Thursday, September 21, 2017

Learning to survive catastrophe

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs during the Boston Marathon bombing.

For most of its 116-minute running time, director David Gordon Green's Stronger stakes out a claim to importance. In telling the story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), the movie becomes one of the rare entertainments that isn't about graphic displays of violence but about realistic depictions of the effects of violence on those who experience it.

For those who don't recall, Bauman was waiting at the finish line for his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) to complete the 2013 Boston Marathon. He lost both his legs when two bombs exploded. Bauman also was able to identify one of the bombers, having stood about a foot away from the perpetrator.

In the climate of "Boston Strong" that followed the bombings, Bauman became a hero. He was honored at a Boston Bruins hockey game and later at a Red Sox game. He was bombarded with public adulation. As a survivor of a cruel tragedy, he became a symbol of triumph over terrorist mayhem.

Green shows us what Bauman's life was like in the post-bombing days. In a wheelchair and reliant on his girlfriend and his mother (a strong Miranda Richardson), this goofy but good-hearted son of Boston faced dual problems: adjusting to a disabled life and also to the attention he never sought.

Gyllenhaal's performance anchors the movie; he mixes moments of humor with moments of self-pity. Gyllenhaal portrays a man who others see as a hero, but who would rather get drunk with pals than pat himself on the back. Who can blame him? For Bauman, using the bathroom has become a physical ordeal.

To play the role, Gyllenhaal lost weight, turning Bauman into a gaunt figure with a crooked, diffident smile. A Costco employee who worked roasting chickens before the bombing, Bauman never seemed to have any great ambitions. Had the Marathon explosion never happened, he might have been content to watch Red Sox games in bars while exchanging stinging insults with friends. He might have been a working-class Peter Pan, a young man who sees no great benefit in entering the adult world.

Bauman doesn't always appreciate the help he gets from Maslany's Erin, the girlfriend who quits her job to help him through his arduous therapy, which includes learning how to use artificial legs.

Green tries for authenticity in his depiction of working-class Bostonians, a little grittier than what we saw in Peter Berg's Patriots Day, another movie about the Boston Marathon bombings.

Bauman's family and friends are tough, profane and not altogether agreeable people who are only too happy to join him at a bar or try to capitalize (emotionally) on what they view as his ascendance. As Patty, Bauman's Mom, Richardson creates a character who's jealous of Erin's potential to replace her as the central figure in Bauman's life.

Richardson's face reflects a mixture of bitterness, fear and occasional hope; she never tries to make us like a character who has difficulty letting go of her son. Bauman lived with his mother at the time of the bombing and remained at her home afterward.

Maslany proves equally determined as Erin, a young woman who goes through hell along with Bauman and is pushed to her breaking point. Like everyone in Stronger, she's not afraid to lose her temper.

Green doesn't dwell on the explosion that took Bauman's legs, although he brings it up in quickly inserted flashbacks that, by the end, of the movie, blossom into a more vivid (and perhaps unnecessary) display of the blast that changed Bauman's life.

Scenes in which Bauman meets Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the bystander who helped him at the site of the bombing, are well played by both Sanz and Gyllenhaal. Carlos lost a son in Iraq. Evidently, many who had relatives who were killed or maimed in America's recent wars looked to Bauman's story to reassure them that life could go on.

Toward the end, Green yields to a temptation that he manages to elude for most of the movie. He allows the movie to join the inspirational chorus in which Bauman, as a person, and Bauman, as a symbol, begin to merge. These final scenes have an unavoidable taint of hagiography that mingles with a genuine thematic attempt to give Bauman moments of reconciliation that allow him once again to be comfortable in his own skin.

Obviously, there will be those who find the film's conclusion more stirring than I did, but Gyllenhaal's strong performance and equally vital contributions from a fine supporting cast keep Stronger on track, making it a powerful look at what happens when ordinary people are damaged by events over which they have no control.

I can't think of a more wrenching scene than the one in which doctors remove the bandages from Bauman's remaining legs. Not only is the removal screamingly painful, but it also serves as a stamp of finality on Bauman's condition.

Green shoots the scene creatively, showing us Bauman's tormented face and the face of his girlfriend in profile; what remains of Brad's legs appears in soft focus between them. Do we want to see? Does he?

Together, Green and Gyllenhaal have made a movie that asks us not to look away.

He thinks everyone else is better off

Director Mike White casts Ben Stiller as a father whose confidence is lagging in Brad's Status.

Ben Stiller knows how to squirm in his own skin. Cheers for writer/director Mike White, who has found the perfect vehicle for Stiller to express a nearly intractable case of mid-life jitters. In Brad's Status, Stiller portrays a father who accompanies his son on a tour of the New England colleges to which the young man has applied. The trip forces Stiller's Brad to evaluate his own life. Mostly, he doesn't like what he sees.

Brad believes his old college chums have surpassed him in the success department, and Brad wonders whether he hasn't wasted his life running a non-profit when he could have been focused on magnifying his bank account.

Not that Brad is suffering. And that, ultimately, may be the movie's point. Brad and his wife (Jenna Fischer) live a comfortable life in California with a son (Austin Abrams) who's going to have no difficulty attending a good college and finding a place for himself in the world.

But Brad is undone by his ceaseless competitiveness. He insists on evaluating his life in terms of others -- even to the point where he might be envious of his son should the young man be admitted to Harvard. Brad graduated from Tufts, a fine school but not Harvard.

White, who wrote the screenplays for Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and Beatriz at Dinner and who directed Year of the Dog, this time adopts an accessible approach, keeping his focus on the way Brad's rampant feelings of inferiority look when contrasted with what seem to be his more or less problem-free life.

To make the point, White's screenplay introduces us to the men with whom Brad compares himself.
White plays a successful movie director who happens to be gay but who didn't invite Brad to his wedding. Luke Wilson portrays a hedge fund manager who has acquired all the accouterments of great wealth, including a private jet. Jermaine Clement appears as Billy, a tech whiz who made a fortune and retired to Maui to live with two young women who know how to fill out bikinis.

Michael Sheen's Craig rounds out the quartet of jealousy-inducing stories that torment Brad; Sheen's Craig is a pundit who often appears on TV. He teaches a course at Harvard and can't make it through a restaurant dinner without someone approaching him to offer praise.

During Brad's visit to Boston, he and Troy meet one of Troy's friends. Shazi Raja portrays a young woman who seems to grasp the magnitude of privilege that supports Brad's life, but she's not entirely likable, either. She's a little too glib, a little too quick with her accusations, and a little too disrespectful of Brad's experience.

That, too, gives Brad's Status a welcome sense of realism.

White brings the movie to a somewhat predictable conclusion and he pretty much follows a blueprint in scenes that show us that the objects of Brad's envy aren't problem free. Everything looks better when viewed from the outside, and Troy seems far better adjusted than a father who picks at his life as if it were a scab that's beginning to itch.

OK, so it's not an insight that will rock your world, but White delivers it in a movie that manages to be easy going and troubled at the same time -- more insightful and a bit more rueful than you'd expect from what initially sounds like such an unpromising premise.

A kinder, gentler boarding school

Some time after the film's debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, someone decided to change the title of a winning new documentary from In Loco Parentis to School Life. In loco parentis refers to situations in which an educational institution assumes parental responsibilities for a young person.

When I was in college, issues of in loco parentis were routinely discussed in campus newspapers. I'm not sure discussions about the role of college administrations vis-a-vis the lives of their students are conducted in quite the same way anymore, but the initial title of School Days suggests a role for schools that goes well beyond classroom instruction.

That approach certainly applies to the Headfort School, Ireland's only primary-age boarding school and School Life's fascinating subject. I don't know if you can extrapolate larger educational meanings from School Life, but I do know that I would have loved to attend such a school, this one located on the remnants of a large estate.

School Life focuses on a husband and wife who have taught at Headfort for almost 50 years. Both are dedicated teachers who bring their own personalities to everything they do. The students at Headfort range in age from three to 13, but the film concentrates mostly on the older students.

Amanda Leydon teaches literature; her husband John Leydon teaches Latin. She supervises school dramatic productions; he helps students with their musical development, most of it centered on rock. John's demeanor and wry delivery may put you in mind of actor Bill Nighy, which -- for me at least -- created an instant fondness for the man. The Leydons manage to stay in touch with their students, even as they occasionally sneak off for a cigarette, blowing smoke out of a school window.

Because directors Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane focus mostly on the Leydons, their documentary tends to highlight the arts. The film avoids spoon feeding us information, preferring instead to stay close to students and teachers in ways that allow us to draw our own conclusions about Headfort.

I would have loved to see how subjects such as mathematics, which John Leydon also teaches, and science are taught, but School Days certainly gives us a feeling for an institution that has been built on the idea that a kinder, gentler experience can achieve as much as those built around unflagging discipline.

