Thursday, April 19, 2018

She feels pretty but Is she funny?

Amy Schumer's latest misses the mark.

Amy Schumer's I Feel Pretty springs from a potentially fertile comic premise. A young woman who thinks that she’s hopelessly unattractive hits her head and suddenly believes that she has become beautiful.

Filled with newfound confidence, this woman -- Schumer’s Renee -- begins behaving as she always imagined a beautiful woman would. In Schumer's hands, Renee’s behavior as a newly anointed beauty brims with comic exaggeration and border-line obnoxiousness.

Still, Renee begins to take control of her life. She aggressively flirts with a man at the dry cleaners. She goes after a less obscure job in the cosmetics company that employees her. She's having the time of her life.

So is Renee a little crazy? Not exactly. When she looks in the mirror, she sees herself as gorgeous. Everyone else, of course, sees the same old Renee.

In case you haven't already guessed, the moral is that women should be happy to be themselves. More, they should be proud to be themselves.

And in case you missed the message -- obvious from the start -- the movie provides Renee with an end-of-picture speech in which she hits it directly on the nose.

To reach its foregone conclusion, the story follows the blossoming Renee as she becomes the highly-visible receptionist for her company. Predictably, Renee also offers the company CEO (Michelle Williams) advice about how to market a new “diffusion” line of products, which is supposed to help the company reach shoppers in the economy’s less affluent realms.

For me, Williams provides I Feel Pretty’s only real surprise: She's funny as an executive who can't reconcile her girlish voice with her corporate status.

The movie's formula requires that Renee also find love; it arrives in the form of an ordinary guy played by Rory Scovel. Scovel’s character acts as if he’s impressed by Renee’s unabashed boldness, displayed when she enters a bikini contest at Coney Island, adapting her street clothes for the occasion.

Renee also has gal pals (Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant), women she treats badly once she believes that she’s acquired the looks of a model.

Not only does I Feel Pretty score low on credibility, but the writing/directing team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein lobs a softball; I Feel Pretty has little or no bite when it comes to criticizing the cosmetics industry, media-generated standards of beauty or much else for that matter.

A man lives a nightmare

Director Lynne Ramsay obtains a frightening performance from Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here.

Director Lynne Ramsay never has been one to comprise the brutality and dark vision of the films she makes. It’s almost as if Ramsay (Ratcacher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin) dreams her films, and Ramsay’s dreams tend to be nightmarish.

Adapted from a 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here hangs a series of unnerving sequences on a conventional spine: A hit man accepts a mission in which he must save a teenage girl from a life of child prostitution. As is sometimes the case with dark fables, You Were Never Really Here shows no great interest either in by-the-book expressions of plot or character development.

Instead, Ramsay takes the viewer on a visual journey in which standard elements are more suggested than spelled out. Early on, we see an image of a man with a plastic bag over his head. Are we watching a murder? A suicide? Some weird act of erotic asphyxiation?

The answer: None of the above. Later, we learn that we've witnessed the re-enactment of a bizarre childhood ritual on the part of Joe, the movie’s strange and scary main character, rendered with brute physicality by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix seems to have enlarged himself to a point where we half wonder whether he has borrowed Gerard Depardieu’s body to play a bulky hitman who specializes in beating his prey with ball-peen hammers.

Hidden behind a thick beard, Phoenix turns the near silent Joe into the movie’s essential mystery. Using quickly inserted images, Ramsay lets us know that Joe was an abused child and a traumatized former Marine. Neither of those facts -- if that's what they can be called -- explains much about Joe, a character we’re presumably meant to accept as an existential expression of the ways in which brutality and a sense of righteousness can turn an individual psyche into a war zone.

Joe's profile hovers halfway between that of a serial killer and a fierce defender of abused girls.

Everything about Joe speaks of brooding obscurity. He lives with his aging mother (Judith Roberts) in a ratty apartment. He has no friends. He tries to smash the demons that feed on him, assaultive images that explode inside his head with the force of detonated grenades.

If you're looking for a social dimension, I suppose it’s possible to take Joe as a manifestation of the worst of a corrupted society, almost a socially induced mutation.

