Thursday, May 25, 2017

This 'Pirates' tells a cluttered tale

The approach in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Load up on effects.

Nobody has directed better Pirates of the Caribbean movies than Gore Verbinski. Verbinski, who took charge of three Pirate voyages beginning in 2003, has a flair for visual comedy that enlivened the Pirates movies he brought to the screen.

But we're now on the fifth Pirates movie and directing chores for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales have been assumed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the duo that directed Kon-Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdahl, the explorer who made a 4,300-mile crossing of the Pacific on a raft.

In this mega-production, Ronning and Sandberg succumb to the temptation to pump up the volume as they showcase Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush's Captain Hector Barbossa, two portraits that show their wear.

The directors bolster familiar performances with a new crew that includes a ghastly looking villain who has lost an ample portion of his head, Javier Bardem's Captain Salazar. We also meet two new young actors (Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario).

Before I tell you anything else, let me confess that if I never saw Jack Sparrow again my life would in no way feel depleted, and even the movie's addition of a father/son and father/daughter dynamic didn't do much to enrich a summer entertainment that overdoses on effects. These include a rickety ship with a hull that opens to swallow its victims whole, ghost sharks, ghost pirates and a parting of the sea that might make Moses do a double take.

A plot that has been stuffed like a Thanksgiving Turkey finds British naval officers chasing young Thwaites's Henry, who is searching for Jack Sparrow and trying to lift the curse that separated him from his father. The Brits also pursue Scodelario's character, an astronomer who believes she knows how to locate Poseidon's much-sought-after Trident.

Thwaites Henry and Scodelario's Carina are the movie's love interests, but their romance hardly makes the pulse beat faster. She resists; he persists. We've seen it all before.

And yes, that's Paul McCartney who appears behind a great, bushy beard in a fleeting cameo.

Bardem's Salazar circles the movie in search of revenge against Jack Sparrow, the pirate responsible for sinking Salazar's ship when he was a respectable Spanish sea captain -- or some such. Salazar winds up as captain of a ghost ship.

Ronning and Sandberg tend to flood the plot with waves of effects, gliding camera moves and lots of shtick from Depp.

Nearly every moment of this edition is served to the accompaniment of Geoff Zanelli's unavoidable score, which struck me as an attempt to add momentum and meaning to events that might not carry much weight on their own.

Having said all that, it also should be noted that Dead Men Tell No Tales probably manufactures enough verve to satisfy audiences that can't get enough of this stuff.

If you've managed to set sale without these Pirates until now, Ronning and Sandberg provide little reason to change your behavior. But fans will turn out -- if only to continue the game of ranking the Pirates movies from best to worst. And, no, I doubt whether the game is over.

He watches life evolve without him

Brian Cranston stars in Wakefield, the story of a father and husband who withdraws from his life.

A capsule summary of Wakefield suggests that it's mildly miraculous that the movie ever got made. Here's a movie that takes place almost entirely inside of one man's head. That man, evidently at wit's end with his repetitive suburban life, suddenly deserts his job and family.

A night spent in his garage attic after a late arrival home turns into months as Howard Wakefield observes activities in his home through a window in the room where his family has been storing its junk. Howard becomes an observer of his wife and two daughters, and his thoughts serve as a narration for a movie about a selfish character who becomes a dubious spokesman for upper-middle-class men who hate their lives.

Never mind that Howard is a successful partner in a Manhattan law firm or that his wife, Diana, is beautiful or that his twin daughters seem to be growing up without any real problems. Howard is fed up with his marriage, but -- at the same time -- lacks the guts to tell his wife that he wants out.

If anyone but Brian Cranston were playing Howard, the movie might have been unwatchable. But Cranston takes us inside Howard's mind, allowing us to see what's happening in the house through Howard's often jaundiced, sometimes sarcastic point of view. Howard tries to make us conspirators in an act of unparalleled irresponsibility.

Director Robin Swicord, who also wrote the screenplay for Wakefield, uses flashbacks at times and eventually allows Howard to leave the house. His appearance degenerates: Starting as a competent looking executive, he morphs into a bearded bum, leaving his attic perch only when he must do some scavaging. He claims to feel a new-found freedom.

Wakefield takes a big risk: We're watching Howard watch the movie of the life he abandoned as he spews a stream of dialog that sounds as if it were lifted from a novel. At times, you wonder whether we should be reading Howard's story, not watching it.

As Howard's wife, Jennifer Garner does her best to define the stages of Diana's adjustment to Howard's disappearance: Grief and panic gradually give way to acceptance.

We also learn that during his marriage, Howard was prone to express unwarranted jealousy to his wife, even when she was doing little more than being sociable at parties.

I suppose the irony of all this is that if Howard saw himself as superfluous before his vanishing act, his disappearance only serves to reinforce his conclusion.

Perhaps it's best to think of Wakefield as an experimental movie with an A-list cast. The experiment proves only partially successful, perhaps because it's difficult not to be a little too aware of the pitfalls such a solipsistic story faces and the strategies Swicord uses to overcome them.

Daring to plan for a wedding

An Israeli movie overcomes its high-concept premise.

Michal, an Orthodox Jewish woman living in Jerusalem, has everything aligned for her wedding. She's arranged for the hall, selected the menu for the reception and purchased her gown. She's missing only one thing: A groom.

That's the premise of director Rama Burshtein's The Wedding Plan, a slightly cracked romantic comedy; i.e., one without a male protagonist. Yes, that sounds like high-concept nonsense, but the movie transcends such confining boundaries, probably because of Burshtein's good-humored affection for the characters who populate her story.

Most of the movie centers on 32-year-old Michal (Noa Koler). As Koler's Michal puts it: She's sick of being the guest at Shabbat dinners. She wants to be the wife who does the inviting.

For Michal, romance may be important, but marriage also represents a way for her to make the most authentic connection to the world she inhabits.

Early on, Michal is about to be married. When her fiancé (Erez Drigues) tells her that he doesn't love her, Michal's plan crumbles. The prospective groom is willing to honor his commitment, but a dejected Michal doesn't want to marry someone who approaches the pending nuptials with nothing more than resignation.

Burshtein then contrives to give Michal three weeks to find a husband, and, no, I'm not telling you what happens.

As the story unfolds, Burshtein, herself an Orthodox Jew, provides Michal with an opportunity to pursue a more secular relationship, but it becomes clear that Michal won't be able to live with a marriage that challenges the beliefs and practices with which she's been raised -- even if her pursuer, perhaps improbably, is an Israeli rock star (Oz Zehav).

Michal also goes on arranged dates as she looks for eligible candidates. She receives support from her single friend Feggie (Ronny Merhavi) and from her sister (Dafi Alpern), who seems to be in the midst of her own perpetually rocky marriage.

It takes a while to realize that Wedding Plan wants to take a lighthearted, down-to-Earth approach to faith. Michal tests her's by planning to go through with a wedding; her determination serves as a source of inspiration and bemusement to the quizzical owner of the hall (Amos Tamam) she has rented.

Koler is at once emotionally open, calculating and uncertain as the movie tests Michal's resolve, but she's willing to put her faith on the line.

It's almost as if she's saying to the Deity, "Hey, if you want me to live in a certain way, I'll do my part, but it would be nice if you helped."

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Few laughs wash ashore in 'Baywatch'

Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron are lifeguards in a movie that never convinces that it has any reason to exist.

Why anyone wanted to turn a beach-boob-and-muscle TV series into a movie is beyond me. But that didn't stop director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief) from taking on the challenge of creating a big-screen version of Baywatch.

In its new version, the always buffed Dwayne Johnson teams with an equally buffed Zac Efron to create a movie that tries to parody something that already looked like parody, a lame bit of 1990s TV that developed a following among those who liked pecs, peek-a-boo bathing suits and unblemished skin.

Mixing hard bodies with a soft-headed mystery involving drugs and real estate, Baywatch is neither funny nor tense enough to drive the movie to whatever destination it may have been trying to reach.

Despite a few attempts at self-referential hipness (cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson among them), the movie's humor mostly dips as low as the bikinis the Baywatch women wear.

Johnson's Mitch runs the Baywatch lifeguard squad like a military unit; he insists that the lifeguards devote themselves to protecting a stretch of Florida beach as if it were Fort Knox.

As part of a PR ploy, Mitch is forced to hire a disgraced Olympic medalist (Efron) who begins the movie as a kind of selfish outlier but (here's a surprise) eventually accepts the group ethos.

To further fulfill the demands of contemporary comedy, the movie adds the obligatory nerdy guy to its muscular mix. Jon Bass plays Ronnie, a guy who's accepted as a lifeguard trainee because he has "heart." The movie's first big joke involves Ronnie, an erection and a beach chair with slats. It's not the last penis joke, either.

