Thursday, August 16, 2018

A boy and a wolf develop a strong bond

Alpha does a decent job as a prehistoric adventure with an emotional core.

Alpha tells the story of a boy and his dog . . . er ...I mean a boy and his wolf . . . er ... make that a wolf that’s morphing into a dog.

Set in Europe 20,000 years ago, Alpha introduces us to a small tribe of hunters struggling to survive at the end of the Ice Age. The tribe has a leg up on other movie residents of pre-history: These tribesmen already know how to start fires. They wear clothing made from animal hides. They speak a language that seems reasonably well developed. (Promotional material for the movie says the language was created for Alpha.)

Food remains a problem. Each year, the men of the tribe set out on a hunt for steppe bison, beasts that will help them make it through the brutally cold winters.

The hunt also provides a testing ground for the tribe's young men. Do they measure up? Will they prove themselves able to close the deal when it came to killing for food?

Directed by Albert Hughes, who with his brother made the great 1990s film, Menace II Society, Alpha focuses on young Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man who must make the transition from boyhood to manhood. Keda’s mother (Natassia Malthe) worries that the Keda has more heart than killer instinct, but his father (Johannes Haukur Johanneson) pushes the boy, offering him some Darwinian advice: Life is for the strong. Dad wants Keda to emerge as a leader.

Full of raw imagery and gripping action, Alpha includes a heart-pounding scene in which the men of the tribe close in on a herd of bison. In the ensuing stampede, Keda is thrown off a cliff and left for dead on a ledge from which there appears to be no escape.

I won't say more, but Keda manages to revive himself and then tries to return home. The adventurer’s journey gives Alpha a tried-and-true storyline. The hero must battle long odds to return to the place where the story began.

Along the way, Keda develops a relationship with a wolf, a wounded animal that slowly makes the transition from foe to friend. Keda names the wolf “Alpha.” Alpha learns to help Keda hunt and also provides the boy with companionship. The young man and wolf develop mutually beneficial dependencies.

Ample use of CGI helps Hughes deliver the adventure goods in a movie that doesn’t skimp on sights that might put you off your popcorn, eating maggots, for example.

Quibbles? Many. The men look a bit too clean for their historical moment and their use of language seems overly advanced. Early on, Keda’s mom talks about how much she loves her son. I couldn't help but wonder what the word "love" might mean in the Ice Age anyway?

Young Keda also complains about the odor of some of the characters, something you'd think he'd have gotten used to in this pre-deodorized age.

For all that, Hughes works to create a convincing natural environment, creating a feeling for a time when darkness really was dark and the sky brimmed with twinkling stars. He captures some of the mystery of an encounter with nature that has been lost to progress.

I wouldn’t call Alpha a classic and I can’t keep myself from sometimes chuckling at prehistoric dramas featuring men who have been groomed to look as if they’ve never seen a mirror without totally persuading us that these same men haven’t just arrived fresh from a make-up trailer.

Still, Alpha succeeds in blending a simple and affecting story with lots of action. It's a reasonable exercise of imagination -- if not an entirely convincing one -- about the time when our enduring bonds with dogs began.

Jigsaw puzzles and skateboards

Kelly Macdonald gives Puzzle its center.
Kelly Macdonald, who made a major impression on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, scores in Puzzle as a housewife living a drab life with her garage-owning husband (David Denman) and her two teen-age sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams). As the only person in the house who's happy, Dad can't seem to understand why everyone else doesn't share his contentment. A movie such as Puzzle isn't exactly shrouded in mystery: We know that Macdonald's Agnes is due for some break-out moves. She begins to find her voice when she discovers that she's a whiz at assembling jigsaw puzzles. She sees patterns where others see chaos. When Agnes travels to New York City to buy puzzles, she notices a note on the bulletin board of a game store. Turns out a wealthy investor (Irrfan Khan) is searching for a partner to enter a doubles jigsaw contest. Not everything Agnes does to break a mold defined by her Catholicism and convention feels credible, but Macdonald's tentative, slowly emerging performance gives the film a strong center. Based on a 2010 Argentinian film Rompecabezas, Puzzle employs a fine cast that's a bit let down by a story that never quite peaks. Still, director Marc Turtletaub respects the performances, which are all first rate and Puzzle tallies a distinct — if minor — victory.

An authentic look at world of skateboarding. Is that enough?

Skate Kitchen immerses us in the world of teenage girls who live in and help define skateboard culture. Director Crystal Moselle, who directed the fine documetary Wolfpack, gives her movie lots of authenticity, building her story around Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a skateboarder who's frequently at odds with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Mom thinks her daughter should find something better to do with her time than use Manhattan as a skateboard playground by latching on to the back of trucks or sliding down banisters, for example. Maybe Mom is right: Early on, Camille is "credit-carded," a phrase referring to what happens when an errant skateboard lands in a boarder's crotch. Moselle spends more time developing the skateboard scene than she does with a plot that ultimately finds Camille establishing a relationship with a boy (Jaden Smith) who once dated one of her skating buddies (Dede Lovelace). Frankly, I'm a little tired of movies steeped in teen culture, even when it's presented with a degree of realism that makes the movie feel as if it might have been derived from a documentary. I've read that the cast includes many non-actors, young women from something known as the Skate Kitchen Collective. A documentary about them might have been just as revealing as this meandering feature.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Obligation vs. love in 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel arrives on screen boasting a staggering level of glamor.
At one point in Crazy Rich Asians, the unashamedly lavish adaptation of author Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel, an affluent resident of Singapore encourages his son to eat his dinner by telling him that children are starving in America.

With a single joke -- casually delivered by Ken Jeong -- the movie signals a global reversal of fortune. Forget American prosperity. Asia is not only on the rise, it already has risen. Take that white people.

That's the closest we get to satire in Crazy Rich Asians, a movie so preposterously glamorous, it manages to go beyond fantasy into a material nirvana in which consumption is abundant, conspicuous and treated as an irrevocable birthright of the movie's rich second-generation Asians.

Rather than lampooning the capitalist devotions of the impossibly wealthy residents of Singapore -- a city that couldn't be any more invitingly displayed than it is by director Jon Chu -- Crazy Rich Asian turns into the year's most beautifully appointed rom-com: Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of an American economic professor (Constance Wu) who falls in love with the favored son (Henry Golding) of a wealthy Singapore-based family before she knows that Golding's Nick Young is rich enough to buy half of New York.

The story embarks on its journey when Nick invites Wu's Rachel Chu to travel with him from New York to Singapore for his best friend's wedding. She doesn't know that Nick not only has model-quality looks but belongs to one of Singapore's wealthiest families. He's not just another guy; he's a walking conglomerate.

Of course, Nick's best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) also is fashion-plate handsome, evidently a requirement for the movie's casting director who has populated Crazy Rich Asians with some of the best-looking people in the world.

After arriving in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians gets down to business: A down-to-earth young woman finds herself at sea amid Singapore's snobby, closed-minded rich. Her main adversary: Nick's mother, played with steely determination by Michelle Yeoh.

Yeoh's Eleanor Young disdains the American notion of personal fulfillment, preferring to hoist a banner of family sacrifice. She believes only fierce loyalty can elevate a family into the modern equivalent of royalty. She favors alliances, not love. In Eleanor's view, Rachel just doesn't bring enough to the table to deserve a marriage to Nick.

All that sounds serious, but the movie's issues emerge amid an ornate comic brocade that features a scene-stealing performance by rapper Awkwafina, who plays a young woman who attended college with Rachel and now lives in Singapore. Her family is well off but has yet to reach the imperial level of the Youngs. She's the sassy best friend who loves penetrating Singapore's wealthy circles but who also understands the absurdity that defines snobbery. Her character has bubble-bursting appeal.

The characters are a well-represented bunch of skin-deep socialites -- some of whom seem more interested in spending wealth than in protecting it. Nico Santos portrays a gay man with a keenly developed fashion sense. Jimmy O. Yang plays one of Nick's hard-partying pals, a guy rich enough to throw Nick's bachelor party by renting a container ship and turning it into a nightclub.

One of Nick's cousins -- Gemma Chan's Astrid -- has become successful in her own right; Astrid registers as an ambitious woman whose marriage has hit a rough patch. She and Yeoh give the movie a welcome bit of dramatic weight.

Wu makes a fine female lead and Golding, who never has acted before, looks the part. Expecting to find hard-core realism in a movie such as Crazy Rich Asians qualifies as a lost cause. Still, the movie already has been hailed as something of a landmark, the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since 1993's Joy Luck Club brought author Amy Tan's novel to the screen. It's too early to say what impact the movie will have on future Hollywood production. Keep your eye on box office receipts for a clue.