Dermot Dix, the school's headmaster, discusses the Headfort mission on the school's Web site: "The children's happiness is central and precious."

At Headfort, that ideal doesn't seem to interfere with helping Headfort's students gain admission to some of the best Irish and British secondary schools.

The directors' approach precludes giving certain information, so I did a bit of research myself. By my rough calculations, the cost for Irish students who board at Headfort and who are over 10 years old is roughly $7,710 per term and about $2,400 more for students who do not reside in Ireland. The school offers scholarships for children under 10 and "a small number of bursaries" for older students who may not otherwise be able to afford private education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the annual cost per pupil of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. was about $11,222 in 2013-14. According to the Private School Review, the national average private school tuition is about $9,975 per year. Private elementary school tuition is $8,918 per year and private high schools average about $13,524 per year in the US.

But money isn't the only measure of value. Lest potential parents worry that their students will be unable to compete, Headfort's web site assures readers that children are taught the national curriculum and work to standardized tests, but the school also emphasizes the hope that its students will become "critical, rather than dutiful, thinkers. At Headfort, we know that education is a means of liberation, rather than confinement."
Watching School Life convinced me that, at Headfort, these words transcend the usual brochure boilerplate. If the Leydons are any indication, everyone at Headfort practices exactly what the school preaches.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

It's one 'Mother!' of a movie

Director Darren Aronofsky's wild-ass horror movie aims big -- maybe too big..

Take the exclamation point in the movie's title seriously. Watching director Darren Aronofsky's Mother! is like reading a book in which every word has been italicized for effect: the silences are oh so ominous, the creak of a shoe on a wooden floor can be jarring and when a furnace fires up, it's like a bomb has exploded. The aural atmosphere of Mother! has been amped up to take what starts as a chamber-piece helping of horror and inflate it to the point of explosion -- maybe beyond that.

In his efforts to harness as much on-screen venom as possible, Aronofsky has enlisted an A-list cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Bardem plays a poet; Lawrence plays his devoted wife. The couple has just moved into an isolated country home.

Irritable to the point of hostility, Bardem's character ignores Lawrence's character. She plasters walls and works on turning the house into a little piece of paradise. You probably have a pretty good idea where all attempts at creating paradise wind up.

Buried in an increasingly chaotic plot, you'll find a mordant comedy about the burden of uninvited guests. The first of these is a man who identifies himself as an orthopedic surgeon (Ed Harris). The surgeon excuses his intrusion by saying he thought he had arrived at a bed and breakfast inn.

Harris' character smokes when asked not to, and claims to be a devoted fan of Bardem's work. He also says he's dying. It doesn't take long for the surgeon's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to show up. She's so rude, she makes Harris's character look considerate. She leaves a mess wherever she goes and pushes Lawrence's character into all manner of unwanted conversations.

To augment this bizarre scenario, the couple's two grown sons (Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and immediately engage in a Cain-and-Abel style fight over their father's will.

The credits identify Lawrence's character only as Mother; Bardem is referred to as Him. This tells us that we're watching a film that wants to mine a metaphorical motherland. As is often the case, Aronofsky aims big.

Aronofsky toys with every horror trope he can find: eerie basements, spurts of blood and a steady stream of unexplained noises.

All the while, Aronofsky frames Lawrence's face in booming close-ups; Lawrence expresses perpetual consternation over the fact that her husband insists that these uninvited guests stay; his desire amounts to a betrayal.

Generally, Lawrence's character behaves in ways that make little sense, a problem that afflicts much of the rest of the movie, but Aronofsky seems intent on making us ride a wave that swells with bizarre shocks.

With a movie such as Mother!, much hinges on whether Aronofsky can tie things together. Watching Mother! is like listening to a very long (and not entirely interesting joke) hoping that the punchline makes the time we're investing worthwhile.

Now if you want to excavate some meaning from all the stylistic bric-a-brac, try this. Bardem's character is a self-absorbed artist who pays very little attention to his wife. He allows his guests to insult and berate her, every now and again offering his apologies. The fact that Harris's character is a fan suggests that Bardem's character will put up with anything -- so long as it's accompanied by massive adulation.

Aronofsky carries this notion to wild extremes in the movie's final act, which I won't describe here because Aronofsky's images do have a surprising quality that should be discovered in a theater.

Aronofsky (Noah, Black Swan, The Wrestler and The Fountain) certainly knows how to create vivid images but when he finally wraps up his movie, I had the sense that I had just watched a perversely overproduced and willfully malicious episode of The Twilight Zone. It's as if Aronofsky has channeled impulses from filmmakers such as Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby) and Michael Haneke (Funny Games) and given them an even more twisted spin.

Mostly I felt sorry for Lawrence, a gifted actress playing a character who takes a psychological and physical beating as the film progresses. Aronofsky may be trying to describe a particularly loathsome form of male behavior, especially among artistic men, but to make his point Lawrence must become the movie's sacrificial lamb.

Whatever the case, it's worth noting that in enlarging the characters played by Bardem and Lawrence to float his allegorical balloons, Aronofsky mostly ignores their humanity. I took the movie's preoccupation with close-ups as significant, a way of locking its characters in the prison of a tormenting vision.

With Mother!, Aronofsky huffs, puffs and damn well tries to blow the house down. But this time out, I found myself wondering whether there was anything more to the movie than the ominous howl of all that huffing and puffing.

He's very tough but who really cares?

Mitch Rapp, the hero of American Assassin, battles bad guys and a muddled script.

Loads of people are familiar with author Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, a disaffected loner recruited into the CIA after a terrorist murders his girlfriend on a beach right after the two have become engaged. It may take every fan of Flynn’s 16-book series to turn American Assassin — the first Mitch Rapp movie — into a hit.

Muddled by a scattered screenplay and hampered by Dylan O’Brien’s notably unremarkable performance as Rapp, American Assassin does a fair share of globe hopping but manages to go nowhere.

After his fiancee’s death, Rapp trains himself to become a killing machine, staging a one-man Libyan mission to kill the leader of the terrorist group responsible for his fiancee's death. When American troops disrupt his work, Rapp finds himself in the hands of the CIA, where the head of counter-intelligence (Sanaa Lathan) turns him over to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a former Navy SEAL who trains his charges to be merciless killers.

At first, it seems as if swarthy complexions constitute the movie's only requirement for villainy, but we soon learn that a disaffected American (Taylor Kitsch) is trying to arrange a plutonium deal in Poland. Kitsch's character plans to sell Russian plutonium to Iranians — or some such.

That’s only the beginning of global hopscotching that takes Rapp to Turkey, Italy and other places, moving too quickly even to offer travelogue diversions.

In my view, only three reasons justify seeing American Assassin: a reasonably imaginative virtual reality training sequence, Keaton's crazed handling of a wince-inducing scene in which Stan is tortured and a late-picture explosion that can’t be described without giving away the movie’s climax.

Most of the time, American Assassin -- which was directed by Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger) -- fails to distinguish itself, looking like a low-rent version of the Jason Bourne movies with a little Jack Ryan thrown in.

For all its fights and action, American Assassin fails to generate the excitement we associate with the discovery of a new hero. The movie pauses for occasional chunks of listless exposition before leaping ahead to the next scene or country.

The net effect: Watching American Assassin made me feel as I if were skimming a second-rate novel, leafing from one chapter to the next, vainly hoping to stumble on something good.

Dancing her way toward freedom

A classically trained Russian ballerina wonders how much self-expression she must sacrifice in preparing for her audition for the Bolshoi Ballet. Anastasia Shevtsova, a real dancer, portrays Polina, the movie's title character as a young woman. Based on a graphic novel by Bastien Vives and directed by Valarie Muller and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj , Polina follows Polina from childhood into her 20something years. Initially, Polina studies with Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), no-nonsense teacher who doles out compliments parsimoniously. When Polina travels to Moscow to try out for the Bolshoi, she falls for a French dancer (Niels Schneider) and decides to return to France with him, much to the dismay of her father. Miglen Mirtchev plays Polina's Dad, a man who has fallen into difficulties with the Russian mob but who always wanted to see his daughter become a prima ballerina. In France, Polina joins a company run by Lira Elsaj (Juliette Binoche), a character whose style is freer and more modern than anything to which Polina has been exposed. Trouble looms: An ankle injury hampers Polina's career and her romance falls apart, leaving her to travel to Antwerp, where she works as a bar tender. There, she meets Karl (Jeremie Beligard); you won't be surprised to learn that Polina and Carl wind up dancing together. Hardly groundbreaking, Polina nonetheless features two fine performances from the actresses who play Polina (Veronica Zhovnytska as the young Polina and Shevitsova as the more mature dancer). Polina isn't the deepest drama but the dancing elevates a story that sometimes feels predictable. Credit Shevtsova with creating a character who's trying to use her training and develop her own style. Polina doesn't necessarily want to throw away the past; she hopes to carry it into a more liberated future.