In that regard, Joe evokes memories of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, and the movie’s story, like Scorsese's dark masterwork, also dips into the political life of New York City. A New York state senator (Alex Manette) who wants to run for governor hires Joe to rescue his 13-year-old daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a ring of sex traffickers.

The movie’s conflation of politics and seamy degeneracy isn’t fully explored and the plot unfolds in somewhat muddled fashion. One presumes that little about You Were Never Really Here should be taken literally. Put another way, if you examine the developments in You Were Never Really Here, they don't always make sense. But Ramsay’s visual style sustains an atmosphere of suggested terror, punctuated by vivid imagery from cinematographer Tom Townsend.

An example: At one point, we see Joe underwater in the midst of a suicide attempt, floating silently toward oblivion.

There are also moments that challenge — perhaps too self-consciously — expectation and are meant to add splashes of weird humor. After a violent episode, Joe lies on the floor with one of his dying victims. They sing along to I’ve Never Been to Me, which happens to be playing on the radio.

In one of the movie’s most gripping sequences, security cameras record Joe going about his awful business, hammering away at anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing him at work.

Watching You Were Never Really Here, I couldn’t help marveling at the combination of daring and commitment it must have taken to make a film such as this, one that has little interest in reassuring an audience. If You Were Never Really Here is a nightmare, it’s one from which Ramsey doesn’t seem to want us to awaken.

She's greatly aided in her efforts by a score from Jonny Greenwood, perhaps the most innovate movie composer working today.

A nagging question, of course, arises: Why are we watching this? What edification can be drawn from this gleaming, alienated work? Ramsey, you should know, does not employ her considerable skills in the pursuit of visual pleasure; her aesthetics derive from trying to live inside the emotional worlds of her characters.

Let's say the jury is out on what all of this means. Maybe Ramsey has delivered a movie that’s more sketch than fully developed canvas, that she’s wandering in this territory without a map. I guess you could say that’s both courageous and crazy. And that description pretty much describes You Were Never Really Here for me -- at least until I see it again.

A softer movie for Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert never quite allows us to penetrate the enigmatic challenge she presents with almost every character she plays. Huppert never ingratiates herself or her characters with audiences. Her expressions suggest mystery, something about an indistinct but important past. Generally, Huppert's mixture of self-possession and depth work to create signature performances, but they don't quite fit Huppert's new movie, Souvenir, a trifle of a romance that teams Huppert with French star Kevin Azais. Huppert plays Liliane, a woman living a dreary life in which she goes to work each day at a pate factory. Antiseptic and lifeless, the factory looks as if it could have been lifted from a satirical riff about food that has lost its power to nourish. Routine dominates Liliane's life: Go to work. Take the bus home. Watch quiz shows. Change arrives when Huppert's character meets a new employee at work. An aspiring young boxer, Azais's Jean recognizes Liliane as a former contestant who sang on popular television talent show that attracted national attention. Jean draws a reluctant Liliane back into the show-business fray. Director Bavo Defurne does little to turn the movie into anything more than a pleasant diversion -- the kind of movie in which not much comes as a surprise but we hardly care. When Liliane tells the much younger Jean that their relationship could never possibly work out, you can bet that, after a few beats, a committed embrace will follow.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

'Rampage' offers little that's fresh

Dwayne Johnson's charms are lost in a routine thriller based on gene-editing.

Movies long have made room for those who can establish a personality on screen, but might not be at home at The Old Vic. During his heyday, no one went to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies expecting Arnold to rival the DeNiros and Pacinos of the world. They went because Arnold was ... well ... reliably Arnold.

Same goes for Dwayne Johnson, a movie star who projects smiling affability better than he projects sneering toughness. Unfortunately, in Rampage — a movie derived from a video game dating to the 1980s — Johnson is upstaged by a trio of monsters and not especially original ones at that.

