Thursday, October 11, 2018

The story of the moon landing

Director Damien Chazelle avoids cliches in First Man, a carefully calibrated look at an epic event.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of director Damien Chazelle’s First Man arrives in the form of a reminder: Great feats often begin with baby steps that stutter, shudder and sometimes go terribly wrong.

To establish the point early, Chazelle opens the story of NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) taking a bone-rattling ride on a 140,000-foot test of an aircraft that’s meant to approach the edge of the atmosphere. Armstrong, who later will become the first man to set foot on the moon, encounters a malfunction but pushes through.

The sequence serves as a powerful overture for a movie about the early days of space flight. By today's standards, men were riding in vehicles that look fragile, almost jury-rigged. They were putting their lives on the line to break barriers and extend humanity’s reach — and not everyone thought space exploration was a great idea. A costly US space program was pitted against pressing domestic needs and a rising chorus of protest against the Vietnam War.

Chazelle evokes the tumultuous political atmosphere of the ‘60s, but doesn’t dwell on it nor does he sound triumphant chords about space achievement. He doesn't glorify the NASA astronauts who risked and sometimes lost their lives in pursuit of the moon landing President John F. Kennedy had chosen as a national goal.

Moreover, the movie doesn’t have a standard-issue hero.

As played by Gosling, Armstrong comes across as an emotionally reticent man who seems only able to survive by pulling a curtain across the pain that stemmed from the death of a daughter from cancer. He sheds tears when he’s alone, but doesn’t talk about the loss with his wife (Claire Foy), his sons or his friends.

A stand-out scene finds Armstrong removing himself from a gathering after the funeral of a fellow astronaut. Alone in his backyard, he scans the skies through a hand-held telescope, pushing away a concerned colleague by telling him that he's not standing alone in the night because he's looking for a conversation.

With Armstrong training, traveling and immersing himself in his work, it falls to Foy’s Janet to hold down the homefront. She does, but Foy never turns Janet into the loyal wife of cliche. She supports her husband, but she’s also angry in the way of many wives of the '60s, women who were left to tend to chores while their husbands found adventure in the workplace.

Of course, there was one key difference between Armstrong and the legions of overworked office slugs: Armstrong risked not coming home from his workplace.

And that’s the Armstrong we meet here, a no-drama guy who regards what he does as “going to work," a job.

You may want to think of First Man as a "space procedural." Chazelle takes us through the various stages of development of a moon landing that began with the Gemini program and culminated with Apollo.

To make clear the dangers at hand, Chazelle includes the cockpit fire that took the lives of White, Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Roger Chafee (Cory Michael Smith), three astronauts who died in a fire during a “plugs out” test of the spacecraft.

Naturally, the moon landing becomes the movie's climax. Chazelle handles the moment Armstrong stepped onto the moon with exquisite balance. He doesn't italicize its awe or underplay it.

When the Eagle touches down on the moon, Chazelle allows the silvery expanse of the lunar surface to speak for itself, so much so that the movie goes silent. I confess to disappointment when — after some minutes of sobering silence — Justin Hurwitz’s score began to chime in.

Ryan's controlled performance makes us wonder whether the actor opened a tap and drained out three-quarters of his emotional life. That could be exactly what Chazelle had in mind. We come to understand that Armstrong performs with cool equanimity when he's able to keep a lid on anything that might break his concentration.

It may be fair to say that the movie — based on a book by James R. Hansen — finds its meaning in the choices that Chazelle doesn’t make. He takes a neutral path that mirrors Armstrong's personality. That’s not to say that the movie is without emotion or tension, but it’s not buoyed by an identifiable point of view, a limiting factor. That, an overly long running time and a slight whiff of sentimentality keep the movie from greatness.

Still, First Man struck me as a far more ambitious and worthier work than either Whiplash or La La Land, two of Chazelle's previous movies.

Chazelle has been criticized for not showing the moment when Armstrong planted an American flag on lunar soil. Please. I took the omission as a significant part of Chazelle’s approach. He wants us to see the Apollo mission fresh, to avoid the kind of signature images that have degenerated into cliche.

As if to emphasize work-a-day life in the space program, Chazelle also refuses to celebrate the hotshot pilot ethos that made The Right Stuff so engaging. Only Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin approaches his job with bravado and public expressions of ego. It’s not something that Chazelle dwells on.

At two hours and 15 minutes, the movie's tension and single-minded determination become a bit of a grind, so much so that the lunar landing generates more relief than excitement. I don't mean that as a criticism. When the Eagle lands, the movie relaxes.

I’m one of those people who believe the US benefits from a strong and adventurous space program. First Man reminds us that no such program can be risk-free and leaves us to ponder whether the rewards are worth the risks.

Decide for yourself, but wouldn't it be grand to see the world again focused in awe and appreciation at an accomplishment that really had the power to expand the way we see ourselves? I'm not holding my breath, but sometimes a little dreaming helps.

Robert Redford plays an aging thief

The Old Man & the Gun creaks along in predictable fashion, but Redford displays wary charm.
There's one compelling reason to see The Old Man & the Gun. The movie stars Robert Redford who says that his performance as real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker is his last. Now 82, Redford has told interviewers that he plans to devote his time to directing and environmental causes. He's also still the driving force behind The Sundance Film Festival.

When I say that Redford provides the only reason to see The Old Man & the Gun, it's because he creates a reliably agreeable portrait of a thief who devotes his life either to holding up banks or escaping from prison, a feat he accomplished 16 times.

Full of wary charm, Redford's portrayal of Tucker arrives sans all traces of malice or evil.

I don't know if that makes sense for the subject matter, but Redford's fans should be able to regard this performance as a pleasing valedictory to great career.

Director David Lowery (Ghost Story), who wrote the screenplay based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, builds Redford's character around a single, disarming trait: Tucker is ultra polite and friendly during his robberies. The people he holds up (bank managers and tellers) all seem to take away positive impressions of this grand larcenist.

The rest of the cast includes Danny Glover and Tom Waits as a couple of Tucker's accomplices.
Sissy Spacek
plays a widow who is charmed by Tucker, although she's not ready to abandon her life for him.

I suppose every robber needs a nemesis. In this case, the job goes to Casey Affleck, who appeared in Ghost Story. Affleck portrays Texas detective John Hunt, a man who made it his business to track Tucker.

Despite some nice scenes between Spacek and Redford, The Old Man & the Gun feels like a slightly creaky version of a movie we've seen before. And if this is Redford's last movie, I wish he had been chosen something a bit more challenging.

I feel guilty saying that because Redford certainly has earned the right to do whatever he wants; for me, he's been an exciting screen presence since I first saw him in movies such as Inside Daisy Glover (1964) and The Chase (1966).

I hope, at a minimum, that Redford doesn't give up on directing because a movie world without Robert Redford in it seems like a very bad idea.

A look at director Hal Ashby

Hal Ashby died in 1988 at the age of 59. Ashby directed both good and great movies and was part of the reason that movies became so exciting during the 1970s. If you loved any of the following movies (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home and Being There), you need to see Hal, a documentary about Ashby's life as a pot-smoking, adventurous perfectionist. (I know. "Adventurous perfectionist" sounds like a contradiction in terms but with a figure such as Ashby, the two words seem to fit. Director Amy Scott includes a touching interview with director Norman Jewison, who helped Ashby gain a foothold in Hollywood. The two became lifelong pals and Ashby won an Oscar for editing Jewison's In the Heat of the Night. Actor Ben Foster reads excerpts from letters Ashby wrote to Jewison. They are love letters between two men who probably never had a better friendship. You'll see clips from Ashby's films, interviews with some of the actors who appeared in them: Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, and Louis Gossett Jr., for example. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who wrote screenplays for The Last Detail and Shampoo, makes an appearance along with some appreciative young directors, notably Judd Apatow and Lisa Cholodenko. Hal can't help but remind those of us who lived through it of a particularly fertile period in American film. I won't bore you with nostalgia but I remember where I saw both The Last Detail and Shampoo, two movies that helped shape my taste and taught me something about what movies could be. Ashby's career didn't end a high note, but he was part of a wave that, when it broke, left nothing but movie love in its wake -- not always requited but irrevocable.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mass murder in Norway and its aftermath

22 July is director Paul Greengrass's latest movie about a catastrophic event.
With interruptions for several Bourne movies, director Paul Greengrass has become one of cinema's ablest chroniclers of catastrophe, creating a filmography that includes Bloody Sunday (2002), United 93 (2006), and Captain Phillips (2013), films that dealt with political upheaval, violence or outright terror.

This year brings us Greengrass's 22 July, an examination of the 2011 attack in which 77 Norwegians, most of them teenagers, were murdered by a white nationalist who claimed to be a soldier in the battle to save Europe from what he viewed as liberal elitist multiculturalism. The murderer resented the presence of Muslim immigrants in his country.

