan isn’t exactly an endearing character. He beats back his conscience and opts to go along with the widespread assumption that he and Connor were buddies.
   He also has a crush on Connor's sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever).
   Before long, the school's students begin the Connor Project, an effort to raise money to create a memory garden at an orchard where Connor supposedly found solace. 
  If you can get past the distraction of Platt’s age, you’ll find a few performances that work, notably Amy Adams as Connor’s mother, a woman in denial, and Julianne Moore as Evan’s single mother, an overworked nurse who’s stretched too thin to give her son the attention he needs. Amandla Stenberg has a nice turn as Alana, a cheerleader and high-performing student with troubles of her own. 
    But none of the performances can save a strange hybrid of teen-movie tropes and hand-wringing drama -- all of it followed by the hope that's appended to the story when Evan faces up to his cruel deceit.
   As for the dead Connor: He remains more of a plot device than a character we’re asked to understand.  Maybe on stage it all made sense.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Is her husband a traitor or a hero?


    To fully appreciate the Japanese movie Wife of a Spy, it helps to know something about Japan just before World War II.  By 1940, the year the movie begins, Japan already had invaded Manchuria, imposing its brutal authority on the area's Chinese population.
  Japan already was embracing traditionalism and authoritarianism, but not all of its citizens welcomed an order that, among other things, thrived on anti-Western sentiment. 
   Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa sets his story in such a climate, deftly personalizing a politically charged drama. Kurosawa introduces us to a business man (Issey Takahashi) who opposes the current isolationist tilt and a wife (Yu Aoi) who gradually learns about her husband's clandestine activities.
    Although the historical trappings are essential, Wife of a Spy also can be viewed as a complex story about a woman who faces issues of trust and betrayal. 
    An internationalist by trade,  Takahashi's Yusaku runs an import-export-business. Under the guise of buying cheap supplies, he travels to Manchuria where he films some of the atrocities he discovers, the main one involving biological experimentation.
    Yusaku hopes the US will be drawn into the war once the country learns about Japanese transgressions.  Japan, he believes, will lose and the country’s place in a modern global future will be secured. 
   Once Aoi's Satoko begins to learn about her husband's extracurricular activities, she’s confronted with a challenging question: Is her husband a hero or a traitor? And how can this model Japanese wife possibly tell? 
   Satoko opts for heroism, helping her husband execute a plot he's devised to get information about Manchuria into American hands.
     The intrigue involves a mysterious woman who accompanies Yusaku to Kobe after his Manchurian trip. Is she a paramour or an accomplice? 
    As we watch, we begin to share Satoko’s apprehensions. We try to determine who’s tricking whom and for what reason? 
   Although the movie includes one dream sequence, Kurosawa clearly lays out a story that begins to introduce additional characters. Masahiro Higashide portrays a childhood friend of Yusaku and Satoko’s, a once-gentle young man who has become a soldier and a torturer. 
   Yusaku's nephew (Ryota Bando) works for his uncle and helps him with amateur filmmaking efforts, which play a role in bringing the story to its conclusion.
    Credit Kurosawa with making a drama in which the interpersonal and the political are so intertwined, it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other. His movie is ambiguous without being muddled.
     The threat of war and the war itself give Kurosawa's absorbing, puzzle of a movie an epic quality that adds to the feeling that we're watching a movie in which the stakes hardly could be higher.

Can a woman and a robot find bliss?