A movie that riffs on the dangers of genetic editing, Rampage suffers from its own mismatched cinematic DNA. At times, the movie plays like juvenile fare aimed at 12-year-olds. At other times, it opts for unabashed sentiment. And at still other times, it tries to cash in its monster chips by having a giant crocodile, a giant flying wolf, and a giant gorilla attempt to reduce Chicago to the kind of rubble that routinely has been strewn across the streets of countless predecessor movies.

This time out, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist who once challenged poachers to befriend and save a rare albino gorilla he subsequently named George. Davis transported George from his African home to a San Diego wildlife facility, taught the gorilla how to communicate by signing and convinced George that he and those who cared for him were valued members of the gorilla's “troop.”

You don’t need much imagination to know that an evil corporation driven by a greedy executive (Malin Akerman) and her PR-oriented brother (Jake Lacy) are eager to use genetics to accumulate as many ill-gotten gains as possible.

After their company's deep-space genetic experiment crashes to earth during a brief prologue, George and two other creatures are exposed to canisters containing a horrible pathogen that will mix but not match their genetic makeup. The creatures become bigger and more aggressive, prompting a military response, which gives the movie a reason to drop in on a command center from time-to-time. Movies such as this need command centers, even when they're inhabited by misguided military men.

Tension presumably is meant to arise from fretting about poor George's future. Will George, a harmless prankster by nature, eventually return to his human-loving self?

Before that can happen, George must escape captivity so that he can trample his away across the country as the movie builds toward a finale in which George goes full Kong and climbs a Chicago skyscraper.

Early on, Johnson’s character acquires a sidekick (Naomi Harris), a genetic researcher who once worked for the evil corporation and holds the key to developing an antidote that will restore the creatures to their less dangerous state.

Rampage can’t totally accept its own destructive impulses. Late in the picture, Johnson is called upon to deliver a line in which Davis must proclaim to a charging crocodile that he’s had his fill of its mindless cruelty. Davis employs the “MF” word, but the final part of the expression is muffled, perhaps to keep the movie within what might be called “family-oriented bounds.”

Directed by Brad Johnson, who previously directed Johnson in San Andreas, Rampage isn't the first movie to toy with the dangers of genetic experimentation and it surely won't be the last. But Rampage is so far from qualifying as a best of its breed that a movie such as Jurassic Park looks like a doctoral dissertation by comparison. Enough said.

Alberto Giacometti's 'Final Portrait'

Director Stanley Tucci obtains a memorable performance from Geoffrey Rush as artist Alberto Giacometti.
Common wisdom has it that a good deal of creative work is done by people when they’re not trying to do anything especially creative. Having labored over something, an artist may be on the verge of abandoning a project. The same frustrated artist then takes a walk or sees a movie or simply sets the problem aside for a while. Suddenly, it’s apparent what must be done and the work continues with confidence and conviction.

Or maybe some artists, as is the case with some people, are impossible totally to understand.

Director Stanley Tucci, flirts with this possibility in A Final Portrait, an intimate look at Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti at time when he's working on a portrait of James Lord]. The location: Paris. The year: 1964.

That’s it. That's the movie. It’s enough.

Geoffrey Rush, who resembles Giacometti, portrays the artist near the end of his career. Rush's Giacometti often seems distracted from the task at hand, and it's possible that the artist wasn't trying to find his creative mojo but rather was more interested in spending time with a prostitute (Clemence Poesy) who had captured his fancy or just getting drunk.

Sometimes, Giacometti leaves a bemused Lord in mid-pose while he fiddles with a piece of sculpture that has nothing to do with Lord's portrait.

This approach obviously arouses Lord’s curiosity and tests his patience.

As played by Armie Hammer, Lord mostly endures Giacometti’s eccentricities. He allows himself to begin a process that he expects to take an afternoon but which drags on for weeks with no end in sight.

Tellingly, Giacometti never explains himself to Lord. He puffs his cigarette, curses, rejects something he has done and perhaps stalks off in a fit of anger, probably at himself. Is he dissolute or is he waiting for the brush stroke that will inspire rather than disgust him?

So goes the movie with the exception of a few additional characters. Sylvie Testud portrays Annette, Giacometti’s wife. She supports him, although her husband's dalliances, financial irresponsibility, and massive neediness tax her emotional endurance.

