Thursday, May 16, 2019

John Wick's body count continues to rise

Keanu Reeves returns as the assassin who fights for his own survival in Chapter 3 of a series that's propelled by well-choreographed violence.

I'm not sure that John Wick has entered the highest ranks of iconic action characters, but he sure qualifies as one of the breed's most violent. If Keanu Reeves, who plays Wick, were paid by the number of dead bodies his character leaves in his wake, he'd be one of the richest men in Hollywood. In John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum, Wick's assailants fall like swatted flies.

Here's the Wick drill: Run. Pause. Put a gun to the head of an opponent. Fire once. Move gun. Fire again. Run some more. Repeat. And that's only the film's first half hour.

Directed by Chad Stahelski, Chapter 3 skillfully spreads two hours and 10 minutes of choreographed violence across the screen, continuing the series' bow at the altar of Hong Kong action where this kind of filmmaking first made its bones.

The screenplay for Chapter 3 isn't likely to wow anyone with either subtlety or plot. It provides a serviceable clothesline on which the film hangs its bloody accomplishments, all executed with obvious aplomb.

The point of movies such as this is to serve up the kind of massive violence that makes audiences laugh at the sheer audacity of the achievement -- and also wince on those occasions when things get particularly macabre: a sword through the gut, a knife slammed directly into a skull or a head cracked open with a blunt force blow applied to a library book that has been shoved into someone's mouth.

I mean all this as praise for the stab-kick-shoot-and-run brand of cinema that the John Wick movies have been selling since the original debuted in 2014. You have to give a bit of twisted credit to a movie that manages to work horses into the action while teaching an important lesson: Never stand behind a large animal that's capable of kicking you to next county.

All you need to know about the story is that Wick has gotten himself crosswise with the High Table, an organization that governs the world's assassins. He begins the movie with a $14-million bounty on his head. So, he runs, fights, gets bloodied and does his best to survive. The formula remains clear: Wick's survival requires the deaths of many others.

The movie sprinkles all this with a variety of characters designed either to help Wick or to kill him. Halle Berre shows up as Sofia, an assassin with two attack dogs that have been trained to latch onto an assailant's crotch. Anjelica Huston plays a ballet director who also runs a Russian mob operation. No judgment. Lots of people in the arts have to find ways to supplement their income. Mark Dacascos portrays Zero, a fighter who wants to bring Wick down even though he admires his prowess.

Some of the regulars show up, as well. These include Winston (Ian McShane), as the manager of the Continental Hotel and Lance Reddick, as the hotel's concierge. The Continental, you'll recall, is a safe zone where assassins can recharge their batteries without fear of being killed.< I doubt whether aspiring actors are going to be studying Reeve’s line readings and there’s no question that Chapter 3 overdoes its brutal thing. By the picture’s late going, I began to become — if not bored —- a bit indifferent to all the mayhem.

It's also worth noting that for all its action, Chapter 3 qualifies as something of a place holder, setting up the next movie which promises to be an even greater ass-kicker than this one. Maybe that movie will be called John Wick: Chapter 4 -- He Kills Everyone.

Can he be saved from death row

Strong performances but director Edward Zwick's anti-capital punishment movie is too on-the-nose.

Director Edward Zwick takes a direct hit at capital punishment with Trial By Fire, a drama based on the real-life story of a Texas man who was sentenced to die for a heinous crime. Todd Willingham was convicted of starting a fire in which his three children died.

Zwick serves up the drama in three acts. In the first, we meet a Texas couple, a low-down George and Martha -- Willingham and his wife (Emily Meade) -- who engage in no-holds-barred screaming matches, some of which turn physical.

Tragedy strikes early. Willingham wakes up one morning to discover that his house is on fire. When he can't save his children from the blaze, he winds up being charged with arson and murder.

At Willingham's trial, Zwick exposes gaps between the facts of the case and the testimony of police, witnesses, and experts. To make matters worse for Willingham, his alleged crime is viewed as horrible enough to deprive him of any public sympathy.

The movie's third act takes place in a Texas prison where Willingham awaits execution on death row. Still seething with anger, he fights with other inmates but insists on his innocence.

Late in his 12-year stay on death row, Willingham encounters Elizabeth (Laura Dern), a woman with whom he begins a correspondence. Initially wary, Elizabeth soon sets out to prove Willingham's innocence, a task that puts her in touch with key players who helped put Willingham on death row.