Eight of the victims were killed by an explosion outside a government building; 69 of them were murdered while attending a Labor Party youth camp on the island of Utoya, picked off as the killer freely roamed the campgrounds. No helicopter was available to drop police into the bloody fray.

Filming in English with a Scandinavian cast, Greengrass begins with the day of the mass murders. Soon-to-be murderer Anders Behring Breivik (chillingly played by Anders Danielsen Lie) disguises himself as a policeman to carry out his lethal rampage. After setting off an explosion in Oslo, Breivik proceeded to Utoya. He gained access to a ferry from the mainland by claiming he had been sent to secure the island for young people already alarmed by shocking news of the Oslo explosion.

Greengrass vividly presents Breivik's murders within roughly the first half hour of a film that runs for an overly long 143 minutes. 22 July then turns into a drama that deals mostly with the aftermath of the shootings, an intermittently effective catalog of the painful consequences that included Breivik's trial.

Greengrass recreates the chaotic atmosphere surrounding the shootings, but simplifies the story by concentrating on Breivik, the conflicted attorney who defended him (Jon Oigarden) and a young survivor (Jonas Strand Gravli), a horribly wounded 17-year-old whose grueling recovery is rendered with agonizing detail.

Arrogance allowed Breivik to cast himself as a hero; he imagined himself a vanguard figure in what he believed would be a war to restore white supremacy in Europe. After terrorizing the kids on Utoya, he surrendered to police without a fight.

Greengrass presents a mini portrait of a man so certain of himself that he has the gall to complain to the police that they're not tending to a cut he sustained during the shooting. A flying skull fragment from one of his victims injured a finger. The murderer needed a small bandage; his victims weren't so lucky.

Despite Lie's compelling performance, there isn't a whole lot to understand about Breivik or his deluded sense of superiority.

As a legal drama, 22 July hinges on Breivik's decision to scrap an insanity defense that would have replaced a prison sentence with confinement to a mental institution. Breivik insists on having his day in court so that he can control his own narrative. He wants a platform to present himself as a warrior of the far-right.

I confess to wondering exactly why this horrific story needed to be rehashed on screen. It is, of course, a cautionary tale about the toxicity of racist resentment and paranoia. I also speculated that Greengrass may have wanted us to remember this particular atrocity before it washes from our cultural memory bank, swept away by the stream of additional shootings that since have grabbed headlines.

Perhaps Greengrass would have come closer had he been able to pull a stronger statement from this fractured, combustible and often disturbing movie.


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Bradley Cooper/ Lady Gaga join forces

A Star is Born dazzles before it dwindles.

Lady Gaga displays dazzling showbusiness versatility in A Star is Born, which co-stars Bradley Cooper, who also makes his directorial debut.

Cooper's take on a story that has been told on screen three times before features musical high points from Lady Gaga, who Cooper generously showcases. It's as if Cooper understands that the paying customers want to see Gaga soar or sink and he gives them plenty of room to decide in which direction she's headed.

Displaying talents that evoke images of everyone from Judy Garland to Janis Joplin to Barbra Streisand (of the last version) and maybe even a little Alice Cooper, Lady Gaga -- the erstwhile Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta -- holds the screen, even when her acting proves a bit shaky.

It's difficult to imagine that anyone could be unfamiliar with a narrative arc that's only slightly less shopworn than Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve. Cooper follows the outline of Streisand's 1976 version, kicking the tale into the world of rock and pop stardom. He's sinking. She's rising. Everyone knows the drill.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a talented but fading country rocker with a massive alcohol problem. After a concert, Jackson polishes off a bottle in his chauffeured ride. But he's so badly in need of another drink that he stumbles into a drag bar where Lady Gaga's Ally is performing. The only female who's allowed on stage, she delivers a knock-out version of La Vie En Rose.

After her performance, Jackson and Ally spend a night hanging out and Ally confides that her singing career might be stalled because her nose is too big. He says he loves her nose. He recognizes that she has the potential to be a star, a view we readily share because ... well ... she's Lady Gaga.

Interested and smitten, the soft-spoken Jackson pulls Ally into his world, soon sending a private jet to pick her up for one of his concerts.

It doesn't take long for the transformative moment to arise. Jackson pulls Ally on stage. She's nervous, but she kills. And her talent begins to charge his batteries, too. After years of touring drudgery, Jackson seems to be having fun again.

Jackson and Ally work together -- until the point where an ambitious manager (Rafi Gavron) convinces Ally that she can rocket past her musical partner and love interest if she strikes out on her own.

Ally's ascendance parallels Jackson's decline, but when it comes to sinking into an alcoholic swamp, Jackson needs no help. He spirals downward during an overly long decline that reaches its low point when he embarrasses Ally at the Grammys, a scene that's bound to make an audience cringe at Jackson's pathetic degeneration.

To further underscore Jackson's march toward musical irrelevance, he also develops tinnitus, a condition that interferes with his singing and guitar playing.

A bearded, red-faced Cooper keeps his eyes downcast and drops his speaking voice to bass levels. Cooper plays Jackson's smoldering, nonchalant sexiness for all its worth, interrupting a display of cowboy charm with bouts of fall-down drunkenness. He's reasonably convincing doing his own singing.

There isn't much by way of a supporting cast in this Cooper/Gaga duet. Sam Elliott, a reliable symbol of country authenticity with a voice as deep and mellow as a summer afternoon, shows up as Jackson's brother Bobby, the guy who also manages the singer's road tours. The brothers eventually get crosswise and Elliott disappears.

Andrew Dice Clay portrays Ally's father, a failed crooner who wants Ally to achieve the stardom that eluded him.

Dave Chappelle shows up -- more or less out of nowhere -- offering a calming turn as one of Jackson's former buddies; he literally picks Jackson out of the gutter during one of his worst benders.

A Star is Born has a sustained imbalance that may result from its odd match of talents. Cooper is an actor; Lady Gaga is a phenomenon. He's in his actor's world. She's in her pop phenomenon world. It's possible to argue, I suppose, that the clash makes sense for a movie in which Ally's success is destined to eclipse Jackson's.

A Star is Born has entertaining moments to be sure, but there's no star born here. Lady Gaga is a star from the moment we first see her. Cooper's high immersion performance notwithstanding, Lady Gaga remains the movie's main attraction, even when she appears without any of her trademark makeup.

As a director, Cooper likes a funky, handheld camera. During the musical numbers, A Star is Born can feel like an energetic concert film -- albeit one that's interrupted by a story.

If you're up for a pop-cultural fairy tale, A Star is Born probably will get the job done. It struck me as more of a high-wire performance act than a look at two memorable characters. The perils of celebrity and alcoholism and an unlikely romance become supports for Cooper and Lady Gaga to "put it all out there," if you'll excuse some vernacular.

It strikes me that the movie also is about Cooper and Lady Gaga taking turns trying to charm the audience -- him with low-down, shaggy dereliction that screams out for salvage and her with a mixture of daring and talent that defies you not to pay attention.

It's all a bit overamped, an entertainment that's a little too in love with itself to bring down the curtain -- even as its two-hour and 15-minute length begins to wear. And dialogue about the need for authenticity in music didn't convince me that there wasn't a lot more show than substance in Cooper's collection of riffs, tiffs, and musical striving.


They want to have a baby

Director Tamara Jenkins returns to the screen with Private Life; Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn make the trip worthwhile.

In Private Life, Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play a married couple who have spent years trying to have a baby. As a couple in their 40s, they're facing a difficult reality; their lives are beginning to lose all traces of youthful promise.

Clever, smart and entertaining, Private Life provides the perfect vehicle for director Tamara Jenkins to return to the screen after more than a decade. Jenkins' The Savages (2007) featured Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as adult siblings trying to cope with a demented father.

In this outing, Jenkins turns her attention to a frustrated New York couple we get to know well, and who are so life-sized you feel as if they might live next door, providing you live in New York’s East Village.

After so much failure, it seems logical to wonder why Hahn's Rachel and Giamatti's Richard want to bring a child into their lives. The answer, as I’ve suggested, may lie in the fact that they're an attractive couple who seem to have reached their career limits.

The theater company Richard runs isn't going to make him rich or famous. Neither is the pickle company he operates to keep bread and butter on the table. Rachel's trips to Yaddo, a prestigious artists' colony, haven't pushed her to the top of the literary world. Richard and Rachel still live in a cramped apartment where the upstairs neighbor plays music that booms through the floorboards.

A child might mark Rachel and Richard's last way to leave something tangible behind but their lives have degenerated into a series of injections (administered by him), ovulation-cycle watching and visits to specialists. And, yes, Richard and Rachel also are in the process of trying to a adopt.