   At first blush, I’m Your Man seems like another gimmicky entertainment, a movie about the budding relationship between an anthropologist and a robot that looks so real, it can't be distinguished from a flesh-and-blood human. 
   If I’m Your Man had been an American movie that’s exactly how it might have played, with some cuteness thrown in for seasoning. Thankfully, this German import from director Maria Schrader unfolds in surprisingly convincing fashion. 
   While working at a museum, Alma (Maren Eggert) is asked by her boss to determine whether the ethical considerations normally extended to humans should apply to robots who appear to be sentient.  
    Alma reluctantly accepts the job and finds herself sharing her apartment with a robot named Tom (Dan Stevens). The two meet at a club run by the company that produces automatons designed to make people happy.
    Tom is polite without being cloying. A bit supercilious, he speaks German with a British accent because he's been programmed to know that Alma prefers men with an international cache. 
   Frequently amusing, I'm Your Man also plays with serious questions. If a robot can starve off loneliness, why not have one? Should the absence of the messier aspects of a relationship be a dealbreaker? And if the robot has been programmed to please its owner, doesn’t a relationship with one represent a form of emotional masturbation? 
   Schrader handles such weighty questions with a light  touch as Alma introduces Tom to her social and family circles. Most folks don't know that he’s a highly sophisticated machine. 
    Both principal actors are in fine form.  Eggert ably expresses Alma's initial disdain for the project but shows the gradually developing dependence on Tom and the concern she feels for him.
    Tom’s an idealized version of Alma's dream man, but he never seems entirely like an automaton. Stevens' performance is key to the movie's success: I'm Your Man can't work if we doubt that Tom easily passes as a human.
   Look, you can’t make a movie such as I’m Your Man without including a few inconsistencies, but credit Schrader and her fine cast for not taking her subject too seriously, even as she poses a question that’s likely to acquire increasing social relevance.
    Forget Seri and Alexa, when the machines in our lives become entirely lifelike how exactly will we relate to this new form of user-friendliness?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Catching up with 'Language Lessons'

 Language Lessons

I had no particular interest in a movie in which two people exchange weekly Zoom calls. I've had enough Zoom calls in the last year and a half to satisfy any need I ever had to connect virtually with people -- not that I've abandoned the practice. Screen fatigue partly explains why it took me so long to catch up with Language Lessons, a movie in which a wealthy Oakland resident (Mark Duplass) communicates with his Spanish teacher (Natalie Morales), an engaging young woman who lives in Costa Rica. The language lessons -- a gift from Duplass's character's husband -- aren't exactly met with enthusiasm by Duplass's Adam. Adam already speaks enough Spanish to converse but because he has a couple of years of lessons pending, he goes along with the program. Then, a shocker. Will dies in an accident, and Adam's relationship with Morales’s Carina takes on a different character. It comes as no surprise that the boundaries between student and teacher begin to crumble.   Language Lessons can be viewed as a rom-com in which friendship rather than romance becomes the goal. Duplass and Morales co-authored the screenplay, which Morales directed. She tries to add visual interest by giving Adam a house that invites us to make some guesses about just how well off he might be.  Language Lessons can't entirely overcome the thinness the stems from a two-handed drama conducted via Zoom. For me, the key to the movie's success involves its sincerity, a quality I usually find off-putting but which, in this case, reflects the commitment of two actors who remind us not to overlook something we've been missing: our persistent need for others.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

An aging cowboy makes a new friend


   If you've reached an age at which you've begun to think of yourself as old or at least as aging, you'll be watching Clint Eastwood's Cry Macho through a lens that measures Eastwood's every move against the passage of time.
    Eastwood is 91 and although the movie requires him to throw a punch and ride a horse, his walk has taken on a stiff-legged quality. His posture hints at a stoop. 
    Is that Eastwood or is it Eastwood's interpretation of the ruined cowboy he's playing? I don't know but Eastwood still commands the screen in ways that insist that you watch.
    Make no mistake. Eastwood, who also directed, still knows how to land a line even when he's not sneering his way through a movie that doesn't quite commit to the odd-couple pairing of an irascible old man and a rebellious teenager -- or much of anything else for that matter. 
    Based on a novel by N. Richard Nash,  Cry Macho tells the story of a washed-up rodeo star who survived alcoholism, pills, a horrible accident in the arena, as well as the grief of losing a wife and child in an auto accident. 
     That's at least two trunks worth of baggage and it would break a lesser man, but we know that Eastwood is made of sterner stuff.
    Eastwood's Mike Milo owes a debt to his rancher boss (Dwight Yoakam). Yoakam's Howard Polk wants Mike to travel from Texas to Mexico to retrieve Rafa (Eduardo Minett), the boss's 13-year-old son, a kid who's been living a wild life with his mother (Fernanda Urrejola.) 
   After some difficulties in Mexico City and an awkward scene in which Urrejola’s character trie- to seduce Mike, man and boy hit the road where they gradually develop a friendship. 
    Thanks to a broken-down car, the movie makes a lengthy stop in a small Mexican town where Mike and Rafa begin to draw closer. The two also are treated to the hospitality of Marta (Natalia Traven), an earth-mother type who runs a cantina and takes care of her cute grandchildren. 
    Some romantic sparks are lit between Mike and Marta, but Eastwood pretty much keeps them at simmer levels.
    Meanwhile, a thug (Horacio Garcia Rojas) who works for the boy's mother pursues the unlikely duo, both of whom need nurturing.
   Of course, there’s a speech in which Eastwood tells his young charge that the macho life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, a message Eastwood has delivered better in other movies.
    I wouldn't say that Cry Macho is boring. But the material has the musty aroma of second-rate fiction that's neither totally off-putting nor deeply engaging. 
    Cry Macho becomes a kind of casual meander that hits some false notes (we're expected to believe that Mike still can ride a bucking bronco) but otherwise passes without making much of  a mark -- other than to remind us that Eastwood can do what he chooses and let the chips fall where they may.
    As for the title, Macho is the name of a rooster that Rafa has trained to fight.