Tony Shalhoub, who worked with Tucci on Big Night, portrays Giacometti’s brother; he’s sympathetic to Lord’s ordeal but knows enough not to involve himself in his brother’s tempestuous moods.

Last seen in Call Me By Your Name, Hammer has the movie's most thankless job: He's playing the artist's subject, but he's not the subject of the movie.

Lord, by the way, later wrote a book about Giacometti, whose cluttered studio seems deprived of both heat and comfort. Lord's patience eventually was rewarded.

It takes conviction to make a film such as Final Portrait and Tucci deserves credit for trying to peer into the world of an artist at the moment of creation. He also allows Rush the freedom to present himself as a man who already had achieved fame in the art world and who had succeeded in making himself the center of a life that required enormous artistic preoccupation, apparently leaving little room for anyone else.

A game not worth playing

In horror movies, youth seldom seems a blessing. You know the drill: Something happens (perhaps an occult event) and one-by-one, young folks meet with some sort of horrific end. Blumhouse's Truth or Dare tries to freshen the formula by having a group of college seniors play a lethal game of truth or dare. During spring break in Mexico, these California college bubbleheads encounter an unleashed demon that brings death to those who fail to tell the truth or complete a dare. The haunted game follows the crew back to California where things become increasingly serious. Truth or dare challenges are posed to this unappealing lot (a hunk, an arrogant pre-med student, a gay student, a blonde sorority type, etc.) by someone the demon temporarily possesses. The face of each challenger suddenly changes, transformed by an eerie, fun-house mirror smile that's supposed to creep us out. The real problem when it comes to movies such as Blumhouse's Truth Dare involves summoning new forms of creativity to show the ways in which victims are dispatched. One example: The jerk of the group falls off a pool table after chickening out on a dare that required him to expose himself in a crowded barroom. He hits his head and dies. He's gone. For us, the game continues -- not a good thing.

Two boys flee Nazis in France

Although it involves French Jews and World War II, A Bag of Marbles registers as an involving but minor addition to the Holocaust canon. Directed by Christian Duguay from a 1973 autobiographical novel by Joseph Joffo, this French import plays like a lavishly produced boys’ adventure -- albeit one centered on evading Nazis that would dispatch two brothers to German death factories. A backdrop of anti-Semitism and fear gives the movie an extra boost: The brothers constantly are on guard against revealing their identities. A Bag of Marbles is not without sentiment, but it sounds enough realistic notes to keep from losing focus, and the movie’s young stars (Dorian Le Clech and Batyste Fleurial) are never less than convincing. The brothers meet with both kindness and danger after their father, a barber played by Patrick Bruel, tells them the family must split up in order to travel south without detection. Bruel’s character hopes that the family, which also includes a mother and two older brothers, will be reunited in Nice, safer than Paris at the time. At one point, the brothers are aided by a priest who must convince a skeptical German officer that the boys have been duly baptized. Joseph, really the movie’s main character, eventually takes up residence with the family of a Nazi collaborator. The collaborator doesn't know Joseph is Jewish. A Bag of Marbles includes little graphic footage of the kind that can appear in many films with Holocaust connections, but it does show what it’s like to become a stranger in one’s own country simply because of the group into which one happened to be born: The movie shows us, with some success, what it might have been like to be a child facing such sustained horror.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Jon Hamm anchors a thriller set in Beirut