Striving for pregnancy has begun to look like penance for undisclosed sins or, at very least, a full-time job.

The movie's plot finally leads the couple to consider using Richard's sperm to fertilize a donor egg. Because Rachel would carry the baby, a donor might represent the closest the couple can get to biological reproduction.

Richard often turns to his brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) for money; Charlie's wife (Molly Shannon) is sick of hearing about Richard and Rachel's problems, another source of low-key tension.

Once an initially reluctant Rachel agrees to use a donor egg, it falls to Charlie and Rachel's daughter Sadie (Kayli Carter) to become the donor. Sadie has left college to move in with Richard and Rachel. An aspiring writer, Sadie thinks Richard and Rachel are "cool,'' a conclusion only a 25-year-old could draw about a couple that's suffering from the kind of life exhaustion that shows up just before the skin begins to wrinkle.

Jenkins writes with wit and Giamatti and Hahn create characters who are intelligent and credible.

You don't have to have had any experience with the difficulties of getting pregnant to enjoy a comedy that is saved from charges of urbane preciousnesses by Giamatti and Hahn. They're each blessed with the ability to create characters who are believably self-aware and who never push us so far away that we can't appreciate their full, rich and often annoying selves.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The story of a ground-breaking author

Keira Knightley plays the title character in Colette, a movie that's as much period piece as character study.

Colette, the French novelist, died in 1954 at the age of 81. The movie Colette focuses on roughly a quarter of Colette's fascinating life, notably the years she spent with her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, a man who published under the name Willy. Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels, but Willy took credit for them.

A bon vivant, literary entrepreneur and music critic, Willy hired others to author books to which he proudly put his name. His major talent seems to have been for promotion, which suggests that he may have been born a century too soon.

Colette, who was 14 years younger than Willy, eventually divorced him. She went on to have a distinguished literary career, as well as a personal life that included two additional marriages and various relationships with women.

Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) uses a portion of Colette's life to make a stylistically conventional movie about an unconventional woman.

As far as it goes, Colette proves enjoyable with Keira Knightley bringing a sense of fiber and substance to the role of Colette and Dominic West immersing himself in a convincing turn as man who relied on preening charm, profligate spending, and a charismatic personality.

Westmoreland doesn't shortchange Colette's adventurous sex life, presenting one episode in which Colette has an affair with an American woman who's visiting Paris (Eleanor Tomlinson). So, by the way, does Willy. Colette also establishes an on-going relationship with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), an aristocrat and gender rebel who shocked polite society by dressing like a man.

Colette and Willy tolerated each other's sexual digressions; according to the movie, Colette prized honesty more than she valued fidelity. Willy agrees, but he’s not quite up Colette’s demanding standard.

Part tale of feminist assertion and part portrait of turn-of-the-century Paris, Colette engages without generating sustained excitement for a title character whose sharp edges have been buffed into submission by what may be a little too much production value.

Colette likely will be appreciated more as carefully appointed, nicely acted period piece than a provocative look at a woman who didn't so much challenge norms as bypass them with blithe indifference.

Put another way, Colette presents its subject with honesty but never throws down the gauntlet of challenge that would have pushed audiences out of their comfort zones, something Colette deserved.




Thursday, September 27, 2018

The wild and strange west

The Sisters Brothers tells the story of hitmen siblings.
Some Westerns aim to uphold frontier mythology; others want to drag that mythology into the muddy grit of reality. And some don't necessarily want to do either. The Sisters Brothers seems to fit into that latter category; it's a strangely entertaining, slightly off-kilter take on the American West during a time of transition.

The Sisters Brothers (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) are hitmen who work for a ruthless character known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). But these two gunmen are not like other gunfighters you've seen before. They're more brutal than slick and they banter and argue as only siblings can.

Based on a novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sister's Brothers takes French director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, Dheepan and The Prophet) to the northwestern US -- Oregon mostly -- to follow the twisted adventures of brothers who have developed a proud level of expertise in their chosen occupation.

Not surprisingly, the brothers aren't always on the same page. Brother Eli (Reilly) has grown weary of killing people. He longs for the tenderness of home and hearth. He wants to retire. Brother Charlie sees no reason to quit, so long as the Commodore keeps giving them lucrative assignments.

Perhaps to let us know that we're not about to take a customary Western ride, Audiard begins his movie with a gunfight that takes place in the dark. Flashes from fired weapons pop across the screen along with the deep-throated sound of firing revolvers. If you're interested in assigning meaning to this battle, it might have something to do with Charlie and Eli's aimlessness. They're acting out an old script, but they have no real vision about what they might be pursuing. They're dancing in the dark.

The story soon focuses on the task to which Charlie and Eli currently have been assigned. They're supposed to catch up with Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and torture him for reasons best discovered in a theater.

For their part, the brothers are task-specific; they've been hired to torture; it's not their job to locate the fleeing Warm. That task falls into the hands of John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) a detective whose impeccable diction couldn't seem more out of place in this environment.

As it turns out, Warm has a large agenda: He wants to found a harmonious, non-violent, egalitarian society in Dallas, Texas, and damn if Morris doesn't catch a bit of utopian fever himself.

The performances are marked by idiosyncratic fervor. Phoenix portrays Charlie as a drunk with a quick temper and a taste for life without regret. Reilly gives Eli a dogged quality with hints of unexpected tenderness. A shawl Eli carries with him serves as a kind of security blanket, a reminder that the comfort of a woman might exist somewhere, although it's probably somewhere where Eli isn't.

One of my favorite moments arrives when Charlie asks Eli why he insists on carrying around a scarf he purportedly was given by a woman. It's not a scarf insists Eli; it's a shawl. To him, the distinction means everything.

Audiard sets all this against the backdrop of the still-evolving west. At one point, Morris -- who keeps a diary -- notes that he's visiting settlements that didn't exist three months ago. In another signal of change, Charlie discovers the toothbrush, a device that he uses awkwardly. Think about it. How would you approach a toothbrush if you'd never seen one before?

Audiard allows what symbolism he employs to crawl out of the natural landscape. On the trail, a sleeping Eli swallows a spider that leaves him sick and poisoned. His face becomes distorted and swollen with bloat. The natural world seems to be turning against Eli.

I won't reveal the movie's ending but I'll tell you that Audiard allows his movie to settle like a pot that has been taken off the fire and has begun to lose its boiling fury. Audiard has given us a half-real, half-fantastical portrait of the West, putting it on the shoulders of two brothers who only seem unconstrained by their torments when their horses are bounding across open terrain. As the movie suggests, the West may not be what we once thought it was, but the image of horse and rider hasn't lost its power to stir.



The story of a young 'witch'

Rungano Nyoni, described in her biography as a Zambian/Welsh director, demonstrates a keen eye for the strange hypocrisies and contradictions in everyday life among ordinary villagers in Zambia. Nyoni's I Am Not a Witch focuses on what we're told is a "witch camp," a place where women who've been targeted as witches perform what looks to be forced labor. Sometimes, they pose with painted faces for tourists hungry for some exoticism. Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) shows up early. She's a serious-looking eight-year-old who may have been orphaned and who seems entirely lost. It doesn't take long for Shula, who has evidently no place else to go, to be encouraged to identify herself as a witch. As a low-level government official with a keen eye for exploitation, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phir) takes a proprietary interest in Shula. She'll be good for tourism. Shula becomes government property. Nyoni finds warmth in the close ties among the women, who are victimized by the idiocy that arises from conflicts between government, tribal authorities and self-serving officials. Not without humor, I Am Not a Witch ultimately rests on Shula's story, which builds toward a mournful and mysterious finale.

Two fine docs from National Geographic

He dares to do what seems impossible.

As someone who's not crazy about heights, I approached the documentary Free Solo with a mixture of dread and interest. I wanted to see if I'd be able to watch climber Alex Honnold do what never had been done before: scale Yosemite's treacherous El Capitan without a rope or any other safety equipment.

The often-riveting Free Solo makes for challenging viewing for those of us who like to keep both feet planted firmly on the ground. Qualms or no, this is one compelling film.

Honnold makes his living as a climber, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that he does it for money or fame. What motivates him is an unquenchable desire to push himself, in this case by taking on a 3,000-foot granite wall. No ropes. No gear. Just a bit of chalk to help him secure what look to be the most tenuous of spots to place his hands and feet.

Filming Honnold's climb required the filmmakers to take some risks themselves. Directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Meru) faced daunting challenges: How to get the most breathtaking images of the climb while staying out Honnold's way. I've read that the filmmakers used drones, rigs and powerful zoom lenses to accomplish their task.

