Thursday, August 15, 2019

'Bernadette': flat where it should be sharp

Cate Blanchette plays a deeply depressed woman who's losing it in Seattle.
Bernadette lives in a large Seattle house that seems to be falling apart around her, although trace elements of a re-design can be seen. A sparsely furnished modern-looking bedroom, for example. Bernadette's husband works for Microsoft and has become a Ted-talking star in the world of high tech. Her whip-smart daughter is bound for Choate, a prep school that very likely will ensure her a place on the success track. Bernadette spends much of her time talking to Manjula, a Seri-like digital assistant in India.

Of course, she’s miserable.

Such is the life of Bernadette (Cate Blanchett), the title character of Where’d You Go Bernadette, director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of a well-received 2012 novel by Maria Semple.

Smart, judgmental and misanthropic, Bernadette can be a pain in the butt, and her contempt for what she calls “life’s banalities” doesn't seem to have led her toward anything resembling a cultural high ground. After years of ignoring her strange behavior, Bernadette's husband (Billy Crudup) has decided his wife needs help.

I can’t say I believed any of this because Linklater's movie can’t find a way successfully to blend satiric observation and character study while also giving his movie a bit emotional heft. As social satire, the movie takes hit-and-miss swipes at middle-class parents, over-achieving kids, annoyingly progressive schools and Seattle's tech-crazed world.

Even Kristen Wiig, as a neighbor and nemesis of Bernadette, isn't able to break through; she's playing a character who's so steeped in her "liberal" values that she's turned her life into a form of parody.

Bernadette's daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) narrates a story that gradually lets us know why Bernadette has lost her grip. She was once a star architect who won a MacArthur Grant for her genius. She designed houses that others envied, but after one of her vaunted projects met a tragic end, she vanished from the Los Angeles scene. She and her husband moved to Seattle, a city she says she hates.

Bee announces that she wants her parents to take her to Antarctica as a reward for something or other. Bernadette reluctantly agrees, even though the trip means she won't be able to avoid the horror of mingling with other passengers on a cruise ship.

Linklater's best movies are conversational gems that catch moods and moments, movies such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. He's also made observant comedies, as those of us who enjoyed Bernie and School of Rock can attest. Boyhood may have been Linklater's best and most deeply felt movie.

Here, Linklater's working in a commercial vein while trying to retain the sharp idiosyncrasies of Semple's novel. The movie's most outrageous moment arrives in the form of a mudslide that disrupts a fund-raising party at the home of Wiig's character. It lands with a thud.

There's one very nice scene in which Bernadette encounters a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne) from Los Angeles. She regales him with a dizzying monologue about what she's been doing for the last 20 years. It's one of the few times Blanchett's amped-up theatricality proves revealing.

By the end, Bernadette starts delivering on-the-nose dialogue, offering its message in a form that comes close to bromide. Someone as creative as Bernadette must create or she'll go nuts. She'll become a menace to others. She's not cut out for ordinary suburban life.

Well, I thought, who really is? And, as I said, I didn't feel as if Linklater made me believe in Bernadette or her vast array of problems.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/15/19 Two documentaries, one a masterpiece

Honeyland
I don't know how directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska captured the lives they open to us in Honeyland, but they've done something truly rare. They've created a documentary with a visual and narrative texture that qualifies as a true astonishment. The directors take us into the world of Hatidze, a woman who lives in a tiny village in the Republic of North Macedonia. Sometimes, Hatidze seems to be the village's only resident, aside from her bedridden mother. To support herself, Hatidze gathers bees, tends to them as they produce honey and then carries the honey to market. The filmmakers' focus on Hatidze Muratova may put you in mind of the beauty and simplicity we saw in the early wave of films from Iran. It may be unfair to call Honeyland a documentary; it's a film with a story to tell and with developments that illustrate a theme: The respect Hatidze has for the bees and for her natural surroundings is challenged when a large wandering family moves next door. Driven by economic pressure, these new neighbors approach beekeeping as an enterprise; they pit themselves against nature rather than cooperating with it in the ways that Hatidze tries to teach them. Hatidze only harvests half of a honeycomb, leaving the rest for the bees. She's never stung; her neighbors often are assailed by their bees. The neighbors also keep cows and chickens and constantly seem to be arguing with their children, unruly kids who don't hide their feelings of resentment toward a father who blames them when things go wrong. The father is a bit of a martinet, but not an especially effective one. The relationships between Hatidze and her bickering neighbors adds tension, although one boy seems to respect her wisdom. Beautifully photographed without glossing over the meager quality of life in these Macedonian hills, Honeyland -- in Turkish with subtitles -- stopped me in my tracks. It's a great and memorable piece of work.

Cold Case Hammarskjold

Director Mads Brugger's Cold Case Hammarskjold tells a complex, sometimes confusing story about the 1961 plane crash that resulted in the death of Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary-General of the United Nations. The central question: Was the crash an accident or the result of a conspiracy to murder Hammarskjold, an opponent of continued colonial exploitation in Africa? At times, Brugger sits in a hotel room dictating the story to one of two secretaries. In brief: Hammarskjold took his final journey as part of his efforts to settle discord in the Congo. Hammarskjold's plane crashed eight miles away from an airport in Zambia. According to the film, no one bothered to talk to the Africans who lived near the crash site. They raise suspicions. And why was Hammarskjold's body found with an Ace of Spades tucked neatly into his shirt collar? Brugger follows a circuitous route to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which discovered a mercenary group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research. Brugger's film then broadens its view to explore a new theory: that SAIMR was part of a conspiratorial effort to maintain white control in Africa by introducing the AIDS virus to unsuspecting Africans who thought they were being treated at charitable clinics. (You can read more about these claims in a New York Times article from Jan. 27, 2019.) Should we believe all or some of Brugger's film? Not being able to answer that question can be considered a major shortcoming, but there's no point denying that Brugger's film stirs up a fair amount of intrigue.

A love of Springsteen changes his life

Blinded by the Light takes an upbeat, energetic look at how a young Pakistani man awakens to life.

At its best, Blinded by the Light is the exuberant movie that Yesterday should have been. In director Gurinder Chadha's lively look at the influence of popular music on an impressionable young man, a Pakistani student (Viveik Kalra) finds his life transformed when he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen. Timid and dutiful, Kalra's Javed opens the door to what he regards as a richer life and begins to live in what you might call "The World According to Bruce."

Springsteen's music does what only music can do: It awakens Javed's dormant sensibilities and tells him that the world contains much more than he knew or imagined. He's not just listening; he's experiencing a revelation.

Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings a light touch to the movie's developments as she sketches in Javed's romance with a young woman (Nell Williams) he meets at school and his friendship with the young man (Aaron Phagura) who turned him onto Bruce in the first place.

Based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light uses Springsteen's music to help Javid fully understand the limitations of life in the bland town of Luton where he's sometimes bullied by neighborhood toughs and where his stern father (Kulvinder Ghir) has difficulty finding his footing after being laid off from the GM plant where he toiled for 16 years.

Ghir's Malik has no use for the poetry that Javed begins to write. He wants his son to arm himself against deeply ingrained British prejudices that he believes must break Javed's heart. But one of Javed's teachers (Haley Atwell) encourages the young man to keep searching for his voice. The year: 1987.

Kalra holds the screen with Javed's new-found avidity and his unshakable faith in the vision that Springsteen's music -- liberally used throughout -- opens for him. It's refreshing that Javid doesn't aspire to be a musician. He doesn't want to be Bruce; he wants to see like Bruce. He aspires to reach the level of feeling that he hears in songs such as Born to Run. Music empowers him, almost as if he's riding a wave created by Springsteen's liberating energies.

It's all very naive, of course, but this kind of naivete is precisely what the movie's remembering and, ultimately, celebrating.

Before Blinded by the Light ends, Chadha kneels too deeply at the altar of sentiment and she sometimes indulges a level of corniness the material doesn't require but Blinded by the Light survives those impulses and asks us to share its appreciation for Springsteen's music and, by inference, the magic music can work in the hearts of the young.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

This 'Nightingale' sings a brutal song

A 19th century story that packs a terrible wallop.

Every moment of brutality in The Nightingale, a follow-up feature from Babadook director Jennifer Kent, lands a hard blow. Set in 19th century Tasmania, Kent's story proves gripping from its horrific beginning to its violent end.

