Thursday, August 15, 2019

'Bernadette': flat where it should be sharp

Cate Blanchette plays a deeply depressed woman who's losing it in Seattle.
Bernadette lives in a large Seattle house that seems to be falling apart around her, although trace elements of a re-design can be seen. A sparsely furnished modern-looking bedroom, for example. Bernadette's husband works for Microsoft and has become a Ted-talking star in the world of high tech. Her whip-smart daughter is bound for Choate, a prep school that very likely will ensure her a place on the success track. Bernadette spends much of her time talking to Manjula, a Seri-like digital assistant in India.

Of course, she’s miserable.

Such is the life of Bernadette (Cate Blanchett), the title character of Where’d You Go Bernadette, director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of a well-received 2012 novel by Maria Semple.

Smart, judgmental and misanthropic, Bernadette can be a pain in the butt, and her contempt for what she calls “life’s banalities” doesn't seem to have led her toward anything resembling a cultural high ground. After years of ignoring her strange behavior, Bernadette's husband (Billy Crudup) has decided his wife needs help.

I can’t say I believed any of this because Linklater's movie can’t find a way successfully to blend satiric observation and character study while also giving his movie a bit emotional heft. As social satire, the movie takes hit-and-miss swipes at middle-class parents, over-achieving kids, annoyingly progressive schools and Seattle's tech-crazed world.

Even Kristen Wiig, as a neighbor and nemesis of Bernadette, isn't able to break through; she's playing a character who's so steeped in her "liberal" values that she's turned her life into a form of parody.

Bernadette's daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) narrates a story that gradually lets us know why Bernadette has lost her grip. She was once a star architect who won a MacArthur Grant for her genius. She designed houses that others envied, but after one of her vaunted projects met a tragic end, she vanished from the Los Angeles scene. She and her husband moved to Seattle, a city she says she hates.

Bee announces that she wants her parents to take her to Antarctica as a reward for something or other. Bernadette reluctantly agrees, even though the trip means she won't be able to avoid the horror of mingling with other passengers on a cruise ship.

Linklater's best movies are conversational gems that catch moods and moments, movies such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. He's also made observant comedies, as those of us who enjoyed Bernie and School of Rock can attest. Boyhood may have been Linklater's best and most deeply felt movie.

Here, Linklater's working in a commercial vein while trying to retain the sharp idiosyncrasies of Semple's novel. The movie's most outrageous moment arrives in the form of a mudslide that disrupts a fund-raising party at the home of Wiig's character. It lands with a thud.

There's one very nice scene in which Bernadette encounters a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne) from Los Angeles. She regales him with a dizzying monologue about what she's been doing for the last 20 years. It's one of the few times Blanchett's amped-up theatricality proves revealing.

By the end, Bernadette starts delivering on-the-nose dialogue, offering its message in a form that comes close to bromide. Someone as creative as Bernadette must create or she'll go nuts. She'll become a menace to others. She's not cut out for ordinary suburban life.

Well, I thought, who really is? And, as I said, I didn't feel as if Linklater made me believe in Bernadette or her vast array of problems.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/15/19 Two documentaries, one a masterpiece

Honeyland
I don't know how directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska captured the lives they open to us in Honeyland, but they've done something truly rare. They've created a documentary with a visual and narrative texture that qualifies as a true astonishment. The directors take us into the world of Hatidze, a woman who lives in a tiny village in the Republic of North Macedonia. Sometimes, Hatidze seems to be the village's only resident, aside from her bedridden mother. To support herself, Hatidze gathers bees, tends to them as they produce honey and then carries the honey to market. The filmmakers' focus on Hatidze Muratova may put you in mind of the beauty and simplicity we saw in the early wave of films from Iran. It may be unfair to call Honeyland a documentary; it's a film with a story to tell and with developments that illustrate a theme: The respect Hatidze has for the bees and for her natural surroundings is challenged when a large wandering family moves next door. Driven by economic pressure, these new neighbors approach beekeeping as an enterprise; they pit themselves against nature rather than cooperating with it in the ways that Hatidze tries to teach them. Hatidze only harvests half of a honeycomb, leaving the rest for the bees. She's never stung; her neighbors often are assailed by their bees. The neighbors also keep cows and chickens and constantly seem to be arguing with their children, unruly kids who don't hide their feelings of resentment toward a father who blames them when things go wrong. The father is a bit of a martinet, but not an especially effective one. The relationships between Hatidze and her bickering neighbors adds tension, although one boy seems to respect her wisdom. Beautifully photographed without glossing over the meager quality of life in these Macedonian hills, Honeyland -- in Turkish with subtitles -- stopped me in my tracks. It's a great and memorable piece of work.