All of this plays out in ways that make the movie feel longer than its two hours, perhaps because Zwick digresses with flashbacks and because some parts of the story unfold independently of one another.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that Zwick ultimately takes a shot at Texas-style justice and the state's then Governor Rick Perry. He also designs the movie to show one of the major flaws in the argument for capital punishment. Death sentences can involve overzealous police work, shoddy defense counseling, and corrupted witnesses. Valid arguments, of course, but they give Trial By Fire a position-paper aura.

O’Connell and Dern give fine performances, as does Meade, as Willingham's wife. Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai) has an eye for a good story. But heavy-handed didacticism makes parts of Trial By Fire feel rigged, costing the story some of its power. As a result, Trial By Fire's anti-capital punishment stance most likely will speak only to the already converted.

'Shadow,' a darkly hued stunner

Director Zhang Yimou's latest stands as a foray into intrigue, warfare, martial arts and cinema aesthetics.
It's arguable that Zhang Yimou, who made his reputation as part of China’s vaunted fifth generation of filmmakers, never has equaled the achievement of some of his early work: movies such as Red Sorghum (1987) Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991).

A series of smaller, less formally structured movies such as To Live followed Zhang's international breakthrough. Then, he shifted gears. In 2002, he released Hero, a martial arts spectacle. Now comes Shadow, Zhang's latest costume/martial arts drama, a darkly hued epic in which heightened moments of intrigue play against fight sequences that are vivid, memorable and inventive.

Some rightly have seen the movie as a return to form for Zhang after 2016's deeply miscalculated The Great Wall, which starred Matt Damon as a white warrior battling monsters on (what else?) The Great Wall.

Set during China's Three Kingdoms period, Shadow pits rival factions in a battle to control a city that will cement the unity of the Kingdom of Pei. An insufferably egotistical and apparently incompetent leader, the king of Pei (Zheng Kai) wants peace at any price. He refuses to engage the other side in combat, even after its leader insults the king’s sister (Xiaotong Guan) by proposing that she become a concubine for his son.

Such is the story’s framework, but the spine of the tale involves the king’s main warrior, Commander Yu (Chao Deng). Gravely wounded in a battle that precedes the movie, the Commander wants to fight the foe for possession of the city of Jing. But — and here’s the plot’s main twist — the Commander is a doppelganger, a peasant selected by the real Commander who has been too weakened by battle wounds to carry on. Chao plays both roles.

The ruse forces Yu to feign a relationship with the Commander's beautiful wife (Sun Li), a woman known for playing zither duets with her husband. Not surprisingly, the double begins to fall for the Commander's wife, a woman he tries to keep at a distance.

Seasoned with high-toned melodrama and a purposefully exaggerated performance style, The Shadow builds toward an incomparably presented siege of Jing featuring images that are unlike anything I’ve seen before, including the use of umbrellas that open into a whirl of lethal blades. Zhang also offers an ingenious take on warfare's fabled Trojan Horse.

But it’s not just the weapons that make victory possible, it’s a martial arts move discovered by the general’s wife, a sashaying maneuver that adds thematic heft. Based on distinctly feminine gestures, this signature martial arts move looks almost comical when executed by men. No matter: Defeat can be avoided only if the feminine and masculine are conjoined.

The Shadow lies somewhere between the grandeur of Shakespeare and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, but the movie emerges as a visually towering work, perhaps even a fertile middle ground between Zhang’s earlier and later efforts. Searing battles bolster an intimate drama about power grabbing at the royal court.

Now 69, Zhang fuses spectacle and drama in a work that brims with intrigue and visual invention and reminds us what can happen when a master makes a movie that's steeped in conflicts so grand they feel as if the world's entire order hangs in the balance.

Time travel with a difference

See You Yesterday has a great main character and a pleasing home-grown feel.
The movies have a new heroine. She’s Claudette, a science whiz portrayed by 19-year-old Eden Duncan-Smith. Claudette even has a sidekick. He’s Sebastian, played by Dante Crichlow. These two budding geniuses attend New York city’s vaunted Bronx High School of Science. They’re super-smart and college bound. They also reside in a Brooklyn neighborhood where encounters with the police sometimes turn fatal.