Outrage after a police shooting

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis deliver a strong, clear message in Whose Streets?, a documentary about what happened in August of 2014 after Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. The message: The Civil Rights movement as we once knew it is dead, but that doesn't mean protest has ended. Whatever you think about Brown's killing, Whose Streets? proves informative because it focuses on the people who took to the streets in the wake of Brown’s death; i.e., it can be seen as a portrait of a deeply aggrieved community. The U.S. Justice Department eventually found that the police in Ferguson consistently had violated the rights of African Americans, so it's hardly surprising that Whose Streets? captures the outrage and frustration felt by Ferguson residents who view the post-Brown response as an armed invasion of their community. No disputing the conclusion; we all saw the armored vehicles roll in. Some of the footage comes from cell-phone images captured by protestors, which gives Whose Streets? an appropriately shaky and chaotic feel. Disturbing, if a bit repetitive and digressive, Whose Streets? reflects the mood and concerns of a much-abused population, the residents of Ferguson who weren't shot but who too long have lived with a police force that seems to have done little to serve and protect them -- and, as the movie makes clear, that treatment didn't start with Michael Brown's death.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

'It' sends in the clown -- and he's a killer

Latest Stephen King adaptation likely to score with audiences. To me? A yawn.
The working-class adults in It, an adaptation of a 1,000-plus page 1986 Stephen King novel, are abusive, cruel and, in some cases, detestable. Whether this arises from economic pressures or stands as some sort of class bias isn't entirely clear. Maybe it doesn't matter because the adults aren't the obvious focal point of director Andy Muschietti's adaptation; it's their kids.

To explore the fears of adolescent life, It follows -- if distantly -- a 1990 TV adaptation in which Tim Curry distinguished himself as Pennywise, the clown who terrorizes the children of Derry, Maine.

Muschietti and a trio of writers (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman) shift the time frame of King's novel from the 1950s to the 1980s and deal only with the first half of King's opus. A sequel is set to follow in which the teens of this edition return as adults.

Arriving more than 30 years after the novel's publication, this big screen version suffers from inevitable comparisons with a rash of other horror movies in which teens are terrorized by evil forces and by memories of another King-inspired movie, Stand By Me (1986).

By now, gory horror (icky streams of blood, razor-sharp teeth and other foul manifestations of malignant forces) make it seem as if we've seen It before and deprive the movie of some of the resonance that King must have intended.

Full of familiar King tropes, It tries to follow King's lead, allowing evil figures to provoke familiar fears of childhood. Who, at one time or another, hasn't trembled at the thought of entering a dank basement? That sort of thing.

In what can be viewed as thematic piling on, the teens of Derry not only must confront the buck-toothed Pennywise but are also taunted by the town bully (Nicholas Hamilton). Anyone who remembers his or her teen years may find Hamilton's character a good deal more frightening than any of the movie's booming effects, delivered with considerable verve and polish but too easily left behind in the theater, along with kernels of spilled popcorn.

The teens in the movie have named themselves the Losers Club. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) leads the group. Bill's younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by Pennywise in the movie's swiftly stated prologue.

The rest of the club members mostly are distinguished by single traits. One kid (Wyatt Oleff) is Jewish; another kid (Chosen Jacobs) is black; still another (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is overweight.

Every group of screen kids needs a wise-ass. In this case, the job falls to Finn Wolfhard. Jack Dylan Grazer portrays a kid dominated by his mother.

As the story develops, a girl (Sophia Lillis) joins the pack. Lillis' Beverly has a sexually abusive father and, unfairly, has been branded as "a slut" by her classmates.

Among the movie's problems: Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the scary clown whose makeup and goofy affect conceal his true nature, hovers near cliche, even with his ability to transform from a clown into his horrific real self.

Having pretty much found It to be a yawn, I should hasten to say that the movie likely will add some spin to the multiplex turnstiles after a lackluster couple of late-summer weeks.

Before a preview screening of It, King appeared in a short clip addressed to the audience. He said he was happy with the adaptation and praised the movie's young cast, all of whom do fine work as they spout profanities, shriek and behave as credibly as the story allows; they also discover that their hometown is targeted by waves of violence that appear in 27-year intervals.

Sometimes, it feels as if It lumbers from one set piece to another, giving each of the teens a scene that plays to his or her major fear. Each eruption of shock creates the aura of a super-charged fun house -- vivid but depthless. And at 135 minutes, the film begins to feel as lengthy as the book.

The movie teaches the members of the Losers Club a lesson that might have been culled from Hillary Clinton's campaign slogan: "Stronger together." The monster can't win if the kids unite to overcome their fears.

Although It takes full advantage of current technology in producing its many effects, the movie nonetheless feels trapped by the well-worn demands of a genre in which nearly every move feels too ingrained to break the bounds of the screen and take up residence deep inside our worst nightmares.

When Alice, 40, meets Harry, 27

Reese Witherspoon can't save a rom-com in which the romance isn't great -- and neither is the comedy.

Viewed through the most positive possible lens, the new romantic comedy Home Again has one element that might be regarded as fresh. A 40-year-old woman (Reese Witherspoon) disregards age differences and has an affair with a 27-year-old man (Pico Alexander).

Fair enough, but Home Again breaks little new ground with a mostly desexualized affair that stems less from desire than from confusions caused by a dissolving marriage. Besides, the whole age thing would have been more daring had Alice been written as a 50-year-old woman.

Witherspoon's Alice Kinney has arrived in Los Angeles with her two daughters (Eden Grace Redfield and Lola Flannery) to occupy the house of her late father, a well-respected director who also was known for his womanizing.

While partying at a bar with girlfriends on the occasion of her 40th birthday, Alice meets Harry (Alexander), an aspiring filmmaker.

Harry has arrived in LA with two filmmaking buddies (Nat Wolff and Jon Rudnitsky). The trio hopes to sell a screenplay writing based on a short that gained some recognition of the festival circuit.

After a drunken attempt at romance between Alice and Harry misfires, the three young men wind up living in Alice's guest house where they engage in annoyingly positive interactions with Alice's daughters and prove to be ideal tenants. Why not? They're not paying rent.

It's nice to see Candice Bergen in a brief role as Alice's mother, the woman who suggests that Alice shelter these apparently talented young men. Too bad, the screenplay gives Bergen so little to do.

Alice and Harry eventually begin a romance. The other two guys also have their eyes on Alice, but behave like gentlemen who become ridiculously (if not amusingly) protective of her when her estranged husband (Michael Sheen) arrives with hopes of patching up the marriage.

Director Hallie Meyers-Shyer -- the daughter of filmmakers Nancy Meyers (The Intern) and Charles Shyer (Baby Boom) -- has made the kind of romantic comedy that seems to exist behind the walls of a gated community where suffering is limited and all consequences easily are attenuated.

In starting her own business, Alice meets the duplicitous Zoey (Lake Bell), who hires Alice to decorate a child's bedroom. Zoey takes advantage of Alice, treating her like a nanny. Oh, the indignity.

OK, so rom-coms often rely on easy to swallow situations and posh surroundings, environments that soothe, offering palliative care for reality-weary audiences. But it's definitely disappointing to see Witherspoon, who created a real character in HBO's Big Little Lies, step backward into a world in which the most adventurous thing anyone might do is forgo the luxury of a personal shopper.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Murder and mystery in Victorian England

There aren't many actors I can say this about, but I'd watch just about any film that features work from Bill Nighy. In The Limehouse Golem, a melodramatic period piece set in Victorian London, Nighy sheds the customary twinkle in his eye (and, yes, it's always a wry twinkle) to play Inspector Kildare, a detective whose colleagues scorn him because of rumors that he might prefer men to women. As played by Nighy, Kildare doesn't seem particularly interested in having sex with anyone; Nighy brings a spirit of existential weariness to his portrayal of a man desperately in need of one last battle to fight. Kildare finds it when he's assigned the unenviable task of solving murders committed by a fiend who refers to himself as The Limehouse Golem. Olivia Cooke portrays Lizzie, a music hall star who becomes the wife of wannabe playwright John Cree (Sam Reid). When Cree, whose career failed to launch, is found dead, Lizzie is accused of having poisoned him. Kildare believes in Lizzie's innocence and thinks that he can exonerate her by solving the Limehouse murders, which are conducted in particularly brutal fashion. Adapted from a novel by Peter Aykroyd, The Lime House Golem includes a string of real-life characters, among them Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and music hall performer Dan Leno, rendered in a terrific performance by Douglas Booth. Many of the characters become suspects as the movie hops from one red herring to the next before reaching its somewhat strained conclusion. Director Juan Carlos Medina (Insensibles) delivers a richly appointed evocation of 19th Century London in a movie that makes use of twists that are revealed in flashback and speculative scenes about the Golem's true identity. Well acted and richly atmospheric, The Limehouse Golem doesn't quite terrify, even though its talented cast and abundantly colorful artifice sustain interest. Eddie Marsan has an unnervingly creepy turn as Uncle, a music hall master of ceremonies who harbors secret perversities.