Kent visits a time when Tasmania served as a dumping ground for convicts from England and Ireland. The British soldiers who policed Tasmania viewed these convicts as subhumans who could be used, exploited and abused.

The story centers on Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a former Irish convict with a beautiful singing voice and a job at a small tavern.

Clare lives with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their new baby daughter in what should be the hopeful beginning of her post-prison life. But Clare isn't truly free. She's harassed by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an officer who believes that Clare owes him any sexual favor he might demand. He's the one who got her out of jail. He regards her marriage as a joke. His entire personality reflects a sense of British privilege and colonial cruelty.

The vicious act that ignites the rest of the movie occurs when Hawkins rapes Clare. Difficult to believe, but things get worse from there. I won't say exactly how an already horrible situation further deteriorates but Kent presents each of the movie's brutal turns in high-impact scenes that may cause some to avert their eyes.

Kent shifts the story into revenge territory when Clare hires an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track down Hawkins and his crew. After wrecking Clare's life, Hawkins heads north to claim a promotion that the local captain has denied him because of behavior unbecoming of an officer. True to form, Hawkins will not be denied.

A revenge saga, yes, but one that's not engineered to dish out the kind of programmed satisfaction we've come to expect in male-dominated revenge sagas. The violence in Kent's movie isn't intended to elicit cheers; it's appalling.

Racial dynamics also emerge. Clare initially lords it over Ganambarr's Billy. She calls him "boy," disrespects him and tries to bully him into submission. But she also knows, she can't navigate her way through the outback without him.

For his part, Billy understands that the whites treat his fellow tribesman with astonishing cruelty and have no appreciation of Aboriginal culture. They've stolen his home. To Billy, the whites are uncivilized barbarians, and -- at least initially -- Clare is one of them.

It takes time for Billy and Clare to form a bond based on their common acknowledgment that Hawkins (an emblem of British colonial rule) poses a twisted threat to each of them.

Kent adds tough encounters that lead the way to the movie's conclusion, a bit too drawn out, but still powerful enough to leave you wrung out.

The Nightingale reflects Kent's view of the deep terror caused by colonial injustice. Not an easy subject and not an easy movie. The Nightingale can be agonizing to watch. It should be.

'Luce': a complicated look at hope and race

Watching Luce, a big-screen adaptation of a play by JC Lee, I kept thinking about playwright David Mamet -- not because the movie deals with middle-class delusions about life in a racially charged context, but because director Julius Onah establishes a climate that creates Mamet-like doubt about the truth of what transpires. Onah might have had just that in mind because he sets up a variety of oppositional forces: a mother’s belief in her son, a father’s hard-nosed skepticism, a teacher’s doubts, a bright young man's ability to role play and nearly everyone’s desire to see an outcome that confirms their preconceptions. A strong cast carries the story’s burdens with powerful conviction. Luce (a terrific Kevin Harrison Jr.) is an adopted child from Eritrea, who’s excelling his way through a college-bound senior year. Naomi Watts portrays Luce’s devoted mother and Tim Roth, his father. Octavia Spencer appears as one of Luce’s teachers; she appreciates Luce's intelligence but suspects that there’s something volatile brewing beneath the exemplary surface of the young man’s life. Onah, who also wrote the screenplay, adds a variety of additional issues to the mix, including sexual abuse of a female student (Andrea Bang) and the justifiable bitterness of another black student (Omar Shariff Brunson Jr). Unlike Luce, Brunson's character never gets the benefit of the doubt. The school's principal (Norbert Leo Butz) seems invested in telling whatever story he believes will make his school look great. I think it would be a mistake to view Luce as a movie solely about interracial adoption; it's more about the way people reveal themselves by investing their hopes in a promising young man. Onah deftly handles the movie’s many conflicting themes right up until an ending that isn’t entirely satisfying. Still, the movie’s willingness to tackle complex issues makes for provocative viewing, primarily because Luce pushes an audience to weigh the various positions of characters increasingly caught in a pressurized situation none of them entirely can control.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

This dog tells the story of 'his' humans

Based on a best-selling novel 2008 novel by Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain qualifies as one of those less-than-stellar big-screen entertainments that still has some appeal, mostly because so many of us are dog lovers. Now, I have to say that I've never imagined that if any of the dogs I've known could have talked, they'd have sounded like Kevin Costner. But that's what happens in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Race car driver Milo Ventimiglia acquires a golden retriever puppy and names the dog Enzo (voice by Costner). The twist here involves telling the story from Enzo's perspective as Ventimiglia's character tries to make it big in racing circles, finds a wife (Amanda Seyfried) and adds a daughter to his family. Enzo narrates all of this, sometimes with humor, sometimes with feelings of dejection. It takes Enzo time to adjust to new arrivals in "his'' family because he regards his relationship with Ventimiglia's Denny as special and exclusive. Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn and The Woman in Gold), Racing in the Rain eventually moves from cuteness to tears -- at least that seems to be the intent. Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan show up as Denny's in-laws, a couple with whom he eventually finds himself in conflict. I was a bit surprised to learn that Enzo -- after watching a documentary on television about Mongolia -- starts to give his thoughts a New Age twist. He believes that really good dogs will be reincarnated as people in their next lives. You might have some fun trying to figure out who your dog might return as should he or she reincarnate through another lifetime. Your speculations probably will say more about you than your beloved pet. There's not much else to offer about this family-oriented, lump-in-the-throat story, aside from saying that I haven't read the book and the movie didn't make me feel as if I should. The movie was enough.

Buddies on the road -- and on the water

A country boy and a young man with Down syndrome team for a fairy tale of an adventure in The Peanut Butter Falcon.
We've all seen enough bromances to last several lifetimes. But that doesn't mean anyone plans to retire a genre that continues to connect with audiences.

The Peanut Butter Falcon arrives in theaters as a buddy movie -- but one with a difference. It teams Shia LaBeouf, as a red-neck renegade, with a young man with Down syndrome, played by Zack Gottsagen, an actor who really does have Down syndrome and for whom the movie was written.

LaBeouf's Tyler and Gottsagen's Zak make a typically unlikely duo. Tyler's on the run from a couple of guys (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) who want to kill him for messing up their crab-fishing business. He's also troubled by the death of his older brother (Jon Bernthal).

To hit the road, Zak must escape from the nursing home where he's being housed, no other placement being available. Zak's roommate (Bruce Dern) helps the young man engineer the breakout that leads to his hook-up with Tyler.

A nursing home volunteer (Dakota Johnson) follows. She's supposed to return Zak to the home. She also adds feminine energy to the generally masculine proceedings, which are heightened by Zak's burning ambition. He wants to be a professional wrestler and dreams of visiting a training school run by his idol, a wrestler who goes by the name of Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

Eventually, Johnson's Eleanor joins Tyler and Zak's brotherhood of two. Reluctantly, she agrees to help Zak pursue his dream.

Shot in the Florida Panhandle, the movie -- a passion project from first-time directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz -- relies heavily on the chemistry generated by a fully committed LaBeouf and by Gottsagen, a natural charmer with a robust sense of humor.

They're playing two characters who are thrown together for an adventure that includes a raft trip and an encounter with a backwoods preacher (Wayne DeHart) -- all spaced over sufficient time to allow LaBeouf and Gottsagen to develop a conspiratorial bond, two against the world.

Peanut Butter Falcon, which avoids gooey sentiment, takes its fanciful title from the name Zak chooses for his wrestling alter ego. The title proves suggestive; this is a movie that isn't afraid of its sometimes goofy appeal.

To fully enjoy Peanut Butter Falcon, it's probably best to set aside demands for total plausibility and accept the movie as a fairy tale about what it means to be young and feel free.

And -- at least to my knowledge -- The Peanut Butter Falcon is the only film in the long history of cinema that includes a scene in which the characters cook a fish, smear it with peanut butter and eat it. That moment, I should point out, marks the only time I felt sorry for anyone in the movie.