He’s at it again — Nicolas Cage, of course

 Prisoners of Ghostland is a difficult movie to evaluate. It's not entirely fresh. It's often ridiculous, and it’s marked by another oddball performance from Nicolas Cage. In his first English-language production, Japanese direcgtor Sion Sono serves up a wildly eclectic post-apocalyptic movie, brandishing tropes from westerns, samurai movies, and who knows what else. In Sono's film, story does little more than provide an excuse for one wild riff after another. Prisoners of Ghostland is a movie of weird accoutrements: a black leather suit wired with explosives that will eliminate the body parts of Cage's character if he fails to complete his mission. His job has something to do with capturing a runaway woman (Sofia Boutella) for a lascivious governor (Bill Moseley) of a place called Samurai Town.  Named only Hero, Cage's character has been imprisoned for a bank robbery gone wrong, which he committed with his partner (Nick Cassavetes). In another part of this dystopian world, the residents serve a giant clock,  literally trying to hold back the hands of time. Sono's take-no-prisoners approach isn't for everyone. The movie's virtues are to be found in its brazenly artificial production design and outre imagery.  Prisoners of Ghostland is a movie for those who may have missed the recent Met Gala, but like watching absurdly dressed people trying to act as insanely as possible. It's the movie that results when the inmates take over the asylum -- or at least that might be what Prisoners of Ghostland wants to be. In the midst of its preposterous derangement and pulp preoccupations,  you may find moments that amuse.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Learning about a Ciivl Rights pioneer

If you've never heard of Pauli Murray, you're probably not alone. One of the least publicized figures of the Civil Rights movement, Murray's story emerges in My Name is Pauli Murray, a detailed and informative documentary from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen. It turns out that, as a Howard law student, Murray advanced one of the key arguments was used by attorneys -- including Thurgood Marshall -- to argue the landmark1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. A complex figure and a gay woman who lived with blurry gender boundaries, Murray followed multiple paths. She wrote poetry, attended Hunter College in New York City, and after law school at Howard became a teacher, activist, and, finally, a Methodist minister. Enriched by interviews with those who've studied Murray's life, by recordings Murray made herself, and by the sheer breadth of its story (Murray developed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt), the movie  points out that Murray pioneered thinking about connections between racism and women's issues. She was both a racial justice and feminist advocate. Murray fought tirelessly for beliefs founded on intellectual, moral, and deeply personal grounds. The gender portions of Murray's story are accompanied by contemporary gay and transgender commentary. So, if you're unfamiliar with Murray, who died at the age of 75 in 1985, here's an opportunity to learn.