An ode to the once ubiquitous typewriter

For these enthusiasts, the typewriter is a hallowed instrument

There are good reasons why the computer has replaced the typewriter as the best way to write almost anything. Word processing has proven far better than pounding the keys of a typewriter; computers are faster and make it easier to correct mistakes. Besides, as someone raised on typewriters -- even throughout a good part of my newspaper career -- I can attest to the fact that typing wore you out, although the manual carriage return created a motion that probably cut down on carpal tunnel syndrome, providing a built in motion that required taking at least one hand off the keyboard.

Don't tell any of this to the people in Doug Nichol's documentary, California Typewriter. These typewriter collectors and steadfast users of a now defunct technology believe that nothing surpasses the typewriter for composing written material.

Tom Hanks, for example, talks about his collection of typewriters and tells us how much more he appreciates a typewritten thank-you note than one delivered by email. I don't know why Hanks doesn't handwrite such notes, taking up an even older and more personal technology, the pen. But that's another story.

Much of California Typewriter centers on a Berkeley, Calif., typewriter repair shop owned by Herbert Permillion III, who opened his business in 1981 after spending years working on IBM Selectrics.

Ace repairman, Ken Alexander, who works in Permillion's shop, emerges as one of the documentary's singular voices. Alexander expresses his love for typewriters and talks about the increasing difficulties of repairing them. Replacement parts are vanishing.

We also hear the late Sam Shepard talking about his Swiss-made Hermes 3000 and the hallowed rituals made necessary by using a typewriter, inserting new sheets of paper, for example.

Younger viewers will recognize singer/songwriter John Mayer, another typewriter convert.

Not all typewriter fans are equally respected by purists. Take Jeremy Mayer, who collects typewriters and uses their parts in his sculptures. Desecration, some say, although Mayer also has a trove of spare parts that sometimes helps Alexander in his work.

How serious are typewriter collectors? As committed as the collectors of anything, including someone who paid $210,000 for the Olivetti on which Cormac McCarthy wrote most of his novels.

The history of the typewriter proves fascinating, and the movie thrives on the obsessive charms of its human subjects, qualities that prove infectious even if you're not tempted to start browsing the Internet in search of a machine of your own. The Internet, by the way, plays an instrumental role in helping to save Permillion's business from extinction, an irony that's not lost on anyone.

When it comes to obsession, I, too, am not immune. I found myself browsing various Web sites to see what it would cost to obtain a Smith Corona Clipper or, better yet, one of the Hermes 3000s about which Shepard waxed poetic. Personally, I never much like the IBM Selectric or any other electric typewriters. And, yes, I suppose I could drum up some nostalgia for the days when newsrooms were full of bulky Underwoods and you always seemed to get one that had been so abused that at least one key no longer worked or had the inconsiderate habit of sticking to the paper.

Ah, the good old days.

The Nile Hilton Incident and The Oath

Great quantities of tobacco and a few joints, as well, are smoked in The Nile Hilton Incident, an Egyptian film noir based on a true story. Swedish/Lebanese actor, Fares Fares, plays a detective who tries to solve a murder, even as he takes payoffs as routinely as he lights his ever-present cigarettes. Fares Fares's Noredin may be corrupt, but he's part of a culture in which bribery has been routinized. Still, Noredin gets hold of one case he really wants to solve, the hotel murder of a beautiful young woman. A rich and powerful man is implicated. As it turns out, a hotel maid (Mari Malek) saw the murderer leaving the scene of the crime. For American audiences, a decaying Cairo becomes as much of a character as any of the story's humans. Director Tarik Saleh conducts a rambling, sometimes disjointed tour of an entirely compromised city in the days just prior to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Seedy and alluring, The Nile Hilton Incident may not be the greatest detective story you've ever seen, but its setting and the looming protests that soon would fill Tahrir Square and lead to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak give the movie a serious tone that points to the conditions that, at least in part, led so many Egyptians to demand change.


Anyone who makes a thriller that's able to capitalize on the lonely frozen vistas of Iceland begins with a leg up. Baltasar Kormakur, the Icelandic writer, director and star of The Oath makes sure that we see these landscapes in ways that intensify and add depth to this story about an obsessive heart surgeon (Kormakur) who wants to save his wayward daughter (Hera Hilmar) from a drug-dealer with whom she has fallen in love. Kormakur portrays Finnur, a man who also has a young daughter with his second wife (Margret Bjarnadottir). But it's Finnur's 18-year-old daughter, Anna, who occupies his attention. Although Finnur pays his daughter's rent, she spends most of her time with the irresponsible Ottar (Gisli Orn Garoarsson). The movie twists itself into a thriller in which Finnur and Ottar square off, each threatening the other. Psychological edge becomes subordinate to a prevailing question: How far will Finnur go to protect a daughter who doesn't want his help. Finnur eventually gets the upper hand on Ottar, but not without terrible consequences. A serious tone and stabs at nuance can't disguise what at core begins to feel too much a prisoner of a familiar genre.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Can she rap her way out of Jersey?

Gritty and energetic, Patti Cake$ gives Danielle Macdonald a breakout role.

It's important to know that Patti Cake$, a movie about the emergence of a female rapper, takes place in the lower-class depths of New Jersey. First-time writer/director Geremy Jasper understands that for some folks, Jersey can be the place that nurtures them and the place they most want to escape. This dual pull infuses Patti Cake$ with dynamism.

Jasper tells the story of Patti Dombrowski, played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald. A heavy-set young woman, Patti dreams of shaking the world with her rap lyrics.

It's easy to accuse Patti Cake$ of being a formula job about a no-name woman who tries to buck the odds and make it big. It's also fair. Patti Cake$ qualifies as a kind of a rap Rocky built around a female character who's taunted by neighborhood jerks who derisively call her "Dumbo," a nickname she's been saddled with since childhood.

Fortunately, there's more to Patti Cake$ than the formula suggests. Among other things, it introduces audiences to Macdonald, who brings swagger, pathos and an ability to rap to the screen.

At 23, Macdonald's Patti calls herself "Killa-P" or "Patti Cake$," alter egos that help her survive the hard life to which she has been assigned.

So let's be clear. I'm not a rap enthusiast, but I recognize that rap requires a significant skill set: the ability to rhyme, the ability to create a narrative -- and, perhaps above all, a vocal dexterity that can turn a voice into an instrument of street poetry, blunt assertion, and staccato riffs.

I've read that Macdonald never had rapped before landing the part. I don't know who schooled her in the fine points of rapping, but she's plenty convincing as the driving force behind a group called PBNJ, initials derived from peanut butter and New Jersey.

Joining Patti in PBNJ are Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) and a character who dubs himself Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). A strange, nearly silent dude, Bastard lives in a shack in the woods and provides music and rhythms for the group.

Jasper mixes kitchen-sink grit and fairy tale aspiration to create a movie of power and pulse.

Patti, who works as a bar tender, lives with her mother (Bridget Everett) and her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Mom, who once aspired to be a singer, drinks too much and relies on Patti to help keep the family afloat financially. Mom also makes fun of Patti's dreams.

But Mom is an alcoholic with a twist; she actually can sing; her abilities come into play during the film's appropriately rousing finale.

Populated by the aging and embittered, the bar in which Patti works stands as a metaphor for dead-end Jersey lives that wind up stewing in a shot-and-a-beer world they'll never escape and which Patti longs to flee.

Patti's role model is a rapper and impresario known as O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), a member of rap royalty who lives like a pasha in a beautifully appointed home where Patti finds herself working a party after landing a catering job. Patti decides to take a chance and rap for O-Z, who cruelly dismisses her, accusing her of being a "culture vulture," a white person who appropriates black culture for their own purposes. I wish the movie had allowed for a little more reflection about that, but it clearly sets up O-Z as a rap elitist, one more obstacle for Patti to overcome.

The movie soothes some of the sting of cultural appropriation because "Bastard" is black and because Hareesh, who works in a pharmacy, has Middle Eastern roots. PBNJ is a multi-cultural experience.

Audiences pretty much will know where Patti Cake$ is headed, but its familiar path is paved with a Jersey spirit that's reinforced by the introduction of a Bruce Springsteen song during the end credits.

Not surprisingly, the movie ends at a contest in Newark where wannabe rap stars square off against one another. It's a fitting denouement for a movie that, like its main character, succeeds in firmly planting its feet and announcing, "I'm here. Deal with it."