At times, Crazy Rich Asians is so unashamedly shallow that you almost marvel at its chutzpah (not a Chinese word). Nowhere is this more evident than in a wedding scene in which the bride walks down a water-flooded aisle to reach the waiting bridegroom. I laughed; some of the audience at a preview screening sighed. Take your pick.

The screenplay -- credited to Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim -- includes the requisite number of bitchy lines delivered by the women who envy Rachel's success at snagging the story's prize male. Chu hasn't neglected the reliable tropes of the rom-com formula; he embraces them and uses them to give the movie a comfortable familiarity.

Crazy Rich Asians may not be a great movie (or even a particularly good one) but watching it feels like taking that luxury vacation that the starving people of America couldn't possibly afford. Think of it as a trip to a cinematic spa in the company of some of the world's best dressed and most attractive people.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

A black cop infiltrates the KKK

In BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee tells an incredible true story about American racism.
As is the case with every state in America's often wobbly union, Colorado has no shortage of shameful racist history. In the 1920s and 1930s, Denver’s mayor — Ben Stapleton — was a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, as were other notable public figures in the state. The controversy over Stapleton's Klan affiliation continues: Some argue that Denver's Stapleton neighborhood, built on the site of the old Stapleton International Airport, should be renamed.

But Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman -- set in Colorado Springs -- doesn't derive its power exclusively from the state's shameful past. In telling the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black Colorado Springs detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, Lee turns a glaring spotlight on a moment that has relevance in the deeply troubled present. Post Charlottesville, it's no longer possible -- if it ever has been -- to give hate-group activities the security of historical shelter.

No stranger to controversy, Lee can be both a cinematic agitator and a gifted filmmaker. Often he’s both — and in the same movie. He's able to mix the stark strokes of agitprop with softer dramatic tones; he can allow for nuance and humor or he can ignore dramatic shading entirely. The approach makes sense when Lee works in areas in which clear racial lines are drawn, the most famous example being Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing, now 29 years old.

With BlacKkKlansman — co-written by Lee and three other writers -- Lee has hold of another story that allows him to address racial issues in a way that's volatile, telling and sharply attuned to the tragic absurdity of unleashed bigotry and ignorance.

As the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth (John David Washington) faced racism from some of his co-workers but found his niche as an undercover officer. His work in exposing the Klan began when he responded by phone to a newspaper ad seeking KKK recruits.

Eventually, Stallworth even spoke with white supremacist David Duke (Topher Grace), then Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Obviously, infiltrating the Klan required face-to-face contacts that Stallworth couldn’t make. Enter fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In meetings with Klan members, Zimmerman posed as Stallworth, another bit of deception because Zimmerman happened to be Jewish, not a favored group among Klansmen.

Early on, Lee connects Stallworth's story to period realities about race. Sent to a speech by Kwame Ture -- formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) -- Stallworth finds himself in the awkward position of being a "spy" who’s not necessarily at odds with Ture’s analysis of America's racial situation.

Stallworth's presence at Ture's speech in itself qualifies as racially suspect: The Colorado Springs police worried that Ture would inspire violent protests among the city’s black population.

Let me leap ahead: Perhaps because he's both a storyteller and commentator, Lee concludes his movie with footage of what happened in Charlottesville, Va., the white supremacist rally that Donald Trump tried to address evenhandedly with his good-people-on-both-sides comments.

Let's be honest, there aren’t two sides to a story of bluntly expressed racism that, in BlacKkKlansman, is directed at the African-American students of Colorado College. One of those students (Laura Harrier) also becomes a romantic interest for Stallworth, a man grappling with conflicting identities. He understands racism as well as anyone but is also reluctant to accept his comrades as “pigs," lest he is branded with the same label. Initially, he doesn't tell Harrier's character that he's a cop.

Washington, son of Denzel Washington, handles the movie’s double-identity requirements with simmering anger and wit. He and an excellent Driver don’t become immediate soul mates, which seems entirely realistic. They’re both doing their jobs. Driver plays a Jew without a strong Jewish identity. He hasn't given much previous thought to racism.

This being a Lee movie — Jordan Peele of Get Out fame produced — you won't find many subtly expressed ideas; the defense for the movie’s lack of nuance becomes obvious: When dealing with Klansmen, nuance would not only be superfluous but a notably stupid form of moral temporizing.

And, yes, Lee uses the absurdity of Stallworth’s situation to give the movie a variety of humorous scenes. When Duke visits Colorado Springs, Stallworth is assigned the task of guarding him. He even convinces Duke to pose for a picture with him, the city's only black policeman.

Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen plays the scariest of the racist Klansmen, who — at one point — confronts Driver’s Flip Zimmerman with suspicions that he might be Jewish, a tensely comic scene that hinges on whether Zimmerman has been circumcised. These Klansmen are in no danger of being confused with MENSA members.

Lee also adds references that link his movie to the American movie past, strategically inserting footage from Birth of a Nation, the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie that lionized the Klan, as well as from Gone with the Wind.

Lee has taken dramatic liberties to be sure -- Harrier's character is an invention and Driver's character wasn't Jewish. Overall, though, Lee does justice to a story that would be impossible to believe if it weren’t true. Lee again puts the pedal to the metal in trying to acknowledge an ugly part of American life that shouldn’t be swept under any red, white and blue rug -- then or now.

Wild children and kids who are 'different'

A sensitive boy in a brutal world
You'll find moments of astonishing tenderness in director Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, an adaptation of a 2011 debut novel by Justin Torres. Employing a dream-like style, Zagar introduces us to a poor family in upstate New York. Alternately charming and brutal, Dad (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican. Emotionally unstable, Mom (Sheila Vand) is white. The couple has three sons -- Many, Joel and Jonah. The movie slowly brings its focus to Jonah, played with unselfconscious sensitivity by young Evan Rosado. The movie is at its best while observing the way three brothers behave in a world where adult supervision is sporadic. With the boys left to their own devices, Zagar penetrates the world of childhood in ways that capture its pain, joys, and cruelties. A key incident occurs when Dad tries to teach Jonah how to swim by gently leading him into the water and then abandoning him, an experience that Zagar takes as a touchstone for the rest of the movie. We the Animals has an appropriately aimless quality as it charts the ebb and flow of the boys' lives. The young actors (Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel play Jonah's brothers) are all convincing, as are Vand and Castillo. Eventually, though, Zagar's emphasis on style -- dreamy images, the occasional use of animation and fantasy elements — tends to distance us from the boys; the movie seems to unfold in a universe that is at once natural and otherworldly. Still, Zagar's movie marks a notable debut, a first work that proves memorable without quite scoring a bullseye.

Families cope with children who are 'different'

A documentary derived from psychologist Andrew Solomon's bestselling 2012 book, Far From the Tree looks at how families have adjusted to children who don't fit into standard molds: a boy with Down Syndrome, an autistic boy, several Little People and, perhaps unwisely, a 16-year-old who murdered an eight-year-old. If there's an overriding theme here, it's one of acceptance; i.e., disability doesn't necessarily equate with tragedy. This is not an easily arrived at conclusion for the film's parents who talk about the difficulties they faced in trying to adjust to children who are "different.” They also talk about the challenges of trying to give their offspring the greatest chance for meaningful lives. To its credit, the film ultimately approaches the larger question: Exactly what constitutes a meaningful life? Jack, the movie's autistic boy, provides one of the movie's more emotional moments. Unable to speak, he's coaxed into using a keyboard to reveal his heretofore undisclosed thoughts. He types, "I'm trying and I'm really smart," a statement that strikes his parents and us as nearly miraculous. Jack, we learn, is more than a collection of symptoms; he's conscious and alert inside a world that previously seemed walled off. Director Rachel Dretzin introduces each character and situation and finally loops back to update each story and give the film its emotional conclusion. She uses Solomon's story -- his adjustment to being gay -- as the point from which the other stories radiate. As a young man initially rejected by his parents, Solomon wanted to learn something about the nature of family. You can't help but empathize with the people you'll meet in Far From the Tree, but Dretzin, whose multi-subject approach sometimes feels sketchy, doesn't devote much time to the financial burdens these families face. Moreover, the inclusion of a murderer -- even one still loved by his tormented family -- seems a stretch. In sum, though, these stories create an emotional arc that moves from heartbreak to inspiration. Many will want to bring a handkerchief.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A doc about The King and his kingdom