The new movie See You Yesterday mixes sci-fi (time travel) and social anxieties in ways that are fresh and ultimately telling. Director Stefon Bristol gives a down-home spin to an implausible premise when Claudette and Sebastian invent backpacks that will enable them to travel backward in time — albeit only for 10 minutes of the previous day.

Before Claudette and Sebastian embark on one of their brief journeys, Claudette's brother (Brian Bradley, a.k.a., Astro) is killed by an overeager cop. Claudette wants to return to the scene of the incident that cost her innocent brother his life. Can she save him and restore order to her disrupted world?

A simple premise is enriched by the screenplay's smart observations about kids, responsibility and the thorny issues involved in trying to come to grips with inconsolable pain.

These bright black kids (in itself a worthy addition to the screen) never are separated from the world in which they live. They may be book smart but they’re hardly naive about the neighborhood they inhabit, a part of the city where solid family life can be juxtaposed with street encounters that easily can go bad.

Produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday doesn’t try to overpower the audience with typical time-travel tropes and overblown special effects.

Wisely, it stays close to its two main characters and, in the end, has more to say about how young people deal with injustice than about what it means to crack open the space-time continuum.

Put another way, this helping of sci-fi is bathed in the persistent intelligence of its main character, a commanding teenager with more on her mind than finding the next big party.

Nicely assembled and fleet at 86 minutes in length, See You Yesterday avoids the pre-packaged feel of a high-concept product that has been rolled off a studio assembly line. It's a home-grown kick.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The long voyage to nowhere

In this Swedish movie, space is not the final frontier; it's a punishment.
Not known for sci-fi movies, Sweden enters the fray with Anaria, a movie with a space-travel premise and a depressive soul that could have been channeled from the movies of another Swede, Ingmar Bergman. The story takes place aboard a spacecraft that begins a 23-day voyage to Mars. The passengers plan to start anew, the Earth having been ravaged. But a collision with space debris throws the craft off course. So begins a journey toward nowhere. The story centers on a character called MR (Emelie Jonsson), a woman who works in the part of the ship where passengers experience hallucinatory trips through their own memories, many involving Earth before whatever apocalypse made it uninhabitable. Directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja nicely establish the onboard environment, a cross between a shopping mall and a theme park that seems to have been designed by someone for whom consumer friendliness had become a religion. When things go wrong, the story works its way through a variety of problems that hinge on the ability of the crew and its captain (Arvin Kananian) to maintain hope. But the vast emptiness of space makes a mockery of hope, particularly when course correction efforts must be measured in years. The directors do a good job presenting the slow unraveling of both the onboard environment and the ship's many passengers. Alliances come and go. A cult forms. MR establishes a relationship with a female crew member. Imagine an entire goalless lifetime in which you’re adrift in an unfathomably large cosmos. Sound familiar? If so, it’s because the movie clearly has deep philosophical ambitions. Anaria gets its ideas across but doesn’t make them as deeply felt as material such as this probably requires. The film’s final image comes close to being haunting, but the entire idea of a going nowhere generates a bit of inherent boredom that sometimes clouds the journey.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

They con their way to laughs

Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson play clashing con artists in The Hustle, a reasonably entertaining comedy.

The Hustle -- a comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson -- remakes 1964's Bedtime Story, a movie that itself was remade as 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a much-praised comedy that starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Clearly, the aim here was gender reversal with women taking the lead as dueling con artists locked in a competition meant to tax all their felonious skills.

The comedy derives from a classic oil-on-water clash of personalities that are embodied in Wilson's unashamedly crude Penny and Hathaway's ostentatiously sophisticated Josephine.

Though uneven and burdened by a coda that works against the movie's feminist tilt, the comedy benefits from three attributes: An inviting setting -- Beaumont Sur Mer (a fictional town on the French Riviera) -- and two all-in performances from Hathaway and Wilson.

Clad in costumes that amount to a one-woman fashion show, Hathaway employs a variety of accents, mostly to good comic effect. Wilson adds plenty of ribald energy.

The con jobs carried out by these women aren't especially convincing and a major gag (Wilson's character feigns blindness) flirts with questionable taste, but Hathaway and Wilson work well together and there are enough chuckles to satisfy amusement-hungry appetites.

The story revolves around a competition in which the two women, who are battling for possession of the same luxe turf, try to con a young app developer. Alex Sharp brings gee-golly innocence to his portrayal of a tech whiz with money.