In the movie, the period in the preceding sentence probably would be followed by a profane exclamation point, a word beginning with "m" and ending with "rs." And, yes, there's an "f" in the middle.

A Lake Bell comedy about marriage

As someone who loved Lake Bell's comedy In a World, I was looking forward to Bell's next movie, I Do ... Until I Don't. Oops. My expectations weren't entirely rewarded by Bell's new comedy about couples who participate in the filming of a documentary about marriage. The film is being made by an embittered British woman (Dolly Wells) who believes that marriages should have an opt-out clause that comes into effect every seven years. Bell's Alice is married to Noah (Ed Helms), who -- along with his wife -- struggles to make his window blinds business grow. Carol's hippie sister (Amber Heard) lives with her lover (Wyatt Cenac) in what they proudly bill as an open marriage. Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) is married to Harvey (Paul Reiser); it's her second marriage and it's gone stale. Steenburgen almost always is a joy to watch, and Bell and Helms are fine, as is everyone else in a strong cast, but I Do ... Until I Don't turns out to be wan and predictable. I wouldn't give up on Bell, though. She seems intent on writing, directing and starring in comedies that have something to say. She has the talent to strike again and make it work.

Another marriage in disrepair

Had we met Marie and Boris under different circumstances, we might actually have liked them. But in Belgian director Joachim Lafosse's After Love, we encounter Marie and Boris at their worst. They're in the midst of a break-up, but -- for reasons both practical and emotional -- they're living in the same apartment with their two daughters (Jade and Margaux Soentjens). Boris (Cedric Kahn) is bad with money; Marie (Berenice Bejo) pays most of the bills. The couple tries (frequently without success) to be civil to each other because of their daughters. Marie's mother (Marthe Keller) works at keeping the peace, encouraging her daughter not to give up on the marriage. But Marie no longer loves Boris and has become an expert at giving him an icy cold shoulder. She wills herself to shut him out, and anyone who's ever been walled off by another person will recognize the authenticity in Bejo's performance. Set mostly in the apartment Marie and Boris share, the movie observes the couple as they fight, enter periods of rocky co-existence, and, occasionally, reach a temporary rapprochement. Lafosse creates plenty of domestic tension, leaving us to pick our way through the rubble of a relationship that clearly has no future. Both Kahn and Bejo are well suited to playing former lovers who, over time, have become hopelessly mismatched. It's not easy to be around these two, especially in a movie that maintains such a tight focus, seldom leaving their apartment. It doesn't take long before we start rooting for Boris to move out -- mostly so that we can get away from both husband and wife. That's the point, of course, to give us a realistic picture of a marital end-game. Slow moving, the movie wades through a sea of hostilities while we wait for a major blow-up or a thaw in the ice that allows these two to reveal something about what made them a couple in the first place. As it stands, both Marie and Boris seem destined to gain by bidding each other farewell. Credit Lafosse for making a stab at honesty, but you may be glad finally to be liberated from that emotionally congested apartment.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

'Good Time' takes propulsive flight

Brimming with propulsive energy and full of domineering close-ups, Good Time comes across as a strange hybrid, a movie that blends the frenzy of Road Runner cartoons with the lives of characters living on society's shadowy margins.

This adrenalized movie about a couple of guys who botch a robbery may be about the ways in which movies can get in your face and stay there. At times exhilarating and at times overbearing, Good Time never backs off, which can make watching it akin to the experience of being unable to escape a conversation you're not always sure you want to have.

Directors Josh and Benny Safdie come across as unashamed proponents of the cinema of immediacy; the Safdies' characters are pushed through panic-fueled flight in a race to avoid capture, an old story but one viewed through a jangled urban lens.

Robert Pattinson, who rose to prominence in the Twilight series, continues to demonstrate that he has significant acting ability by playing small-time crook Connie Nikas.

Early on, Connie ropes his mentally challenged brother (portrayed by Benny Safdie) into joining him for a bank robbery. A wily bank teller outsmarts this masked duo by inserting a dye pack into their haul of cash. When the pack explodes, the brothers are marked by paint and doomed to run.

Battered in jail after being arrested, Nick winds up in a hospital: Connie, who's still running, attempts to spring his brother. Whether Connie does this out of love or out of fear that his brother, lacking in larcenous wiles, will spill the beans, remains an open question.

Before that, Connie tries to raise bail money with his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who evidently has been pulled into Connie's dangerous orbit before.

The movie's great gimmicky twist introduces us to Ray (Buddy Duress), a man newly released from prison. Never mind how the movie works Ray into the story. That's something to be discovered in a theater and it helps give the movie some comic edge.

While seeking refuge from the police, Connie hides out with a Haitian woman and her teenage granddaughter (Taliah Webster). Connie uses and betrays Webster's character, but also shows flickers of genuine concern for her. Street-smart, but inexperienced, Webster's Crystal can't keep up with Connie's manipulations.

Lest we mistake Connie for a lovable goofball, the Safdies show him brutally beating an amusement park security guard (Barkhad Abdi) who discovers Connie and Ray's intrusion into the park where they're searching for a hidden stash of drugs and money.

It's not the only time the Safdies make you wonder whether they've gone a little too far.

I don't know if Pattinson is improvising, but he creates the illusion of a character who's entire approach to life is improvisational. Connie doesn't plan; he reacts and relies on his instincts.

Duress adds humor as a guy too dim and drunk to avoid trouble. Duress's Ray is motivated by a desire to celebrate his recent release from prison, a place he doesn't wish to revisit. You don't need to be a seer to know that Ray's evening won't end well.

With the skilled help of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the Safdies give their movie kinetic life that seems to be spring right from their nerve endings.

What they can't do is make us -- or at least me -- root for Connie's redemption, and they sometimes left me wondering as Pauline Kael did at one point in her contrarian review of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull: "What am I doing here watching these two dumb f...ks?". (Jake LaMotta and his brother Joey.)

I didn't agree with Kael about Raging Bull, but after her review, I began to look for a genre you might call "dumb f...k" movies, if I may borrow the New Yorker's ellipsis. I'm not talking stupid comedies, but films with serious aspirations.

Compelling and impressive as it can be, Good Time left me mulling whether it shouldn't be tagged with a little bit of that label.

Inspired impressions in (not of) Spain

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon traveled this route before, but in The Trip to Spain the combination of Coogan and Brydon still clicks. After The Trip (2011) and The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain makes us wonder if these two don't plan to visit every country in Europe. To tell the truth, I don't mind if they do. Both Coogan and Brydon play themselves -- or at least versions of themselves. They travel to Spain, enjoy stunning vistas, eat disgustingly well and entertain us with a variety of impressions -- from Michael Caine to Sean Connery to Mick Jagger to Woody Allen. We've seen some of these impressions before, but it doesn't really matter because there's an unsettled quality to the relationship between the two men that makes their byplay feel fresh. Coogan and Brydon can be competitive and wry and Coogan can't always suppress his annoyance with his traveling companion. The reason for the trip: Steve plans to write a book about his Spanish travels; Rob supposedly is reviewing restaurants. Coogan and Brydon's dueling Roger Moore impressions have a pun-based twist, playing on the mistaken notion that Moore was a Moor. Coogan also worries about his career, an uninitiated change of agents, as well as alarming calls from his son and from a woman he's seeing in New York. The complication: She's married. Director Michael Winterbottom infuses the movie with a sad undertone involving the fact that the divorced Coogan -- as opposed to the married Brydon -- seems destined for perpetual unhappiness. It's arguable that this journey goes on too long. Still, I haven't tried of watching Coogan and Brydon do their dueling impressions act, which doesn't entirely hide traces of bitterness and, of course, the kind of self-absorption that keeps two men focused on each another, often at the expense of the mind-broadening pleasures of travel.

A drama set in Columbus, Ind.

Columbus makes modern architecture as important as its characters.

The director who calls himself Kogonada (not his real name) previously has made short films inspired by directors such as Ozu and Wes Anderson. Kogonada's debut feature -- Columbus -- premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it received mostly glowing reviews.

Kogonada's love of Ozu shows in Columbus, a movie in which the camera often remains stationary and in which the actors, for the most part, perform with admirable restraint.

The movie is named for Columbus, Indiana, a city known for its modern architecture, buildings from the likes of Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and James Polshek sit improbably in the heart of this small Midwestern city.

Columbus and its architecture become a character (perhaps the most interesting character) in Kogonada's story about two people moving in opposite directions.

Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) has graduated high school but is stuck. She feels obligated to remain in Columbus to take care of her mother, a recovering meth addict played by Michelle Forbes.