Bob' s Cinema Diary: 8/9/19 -- Luz and Piranhas

Luz
If you see Luz -- and I can't say there's any pressing reason that you should -- you will be exposed to German director Tilman Singer's evocative idea of a genre that has been dubbed art-house horror. That's another way of saying that the movie -- long on atmosphere, suggestion, and even blasphemy -- unfolds in ways that defy easy understanding, or maybe even more complex forms of comprehension. In brief: Luz (Luana Velis) is a Chilean taxi driver who spends most of the movie in a German police station. Earlier, Nora (Julia Riedler) meets a psychiatrist (Jan Bluthardt) in a bar. She tells him about Luz, who she met while attending a Catholic school in Chile and with whom she's had a recent chance meeting in Germany. Luz's story hinges on a long-ago, transformative event in Chile in which she supposedly convinced another student that she was pregnant. Much of the "story" is revealed during Luz's stay at the police station. Did I mention the devil? Well, the devil wends his way through the movie and its characters, but Singer hasn't made an Exorcist clone. Although various cinematic influences can be found, Luz exists largely in a world of its own and many will find that world impenetrable. I did, although from time-to-time I was caught by an eerie image or a weirdly committed performance. Still, filmmakers who create their own worlds risk a lot; i.e., they may wind up talking only to themselves.

Piranhas

As far as I could tell, the major distinguishing feature about Piranhas, another mob movie set in Naples, involves the age of the movie's protagonists. Director Claudio Giovannesi works from a screenplay based on a Roberto Saviano novel that may remind some of Gomorrah, a book Saviano wrote and on which a hard-boiled movie of the same name was based. The story centers on the criminal evolution of 15-year-old Nicola (Franceso di Napoli). Initially a genial teen-ager, Nicola becomes a coke-snorting big-wig who takes over mob chores in his neighborhood. Nicola and his young associates inevitably encounter trouble that threatens their spot as top-dogs in the gangster world. Much of what transpires in Giovannesi's mob-mashup feels a trifle old hat, even its unblinking rawness. Nicola's slide into a life of crime seems so matter of fact, we wonder why we should take it seriously. I suppose that could be the point. These kids are so warped by their surroundings that they plunge into the gangster life without giving it much thought. It's just what they do. In what may be a bow to Brian DePalma's Scarface, Nicol uses some of his ill-gotten gains to refurbish his mother's apartment, complete with a white cabinet that has been made to look like a bass fiddle. The kid has epic bad taste, choices determined by garishness and price. The older mobsters Nicola encounters seem more interesting than their youthful counterparts. But, hey, we've seen that movie before, too.

Snakes as a pathway to the divine

If you have an aversion to snakes, particularly poisonous snakes, you may not want to see Them That Follow, a backwoods drama about an isolated group of snake-handling Pentecostals. Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage employ a powerhouse cast as they examine the terrible impact of those whose beliefs not only are literal -- but weirdly dangerous. Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins) uses rattlesnakes to purify sin: Handle a rattler without getting bitten and you're clean. If you get bitten ... well ... the devil hasn't been banished from your tarnished soul. The drama centers on Mara (Alice Englert), the pastor's daughter. Englert's Mara finds herself caught in a love triangle between the devoted Garrett (Lewis Pullman) and the non-believing Augie (Thomas Mann), a young man whose only desire is to escape this stifling community. Matters are further complicated because Mara has become pregnant after a brief but guilt-inducing fling with Augie. Olivia Colman -- fine as ever -- and Jim Gaffigan, equally good, portray Augie's believing parents. The directors fill the movie with Appalachian flavor as the story works its way toward a conclusion that may shake you, even if you see it coming. The mood is somber and the movie flirts with back-country cliches, inducing a degree of skepticism: Doesn’t anyone who might be called “normal” live in these woods? Kaitlyn Dever appears as Mara's best friend, a young woman who's understandably confused by the tension between religious dictate and human impulses. Nice work all around, with Goggins giving a stand-out performance as a pastor who can seem level-headed around the dinner table but who exerts sinister control over his followers. There's nothing particularly profound to be realized -- or at least nothing you don't' already know about the dangers of fanatical belief -- but Them That Follow catches you up with its mood and performances. And, yes, scenes involving the snakes will give you the shivers.

You'll remember his name -- and his stories

I'm not sure I'd like to hang out with David Crosby for more than a couple of hours -- but you can watch the documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name and spend a fascinating hour and 35 minutes with an ornery musician and singer whose life embodies the high points, excesses, and eccentricities of a long career as a rock star. Beginning with The Byrds, Crosby went on to be part of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and then Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. He now records and performs with another group, but the most fascinating parts of the documentary -- directed by A.J. Eaton with interviewing chores going to Cameron Crowe -- involve a celebrity life which came to include drugs, so much so that Crosby wound up doing a stint in prison. Now clean and well into his 70s, Crosby doesn't seem interested in self-protection. If he's trying to make himself look good, I shudder to think how he'd appear if he were attempting to conceal something. He's burned bridges. He says no one from the musical circles in which he rose to prominence talks to him anymore. There are many other observations including Crosby's hatred of Jim Morrison, his admiration for Joni Mitchell and his recollections of Woodstock and other rock landmarks. Sad notes also abound, the most poignant of them stemming from the death of Christine Hinton, one of Crosby's lovers who died in a car crash. As he talks about his experiences, Crosby always seems to be telling the truth to Crowe, who began his career as a young rock journalist and evolved into a filmmaker. It's difficult not to believe that Crosby's life has exacted a toll. You can see an accumulation of hard years in a face that retains a hippy outline but also shows its droops and sags, like a coat that's been worn too much. Eaton begins the documentary with Crosby telling a story about a time when, as a young man he got smashed out his mind and went to hear John Coltrane play his saxophone in a Chicago club. Crosby delivers a riveting account of his encounter with Coltrane. I doubt you'll ever forget it, and like many of Crosby's stories, you're right there with him when he tells it.

He built a career asking questions

The late Mike Wallace -- once a TV actor and genial pitchman -- evolved into a hard-nosed TV reporter with an unrelenting style of interviewing. Wallace made his bones on Nightbeat, an interview program of the 1950s. On small black-and-white screens, Wallace and his guests were bathed in cigarette smoke and controversy. In Mike Wallace is Here, director Avi Belkin reviews Wallace's career with archival footage that works like a highlight reel of a TV newsman's work. Belkin opens with a Wallace interview with Bill O'Reilly, himself no stranger to antagonism. O'Reilly declares himself to be the spawn of Wallace's take-no-prisoners style. But unlike the contentious O'Reilly, Wallace's questions weren’t connected to a political point of view. His career brought him into contact with so many bold-faced names, it's difficult to keep track: from Barbra Streisand to Vladimir Putin to Ayatollah Khomeini. Belkin also touches on Wallace's personal life: notably his marriages, the loss of a son and a battle with depression. Wallace’s restless competitiveness helped give rise to 60 Minutes, a show on which he was an original participant and mainstay. It was the crowning achievement of a life that kept him working well into his 80s. Belkin also covers some of Wallace's professional struggles: a suit brought by General William Westmoreland over Vietnam coverage and CBS's refusal to air a Wallace interview with a tobacco whistleblower. I was never a particular fan of Wallace or of his style of journalism, but there's no dismissing the fact that he was an influential force on TV and perhaps in helping to form the public's idea of how journalists supposedly behave. To his credit, Wallace didn't flinch from trying to lift as many lids as he could. The mere mention of his name was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of people who had something to hide. The man knew his way around a story, and he sometimes raised, even if inadvertently, questions about a journalistic line that’s still not entirely drawn: the one that defines the difference between the personal and the public. Wallace died in 2012 at the age of 93.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

'Hobbs & Shaw': more preposterous action

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham star in an action spinoff that wears out its welcome.

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw attempts to expand the reach of an amped-up series that began in 2001 with a Rob Cohen-directed movie about street racing. The original movie, modest by current standards, marked a surprising entry into that summer's big-screen sweepstakes, a refreshing blend of speed and grit.

The series, which long ago made the leap into franchise territory, now has spawned a slightly demented offspring, one that’s far enough afield from its cinematic parents that it feels obliged to proclaim its lineage. I’m cynical enough to view Hobbs & Shaw as a superfluous mutation, an attempt to squeeze more mileage out of a series that never seems to run out of road.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw teams Dwayne Johnson's genially muscular Hobbs with Jason Statham's sneering Shaw. The two characters have history, which is another way of saying they don't get along. Both, of course, have cropped up in previous Fast & Furious movies. This time, they’re the main event.

A largely irrelevant plot brings these bickering battlers together for a job that Hobbs immodestly refers to as "saving the world." In this case, saving the world involves preventing the spread of a bio-engineered virus that could wipe out most of humanity. The virus hardly matters because even the characters don't seem to take the plot all that seriously.

Idris Elba signs on as the movie's bad guy, which is how his character introduces himself. "I'm the bad guy," he says, cueing a laugh line by signaling the movie's wish to play a genre-mocking game -- some of the time, if it not entirely.

