Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Beyonce rules in 'Black is King'

     On Monday, Aug. 3, The New York Times devoted a page and a half to a six-critic discussion to Black is King, now showing on Disney+. That's a ton of space, considering that Black is King is a themed series of videos featuring songs from Beyonce’s album, The Lion King: The  Gift.
     Too much? Maybe but Beyonce is … well … Beyonce. 
     She doesn’t think small. Her fans expect to be wowed, and Black is King doesn't let them down.
     I’m probably not the best person to review Black is King. I haven’t seen all of Beyonce’s previous videos and I’m far from an expert on her music. 
     But Beyonce, who directed Black is King with help from a variety of directors, creates a spectacle-filled work that exists in a realm hovering between music video, performance art, dance, and costume extravaganza. 
     It’s also stuffed with themes. Among them: Black nobility and regard for ancestors, long gone kings who have become the stars that punctuate the African night sky. Then there's the oppositional pull of good and evil — not to mention the celebratory exuberance of the dancers who appear throughout.  
     Having said all that I’m sure I missed much. 
     A 90-minute sprint, Black is King doesn’t dwell on anything as Beyonce includes the work of artists from Nigeria and Ghana, among other countries.
     Beyonce creates an Africa of life rituals, dance, and affirming mythology that swings wide enough to incorporate the story of Moses in the bullrushes and a Busby Berkeley style pool number. She ties the whole visual extravaganza to the story frame of The Lion King.
      But Beyonce’s Afro-centric approach seems to have more in common with Black Panther than with Lion King which featured Beyonce as the voice of Nala in last year’s live-action remake. Both are pop-cultural odes to ideas about the underlying depths of Black culture.
      I'm sure Beyonce fans will find nuances and references that eluded me, particularly as the movie fires image after amazing image. 
     Blink and you’ll miss appearances by Pharrell Williams, Naomi Campbell, and Lupita Nyong'oYou’ll have an easier time spotting Jay-Z who makes an extended appearance during the lavishly overstated opulence of Mood for Eva. 
      It's possible, I think, to view Black is King as an affirming fantasy of inner nobility or you simply can marvel at the parade of costumes and images, many of which reflect unabashed wit.
      But Whatever Black is King says to you, once you begin watching, it's not easy to look away.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Ron Howard's ode to a town that caught fire

     On Nov. 8, 2018, a raging fire destroyed nearly all of Paradise, Ca. Dubbed the Camp Fire, the conflagration resulted in 85 deaths and the destruction of 18,804 buildings.
     It's hardly surprising that director Ron Howard begins the documentary Rebuilding Paradise with compelling footage taken by those who were fleeing the blaze, in many cases leaving everything behind. Howard and his team do a terrific job of assembling the footage in ways that provide a feeling for an experience none of us would ever want to live through.
    As Howard's movie develops, issues begin to clarify. Climate change helped fuel the fire, as did the negligence of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
    But rather than make an issue-oriented film, Howard has chosen to focus on the courage and determination of those Paradise residents who were determined to rebuild their much-loved community.
    Rebuilding Paradise can't be taken as a definitive look at what happened in 2018. It would have been nice, for example, to hear a bit more about the wisdom of attempts to recreate idyllic small-town life in an area that's become fire-prone.
    Moreover, Howard doesn't dwell on Pacific Gas & Electric, showing a town meeting at which a company representative offers an apology. Erin Brockovich shows up, urging people to sue.*
   Still, there's enough sadness and anger among displaced residents to convey the monumental difficulties faced by those whose lives were uprooted; the movie's at its best when conveying the emotions of those who yearn to recover some lost portion of their lives.
     Howard introduces us to a town cop whose marriage takes a hit when he transitions to endless post-fire shifts. The superintendent of Paradise's schools desperately hopes to stage high-school graduation on the school's football field. A town resident who says that he reclaimed his wayward life in Paradise and is among the first to rebuild.
     If Howard doesn't fully engage the scope of the story suggested by the Paradise debacle, he certainly puts a human face on it. Rebuilding Paradise may not dot every "i" and cross every "t," but it takes aim at the heart. Let's face it: There are many worse targets.
*(PG&E eventually offered a $13. 6 million settlement.)