John Cho portrays a Korean-born translator who arrives in Columbus because his father, an architecture scholar, has collapsed and fallen into a coma. Unlike Casey, Cho's Jin needs to come to grips with his past, not move away from it. He hasn't spoken to his father for a year.

It should be apparent from the opening shots that Kogonada has a strong compositional sense that's bolstered by cinematographer Elisha Christian's ability to bring calm, ravishing light to almost every scene.

As the story evolves, Casey and Jin develop a flirtatious friendship. She works in the town library and derives pleasure and solace from the town's architecture. Jin claims to have no interest in architecture, which probably has something to do with his inability to feel anything about his father's impending demise.

Kogonada adds two additional characters to the mix, an associate of Jin's father (Parker Posey) and one of Casey's library co-workers (Rory Culkin). The conversations tend toward the intellectual; these characters evidently are accustomed to channeling their feelings into thoughts that they can share more easily than emotions.

Richardson, last seen in M. Night Shyamalan's Split, plays a coming-of-age role, and Cho conveys the weariness of a man who has been fighting his demons for a long time. Both do fine work.

Always great to look at, Columbus nonetheless can feel boring, studied and overly composed, so much so that it made me hope that Kogonada would loosen the arty cords that may be binding him and that sometimes constrict this otherwise promising work.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The bicker, they kill. That's the movie

Medicore Hitman's Bodyguard breaks little new ground.

In The Hitman's Bodyguard, bickering buddies shoot lots of people amid a flood of explosions, car chases and other forms of visual mayhem. There's also ample use of the "MF" word and a mounting pile of action sequences that have been edited to create a feeling of maximum frenzy.

The buddies in question are played by Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, two stars who have branded their big-screen personalities to the point where it's almost impossible for either of them to do anything unexpected.

Reynolds can be smart in the glib way of characters created by snark-capable writers. Jackson does variations on the savvy, profanity-spewing killer who eventually reveals a moral foundation for his seemingly reprehensible actions.

Watching Reynolds and Jackson go through their standard motions provides most of the pleasure in The Hitman's Bodyguard, an action comedy that tries to blast its way through the brick wall of late summer indifference.

The title pretty much tells the story. Reynolds portrays Michael Bryce, a bodyguard whose A-list career shatters when he fails to protect an important client from assassination. Reduced to second-rate protection jobs, Michael basically hangs around waiting for the plot to arrive.

The story kicks in when Jackson's Darius Kincaid turns up. Imprisoned for being a hitman with hundreds of kills, the notorious Kincaid makes a bargain with Interpol. If he testifies against a vicious Belorussian dictator (Gary Oldman), the authorities will release Kinkaid's equally lethal wife (Salma Hayek) from the Amsterdam prison where she's being detained.

At various points throughout, Hayek's Sonia is seen terrorizing her cellmate, exposing her cleavage, and trying to make up for limited screen time by contributing her own carload of profanity to the movie's "R" rating.

Elodie Yung plays Amelia Roussel, an Interpol agent, and Michael's former lover. She promises to help Michael regain his status as a high-priced bodyguard if he'll agree to escort Kincaid from prison to the Hague, where Oldman's character awaits trial for crimes against humanity.

You don't need to be a genius to know that the trip will leave many bodies strewn in its violent wake or that credibility takes an early hit.

After taking a bullet in his knee, Kincaid limps through action sequence after action sequence with the movie stopping for occasional flashbacks to explain how Kincaid met Hayak's character or how Michael developed a relationship with Yung's character.

Director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) seems to buy into to the theory that all action should be edited into fragmented shards, and the incessant banter between Reynolds and Jackson provides little that would make Oscar Wilde envious.

There's not much else to say about this formula job, which never rises above genre mediocrity, but may satisfy those who find this sort of rampant destruction appealing.

A caper movie, country style

Director Steven Soderbergh has fun with Lucky Logan, a heist movie set in West Virginia.
It's a bit of a stretch to think that anyone has been eagerly waiting to see Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, play a hillbilly safecracker from West Virginia. But Craig does just that in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky, a caper movie in which a group of West Virginia rednecks stage a robbery at the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600, a NASCAR race held on Memorial Day weekend.

Those who try to mine veins of importance from Logan Lucky, which was written by Rebecca Blunt, may find themselves straining. Logan Lucky stands as an enjoyable -- if slight -- caper comedy build around odd ball casting that creates much of the movie's appeal -- that and Soderbergh's understanding of how to freshen a formula.

An unlikely duo of Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play brothers. Tatum's Jimmy Logan is a beleaguered construction worker who loses his job for not reporting a pre-existing health condition; he has a limp. Jimmy's brother Clyde (Driver) works as a bartender despite having a prosthetic lower left arm, a souvenir from his military service in Iraq.

Jimmy would like to spend more time with his daughter after his divorce from Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). But Bobbie Joe and her husband (David Denman) plan to move to a swankier town, leaving Jimmy with a great need for money if he wants to maintain a relationship with his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie), a child who participates in beauty pageants.

With no legitimate prospects in sight, Jimmy uses the code word that his brother knows signals trouble. "Cauliflower."

The rest of the movie follows a pleasingly predictable pattern in which Jimmy assembles the crew he needs to pull off the heist. One of Jimmy's primary partners in crime is Joey Bang (Craig), a felon whose participation presents Jimmy with an obstacle. Joey's in jail. Jimmy contrives a scheme to get Joey out of the slammer so that he can put his larcenous plan in motion.

Jimmy's sister (Riley Keough) plays a role in pulling off a robbery that allows Soderbergh to revel in West Virginia color, sometimes in ways that seem a trifle self-conscious.

To further complicate matters, Joey insists that his participation is contingent on Jimmy involving Joey's two brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), a couple of guys who probably never will be mistaken for MENSA candidates.

Two additional performances are worth mention. Seth MacFarlane shows up as Max Chilblain, a British race car impresario, and Hilary Swank makes a late-picture appearance as a cop who's trying to nab the thieves.

Like many heist movies, Logan Lucky requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, and it's tough to avoid not thinking of the movie as a kind of knockoff of Soderbergh's Ocean's series, only with dirt under its fingernails.

I enjoyed Logan Lucky, even though I was seldom unaware that I was watching actors tapping into their inner rednecks. As it stands, the cast seems to be having the kind of good time that transfers to an audience.

A couple of clicks toward even more weirdness and Logan Lucky might have landed Soderbergh in Coen Brothers territory. Now that really would have been something to behold.

He fights to be a father

Menashe, a Yiddish-language film, tells the story of a widower whose relationship with his son is threatened.

Menashe, the main character in the movie of the same name, lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a member of a Hassidic sect, Menashe tries to adhere to the letter of Jewish law.

Not a man of worldly ambition, Menashe earns his living working the cash register at a local grocery store. Menashe speaks mostly Yiddish and the subtitled movie about him -- directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein -- makes room for only a smattering of English.

Those unfamiliar with Hassidic life may find Menashe as foreign as if it were taking place in another country. We're in the US, but Menashe immerses us in a culturally isolated community made up only of Hassidic Jews.

That doesn't mean that Menashe's story fails to strike a few universal cords. A widower, Menashe has been told that can't keep his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) unless he remarries. Menashe's rabbi (Meyer Schwarz) has ruled that every child must grow up in a two-parent household. The
complication: Menashe has no desire to submit to another arranged marriage.

As a result, Rieven lives with his stern uncle (Yoel Weisshaus), a man who's married, has his own family and views Menashe as incurably irresponsible.

Menashe Lustig, a bearish man whose story inspired Weinstein's screenplay, portrays the title character in a movie that has been cast with non-actors who appear to be deeply embedded in the world that Weinstein apparently had to film on the sly so that he did not run afoul of the Brooklyn-based community where the story takes place.

You'd think that our sympathies automatically would go to Menashe. But Weinstein makes it clear that Menashe doesn't really know how to raise a child -- even as he shows the father's love for the boy and the boy's love for his father.

As played by Niborksi, Rieven comes across as a smart kid who, at times, understands that his father might be in over his head.

The movie includes a wonderful scene in which Menashe shares beers with two Puerto Rican co-workers during a break from work. He also shares the story of his less-than-happy marriage. Honest and relaxed with these strangers, Menashe unburdens himself in English. His companions tell him that without a wife, he's free to do what he pleases, analysis that couldn't be further from Menashe's truth.

This lovely, human scene reminds us that there's life beyond Borough Park, even if Menashe and every other character in the film have no pressing desire to interact with it.

The first year anniversary of the death of Menashe's wife drives the story over the course of a single week. Despite his brother-in-law's objections, Menashe insists on holding the memorial service in his cramped apartment. He wants to prove to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi and to the community at large that he's capable. To the movie's credit, we're not convinced that Menashe is up to the task. He may not believe it, either.