If you are unable to see Elvis Presley as a symbol of everything that's both right and wrong with America, you may not get much out of The King, director Eugene Jarecki's far-reaching and often incisive documentary. Although Jarecki includes biographical information about Presley's rocket-ride of a life, he also uses Elvis as a launch point for larger observations about cultural appropriation, American bloat and other matters that, in sum, paint a portrait of American life on the downswing. Some of the interviews in The King take place in the back seat of Elvis's 1963 Rolls-Royce, a car that breaks down during Jarecki's travels, resulting in a bit of unplanned irony. Among the people Jarecki interviews, Ethan Hawke stands out as both knowledgeable and insightful. We also get music, including a show-stopping performance from EmiSunshine and the Rain. Jarecki bites off so much that he almost tears the film apart as we try — not always successfully — to digest its broad array of thematic elements. And, of course, it's all supported by the familiar arc of Elvis's story, a tale that follows him from dirt-poor beginnings in Tupelo, Miss. to the glitz and indulgence of Las Vegas. Rapper and producer Chuck D sounds one of the movie's strongest notes, noting that he’s not about to jump on the Elvis train. Elvis found his style by listening to black music, and many feel he never acknowledged the debt. These days, I'm up for some serious pessimism, so The King hooked me with its sweeping observations and culturual criticisms. Watching The King is a bit like sitting at the end of the bar while a slightly tipsy man rails about everything under the sun. The difference: Much of The King proves interesting and some it, even salient. That's because The King is as much about the kingdom as it is about Elvis’s pop-cultural royalty.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A highly absurd helping of action

In Skyscraper, Dwayne Johnson races to save his wife and children. At times, the movie proves preposterously amusing.
Say this, Dwayne Johnson doesn't need a special costume to be a superhero. It seems as if the guy's saving someone every other week at the movies. That's an exaggeration, of course, but Johnson has become one of Hollywood's heavy lifters, a prolific action star who has yet to wear out his welcome.

Credit Skyscraper with carrying Johnson to new heights of preposterousness with lots of digitally created action. The movie's cornucopia of set pieces includes a much-written-about scene in which Johnson's character leaps a reported 40 feet from a giant construction crane to The Pearl, the Hong Kong skyscraper in which much of the movie takes place. He’s supposed to be 100 stories in the air — or some such.

But, hey, who's looking for realism? With movies such as Skyscraper, we're not expected to believe that such a feat could be accomplished. We're supposed to enjoy it precisely because we know it's impossible.

Johnson's Will Sawyer makes many such daring leaps because he has taken a job evaluating security at the world's tallest skyscraper, a marvel of a building that's three times taller than the Empire State Building.

The Pearl makes for an inviting setting, the pride of its billionaire creator (Chin Han). The building features a design that includes lots of curved surfaces and an indoor garden with a waterfall that plunges from lofty heights. The building is topped by what looks like a giant tennis ball, but really houses a series of electronic projectors that, of course, figure in the movie's hall-of-mirrors finale.

The screenplay contrives to put Sawyer's family in harm's way. His wife (Neve Campbell) and twins (a boy and a girl) are trapped in the building after it has been set on fire by villains who are trying to bully Han's character into turning over a computer chip.

Why do they want it? Does it matter?

Hardly.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber's main job has less to do with creating complex motivations for his characters than with churning out vertiginous set pieces and, then, moving the characters from one to the next.

Johnson doesn't have much dialogue, but he sweats and grunts impressively as his character engages in activities that might challenge Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible character.

To complicate matters, Will has a prosthetic leg as a result of injuries sustained in the movie's prologue, which takes place when he was still an FBI agent. And, yes, the leg will be put to use before the action concludes.

Thurber, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't create a consistent enough atmosphere to support the movie's ridiculously conceived action. He shifts tones, adds unnecessary gunplay and becomes repetitious as he races through a harebrained screenplay: Its signature distinction: an emphasis on the many uses of duct tape.

The fun of the movie hinges on watching Johnson carry out all this over-the-top action as if he really believed in its importance. At one point, Will uses his amazing strength to hold two severed parts of the building in place while his wife walks across a plank to save their asthmatic son.

Despite such super-human displays, Johnson isn't quite strong enough to hold the movie together, but if you're willing to check all of your critical faculties at the door, Skyscraper might qualify as one of the summer's guiltier pleasures.

A satirical comedy with lots of bite

Sorry to Bother You takes on the world of telemarketing -- and much more.
In the age of excess and toppling norms, it seems impossible for anyone to make a satire that could match reality, particularly as precedent crumbles with thundering regularity.

But in presenting an overstuffed but vibrant satire, Boots Riley — a Hip Hopper moved behind the camera — comes awfully close and if Riley tries to say too much, perhaps he should be forgiven. Better too much than nothing at all.

On its surface, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You seems like a comedy directed at one of the great contemporary nuisances, telemarketing. Anyone who has answered one of those pesky calls during dinner obviously should relate. But Riley has more in mind -- much more.

The story centers on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an unemployed young man who lands a job at a telemarketing company, having impressed his prospective employer by falsifying his resume. The point quickly becomes clear: In the telemarketing business, a commitment to honesty might be the least valuable asset an employee can possess.

Initially, Cassius -- a.k.a. Cash -- doesn’t meet with much success. Riley illustrates this by dropping the fumbling Cash into the lives of the people he calls, sight gags that enlarge an already colossal annoyance. Wham! There's Cash giving his spiel while a couple makes love.

It doesn’t take long for Cash to learn the secret of successful telemarketing. A sage old-timer (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” as a means of draining the swamp of desperation callers might hear if Cash talks normally. Cash begins talking "white" courtesy of a voice supplied by David Cross.

Lo, Cash works his way up the corporate ladder. He’s so good at his job that he’s promoted to the ranks of Power Caller, a coveted position that moves him to an upper floor accessed by a golden-doored elevator with the world’s most elaborate security code.

Cash soon learns that, as a Power Caller, he has one job: to sell the services of Worry Free, a company that supplies workers to other companies, a euphemistic way of saying that Worry Free employees become lifetime servants of their employer. Those who work for Worry Free are housed and fed (badly) by the company. In every way imaginable, they become subservient to a corporate juggernaut, which is led by a character named Steve Lift (a bearded Armie Hammer).

With help from a Power Caller supervisor (Omari Hardwick), Cash catches Lift's eye. Turns out that Lift, played by Hammer as a hotshot who hides his cruelty and greed beneath a banner of innovation, has a special proposition for Cash.

All this plunges Cash into an ethical crisis. While he’s advancing, his buddies from the lower floor — led by a firebrand played by Steven Yeun) —- are trying to unionize. They have the audacity to demand salaries and benefits rather than wages based solely on commission.

Stanfield, familiar to those who watch TV's Atlanta, has the ability to portray Cash as a half-formed man; he's clearly smart but we wonder if he could truly realize himself only by refusing to participate in the rigged economy out of which Riley's satire bubbles.

Cash's morally compromised success also puts him at odds with his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), an artist who eventually draws a line: Either Cash shapes up morally or she'll ship out.

When a director employs cartoonish visual jests that lead us toward a bizarre sci-fi fantasy, he’s bound to include a few misses among the hits. A piece of performance art by Thompson’s character may leave you scratching your head.

But Riley drops a persistent question about black male characters into a new context. Can Cash maintain any semblance of an authentic self while navigating a corporate world where his voice (literally and metaphorically) proves a crippling liability?

But Riley doesn’t stop there: He also takes on game shows, reality TV, corporate greed, race, and, perhaps most important, public indifference, the way we’ve all become too numb to feel any more outrage. In a climate that breeds indifference, it may be impossible for individual action to become socially transformative.

Sorry to Bother You stands as a comedy that strikes enough targets to make it a welcome attempt to say something about where we actually are — instead of trying to transport us, as many movies do, to places we’d rather be.

An amazing story about triplets

If the story told by the documentary Three Identical Strangers appeared in a newspaper or a magazine you'd most likely find yourself reading it compulsively. But, then, the story has been in many newspapers and magazines. Even so, director Tim Wardle has made one of the year's most intriguing movies, a journey that begins with an effervescent sense of joy before moving to much darker places. The early part of the movie focuses on the incredible tale of how three brothers separated at birth and adopted by different parents found each other as young men in 1980. As the brothers' association continued, they emphasized their similarities. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes, loved the same foods, finished each other's sentences and had similar tastes in women. Eventually, they opened a restaurant -- Triplets -- that for a time was an attraction in New York. Much of the audience won't know the rest of the story, so I'll not say much beyond the fact that all three brothers were adopted from Louise Wise Services, an agency that specializes in Jewish adoptions. Based on interviews with the brothers and their parents, as well as with journalist Lawrence Wright, who investigated matters concerning the triplets’ adoptions, the movie begins to grow in complexity. By the time we reach the movie's conclusion, the dark side has taken over, so much so that what initially seemed like a novelty item has turned into something far more unsettling. Wardle makes use of dramatizations, a technique I'm reflexively against in documentaries, but he knows how to keep an audience involved and he has hold of a story that ultimately leaves us with questions about the intentions of an adoption agency, as well as about a team of psychological researchers. Three Identical Strangers begins as a curiosity but evolves into a movie about brothers whose glee at finding one another is undermined by the escalating revelation of difficult truths.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A troubled father and his daughter

Leave No Trace avoids melodrama and discovers compassion.