Chin, who sometimes appears camera, is obviously troubled by an inescapable awareness that things could go terribly wrong. Climber Tommy Caldwell arrives to help Honnold train. He's encouraging but realistic, noting that "everyone who has made free soloing a big part of their carer is dead by now."

It must have been nerve-wracking for the filmmakers to know that they were telling a story about a guy who might die during the filming.

Honnold turns out to be a man of preternatural focus: He sees no reason to give up climbing, even if his girlfriend -- Sanni McCandless -- were to ask him to quit for the sake of their relationship. She doesn't.

Despite a couple of setbacks, Honnold's determination is impressive. I'm not sure that free soloing shouldn't be recognized as a form of insanity, but Free Solo holds your attention -- for every gut-wrenching minute of Honnold's history-making effort.

These science whizzes make you excited for their future -- and ours.

I'd be surprised if Science Fair didn't show up on this year's Oscar's documentary shortlist.

Directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster hit the inspirational bullseye by focusing on smart young people who are preparing to compete in 2017's International Science and Engineering Fair, an event that pits 1,700 finalists against one another as they compete for prizes in multiple categories.

The directors concentrate on young people from Kentucky, New York, South Dakota, and West Virginia, as well as from a small city in Brazil and an isolated community in rural Germany. You'll meet young men and women who boldly follow their interest in science in highly competitive academic surroundings such as Louisville's duPont Manual High School or at a school in South Dakota where there are no science labs and the sole competitor for international recognition must be sponsored by the football coach.

Kashfia, a Bangladeshi-American student who's investigating adolescent brain activity as it pertains to risk, is also a Muslim who wears a hijab. She may not be brimming with self-assurance, but the school's football coach recognizes a ferocity in her.

Dr. Serena McCalla, who teaches in Long Island, N.Y., proves a formidable adult presence, pushing her students toward excellence and refusing to accept anything less.

The individual stories all are interesting, but Science Fair deserves extra praise because its young subjects fill us with optimism for the future. I don't know if such positivity will prove entirely warranted, but damn if it didn't feel good to feel positive -- if only for the film's intriguing 90 minutes.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Michael Moore is back in action

Fahrenheit 11/9 fires at many targets, but scores a direct hit on the subject of Flint's tainted water supply.
Michael Moore leaves few stones unturned in his latest movie, Fahrenheit 11/9.

Under Moore's sardonic gaze: the Trump presidency, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., the Democratic party's treatment of Bernie Sanders, and the inability of what Moore views as the country's liberal majority to assert its will.

Put another way: Fahrenheit 11/9 stands as a catalog of current "progressive" laments, as well as a call to action.

Bolstered by a too-brief interview with Yale historian Timothy Snyder, Moore says that our democracy is under siege. No constitutional guarantees will save us from tyranny once it arrives and we may be closer to ruin than we think.

Much of 11/9 will be familiar to those who read the newspapers or watch any cable news channel other than FOX, but the movie includes at least one explanatory observation about the ascendance of Donald Trump that I haven't already heard.

Moore says that Trump decided to run for president in a fit of pique after hearing that NBC was paying Gwen Stafani (The Voice) more than he earned as host of The Apprentice. Make America Great Again was preceded by Make My Deal Better -- at least that's how Moore sees it.

Fahrenheit 11/9 qualifies as several films in one, all loosely related and all pointing to the terrible state in which a deeply polarized country now finds itself.

The strongest section of Fahrenheit 11/9 focuses on the water crisis in Moore's hometown, Flint, Mich. It’s not difficult to feel empathy for and outrage in behalf of Flint’s beleaguered residents who were victimized by their state government and by a Federal bureaucracy that didn’t respond adequately to their problems.

After some ill-advised tinkering created the issue, Rick Snyder, Michigan's Republican governor, refused to alleviate Flint's suffering. He could have switched the source of Flint's water from the polluted Flint River to its previous point of origin, Lake Huron. The result: Too many of Flint's children were subjected to unhealthy amounts of lead. Moore sees this as an assault on the town's mostly black population, a form of ethnic cleansing.

I won’t recount the details of everything that happened and still is happening in Flint, but this portion of the film is enough to justify its existence, and I'm grateful to Moore for putting Flint's story in one accessible place. Moore allows the residents of Flint to tell their stories, keeping his editorializing to a minimum ... well ... almost.

Moore repeats one of his familiar ploys; he visits the state capital in an attempt to make a citizen's arrest of Snyder. He also sprays the grounds of Michigan's governor's mansion with Flint water, hauled to the governor's home in a tanker truck.

In a lengthy film (a little longer than two hours), such prankish gestures seem even more superfluous than usual. Same goes for a montage about Trump's supposed prurient fascination with his daughter Ivanka.

Republicans may not like Moore’s film (certainly Trump fans won’t), but Democrats may be upset as well. Moore makes a point of noting that former President Obama, a politician he admires, visited Flint but didn’t bring the salvation that residents expected — and deserved.

Moore also takes aim at the "Repubicanization" (my word) of the Democratic party under a wily Clinton and an overly cautious Obama. He assigns a share of blame for our current situation to comprising Democrats who have failed to fight for the traditions of the party even though a majority of the country believes in a women's right to choose and affordable health care.

The strong section on Flint is surrounded by satellite stories that touch lots of hot-button issues -- not all convincingly. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who endured a terrible school shooting last February, launched a national campaign against guns: Moore clearly loves their activism and perhaps overestimates their impact.

A segment on the already well-covered West Virginia teachers strike deserved a film of its own.

Moore pushes the idea of an approaching American fascism when he compares Trump to Hitler, using Trump's voice over images of Hitler speaking at one of his rallies. The danger of authoritarianism in the US may be real and comparisons between the US today and Weimar Germany of the 1930s can be instructive, but using Trump's voice over a gesticulating Hitler struck me as a stunt.

Early on, I mentioned that Moore's interview with Timothy Snyder, the author of The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America and On Tyranny; Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century, was too brief.

I say this because those familiar with Snyder's work know that he worries about the future of American democracy as much as Moore but is far more thorough and thought-provoking than a lot of what you'll see in Fahrenheit 11/9.
Moore might defend his approach by asserting that today's dangers are so obvious, so much on the surface, that there's no need to over-analyze. He'd have a point. Besides, he's calling his audience to action, asking viewers to channel their "mad-as-hell" attitudes into political activism; he wants more involvement and more voting.

I'd say that's basic civics dished out in a form that many will find entertaining and provocative; whether Moore's audience will do anything beyond seeing 11/9 and nodding their agreement remains to be seen.

He sang, drank and died young

Ethan Hawke directs a movie about country singer Blaze Foley, a man who may not have gotten his due..
Some musicians play the blues. Some live the blues. Some do both.

I guess you could say that Blaze Foley falls into the latter category. Foley, who acquired an admiring reputation among country music aficionados, probably would have drunk himself into an early grave had he not been shot by the son of one of his friends. He died in 1989 at the age of 40.

An actor of estimable intelligence and wide-ranging interests, Ethan Hawke has directed a film about Foley's life and music, both of which find ample expression in Blaze.

Played by singer Ben Dickey, Foley comes off as a bearish man of contradictions: shy, belligerent, gifted and funny. He can wring laughs out of a folksy story or sell the sadness in a song. Foley was known for tunes such as If I Could Fly and Clay Pigeons; his tunes were recorded by artists such as Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and John Prine.

As a kind of framing device, Hawke shows singer Townes Van Zandt (played by Charlie Sexton) during a radio interview. The interviewer (a barely seen Hawke) receives an unexpected lesson in the history of Blaze Foley, a singer he's never heard of. Then again, lots of people haven't heard of Foley, who never really occupied country music's center stage.

In some ways, then, Blaze becomes the story of a gifted singer/songwriter who could be as charming as he was off-putting. Just about everything Foley did was accompanied by his three most reliable companions: liquor, cigarettes, and pot.

Hawke also spends time on Foley's relationship with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), an actress who wrote a memoir about her life with Blaze. It would take quite a woman to keep up with Blaze and Sybil was that woman -- at least until the relationship fell apart. Early on, the two share their romance while living in a Georgia tree house. They met at a Georgia artists colony.

In one of the movie's funniest scenes, Sybil and Blaze visit her Jewish parents, a couple that's not accustomed to people such as Blaze. Worried about having non-Jewish grandchildren, Dad questions Blaze about his commitment to Christianity. Let's just say Blaze's answer wouldn't have evoked cheers from evangelicals.

The real Rosen plays her mother in this scene as an accommodating Blaze and an assertive Sybil deal with a moment that's awkward under the best of circumstances. If you want to stretch your mind a bit try to imagine Thanksgiving dinner at the Rosen household.