The big gags sometimes feel like examples of sketch humor dropped into the story. At one point, the women wrangle high-priced engagement rings from various marks -- notably, a Texan played by Dean Norris. Penny poses as Josephine's crazy sister, a mad woman who purportedly accompanies any marriage to the lustrous Josephine. Once exposed to Penny, the enticed fiances can't flee quickly enough.

Director Chris Addison doesn't seem to be chasing cinematic history; the movie makes no attempt to conceal its escapist impulses, so even if The Hustle fails to enter the pantheon of great comedy, it proves reasonably entertaining. Moreover, its two stars manage to dispel the aroma of familiarity (what another con-job movie?) that could have put a choke-hold on their efforts.

A movie that can't match an extraordinary life

Ralph Fiennes directs The White Crow, a choppy bio-pic about ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Actor Ralph Fiennes again moves behind the camera to direct The White Crow, the story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. But rather than soaring, his movie slogs, perhaps because an extraordinary life deserves an extraordinary movie. Structurally choppy and unevenly acted, The White Crow seldom gets beyond adequate.

Aside from his dance career (or perhaps in conjunction with it), Nureyev became an international celebrity after defecting to the West in 1961. Regarded as one of the premier male dancers of his day, Nureyev turned his back on the Soviet Union while touring with the Kirov Ballet in Paris.

In the White Crow, Fiennes touches on various incidents in Nureyev's life. But he doesn't infuse his movie with any overriding point of view about artistry, politics or even the world of ballet.

Burdened by flashbacks to Nureyev's childhood, the movie features a Nureyev played by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko. Ivenko's Nureyev comes across as a vibrant, assertive young man with a killer stage presence that sometimes made up for a lack of technical polish, at least in the dancer's early years.

Working from a screenplay by playwright David Hare, Fiennes treats Nureyev as kind of "it" boy of the dance, a sexually fluid young man who begins to discover the world in Paris, making frequent trips to the Louvre. He also immerses in Parisian nightlife, usually in the company of the young woman (Adele Exarchopoulos) who eventually helps stage Nureyev's defection, which takes place at a Paris airport and constitutes the film's high point.

Fiennes himself makes an appearance as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev's Leningrad-based instructor who's something of a sad sack, a less-than-charismatic soul. Recovering from an injury, Nureyev moves in with Pushkin. The proximity leads to an affair between Nureyev and Pushkin's wife (Chulpan Khamatova), not exactly the best way for a young dancer to thank his mentor.

The movie gets close to a subject that needed more examination: the complex relationship between Nureyev and a Soviet minder (Aleksey Morozov) who has difficulty reconciling his duties (preventing defections) with Nureyev's free-spirited nature.

Fiennes includes dance sequences that reflect an appreciation of dance by doing what should have been done throughout the entire movie: Dances are mostly presented whole, not chopped into bits that disrupt the narrative flow.

The White Crow also touches on Nureyev's bisexuality. (He died of AIDS in 1993.) And as portrayed by Ivenko, it's clear that Nureyev may have thought that his talent justified his self-involvement. He didn't seem to think much about others.

The movie seems to assume that we already know that Nureyev was a major figure in dance. Lacking, however, is a feeling for the fascination that brought Fiennes to this project in the first place. Too much of the time, The White Crow is a movie without a sense of the imperative.

Bob's cinema diary: 4/8/'19 Dogman and Charlie Says

Dogman

Marcello (Marcello Fonte) earns his living grooming dogs. But in the rundown Italian coastal town where Marcello lives, this simple occupation may not be enough to support an estranged wife and a young daughter. So Marcello occasionally sells cocaine. The great irony of director Matteo Garrone's Dogman centers on Marcello’s personality. Cocaine or no, he hardly seems a typical gangster. He's a simple, good-hearted fellow who tries to get along with everyone, including the town bully (Edoardo Pesce). Pesce's Simone becomes a kind of one-man scourge, attacking people, destroying property and generally terrorizing the town's residents. He's so much a nuisance that one of the town’s businessmen go so far as to propose that an assassin be hired. As the story unfolds, Garrone (Gomorrah) turns Marcello into an unfortunate sap whose innocence and rudimentary sense of honor only add to his troubles. Garrone’s narrative builds toward an explosive ending that leaves Marcello alone and abandoned against the decaying landscape of the town where he has tried so hard to fit in. Those familiar with Garrone's work will be tempted to read metaphorical meanings into a simple tale that takes place against a backdrop of ruined buildings. As we follow Marcello's story, hope gradually gives way to feelings of abandonment. Marcello displays sweet affection for dogs and for his daughter. Even so, Garrone refuses to see life in Italy (and perhaps beyond) through a lens tinted by optimism. In Dogman, Marcello’s love for others goes largely unrequited.