On the less jokey side of the ledger: An evil corporation has weaponized Elba's character, turning him into a human with robotic capabilities that approach super-heroism. He supposedly represents a new rung on the evolutionary ladder.

As it turns out, Shaw's character has a sister (Vanessa Kirby) who's also trying to save humanity, an occupation that's always in large demand in summer movies. In the movie's early scenes, Kirby's Hattie steals the virus by embedding the capsule that contains it in her palm.

The Fast and Furious franchise always has made room for bold women. Kirby's Hattie carries on the tradition; she's a genuine butt-kicker who needs little assistance from the affable Hobbs or the dyspeptic Shaw.

Remember the virus? We're told, it eventually will go ... well ... viral. The clock ticks away.

Director David Leitch and his team don't pay much attention to this or any other clock, allowing the movie to unfold over a distended two hours and 15 minutes.

Hobbs & Shaw works its way toward a finale on Samoa without making it seem as if anything vital is at stake, aside from the filmmakers' ability to engineer ridiculous chase sequences and other impossible feats. The action is outlandish but not all of it is thrilling.

If you're of a mind, you may want to view the movie's Samoan finale as a statement -- albeit one that's delivered with as much ham-fisted panache as the barbs traded by Hobbs & Shaw. Hobbs reunites with his estranged brother (Cliff Curtis). They use Samoan weapons to ward off high-tech baddies. Can simple humanity triumph?

The movie includes an appearance by Helen Mirren, as Shaw's imprisoned mother, superfluous aside from suggesting participation in future movies. There also are a couple of cameos from actors I won’t name lest I spoil the surprise.

Look, I have no need to believe anything that happens in this kind of entertainment, but I'd like, at a minimum, to feel a sense of sustained involvement. That's not easy when a movie’s action, though abundant, isn't necessarily about creating excitement but about impressing us with the filmmakers' ingenuity. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, and Hobbs & Shaw offers more than a little -- way too much, in fact.

Their affair crosses dangerous lines

A look at the complications that ensue from a tryst between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man.

Saleem and Sarah are having an affair. She owns a small cafe in Jerusalem. He delivers baked goods to the cafe. Both are married to other people and neither seems interested in abandoning his or her family. She’s the mother of a young daughter. He’s about to become a father.

So what’s this relationship about? Maybe nothing more than sex and novelty. Maybe Saleem and Sarah are turned on by risk. Palestinian director Muayad Alayna isn’t especially interested in what brought these two people together; rather, he dramatizes the dangers that arise when lines are crossed by people who live on opposite sides of an explosive cultural, religious and political divide.

Alayan bases the prosaically titled Reports on Sarah and Saleem on a real-life story that allows him to deal with the ramifications of an affair that exposes each of its participants to unexpected consequences.

Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) resides in East Jerusalem but also makes some deliveries in the West Bank for his brother-in-law (Mohammad Eid), a well-connected fellow who offers Saleem a chance to earn extra money. A trip to Bethlehem with Sarah (Sivane Kretchner) sparks a bar fight that produces a series of events that lead to the jealous Saleem's arrest by the Israelis.

Further complicating matters, Kretchner's Sarah is married to an Israeli colonel (Ishai Golan) who deals with security matters. What will happen if he learns that his wife has been sleeping with an Arab-Israeli who has fallen under suspicion of spying on the Israelis?

For her part, Saleem's pregnant wife (Maisa Abd Elhadi) must face difficult truths about her husband; her character grows in strength as the movie unfolds.

The movie's complications and coincidences sometimes feel far-fetched. But considering where Sarah and Saleem live, we're willing to go along with the story, and Alayan winds up with a movie that sometimes ties us and his characters in knots.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Tarantino: adrift at the end of the '60s

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt excel in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not everything about the movie clicks.
A preview screening of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was preceded by a contest. Members of the audience, many in costume, were asked to decide who had done the best job of representing their favorite character from director Quentin Tarantino's previous eight movies. I bring this up because the costumes (and the effort that some members of the audience put into them) suggest something particular about Tarantino, something that seldom applies to other filmmakers: Tarantino has a committed, devoted, and demonstrative fan base.

It's no small thing for a director to generate that kind of enthusiasm and it has been a long time since I've been at a screening where the pre-movie atmosphere was so contagiously upbeat. Normally, I disdain promotional efforts, but I have to admit that, after some initial dismay, I enjoyed all the anticipatory zeal.

So, in my view, did the movie meet expectations? I wish I could answer that question with an emphatic yes or no. But for me, the answer turns out to be blurrier. Put another way, parts of the movie are enjoyable and parts -- shocking considering who made the movie -- drift toward dullness.

Let me break it down:

Tarantino builds his movie around two major characters, a once-popular film and television actor (Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton) with a fading career. Dalton's stand-in and stuntman (Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth) functions as the actor's devoted aide. Cliff provides Dalton with friendship and support.

At the same time, the movie rubs shoulders with real-life events of 1969, the shadowy operations of the Manson family as it makes its way toward the now-famous Tate/LaBianca murders. The Manson family hovers like a putrid cloud over the counterculture, waiting to unleash a bloody, destructive rain on its purported sweetness.

These two parts of the movie eventually must intersect. As it turns out, Dalton lives on Cielo Drive next door to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

Among his many skills, Tarantino has been a master of creating movies with moving parts while, at the same time, energizing each narrative thread, wheels within wheels or something like it. This time, not all of the parts move, some stagnate, and I wouldn't say that Once Upon a Time offers Tarantino's sharpest dialogue.

The major performances in Once Upon a Time do, however, stand out. DiCaprio infuses his portrait of a narcissistic actor with deep pathos. Not only is Dalton trying to salvage a sagging career, but he's also desperate to prove to himself that hasn't totally lost his acting chops to alcohol, indulgence and the industry's increasing indifference to him.

Pitt's work as Cliff represents another triumph. Less ego-driven than his boss, Cliff has a loosey-goosey spirit that's underlined by toughness. When the screenplay raises questions about whether Cliff murdered his wife, we're not sure what to make of this guy. Pitt delivers a comic classic when his character smokes a joint that has been dipped in LSD. And a scene in which Cliff confronts Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a studio backlot comes close to justifying the price of admission.

Not surprisingly for a sprawling movie, Once Upon a Time has a large cast. The actors who register include Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, one of Manson's followers, a teenaged harpy who projects levels of bravado she couldn't possibly have earned. At the same time, her street-kid pluck catches Cliff's eye.

Robbie's Sharon Tate emerges as a blithe presence, a starlet floating wide-eyed through her life, either partying or reveling in the small parts she's played in movies. She seems a bit vacuous, a woman happy in her world.

Tarantino also dots the movie with references to the kind of '60s flotsam for which he presumably has some fondness. These are embedded in the movie when characters listen to the radio, watch TV or drive past movie marquees. They become tiresome, self-conscious in-jokes.

Although Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn't have much of a story, its atmosphere -- LA in the '60s -- surrounds the characters. It's the air they breathe.

Now, it's impossible to talk about the movie's ending without spoilers. I'll say nothing, except to say that it allows Tarantino to indulge his taste for comic violence, something at which he has few peers. One other aside: Tarantino knows movies, but I wouldn't turn to him for historical interpretation.

What to make of all this? I saw the movie as a grab bag of episodes, some well-constructed, others slack. And I wouldn't call the movie an endorsement of the counterculture. Both Dalton and Booth are contemptuous of hippies. They live in show-business isolation. If anything, the movie displays more affection for bygone TV (shows like Mannix than for other aspects of the '60s.

There's also something disturbing about the fact that the movie draws most of its tension from what we know about the looming Manson crime. When Cliff visits the Spahn ranch where the Manson family resides, the movie becomes intensely creepy.

What I've most enjoyed about my favorite Tarantino movies (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies) is their audacious desire to entertain on their own terms. I guess that leads to my last word. I found Once Upon a Time a movie to be savored in pieces, sketches that never amount to a fully realized painting.

Tarantino may have wanted to flood a single movie with jaded savvy and affection for parts of the culture he once avidly consumed, all topped with fairy tale flourish. Does the approach work? Sometimes, but not for all of the movie's two-hour and 40-minute running time.

When a lie soothes the way

In The Farewell, a granddaughter confronts her grandmother's fatal illness.
The story of American immigrants can be twofold as pathways of opportunity bump against profound feelings of disconnection -- from old ways and especially from family members who stayed behind.