Foley's hardscrabble childhood comes into view when he and Sybil visit Blaze's father, a once-feared man who has slipped into senescence in a nursing home. Kris Kristofferson makes an impact in a small role as Foley's father. Age seems to have taken all the mean out of the man.

The best parts of the movie involve music or plain old hanging out. When they're not playing, the musicians talk, telling stories in colorful fashion. It's a pleasure to listen to these guys.

I wish I could say that I didn't get a little tired of all the movie's meandering but Hawke shows no interest in grabbing us by the collar and pulling us through a movie composed mostly of side trips. In one of them, Richard Linklater, Steve Zahn, and Sam Rockwell play Texans who want to push Foley toward stardom. You don't need to be a fortune teller to know that their plan won't work. Foley will find a way to mess things up.

At one point, Foley says that he's not interested in being a star; he wants to be a legend. I don't know if he became either, but for the length of Hawke's film, he's the center of a sauntering look at the life of a man who other musicians respected, who left the world a few songs and a ton of stories -- many of them quite entertaining.

'Bel Canto' sings a dull tune

For a hostage drama, this Paul Weitz-directed offering proves awfully slack.
Bel Canto is a seriously intended movie that I found impossible to take seriously. Adapted from a 2001 novel by Ann Patchett, Bel Canto tells the story of a celebrated opera singer (Julianne Moore) who visits an unnamed Latin American country to give a private concert. Instead of dispensing with a quick-hit engagement, the singer winds up being held hostage -- along with her affluent audience -- by a band of guerrillas. The country's vice president arranged the concert in hopes of impressing a visiting Japanese industrialist (Ken Watanabe). Watanabe's Hosokawa, an avid opera lover, accepted the invitation even though he had no intention of building the factory for which the vice president had been angling. For its part, the invading band of guerrillas wants the country's president to release all political prisoners. Moore lip-synchs (Renee Fleming did the actual singing), and the hostages and their captors slowly begin to bond as it's revealed that the insurgents are ... well ... not all that bad. Because Hosokawa is obsessed with Moore's character's voice, the leap from the love of music to the love of the singer proves a short one. In a more unlikely romance, one of the rebels (Maria Mercedes Coroy) falls for Hosokawa's multi-lingual translator (Ryo Kase). Sebastian Koch portrays a Red Cross negotiator who's reluctantly thrown into the mix. Once everyone is trapped in the veep's luxurious home, the movie begins to suffer from a claustrophobia that director Paul Weitz can't defeat. What surely should have been tense becomes slack, a limp attempt to sing the praises of art as a means of unifying disparate (and desperate) souls. When the hostages and their captors wind up in an impromptu soccer game before the movie's violent finale, all I could think was that it takes more daring than was available here to save this movie from looking like a cross-cultural summer camp.

Why did Lizzie Borden wield her ax?

Directed by Craig William Macneill, Lizzie showcases the work of Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie Borden, the 19th century Massachusettes woman who purportedly killed her stepmother and father with an ax. Sevigny gives an unnerving performance in which her face can show either rigid determination or the unraveled fury of a woman who has unleashed a terrifying rage. Sevigny's Lizzie finds herself in the middle of a tale of repression so severe, only the most violent assertion can break its hold. Sevigny is aided by Kristen Stewart, who plays Bridget, a diffident Irish maid who works for the Borden family and who becomes Lizzie's lover. Jamey Sheridan exemplifies all the worst qualities of patriarchy; he portrays Andrew Borden, a man of punishing cruelties that may be intended to mask his own sexual desires. Fiona Shaw plays Lizzie's stepmother -- not quite wicked but acquiescent in her husband's sadism. Denis O'Hare portrays uncle John, an unscrupulous facilitator of Mr. Borden's business life. Slowly paced, Lizzie ultimately delivers the bloody goods with a naked Lizzie chopping her way into American criminal lore. Carefully appointed and photographed, Lizzie ultimately suffers from its one-note insistence on turning Lizzie into a warrior against patriarchy. The movie juxtaposes period-piece pacing with a contemporary reading of the Borden story. The mixture doesn't always work, but there's no denying Sivigny's commitment to the role; she cuts through the movie's lumbering pace with a bluntly expressed but towering rage.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A homebody's best friend disappears

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively play a snappy duet in A Simple Favor, a thriller with as much comedy as mystery.
In A Simple Favor, Anna Kendrick plays a woman who's determined to be an ideal mother. Kendrick’s Stephanie Smothers is a widow who immerses herself in her son's pre-school activities and in a cooking vlog that she begins with a trademark greeting that defines her vision of an audience. "Hi, Moms,' she chirps.

Stephanie is the kind of mother who brings out the resentments of parents who aren’t quite so gung-ho about pre-school. She drives less conscientious crazy.

Stephanie gives Kendrick an opportunity to go for laughs while keeping us guessing about whether there might be something less controlled under Stephanie's ultra-organized surface.

At first, I thought Kendrick might be overdoing Stephanie's diffidence, offering a near parodic version of a kid-and-kitchen obsessed suburban mom, but her performance grew on me.

Kendrick finds an able comic accomplice in Blake Lively, who plays Emily a woman whose confidence contrasts mightily with Stephanie's timidity. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) makes it clear from the outset that Emily qualifies as a career-obsessed woman who brings a take-no-prisoners attitude to everything she does. When it comes to being a mom, Emily is ... well ... indifferent to the point of neglect.

The movie opens with Stephanie telling her video blog followers that best-friend Emily has disappeared. Emily left her young son with Stephanie, who picked the kid up from pre-school along with her own son. Emily's husband is tending to his sick mother in London.

Once Emily goes missing, A Simple Favor turns into a jaunty, comic mystery built around events that unfold after Emily vanishes.

Enter Sean (Henry Golding), Emily's husband, a novelist who hasn't published anything for a decade but who lives with Emily in a sleekly modern home that evidently is supported by Emily's work as a high-power PR woman for a fashion firm and by ample amounts of debt. Fresh from Crazy Rich Asians, Golding once again is called upon to be handsome, emotionally vulnerable, charming and, in this case, perhaps a bit devious.

I wish the movie had made more time for Rupert Friend, who plays Dennis Nylon (great name), the taste-arbiter who runs the fashion firm at which Emily ruthlessly plies her PR trade.

In this case, though, it's the women -- Kendrick and Lively -- who give the movie its spark as Stephanie turns into an amateur sleuth. She searches for Emily, gradually learning that her friend might not be all that she seemed. Then again, Stephanie isn't all that she seems, either.

As a mystery, A Simple Favor doesn't always work. Feig offers a big reveal too early and an over-stuffed wrap-up threatens to tie the movie in knots.

But Feig keeps A Simple Favor marching to a snappy cadence. He also includes enough satirical garnish to heighten interest without cutting deep enough to draw blood. That's not a criticism. Feig points the movie in the right direction. Simple Favor never extinguishes its sparkle. It's a good-natured helping of venom.

Drugs and despair in the streets of Detroit

Director Yann Demange grounds White Boy Rick in grim realism.
Illegal gun sales, drugs, gangs, corruption, and injustice.

You can tell from this list, and I've abbreviated it, that the new movie White Boy Rick spends little time traversing feel-good turf. Based on a true story, White Boy Rick plunges into Detroit's economic decay during the free-wheeling 1980s.

White Boy Rick focuses on three tumultuous years in the life of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) as he moves from a being a wayward 14-year-old with a father (Matthew McConaughey) who traffics in illegal guns to a cocaine peddler to an FBI informant and, finally, to his inevitable identity: prisoner.

In telling Rick's story, director Yann Demange pushes McConaughey into more of a supporting role than you might expect. This time, McConaughey plays a dirtbag hustler with a difference. Richard Wershe Sr. lacks the charm of some of the rogues McConaughey previously has played.

Aware of his mammoth failures as a father, Richard knows he has nothing to give his son, but the tricks of an illegal trade. McConaughey's performance hints at a sad self-awareness that borders on the tragic.

As Demange tells Rick's story, the movie evokes the ragged, jittery style of the '70s, chopping its way through lives that would be utterly empty if not for trouble.

Early on, Ricky falls in with a group of black drug dealers led by Johnny Curry (a quietly scary Jonathan Majors). Johnny's younger brother Boo (RJ Cyler), Ricky's only real friend, brings Ricky into a gang in which he's the only white guy.

For a time, it's all fun and games as Ricky finds friends and family-like ties among a group of black men who have connections to City Hall. Finally, Rick belongs to something -- or thinks he does.

Meanwhile -- and White Boy Rick is a movie of many "meanwhiles" -- Rick's sister Dawn (Bel Powley) wallows in a drug-addicted life that brings her to the edge of physical ruin. Ravaged by crack, her face seems to be rotting right along with Detroit's declining industrial landscape.