Cold Case Hammarskjold

Director Mads Brugger's Cold Case Hammarskjold tells a complex, sometimes confusing story about the 1961 plane crash that resulted in the death of Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary-General of the United Nations. The central question: Was the crash an accident or the result of a conspiracy to murder Hammarskjold, an opponent of continued colonial exploitation in Africa? At times, Brugger sits in a hotel room dictating the story to one of two secretaries. In brief: Hammarskjold took his final journey as part of his efforts to settle discord in the Congo. Hammarskjold's plane crashed eight miles away from an airport in Zambia. According to the film, no one bothered to talk to the Africans who lived near the crash site. They raise suspicions. And why was Hammarskjold's body found with an Ace of Spades tucked neatly into his shirt collar? Brugger follows a circuitous route to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which discovered a mercenary group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research. Brugger's film then broadens its view to explore a new theory: that SAIMR was part of a conspiratorial effort to maintain white control in Africa by introducing the AIDS virus to unsuspecting Africans who thought they were being treated at charitable clinics. (You can read more about these claims in a New York Times article from Jan. 27, 2019.) Should we believe all or some of Brugger's film? Not being able to answer that question can be considered a major shortcoming, but there's no point denying that Brugger's film stirs up a fair amount of intrigue.

A love of Springsteen changes his life

Blinded by the Light takes an upbeat, energetic look at how a young Pakistani man awakens to life.

At its best, Blinded by the Light is the exuberant movie that Yesterday should have been. In director Gurinder Chadha's lively look at the influence of popular music on an impressionable young man, a Pakistani student (Viveik Kalra) finds his life transformed when he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen. Timid and dutiful, Kalra's Javed opens the door to what he regards as a richer life and begins to live in what you might call "The World According to Bruce."

Springsteen's music does what only music can do: It awakens Javed's dormant sensibilities and tells him that the world contains much more than he knew or imagined. He's not just listening; he's experiencing a revelation.

Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings a light touch to the movie's developments as she sketches in Javed's romance with a young woman (Nell Williams) he meets at school and his friendship with the young man (Aaron Phagura) who turned him onto Bruce in the first place.

Based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light uses Springsteen's music to help Javid fully understand the limitations of life in the bland town of Luton where he's sometimes bullied by neighborhood toughs and where his stern father (Kulvinder Ghir) has difficulty finding his footing after being laid off from the GM plant where he toiled for 16 years.

Ghir's Malik has no use for the poetry that Javed begins to write. He wants his son to arm himself against deeply ingrained British prejudices that he believes must break Javed's heart. But one of Javed's teachers (Haley Atwell) encourages the young man to keep searching for his voice. The year: 1987.

Kalra holds the screen with Javed's new-found avidity and his unshakable faith in the vision that Springsteen's music -- liberally used throughout -- opens for him. It's refreshing that Javid doesn't aspire to be a musician. He doesn't want to be Bruce; he wants to see like Bruce. He aspires to reach the level of feeling that he hears in songs such as Born to Run. Music empowers him, almost as if he's riding a wave created by Springsteen's liberating energies.

It's all very naive, of course, but this kind of naivete is precisely what the movie's remembering and, ultimately, celebrating.

Before Blinded by the Light ends, Chadha kneels too deeply at the altar of sentiment and she sometimes indulges a level of corniness the material doesn't require but Blinded by the Light survives those impulses and asks us to share its appreciation for Springsteen's music and, by inference, the magic music can work in the hearts of the young.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

This 'Nightingale' sings a brutal song

A 19th century story that packs a terrible wallop.