We're not exactly sure why, but Will, one of the main characters in Leave No Trace, can't live with people.

Instead of giving us answers to the movie’s central question, director Debra Granik provides us with plenty of clues. Will was in the military. He sometimes jolts awake because of horrific dreams. He has withdrawn from society, living in the woods around Portland, Ore.

But what distinguishes Will from other walled-off loners with wart-time PTSD is that he has brought his teenage daughter on his journey of isolation. We imagine that this daughter -- her name is Tom -- was quite young when Will returned from whatever combat zone did so much damage to his spirit. Somewhere along the line, Tom's mother died -- or so we assume. Since then Will and Tom have been trying to live off the grid.

Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, delivers her first movie since 2010's Winter's Bone, a mournful yet deeply compassionate look at a father who loves his daughter but seems to have given up on any future for himself.

As the movie progresses, Will's daughter begins to encounter the outside world. When father and daughter are busted for living on public lands, they're turned over to social workers who try to do right by them. After some initial interrogation, father and daughter are placed in a home on the property of a Christmas tree farmer. The farmer doesn't ask much of them, although he seems to expect them to attend Sunday services.

At those services, we see a group of devotional dancers that struck me was one of the movie's only strained moments, but the dancers and the folks who run the service are so damn nice that the movie seems to be daring us to dismiss them as caricatures.

In this part of the film, Tom also meets a farm kid who's raising rabbits. Slowly and in the unforced way of the movie, she begins to see the benefits of interacting with others. The thing is, she likes people and perhaps even recognizes her need for them. Living in the woods may offer Will a measure of freedom, but will just as surely imprison Tom in a life of isolation.

And maybe even Will knows that; he's homeschooled Tom well enough for a social worker to tell her that she's way ahead of where she should be academically.

Normally, I'd have mentioned the actors earlier, but Leave No Trace is about its characters, and I spent more time thinking about them than I did about the actors who played them. And isn't that in itself a tribute to the movie's cast.

When I tell you that Ben Foster, an actor of scary intensity, plays Tom, you'll instantly realize that Granik isn't about to allow the material to get sentimental.

Foster's Will isn't a heroic champion of natural living. It's not that he chooses to reject society; it's that he's become constitutionally unable to be part of it. And we judge from the movie's title that whatever damage Will did during whatever war he fought, he has resolved not to destroy anything else. He doesn't so much crave the solitude of the forest as he hungers for invisibility.

The relationship between Will and Tom could have turned ugly or melodramatic. It never does. There's no questioning the love that unites them.

But, as Tom -- played with reserve, devotion and an awakening sense of self by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie -- says to her father at one point, "The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me."

Granik has a strong feel for nature; she makes the forest a character, a place that can offer shelter and solace, but one where people don't necessarily belong.

She also likes to portray ordinary people, folks who are scraping by but still have a generous spirit. At one point, Will and Tom wind up in staying in a trailer at the home of a beekeeper (Dale Dickey) who seems to have found a convincing middle way; she can live with nature without turning her back on people.

At this point, the film relaxes enough for the locals to gather for guitar playing and singing, something that normally would have made my eyes roll but which Granik presents as an organically expressed part of the lives she observes.

Leave No Trace is a rarity, a movie that runs its finger over a deep vein of pain without offering palliatives or bromides. That feels unblinkered and right.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

‘Ant-Man’: An amusing second helping

Paul Rudd returns in one of the least serious Marvel entries.
Ant-Man and the Wasp, the latest movie to spring from the Marvel Universe, falls short in many ways: It has a jangled plot, a trip into a strange Quantum Realm in which characters and creatures float as if immersed in Jello and stretches of talk in which the dialogue isn't likely to evoke comparisons with Shakespeare.

Fortunately, that's not the whole story. This second, big-screen helping of Ant-Man also benefits from what might be deemed a thoroughgoing and entirely welcome lack of cosmic ambition.

Thanks go to Rudd's genial reprise of his role as Scott Land (a.k.a. Ant-Man), enough humor to carry us through the movie's doldrums and a collection of characters who must act as if there's much at stake -- even if there isn't.

Director Peyton Reed, who directed the first installment, also plays fun games with scale as Ant-Man makes the shift from tiny creature to parade-float size. Ant-Man can become as small as ... well ... an ant or as big as a zeppelin, opening the door for Reed and his cohorts to play lots of clever games involving mutable size.

Stretches devoted to exposition may keep the movie from soaring, but it's difficult to resist car chases in which full-sized cars suddenly shrink to Hot Wheels proportions or an action scene in which a PEZ dispenser enlarges to play a significant role.

So what happens? Well, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) believe they can rescue Hope's long-lost mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, the zone where she disappeared while executing a selfless act of heroism. Pfeiffer, who isn’t around all that much, does double duty as Pym's long lost love.

Hope also is the Wasp, which means that she has been given wings to flutter and the responsibility of broadening the movie's gender appeal.

Additions to the series include the Ghost (Hanna John-Kamen), a woman who's on the verge of decomposing and who (understandably) would rather remain in one piece. Laurence Fishburne turns up as one of Pym's estranged colleagues, another researcher into the Quantum Realm. Walter Goggins plays a greedy businessman who also has his eye on the Quantum Realm.

Randall Park appears as an FBI agent whose interchanges with Scott provide the movie with a comic motif that it's not afraid to repeat, but which proves amusing enough not to wear out its welcome. Scott, by the way, is being monitored by the FBI because he's been under house arrest for two years. His time of confinement is almost up, but you can bet that he'll find a way to weasel out of his ankle bracelet and join the action before he's officially set free.

Michael Pena turns up as the fast-talking operator of a security company. A veteran of the first installment, Pena makes no attempt to do more than add laughs with his character's frenetic speech. Pena's Luis once shared a cell with Lang, a thief before his elevation to superhero status.

Look, there's little point rattling on about a movie such as Ant-Man and the Wasp. If you see it, you'll find enough humor to stave off a case of Marvel overdose -- and some of that humor has a visual kick, something rare in today's comedies and, therefore, something to savor.

(An aside: Gore Verbinski -- director of several Pirates of the Caribbean movies remains the undisputed master of visually inventive comedy.)

But as far as this edition of Ant-Man is concerned: It's nice to see a Marvel movie that seems intended to amuse us more than it's designed to beat us into submission.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

When hope has all but vanished

Andrea Riseborough plays the title character in Nancy, a movie set on a landscape in which love has all but died.
In Nancy, a debut feature from director Christina Choe, all the characters have been made miserable by loss or neglect. Nancy -- the movie's title character -- lives with her demanding mother (Ann Dowd) in a rundown house in a nameless town. Mom's dying of Parkinson's and relies on Nancy to tend to her every need -- small and big acts that Mom accepts without ever showing a trace of gratitude.

Given the roles that Dowd typically plays, her appearance instantly triggers an expectation of bad things to come. Dowd's portrayal of Aunt Lydia in Handmaid's Tale stands as a brutal study of tyrannical conformity. In the recent Hereditary, she played a seemingly compassionate, grief-stricken woman, but -- with Dowd -- we've learned not to trust the surface.

Dowd isn't the main character in Nancy, but she helps to set the movie's bleak mood.

Andrea Riseborough portrays Nancy, a character who makes no effort to be likable or even comprehensible. Nancy invents stories about herself. At one point, she feigns a pregnancy as a means of consoling a grieving man (John Leguizamo) whose infant daughter died a while back.

Leguizamo's character asked to meet Nancy after reading a blog post she wrote. He has no ulterior motives; he only wants to talk to someone who might give him hope, someone with enough faith in life to bring a newborn into it. Even if well-intended at first, Nancy's deception becomes an act of cruelty.

When her mother dies of a stroke, Nancy sees an opening. She attempts to insinuate herself into the lives of a couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steven Buscemi) who long ago lost a daughter to kidnappers. Having seen the couple discussing their lives in a recent TV interview, Nancy decides to contact them, claiming to be that long lost child.

What unfolds is an intimate exercise in acceptance and delusion, an exploration of grief and diminished hope conducted by a trio of highly skilled actors.