The Farewell, a movie from director Lulu Wang recognizes the split and finds it most vividly represented in the presence of Billi (Awkwafina), a dejected young woman who returns to China to visit her grandmother (Zhao Shuzen), a woman who has been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer.

The movie revolves around a secret. Shuzen's Nai Nai hasn't been told that she's dying. Her family decides to allow her to live out her days without knowing that she's been given a death sentence. The need to protect Nai Nai from medical truth pushes the other characters into uncomfortable territory.

Billi, in particular, wonders whether the lie doesn't mask an element of cruelty. Isn't Nai Nai entitled to know her fate?

Oops. I'm making The Farewell sound like a sad family drama that puts its characters through a series of emotionally wringing scenes.

This is not the case. Wang, who based her movie on her own experience, walks the fine line between comedy and drama, mostly navigating her way past any jagged cliffs that could have upset the movie's balance.

The movie opens in New York. Billi's parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) don't want their daughter to make the trip to China, a visit that's being organized around the impending wedding of a cousin (Han Chen) to a Japanese woman (Aoi Mizuhara) who seems totally lost amid her future Chinese relatives.

Billi's mother thinks her daughter is too much of a cynic -- not to mention a downer -- to travel to China for a mission that requires a high-degree of happy pretense. Everyone's attending a wedding, but everyone also knows the real reason for the visit: to say goodbye to grandma. After her parents depart for China, the strong-willed Billi follows.

Other members of the clan include Nai Nai's son (Yongbo Jiang) who works in Japan and who explains to Billi that the lie isn't selfish: It's told so that Nai Nai's relatives can carry the burden of grief and suffering for her, he says. Suddenly, the family's behavior makes sense.

For her part, Nai Nai is a good-spirited woman who practices Tai Chi and who freely dispenses advice to those who may or may not want it. She's concerned about Billi's marital status (single) and so genially intrusive that we're never put off by her.

Credit Zhao with a galvanizing performance that works well with Awkwafina's low-key brooding, a stunning contrast with her live-wire work in the more glamorous and overtly commercial Crazy Rich Asians.

Set mostly in the Chinese city of Changchun, Wang can't resist the opportunity for a bit of social commentary, offered without underscoring when she focuses her camera on the vast, faceless apartment dwellings that have replaced the city's cozier neighborhoods.

Nai Nai herself lives in a new building; the neighborhood of Billi's memory has vanished. Billi was taken to America at the age of six and in a touching scene, she talks about the help she needed to adjust, which her mother couldn't provide. Still, the relationship between Billi and her parents remains a trifle under-explored.

Much of the family interaction takes place around meals, which allows Wang to bring out the personalities of the family: She treats various customs (posing for wedding pictures, for example) with comic affection.

The Farewell focuses on a family fractured by emigration but still inescapably a family -- with all the tensions, love, accusations and regrets that go with it.

'Sword of Truth' delivers amiable comedy

Mark Maron heads a strong comic ensemble in a movie that builds its story around a preposterous idea.
I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the low-key comedy Sword of Truth proves enjoyable, even though it lacks a strong payoff. Maybe that's the point, director Lynn Shelton's easy-going comedy makes excellent use of an agreeable ensemble of actors led by Marc Maron, who starred in the Netflix series Glow, some of which Shelton directed.

Shelton introduces us to a variety of mismatched characters. Maron plays Mel, a former drug addict who moved from New York to Birmingham, Ala., to straighten out his life. He now operates a pawnshop with Nathanial (Jon Bass), an assistant who provides little by way of actual help. You get the feeling that Mel keeps the young man around to ward off loneliness and to give him something about which he can complain.

While Mel toils in his pawnshop, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) shows up in Birmingham with her partner Mary Michaela Watkins). The couple hopes to inherit a house from Cynthia's recently deceased grandfather.

The women quickly learn that the house now belongs to a bank. A Civil War sword accompanied by certificates of authenticity constitutes the sum total of Cynthia's inheritance.

The women take the sword to Mel to see what it's worth. Mel eventually learns that the sword has value to a small group of folks who are dedicated to collecting items that prove an audacious claim: These nut cases believe the South won the Civil War.

Cynthia and her partner go into partnership with Mel. All are hoping to enrich themselves.

That's pretty much the story; it's just enough to allow Shelton's cast to fill in many blanks, much of the time with what appear to be improvisational riffs.

Maron tempers Mel's conniving and cynicism with vulnerability. He isn't afraid to make Mel look lost at times -- and the choice works in Shelton's favor.

The movie builds to a meeting between this unlikely quartet and a character (Dan Bakkedahl) who apparently will pay major money for the sword. Toby Huss has a nice turn as Hog Jaws, the middleman who sets up the big meeting at which the sword will be sold.

Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister's Sister, and Laggies) knows her way around this kind of loose-limbed comedy. She's also good at allowing bits to crop up in unexpected ways. When Nathanial tries to convince Mary that the world is flat, his sincerity makes for an amusing detour, even as the movie gathers a bit of satirical steam.

Initially, I was disappointed that Sword of Truth didn't have a bigger payoff. But you know what? On second thought, I had to admit that I had a fine time going nowhere with these feckless but funny characters.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 7/19/19 -- The Art of Self Defense, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, and Three Peaks

Sometimes, you take what you can from movies. I didn't entirely buy into The Art of Self Defense, but at its best, the movie offers a revealing look at how a charismatic leader exploits a massively insecure person. Ostensibly, director Nick Broomfield's Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love deals with the relationship between Leonard Cohen and a woman many regard as his muse. The documentary emerges as a better portrait of the tumultuous '60s than as a study of a relationship. Finally, I found myself engrossed for most of Three Peaks, a drama about difficulties that occur when a single mom tries to establish a relationship with a new man. I like movies with suggestive moments and minimal plotting, but this one skimps on payoff.

Jesse Eisenberg puts on his full dweeb in The Art of Self Defense, a strange, often implausible movie about an alienated young man who, after nearly being beaten to death, emerges as a dedicated martial artist. Eisenberg's Casey Davies recovers from a mugging, flirts with buying a gun and then discovers a dojo where the sensei (Alessandro Nivola) gradually indoctrinates him into a peculiar form of karate: Certain of the sensei's students are encouraged to unleash maximum brutality. As a study of how a vulnerable person can fall under the sway of a powerful teacher, The Art of Self Defense excels. Eisenberg and Nivola create enough credibility to balance the screenplay's more outlandish elements. On the surface, the dojo ethos of obedience and self-control seems reasonable, but The Art of Self Defense is about more than the way a young man gains self-assurance through the discipline of martial arts. The movie also aims to plumb the worst depths of machismo and the bizarre behavior to which it can lead. Put another way: director Riley Stearns has more in mind than turning Eisenberg into an adult version of The Karate Kid. Stearns creates an austere environment in which dialogue is delivered without much inflection. He never makes it entirely clear when the movie is taking place. At one point, VHS tapes appear, a relic of another time. The movie eventually loses itself in a deluge of extreme behavior that might have been intended to show the brutality that lurks beneath the dojo's proclaimed rigor. The Art of Self-Defense proves absorbing enough, but -- in the end -- Stearns doesn't transcend the peculiar insularity he creates. The movie's most important moment emerges as the kind of joke that would have made a terrific ending for a short film — and, yes, you may see it coming. Fine performances and strangely self-contained world result in a satire more pinched than expansive. With Imogen Poots as a Blue Belt trainee who knows more than she initially lets on.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

Director Nick Broomfield tells the story of the long-running relationship between Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, both now deceased. Broomfield can't resist telling us that he knew Ihlen and even slept with her on the Greek Island of Hydra. That was back in the early '60s. I guess that counts as a necessary part of full disclosure before Broomfield tackles the story he wants to tell. Love aside, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love turns out to be as much about the unsettling fluidity of the '60s as it is about a relationship. Much of Marianne & Leonard deals with Cohen's career, which evolved from writing novels and poetry on Hydra to singing and performing on the world stage. Cohen got his start as a performer when he shared a song he'd written, Suzanne, for Judy Collins. She recorded the tune but also urged the reluctant Cohen -- he insisted he couldn't sing -- to make the leap to performing. Cohen's singing may not qualify as rock 'n' roll, but that doesn't mean he missed out on the sex and drugs part of the '60s. As Cohen's star rises, Ihlen seems to slip into the background. There are drugs and other women, a six-year-stay in a Buddhist monastery and a late-life battle to recover from financial losses that involved him in a lawsuit against his former manager. Cohen's letter to the dying Marianne proves touching and Broomfield creates a vivid impression of lives that often became unmoored. As for Marianne and Leonard? Even amidst the cultural frenzy of the '60s, their tie — though often strained and tenuous — somehow endured.