This immigration story drowns in problems


    Topical subject matter isn't always enough to carry a movie.
    That's the case with Blue Bayou, an overloaded immigration drama from director Justin Chon, who also wrote and stars in the movie.
   Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, a Louisiana-bred man who arrived in the US at the age of three. Born in Korea, Antonio speaks with a southern accent and has never thought of himself as anything but  American. He has only dim memories of the Korean mother who gave him up for adoption.
   Antonio lives with Kathy (Alicia Vikander), a woman with a daughter (Sydney Kowalske) Antonio loves and who loves him back. The couple is expecting another child. 
   Sometimes, it seems as if Chon never met a problem he could resist; his screenplay staggers under the weight of too many difficulties.
   A tattoo artist by trade, Antonio wants to earn more money to support his growing family. An early brush with the law resulted in a criminal record, which means he has trouble landing jobs. 
   Many of the scenes (an early job interview, for example) have power, but Antonio's personal life proves overly complicated and fraught. 
   Vikander's Kathy was once married to a New Orleans cop (Mark O'Brien), a man who fears Antonio and Kathy will move to Korea and take his daughter with them. The former husband's policeman partner, an unabashed racist played by Emory Cohen, has it in for Antonio.
    Pushed into trouble with the law, Antonio comes to the attention of ICE. Turns out that his adoptive parents never filled out the proper forms, which means Antonio is classified as an illegal immigrant. 
  An immigration attorney (Vondie Curtis-Hall) knows Antonio faces an uphill struggle but tries to keep Antonio from being deported.
  To further complicate the story, Antonio must persuade his adoptive mother to testify on his behalf -- not an easy task as it turns out. He hasn't spoken to her for more than a decade.  The reasons for this  eventually are revealed.
   Antonio also makes the acquaintance of a Vietnamese woman (Lin-Dan Pham). Although she's dying of cancer, she shares her experience as a Vietnamese American, inviting Antonio and his family to a festive family lunch.
   Chon proves convincing as a desperate man but the screenplay piles obstacles so high they begin to lose credibility. In reality, such a story might be possible. On screen, a bit of honing would have helped.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A drama informed by dread and calculation

   A private Swiss banker. Wealthy sophisticates with fortunes to protect. An Argentine junta that’s "disappearing" people.
   You'd be right to think those ingredients are the touchstones of a pulse-pounding international thriller but you'd be wrong.
    Director Andreas Fontana's Azor takes a probing, quiet,  and beautifully nuanced look at a world in which morality, money and pragmatism are as well-dressed as the movie's characters.
     Fontana provides us with a surrogate to take us into an affluent world that until recently has been entirely comfortable with itself. We’re in Argentina in 1980.
     Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) arrives in Buenos Aires with his sophisticated wife Ines (Stephanie Cleau). As a man of discretion and financial acumen, de Wiel takes on the task of reassuring the bank's clients that their money is safe -- which also means that their way of life is sustainable.
     De Weil’s trip results from the unexplained disappearance of the bank's previous man in Argentina, a banker named Keys whose personality and contradictions are discussed as de Wiel makes his rounds.
     Azor isn't a portrait of a marriage, but Rongione and Cleau create a clear picture of a relationship in which de Wiel relies on a wife who advises him and who perfectly fits into the social milieus in which they travel. Cleau and her character never make a false move.
   At the time of de Wiel's visit, the Argentine rich are not without anxiety. The junta could at any moment seize their property or "disappear" a rebellious child who embraces resistance politics.
    For the most part, de Wiel's clients are polished, multi-lingual denizens of the world. They wear their privilege easily. 
    One man (Ignacio Vila) is more boorish. He's represented by a lawyer (Juan Pablo Gerreto) who makes little attempt to blunt the ruthlessness that can underly the acquisition of a great fortune.
     Fontana doesn’t dramatize the horrors created by a government that murders its opposition. He's interested in the ways a climate of menace impacts even those who are accustomed to living in a gated world of affluence. He reinforces an underplayed sense of menace with a judiciously applied musical score that sounds ominous notes. 
    Rongione wisely keeps de Wiel's personal sentiments and politics in check. But he's a skilled enough actor to let us know that de Wiel tries to read every situation he encounters and every person with whom he meets. 
    At one point, de Wiel talks with Monsignor Tatosky (Pablo Torre Nilson), a churchman who offers an icy rationale for the junta's behavior before getting down to the business of how to handle a sizable chunk of money.
      Almost until its final act, de Wiel never leaves the insulated world that money can buy. A last-act trip into the jungle exposes a shady operation and gives de Wiel a last chance to define himself.
     I can't think of a recent film that deals so subtly or so provocatively with ethical issues. Azor is one of the year's best films, a movie that doesn’t have to raise its voice to find its power while also alerting us to how much horror can unfold when people become overly skilled at biting their tongues.