Weinstein leaves it up to us to decide what to make of the lives he so richly evokes in a movie that qualifies -- on the basis of language alone -- as one of the year's more unusual offerings. It has been a long time since I've heard this much Yiddish, the language with which my grandparents were most comfortable and which my parents spoke when they didn't want either myself or my brother to know what they were talking about -- or when English simply couldn't match the richly sardonic capabilities of Yiddish.

Language aside, Weinstein's Menashe succeeds in doing what many good films do; it opens the door to a world most of us don't really know and allows us to meet the characters in it on their own terms. Nice work.

'Brigsby Bear' and 'Dave Made A Maze'

It's unusual that two movies, both of which risk silliness and both of which achieve some success, open during the same week. But that's the case with Brigsby Bear and Dave Made A Maze, both of which arrive in Denver and presumably around the country this week.
Brigsby Bear, the more engaging of the two movies, tells the story of a young man who was kidnapped as an infant. Kyle Mooney plays James, a man who's freed from captivity after 25 years.

James wasn't physically abused by his kidnappers; instead, he was isolated from everyone else by two people (Mark Hammil and Jane Adams) who claimed to be his parents and who evidently told him that the world was too contaminated for him to venture beyond their well-sealed home.

During his years of captivity, James became totally absorbed in the world of Brigsby Bear, a TV show that he watches on videotapes which his faux father, who dons a gas mask when he leaves the family compound, brings home.

Clunky looking and amusingly amateurish, Brigsby Bear introduces James to a complex fantasy universe that encompasses a variety of different worlds and villains.

There's no reason why the now-grown James should continue his interest in something as child-centered as Brigsby Bear, a series that wouldn't cut it even during the less sophisticated 1970s.

But the totally isolated James no longer makes any distinction between Brigsby's world and his own.

The movie shifts gears when the local police -- led by an amiable detective (Greg Kinnear) -- liberate James. He's returned to his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins. They try to bring James up to speed about a world that has passed him by.

When James's interest in Brigsby doesn't subside, his parents decide that he ought to see a therapist (Claire Danes). She tries -- without much success -- to convince James to abandon Brigsby and drop in on the "real" world once in a while.

But James persists, so much so that he and a new pal (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) decide to continue making Brigsby Bear videos. James wants to fulfill the only destiny he can imagine, bringing the series to its conclusion.

James becomes author, filmmaker, and star (in a bear suit) of the Brigsby Bear show.

Look, all of this sounds a bit ridiculous, but director Dave McCary, working from a screenplay by Mooney and Kevin Costello, displays a light, sensitive touch that eschews ridicule, even as it examines the role fantasy plays in keeping James going.

McCary could have put a sneer on the movie's face, turning it into a kind of hip satire about the danger of losing oneself in pop-cultural fantasies. Instead, he has made a captivating charmer of a movie about a young man trying to negotiate a world he may never fully understand.

Dave Made A Maze takes a different tack with its silliness, introducing mild elements of horror and danger along with a healthy dose of 20something dislocation.

Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives home from a weekend trip to discover that her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has erected a cardboard maze in their small living room.

The structure looks entirely wobbly and unsophisticated, a warren of boxes and smoking chimneys that might not withstand a strong wind.

From inside the maze, we hear Dave telling Annie that he's lost. He also makes the preposterous claim that the maze is much bigger on the inside than it appears when viewed from the outside.

Not knowing what to do, Annie asks for help from Dave's pal Gordon (Adam Busch). Others turn up, including a guy (James Urbaniak) who wants to make a documentary about the maze.

Eventually, Annie and company enter the maze, where they discover that Dave was right about the scale of the structure -- and also about its dangers. Booby traps lurk everywhere and a lethal Minotaur roams the premises.

Like Dave's maze, the movie adds creative, low-rent effects, some quite clever and most making inspired use of cardboard.

Dave Made A Maze ultimately wears out a thin premise. But at a swift 80-minutes, it proves more engaging than you'd think for a movie with a substantial number of cardboard sets.

A look at a Hollywood life

Michael Almereyda, who directed Ethan Hawke in a version of Hamlet set in Manhattan, brings his skills to a documentary about Hampton Fancher. If you just said, "Hampton who?," you're not alone. Fancher isn't exactly a household name, although he's credited as one of the writers of 1982's Blade Runner. Fancher also gets a writing credit for the screenplay for the much anticipated Blade Runner 2049, due this fall. Once an actor, Fancher appeared in a variety of shows during the 1960s: Bonanza, Perry Mason and Gunsmoke among them. Not afraid of the talking-head approach, particularly in his film's latter going, Almereyda concocts a fascinating look at a California life that led Fancher to the movies. Fancher fled home at the age of 16 and traveled to Barcelona to study flamenco. He's been married and unmarried and involved with a variety of women, including actress Barbara Hershey. Fancher is an interesting talker and storyteller, the kind of guy who always sounds like an "insider" no matter how obscure the story he's telling. Sci-fi fans will most appreciate the movie for Fancher's explanation of how he became involved with author Philip K. Dick and later with Blade Runner, which was based on a Dick novella. Almereyda allows Fancher to tell his own story, but often shows us photos from Fancher's past or from TV shows and movies in which the actor appeared. I enjoyed spending time with Fancher in Almereyda's documentary about a man whose life seems possible only in a place where everyone aspires to make movies.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trouble on a troubled reservation

In Wind River , an FBI agent and a tracker look into the mysterious death of a young woman.
There are so few movies with Native American characters that one is tempted to recommend Wind River solely on the basis of casting that includes many Native American actors. But in the hands of writer/director Taylor Sheridan, Wind River can't entirely balance concerns about terrible conditions on a Wyoming reservation with the genre demands of a thriller.

A subdued Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a Wyoming-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer who becomes involved in investigating the murder of a Native American teenager, whose body he finds in a snow-covered field. The young woman has been shot and sexually violated.

Olsen's Jane Banner, a newly minted FBI agent, arrives in Wyoming to figure out exactly what happened to the dead girl (Kelsey Asbille), a resident of the grimly impoverished Wind River reservation.

The screenplay puts Cory in a difficult spot. He knows the terrain and he knew the dead girl. Unlike the outsider played by Olsen, Cory has long-standing relationships in the Native American community. He had been married to a woman from the Wind River Reservation (Julia Jones), but their relationship ended in divorce after the disappearance and death of their daughter.

Obviously, Cory can't look into the death of another young woman without confronting the burden of grief and guilt that he carries with him. He couldn't protect his daughter from the sometimes lethal hostilities directed toward Native American women.

Sheridan wrote the screenplays for two better movies -- Sicario and Hell or High Water. This time, he creates a story that wallows in the dour resolve of men accustomed to suppressing anger and pain. Many of the characters seem to have accepted injustice as part of the fabric of a world that, for them, long ago slipped beyond redemption.

Only the town's sheriff (Graham Greene) shows splashes of humor, but it's of the deadpan variety, and the movie's snowbound landscapes add to the feeling of emotional desolation.

A skilled tracker, Cory spends most of his time hunting animals that prey on sheep and cattle. He wears a snowsuit to protect him from lethally cold temperatures. (The movie actually was shot in Utah, so if you've been to Lander, Wyo., where some of the movie supposedly takes place, don't be surprised if you feel a bit disoriented.)
Scenes between Cory and his young son and those between Cory and his estranged wife add humanity, as do scenes in which Cory meets with the father (Gil Birmingham) of the dead teenager. Such moments suggest that Wind River might have been more affecting had it spent even more time with the dead girl's shattered family.

Olsen, so good in Martha Marcy May Marlene -- isn't able to bring much depth to a character who makes up half of a cliché; she plays novice cop to Renner's savvy frontiersman.

Sheridan shows some of the physical and emotional impoverishment of life on the reservation. Wintry atmospherics and pervasive gloom almost become characters in a story that ultimately succumbs to a burst of extreme violence.

This finale involves a flashback and a shoot-out that overwhelms some of the movie's earlier observational insights. A final title card about the disappearance of Native American women from reservations -- evidently a widespread a problem -- struck me as too little, too late, almost an apology for the violent crescendo that preceded it.

A 2012 New York Times article about the Wind River Reservation, provides a better feel for life on what the locals call "the res." The article notes that, at the time of its writing, those living in Wind River had a shorter life expectancy than the inhabitants of war-torn Iraq.

The story also attributes the following quote to a tribal advocate:

"This place has always had the gloom here. There has always been the horrendous murder. There has always been the white-Indian tension It's always been something."
To his credit, Sheridan captures some of that feeling, but in the end, the sound of gunfire drowns out the cries of characters whose lot in life seems to demand that they find ways to bear the unbearable.

Young women step toward college

The students we meet in the documentary Step are spirited and entirely engaging.
The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009 with the stated aim of getting every one of its students into college. Modeled on the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, the Baltimore edition accepts 100 students a year. Students are selected through a lottery process.