Every moment of brutality in The Nightingale, a follow-up feature from Babadook director Jennifer Kent, lands a hard blow. Set in 19th century Tasmania, Kent's story proves gripping from its horrific beginning to its violent end.

Kent visits a time when Tasmania served as a dumping ground for convicts from England and Ireland. The British soldiers who policed Tasmania viewed these convicts as subhumans who could be used, exploited and abused.

The story centers on Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a former Irish convict with a beautiful singing voice and a job at a small tavern.

Clare lives with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their new baby daughter in what should be the hopeful beginning of her post-prison life. But Clare isn't truly free. She's harassed by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an officer who believes that Clare owes him any sexual favor he might demand. He's the one who got her out of jail. He regards her marriage as a joke. His entire personality reflects a sense of British privilege and colonial cruelty.

The vicious act that ignites the rest of the movie occurs when Hawkins rapes Clare. Difficult to believe, but things get worse from there. I won't say exactly how an already horrible situation further deteriorates but Kent presents each of the movie's brutal turns in high-impact scenes that may cause some to avert their eyes.

Kent shifts the story into revenge territory when Clare hires an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track down Hawkins and his crew. After wrecking Clare's life, Hawkins heads north to claim a promotion that the local captain has denied him because of behavior unbecoming of an officer. True to form, Hawkins will not be denied.

A revenge saga, yes, but one that's not engineered to dish out the kind of programmed satisfaction we've come to expect in male-dominated revenge sagas. The violence in Kent's movie isn't intended to elicit cheers; it's appalling.

Racial dynamics also emerge. Clare initially lords it over Ganambarr's Billy. She calls him "boy," disrespects him and tries to bully him into submission. But she also knows, she can't navigate her way through the outback without him.

For his part, Billy understands that the whites treat his fellow tribesman with astonishing cruelty and have no appreciation of Aboriginal culture. They've stolen his home. To Billy, the whites are uncivilized barbarians, and -- at least initially -- Clare is one of them.

It takes time for Billy and Clare to form a bond based on their common acknowledgment that Hawkins (an emblem of British colonial rule) poses a twisted threat to each of them.

Kent adds tough encounters that lead the way to the movie's conclusion, a bit too drawn out, but still powerful enough to leave you wrung out.

The Nightingale reflects Kent's view of the deep terror caused by colonial injustice. Not an easy subject and not an easy movie. The Nightingale can be agonizing to watch. It should be.

'Luce': a complicated look at hope and race

Watching Luce, a big-screen adaptation of a play by JC Lee, I kept thinking about playwright David Mamet -- not because the movie deals with middle-class delusions about life in a racially charged context, but because director Julius Onah establishes a climate that creates Mamet-like doubt about the truth of what transpires. Onah might have had just that in mind because he sets up a variety of oppositional forces: a mother’s belief in her son, a father’s hard-nosed skepticism, a teacher’s doubts, a bright young man's ability to role play and nearly everyone’s desire to see an outcome that confirms their preconceptions. A strong cast carries the story’s burdens with powerful conviction. Luce (a terrific Kevin Harrison Jr.) is an adopted child from Eritrea, who’s excelling his way through a college-bound senior year. Naomi Watts portrays Luce’s devoted mother and Tim Roth, his father. Octavia Spencer appears as one of Luce’s teachers; she appreciates Luce's intelligence but suspects that there’s something volatile brewing beneath the exemplary surface of the young man’s life. Onah, who also wrote the screenplay, adds a variety of additional issues to the mix, including sexual abuse of a female student (Andrea Bang) and the justifiable bitterness of another black student (Omar Shariff Brunson Jr). Unlike Luce, Brunson's character never gets the benefit of the doubt. The school's principal (Norbert Leo Butz) seems invested in telling whatever story he believes will make his school look great. I think it would be a mistake to view Luce as a movie solely about interracial adoption; it's more about the way people reveal themselves by investing their hopes in a promising young man. Onah deftly handles the movie’s many conflicting themes right up until an ending that isn’t entirely satisfying. Still, the movie’s willingness to tackle complex issues makes for provocative viewing, primarily because Luce pushes an audience to weigh the various positions of characters increasingly caught in a pressurized situation none of them entirely can control.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