Ricky also draws the attention of two FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) who want Ricky to help them bring Johnny down. Ricky's given an impossible choice: Either he informs for the FBI or the FBI will shut down his father's illegal gun business. Family ties win out.

Some of the movie's scenes are given a humorous twist -- few greater than the movie's prologue which finds father and son arriving home from a successful buy at a gun show trying to convince the drug-addicted Dawn to accompany them for frozen custard, a ludicrous and inevitably futile stab at familial normalcy.

But harsh realities overshadow humor, even when it comes from Ricky's grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie). Grandma keeps a pistol in her oven.

Merritt, who has no previous acting experience, gives a raw, natural performance as a kid who never entirely sells out his innocence. When Rick begs his father to join him in the drug business, he's not so much acting the thug as pleading for the life of his family and the ability to sustain it the only way he knows.

White Boy Rick isn't a perfect movie, perhaps because it never entirely convinces us that there's anything major to be gained from watching these characters fall prey to their devastated environment. Still, there's something to be said for movies that insist on shining realistic light on society's margins.

White Boy Rick makes a last-minute attempt to criticize the justice system that ultimately betrays Ricky, but the feeling one draws from the movie has less to do with rage at judicial inequity than with the bone-deep despair that stems from watching so many lives swirl desperately before going down the drain.

Nicolas Cage and a warrior's revenge

Horror, comedy and blood mix in Mandy, a movie designed to unhinge.
Mandy is the kind of movie that has enlivened the cinematic fringe for years, a repulsive, funny, deadpan helping of horror and revenge that pushes Nicolas Cage -- already a master of violent action -- into terrain so soaked in blood it could support a thousand transfusions.

Director Panos Cosmatos's penchant for extremism matches Cage's and the result is a movie that's likely to amuse, unhinge and terrify those willing to take its nightmarish journey.

A sporadic use of animation and dream sequences thwart any sense of realism as the movie feeds off Cage's ability to turn minimal bits of dialogue into grim jokes. I'm guessing that Cosmatos wants us to see his movie as a grisly fable, as well as an in-joke for those with enough movie savvy to know the ground rules of this sort of febrile expression.

Set in the 1980s, the movie begins by introducing a couple living in isolation in the northwestern woods. Cage's wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) seems to have adjusted to life off the grid. But the couple's crazy quilt of a home suggests an inherent lack of stability.

Sure enough, Mandy soon is abducted by the followers of Jeremiah, a wacko cult leader (Linus Roach) who thinks he's touch with a divine voice; the voice tells him that the world is his, which means he has license to kidnap women and turn them into sexual partners. Jeremiah's thinks his lust is holy.

Drugged but unsubmissive, Riseborough's Mandy quickly falls victim to terror. She's stuffed into a burlap sack that's hung from a tree and set on fire. Cage's Red -- strung up, as well -- is forced to watch. Red, however, is left alive.

At this point, the movie uncorks a potent bottle of revenge that features a fearsome looking ax that Red forges like a blacksmith called to battle characters who have embraced their madness.

Energized by currents of unbearable pain, Red turns into a warrior who emerges from a roll in the muck with humanity's darkest impulses. Red moves along a near-mythic trajectory, facing one demonic character after another until he reaches the movie's dark center.

Imagery saturated in red (everything in this world seems blood-soaked) abets the stroboscopic forward motion Costmatos creates as does Cage's performance; as a man fired and numbed by grief, Red comes across as both comic and tragic, a goof that just might not be a joke. When Red stares at the camera, his eyes glow like dark coals. Is he looking evil straight in the eye or catching a glimpse of his own damaged soul?

I hope I've already made the point clear, but just in case: Mandy is not for the squeamish or for those who have no taste for exaggerated, graphically depicted horror. I also wondered whether Cosmatos had decided to name his movie Mandy to shred any memories of the Barry Manilow song with the same title, a bit of pop culture that derives from a whole other universe.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

'Peppermint': a kickless revenge saga

Jennifer Garner plays a character out for revenge, but a female star can't mask Peppermint's shamefully derivative approach.
Jennifer Garner's performance proves impressively convincing as a woman with a sparkling sense of humor and an obvious concern for the welfare of her audience, a pleasant variation of the girl-next-door image that seems to have taken over the actress's career.

Unfortunately, I'm not talking about the new movie Peppermint, a revenge saga in which the actress has been cast in the kind of role that's usually slotted for men. I'm referring instead to Garner's work in a series of Capital One Venture commercials in which Garner wonders what card might be in our wallets.

In Peppermint, Garner might still be playing the girl next door, but she's the kind of girl next door who happens to have acquired the stealthy prowess of a ninja, the lethality of a serial killer and the determination of Liam Neeson when he's in full Taken mode. No surprise there because in this lurid outing, Garner is being directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed Taken.

Gratuitously violent and ultimately serving as an irresponsible endorsement of vigilantism, Peppermint can't duck criticism by claiming that its formulaic approach should be accepted as a necessary helping of female empowerment. Man or woman at pulling the trigger, it's the same old movie.

Early on, Peppermint puts its bloody cards on the table: Garner's Riley North, her husband, and her daughter are gunned down -- on her daughter's tenth birthday and at a Christmas festival no less. Talk about piling on.

Riley's husband had become the target of a drug cartel, members of which mistakenly thought he was involved in a plot to steal some of their money.

After the legal system fails Riley, the only surviving member of her family, she disappears for five years, a time on which I'm not sure the movie devotes five minutes. Riley re-emerges as a warrior who somehow has acquired the skills necessary to avenge her family's horrible demise.

Garner gives her all to a movie in which her character tortures and blows up a judge (corrupt, of course), wields a mean knife and subscribes to a theory that that raises the ante on the old saw about an eye-for-an-eye. In Riley's case, one eye seems to be worth a hundred eyes. She piles up a war-like body count.

Most of Riley's victims seem to be fierce-looking Hispanic men with enough tattoos to cover a wall. I won't say which wall, but did so many Latino people need to be blown away?

There are two ways in which a movie such as Peppermint could have succeeded. First, it could have made us complicit in Riley's hunger for revenge; i.e., it could have induced us to share the satisfaction that accrues from seeing obvious miscreants brought to justice. Peppermint doesn't offer even this pleasure, guilt-ridden as it might be.

A surer road to success has to do with style. When the wave of Hong Kong movies from masters such as John Woo (Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled) were making their international bones in the 1980s and early '90s, they brought wild creativity to the choreography of violence. American descendants include such recent movies as John Wick.

Morel brings little by way of twisted panache to the movie's ample violence, which is presented without much by way of directorial innovation.

The supporting cast includes John Ortiz as an LA cop, John Gallagher Jr. as another detective and Juan Pablo Raba as head of the drug cartel. Each of these characters has his own reason for wanting to corral Riley, an avenging angel who has been lionized by Los Angeles' homeless and on social media.

This isn't a case in which there's reason to fault any performance. Blame the movie's shamelessly derivative plot, its joyless overkill and a blatant end-of-picture suggestion that sequels may loom.

Perhaps naively, we expect an uplift from summer movie fatigue come September. Labor Day may have passed, but with Peppermint, the dog days continue. Peppermint, an ice cream flavor for which Riley's daughter fleetingly expresses fondness, may add flavor to desserts and chewing gum; it doesn't do much for this movie.

A portrait of man who took portraits

Socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt, is credited with having uttered the now famous line, "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me." Longworth probably would have loved sitting next to photographer Cecil Beaton, the subject of Love, Cecil, a documentary by director Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Beaton, who died in 1980 at the age of 76, led a life that brought him into contact with the successful, the famous and the beautiful; he loved and loathed the people in his life with equal passion. Openly gay and in possession of a stunning gift for portraiture, Beaton eventually went to work for Conde Nast. He was a star at Vogue until an anti-Semitic reference appeared in one of his drawings (yes, he drew, as well). He eventually righted the foundering ship of his career, which included activities as various as becoming a war photographer during World War II and later serving as art director for movies such Gigi and My Fair Lady. Rupert Everett delivers a narration in the form of some of Beaton's writings, taking us inside the mind of a man whose name may not be well-known to many, thus allowing the movie to make an inadvertent comment on the fleeting nature of fame: Beaton, by the way, won four Tonys and three Oscars. Those who enjoy caustic wit will relish Beaton's trashing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as his withering remarks about Katharine Hepburn. But he loved Greta Garbo and may have had a sexual relationship with her. Juicy gossip aside (and there's plenty in Love, Cecil), Vreeland's documentary introduces us to the work of a man who wrote, took pictures, designed and drew -- and did all of these with skill and a well-honed aesthetic.