Three Peaks

German director Jan Zabeil tackles the problems faced by an emerging family in Three Peaks, a compact drama that takes a single mother (Berenice Bejo), her lover (Alexander Fehling) and her young son (Arian Montgomery) to an isolated cabin in Italy's Dolomite Mountains. Initially, these three seem to get along well, but as the minimal story of Three Peaks unfolds, an increasingly recalcitrant boy becomes more of a problem. He refuses to sleep in his own bed and does his best to undermine his mother's relationship with her new lover, sometimes subtly and sometimes directly. To the movie's credit, Aaron acknowledges that the boy can be a pain, but he’s also understanding about the difficulties the kid faces. Fehling presents all this in an atmosphere of deeply impacted tension and we can't help fearing for the boy when he and Aaron take an early morning hike to the top of one of the three peaks that give the movie its title. The cast handles the movie's conflicts well, although I wondered if Zabeil, in his eagerness to avoid the pitfalls of a movie that could have tipped into horror with a bad-seed aftertaste, didn't wind up with an overly attenuated drama. Three Peaks never quite reaches the dramatic peak that the movie's deliberate pacing and tense interplay seem to promise.




Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Real-looking lions, same old story

Disney's new version of The Lion King has its moments, but too often fails to thrill.

By now, The Lion King has gone far beyond being a much-loved 1994 animated movie from Disney. The celebrated King rules a brand-like realm of abundant profits -- in the form of a long-running Broadway musical, numerous touring productions and loads of international recognition.

Is there a person on the planet who hasn't uttered, either in seriousness or derision, the words "Hakuna Matata?” Who hasn't felt the manufactured awe that stems from hearing the lyrics to "The Circle of Life?"

Now comes Disney's eagerly awaited computer-animated version of The Lion King, which has been made to look as if real lions are living the story of Simba, the lion who wrestles with guilt over his father's death, flees the Pride Lands and eventually returns to assume his rightful place on the throne. (Spoilers, I suppose, but who doesn't already know the story.)

Directed by Jon Favreau, who also directed the "live-action" version of Disney's The Jungle Book (2016), Lion King 2019 seems bound for box-office glory no matter what nay-saying critics think.

Me? I had a mixed reaction to the new edition. To begin with, the movie qualifies as something of a techno-curiosity. Disney's team of specialists has created a world in which (save for being able to speak English) the lions attain a level of faux realism (yes, it's a contradiction) that's striking.

Watching the beasts of Lion King feels a bit like something you might experience at a theme park that has been designed to simulate the feeling of traveling across an African savanna. No passports or inoculations required.

But there's a downside to this approach. The animals move their mouths when they speak but their faces aren't as free to express emotion as they would have been had they been drawn.

And all of the movie's animal characters romp across landscapes that also are rendered with keen realism. It's all supposed to look like "live-action."

For the most part, Favreau and his team follow the original story, so much so that some have criticized the movie for lacking freshness. But Favreau was in a no-win situation when it came to the story: Had he provided wholesale changes, he probably would have been criticized for tampering with a classic.

In trying to contain the story within clearly recognizable boundaries, Favreau has subjected himself to the opposite charge: The movie, some say, is a grandiose act of mimicry.

Audiences, I suppose, will fall on either side of the fence or won’t care at all.

The vocal talent in this edition acquits itself well: Donald Glover, as Simba; Chiwetel Ejiofor as the evil Scar, James Earl Jones, as the fallen King, Mufasa.

Alfre Woodard provides the voice for Sarabi, Simba's mother, and Beyonce gives voice to Nala, the lioness who will become Simba's bride. John Oliver adds flavor as the voice of Zazu, King Mufasa's right-paw bird.

The film springs to its most vivid life when it’s being silly, especially when Billy Eichner (as Timon) and Seth Rogen (as Pumbaa) show up. The meerkat and warthog team provide laughs and an energy boost for a movie that can feel overly solemn, particularly when the story travels to a forbidden elephant graveyard.

Using realistic-looking animals for fights may shake smaller children, although these days I'm at a loss when it comes to understanding what level of mayhem little ones are able to tolerate. The many snarling hyenas that Scar recruits as henchmen in his plot to rule can be equally scary.

Speaking of Scar, the villain of the piece looks mangy and undernourished, a creature more in need of animal rescue than a throne that satisfies his greed, hunger, and ambition.

Some of the famous musical numbers survive but don't always make much of an impact. I guess the filmmakers thought that audiences are familiar enough with these songs immediately to grasp their significance.

And, yes, the cub Simba is cute enough to win over even the hardest of hearts.

This edition of Lion King should keep the turnstiles spinning, even if its sense of discovery stems mostly from the ways in which everything has been so sharply realized. If you wanted to push the point, you could say that the whimsy of animation has fallen prey to the sharpened incisors of technical achievement.

Still, I said my reaction was mixed and I’m not changing my mind: The story's appeal remains — even if this Lion King doesn’t always thrill.


Thursday, July 11, 2019

'Stuber' chokes on lame jokes, violence

Crummy jokes and a formulaic premise (a mismatched duo fights crime) don't do much to help Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani salvage something from Stuber, a summer wreck of a movie about an Uber driver (Nanjiani) who winds up racing around Los Angeles with a macho cop. The cop (Bautista) needs all the help he can get because he’s just had Lasik surgery and his vision has yet to snap back into focus. Among the things I didn’t care about: Will Bautista's Vic Manning drop his pursuit of a major drug dealer and attend an art show that features work by his daughter (Natalie Morales)? I also found no reason to transcend indifference to another question the movie raises: Will Nanjiani's Stu be able to open a business with a woman (Betty Gilpin) for whom he harbors a long-standing crush? The screenplay (if you insist on calling it that) makes fun of Uber's driver-rating system but it probably would have done better to spend some time considering film-rating systems. The movie’s violent action isn't exciting and the jokes aren't funny. Put those two together and you come up with a big fat whiff. Oh well, if you happen to see Stuber, there’s a hidden blessing. You probably won’t remember it by the time you reach the parking lot.

Bob's cinema diary: 7/12/19 Maiden and The Third Wife

Maiden
This gripping documentary tells the story of the first all-female crew to compete in the Whitbread Round The World Race, which covers more than 32,000 miles. The movie centers on the efforts of Tracy Edwards, who fell in love with sailing as an adolescent and who organized (perhaps "willed" is a better word) the women's team into existence. Director Alex Holmes makes fine use of contemporary interviews and footage shot before and during the voyage of the yacht that Edwards named Maiden and from which the movie derives its title. Joanna Gooding, who served as the Maiden's cook, did the filming during the race. The women who crewed with Edwards remember the voyage -- with its tensions, doubts, determination, and commitment. In 1989, the male-dominated sailing establishment didn't roll out the welcome mat for Edwards and her crew. But Maiden isn’t solely reliant a story with a women-vs.-men dynamic. Edwards' crew sometimes questioned her decisions and Edwards single-minded focus fueled a sharp temper. Beyond all that, there's the drama inherent in battling the sea, which has no interest in the outcome of races and often presents challenges that test the abilities of sailors who, at times, are entirely alone at sea. Should catastrophe strike, no help will save the day. Maiden works on all these levels: as a sports movie, as a telling look at gender assumptions and as the story of women who refused to take "no" for an answer. Credit Holmes with making a documentary that has both social relevance and edge-of-the-seat involvement.

The Third Wife

Director Ash Mayfair takes us to 19th-century Vietnam for The Third Wife, a story that begins when 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) arrives at the isolated home of a wealthy landowner (Long Le Vu). May is destined to become the latest in what will be a trio of wives. Mayfair adopts a slow-moving, evocative style in which a young woman begins to learn the patriarchal ways of her new life. Her teachers are two of the landowner's other wives (Nu Yen-Khe Tran and Mai Thu Huong Maya). It soon becomes clear to May that her life will improve if she gives birth to a son. The landowner's middle wife has had two girls and, as a result, has lost status. Maybe that’s why she’s carrying on an affair with the landowner's son, a doomed romance that inevitably leads to tragedy. Mayfair doesn't overplay the movie's conflicts, leaning instead on a languid style that sometimes makes the movie seem like an idyll. Mayfair’s view of female sensuality proves interesting -- eroticism of women as seen by another woman — and a slightly ambiguous ending adds to the intrigue. Mayfair has created a lush portrait of a time that wasn't without its pleasures, but in which women also led severely proscribed lives.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 7/5/19 -- Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and Wild Rose

A documentary about author Toni Morrison and a raucous feature about an aspiring country singer from Glasgow, Scotland, don't have much in common -- unless you want to see each (in its own way) as a story about a driven, powerful woman.


Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders offers a well-rounded picture of the life of author Toni Morrison in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Morrison, 88, provides the movie's star power. In a variety of interviews given over many years, Morrison emerges as a formidable presence -- and one who's not afraid to laugh at herself when she deems it necessary. Much of Morrison's early life was spent in Lorain, Ohio, which she describes as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic town with a low level of ethnic and racial tension. But her life seemed to open up when she arrived as an undergraduate at Howard University. What followed her college experience was a career in publishing (she was a successful editor) and, finally, her emergence as a novelist of recognized power. Interviews with author Fran Lebowitz, editor Robert Gottlieb, poet Sonia Sanchez , and activist Angela Davis provide a laudatory environment in which to consider Morrison’s accomplishment. The only references to negative criticism of Morrison's work are presented in brief (and probably over-stated) bits from negative reviews. The movie builds toward a movement by a group of writers who protest the lack of significant prizes (Pulitzers and Nobels) for Morrison's work, an oversight that later was remedied. Morrison won the Pulitzer for her novel, Beloved, in 1988. The Nobel Prize in Literature followed in 1993. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who has spent her life delighting in language and ensuring that she used it without the inhibiting limitations of what she calls "the white gaze." I could have done without Oprah Winfrey's effusions but little in The Pieces I Am detracts from the appeal of Morrison's expansive and profoundly compelling personality. Put another way, it's difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this well-assembled documentary and not want to hang out with the woman at its center.

Wild Rose

The irresistibly raucous Wild Rose begins when its main character is released from prison. Having completed her time in jail,, Rose-Lynn begins pursuing her major aspiration: She wants to be a country singer, an ambition that acquires an air of eccentricity because Rose-Lynn does not have what we might regard as a typical “country” profile. How could she? She lives in Glasgow, Scotland. And maybe that’s part of the movie’s point — at least in an inadvertent way. Musical talent sometimes shatters stereotypical expectations. Early on, few share Rose-Lynn's dream. Her skeptical mother (Julie Walters) wishes Rose-Lynn, who was busted on a drug charge, would settle down and take care of her two children. Rose-Lynn has other ideas. The story unfolds in a somewhat predictable fashion as Rose-Lynn (portrayed by a dynamic Jessie Buckley) marches through the rest of the movie in headstrong fashion, singing and living a rough-edged life. When Rose-Lynn obtains a job as a domestic, her affluent employer (Sophie Okonedo) offers to help propel her career by raising money to finance a dream trip to Nashville. Like many others, Rose-Lynn hopes to be discovered when she arrives in the world’s country music capital. Buckley's performance makes us believe that this is a reasonable ambition for a woman whose credo has been tattooed on her arm: "Three chords and the truth." Buckley's drive keeps the movie hurtling toward a conclusion in which director Tom Harper, working from a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, upsets (at least mildly) the genre cliches that we've come to expect from movies about raw talents on the make and voices that won’t be silenced.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Danger lurks in a Swedish commune

Director Ari Aster’s Midsommar:: a long (and sometimes repellent) journey toward ... well ... I’m not sure what.

Midsommar could be many things.

-- The movie might be a satire on the preposterous rituals of weird cults.

-- It could be a straight-ahead horror movie about a group of Americans who find themselves in mortal danger when they visit an isolated region of rural Sweden.

-- Or it could be a riff on the ways in which preoccupation with certain concerns (in this case cultural anthropology and careerism) might blind someone to dangerous realities.

-- Perhaps it's about what happens when someone in a dying relationship feels slighted.

I could go on, but let me get to the point: Whatever Midsommar wants to be, it’s also bloody, excessively graphic in its depiction of horror and more than a bit muddled about its intentions. That’s an unfortunate combination for a movie that follows what has been touted as a promising debut feature from director Ari Aster. Aster’s last film, Hereditary, won both audience and critical favor.

This time, Aster begins by establishing an atmosphere of dread in which he sketches the personal dynamics of his characters. A young woman (Florence Pugh) loses her parents and her mentally disturbed sister. She’s distraught. Already needy, her latest catastrophe pushes her toward even greater reliance on her boyfriend (Jack Reynor).

Pugh's Dani feels abandoned when she learns that Reynor's Christian plans to travel to Sweden with friends to visit the commune where another friend (Vilhelm Blomgren) was raised. Reluctantly (and to the dismay of his male buddies), a guilt-ridden Christian invites Dani to tag along.

When the group arrives at the commune, their initial impression seems favorable. The members of the Swedish group all dress in white, freely dispense hallucinogenic drugs and seem like harmless (if slightly out-of-touch) flower children.

Aster slowly follows through on what we expect from the outset. He undermines the promise of a tranquil environment with a ritual of alarming (though highly predictable) lethality. When the group gathers for one of its rituals or even for a meal, the atmosphere turns austere and serious, so much so that the movie often becomes laughable.

Tensions within the American group punctuate the proceedings. Josh (William Jackson Harper), one of Christian's fellow students, argues with Christian about who's going to use this bizarre mini-society as the basis for a thesis.

All of this builds toward a finale that only the most gullible of viewers won’t suspect will be weird, brutal — and perhaps even repulsive.

Aster leaves signs of what's to come along the way: the weird shape of some of the wooden buildings and a pyramidal structure no one is allowed to enter. The visitors sleep in a dormitory-like hall where the sound of a baby's ceaseless crying can be heard at night. Did I mention the caged bear that resides in the middle of the settlement? Well, there is one. As you can tell, Aster points a large finger at his ominous target.

Lighting becomes one of Midsommar's distinguishing features. Most of the action takes place in the prolonged daylight of the Swedish summer. I’ve been in Sweden during the time when there’s little darkness and it can take some adjustment. In this case, the near-constant daylight creates a visual blandness that serves as an ironic counterpoint to the movie’s darker ambitions.

At two hours and 20 minutes in length, Midsommar takes too much time getting to the point, whatever the point might be. The movie's portentousness becomes oppressive.

For some, Midsommar’s violence, a bizarre sex scene, and a grotesquely punishing finale will be enough to turn thumbs downward. But for me, the most alarming thing about Midsommar is the distance it keeps from its characters. I didn’t fear for these characters but spent more time wondering just how Aster was going to wring a conclusion out of all the weirdness. Just how strange would things get?

The movie builds toward a May Day celebration that precedes a violent finale. Aster knows how to concoct bizarre images — the cult’s May Day Queen hauling herself around the village in a weighty cloak made of flowers, for example — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that all this weirdness was as hollow as the members of the cult that had produced it. Some of the images may linger in your head, but you also may find yourself asking what (if anything) can be derived from their presence?




Monday, July 1, 2019

Spider-Man takes a European vacation

Can Peter Parker grow beyond his Queens neighborhood? Far From Home answers the question in passable fashion.
Whatever emotional kick you’ll find in Spider-Man: Far From Home comes from Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Don't get me wrong. Downey’s character isn't present. But Iron Man’s absence adds poignancy to a story in which 16-year-old Peter Parker wonders whether he’s capable of filling Iron Man’s shoes.

Riding the emotional wave that Marvel set off in Avengers: End Game, Spider-Man: Far From Home turns out to be a serviceable entry into the Marvel repertoire: a collection of less-than-impressively realized action, a surfeit of good-natured humor, and an appealing young cast headed by stand-out Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

This edition takes Spider-Man abroad. Peter Parker (Holland) joins his high-school class on a trip to Europe. Stops include Venice, Prague, and London as the story hop-scotches across cities that are threatened with destruction by creatures called Elementals: i.e., earth, water, and fire monsters that wreak havoc. Can any Marvel movie be considered complete without reducing some part of a major city to rubble?

In this edition, Spider-Man's classmates graduate to slightly larger roles. Zendaya portrays MJ, the girl who has stolen Peter Parker’s heart. Jacob Batalon plays Ned, Peter's best friend, a nerdy kid who this times winds up with a girlfriend (Angourie Rice).