Charlie Says

Rather than try to explain Charles Manson, director Mary Harron's Charlie Says concentrates on Manson’s spell-binding relationship with the women who ultimately carried out or abetted him in the Tate/LaBianca murders, endlessly discussed crimes that left an indelible mark on American culture. The movie focuses on three women: Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon). After immersing in the cult-like atmosphere of the Manson family's California commune, Harron brings us to the murders. She follows the carnage with a lengthy section in which a teacher (Merritt Wever) tries to help each of the women -- by then imprisoned in maximum security -- achieve some degree of self-realization. Perhaps this is where the movie should have started. At it stands, Harron (American Psycho) doesn't provide a compelling enough reason for taking another drive through Manson country. And without more context, the free-floating atmosphere of the '60s -- manifested mostly through sex, drugs and the charisma Manson (Matt Smith) supposedly projected -- seems a trifle ridiculous. Last week, I wondered whether we needed another film about Ted Bundy (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile). I had my doubts, but in this case, it seemed clear that Charlie Says doesn't offer enough by way of insight to answer the question that inevitably seems to arise with movies about heinous crimes, particularly those that already have been the subject of enough books and movies to qualify as an industry: Exactly why am I watching?

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A comedy about a 50th birthday

Amy Poehler makes her directorial debut with Wine Country, a comedy about six friends who gather at a home in the Napa Valley to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of their number. When you watch Wine Country, it will be difficult not to see that the women on the screen -- a group that includes Maya Rudolph, Paula Pell, Rachel Dratch, and Ana Gasteyer, as well as Poehler and Emily Spivey -- are having a good time. That impression may result from the fact that some of these women evidently made a similar trip together in real life, which is where Poehler got the idea for the movie. She even makes room for old pal Tina Fey, who appears in a drop-in role as the owner the house the women have rented for their weekend celebration. Poehler makes sure that each of these women has a highlight moment with the best delivered by Pell, as the group's gay pal, and the always enjoyable Rudolph, as a woman who's secretly worrying about a possible health issue. Dratch portrays the self-effacing woman whose birthday the group is celebrating. The movie also includes a visit from a tarot card reader (Cherry Jones) and a cameo from TED Talks star Brene Brown. Jason Schwartzman signs on as Devon, the chef and chauffeur who comes with the rented house and who spends hours making paella for the group. The women are characterized in ways that reflect someone's idea -- actually screenwriters Spivey and Liz Cackowski -- about what might be on the minds of 50-year-old women: aging, careers, marriages, and relationships (or the lack of them). You won't hear anything resembling the kind of discussions that rely on high-flying bouts of imagination. More amusing than uproarious, Wine Country's cast sells this slender movie, which includes the usual "serious" counterpoint that seems to have become part of every comedy. The story resolves predictably, but the actresses who gather in wine country give the movie its kick -- not a major kick, but a kick nonetheless.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

She's beautiful; he's a schlub

Long Shot goes for laughs by teaming Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron. It probably will be a hit -- but not with me.
The Long Shot, an improbable romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron (beautiful) and Seth Rogen (schlubby) likely will score with audiences, more for its comedy than its romance. Directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50), the movie plays to the expectation that someone who looks like Theron -- and who does a better job of looking like Theron than Theron herself? -- possibly could fall for someone who looks like Rogen, who, as far as we know, never has been mistaken for Bradley Cooper.

To make the movie even more ludicrous, Theron portrays a Secretary of State with presidential ambitions and Rogen has been hired to play a rogue journalist who has little respect for anything that might be described as the "official" world. It's reasonable to wonder how Rogen's Fred Flarsky would even know someone such as Theron's Charlotte Field.

We quickly learn that the relationship traces back to Fred's teens. The slightly older Charlotte babysat for Fred, who expressed his fondness for her with an erection that caused his pants to bulge. Evidently, the moment was so important that Fred never forgot it.