A story that yields to sentiment

Take it as a tribute to actress Gemma Arterton that a movie as contrived and maudlin as Summerland could be even the least bit watchable. Theater director Jessica Swale makes her big-screen debut with a story about an academic writer (Arterton) living in a remote coastal town in England.  Set mostly in the 1940s, the story begins in earnest when Arterton's Alice Lamb is taken by surprise: An escort brings a boy (Lucas Bond) to her home. The reclusive, acerbic Lamb has no interest in the boy who has been shipped from London as part of a program to save the city's children from the Blitz.  Eventually, Alice warms to the boy and him to her with Arterton doing her best to keep Alice from becoming a one-note character. As the story proceeds, we see flashbacks to a time when Alice established a relationship with a young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) awakened Alice to life's possibilities before declining the invitation to a long-term relationship. Mbatha-Raw's character couldn't imagine a life without children. More an emblem than a character, Mbatha-Raw has little to do beyond looking luminous. The interactions between Alice and Frank -- her new charge -- are well-handled but the movie concludes with a couple of dubious twists, one that milks emotions and the other that strains credibility. Penelope Wilton portrays the aging Alice in opening and closing scenes and the movie features Tom Courtenay as a gentle, compassionate small-town man. Swale mostly ignores social responses to lesbian love during less tolerant days, makes little reference to race, and seems most interested in providing a cinematic massage to soothe troubled spirits. I kept wondering whether the thorny, evidence-driven character Arterton creates possibly could have made it through the soggy third act.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

He goes on-line to destroy others

   Director Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi made its mark as one of the best movies of 2019, landing an Oscar nomination in the best-international-feature category. Komasa follows his story about a former convict who poses as a priest with a thriller about a young man who manipulates information to sway elections.
     Tomasz (Maciej Musialowski) flunks out of law school after being accused of plagiarism. When meeting with a review board before his expulsion, Tomasz faces the charge with a mixture of posturing and pleading.     
     Plagiarism? What’s the big deal? He knows the material.
     Significantly, Tomasz argues for fluidity in determining what constitutes plagiarism to a panel of older professors who believe words have meaning. Plagiarism is plagiarism, as one of the professors puts it.
     As we’ll learn, Tomasz understands the malleability of perception all too well, particularly in an online world where fraudulent claims are easily manufactured. And you wonder whether Komasa wants us to see Tomasz as emblematic of a generation that respects nothing but its own ambition and, as such, has no moral center.
    With a law career off the table, Tomasz goes to work for a woman (Agatha Kulesza) who runs a firm specializing in discrediting political candidates. Kulesza turns her character into a specialist in breezy amorality, a talent that Tomasz already seems to have mastered.
     I’ve read that Kulesza’s character appeared in a Komasa previous movie — Suicide Room — and that those who’ve seen that movie (I haven’t) will pick up details that relate to the link The Hater to the previous movie.
    Taken on its own, The Hater turns out to be a somewhat tangled affair that piles an awful lot on its plate, a farrago of contemporary concerns that sometimes feel as if they’ve been crammed into the story lest anything is overlooked.
     Begin with class antagonism. As it turns out, Tomasz’s law-school stint was being sponsored by a wealthy liberal family that knew him as a child. 
    Tomasz, who hails from rural Poland, has his eye on Gabi (Vanessa Aleksander), one of the wealthy family’s daughters. The family’s politics lean left and, at least initially, they treat Tomasz with the kind of mocking condescension only elites can manage. 
    The movie sets out to show that Tomasz is more formidable than others suspect. Tomasz’s key deception involves Pawel (Maciej Stuhr), a liberal candidate for mayor who keeps his gayness secret.
      Tomasz even goes so far as to be seductive with Pawel, taking him to a gay club where the trusting candidate can be photographed on the dance floor. Outing himself as a gay might be tantamount to political suicide in contemporary Poland, which -- of course -- Tomasz knows.
      The Hater tries to unite its many themes toward the end when  —  motivated by Sun Tzu quotes — Tomasz becomes a kind of “lost agent,” a spy who ingratiates himself with his opponent before moving to destroy. 
     He carries his “oppo” tactics to an extreme, hacking into a video game so that he can push a potential assailant toward an unspeakable act of violence. Unafraid of either irony or overstatement, Komasa uses Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as a counterpoint to the bloodshed that finally erupts.
     And to add one more ironic fillip to the story, Tomasz engages in the ultimate outrage, turning himself into a hero in the evil drama he has created.
     Of course, it’s all too much. But I suppose that’s what Komasa had in mind — mass murder as the catastrophic consequence of the many themes he has put in play.
     By the movie's end, we, of course, are asking ourselves whether Tomasz has learned anything? The smart money won't be betting heavily on remorse and rebirth.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