An intricately plotted thriller set in the roiling heart of the Middle East during the 1980s, Beirut delivers much of what we expect from movies that dip into volatile political situations -- a discernible pulse and an atmosphere rife with intrigue. Jon Hamm anchors the movie as Mason Skiles, an able US negotiator whose life falls apart when his Lebanese wife (Leila Bekhti) is murdered during a terrorist attack. Not surprisingly, the attack undermines Mason's faith in nearly everything, particularly because the murderous assault on Mason's beautiful Beirut home resulted from an act of beneficence. Living in Lebanon in 1972 - prior to the country's descent into civil strife and violence -- Mason and his wife had taken a 13-year-old orphan (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg into their home. As it turns out, the boy’s older brother (Hicham Ouraqa) led the terrorist attack in which Mason's wife died. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) reveals all of this in a jittery prologue and then leaps ahead 10 years, the time just prior to Israel’s war in Lebanon. By this time, Mason has returned to the US where he works as a small-potatoes negotiator and tries to drink away his pain. He’s pulled back into the Middle Eastern fray when he’s asked to return to Lebanon to negotiate the release of a former pal and CIA agent (Mark Pellegrino) who has been captured by the PLO. Meanwhile, the adult Karim (Idir Chender) has become an active terrorist working with the PLO. Reluctantly dragged back to shattered Beirut, Mason finds himself in the company of a supporting US crew of characters played by Dean Norris, Shea Whigham and Rosamund Pike. Each of these characters has an agenda that may have little to do with saving a valued CIA agent but which adds a cynical gloss to the story. Hamm’s predictable transition from drunk to a man in command of his skills may not be entirely credible, but his bestubbled presence helps keep the film on track. Although Beirut probably sometimes confuses complexity of plot with insight, director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) keeps the story moving. Beirut is never anything less than watchable, even if it's ultimately short on thematic clout.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Yikes! A truly effective chiller

In A Quiet Place, you'll find both shock and horror.
Movies have taken us to hundreds of shattered worlds in which people suffer in the aftermath of a great catastrophe. A Quiet Place falls into that hoary category but brings a startling new effectiveness to the genre.

Directed, co-written by and co-starring John Krasinski, A Quiet Place teams Krasinski with his real-life wife Emily Blunt. Together they conduct an exercise in terror and suspense that proves riveting.

Krasinski knows how to deliver jolts, but for once, they're not inflicted on stupid characters who do things that no sane person would attempt, an obligatory trip into a darkened basement, for example. Put another way: the premise may be outlandish but the human behavior in A Quiet Place proves credible enough to ward off groans.

That’s not to say that you won’t find things with which to quibble. It is to say that Krasinski has enough command over the material to create a steady stream of shock and horror.

We’re in a time that looks very much like the present. The difference: Giant bug-like creatures have appeared (the movie wisely doesn’t give the creatures a backstory) and are busy wiping out humanity.

The twist — and it’s just here that the movie acquires much of its power — involves the nature of these monsters. Their form — partially glimpsed at first — suggests vaguely human and distinct monster characteristics. Their gaping mouths can deliver Alien bites, and they move with amazing speed.

These monsters also are blind, locating their prey by following sounds with ears that evidently function with radar-like precision.

That means everyone in the movie must remain silent or be eaten alive. The quiet works to enhance the suspense.

As parents living on a farm in upstate New York, Krasinski and Blunt play characters intensely devoted to protecting their two surviving children (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe). Because Simmonds' character is deaf, the family knows how to sign. This may give them a leg up on the monsters; the parents and kids can communicate without speaking. (Subtitles translate the signed dialogue.)

Krasinski builds his movie around a couple of major set pieces. In one of them, Blunt’s pregnant character goes into labor under the most harrowing circumstances imaginable. In another, Jupe's character falls into a silo, nearly suffocating under the weight of the stored grain.

The cast members do a good job conveying anxiety and fear and there are touches that make you wince -- albeit in ways that are both contrived and harrowing. At one point, Blunt’s character steps on a nail. Our stomachs tighten because the last thing she can do is cry out in pain.

A Quiet Place may be a little short of emotional and thematic resonance but Krasinski doesn’t shortchange the kind of moments that may find you tightly gripping the arms of your seat. A Quiet Place is the kind of movie that can cause a stir in audiences as everyone jumps, winces and exhales in unison. Enjoy.

In 'Blockers,' parents are the joke

A gross-out comedy in which young women occasionally display good judgment -- or the movie's idea of it.
Teen gross-out comedies have become a staple of popular culture, usually tempering their worst (or as some would have it “best”) instincts with last-minute infusions of sentiment.