Despite his bean-bag physique, Ronnie seems to catch the eye of a bombshell, run-in-slow-mo lifeguard played by Kelly Rohrbach.

Priyanka Chopra who plays Victoria, the villain of the piece, a woman with murderous plans to acquire every bit of real estate in the bay area.

A local cop (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wonders why a group of lifeguards are getting themselves involved in crime. You may share his consternation, but then it's probably not fair to expect a Baywatch movie to make much sense.

About three-quarters of the way through, the script finds a way to sideline Johnson and allow Efron to dominate the proceedings, a major mistake.

Forget the movie's amped-up ocean rescues: Someone was needed to rescue a screenplay that should have been beached.

If you're looking for a movie that has some laughs and effectively deals with the idiocy of bygone TV shows, try Mindhorn, a British comedy available on Netflix. It actually manages to find some laughs in telling the story of a washed-up TV hero who's asked to help solve a real-life murder

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ridley Scott again unleashes monsters

The creator of the original Alien delivers an accomplished helping of sci-fi and horror -- but some of the thrill is gone.

Everyone who's old enough, probably remembers their first viewing of Alien , the Ridley Scott-directed movie that in 1979 landed a direct hit to the pit of the stomach. Besides being a masterclass exercise in generating tension, Alien also helped temper the optimistic buoyancy of movies such as 1977's Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Scott brought cynicism and dread to the galaxy, offering a view of space that was industrialized, gritty and full of terrifying dangers.

James Cameron's Aliens added booming urgency and scale to the groundwork Scott had done. And, of course, there were two additional movies, neither of which found quite the same purchase in the pop-cultural landscape or should we say "spacescape?"

Scott again picks up his creature cudgels with Alien: Covenant, a sequel to his 2012 Prometheus, as well as a prequel to Alien.

In Prometheus, Scott played with big ideas and made his most memorable character an android played by Michael Fassbender, who gave his synthetic creation traces of scalding wit. Unfortunately, the serious talk in Prometheus sometimes clashed with the action Scott may have felt compelled to deliver.

Set in 2104, Alien: Covenant isn't exactly free of ideas, either. They're laid out in the movie's chilly opening -- a conversation between an android (Fassbender) and his maker (Guy Pearce). The two discuss the nature of creation and the ability of a creation to surpass its creator. The android sounds an eerie note that suggests the inherent inferiority of human life. "You will die. I will not,'' says the robot.

Little in Scott's movie matches the ominous elegance of this prolog which takes place in a large white room that looks as if it might have been inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

But ideas eventually fall prey to the expected shocks in which newly designed horrific looking creatures burst from backs or chests or latch onto the faces of their victims.

The story involves a space ship named Covenant, which is being run by an android named David. The crew has been put into deep-space sleep as the ship heads toward a distant planet with some 20,000 colonists on board. The implication: Humans must leave a fully exploited Earth.

The plan goes awry when a space storm awakens the crew, which almost immediately faces a temptation that we know will lead to trouble. A signal -- John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads -- emanates from a planet that's closer than the ship's original destination. Could years be shaved from the Covenant's planned seven-year journey by finding a closer and apparently habitable planet?

Katherine Waterston plays a crew member who loses her husband, the ship's captain, during the sudden reawakening. Another officer (Billy Crudup) assumes command of the small crew, which includes Danny McBride, Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo.

It gives you some idea about the effort that goes into characterization to know that McBride's character is called Tennessee. He wears a cowboy hat. Do you need (or want) to know anything more?

Nowhere near as memorable as the original Alien crew, this group of voyagers winds up buffeted by a conflict between Waterston's evidence-based character and a man more inclined to take things on faith (Crudup).

Additional conflict arises between two robots, both ably played by Fassbender: the android of the prologue -- named David -- and a later model named Walter. David proves the more mission-oriented to the two. Having absorbed what he needs from humankind, the sinister Walter sees no reason for keeping people around.

Scott spends significant amounts of time on the planet that the Covenant reaches, thus sacrificing the extreme claustrophobia that turned the first movie into a white-knuckle masterpiece.

Not surprisingly, the movie's peripherals are all expertly handled by the veteran Scott and his crew: from the look of the spacecraft to the idyllic surface of a planet where the crew encounters monsters capable of working their way into human bodies in a variety of ways.

Alien: Covenant arrives wrapped in a convincing package. For some, that will be enough, but for those who regard the original Alien as a breakthrough movie, it's difficult not to see Alien: Covenant as a slightly depleted helping of a once stunning pop-cultural landmark, something like a well-made TV series that continues to entertain even after it has lost much of its juice.

Was he a contender or a pretender?

Liev Schreiber scores a knock-out in a so-so boxing picture about Chuck Wepner, the reputed real Rocky Balboa.

If I were considering making a movie about Chuck Wepner, the obscure New Jersey boxer who rose to sudden prominence when he fought Muhammad Ali in 1975, the last person I'd think of to play Wepner would be Liev Schreiber. Wepner was a hulk of a man whose native Bayonne left him with a raspy Jersey accent. Schreiber, on the other hand, has one of the most melodic and precise voices in show business.

But something about Wepner evidently caught Schreiber's fancy because he not only stars as Wepner in the new movie Chuck but serves as one of the movie's producers.

Schreiber knew what he was doing. His portrayal of Wepner, a boxer who was treated as the Rodney Dangerfield of boxing (no respect) is spot-on. Wepner was dubbed "the Bayonne bleeder," not exactly a moniker to strike fear in the hearts of opponents.

Schreiber ably captures the struggle that marked much of Wepner's life: He wanted to be somebody important -- not just a guy many regarded as a Bayonne-based club fighter.

For Wepner, a loss to Ali became a triumph as well as the reputed inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. Wepner made it all the way to the fight's 15th round before Ali finished him off. Most sports people thought Wepner wouldn't survive three rounds.

Wepner became a kind of fill-in fight for Ali after the champ's fabled Rumble In the Jungle with George Foreman. But Wepner, who actually had a respectable pro record, became one of the few men ever to knock Ali down, landing The Greatest on his butt in round nine.

Director Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie and Monsieur Lazhar) sets Wepner's story against the well-defined Jersey backdrop that bred Wepner and his pal John (Jim Gaffigan). The two men drink, snort cocaine and party hard enough to ruin Wepner's marriage to his wife Phyliss (a terrific Elisabeth Moss).

Wepner later meets Linda (Naomi Watts), the woman credited with helping him straighten out his life after a stint in the slammer. Wepner was busted for cocaine possession about 10 years after his championship bout.

Additional support is provided by Ron Perlman, as Wepner's manager, and Michael Rapaport as Wepner's disapproving brother. Rapaport's John hated the way the increasingly dissolute Wepner treated his daughter. Wepner always seemed to be seeking public adulation rather than accepting the love of those closest to him.

Perhaps in an effort to distinguish his movie from Hollywood's large boxing-movie card, Falardeau puts the big fight in the middle of the movie, devoting most of the Chuck's post-fight story to Wepner's precipitous, self-induced decline.

At one point, Wepner meets Sylvester Stallone. I had trouble buying Morgan Spector as Stallone; Pooch Hall makes a more credible Ali, but these are minor distractions in a movie in which every actor works overtime trying to capture his or her inner Jersey.

None of this is to say that Chuck makes it through its 98-minute running time without being bloodied. We've seen too many movies about the way lives were ruined by drugs during the 1980s. We've also seen too many movies about the way a boxer reaches a peak and then squanders any success he might have achieved. The great distinction with Wepner is that his stature derived from a loss.

The movie also belabors Wepner's obsession with movies. His favorite: 1962's Requiem for a Heavyweight, which starred Anthony Quinn as Louis "Mountain'' Rivera, a down-and-out pug who spent his time clinging to a dream about what he could have been. When Rocky becomes a smash, Wepner totally identifies himself with the movie, so much so that he thinks he deserves congratulations when Rocky wins an Oscar for best picture.

Wepner's delusions are meant to be sad, but by now, we've seen so many boxing films that chart rises, declines and redemptions that the scenario feels played out, almost to the point where there's not enough film to support its many fine performances.

Still, Schreiber's knock-out work may be enough to carry you through the movie, and Moss, familiar from TV's Mad Men, again proves that she's one of the most capable actresses around. Her Phyliss is not a woman to be messed with.

So, a reserved endorsement for Chuck. Like its main character, the movie stumbles and lumbers, but manages to survive.