As a professor of literature, Smith-Cameron wants to believe in Nancy. Buscemi's Leo, a psychologist by trade, proves more skeptical, but never aggressively so. It's a pleasure to see Buscemi give a subdued performance as a man who has known pain but has struggled to keep his balance.

Leo orders a DNA test to determine whether Nancy's story is true. But the meat on this movie's bone has little to do with the results of that test. Choe's doesn't aim for pin-point specificity; she doesn't even bother to develop an entirely credible plot. We don't so much watch Nancy as we sink into the bleak lives of its severely damaged characters.

Choe doesn't spell things out; she gives us plenty of room to discover. As a result, Nancy turns out to be a small but troubling movie about the way hope can flicker in lives that have all but abandoned it. Is that flicker a saving grace or the cruelest of delusions? Could it possibly be both?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Christopher Plummer charms in a road movie

It's rare that a mediocre movie survives because the cast proves endearing. That may be the case with Boundaries, a story about an aging and very conniving father (Christopher Plummer) who tries to reconcile with his grown daughter (Vera Farmiga). Director Shana Feste quickly turns Boundaries into a road movie in which Plummer's Jack, a character who has been expelled from an assisted living facility for growing marijuana on the premises, rides from Oregon to California with his daughter. Farmiga's Laura wants her recently evicted father to move in with his other daughter (Kristen Schall), a ditzy woman who lives in California. Also along for the ride: Laura's son (Lewis MacDougall), a high-school kid who receives lessons in creative irresponsibility from his grandfather. Bobby Cannavale turns up briefly as Laura's ex-husband, a man who -- like his former father-in-law -- seems to be involved in the pot trade. Other stops include a meeting with old pals to whom Plummer previously sold pot or engaged in other dubious activity (Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda). Predictable and never totally convincing, Boundaries nonetheless features a fine performance by Plummer, who pours on the roguish charm. Little about the screenplay proves memorable, but Plummer, who's ably supported by the rest of the cast, makes this road trip tolerable.

The tragic fall of Whitney Houston

The late Whitney Houston's life followed an arc that bordered on cliche. The singer soared high and then plunged to earth in a downward spiral fueled by cocaine, possible abuse as a child and who knows precisely what else.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald and featuring formal and informal footage of the late star, Whitney follows Whitney Houston as she ascended from her days as a Newark, N.J. gospel singer to the upper reaches of the celebrity stratosphere, a place few have occupied and where even fewer have managed to take up permanent residence.

Whitney's story isn't entirely unfamiliar to those who follow celebrity news, although Macdonald does point to an incident of child abuse that may have figured in shaping the singer’s fragile personality. Houston's assistant -- Mary Jones -- understood the singer as well as anyone and says that it was none other than the late Dee Dee Warwick, a singer and one of Houston's older cousins, who molested young Whitney as a child, perhaps building the groundwork for a life in which trust wasn't easily given.

Macdonald contextualizes Houston's showbusiness life by offering flashes of events that took place during Houston's career. He also takes us deep into Houston's ill-fated marriage to singer Bobby Brown. It's arguable that Brown served as an antidote to suggestions that Houston had sold out her blackness to achieve cross-cultural fame, a claim once advanced by Al Sharpton among others.

Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) knows how to keep a movie moving and he certainly appreciates the power of Houston's voice. Her version of I Will Always Love You became an anthem of sorts.

Speaking of anthems, Macdonald also shows Houston's performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, a goose-bump inducing version of the Star Spangled Banner that the singer hadn't rehearsed.

Whitney also introduces us to the Houston family, as well as to those who surrounded her. Eventually, Houston got crosswise with her father, John Houston, who served as her manager. We also learn about the singer's relationship with Robyn Crawford, a woman Houston's family distrusted but who is portrayed as someone who really cared about Houston. We wonder what might have happened had Houston felt freer to explore the fluidity of her sexuality without worrying about public condemnation.

Houston's mother, Cissy Houston, taught her daughter the discipline required to develop her talent but wasn't around much when Whitney was a child. Cissy Houston often took to the road, singing back-up for Elvis Presley, Dionne Warwick (also a cousin of Whitney's), Aretha Franklin and others.

You'd have to have been living under a rock not to know that Macdonald's movie is headed toward a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the place where Houston's dead body was found in February of 2012. The death of her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown several years later stands as an awful epilogue to Whitney's already sad tale.

Whitney tells a tragic story -- and blame for the tragedy accrues partly to Houston and those around her and partly to a society that put her in a double bind situation. She was a gifted young woman from the ghetto suddenly propelled onto a global stage where it wasn't always easy for her to be herself -- or perhaps even to remember who she was.

Whatever you thought about Whitney Houston, you'd have to be pretty callous not to let Whitney break your heart. Her funeral took place at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, the place where young Whitney sang in the choir. The Voice, as Houston sometimes was known, was silenced. She was 48.

A tough look at factory farming

Natalie Portman narrates Eating Animals, a documentary based on Jonathan Safran Foer's book about the horrors of factory farming. Take the word "horrors" seriously; I can't imagine anyone watching this documentary and not giving some thought to becoming a vegetarian. Now, that is not -- I stress -- the position of the documentary. In taking us to a variety of farms run in a humane fashion, the movie makes the case that we ought, at a minimum, not submit to the dictates of industrial-scale farming. To advance the case, we meet farmers who do not raise their animals under extreme conditions, which include horrible overcrowding and the introduction of antibiotics into animal diets. Frank R. Reese, the owner of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, sends his beloved turkeys to their deaths with regret but makes sure that they aren't tormented or force-fed while they're alive. The movie also points out the environmental impact of some kinds of mass-farming operations. Hog waste, for example, can be pumped into outdoor pools that can lead to contamination of local water supplies. In reviewing Safron's 2009 book in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote: "Mr. Foer's chief contribution to the subject seems to lie in the use of his literary gifts ... to give the reader some very visceral, very gruesome descriptions of factory farming and the slaughterhouse." The same might be said of the movie. Director Christopher Dillon Quinn's documentary seems intended to upset and provoke. Maybe it should. It raises an important question: If we're going to eat meat, don't we have some obligation to consider the welfare of the creatures that supply us with it? Or to put it another way. The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked why he was a vegetarian. Health, he replied. Yours, asked the interviewer? No, the chicken's, said Singer.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Mary Shelley: Life before Frankenstein

Elle Fanning does credible work as Mary Shelley, the 19th-century author of Frankenstein. But Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Monsour (Wadjda) loses out by attempting to walk a fine line between a well-adorned period piece and an emotionally turbulent tale populated by Mary Shelley and two poetic geniuses. Shelley's life changed when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Still a teenager, Mary defied her father (Stephen Dillane) to begin a relationship with Shelley, who already had a wife and daughter. Predictably, Mary's views about fidelity came into conflict with the Romantic poet's open attitudes toward sex and free-style living. Shelley's advocacy of counter-cultural values can seem a bit forced, although a rumpled Booth does his best to convey the poet's live-for-the-moment enthusiasms. The movie moves toward a gathering at the home of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), another Romantic poet, as well as an insufferable cad who comes across as someone who'd get himself into deep trouble in the age of #MeToo. Aside from being insensitive to anyone else's feelings, Byron exploits Mary's gullible half-sister Claire (a spirited Bell Powley). Mary Shelley clearly delineates the prejudices faced by 19th-century women with aspirations beyond landing a husband. Al-Mansour's movie also serves to introduce Shelley to those who only know her work, many through big-screen adaptations. But Al-Monsour doesn't solve the major problem faced by those who make movies about writers: their work -- Frankenstein doesn't emerge until the movie's almost over -- usually surpasses their lives, even when lived with the kind of stress, tumult, and suffering that supposedly helped Shelley create her masterpiece.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

'Soldado' bathes in cynicism

Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro reunite in Sicario: Day of the Soldado
The first few minutes of Sicario: Day of the Soldado conflate Mexican border crossings with acts of Islamic terror in the US. The picture wasn't five minutes old before I found myself wondering whether Stephen Miller, considered the hardest of the Trump administration’s immigration hardliners, hadn’t served as a script consultant.

But this sequel to 2015's Sicario eventually broadens its outlook to encompass a kind of inclusive nihilism in which the US government will advance its ambitions by fomenting war, in which CIA agents fight battles in which there are no rules and in which violence, cynicism, and wavering loyalties upset any semblance of international order.

This teeming doomy pile of hopelessness should have made Soldado feel like a keen-eyed movie of the moment, yet this edition of Sicario feels oddly out of touch, a movie in which events seem to be taking place in a world divorced from all other possible realities.