She's the afterthought in his life

Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close play husband and wife in The Wife.
The complicated relationship between a husband and wife moves to the forefront of The Wife, Swedish director Bjorn Runge's adaptation of a 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer. The movie centers on the Castlemans, a couple brought to convincing life by Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close.

When the movie begins, Pryce's Joe Castleman is awaiting word on whether he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. He does and the movie then shifts to Oslo, Norway where Joe, his wife and his grown son (Max Irons) have gone to celebrate Joe's success.

Of course, that's not the end of the story, but only the beginning of a slow revelation of the secret behind Joe's literary triumph. For those unfamiliar with the story, I'll say no more except to note that Close's Joan Castleman seems to have taken responsibility for every mundane aspect of Joe's exalted life, tasks she carries out despite Joe's penchant for philandering.

As events in Oslo unfold, Runge shows us flashbacks to various stages of the couple's relationship, which began when Joe, married to someone else at the time, taught writing at the college level. Joan (played as a young woman by Close's real-life daughter Anne Starke) was one of his prize students. At the time -- the 1950s -- prospects for emerging female writers seemed dim and Joan sacrificed her talent on the altar of Joe's ego.

Importantly, the movie shows us that Joan, though definitely exploited, was complicit in her fate. For reasons of her own, she loyally subordinated herself to Joe's ambitions. No one can do such a thing without paying a price, and Joan's resentments ripple through Close's finely tuned performance.

For his part, Pryce conveys the egotism and occasional cruelty of a famous Jewish-American writer. His relationship with his son, an aspiring author, reeks of authoritarianism and neglect. Joe isn't kind when talking about his son's writing, disguising his lack of compassion as an insistence on high standards.

Strong hints of threatening disclosures run throughout the movie. Christian Slater plays a wily journalist who has been trying for years to write Joe's biography. He wants Joan to help him topple Joe from his throne, a lofty perch built on the pile of critically acclaimed books the author has published.

Despite building toward an inevitable showdown between Joe and Joan, The Wife never quite feels revelatory. But Pryce and Close add undeniable polish to this peek into literary lives -- both fulfilled and wasted.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A haunted study of ambition and class

The Little Stranger proves absorbing yet the movie ultimately fails to satisfy.
In reviewing Sarah Walters' novel, The Little Stranger, the British newspaper The Guardian noted that the author "operates in the queasy borderlands between the supernatural and the psychological" and that Waters navigates this territory with "supreme ease." The same could be said of the big-screen adaptation of Waters' 2009 novel -- at least for a while.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) delivers a carefully constructed, meticulously acted and deliberately paced movie that ultimately fails to sharpen any of its potentially resonant themes. Both a ghost story and a view of a crumbling British class structure after World War II, Little Stranger creates significant interest but fails to build toward a totally rewarding payoff.

Domhnall Gleeson portrays Dr. Faraday, a physician who's summoned to a dilapidated country estate to look into the illness of 14-year-old Betty (Liv Hill), a teenager who serves the once wealthy Ayres family. Turns out Faraday had been to the estate as a boy in 1902; i.e. before its glory had begun to fade.

Slowly, Faraday's fascination with the decaying estate emerges; to him, the place, though rundown, still represents ascendance into a class that he has been forced to observe only from the outside and to which he very much aspires.

As the movie develops, Faraday immerses himself in the lives of the Ayres family. Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) has returned from the war, his body badly burned and his spirit scarred; Mrs. Ayes (Charlotte Rampling) does her best to maintain the appearances of the family's former stature; and Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) attempts to run the place.

Perhaps seeing her as a gateway to this aristocratic paradise, Dr. Faraday pursues Caroline in what surely qualifies as one of the screen's least romantic love stories.

All the while, paranormal occurrences (banging, clattering and strange scrawl on walls) appear, suggesting that the house is occupied by a malevolent presence that's intent on destroying the family. As the purported rationalist in the crowd, Gleeson portrays Faraday with an expressionless, steady hand that's a trifle boring. Wilson, who knows how to create interest and ambiguity, portrays a woman with an odd, lumbering walk and a fondness for corduroy pants.

Abrahamson presents the story in a quiet way that some viewers (myself included) may find absorbing. But roughly three-quarters of the way through The Little Stranger, it's difficult not to begin hoping that a narrative kick in the pants will provide something resembling satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the movie drifts away, creating anticipation that remains mostly unfulfilled.

It's not relative: 'Kin' is a misfire

I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to make a movie about a 14-year-old kid who acquires a super-charged weapon and then takes a road trip with his ex-con brother and a stripper. I guess the ignominy rests on the shoulders of the Baker Brothers (Jonathan and Josh), siblings who have expanded their short film Bag Man into a feature that's tainted by bad judgment. Likable young Myles Truitt may have a future as an actor, but even if he were an emerging Olivier, he couldn't turn this cinematic folly into something worthwhile. Truitt plays Eli, the adopted son of a gruff Detroit widower (Dennis Quaid). When Eli's ex-convict stepbrother (Jack Reyner) shows up, the family is sucked into the orbit of a vicious low-life criminal (James Franco in full over-drive mode). Zoe Kravitz's character enters the movie when Rayner's Jimmy takes his younger brother to a strip club as part of their road adventures. The brothers are trying to get away from Franco's character, a vengeful thug who killed their father during a robbery Jimmy arranged in order to pay off a $60,000 debt. Now about that super-weapon: Early on, Eli is scavenging in an abandoned factory when he discovers a weapon that's about the size of an AR-15. The "ray gun" (as Jimmy eventually refers to it) was left by armor-clad figures who fight a battle during the movie's prologue. Are these strange combatants aliens from another world? The movie, which flirts with sci-fi, answers this question during its finale by hammering an explanation onto the already overamped action. Carrie Coon shows up in the latter going as an FBI agent, adding to a viewer's sense of disorientation. (By viewer, I mean me.) What's a fine actress doing in this misbegotten misfire? Sometimes a movie goes wrong here and there, but you pretty much understand what the filmmakers were after. Kin goes wrong almost from the start. Trying to treat a 14-year-old's visit to a strip club as a fun adventure (at least for a while) and then allowing the same kid to blast away at various foes shatters any sense of propriety the movie might have had. Shameful.

A small but intriguing 'Bookshop'

It has taken some time, but Penelope Fitzgerald's 1978 novel, The Bookshop, finally has made it to the screen. Spanish director Isabel Coixet (Learning to Drive) casts Emily Mortimer as a widower who opens a bookstore in an English shore town in 1959. The town's establishment -- led by the smiling but arch-tempered Violet (Patricia Clarkson) -- opposes the shop. Violet wants to see the house where Mortimer's Florence opens her bookstore converted into a local arts center. A reclusive resident (Bill Nighy) emerges as Florence's principal customer. In a role that mixes humor with deep sadness, Nighy creates a memorable portrait of a man whose life is steeped in regret. Mortimer handles her role with pluck and intelligence. Honor Kneafsey appears as the opinionated schoolgirl who earns after-school money as Florence's helper. Florence's support for Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita further annoys Violet, reminding us how controversial that novel was when first published. The Bookshop pays the expected homage to writing, reading and literature, but avoids the trap of becoming a celebration of one woman's dream. Instead, Coixet enfolds the story in a series of betrayals and power moves, all presented without undue melodrama. It may be slightly pejorative to call The Bookshop a little movie, but the label fits; it's small like the seaside town in which its set, but it's far from idyllic in outlook -- and that's its saving grace.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

How Israeli agents captured Eichmann

Operation Finale proves a routine movie about a less-than-routine subject.
I was a teenager when the trial of Adolf Eichmann was televised in the US, I believe via videotape. I remember watching as the architect of Holocaust efficiency, looking as nondescript as a conventioneer at a gathering of insurance agents, sat inside a glass booth in a packed Israeli courtroom.

In his captivity, Eichmann no longer seemed like a fearsome member of Hitler's SS. He twisted his mouth in various directions. He took notes. He sometimes looked bored or indifferent. It was easy to see why Hanna Arendt, who wrote the landmark book Eichmann in Jerusalem, came to see Eichmann as a representative of the "banality of evil," an overused phrase that has been much disputed recently.

In his final days, the man who had arranged the deaths of millions looked like nothing more than a peculiar specimen, Nazism under glass.

Now comes Operation Finale, a movie that tells the story of how agents from the Mossad and Shin Bet discovered Eichmann in Argentina, apprehended him and brought him to Israel for a trial. Ben Kingsley portrays Eichmann and, no, I didn’t entirely buy him the role.