A girl in a bubble falls in love

Amandla Stenberg played Rue in The Hunger Games, an adaptation of a popular piece of YA fiction. In Everything, Everything, Stenberg returns to the YA universe, this time in a less-than-credible story about an 18-year-old who suffers from an immune deficiency so severe it has made her allergic to nearly everything. Stenberg's Maddie lives in a fairly luxurious bubble. She shares a sealed, modern home with her mother (Anika Toni Rose), a physician. When new folks move next door, young Olly (Nick Robinson)tries to break through Maddie's hermetic shields. Taken with Olly, Maddie wants out of the house in which she's spent her whole life. She's eager to pursue her first love interest. Not surprisingly Maddie's mother objects: Having already lost her husband and a son in an automobile accident, Mom can't abide losing another child. Director Stella Meghie understands how to showcase two appealing young actors, but the movie gets worse, the more you think about it. Based on a well-received novel by Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything may satisfy its teen audience, but it translates to the screen as YA fluff with major plot holes. And in this romantic fantasy, an isolated girl sports a surprisingly large and trendy wardrobe for a kid who never leaves the house.

Married, but philandering

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are fine, but the characters in The Lovers aren't drawn with enough vigor.

Like an overdose of maple syrup, a lush musical score flows over The Lovers, a laid-back look at a marriage gone stale. Yuk.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play the movie's principal roles, a husband and wife whose marriage has gone well past its expiration date. Despite that, neither character seems able to shake free.

Both Winger and Letts appear game for either a comic look at withered love or a serious drama about a husband and his disillusioned wife, both of whom are involved in extramarital affairs. Director Azazel Jacobs seems to split the difference. He alternates between one affair and the other without lighting any real fire, and The Lovers feels wan.

Winger's Mary has become involved with a writer (Aidan Gillen) who wants a more serious relationship. Same goes for the dancer (Melora Walters) with whom Letts' Michael is having an affair. She, too, craves a "relationship" that involves more than sex.

To keep things running smoothly, Mary and Michael have promised their respective lovers that they will resolve issues in their marriage and move on -- just as soon as the couple's son (Tyler Ross) finishes a visit during a break from college. This visit provides the catalyst that upsets the status quo and forces the story off dead center.

Winger ably portrays an unsatisfied woman who also struggles with a conflicted conscience, and Letts does his part as a husband whose philandering seems to have a longer history than his wife's. But few scenes reach a boiling point, and Jacobs, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses his energy on two characters who aren't as interesting as the situation in which they find themselves -- and that's not all that intriguing, either.

The actors, especially Winger, keep The Lovers watchable, but ultimately can't give it memorable life.

Poetry and pain in a New England life

Cynthia Nixon joins director Terence Davies for A Quiet Passion, a movie about Emily Dickinson.
During her lifetime, only a few of Emily Dickinson's poems were published. Most of Dickinson's work received attention after her death in 1886. For most of her 55 years, Dickinson led what most would regard as an isolated life, which makes her a fine subject for director Terence Davies, a filmmaker who understands the mournful qualities of lives tormented by big questions.

The best of Davies' work (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) survive as personal masterpieces, cinematic constructions haunted by the sadness of once-vibrant lives lost to the obliterating mists of history. In A Quiet Passion, Davies brings a meticulous awareness to the story of a poet who spent her final years living in isolation in her native Massachusetts.

No one who's familiar with Davies' work will be surprised that there's an alarming quiet in Davies' new film, a sense of how life was lived before the intrusion of the contemporary noise which inundates and distracts us. That silence can be taken as a ferociously empty backdrop against which lives rattle on, some -- like Dickinson's -- with an acute awareness of their finite nature.

Early on, we meet Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) as a student at Mount Holyoke College, where she's immersed in a severe religious environment that ill-suited her exploratory mind. When her father (Keith Carradine) comes to retrieve her with her brother (Duncan Duff) and sister (Jennifer Ehle), Dickinson couldn't be happier. She wryly confesses that such a severe dose of evangelism has made her ill.

Upon returning home, Dickinson asks her father if he would object if she wrote during the quiet of night. He agrees. She begins her engagement with her life's work.

Dickinson charted a deep course, indulging her preoccupation with the frailties of the body and with life's ultimate destination, the grave. "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,'' is one of the Dickinson poems you might want to read as an accompaniment to Davies' movie, which -- of course -- offers bits and pieces of other Dickinson poems.

Much of the movie involves domestic scenes in Dickinson's home: arguments with her father when she refuses to attend church, entreaties by her sister Lavinia to open her heart to living, disapproval of her brother Austin's affair, and her relationship with Austin's wife (Jodhi May). Dickinson also becomes infatuated with a married pastor (Eric Loren) whose wife (Simone Milsdochter) seems to have one quality: reproach.

Early scenes receive a comic lift from the bumptious hypocrisy of Dickinson's aunt (Annette Badland), who writes bad poetry. Dickinson's mother (Joanna Bacon) remains emotionally distant from the affairs of the household.

We also meet Emily's demonstrative friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a woman who has little use for the rules of society but who ultimately submits to social pressures that require her to marry.

At one point, Davies creates an interlude about the Civil War, the violent tragedy that raged during Dickinson's time. He does this by showing photos from Gettysburg and Antietam.

As much as anything, A Quiet Passion makes us feel the aching emptiness of the present, and the movie unfolds with the resonance of a deliberate footfall on a hardwood floor.

Nixon creates a Dickinson who's fiercely independent and yet enmeshed in the life of her family. Eventually, she retreats to her room and, for the most part, remains there.

I can't say that I wasn't a trifle bored at times, but Davies seeks to enlighten us about the incongruities of the period: The quest for transcendence set against the starched rigors of parlor life, for example. A Quiet Passion isn't for every taste, but like Dickinson, Davies always goes his own way, an increasingly estimable quality in today's cinema of formula and cant.

Sisterhood in an Italian asylum

She charts a rebellious course
In Like Crazy, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi plays a woman who has been committed to a mental institution, but never drops the hauteur that she brings with her. For Tedeschi's Beatrice, the institution resembles a family estate over which she (not the doctors or nurses) presides. Director Paolo Virzi also introduces us to Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti), a new patient who initially resists Beatrice's guidance, but who eventually falls under the older woman's spell. Viewers may not be able to resist comparisons to Thelma & Louise, a better picture about two women on a journey toward independence. Like Crazy eventually provides Beatrice and Donatella with an opportunity to escape the institution; they have adventures as the screenplay hints at a dark secret that torments Donatella. The two actresses keep the movie percolating, but the delusional Beatrice becomes a handful for everyone she encounters -- and that includes an audience that may find her incessant chatter a bit much. Virzi doesn't seem to solve the movie's problem; i.e., defining a line between mad and sane behavior. Instead, he opts for a tale of sisterhood marked by intermittent charm and an always refreshing dash of Cuckoo's Nest rebellion.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Schumer and Hawn stumble in the jungle

Formula tramples fun in this early summer comedy.

It has been 15 years since Goldie Hawn appeared in a movie. Maybe she should have waited a bit longer instead of hitching her star to Snatched, a comedy that teams her with Amy Schumer. Hawn, who has made her share of successful comedies, this time appears in a formula job that elevates raunch in the service of yuks that are few and far between -- at least for me.

Widely regarded as one of the funnier comics on the planet, Schumer received lots of praise for Trainwreck, a 2015 comedy that she wrote and which Judd Apatow directed. But Schumer didn't write Snatched. That job fell to Katie Dippold, whose credits include the recent Ghostbusters movie (not good) and The Heat (better).

Here, Dippold, with a forgettable assist from director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before and Warm Bodies), provides a platform to showcase Schumer's willingness to go raunchy in ways that become a form of feminist assertion -- and, at least in the past, have hit paydirt.

Schumer plays Emily, a young woman who loses both her job and her boyfriend in the movie's opening scenes. To make matters worse, Emily is stuck with two tickets to Ecuador, a country she planned to visit with the boyfriend who decided he could do better.

Unable to persuade any friend to accompany her to Ecuador, Emily coerces her reluctant mother (Hawn) into joining her for an adventure. Emily also has a brother (Ike Barinholtz), an emotionally hampered adult who still lives with his mother and who's unable to leave the house. Why? Because he's the comedy's demonstrably (and annoyingly) neurotic character -- as opposed to Emily, a character defined by her self-absorption.

Once in Ecuador, Emily is lured into a trap that results in mother and daughter being kidnapped. During the course of their prolonged escape, Emily manages to put a spear through someone's throat for what she insists should be seen as an "accidental murder." She also must rid herself of a colossally sized tape worm that's extracted from her mouth by a couple of locals who lure the bug from her by dangling a hunk of meat in front of Emily's face, perhaps the movie's biggest laugh.

Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack appear in roles that could have added welcome strangeness had they been around more. Their rough-and-ready characters eventually try to rescue Emily and her Mom.

Fairness compels me to tell you that a preview audience reacted more favorably to the movie than I did, but for me, the movie's few random chuckles were matched by a significantly larger number of scowls as I watched two talented women sweat their way through the Amazon.

Lock, stock and a smokin' hot sword

King Arthur gets the Guy Ritchie treatment -- and suffers for it.

In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, director Guy Ritchie goes medieval on us, and the result is bleary-eyed, loud and full of summer-movie bluster.

Ritchie, who broke onto the international film scene with his kinetic gangster epic, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and who brought us a couple of big-ticket Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr., goes further back in history, but, unfortunately, brings his adrenalized sensibilities along with him.

These emerging Knights of the Round Table talk with cockney-inflected accents as Ritchie tells an origins story about how King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) came to lead his kingdom. In this version, a young Arthur escapes slaughter by an evil king wannabe named Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern robs Arthur of his throne by killing the boy's father (Eric Bana), an actor who amazingly manages to look composed in the midst of all the visual chaos.

Raised in a brothel as a child of the streets, Arthur's story begins in earnest when he pulls Excalibur, his father's sword, from the rock where it has been embedded for most of the young man's life. Arthur's feat is accompanied by an oops. Once Vortigern knows where the real heir to throne is, he sees only one option: Arthur must be killed.

Meanwhile, a multi-cultural band of comrades -- notably Djimon Hounsou's Bedivere and Tom Wu's George -- goad a reluctant Arthur toward his destiny.

Ritchie heaves shards of Arthur's story at us in ways that add confusion to a narrative that seems to have been invented to support a variety of booming set pieces. In one of them, Arthur visits the Dark Lands to fight bats and rats as part of his inner journey; i.e., before he can triumph, Arthur must remember the murder of his mother and father at the hands of Law's evil Vortigern.

In many respects, Ritchie's approach to the Arthurian legend owes more to Marvel Comics than it does to English mythology. One difference: It's not Arthur who has super powers, but his sword. Arthur must learn to wield this glowing weapon throughout the course of a cluttered, 126-minute running time.

The movie's editing style seems to have been inspired by the desire to inflict a thousand cuts on any given moment. Accompanied by Daniel Pemberton's pounding score, the movie barrels its way through action sequences that produce more frenzy than coherence.

When Arthur swings his sword, the movie slows down as if it's showing us the way an athlete enters what some call "the zone." Arthur perceives everything in slow motion, vanquishing foe after foe with an ease he barely remembers when the carnage stops, and the movie renews its double-time pacing.

Arthur's attempts to impress with scale are obvious from the outset: The movie's opening -- a prolog, really -- offers displays of carnage featuring mammoth creatures that resemble the kind of elephants that might appear as floats if a Thanksgiving parade were run by Satanists.

Hunnam takes a step back after his work in The Lost of City Z, which made room for subtlety. Think Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, in which Hunnam also appeared. But in fairness to Hunnam, a set of leather pants, a buffed torso, and a street-wise attitude do not a character make.

Looking as if he's reprising the most malicious moments of the character he played in HBO's The Young Pope, Law supplies the expected hiss/boo helping of murderous villainy.

Astrid Berges-Frisbey adds a feminine touch as The Mage, some sort of magical character who helps Arthur realize his role this teeming fantasy world.

I suppose Ritchie deserves some credit for trying not to genuflect at the feet of a well-worn legend, but he drags the story of Arthur into the dirt and never allows it to shake off the mud.

Ritchie batters an estimable story, and, I'm afraid, it winds up beating him to a pulp.

Serial killers in Australia's Perth

Director Ben Young has skills, but has he applied them to the right subject?

Generally speaking, criticism has more to do with "how" than with "what;" i.e., subject matter often proves less relevant to reviewers than the effectiveness with which that subject is handled. Sometimes, though, subject matter becomes an unavoidable part of formulating an informed opinion.

I thought about this while watching Hounds of Love, an Australian thriller in which a normal-looking couple from Perth abducts and kills young women. Set during the 1980s, the movie has been praised for director Ben Young's discretion. For the most part, Young keeps the movie's torture and violence off screen.

Fair enough, but directorial restraint doesn't mean that the crimes of fictional couple John and Evelyn White aren't felt. At several points, I found myself asking why I was watching. Was there anything to be gained from a such an uncomfortable experience, no matter how well executed by a director who's mounting his first feature?

For me, there were gains, but I'd have to classify them as secondary to my overall concern.

For example, I'd cite the performance of Emma Booth, the actress who plays Evelyn White. Booth's Evelyn wriggles under the thumb of John (Stephen Curry), her control freak of a husband. At times, she feels sympathy for the couple's victims, and for her, abduction of young women can have a double edge, particularly if John is sexually attracted to one of their victims.

The movie, also written by Young, centers on a familiar question. Can the victim, a teen-ager played by Ashleigh Cummings, create enough tension between husband and wife to survive her ordeal?

Cummings' Viki, a 17-year-old whose parents are in the midst of a divorce, defies her mother (Susie Porter) by sneaking out of the house at night to attend a party. The Whites, who are on the prowl, pass by Viki in their car and offer a ride. They seem nice enough, but it's already clear that Viki will be in for a rough ride. She'll end up drugged and bound to a bed, abused and terrorized by these two apparently friendly suburbanites.

It quickly becomes apparent that a mixture of torture and terror fuels the eroticism between Evelyn and John. They're sexually excited by their foul deeds.

Those who see the movie needn't know much more, although it should be noted that Young amps up tension without too much fuss as he allows his imagination to wander from his apparent inspiration: the real-life story of David and Catherine Birnie, a Perth couple who kidnapped and mutilated four young women during the 1980s.

Young begins by allowing his camera voyeuristically to scan the bodies of young women playing ball in a schoolyard. It's only later that we realize we're being exposed to the killers' point-of-view, but these opening images make it clear that Young aims to undermine any sense of ease viewers may feel.

By the end, Hounds of Love has taken on the trappings of a conventional thriller, but I found myself still struggling with the question that bothered me throughout. I guess I wish that Young, who clearly has skills, had tried his hand at something more thematically rewarding than a teen-ager's torment at the hands of a murderous pervert and his cowed partner.

Food and diversity in Israel

A restaurateur wants to know if there's such a thing as Israeli cuisine.

After watching Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, the story of one of the first celebrity chefs, I realized that I'm getting sated with Foodie World's endless fascination with trendy restaurants, star chefs, and the latest eating fads. I say this as someone who loves good restaurants and who would rather order from a menu than turn any dial on my kitchen stove.

But watching food being eaten is not the same as eating it oneself, and so it was with a bit of trepidation that I turned to director Roger Sherman's In Search of Israeli Cuisine, a documentary about the maturation of food culture during the last several decades in Israel.

To make his film, Sherman follows the travels of restaurateur Michael Solomonov, who was born in Israel and now operates Zahav, a Philadelphia restaurant devoted to modern Israeli cuisine. Solomonov's mission: To discover whether a country as young as Israel has developed a bona fide cuisine.

Right off you should know that the movie reaches no hard conclusions about the question it raises, but the lack of one conclusion leads Solomonov to many others.

The movie takes us on an unusual tour of Israel, one that's not organized around politics or biblical sites. Instead, we meet ordinary people and food professionals who live and work in a country that is more of an ethnic hodgepodge than you might expect. Influences on Israeli food come from Arab cultures, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean, as well as from more personal authorities, a mother's or grandmother's kitchen.

Although the film seems to want us to believe that food might be able to pave a pathway to peace, it acknowledges simmering resentments; some Arabs express anger about what they view as Israeli appropriation of their cuisine.

Sherman isn't terribly concerned about religion, although the subject does arise. One of Sherman's interviewees describes Shabbat (the Sabbath) in Jerusalem as oppressive. Nothing is open. Most of the film's chefs are more identified with the secular culture of Tel Aviv, a city that bustles with street life and interesting dining opportunities.

It's especially revealing to know that a country not much larger than New Jersey has its own regional diversity -- from coastal areas to the mountains to a seaside village north of Haifa where a local chef extols the virtues of shrimp, not an item found on menus in Jerusalem's kosher eateries.

And although I said that the movie isn't interested in hammering any political nails, it should be noted that the weight conflict proves inescapable. We learn that Solomonov's brother was killed while serving in the Israeli army.

I suppose the best way to sum up this lively documentary is to say that it introduces viewers to a side of Israel that gets little play in headlines from the Middle East.

I've never been to Israel. From time to time, I think about making such a trip. Until this documentary, it never occurred to me that such a journey might include significant amounts of time visiting great restaurants.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Those guardians of the galaxy return

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 boasts both lulls and amusements, but does nothing to tarnish the franchise.