From the start, Soldado accepts its brand of amoral realism without question, perhaps establishing itself as another movie that expects us to admire the way it pushes violent efficiency to harsh extremes.

This time, the story centers on the way a hard-core CIA operative (Josh Brolin) enlists the help of a professional assassin (Benicio del Toro) in trying to start a war among Mexican drug cartels, groups of ruthless mobsters that have recognized a new economic reality: People -- namely immigrants who wish to be smuggled across the border between the US and Mexico -- have become the new cocaine, an abundant source of profit.

Emily Blunt, who appeared in the first movie as a novice who picked her way through thickets of moral corruption, has been replaced by Catherine Keener, a more credible hardass but one who has been given much less to do than Blunt.

Brolin reprises his role as a CIA agent who, for the most part, operates without principles. If there’s a dirty job, Brolin’s character does it with matter-of-fact efficiency. As the movie’s assassin, del Toro manages to do what he does best, bring unexpected flavor to his line readings, sort of Christopher Walker without the impish humor. I’m not criticizing del Toro for this; for me, his quietly off-kilter performance was the best thing about the movie.

The plot contrives to have del Toro’s Alejandro escort a teenage girl (Isabela Moner) out of Mexico. The daughter of a major drug lord, Isabella's kidnapping is part of a complicated scheme to pit rival gangs against each other. It's part of an ill-defined effort to stop Islamic terrorists from joining immigrants as they cross the border.

You probably needn’t have seen the first movie to follow this one, which tries up its ante of dread with Hildur Guonadottir's monotonously ominous score, which — I imagine — is what fog horns would sound like if they were able to mourn.

I still have enough appreciation of B-movie pleasures to have enjoyed parts of Soldado, although it’s difficult to say which without spoilers.

Overall, though, Soldado takes us into dismal emotionally parched terrain where morals have been strip-mined, decency has been eroded and most values have been discarded. The movie follows characters who are accustomed to doing society’s dirty work for bureaucrats —- Matthew Modine portrays the US Secretary of Defense -- who are committed to covering their own asses no matter what their decisions may cost others.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the first movie and followed with Hell or High Water and Wind River, hasn't imagined the same movie twice but doesn't do much to expand the second helping's thematic reach. And in taking the reins from director Denis Villeneuve, Italian director Stefano Sollima has made a movie that, like many of its characters, seems to lack conviction about the corrupted world into which it pumps a fair measure of bullets.

Those who find Soldado realistic may want to consider the near-miraculous recovery made one of its characters after ... I'll say no more. Check it out for yourself and tell me if you bought it.



Life at Carlyle Hotel. It's pampered

Somewhere in my journalism past, I did interviews in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel, one of New York's most exclusive, upscale -- and unapologetically elitist -- hotels. Note: I never got any further than the lobby, certainly not on a journalist's paycheck. In the new documentary, Always at The Carlyle, it's amusing to listen to George Clooney talk about his love for the hotel or to hear how attentive the elevator operators are or to learn that a member of the hotel's staff is responsible for embroidering the names of guests on pillowcases. Director Matthew Miele has made what amounts to an enthusiastic ode to a hotel most of us never will check into. Anjelica Huston turns up for an interview. We also learn that Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge once stayed at the Carlyle. Jack Nicholson was nice to the help. The recently departed Anthony Bourdain talks about the hotel's Bemelmans Bar, which features murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, the illustrator who did the Madeline books. The movie also takes time to celebrate the indispensably sophisticated talents of pianist Bobby Short, a fixture at the hotel cafe until his death in 2005. The movie's point -- the Carlyle does a great job catering to the rich and famous -- is made early and repeated. Me? I got only limited pleasure from again and again hearing how those who can afford the Carlyle are pampered and protected.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The dinos return, but where's the fear?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom falls short as big helping of entertainment.

If there's any emotional heft in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it stems from the fate of the movie's genetically engineered dinosaurs. At this point in their big screen lives, these innocent creatures have come to represent a natural state that greedy humans have altered and abused. Some will get behind the wrath of the dinos, which is directed mostly at bad folks who want to profit from their revived existence (Gasp!) even turn them into the world's most deadly weapons. Had the picture been better, I might have joined them.

Director J.A. Bayona, known for his 2007 horror opus The Orphanage, limits his achievement by adhering to the required action formula. Here's a clue: The movie's dialogue relies heavily on the word "run." The fact that people need to tell one another to flee as massive thundering creatures approach at full speed stands as a greater indictment of human intelligence than anything else in this protracted stompfest.

Fallen Kingdom leans heavily on action while shortchanging build up, but I took the multiple instances in which Chris Pratt -- reprising his role as a kind of dino whisperer -- was slimed by various creatures as a welcome helping of self-mockery on the part of Bayona and his CGI crew. The movie could have used more such flippancy.

In the last Jurassic World film, Pratt teamed with Bryce Dallas Howard . The two reunite for an adventure in which a wealthy benefactor (James Cromwell) tries to save dinosaurs from imminent extinction by taking them off an island on which an active volcano is about to erupt.

Howard's Claire recruits a Pratt's Owen, who -- of course -- initially plays hard to get. He's busy building a cabin in the isolated woods and has had enough of dinosaurs. Still, he answers Claire's call.

Additions to the series include a nervous computer expert (Justice Smith) who provides some of the movie's many screams and a young woman (Daniella Pineda) who seems to function as a kind of punk veterinarian.

Of course, an evil military type also must crop up. Enter Ted Levine as Ken Wheatley, the brutally duplicitous organizer of the rescue mission. Keep your eye an assistant (Rafe Spall) to Cromwell's character, a guy who immediately becomes suspect by being too damn nice for his own good.

The movie divides its time between the island and the estate created by Cromwell's Benjamin Lockwood. Thanks to manipulations of plot that needn't be spelled out here, the dinos wind up on the estate, where they eventually race around, somewhat unexpectedly, indoors.

Lockwood's granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) joins in an effort to save the dinos from profiteers who eventually bring in an auctioneer (Toby Jones) to conduct the world's most malign rare species sale.

The dinosaurs have human allies, but the movie's heart belongs to Blue, a human-friendly velociraptor that was trained by Owen in the last movie. Unlike any of the human characters, Blue shows a degree of inner conflict: She must decide which humans to protect and which to turn into lunch.

The movie also includes a prologue and epilogue in which Jeff Goldblum, as a scientist testifying before a Senate Committee, condemns the hubris that was required to create these genetic marvels in the first place. He advises against rescuing the dinosaurs; for him, the pending volcanic eruption represents an opportunity for a reset.

Bayona can't entirely escape the trap of open-mouthed acting that often results from an extensive reliance on CGI: This involves asking actors to gawk at the special effects or scream with fear as the digitally created dinos bear their predatory teeth.

Braced by familiarity with this franchise, I seldom -- if ever -- shared the fear. We know the genre too well (and so does Bayona) to get beyond the rote deliverance of one action set piece after another as the movie stomps its way toward the ending that inevitably (and finally eerily) opens the door for the next chapter. I'm betting we'll see a lot more running, chomping and wholesale swallowing of those who trample ethical considerations in their relentless quest for profit.

What exactly these miscreants will do with all their money in a world they seem eager to destroy remains a mystery.

When grief haunts a girl's summer

As even the world's hermits must know by now, summer is a time for big, splashy action when it comes to movies. If you're looking for an antidote, you may want to try director Carla Simon's debut movie Summer 1993. Working in autobiographical mode, Simon tells the story of six-year-old Frieda (Laia Artigas), a girl who faces a crisis when her mother dies of AIDS-related pneumonia. After her mother's death, Frieda is sent to live with her uncle (David Verdauger) and aunt (Bruna Cusi), a couple with a four-year-old daughter of their own. It's refreshing to see adults trying to deal responsibly with a troubled, obstinate child who often taxes their patience. The adults can't always hide their exasperation but they clearly have young Frieda's best interests at heart. Simon obtains entirely credible performances from the movie's children. Understandably unable to adjust to what has happened to her, Frieda is capable of flashes of cruelty. Simon deserves applause for not turning her movie into a weepy. Instead, she tells a quietly realized story about people who suddenly face a difficult situation that none of them chose. What they can choose is how they'll adapt to these circumstances. They do so with a level of humanity that's too little seen on screen.