Directed by a woman, Blockers proves the mildest of exceptions to the rule. The story centers on three young women who pledge to lose their virginity on prom night. Their parents get wind of the plan and decide to do everything in their power to keep their daughters from losing their innocence.

Of course, the kids are more mature than expected and the adults are too stupid to realize that innocence and virtue aren't necessarily related to sexual behavior. So goes the contrivance that, as much as the obligatory gross-out jokes, links the movie to the contemporary teen genre.

The three high school seniors (Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Gideon Aldon want to have a good time, but ultimately approach their project in generally sensible ways. One of the young women even acknowledges her gayness before the night is done.

The adults bear the brunt of the movie's jokes.

Made wary by her own early sexual experiences, one of the girl’s moms (Leslie Mann) can’t help but see the worst outcome if her daughter has sex. Mann’s character is joined by a ludicrously uptight father (John Cena) who works as a coach and another dad (Ike Barinholtz) who hasn’t had much contact with his daughter, but who tries to sound a more reasonable note.

Cena's character, a man with a buzz cut and a head that looks as if it had been carved from granite, looks like a parodic version of a movie superhero that never quite got off the drawing board.

Comedies such as Blockers need set pieces that are intended to create both laughs and post-movie talk. The biggest of these super-gross-outs involves a scene in which Cena’s character follows his daughter to a prom-night party.

In order to fit in, Cena's character is goaded into engaging in an activity that has all the earmarks of something you wouldn’t want to try at home or anywhere else for that matter: It’s called "butt chugging," an activity that needs no further elaboration.

Director Kay Cannon (author of the Pitch Perfect screenplays), working from a screenplay by Brian and Jim Kehoe, also serves up a scene involving projectile vomiting. You'll find a couple of silly sex farce moments between a horn-dog of a dad (Gary Cole) and his equally lusty wife (Gina Gershon).

A comic veteran, Mann knows how to handle this kind of material, and movies such as Blockers usually manage to find an audience -- even when, as is the case here, they're hit-and-miss affairs. Besides, every generation needs a gross-out extravaganza to call its own. Is there any real point in objecting?

The wild journey of a Japanese woman

Zany, ridiculous, tragic, ever so slightly uplifting. Each of those adjectives could describe Oh Lucy! a film about a Japanese woman whose life has slipped into an anonymous rut. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) works in a nondescript office. She’s in her 40s and her life is going nowhere. Enter Setsuko's niece (Shiori Kutsuna), who says she must sell the remaining portion of an English course in which she's enrolled. Kutsuna's Mika needs the money and her isolated aunt might benefit from some social contact. It doesn't take long for Mika to take off for America with the English teacher (Josh Hartnett). Should Setsuko have known she was being played? Of course. The teacher -- known as John -- works in a spare room at a massage parlor/brothel, resorting to methods so weird they would have tipped off all but the most gullible of students. John insists that Setsuko wear a curly blonde wig, gives her a western name (Lucy) and punctuates routine English phrases with hi-fives and hugs. Another student (Yoji Yakusho) has been given an equally improbable name. He's Tom. Setsuko isn't entirely a dupe; she senses that there might be something exciting in this bizarre English class. Deprived of physical contact, she also likes the hugs. As ridiculous as it is, the blonde wig alerts her to a neglected side of herself and she decides to go with it despite warnings. Mika's mother (Kaho Minami) already had cautioned that helping the young woman would lead to no good. After being duped, Setsuko takes off for the US in search of Mika -- first in Los Angeles and then in San Diego. She’s not happy that Mika’s mother joins her on the trip. In LA, the sisters locate Hartnett's character who says Mika has left him. He joins the search. That sounds like a ton of plot, but Oh Lucy!, derived from a short film the director previously made, is a slender movie that offers plenty of comic pleasure before writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi pulls off an abrupt shift in tone and the movie puts comedy in its rearview mirror. Within a small frame, Hirayanagi manages to say something about the consequences of desperation and the enmity that can develop between sisters. Led by a Terajima -- who wisely keeps Setsuko's motivations vague -- an able cast creates a genre-defying movie that takes us deep into the kind of life that normally would go unseen.