This dog tells the story of 'his' humans

Based on a best-selling novel 2008 novel by Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain qualifies as one of those less-than-stellar big-screen entertainments that still has some appeal, mostly because so many of us are dog lovers. Now, I have to say that I've never imagined that if any of the dogs I've known could have talked, they'd have sounded like Kevin Costner. But that's what happens in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Race car driver Milo Ventimiglia acquires a golden retriever puppy and names the dog Enzo (voice by Costner). The twist here involves telling the story from Enzo's perspective as Ventimiglia's character tries to make it big in racing circles, finds a wife (Amanda Seyfried) and adds a daughter to his family. Enzo narrates all of this, sometimes with humor, sometimes with feelings of dejection. It takes Enzo time to adjust to new arrivals in "his'' family because he regards his relationship with Ventimiglia's Denny as special and exclusive. Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn and The Woman in Gold), Racing in the Rain eventually moves from cuteness to tears -- at least that seems to be the intent. Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan show up as Denny's in-laws, a couple with whom he eventually finds himself in conflict. I was a bit surprised to learn that Enzo -- after watching a documentary on television about Mongolia -- starts to give his thoughts a New Age twist. He believes that really good dogs will be reincarnated as people in their next lives. You might have some fun trying to figure out who your dog might return as should he or she reincarnate through another lifetime. Your speculations probably will say more about you than your beloved pet. There's not much else to offer about this family-oriented, lump-in-the-throat story, aside from saying that I haven't read the book and the movie didn't make me feel as if I should. The movie was enough.

Buddies on the road -- and on the water

A country boy and a young man with Down syndrome team for a fairy tale of an adventure in The Peanut Butter Falcon.
We've all seen enough bromances to last several lifetimes. But that doesn't mean anyone plans to retire a genre that continues to connect with audiences.

The Peanut Butter Falcon arrives in theaters as a buddy movie -- but one with a difference. It teams Shia LaBeouf, as a red-neck renegade, with a young man with Down syndrome, played by Zack Gottsagen, an actor who really does have Down syndrome and for whom the movie was written.

LaBeouf's Tyler and Gottsagen's Zak make a typically unlikely duo. Tyler's on the run from a couple of guys (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) who want to kill him for messing up their crab-fishing business. He's also troubled by the death of his older brother (Jon Bernthal).

To hit the road, Zak must escape from the nursing home where he's being housed, no other placement being available. Zak's roommate (Bruce Dern) helps the young man engineer the breakout that leads to his hook-up with Tyler.

A nursing home volunteer (Dakota Johnson) follows. She's supposed to return Zak to the home. She also adds feminine energy to the generally masculine proceedings, which are heightened by Zak's burning ambition. He wants to be a professional wrestler and dreams of visiting a training school run by his idol, a wrestler who goes by the name of Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

Eventually, Johnson's Eleanor joins Tyler and Zak's brotherhood of two. Reluctantly, she agrees to help Zak pursue his dream.

Shot in the Florida Panhandle, the movie -- a passion project from first-time directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz -- relies heavily on the chemistry generated by a fully committed LaBeouf and by Gottsagen, a natural charmer with a robust sense of humor.

They're playing two characters who are thrown together for an adventure that includes a raft trip and an encounter with a backwoods preacher (Wayne DeHart) -- all spaced over sufficient time to allow LaBeouf and Gottsagen to develop a conspiratorial bond, two against the world.

Peanut Butter Falcon, which avoids gooey sentiment, takes its fanciful title from the name Zak chooses for his wrestling alter ego. The title proves suggestive; this is a movie that isn't afraid of its sometimes goofy appeal.

To fully enjoy Peanut Butter Falcon, it's probably best to set aside demands for total plausibility and accept the movie as a fairy tale about what it means to be young and feel free.

And -- at least to my knowledge -- The Peanut Butter Falcon is the only film in the long history of cinema that includes a scene in which the characters cook a fish, smear it with peanut butter and eat it. That moment, I should point out, marks the only time I felt sorry for anyone in the movie.