The original Guardians of the Galaxy took the market by storm in 2014, providing a refreshing antidote to the self-seriousness that infiltrates many parts of Marvel's vast comic-book repertoire. Unexpected and slightly bizarre, the movie featured Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper), a snarky animal who delivered the movie's best wisecracks, and a diminutive creature named Groot (voice by Vin Diesel), a mini-tree of an alien who added an element of off-kilter cuteness.

Now comes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sporting a name that makes the movie sound as if it aspires to find a home in The Library of Congress catalog. Not Guardians 2 or even Part II, but "Volume 2."

This is not to say that the movie, written and directed by a returning James Gunn, mires itself in big themes. Gunn tries to replicate the self-aware attitude of the first installment, something along the lines of recognition that joyfully teeters on the rim of the pop-cultural toilet without falling in.

If that's too abstract for you, let me put it another way: The first movie was fun. The second movie? Sometimes it's fun.

A creative application of special effects and CGI help keep Vol. 2 from tarnishing the franchise, even as it falls prey to a typical second-helping problem, overcrowding in just about every department.

Vol. 2 plunges viewers into a self-referential universe that makes room for musical and TV nostalgia from the 1980s, one of the fascinations of a Guardian played by Chris Pratt; i.e., Quill. The movie's 1980s nostalgia trip also includes a recurring reference to David Hasselhoff of TV's Knight Rider and Baywatch fame.

I'm always amazed at the pop-cultural knowledge that aficionados bring to these movies. Without prompting, they can tell you all about Drax (Dave Bautista), the muscular man with the hearty laugh that always sounds forced to me, like he has to think about it before letting loose with a guffaw.

During this episode, Quill meets a character who claims to be his father. He's Ego, played by Kurt Russell. If you had any doubts, Ego's name serves as a clue about the character's intentions. Ego wants to enlist Quill's help in fulfilling a long-standing ambition. Trouble, of course, looms.

In what amounts to a glut of characters, Michael Rooker stands out as Yondo, the alien who raised Quill.

You'll also find a cameo appearance by Sylvester Stallone, and we meet Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a creature with an antenna that enables her to function as an empath. Mantis touches people and instantly knows what they're feeling.

Zoe Saldana returns as Gamora, who this time faces off against Nebula (Karen Gillan), a cyborg with blue skin who began her life as Gamora's sister. Hey, a little sibling rivalry never hurts.

Additional female power emanates for Ayesha, a golden-skinned character played by Elizabeth Debicki.

One of the movie's better bits involves a character named Taserface (Chris Sullivan), a brutish fellow whose descriptive but preposterous name prevents his victims from taking him seriously. If you're keeping score, Taserface belongs to a group called the Ravagers.

Gunn provides enough explosions to satisfy action-hungry audiences, and after a third-act dip, the movie picks up for an ending that tempers the obligatory mayhem with a bit of emotion that stems from the self-sacrificing act of one of the movie's characters.

You may be getting the impression that the movie virtually bursts with characters, effects, action and amusements. Some hit; some don't. But Vol. 2's mixed bag won't keep it from reaping a box-office bonanza. I can't say that Vol. 2 matches the enjoyment of the first movie, but, boy, can you see it trying.

A man who knows how to wheedle

Richard Gere takes a risk with Norman, a movie about a wannabe Jewish big shot. Surprisingly, it pays off.

Richard Gere seems to welcome risk. I say this based on movies such as Time out of Mind (2015) in which Gere played a mentally ill resident of the streets and also because of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. In his latest movie, Gere -- an actor hardly known for ethnic portrayals -- plays Norman Oppenheimer, a persistent Jewish man of enormous aspiration and very little capital. Norman does, however, have one gift: He's nothing if not persistent. He can't be shamed or deterred.

By the conclusion of the movie, Norman has overreached in terms of a plot that involves the prime minister of Israel and a possible peace settlement in the Middle East. If you can forgive Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar for such inflation, you'll find an amusing story about a man whose entire life seems to have been devoted to exaggerating his connections to the rich and powerful. Norman knows how to wheedle.

Joining Gere in what's presented with the frolicking spirit of a caper movie are Michael Sheen (as Norman's nephew); Steve Buscemi (as a rabbi whose congregation is desperate for funds), and Charlotte Gainsbourg (as an Israeli investigator).

Divided into acts separated by title cards, Norman buzzes along pleasantly as we're exposed to Norman's first hustle. He tries to wangle an invitation to an exclusive dinner by developing a relationship with an Israeli deputy minister (Lior Ashkenazi). The minister resists, but ultimately decides that there may be something genuine about Norman.

It also doesn't hurt that Norman, in an effort to impress the fellow, buys the deputy minister a pair of shoes that costs more than $1,000 or that the deputy minister regards Norman as someone who boosted his spirit during a low point in his career. Norman knows something about low points; his life seems to have been at a perpetual low point.

Norman wears the same camel-colored overcoat throughout the movie, doesn't seem to have a home, and conducts his business by ducking into quiet spots around Manhattan to make phone calls. He's always trying to worm his way into high-rolling company, and eventually does make the score he's dreamed of -- but even that gives him only a tenuous grip on the ladder of upward mobility.

Thanks to Gere, Norman shows moments of self-awareness that sometimes push him toward pathos, and there's something believable about Norman's desire to connect people -- even if he happens not to know the person to whom he promises an introduction.

Some of Cedar's scenes are over-stylized, but he gives his movie a tonic spirit, which (I think) means we're not supposed to take it too seriously. That's a good thing because Cedar's picture of New York's Jewish community, or at least its economic upper echelon, isn't entirely flattering.

I wouldn't have thought Gere could play a wannabe macher (Yiddish for someone who gets things done), but he's on target. For him, Norman was a risk worth taking.

She insisted that cities are for people

In 1961, author/activist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a landmark book that asserted the primacy of people over buildings when it comes to the vitality of cities. The new documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City provides valuable insights into Jacobs' career and sets up the conflict that gives the movie its juice. Jacobs spent much of her time opposing the efforts of New York City building czar Robert Moses. Moses viewed city blight as a cancer that had to be cut from the urban body; Jacobs understood that these neighborhoods -- with their street life and self-containment -- represented enclaves of safety and community. She was appalled to see them give way to faceless apartment buildings that quickly developed into fortresses of alienation. Jacobs ultimately moved to Toronto, but late in her New York City life, she battled to save her West Village neighborhood from Moses' reach. Jacobs' activism reached its heights when she helped organize efforts to prevent Moses from building a highway across lower Manhattan; she and others believed that Moses' earlier construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway had paved the way for the deterioration of the South Bronx. They hoped to save lower Manhattan from a similar fate. Director Matt Tyrnauer buoys the story with wonderful footage of New York in the 1930s, '50s, and '60s and with interviews from authorities such as architecture critic Paul Goldberger. Citizen Jane stands as a tribute to Jacobs and an encouragement to those who believe that lively, enriching serendipity -- which may look like chaos -- never should be planned out of existence.

The story of an enigmatic chef

It seems almost quaint to remember the days before committed foodies became commonplace and chefs emerged as celebrities. Director Lydia Tenaglia's documentary Jeremiah Tower, The Last Magnificent reminds us that the current obsession with restaurants and their chefs had a beginning. Regarded by some as the first celebrity chef, Tower worked with Alice Waters at Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse. He later opened a San Francisco restaurant called Stars. Tower grew up around wealth but was mostly ignored by his patrician parents. Even as a kid, he was obsessed with food and menus. After Harvard, he applied for a job at Waters' Chez Panisse with no prior experience. At the time, Chez Panisse was a kind of hippy hang-out with great food. Did Tower -- an enigmatic but charismatic gay man -- do more to establish Chez Panisse's culinary importance than anyone else? Before his break with Waters, Towers shifted the restaurant's cuisine to locally grown ingredients and was instrumental in creating the so-called "California Cuisine" -- at least that's the impression I took from the film. After an earthquake ravaged Stars, Tower withdrew to Mexico, where he resided until he made an improbable attempt at a comeback. In 2014, he took over Tavern on the Green, a heavily trafficked New York City restaurant that couldn't accommodate Towers' idiosyncratic but entirely committed approach. I could have done without Tenaglia's attempts at recreating scenes from Tower's boyhood, but watching various big names in food -- Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain -- talk about Towers' career proves fascinating and Tower himself adds an elusive but compelling quality. The film's best achievement may be the way it reminds us that restaurants have become entertainments unto themselves; Tenaglia shows us the life -- and trendy commercial heat -- that the best of them generate. Waters, by the way, isn't among those interviewed.