The gifted Kingsley is by no means terrible, but I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that I was watching him take on qualities of Eichmann that might have been glimpsed from watching YouTube videos of his trial and from reading. Kingsley shows flashes of anger and irritation, even an outburst of cruel arrogance. But it struck me that Kingsley, an actor of enormous technical precision, is interpreting Eichmann, not inhabiting him.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with Operation Finale. Director Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) gives Eichmann's capture a play-by-play treatment that’s mirrored in the surprisingly unsurprising performance of Oscar Isaac, who portrays Peter Malkin, one of the agents who brought Eichmann to Israel. The mission to capture Eichmann was bold and daring, qualities Weitz's dutifully rendered account seldom matches.

Eichmann’s presence in Argentina was discovered when a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) met Eichmann’s grown son (Joe Alwyn). Richardson's character was Jewish; her father was a Holocaust survivor. She knew what to do with information about Eichmann despite the fact she had genuine feelings for Eichmann’s son.

It turns out that Eichmann’s son, who claimed that his father was dead, was heavily involved with the numerous Nazis and their Argentine enablers who had taken refuge in Argentina after the war. Meetings of these unrepentant Nazis constitute one of the movie's more harrowing elements.

The members of the group that captures Eichmann, some of whom lost relatives during the Holocaust, must restrain their personal feelings and conquer any impulse toward vengeance. Most of them would have been happy to put a bullet in the Nazi’s head.

But the Israelis, particularly prime minister David Ben-Gurion, understood the value of putting Eichmann on trial: It would allow him to be judged by his Jewish accusers and would put Holocaust crimes on display for a world that wasn’t terribly well-informed about them.

In order to smuggle Eichmann out of Argentina, the Israelis planned to disguise him as an El Al crew member and slip him on an airplane. He’d be drugged and passed off as a crew member who had had too much to drink. For obscure reasons involving extradition law, the airline required a signature from Eichmann saying that he was willingly being brought to Israel for trial -- at least that's how the movie tells it.

Obtaining this signature becomes a central issue, shrinking the movie to play-on-film size. In a safe house in Buenos Aires, the Israelis try to persuade Eichmann to put pen to paper so that they can scurry him out of Argentina. Isaac's Malkin believes he knows how to obtain the signature and get on with the mission. Can he outfox a fox?

By the time the film reaches Israel, the screenplay suggests that Malkin, who lost a sister and her children to the Nazis, has achieved a bit of closure.

Eichmann was hanged in 1962, but his trial and punishment couldn't possibly measure up to the enormity of his crimes. Though essential, the punishment of individual perpetrators of genocide arrives without emotional release. It would take another film to bring us face-to-face with such confounding moral horror, one that didn't so often feel like a diligent re-enactment of real events.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A second helping of 'Papillon'

Gritty detail and grim realism may not be enough to justify another version of a familiar story.

The unavoidable question that haunts any viewing of the new movie Papillon falls squarely on the shoulders of the 1973 movie of the same name. That movie that told the gripping story of one man's attempts to escape the torment and terror of a penal colony located in French Guiana. Could anyone pull off a second helping?

The 1973 movie starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in what then seemed like odd-couple casting.

McQueen was a movie star with a well-defined big-screen persona; Hoffman was an actor with a capital “A.” We went to McQueen's movies to watch a cool, emotionally contained hero dominate the screen; we watched Hoffman's work to see an avid actor dig his way into the characters he played.

Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. and directed by Franklin Schaffner, the 1973 movie created a commercial splash.

The 2018 version of Papillon doesn’t generate the same kind of excitement and probably couldn’t. When the first movie arrived, the wave of new technologies — from VCRs to streaming — was still waiting in the wings. Movies seemed bigger, less disposable.

So why, in a time of movie abundance (at least in terms of numbers of releases), remake a movie that already did the job of introducing American audiences to Henri Charriere; a.k.a., Papillon, and Louis Dega, two French criminals who served time in a sweltering prison hell in South America?

Danish director Michael Noer answers the question by amping up the movie's grit and cruelty, probably to heighten its raw authenticity. His movie sweats and brutalizes.

Charriere, the McQueen character now played by Charlie Hunnam, gives the movie its sinew and drive. Wrongly convicted of murder in 1931, Charriere receives a life sentence. En route to the prison, he meets Dega, the Hoffman role now played by Rami Malek. A forger by trade, Dega has enough money to ease some of Guiana's pain. Prisoners could buy their way onto better work details, for example.

Understanding this, Charriere, bereft of financial resources, offers to protect the weaker Dega from the prison’s many predators. The two develop an uneasy relationship.

The authenticity of Charriere’s account has been questioned, but his story stands as a tribute to the unbreakable will of a man who refuses to be crushed. Charriere, who wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, never relinquishes his hope for escape, to free himself from the choking burdens of stupid authority.

Hunnam, last seen in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, and Malek, of TV’s Mr. Robot, may not generate the box-office heat once sparked by McQueen and Hoffman, but both are good. They fully embrace the movie's challenges: weight loss, punishing fights and sustained reaction to a fear-drenched climate.

The movie devotes much its time to depicting the sadism that prevailed in French Guiana, delivered at the hands of both prisoners and guards. Escapes were greeted with years in solitary. Those deemed murderers were executed by guillotine while the assembled prisoners were forced to watch.

Though more harrowingly detailed than the first installment, this new Papillon still tells the same basic story as the 1973 movie and, as a result, can’t help but surrender some of its power. Put another way: An inescapable aroma of redundancy limits this credible but exhausting edition.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Puppets, profanity and a shortage of movie

Muppet-like puppets go crude in Happytime Murders.
If you've ever had a desire to see Muppet-like puppets talk dirty, you may find a few laughs in The Happytime Murders, a production of Henson Alternative and director Brian Henson (son of the late Jim Henson). The Happytime Murders quickly reveals itself as a kind of crude Judd Apatow wannabe, a comic helping of noir that's trying way too hard to wring laughs from the incongruity between puppets and profanity. Set in a fantasy version of LA, where puppets and humans live in uneasy proximity, the story centers on former LAPD puppet detective Phil Philips (Bill Barretta). Early on, Phil, now working as a private investigator, takes a case brought to him by a ludicrously oversexed blonde puppet (Dorien Davies). The movie centers on Phil's efforts to discover who's bumping off the cast of a defunct puppet TV show -- The Happytime Gang. With the show about to go into syndication, there's money at stake. Oddly, the best work in the movie comes from the human cast. As an LAPD detective who once served as Phil's partner, Melissa McCarthy brings snap to the snide insults she trades with Phil. Maya Rudolph has an equally nice turn as Bubbles, Phil's secretary. Elizabeth Banks turns up as the only human member of the Happytime Gang cast. A major sight gag involves puppet sex and prolonged ejaculation, which should give you a clue about the level of humor. What's missing? A level of sophistication that might have turned Happytime into something more worthy. As it stands, watching the cotton innards blasted out of puppet murder victims doesn't exactly serve as wry commentary on movie violence. Look, there's nothing much to say about Happytime Murders other than to tell you that there are a couple of laughs and not much else to fill a 90-minute running time. If you go, stay for the end credits, which show how the movie's puppets were integrated into a human world.

These waitresses have spunk

Support the girls ably mixes comedy and desperation
Regina Hall of Girls Trip lands a welcome leading role in Support the Girls, a comedy set in a Texas restaurant called Double Whammies. I don’t know if the two Whammies are meant to suggest boobs and butts, but the movie makes no secret of the fact that the scantily clad waitresses of Double Whammies are as much of an attraction as the burgers and brews.

Playing Lisa, the restaurant's manager, Hall functions as an exasperated mother hen who cares about the young women who work for her. Early on, Lisa organizes a car wash to pay for the defense of one of her employees, a young woman who faces legal difficulties after running over her abusive boyfriend.

A bit of sad, self-awareness underlies Hall’s performance. Older than the women who work for her, Lisa knows that she no longer can compete when it comes to turning the heads of her leering customers, a group of men that she keeps in check with a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment.

Setting the story over a single day in Lisa’s hectic life, director Andrew Bujalksi gives us plenty of atmosphere and lots of colorful characters; the spunky Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and Danielle (Shayna McHayle) make the biggest impressions in an ensemble of cheeky (no pun intended) young actress who compose the movie's impromptu sisterhood.

If Bujalksi had been looking for an alternate title for his movie, he might have tried Lisa’s Very Bad Day. His screenplay follows Lisa through a series of catastrophes — small and large: an attempted burglary at the restaurant, an argument with her boss (James Le Gros) and an incident that suggests irreconcilable differences with her a husband (Lawrence Varnado), a guy who spends his most of his day staring at a computer screen.

Informal and sassy, Support the Girls might have looked like a pilot for a sitcom, but Bujalski obviously feels for these characters. He understands the indignities that lurk in their workplace, as well as the collegial support it takes to keep from surrendering to them.

Some of Double Whammies' customers may want to objectify the restaurant’s waitresses, but Bujalski never does. He keeps them funny without sacrificing their humanity.