If you look at the school's Web site, you'll find prominent mention of the BLSYW's competitive Step team and of Step, the much-heralded documentary about the team's young women. But, and this is a key to understanding the school, you'll find more emphasis on academics, counseling and on an educational culture that stresses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In what presumably was an attempt to honor the school's mission, director Amanda Lipitz's documentary spends as much time on the lives of three seniors as it does on the school's Step team, which is in the midst of trying to recover from an off year in which the team's best stepper -- Blessin Giraldo -- missed 53 school days.

The charismatic Giraldo comes closest to being the film's main character; she's from a home in which the refrigerator can remain empty until the Food Stamps arrive. As the school year progresses, Blessin's mother misses parents' nights, and her counselors struggle to motivate her to commit to the academic excellence which they're confident she can achieve.

At one point, a school official asks Blessin why she can't make as big a commitment to the school's academics as she has made to Step.

All of the students on whom Lipitz focuses come from economically strained backgrounds and all of them have grown up around the violence that continues to plague Baltimore. The movie begins with clips of protests that erupted after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of spinal cord injuries sustained in the back of a police van.

The point is that none of these young women are sailing smoothly toward success; their challenges are many, but -- if Step is any indication -- their spirits are strong enough to meet them.

Lipitz also introduces us to Cori Grainger, the class valedictorian. She's part of the Step team but dreams of attending Johns Hopkins. Cori's mother -- Triana -- was 16 when Cori was born.

Like any teenager, Tayla Solomon, the movie's third student, sometimes finds her intensely focused mother "annoying." But Mom, who's employed as a corrections officer, clearly works hard to ensure that her daughter doesn't drop her guard. When Tayla's grades slide, Mom -- who attends every practice of the Step team -- lets her daughter know that she's skating on thin ice and that boys will not be a distraction.

The Step team's coach -- Cari "Coach G" McIntyre -- proves supportive of the Step team, but she, too, has a single-minded focus on achieving excellence.

Lipitz includes lots of scenes at Step practice, where Coach G supervises. Her goal: To win a championship at an annual Step competition held at Bowie State University. The steppers, who call themselves "The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW," must be in top form to compete against teams from several other states.

The movie makes clear that for these young women success can be motivated by their desire not to lead lives that constantly are shortchanged by money woes and hardship.

I found Step a bit scattered, and I wish Lipitz had spent more time showing how step routines are developed. But I was impressed less by the filmmaking than by the young women of Step and by their school's supportive but disciplined approach, which seems to insist that in a sink-or-swim world, sinking simply won't be accepted as an option.

Marion Cotillard in 'Land of the Moon'

Marion Cotillard plays a woman longing for love and sex in From the Land of the Moon, a movie based on a 2006 novella by Milena Agus. Set mostly in Provence during the 1950s, the movie introduces three men into the life of Cotillard's Gabrielle. A high school teacher who loans Gabrielle a copy of Wuthering Heights becomes the first man on whom she has a crush. When that proves disastrous, Gabrielle's mother decides that her daughter ought to be married. Mom suggests that Gabrielle marry Jose (Alex Brendemuhl), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who works on the family farm. Jose agrees even though Gabrielle has vowed never to love him -- and, at least in the beginning, never to have sex with him. The third unlucky chap is Andre Sauvage (Louis Garrel), a veteran of the Indochina war whom Gabrielle meets at a Swiss spa where she has been sent to recover from kidney stones, which the movie refers to -- presumably with metaphoric/psychological intent -- as "stones disease." Throughout, director Nicole Garcia offers suggestions that Gabrielle may be mad. Lush photography aside, everyone in From the Land of the Moon seems to be burdened by unfulfilled desires. Cotillard proves more than capable of playing a woman distracted and possessed by her own inner life. Cotillard dominates every image in which she appears (which is most of them), giving her character an air of troubled beauty; her performance is almost (but not quite) enough to carry From the Land of the Moon to success. A surprise late-picture twist fails to ring true and isn't all that surprising, anyway.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

When the police become torturers

Detroit immerses us in a brutal racist incident that took place during the city's 1967 riot.
I found it impossible to watch Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit and not be flooded by a complex torrent of reactions to the movie's undeniable visceral power. Bigelow takes an unflinching look at a little known racist incident that took place during the Detroit riots of 1967. Police brutality and racism are awful, of course, but how much of it do we need to see before that point effectively has been made?

That's a question that every moviegoer will have to answer for his or herself, but -- I wondered, if in trying for unblinking honesty, Bigelow hadn't sometimes mistake intensity for insight.

Bigelow divides her movie into three unequal parts. She begins with an appropriately frenzied approach to the Detroit riots, settles into a disturbing and violent example of racist brutality, and then -- as if to temper the horror of what we've been watching -- spins out a courtroom finale in which the offending police officers are brought to trial.

Bigelow bases her movie on a true story, chronicled in a 1968 book by John Hersey, The Algiers Motel Incident. Events at the Algiers were a kind of adjunct to the Detroit riots that began when the police raided an after-hours bar frequented by black patrons.

No matter what side of the political divide on which you fall, it's nearly impossible to watch Detroit without making references to the climate between black communities and police forces that have been infected by institutional racism -- not only in 1967, but in 2017.

At the Algiers Motel, several young black men, two white women, several police officers and a black security guard are thrown together during the heat of the riot. The police officers -- led by a racist cop (Will Poulter) -- terrorize their captives in ways that result in psychological trauma and, ultimately, killing. By the end of the night, three young black men are dead.

From the outset, we've tagged Poulter's Krauss as an undisguised racist. Even before the incident at the Algiers, he goes unpunished for shooting an unarmed black man in the back.

The movie's segments in the Algiers Motel are on a par with the kind of sustained cruelty we sometimes see in horror films. Of course, torture is precisely what the police are doing to their innocent victims, perpetrating an invisible slice of horror during the intensely pressurized atmosphere of a violent outburst that made Detroit resemble a war zone.

During this portion of the film, the police line their victims against the wall, singling them out for humiliation, along with two white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) who were partying at the Algiers. The cops accuse the women of being prostitutes, an opinion they seem to justify only because the women have been hanging around black men.

Three figures stand out among the black men, the lead singer of a group called The Dramatics (Algee Smith), a military veteran recently returned from Vietnam (Anthony Mackie) and a friend of Smith's character (Nathan Davis Jr.).

No one is more conflicted about what's happening at the Algiers than John Boyega's Dismukes, a security guard sent by his employer to protect a store from looting. Dismukes becomes caught up in the Algiers' drama. He's a law-and-order guy, but he's not blind to the racism that's being displayed by out-of-control cops.

All of this begins because the cops believe that someone in the motel fired a gun at them. As it turns out, the gun was a starter pistol fired by a young man (Jason Mitchell) who had been trying to frighten a small gathering at the Algiers by mimicking the way white policemen treat blacks. To make his act more convincing, Mitchell's character draws the fake gun, eventually firing it out a window.

I don't want to leave the impression that Detroit proceeds entirely without nuance. In the movie's later going, we meet cops who are appalled by what happened at the Algiers. We sometimes see the movie's brutal but self-serving cops trying to find a way out of the situation they've created. Not every black character is willing to stand up for truth when it comes to exposing the viciousness to which they've been subjected.

Bigelow may want us to understand that the cops have deluded themselves into believing that abuse is not only justifiable but a privilege of their positions of authority. Once the firebombs start flying, these policemen seem to think they've been granted license to do anything.

All of this unfolds after a prologue featuring paintings by Jacob Lawrence that try to provide some context for the riots: northward migration by blacks devolved into segregated housing projects and high unemployment. That's the gist.

Later, we'll see news clips of George W. Romney and President Lyndon Johnson, political leaders who remind us that what we're witnessing springs from a reality; the government apparatus geared up to meet what it saw as the challenge of unleashed fury and wanton destruction.

Written by Mark Boal, who also wrote Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit might have been even more daring had it taken some time to show us the pre-riot atmosphere in the Detroit police department, the conditions that presumably made Poulter's character possible.

As the movie unfolded, I found myself wondering how a director as meticulous as Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) would have handled such a volatile story.

It's also worth remembering that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing already made a statement about the ways in which racial violence can be kindled.

So a confession: At various points during events at the Algiers Motel, I wondered what Bigelow was trying to accomplish by allowing them to drag on so long.

Other points are more economically made. Mackie portrays a Marine who recently returned from Vietnam. Having served his country offers him no protection from the wrath of the police.
That's a powerful observation.

It also helps to remember that many of the current and well-publicized incidents of questionable police conduct did not take place under violent duress; racism hardly needs riots as an excuse to express itself. Sometimes, all it takes is a traffic stop.