At the bedside of a dying king

Director Albert Serra's new movie observes Louis XIV during his final hours.

It's difficult to explain why watching someone on their deathbed creates a certain grim fascination. Are we compelled to ask what it will be like to find ourselves in such a position -- which we someday surely will?

Perhaps, but it's nearly inconceivable to think that a director would make a one-hour and 55-minute movie about a bed-ridden man who's on the verge of expiring -- even if that man is Louis XIV, the great Sun King of France and the longest reigning monarch in the country's history. Louis died in 1715 after 72 years on his gilded throne.

Catalan director Albert Serra takes on the challenge of creating a movie about a dying man, embracing nearly every hazard such a task entails. He uses no flashbacks and does little to flesh out Louis' career. He surrounds Louis with courtiers and physicians who plead with him to eat and who execute the few orders he manages to give. Any sign of life from the dying monarch -- even nibbling a biscuit -- becomes a cause for hope and elation.

Louis is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, whose long history in French cinema began when he played young Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut's landmark 1959 film, The 400 Blows.

Now, 72, Leaud takes on the appearance of a magnificent ruin as Louis lies in his bed at Versailles. Although much of his time on screen is spent in the prone position, Leaud conveys the manner of a man who has known little other than the royal life. Whether he's chatting about the looks of women in the court or descending into the abyss that awaits, Louis remains the king.

True to the movie's mood, Serra includes Louis' final request: He wanted his heart to be cut out and mummified, a command that seems to emphasize the king's assurance of his place in history.

Ultimately, Louis seems more accepting of his fate than the gaggle of advisors who surround him, characters who understand that the center of their world is on the verge of vanishing. They try to force Louis to drink, but drops of water only dribble down the great man's chin. Louis' doctors debate about whether they erred in not amputating Louis' gangrenous leg.

Serra surely will tax some viewers' patience. Slowly paced and composed of minor inflections leading up to the monarch's death, Louis XIV gives us few insights into the events of the period, which probably won't bother those who have forgotten that among Louis' signature accomplishments was revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted rights to France's Protestants.

Historians quibble about why Louis was called the Sun King, but everyone acknowledges that Louis ruled by what he deemed divine right, an imperative that gave him absolute authority. Serra's movie doesn't exactly keep us on the edge of our seats, but few -- if any -- filmmakers would have thought to focus on the final hours of the Sun King and the dying of what had been his magnificent light. Whatever the movie's challenges for viewers, I'm grateful that Serra made it.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Will we allow technology to ruin us?

The Circle wrings its hands over a problem that already has been explored elsewhere. The movie fails to pack a persuasive punch.

When we're on-line are we using our computers or are our computers using us? And what about all those apps that allow us to share everything about our lives? Have we become genial participants in the destruction of our own privacy?

These and related questions constantly are debated when we discuss -- often on the very technology that's under consideration -- the increasingly linked world many of us spend far too much time inhabiting.

The great fear, of course, is that corporations with sinister motives are taking charge of all this "connection," turning us into a nation of idiots who blindly worship technology without giving enough thought to the gods before whom we're bowing. It's not only our data but our heads that are stuck in various clouds.

Such thoughts inform The Circle, a new movie based on a 2014 novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with the movie's director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now).

The movie stars Emma Watson as a young woman who lands her dream job with a company called The Circle. The Circle seems to be one of those "hot" Silicon Valley businesses that specialize in developing apps that create synthetic communities. The company's latest invention -- a tiny camera that can be placed anywhere without fear of detection -- is celebrated at a gathering presided over by the company's president, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks).

Bailey calls the project SeeChange. He introduces the camera with the committed fervor of someone who believes that life never again will be the same -- and that the great shift he's selling is a very good thing.

Bearded and adopting the friendly attitude of a tycoon who's adored by his employees, Hanks appears only intermittently as the movie introduces Emma's Mae to The Circle's corporate culture, which includes monitoring every employee's health and pushing participation in a variety of extra-curricular activities designed to strengthen bonds of camaraderie.

Of course, everything at The Circle seems a bit artificial, and the company's concern about the well-being of its workers might be a bit much even for these isolated tech nerds to swallow.

Much of the movie plays like a parody of the sort of companies at which campuses have replaced offices and order is imposed in ways that sustain an illusion of free-form play.

Eamon rules the company with a partner, an underutilized Patton Oswalt, who does more to suggest manipulative ambition than Hanks.

A wasted John Boyega portrays Ty, the man who created the company's signature app, TruYou. Ty wanders around the campus, occasionally bumping into Mae with whom he shares his cynicism about The Circle.

Privacy becomes the movie's big issue. How much are we willing to surrender? Are the benefits of SeeChange (everything from suicide prevention to halting child abuse) real?

Mae becomes the human guinea pig for testing SeeChange, wearing the tiny camera at all times and turning into an Internet star. She also loses her relationship with a low-tech pal, Ellar Coltrane in a wobbly performance that makes him appear like a non-actor and makes us even more appreciative of the work that director Richard Linklater did with him in Boyhood.

Watson's performance seems to stick close to the surface, but her character could have been better drawn. Same goes for Hanks' Eamon, and although the movie raises intriguing questions, it expresses them with a ton of on-the-nose dialogue that lacks the eloquence of, say, the on-the-nose dialogue Patty Chayefsky wrote for Network, a movie that, in its talky way, was prescient about reality TV and the tendency to turn news into entertainment.

Besides, the principal characters in Network were grown-ups, not 29somethings who seem to approach the workplace as if it were the playgrounds they wish they'd never outgrown.

The late Bill Paxton appears as Mae's father, a man crippled by MS. Paxton's presence -- which reminds us of his absence -- has an emotional impact the filmmakers couldn't have anticipated.

There's nothing wrong with a movie that wants to play with issues and ideas. What such movies need, though, are deeper characters than those who populate The Circle.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to Google a name that I saw dropped on Facebook.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A piercing look at a corrupt society

In director Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, the moral fiber of characters is tested. Most don't pass.
You know the drill. Two people covers. Fearful that attention spans immediately will erode, filmmakers employ a variety of strategies. The characters might talk as they walk. Maybe the camera shifts between close-ups of the speaker and the listener. Or perhaps we hear the conversation in voice over as the camera takes us to a place the filmmakers believe will advance the story.

There's nothing wrong with any of these approaches, but Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) has little use for them. Instead, he often places both speakers in front of the camera and allows them to converse in a medium shot that would drive many directors crazy with impatience.

Mungiu's style works because he allows life to unfold before the camera as if he's doing nothing whatsoever to manipulate it. He enables us to live with his characters, experience what they experience and understand the society that surrounds them.

Mungiu's new film, Graduation, evolves from a simple premise that conceals a multitude of complications. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a physician, angles to help his teen-age daughter (Maria Dragus) gain admission to prestigious Cambridge University. Romeo approaches this goal with more than the usual parental anxiety because he wants to open a door for Dragus's Eliza to leave a society steeped in corruption.

En route to school one day, Eliza is attacked. The assault shakes her, interfering with her ability to take her exams. The doctor, an ethical man, suddenly must decide whether he should plunge into the web of corruption that will be required to give his daughter an advantage in the testing.

Mungiu further complicates the life of Titieni's Romeo. He has a wife (Lia Bugnar) with whom he doesn't seem to have gotten along for years and a mistress (Malina Manovici) who has a young son. She becomes pregnant with Romeo's child.

Fortunately for audiences, Mungiu doesn't make films that are strident in their condemnation of those struggling in post-Ceausescu Romania. The corruption we see takes place in an atmosphere where pretty much everyone understands how the get-ahead game is played.

The police chief (Vlad Ivanov) is one of Romeo's friends; the doctor doesn't hesitate to go to him for help. The police chief advises Romeo to discuss the matter of his daughter's exams with one of the town's officials (Petre Ciubotaru), a man who wants to be bumped up the waiting list for a liver transplant. Help me; I'll help you. That's the way of things.

None of these people come across as evil, and we even develop sympathy for the ailing town official, who's obviously fearful of dying and perhaps dimly aware that he won't be able to finagle his way out of his own mortality.

Those familiar with Mungiu's work may place Graduation a notch lower than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a 2007 drama about a young woman trying to obtain an abortion in Romania during the 1980s. But that doesn't mean Graduation isn't worth seeing.

Every scene reveals new wrinkles of character and, equally important, of the society in which these characters function. Moreover, Titieni's performance is a wonder. He appears in nearly every frame and creates a character who has abandoned any belief that Romania will reform itself. He tries to hang on to his own integrity and ultimately must face the most difficult of problems. How much ethical compromise justifies a result that most would agree is desirable?