Marisa Tomei returns as Aunt May; Jon Favreau appears as Happy, Tony Stark's former bodyguard and chauffeur; and Samuel L. Jackson, looking less than enthusiastic, reprises his role as Nick Fury, the head of the outfit that runs the Avengers.

Added to the mix is Mysterio, a superhero portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal. Mysterio wears a helmet that looks like a some dropped a fishbowl on his head; he also has an alter ego. Out of uniform, he's Quentin Beck.

Super-sensitive about spoilers, Columbia Pictures has encouraged critics not to ruin the movie’s surprises. I won’t say more, except to note that not all of them have the hoped-for kick.

Holland works hard to be the energetic and conflicted, the not entirely mature Spider-Man that we’ve come to expect, and, yes, his naïveté and sincerity prove engaging.

All in all, this edition of Spider-Man is not only far from home, but it’s also far from being a disaster. Far From Home unfolds without giving offense or ascending into the upper ranks of Marvel's unending list of movies. Put another way: Far From Home passes muster.

But, know this, as well, Far From Home hardly lays a glove on the much more imaginative, Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2019’s Oscar winner for best-animated feature.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

‘Yesterday’ almost goes the distance

A story about a world from which The Beatles have vanished mixes energetic highs with moments that show considerably less inspiration.

Director Danny Boyle takes a trip into Beatle world with Yesterday, a fantasy written by Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of such hits as Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Curtis' repertoire suggests that Yesterday will be a sweet love story with a bit of wit and plenty of amiable characters. The movie almost goes the distance.

The premise is outlandish. During a global blackout, an aspiring singer (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus. When Patel's Jack awakens, he learns that he's evidently the only person in the world who has ever heard of the Beatles or who knows any of their songs.

With his career going nowhere, Jack decides to appropriate tunes from the Beatles songbook. His friends think that he actually wrote them. Jack goes along with the ruse, and his astronomical rise begins.

Prior to Jack's ascent, he was being managed by his childhood pal (Lily James), a school teacher who might have been his only real fan. James’ Ellie also loves Jack, but he's unable to see her as anything but a friend. Tuck that away because you know that in this sometimes sugary fantasy, Ellie still will be around when the story concludes.

Joel Fry appears as Rocky, Jack's irresponsible but lovable pal, the guy who accompanies him on a journey that takes him to LA, where he prepares for the release of his first album, a recording that's supposedly going to revolutionize music as we know it.

Kate McKinnon, in a slightly overstated performance, signs on as Jack's money-grubbing, fame-hungry agent. She invites Jack to sip from what she calls "the poison chalice;" i.e., she wants him to imbibe money and fame. Jack goes along because ... well ... who wouldn't?

Ed Sheeran, a real musician, shows up to endorse Jack's talent, at one point proclaiming that Jack can out-write him when it comes to songs.

A predictable question looms: When will Jack ever fess up? Will his conscience drag him toward the moment when he must inform the world that he's not the greatest songwriter who ever lived, but a guy who's gained fame by capitalizing on someone else's work?

Some of the humor stems from the way that the business people try to package Jack. The suits turn down Jack's suggested album titles. Abbey Road, The White Album and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band make no sense, he's told. Hey, Jude will never sell, he's instructed. Try Hey, Dude instead.

The money people want to market Jack as a unique talent, an obvious irony considering that Jack is really a cover artist singing Beatles’ tunes.

The Beatles' songs that Boyle includes and which Patel performs can be energetic and touching, but they're still only cover versions -- and not the real deal.

When Boyle finds the right energy, Yesterday springs to life. James does a fine version of the sweet, decent girl next door, and Patel acquits himself well enough in the musical numbers, although he's stuck playing a character who doesn't always register high on the personality scale.

The best number: Jack’s frenzied, panicky version of Help, a song that perfectly fits his mood at that moment in the story.

Given Curtis' love-struck track record and the general lightness of the material, it should surprise you that All You Need is Love will be prominently featured.

No point carping about the movie's premise about a world that never has heard of The Beatles, but what audiences may remember is that the Beatles weren't only about their music. They were also four distinct personalities who captured the world’s imagination, first as mop-topped rockers, later as serious artists and always as larger than life pop-cultural emblems, icons of their time.

I never really believed that Jack could have become such a figure. He’s got the tunes: The Beatles were more.


A new take on an old character

It boasts a beautifully mounted production, but this telling of Hamlet's story from Ophelia's point-of-view falls short.

Say this: director Claire McCarthy has made a beautifully appointed and carefully staged Ophelia, a lush adaptation of a Lisa Klein novel that tells Hamlet's story from Ophelia's point of view.

In McCarthy's Shakespearean inside-outing, Star Wars star Daisy Ridley portrays Ophelia, who -- in this version -- emerges a strong figure from the classic story about a Danish prince who can't make up his mind whether to be or not to be. But is Ophelia anything more than a gimmicky costume drama? That's the question.

The answer: Not entirely.

Early on, Queen Gertrude (Namoi Watts) selects Ophelia as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Before Hamlet (George MacKay) prepares to leave Elsinore, he begins flirting with Ophelia; it's clear that he's smitten.

To arrive where she wants to go -- the emergence of Ophelia as an independent force -- MacKay must alter the original story. Among other things, we learn that Gertrude has a long-lost sister who's also a potion-dispensing witch (also played by Watts). The witch becomes instrumental in the plot -- albeit not in predictable ways.

Meanwhile, Gertrude fights the temptation to start an affair with the king's brother (Clive Owen). Owen's Claudius -- in the midst of what looks like a series of epic bad hair days -- has designs on the throne. Once the king has been dispatched, he takes Gertrude as his queen.

The character of Ophelia has been modernized in ways that can seem a bit too on-the-nose. She can read and knows how to stand up for herself. She cautions the brooding Hamlet not to toy with her affections. Ophelia represents the antithesis of courtly hypocrisy; a straightforward young woman, she refuses to play games.

Tom Felton, of the Harry Potter movies, portrays Laertes; Dominic Mafham plays Polonius; and Devon Terrell appears as Horatio. All are more or less relegated to secondary figures but are made more interesting by comparing their portrayals to what we might have seen in past productions of Hamlet.

Shot in the Czech Republic, Ophelia looks great but its beauty can't overcome the movie's two big problems. Half the time, you may find yourself trying to connect the events on screen to those you remember from Shakespeare's play.

The other problem: The story seems to have been engineered as much as written. I'd have preferred to have seen the chips (not to mention the story's numerous corpses) land where they might have fallen. Instead, I was distracted by the strain of the plot manipulations that bring Ophelia's story into focus and sometimes make the characters feel more contrived than real.

Guess what? Dad is a bigamist

Being Frank can't wring enough laughs from an outrageous situation.

Comedies sometimes pick a twisted premise and then play variations on the themes it suggests.

So goes Being Frank, a comedy about a son who discovers that his father is a bigamist. In comedy, almost everything is fair game, but in this case, the premise seems a little too twisted and the variations aren't funny enough to make up for any lapses of taste.

Jim Gaffigan portrays Frank, a father who mistreats his son, 17-year-old Philip (Logan Miller). An aspiring musician, Philip can't please his highly critical father.

Dad, who presides over the family ketchup factory, claims that he frequently must travel to Japan to take care of business. The catch: Dad never really visits Japan.

Instead, he spends time with his second family, another wife (Samantha Mathis), another son (Gage Polchlopek) and another daughter (Isabelle Phillips). Frank's first wife (Anna Gunn) suspects nothing. Same goes for Philip (at least initially) and his younger sister (an amusing Emerson Tate Alexander).

As it turns out, tyrannical Frank transforms into his polar opposite when he's with his second family; he becomes a fun father who can't heap enough praise on his football-playing son.

Working from a screenplay by Glen Lakin, director Miranda Bailey tries to wring laughs out the confusion that mounts when Philip discovers Frank's long-running ruse and begins hanging out with Dad's second family -- never, of course, disclosing his real identity.

Bailey, who sets the story in the 1990s, tries to make the movie more palatable by giving Frank an opportunity to explain how he got himself into this predicament in the first place. I guess we're supposed to think Frank's not the worst guy in the world. Some last-minute father/son bonding may also be part of the attempt to soften the movie's rough edges.

But bigamy and deceit don't have a ton of laugh potential, particularly when kids are involved and women are being exploited.

No faulting a game cast, but even talented actors can't make this creaky and marginally creepy farce hit enough of the right notes.