Trying to hide from a difficult truth

If you know anything about Eastern Europe in the days following World War II, little about the mournful Hungarian movie 1945 will come as a shock. Shot in black-and-white, the movie charts what happens when a Jewish father and son (Ivan Angelusz and Marcell Nagy) show up in a Hungarian village where the property of pre-war Jews has been appropriated by members of the local populace. The theft of property and businesses -- in this case, the local pharmacy -- has been "legitimized" by paperwork and legalistic flimflam conducted at the behest of the town's opportunistic clerk (Peter Rudolf). Director Ferenc Torok's movie sometimes takes on the feel of a Western, as it focuses on a town that harbors dark secrets. The two Jewish men, who say little, become accusers simply by turning up. They're not really characters; they're stoic symbols of rebuke. These Jewish travelers claim to have brought a shipment of perfume for the town's pharmacy but clearly have something else in mind. The townsfolk -- particularly its clerk -- fear that the two strangers will try to reclaim what rightfully belonged to the town's Jewish population, wiped out during the Holocaust. Questions of complicity come into focus as the town prepares for a wedding. The clerk's son (Bence Tasnadi) is about to marry a woman who seems to be conspiring to grab some of the largess created by the sell-out of the town's Jews. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Gabor T. Szanto, Torok offers a somber primer on the complicitous betrayal of Jews in Hungry's rural villages, building toward the suicide of the town drunk (Jozsef Szarvas). Szarvas's character participated in the scheme to steal Jewish property and can't escape his feelings of guilt. Torok might have made room for a little more nuance as he observes the ways in which the town is rocked by exposure of the unacknowledged crimes that permeate all of its institutions, including the church. Driven by the agitation and anxiety of the town's populace, 1945 does, however, continue the exploration of an inexhaustible and inescapable subject: the human capacity for denial that threatens to devour historical truths that ultimately must be vomited up in painfully wrenching ways.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Looking for great comedy? 'Tag' isn't it

Grown men playing tag? They chase one another but have trouble catching laughs.

In 2013, The Wall Street Journal ran a diverting little article about a group of men from Spokane, Wash., who managed to stay in touch over decades by playing an annual, month-long game of tag.

Tag, a game that requires no equipment and which relies on speed and elusiveness, isn’t usually thought of as a competitive sport. But this group of long-time pals turned it into one — at least for four weeks a year. They drew up a contract specifying the rules of a game they played with stealth, subterfuge, cunning and an abiding commitment not to be the last man tagged, a status with which one of them had to live for an entire year before the game resumed.

Enter Hollywood and the idea that this amusing piffle of a story would make a good movie.

And it might have had director Jeff Tomsic displayed more interest in exploring the absurd side of male competitive drive, had he and his cohorts done a better job of getting the cast on the same page and had they not turned Tag into a movie that feels like a lukewarm bit of filler sandwiched between summer blockbusters.

The filmmakers seem to have made self-conscious attempts to alter the movie’s gender muscle flexing by having the wife (Isla Fisher) of one of the players (Ed Helms) accompany her husband as the game he plays the game. Moreover, the movie's Wall Street Journal reporter serves little purpose other than to make room for Annabelle Wallis, the actress who plays her.

Not that any of the male characters are particularly well-developed, either.

Helms portrays Hoagie, a man who suggests to another player -- a successful insurance company executive played by Jon Hamm -- that they team up to take down the reigning champion (Jeremy Renner). During the course of several decades, Renner's Jerry never has been tagged. As portrayed here, Jerry has ninja-like skills that are heightened by some quick editing, the sudden insertion of slo-mo trickery and an inexplicable ability to disappear.

Other players include a Denver-based stoner (Jake Johnson), a character who's introduced with a bong joke that would have seemed dated -- even had it turned up 50 years ago. Hannibal Buress signs on as a slightly nerdy gameplayer.

To keep the movie focused, the filmmakers assemble the players in Spokane, where Jerry is about to be married. Jerry hasn’t invited his buddies to the wedding because he knows they’ll show up anyway, using the nuptials as a long-awaited opportunity to bring down the champion.

Setting most of the movie in the players' hometown also gives the filmmakers an opportunity to throw in a bit of competition for an old high-school flame (Rashida Jones), a woman who attracts attention from both Hamm and Johnson’s characters.

All of this generates minimal chemistry. Granted the men are locked in fierce competition, but they seldom seem comfortable with one another, and Hamm, in particular, looks like a misfit addition to a misbegotten group that produces no stand-outs, except possibly for Fisher, who can be more underhanded than any of the male players. By rule, women are excluded from the game.

Renner does a convincing job as Jerry, but his intensely focused performance seems to belong in another movie.

Because the men are not playing in the confined space of a schoolyard but in the real world, they're forced to don lame disguises to sneak up one another or to engage in trickery, bribery and other forms of deceit that will allow them to approach their prey.

I went back and read the original Wall Street Journal article and a couple of follow-ups, all of which were more interesting than the resultant movie which can’t find its rhythm as a robust comedy with outlandish flourishes, including a far-fetched (and not especially funny) bit of action set in a wooded area.

The tag catchphrase — “you’re it" — might have given the movie stinging sharpness, but after laying out its premise, this over-amped effort does little to catch us unaware — and that includes a last-minute revelation that may have been added to create a bit of emotion without having done anything to earn it.

They're at Cannes -- but not for the films

Claire's Camera reunites actress Isabelle Huppert and South Korean director Hong Sang-soo.

It’s arguable that South Korean director Hong Sang-soo could have written the outline for his deceptively slight new film, Claire’s Camera, on the back of a cocktail napkin. Watching the movie, which takes place during the Cannes Film Festival, you may wonder whether Hong isn’t improvising, dropping a quartet of characters onto the festival’s periphery and then sitting back to see what happens.

In one way or another, all the characters in Claire's Camera are related to the world of film. So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young) directs films and has one playing at the festival.
Kim Mi-hee's Jeon Manhee has been working for a film sales agent (Chang Mi-hee) who fires her at the beginning of the film, claiming that she no longer trusts Man-hee to be honest with her.

Claire (Isabelle Huppert) portrays the film civilian in the group; her character teaches music but wanders about Cannes with a Polaroid camera, asking if she might snap photos of the people she meets.

In the scene in which Manhee loses her job, Hong sends a clear signal that he’s going to take a few comic shots at the idea of capturing life on film. Chang’s character asks the woman she has just fired to join her in a selfie, an absurd commemoration of a moment both characters probably should want to forget.

Having Huppert walk through the film with a camera seems a little artificial, but Claire serves as a catalyst to bring out the back stories — not necessarily presented in chronological order — that drive Hong’s slender but emotionally piquant narrative.

The movie’s Cannes setting proves relevant but never dominating. This may be Cannes, but watching great films seems pretty far down on anyone's agenda. Hong seems interested in the way his characters respond to slowly revealed truths.

Unlike some directors, Hong seems to know that he has hold of a slender premise and at 68 minutes, he doesn’t overwork it.

As for the director portrayed in the film ... Jung’s character proves as disheveled as his rumpled haircut; he's an unsympathetic mess of a man.

The same can’t be said for Claire’s Camera, a film of elusive but insinuating charms. And, no, I don’t believe anything about the movie was improvised.

A relaxed, enjoyable father/daughter tale

Heart Beats Loud is one of those laid-back movies that isn't out to oversell you on anything. Set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, the movie tells the story of a father and daughter who make music together. The twist: The daughter (an appealing Kiersey Clemons) has ambitions that go beyond music. She's about to start college and wants to be a doctor. Dad (a relaxed but sometimes dour Nick Offerman) thinks the two should try to pursue a musical career together, particularly because Clemons' Sam has an obviously potent talent. But it’s Offerman's Frank who dreams of striking musical gold. A hit record could liberate him from the failing, vinyl-only record store over which he presides. He'd like to make music, not sell it. The songs -- pleasing enough -- are interrupted by whispers of a plot involving Offerman’s character’s mom (Blythe Danner); his landlady (Toni Collette) and his bartender friend (Ted Danson). A romance between Clemons' character and a young woman played by American Honey's Sasha Lane doesn't add much, but the movie is relaxed enough to accommodate a bit of meandering. Offerman has a sly way of commanding the screen, avoiding any of the ingratiating gestures that would have turned Frank into an off-beat role model. Director Brett Haley (I'll See You in My Dreams) may not dig deep, but his movie wanders into summer buoyed by the odd couple chemistry of a father who may have more growing up to do than his brightly ambitious daughter.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Where I’ve been lately -- and some sadness

Yes, I’ve fallen behind. As a result of recent travels, I've been unable to keep this running collection of movie reviews up-to-date.

I’ll pick up again this week, but before I do, I want to say something about Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, author and TV star who committed suicide in France last week.

I was sitting on a bed in a hotel in Montevecchia, Italy — on the fringes of Italy’s insanely scenic Lake District — when a headline flashed across my tablet. Bourdain had died at the age of 61.