Thick and heavyset, Romeo carries his weight like a burden. It's not just about a few extra pounds. He's weighed down by a society in which hope too often surrenders to desperation.

What to say to a dying friend?

A Spanish drama about an actor facing his final curtain -- and his dog.

Julian has a plateful of what, these days, we're fond of calling issues: Topping the list is Julian's terminal lung cancer, but that's not the only problem Julian faces. He must come to terms with a life that has included a failed marriage, a troubled relationship with his grown son, and bad behavior toward friends.

Moreover, Julian must decide what to do with his most trusted companion, a dog named Truman, a bullmastiff that seems to move through the movie with something akin to exhausted resignation.

Though named for Julian's trusted dog, Truman isn't exactly a dog movie. The movie's precipitating event occurs when Julian's best friend decides to leave his home in Canada to pay a four-day visit to his lifelong pal, who lives in Madrid. A reluctant Tomas shows up without telling Julian that he's coming. What does one say to a dying friend, anyway? And how much will Tomas be forced to confront his own mortality?

Director Cesc Gay easily could have made Truman into a three-hankie tearjerker. Another choice would have been to give the movie a sorrowful tone as we're exposed to the relationship of two friends who've known each other since childhood. Gay takes neither route, opting instead for an approach that allows the actors -- Argentine actor Ricard Darin (as Julian) and Spanish actor Javier Camara (as Tomas) -- to create a relationship that is at once comfortable and challenging.

It doesn't take long for us to learn that Julian has decided he's done with chemotherapy, a course of treatment that gave him a brief respite from a cancer that since has returned. Julian's sister Paula (Delores Fonzi) can't accept Julian's decision. Tomas, on the other hand, realizes that Julian's choice makes sense. Why prolong a battle that can't be won?

There's a bit of an odd-couple undertone to the friendship between the two men. Julian has lived a life that has made room for impulse. Tomas, a married science professor, seldom follows his whims.

Still, he wants to be available for his pal and accompanies him to a funeral home where Julian arranges for his departure. He even indulges Julian by paying for an impromptu trip to Amsterdam so that Julian can visit his son, who's studying abroad. Among other things, Julian hasn't a Euro to his name.

Julian visits his doctor, but Gay wisely avoids turning Truman into a medical drama, devoting more time to Julian's efforts to find a home for his aging dog and to reconcile with himself before it's too late. The dog's destiny isn't difficult to predict, but what really makes this movie satisfying is Gay's focus on two men on the cusp of the third act of their lives, an act that Julian will not live to play out.

If there's a conclusion to be drawn here, it might go something like this: Even in dire situations, we remain ourselves, bumbling through as best we can.

Lost in the woods inside her head

If you've ever watched someone go through a schizophrenic episode, you understand how families can be ravaged by the behavior of a person who spirals into a world of delusion and horror, augmented by flashes of what appear to be thrilling cosmic insights. The documentary, God Knows Where I Am, tells the story of one such person. Relatively late in life, Linda Bishop was consumed by schizophrenia. During a frigid winter, Bishop occupied an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse in what was becoming a suburban neighborhood. She was about 100 yards from a neighbor but never was seen and never asked for help. Apples she found in a field became Bishop's only sustenance. Ultimately, Bishop starved to death. Directors Jedd and Todd Wider discovered a diary that Bishop dutifully kept. As a result, what might have been an anonymous death becomes the center of a sorrow-laden film that exposes the dangers of schizophrenia -- to self and others. Punctuated by Lori Singer's readings from Bishop's diaries, the movie presents a picture of a woman who expected divine intervention to save her from her four-month ordeal. I was going to call it a "self-imposed" ordeal, but that would be a little unfair. In her pre-illness life, Bishop was a good friend and a fine mother, but she lost herself to an illness that she protected from outside intrusion. True, she stopped taking the medications that normalized her life, but can a person whose mental processes become terribly distorted make responsible choices about her own welfare? Some of Bishop's diary entries have a transcendent glow that the directors try to match with visuals of the house and surrounding woods. But help -- divine or otherwise -- never arrived, and Bishop succumbed. Perspective is provided by Bishop's sister and her daughter, by townsfolk, by law enforcement officials, and by former friends. The title, taken from Bishop's writings, is instructive: Had Bishop been able to put a question mark at the end of that sentence, she might be alive today.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

When a search becomes a destiny

The Lost City of Z brings a real sense of adventure to the screen.

These days, the movies give us lots of synthetic adventure, including gargantuan comic-book creations for a generation of couch potatoes. It's been a while since anyone tried to serve up any real adventure. Credit director James Gray with doing just that in The Lost City of Z, the amazing story of a 20th Century explorer who journeyed deep into the Amazon jungle in search of an ancient city he dubbed "Z" and which others called El Dorado.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was a British army officer who was sent to Latin America to help chart the border between Brazil and Peru. During his mapping expedition, Fawcett became convinced that he had found archeological evidence of a lost civilization that was far more advanced than anyone believed possible. European prejudice against Latin America's non-white indigenous populations preferred to see savages, not innovators.

Basing his movie on David Grann's 2009 non-fiction bestseller, Gray tells a story that shifts between England and the Amazon -- with a brief stop for some compelling war footage. Fawcett served as an officer in World War I; he was wounded during a vicious trench battle.

Populated with stuffed-shirt Brits, Amazonian tribesman, and Fawcett's loyal crew, the movie proves a stirring adventure that opts for credible realism rather than over-inflated drama.

Joining Hunnam -- quietly fierce in his commitment to finding the lost city -- is a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, who plays Henry Costin, one of Fawcett's crew. On his last expedition to the jungle, Fawcett also was accompanied by his son Jack (Tom Holland). A fine Sienna Miller portrays Fawcett's wife, a woman who wanted to participate in an Amazonian mission but wound up staying home. She cared for the couple's three children and endured a life of committed loneliness. She supported her husband's dreams.

At one point, tension erupts between Fawcett and arctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a man who initially supports the search for the lost city but who becomes a liability when he faces the jungle's heat and hardships.

Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant) never before has worked on such a large scale. With support from cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray gives the jungle sequences vigor and excitement that surpasses the scenes in England, a location to which the movie periodically returns.

I have to admit, though, at times I found myself yearning for a more rapturous approach to the movie's imagery. Maybe that's more my problem than the movie's. The British interludes tend to disrupt the adventure but that may be the point. We share Fawcett's impatience about returning to the jungle.

When Fawcett encounters an opera company in the middle of the jungle, viewers may be reminded of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, another Amazon-based movie about doomed obsession.

But Hunnam (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak) makes an interesting choice: His Fawcett is not a man of febrile passions; he's a man of mettle, and he approaches adventure as a kind of solemn duty. It's his reason for being.

Fawcett eventually loses his heart to the jungle. The jungle, however, isn't the most accommodating of lovers, a reality that underlies the movie's best sequences: Arrows of tribesman raining down on the explorers' raft, an encounter with head hunters and the crew caught in torrents of onrushing water.

At one point, Miller delivers the line that underscores Fawcett's ambition and perhaps the movie's, as well. She cites Robert Browning's poem, Andrea del Sarto, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

Despite references to Britain's imperial racism and slavery, I'm not sure that Gray attains the thematic heights that a film such as this could have reached. But his grasp proves strong: As the story of a man who consistently risked his life in search of a city only he believes existed, Lost City serves up more genuine excitement than most of its artificially inflated competitors.

Movies in the time of war and heartbreak

A great cast makes Their Finest irresistible.

I can't recall the last time I saw a movie set during World War II that made me feel better than when I sat down to watch it. Don't get me wrong, Their Finest, the movie to which I refer, never mires itself in cheap sentiment. Rather, it celebrates the pluck required to persevere in the face of terrible loss -- and, in this movie, those losses can be felt.

On one level, Their Finest is a comedy about British moviemaking during the World War II. It's 1940, and the British government wants films that are both authentic and inspirational. In search of a realism that also will appeal to the female audience, the Ministry of Information recruits an advertising copywriter (Gemma Arterton), who may have a flare for such matters. Initially, Arterton's Catrin is assigned to writing only women's dialogue, which -- in the trade -- inelegantly was referred to as "slop."

Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners and An Education) offers period-piece comforts and a cast that hits every note, including the most acerbic, with bracing clarity.

The heart of the story involves a burgeoning relationship between Arterton's Catrin and a snidely witty screenwriter played by Sam Claflin. Because of his writing skills, Claflin's Tom Buckley has been exempted from the military; perhaps his position at the home front explains Tom's cynicism. But Claflin reveals a man who genuinely cares about the movies and hopes to make a good one.