'Radioactive' lacks the charge of authenticity

      Who knew?
     In the film Radioactive, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre go skinny dipping.
     I don’t know whether the real Madame Curie — winner of two Nobel Prizes — enjoyed such liberated pursuits, but little about director Marjane Satrapi's movie convinced me that I was watching something real. 
    In addition to being mired in period trappings, the movie strains (does it ever) to show both the healthy and devastating impacts of radiation. Scenes of Hiroshima, nuclear bomb tests, and a meltdown at a nuclear plant disrupt Curie's story, as does a hospital visit during the 1950s in which radiation helps a boy with cancer.
     The movie was adapted from a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss; a sweeping, time-shattering approach may have worked on the page. Here, it becomes awkward, even a trifle ludicrous at times.
     As played by Rosamund Pike, Marie Curie stands as an obvious avatar for female brainpower. Sam Riley portrays Pierre Curie, Marie's husband. Also a scientist, Pierre helps Marie with her landmark discoveries of radium and polonium. 
    Radioactive can be groan-inducing, falling prey to creative overreach in scenes such as a dream sequence in which Marie views the future of radioactivity, a replay of an already stated theme: Radiation can be used for good or evil.
     Satrapi, who directed the animated film Persepolis, begins by introducing us to the feisty Maria Sklodowska, a fiercely independent Polish emigre living in France, where she battles with the scientific establishment for lab space. Ms. Sklodowska, of course, becomes Mrs. Curie.
     What the movie doesn't underline, it telegraphs. Consider poor Pierre’s fate. He handles large amounts of pitchblende in the attempt to produce radium. We know it’s only a matter of time until he coughs some telltale blood into his handkerchief. 
     Pierre, as history demands, doesn't succumb because of the dangerous substances with which the Curie team worked. He's run over by a horse and wagon while crossing a Parisian street.
     Health-wise, it can’t be a good sign that Marie insists on taking a glowing green vial to bed with her. 
     The movie also spends time showing that Marie wasn’t afraid of being deemed a social outcast. After Pierre’s death, she had an affair with a married lab assistant (Aneurin Barnard), appalling even the live-and-let-live French.
    But wait. There’s more. 
    Late in the movie, Curie accompanies her by-then-grown daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) to the battlefields of World War I, where the two hope to save wounded soldiers by using Curie’s X-Ray machine, shown here in a cumbersome portable version. Curie's daughter Irene went on to win a Nobel Prize of her own in physics and chemistry.
     If you grew up watching black-and-white TV, you probably remember that Greer Garson played Marie Curie in Madame Curie, a sanitized 1943 version of the Curie story. 
     No one likely will accuse Satrapi of trying to turn Marie Curie into a saint, but the movie's attempts to maintain a serious, high-stakes tone often spills into crippling melodrama or, worse, didacticism.
     In trying to be more than a standard-issue biography, Radioactive winds up being much less.