As an occasional watcher of Bourdain’s CNN show, Parts Unknown, I found myself in step with just about everyone else who thought that a Bourdain suicide was inconceivable. Not the robust, I’ll-eat-anything world traveler who drank and ate his way across the globe, sometimes visiting places few of us voluntarily would venture. On a recent show, Bourdain proclaimed Glasgow, by no means the most exotic of his many destinations, as one of his favorite cities. He didn’t convince me, but the guy earned points for going against the grain.

In a foodie culture in which restaurants have become exalted Meccas of culinary worship, Bourdain seemed like a guy with his feet firmly planted on the ground, someone who held little truck with places that serve meticulously assembled, nibble-sized portions on oversized plates, high-priced oases of pleasure on otherwise arid dinnerware deserts. There was more than a hint of the working man about him.

Better yet, Bourdain seemed as if he’d be fun to hang out with, something to which those who knew him attested in various startled post-death reflections on his life as America’s explorer-in-chief. My liking of Bourdain also may have had parochial roots; he grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, not far from the northern Jersey town where I was raised. Another Jersey boy. I knew the accent.

I have no idea what demons haunted Bourdain, but I wondered whether those demons were encouraged to flap their serrated wings by too much air travel, too many unfamiliar hotel beds, too many ports-of-call, and too much cultural bombardment. Bourdain said he liked to move, and he seemed to have turned his life into a form of cross-cultural aerobics.

Cliche has it that travel broadens one’s horizons, which — of course - is true. But it also can kick the shit out of you, challenging your body clock with time shifts that sometimes require merciful assistance from pharmaceutical sleeping aids.

Of course, Bourdain and his crew made it all look easy. There he was walking the streets of this or that city, tapping the wisdom of top local experts or long-standing friends, sharing drinks and meals. He so frequently pronounced these meals as “delicious” that I wondered whether the guy ever ate anything he didn’t enjoy.

He did. In interviews, Bourdain talked about being a guest in various cultures and how he learned to respect those cultures by sharing local cuisines, always without queasy judgment or moral censure. He once even ate — begin grimacing now — unwashed warthog anus.

I’m all for experiencing cultural diversity and I’d like to think of myself as fairly open to new experiences, but if someone offered me unwashed warthog anus I’d politely refuse and ask whether they might be able to dig up some chips instead.

I wondered, too, whether all the travel and adventurous eating had taken the place of the rush that Bourdain once got from heroin, part of a young man's foray into a world of drugs that he openly discussed.

But I’m no psychologist and I won't play one here.

All I’ll say is that Bourdain’s suicide serves as a powerful reminder that what we see on TV should be taken cum grano salis; i.e., with a large grain of salt that Bourdain probably would have encouraged us to enjoy without guilt.

In the end, Bourdain reminded us of an important truth: We do not know the people who turn up on screens in our living rooms any more than we should presume to know or understand those who turn up on bigger screens at the movies.

There’s only one way really to get to know someone; that’s eye-ball-to-eye-ball over time -- and even that isn't always enough.

I’m going to miss the Bourdain I saw on TV, but when I watch reruns of his program, I’ll know that I’m not seeing the whole person. We never do.

Like you, I’m not the same person at 2 p.m. on a sunny afternoon as I am on those occasions (fortunately infrequent) when I awaken at 4 a.m. abandoned by sleep as my mind restlessly stumbles through thickets of anxiety or regret, things unsaid or undone.

I’m saddened that Bourdain has so abruptly vanished from the public scene; I’m also saddened by the thought that Bourdain, a man who could accept all manner of challenge and diversity, might finally have faced one he couldn’t fully accommodate: himself.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A cleric caught in a web of torment

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a movie with which to reckon.

In director Paul Schrader's First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays a minister who presides over the First Reformed Church, a once-proud but diminished church in upstate New York. Hawke's Reverend Toller wears a constricting clerical collar that seems more of a choice than a requirement. When he's outside of the church a long black overcoat gives him an ominous look, as if he's wrapped himself in a cloud of heavy gloom.

Toller stands on an altar built from personal guilt. As a former military chaplain, he sold family tradition to his son, urging him to enlist in the military. The young man followed his father's advice and was killed in Iraq. Toller's wife subsequently left him. From the look of things, Toller has spent the ensuing years turning his life into a form of punishing penance.

Toller's church is part of a larger organization run by a minister (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer) who understands the business of operating a mega church and wants to create a successful event as First Reformed approaches its 250th anniversary, an occasion that's to be celebrated with a reconsecration ceremony.

Worried about Toller's obvious depression, Kyles' Pastor Jeffers cautions that even Jesus didn't spend all his time in the Garden of Gethsemane. He thinks Toller should lighten up.

Both Toller and his church seem to be stuck in a harsh spiritual winter. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad and a bastion of fiery abolitionist morality, First Reformed now tries to get by with a depleted gift shop. It has become a minor tourist attraction.

Schrader broadens the movie's thematic reach by linking the future of the church to ecological plunder. Jeffers and Toller are supported by Balq Industries, a company run by Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a businessman who represents a more-or-less American attitude about separating business practices from religious dictates that might -- if taken too seriously -- interfere with those same practices. Balq is one of the country’s major polluters.

Sparse and austere, First Reformed does have a plot of sorts. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant wife turns up at First Reformed to talk to Toller. It turns out Mary's husband (Philip Ettinger) does not want her to bring a baby into a world that he believes is headed toward an irrevocable environmental catastrophe. Mary wants Toller to convince her husband to support her pregnancy.

Toller visits Ettinger’s Michael to see what he can do to persuade the young man that all hope is not lost. Schrader then does something truly rare in movies: He allows two characters -- Toller and Michael -- to engage in an extended philosophical conversation, the kind with consequences. If the world is bleak, diminished and joyless, can survival still have any meaning?

Michael soon answers the question for himself by blowing his brains out with a rifle.

Michael, who has flirted with ecoterrorism, serves as a kind of catalyst that pushes Toller deeper into a torment that's expressed in a journal that he keeps and which serves as the movie's narration. Toller, by the way, already is suffering from a serious but unspecified illness that he insists on ignoring. He urinates blood, the life leaking out of him.

Toller apparently has had a fleeting affair with a choir director (Victoria Hill) who clearly cares about him and fears that he’s unraveling. In a moment of swift and perhaps unforgivable cruelty, Toller rejects her.

The increasingly distraught Toller begins to wonder whether Michael may have been right. Perhaps an act of terror, namely a suicide bombing, is the only way to draw attention to the monstrous crimes that are being committed against God's creation.

Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, is no stranger to compelling but tormented characters. Although all the actors in First Reformed are good, Schrader puts the movie squarely on Hawke's shoulders. It's no easy job. Hawke plays a character who lives on a fault line of irreconcilable contradictions.

At one point, Toller even offers a version of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald definition of a first-rate intelligence: "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
In Toller's case, those contradictory ideas involve pain and pleasure, love and the futility, guilt and redemption. Schrader pushes those ideas to extremes that result in an ending which is both unforgettable and which surely will puzzle many viewers. I won't describe it here but I believe it is intended as a moment in which Toller's fragmented soul achieves its unity.

The movie's images are spartan and purposefully depleted -- right up until the point when Schrader includes a fantasy scene in which Toller and Mary float over the world, a visual precis of the movie’s diagnosis of the material world that begins with a natural idyll and ends with ecological catastrophe.

For those who are new to Schrader's work, it's worth knowing that when he as a young film critic, he wrote an important book: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer. Those familiar with that book and with the work of the aforementioned directors will note the way their influences play out in First Reformed. (The book has been republished with a new forward and with Schrader's observations about additional directors.)

The style to which Schrader refers has to do with holding images until they teeter on the edge of boredom, of not providing a lot of visual cues but demanding that viewers explore the images that are put in front of them, of limiting the use of music so that when it’s heard, its impact is heightened, of providing eventual release for emotions that have been tamped down throughout.

Schrader, a man of serious concerns, has managed to spend a life in film. He has written for Scorsese -- not only Taxi Driver, but Raging Bull (as co-writer), The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead. His own movies include American Gigolo, Blue Collar, a remake of Cat People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and Affliction.

Schrader can be a confounding figure who both understands Hollywood and who follows an auteur's lonely path. I'd be lying if I told you that I totally "get" Schrader, but I will tell you that First Reformed stands as a stark work that resounds with cinematic echoes (Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, for example) and yet feels rooted in the present moment of threat, disunity and unbridgeable moral gaps. It is a work that isn't' afraid to look at something most movies try their best to avoid: deep despair.