There's a complication: Catrin happens to be married. I won't say more about how the movie works this out, but know that Arterton and Claflin make a great screen couple. They argue plenty, but also set off sparks -- and, even better, their attraction springs from something akin to an appreciation of each other's skills. They're unlikely soul mates.

Joining Arterton and Claflin are Richard E. Grant, as a studio head, and Bill Nighy as an actor whose ego is stronger than his recent successes. If you didn't already know, Nighy qualifies as a comic treasure, an actor who can inflate a character's sense of self-importance without turning an audience against him. His timing remains exquisite, and he brings sincerity to scenes that require it without being cloying.

I'd love to see an entire movie about Nighy's character and Sophie (Helen McCrory), the woman who eventually inherits the job of being his agent.

The movie's writers and filmmakers are working on a screenplay for a film about Dunkirk, which is supposed to buoy British spirits, bring tears to the eyes of war-weary Londoners and help persuade the US to join the war effort. To support the latter purpose, a hunky American (Jake Lacy) who has been flying in the British air force is foisted on cast and crew. He flies better than he acts.

Set during a time when most of Britain's young men were away, Their Finest shows how the door of opportunity opened for women. Arterton's character is more than ready to walk through it. It also makes clear the horrors of the Blitz, the ceaseless bombings that made life in London truly hellish. Young men were dying at the front and civilians were dying at home.

OK, it's not exactly a revelation to say that we must keep on even when times become terribly bleak, but I had no problem watching this group of actors deliver the message.

Scherfig manages a neat trick. She has made a movie that juxtaposes smiles and heartbreak and emerges on the far side of maudlin. Good for her.

'Unforgettable?' More like regrettable

In trying to dream up a reason that someone might want to see the new movie Unforgettable, I could come up with only one reason -- and it's more about curiosity than anything that might be termed credible persuasion. Katherine Heigl, who usually plays sweet, turns bitter to play the latest murderous ice queen to provide an audience with reasons to hiss, boo and giggle. Sporting shoulder-length blond hair that never has seen a curl and an alabaster complexion, Heigl looks like a late-model android; there's something unnervingly fake about her appearance. As directed by Denise Di Novi, from a screenplay by Christian Hodson, Unforgettable can't even manage to attain the level of superior trash. It's not for want of trying: A melodramatic story introduces us to Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), a writer who leaves San Francisco to join her fiancé David (Geoff Stults) and his daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Traumatized by an abusive relationship in which she was beaten, Julia is ready for a new life. Enter Heigl's Tessa, David's insanely possessive former wife who intrudes herself on her husband's new relationship. Tessa ultimately carries her obsession to absurdly violent heights. A near thorough lack of plausibility and scenes that had a preview audience laughing (in the wrong places, I think) make this a preposterous entry into an already soggy spring lineup.

A movie that doesn't keep its promise

Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac star in The Promise , a would-be epic that touches on the Armenian genocide of 1915.

When the Ottoman Empire was falling apart in the early part of the 20th Century and the first shots of World War I were being fired, 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Turkish army. Unlike the industrialized genocide of Nazi Germany, the murder of Turkey's Armenian population took place in less systematic fashion. In part, the Ottoman mass murders were prompted by deep-rooted Ottoman suspicions that the Armenians represented a rebellious social element. An already teetering empire would be further imperiled. And, of course, the Armenians were Christians in a predominantly Muslim culture.

There were other reasons for Ottoman antipathy toward its Armenian citizens, but few of them -- beyond the bigotry of Turks -- are effectively dramatized in the historically sketchy new movie, The Promise.

Although the Armenian genocide makes its way into much of the movie, the filmmakers try (understandably, I suppose) to find a hook on which to hang a drama with mainstream aspirations.

In pursuit of said hook, they concoct a romantic triangle between an Armenian who aspires to become a doctor (Oscar Isaac), a sophisticated Armenian woman who has lived in Paris (Charlotte Le Bon) and an American journalist (Christian Bale) trying to chronicle the murderous assault on the empire's Armenians.

Working in a conventional style that favors handsome imagery, director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) introduces audiences to a horrific chapter of history about which many know little. But George fails to fuse the movie's many elements into an emotionally shattering whole.

Tellingly, the movie's most moving element arrives during the end credits when we see photos of young Armenians who perished at the hands of Turks. A title card that enumerates the period's genocidal toll leaves us to contemplate the unthinkable in ways the movie too often fails to provide.

The story begins in a small village in southern Turkey, where Turks and Armenians live in harmony, according to Mikael Boghosian (Isaac), the village apothecary. Mikael aspires to be a doctor. To achieve his goal, he agrees to marry and use his fiancee's dowry to pay tuition in Constantinople, where he'll pursue his medical studies. Mikael vows to return to his bride-to-be (Angela Sarafyan) as soon as he completes his studies.

In cosmopolitan Constantinople, Mikael meets Le Bon's Anna. Immediately, he's smitten, thus putting his marriage promise in jeopardy. Anna, an Armenian who has lived abroad, already is involved with Chris Myers (Bale), a hard-hitting reporter who tends to lose his temper when confronted with Turkish prejudice and self-satisfaction. He becomes pretty involved in the stories he covers.

The romance forces George to bring the lovers together before driving them apart, a necessity that also prompts George to divide his attentions between Mikael's story -- forced labor to support the war effort and subsequent escape -- and Chris's attempts to document genocidal atrocities.

Mikael's perilous journey eventually returns him to his home village, where his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) insists that he fulfill his promise, marry his fiancee, hide in a cabin in the woods and "make babies." Chris's journalistic probing lands him in a Turkish prison.

Unfortunately, many developments in the movie are telegraphed or put to the service of the emotional agenda dictated by the love story and by what may have been a desire to tame a period of indigestible political chaos for the screen.

There's value in The Promise for those who know nothing about the fate of the Armenians, but a movie such as this should have left one devastated and inconsolable. Perhaps it could have had George been able to shed the kind of italicized filmmaking that, at one point, introduces actor James Cromwell (as Henry Morgenthau, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire) to deliver an on-the-nose bit of dialogue in opposition to injustice.

Isaac's brooding, thoughtful demeanor is supposed to play against a bearded Bale's singular commitment to getting the story, but George and his co-screenwriter Robin Swicord haven't been able to satisfy two masters: the need to depict the horrors of genocide and the desire to tell a heartbreaking love story.

So we wind up with a movie that often misses its mark, and suffers all the more for it by having had the courage to tackle such an important subject.

The story of a stormy relationship

Cezanne et Moi tells the story of the friendship between Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.
Sometimes expectation becomes the enemy of enjoyment. That partly explains why I found Cezanne et Moi, the story of the stormy friendship between artist Paul Cezanne and novelist Emile Zola disappointing.

But my initial enthusiasm about the prospect of seeing a movie about an artist whose studio and home I visited in Aix-en-Provence isn't the only reason that Cezanne et Moi proved a letdown.

The rub: The movie doesn't have enough to say about either Cezanne's art or Zola's writing.

Skipping back and forth in time, director Daniele Thompson depicts a relationship in which Zola gains fame and fortune and Cezanne suffers from a lack of recognition. Although their fates were different, neither man achieved much by way of contentment.

Cezanne comes across as a typical outsider, a painter who's contemptuous of the success of other artists. He can behave in ways that turn him into the sort of fellow people might cross the street to avoid.

Zola, on the other hand, acquires money, a home in Paris and social status. But in this telling, he also knows that his comfortable life is at odds with the social outlook expressed in his writing. He frets about being a hypocrite.

Cezanne and Zola were childhood friends in Aix-en-Provence, but as the two matured, their social positions reversed. Usually broke, Cezanne struggled to survive on a small allowance from his disapproving family. Zola, who didn't hail from a family with money, found material success.

Zola's novel, L'oeuvre became the occasion for a major split between the two men because it depicted details of Cezanne's life. Cezanne felt betrayed.

Guillaume Canet plays Zola as an emotionally steady fellow who loans Cezanne money and mostly endures the painter's insults. Guillaume Gallienne has the showier role as an artist of explosive temperament.

Women are less important to the story, but not inconsequential. Alice Pol portrays Zola's wife, Alexandrine, a woman with whom Cezanne once had an affair. Alexandrine was a seamstress and maybe a prostitute whose marriage to Zola moved her up the social ladder. Deborah Francois portrays Cezanne's mistress.

All of this would have been fine had Thompson done more to explore the work of either man. She particularly shortchanges Cezanne, offering too little by way of illumination about how he viewed his work.

Safe to say that Cezanne has eclipsed Zola in terms of reputation, so a modest suggestion: A trip to a museum where you can view Cezanne's art might prove more rewarding than this scattered, intermittently compelling drama.