'Rental' can't quite subvert genre limits


      Two brothers and the women in their lives decide it would be great to spend a weekend in a beautiful home perched on the edge of an oceanside cliff in the Pacific Northwest.
     This foursome spends a delightful weekend escaping from daily worries, enjoying one another’s company, and having the kind of stimulating conversations that would turn anyone into an eager eavesdropper.
     By now, you probably know that I’m not talking about a movie because in movies when people head to an isolated coastal house — no matter how scenic the setting — trouble awaits. 
     So you won’t be surprised by The Rental when the couples under consideration encounter the home's weird, slightly hostile caretaker (Toby Huss). You’ll also be prepped for danger by the alternately creepy and ominous score.
     In his first directorial effort, Dave Franco tries to upset the genre apple cart but only partially succeeds. 
    Franco plays on friction between the brothers based on personal history, an ill-advised sexual encounter, and a hidden video camera that records it — although it’s not clear what purpose such video might serve. Blackmail? Turning these weekenders against one another? Providing kinky kicks for the person who put the camera there in the first place?
     Dan Stevens plays Charlie, a successful guy who’s married to Michelle (Alison Brie). Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) expresses massive insecurity about his relationship with Charlie’s business partner (Shiela Vand). 
      Josh plays the group’s outlier, a college dropout who served time in jail for beating up a guy outside his frat house. Josh seems more addled than violent, but appearances can be deceiving. 
     Vand’s Mina, a woman of Middle Eastern descent, raises objections to the property manger’s apparent racism. The others seem to want to focus on fun, having planned to hike, down some Ecstasy and party. 
     As the story advances, secrets must be protected amid what we take to be a growing threat that eventually dips into mayhem at the hands of a figure who seems to have wandered into the proceedings from a Wes Craven movie.
     Your tolerance for The Rental depends a lot on how intriguing you find the movie’s four main characters, who might be refugees from any number of indie films. Mumblecore veteran Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) co-scripted the movie with Franco.
      The screenplay flirts with issues about the tendency of the privileged to evade consequences, but these turn out be glancing blows.          
      Personally, I didn’t find this millennial foursome all that captivating and I certainly could have done without the movie’s horror elements, which arrive … well … because all that ominous music says they must.

Bob's Cinema Diary: July 22 — ‘Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful’

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful
Whatever You think of the iconic photographer Helmut Newton, you'd be hard-pressed to say that the adventurous -- some would say outrageous -- Newton didn't have fun. As Grace Jones, one of Newton's subjects, aptly puts it in the documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, "He was a little perverse, but so am I." As a photographer, Newton was attracted to nudity, eroticism, and outre poses. A rarefied group of bold-faced names discusses the late photographer's work. Included are Anna Wintour, Charlotte Rampling, Claudia Schiffer, Isabella Rosellini, and most revealingly, Marianne Faithful. Director Gero von Boehm also provides bits of interviews with Newton himself, a devoted husband whose wife June turns up, as well. A Jew who left Germany for China prior to World War II, Helmut expresses no bitterness toward his home country. His work was influenced by the free-flying liberalism of the Weimar Republic in Berlin and by its controlled opposite, Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, a chronicle of the 1936 Olympics. I wish the film had done more to explore this strange split. Boehm doesn't include much by way of negative criticism, although he does show a clip in which Susan Sontag accuses Newton of misogyny. Others, it should be noted, see the women in Newton's photograph as domineering and even defiant. Mostly, the film's interviewees present Newton as more committed to putting his stamp on his images. That's a commendable stance for a photographer whose work often reached the level of art but I wondered whether the movie had gotten deep enough into Newton's psyche to be considered the last word on a man who set his own standards and whose work defied convention. Newton died in a car crash in Los Angeles in 2004.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A war-time ordeal brought to the screen