Bob' s Cinema Diary: 8/9/19 -- Luz and Piranhas

Luz
If you see Luz -- and I can't say there's any pressing reason that you should -- you will be exposed to German director Tilman Singer's evocative idea of a genre that has been dubbed art-house horror. That's another way of saying that the movie -- long on atmosphere, suggestion, and even blasphemy -- unfolds in ways that defy easy understanding, or maybe even more complex forms of comprehension. In brief: Luz (Luana Velis) is a Chilean taxi driver who spends most of the movie in a German police station. Earlier, Nora (Julia Riedler) meets a psychiatrist (Jan Bluthardt) in a bar. She tells him about Luz, who she met while attending a Catholic school in Chile and with whom she's had a recent chance meeting in Germany. Luz's story hinges on a long-ago, transformative event in Chile in which she supposedly convinced another student that she was pregnant. Much of the "story" is revealed during Luz's stay at the police station. Did I mention the devil? Well, the devil wends his way through the movie and its characters, but Singer hasn't made an Exorcist clone. Although various cinematic influences can be found, Luz exists largely in a world of its own and many will find that world impenetrable. I did, although from time-to-time I was caught by an eerie image or a weirdly committed performance. Still, filmmakers who create their own worlds risk a lot; i.e., they may wind up talking only to themselves.

Piranhas

As far as I could tell, the major distinguishing feature about Piranhas, another mob movie set in Naples, involves the age of the movie's protagonists. Director Claudio Giovannesi works from a screenplay based on a Roberto Saviano novel that may remind some of Gomorrah, a book Saviano wrote and on which a hard-boiled movie of the same name was based. The story centers on the criminal evolution of 15-year-old Nicola (Franceso di Napoli). Initially a genial teen-ager, Nicola becomes a coke-snorting big-wig who takes over mob chores in his neighborhood. Nicola and his young associates inevitably encounter trouble that threatens their spot as top-dogs in the gangster world. Much of what transpires in Giovannesi's mob-mashup feels a trifle old hat, even its unblinking rawness. Nicola's slide into a life of crime seems so matter of fact, we wonder why we should take it seriously. I suppose that could be the point. These kids are so warped by their surroundings that they plunge into the gangster life without giving it much thought. It's just what they do. In what may be a bow to Brian DePalma's Scarface, Nicol uses some of his ill-gotten gains to refurbish his mother's apartment, complete with a white cabinet that has been made to look like a bass fiddle. The kid has epic bad taste, choices determined by garishness and price. The older mobsters Nicola encounters seem more interesting than their youthful counterparts. But, hey, we've seen that movie before, too.

Snakes as a pathway to the divine

If you have an aversion to snakes, particularly poisonous snakes, you may not want to see Them That Follow, a backwoods drama about an isolated group of snake-handling Pentecostals. Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage employ a powerhouse cast as they examine the terrible impact of those whose beliefs not only are literal -- but weirdly dangerous. Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins) uses rattlesnakes to purify sin: Handle a rattler without getting bitten and you're clean. If you get bitten ... well ... the devil hasn't been banished from your tarnished soul. The drama centers on Mara (Alice Englert), the pastor's daughter. Englert's Mara finds herself caught in a love triangle between the devoted Garrett (Lewis Pullman) and the non-believing Augie (Thomas Mann), a young man whose only desire is to escape this stifling community. Matters are further complicated because Mara has become pregnant after a brief but guilt-inducing fling with Augie. Olivia Colman -- fine as ever -- and Jim Gaffigan, equally good, portray Augie's believing parents. The directors fill the movie with Appalachian flavor as the story works its way toward a conclusion that may shake you, even if you see it coming. The mood is somber and the movie flirts with back-country cliches, inducing a degree of skepticism: Doesn’t anyone who might be called “normal” live in these woods? Kaitlyn Dever appears as Mara's best friend, a young woman who's understandably confused by the tension between religious dictate and human impulses. Nice work all around, with Goggins giving a stand-out performance as a pastor who can seem level-headed around the dinner table but who exerts sinister control over his followers. There's nothing particularly profound to be realized -- or at least nothing you don't' already know about the dangers of fanatical belief -- but Them That Follow catches you up with its mood and performances. And, yes, scenes involving the snakes will give you the shivers.