     A few minutes into Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird you may think you have fallen back into the 1970s and 1980s, a time when Eastern European cinema indulged itself in stark black-and-white imagery while dipping into bowlfuls of philosophical gloom. 
     Actually, The Painted Bird is a belated adaptation of         Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, a book initially hailed as a harrowing semi-autobiographical account of Kosinski’s war-time experiences as a child and later thought to be more a work of the author's febrile imagination.
     On film, the imagery by cinematographer Vladimir Smutny practically begs to be seen as masterpiece-level work, calling attention to its dark beauty and substantial compositional virtues. And at nearly three hours in length, The Painted Bird proves a movie with a divided soul, part horrifying war-time drama and part endurance test.
     The story involves a boy (Petr Kotlar) whose father deposits him with a neighbor when the war begins, hoping to keep the boy from perishing in German death camps. It’s clear that the boy — unnamed until nearly the movie’s end — is Jewish but Marhoul treats him as a kind of generic outsider during cascading episodes of murder, rape, torment, and even bestiality. Marhoul tells his story in segments, each titled for a character the boy encounters.
     You know you’re in for a rough ride when, early on, the boy is beaten by his anti-Semitic peers, and taken in by an aging woman named Marta (Nina Sunevic) whom he eventually discovers sitting dead in her chair.
     As the boy forges on, he encounters one horror after another.  A miller (Udo Kier) becomes insanely violent, plucking out the eyes of a man he suspects of sleeping with his wife.  
    Another character (Lech Dyblik) explains the movie’s title. With the boy watching, he paints a small bird’s wings white and then releases it. Quickly, the bird is torn apart by a flock of blackbirds, an inescapable metaphor for the savagery of bigotry that has engulfed the world.
     A seemingly kindly priest (Harvey Keitel) tries to help the boy but places him with a parishioner who sexually abuses the boy and torments him in other ways. 
     When he lands with a young woman (Julia Valentova), we initially believe that the boy finally may have found someone who will treat him kindly. No way. Among other things, the woman turns out to be so lust-ridden she has sex with goats.
     The movie’s international cast also includes Stellan Skarsgard as a German soldier who helps the boy escape. Barry Pepper turns up as a Russian soldier who takes the boy underwing.
     Although the story takes place during World War II, the boy’s encounters with Eastern European peasants seem reminiscent of the Middle Ages, a world of misery and thatched-roof hovels.
    Marhoul infuses the movie with an abundance of brutality as he vivifies the hellish impact of war and deprivation on people whose lives already were mean and insufficient.
    The Painted Bird deserves credit for diving into such deeply disturbing waters, but the line between artistry and ordeal becomes so fuzzy here that by the time the movie concluded, I no longer could distinguish between the two.

A biographical look at author Flannery O'Connor

     Flannery, a documentary from directors Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, deals with the life of Flannery O’Connor, regarded by many as a master of short stories and, by some, as an essential voice of the South.
     Working in a straightforward style, the directors explore Flannery’s short career (she died in 1964 at the age of 39) and the peculiarities of her personality and her work. 
     In many ways, Flannery serves as a kind of biographical highlight reel, making use of interviews, historical footage, and illustrations that accompany brief readings from Flannery’s work. We follow O’Connor from her childhood to her death with stops at an Iowa writers’ workshop, Yaddo and New York City.
     The interview list includes critic Hilton Als, novelist Alice Walker, and publisher Robert Giroux; the filmmakers also include portions of an interview in which O’Connor talks about her approach to fiction.
     The directors never lose sight of Flannery’s faith. She was a devout Catholic but her work didn’t always convince readers of her faith. She focused on characters she called “freaks” and had a taste for the grotesque reflected in a story — referenced in the film — about a Bible salesman who steals the wooden leg of a woman who thought he might be a lover.
     O’Connor, we learn, began her creative career as a cartoonist — and some of the work we see is quite good. She thought that cartooning would provide her with a means of supporting herself as a novelist.
     It takes about an hour for the movie to reach the subject of race. You’ll have to make up your own mind whether O’Connor was conveying the language and attitude of the people she observed or whether some of that language reflects the author’s views. She did not shy from the “n” word.
     O’ Connor also found herself siding with poet Robert Lowell, with whom she spent time at Yaddo,  during a time when the Red Scare of the 1950s was wrecking lives. Lowell was a staunch anti-Communist. 
    Toward the end of her life, O’Connor lived with her mother on a farm in Georgia where she kept pet peacocks, had an almost “love” relationship, and developed friendships that lasted until the end of her life.
     We hear pieces of O’Connor’s stories and actress Mary Steenburgen, unseen, supplies O'Connor's voice.
     Although informative and sometimes reflective, Flannery never generates much excitement, although it does provide a picture of a segment of the American South and some of its denizens during a time before the toppling of Jim Crow. 
     It might be best to think of Flannery as a conventional documentary about a very unconventional author.