When Fred and Charlotte meet as adults -- if that's what the character played by Rogen can be called -- they strike up a relationship. They meet, by the way, at a party at which Boyz II Men makes an appearance. Turns out they're both Boyz II Men fans. What are the odds?

Charlotte is impressed with Fred's candor as a supposedly fearless and funny journalist who works for a Brooklyn newspaper. As luck would have it, Fred is newly unemployed having quit his job when his paper was taken over by a right-wing tycoon.

Field hires Fred as a speechwriter and ... well ... I don't have to tell you that one thing leads to another and an unlikely romance blossoms between the Secretary of State and this slovenly Secretary of Sate. (I know, "sate" isn't a noun, but I couldn't resist.)

The movie plays a bad-taste card early. In his effort to infiltrate a meeting of neo-Nazis, Fred agrees to have a swastika tattooed on his arm. That way, the skinheads will believe he's one of their Jew-hating brethren. Sure.

I suppose all of this could have worked had the screenplay, credited to Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, found a comic tone that could accommodate both meathead humor and something slightly more sophisticated.

If Long Shot scores with audiences, it may be because Levine's understands that all successful comedies require a couple of major moments that have been engineered to elicit the always desirable Big Laugh.

At one point, Field's advisors (June Diane Raphael), tries to embarrass Fred, who has been told that he should shed his neo-hippie attire and find a suit he can wear to one of Field's appearances at an international conference. They find him a suit that would look out-of-place at a Scandinavian folk festival, but the joke is undermined by a question: Would Fred really be stupid enough to wear this ridiculous outfit?

If you're going to hire Rogen, it's probably fitting to work masturbation into the story and if you can find a way to include a masturbation joke with ejaculate, you've struck gold. Levine does both. I'll say no more.

If you've seen any Rogen performance, you already know that he'll punctuate the proceedings with wisecracks, some of them clever. Theron gives a reasonably adept comic performance as her character is put in the position of having to defend Fred against those who believe that he's too much the irredeemable slob to qualify as a romantic partner for someone who aspires to the nation's highest office, currently held by a self-involved fool played by Bob Odenkirk.

The supporting cast includes Alexander Skarsgard as the Canadian Prime Minister, a suave, good-looking fellow who's supposed to make an ideal companion for Charlotte, aside from his creepy pretensions and a fingernails-on-blackboard laugh. O'Shea Jackson Jr. shows up as one of Fred's buddies, a guy who's successful in business. Andy Serkis, looking strange as ever, plays the media mogul who's trying to gobble up the entire media world.

I know from the reaction of a preview audience that enough folks will find Long Shot hilarious to make it into a small hit. To wit: There's even a scene in which the Secretary of State, uncharacteristically high on drugs, must deal with a national security crisis.

But I'm not casting my vote for a comedy that, like a long-winded political speech, goes on for two hours, and which too often seems more interested in packaging gags than in taking on political hypocrisy or, heaven forbid, something audiences truly hold sacred: the romantic comedy. Rather than challenging the form, the movie can't resist capitulating to it.

It was his home and he won't let go

The Intruder squanders any promise with a hopeless descent into horror cliches.

Indecision is a bad quality in a genre movie. If you take a look at IMDb, you'll find that The Intruder has been assigned multiple genre labels. This movie about a successful young black couple that buys a beautiful Napa Valley house only to be tormented by the home's previous owner carries a quartet of genre headings: drama, horror, mystery, and thriller.

Had the movie opted for mystery and drama, it might have proved less laughable. But thriller and horror elements wind up dominating. That leaves The Intruder with only one notable quality: an over-the-top performance from Dennis Quaid as an apparently helpful widower who refuses to abandon the house that he says he associates with his grown daughter and late wife.

If you'd never seen another movie, you might think that The Intruder is going to touch on psychological and perhaps racial issues. But you, as someone in possession of a reasonable amount of movie sentience, already know that the Quaid's Charlie Peck will go from annoying to menacing almost before you have a chance to take that first bite of popcorn.

And that's part of the movie's problem. Had director Deon Taylor and screenwriter David Loughery taken more time making us wonder about Quaid's character, the movie might have made its attractive young couple (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good) seem more credible. Good's character, in particular, suffers from a bad case of failure to see the obvious.

Allowing the audience to know more than the characters may be part of Taylor's strategy. It sets up the kind of obvious jump scares that mark standard horror, including a tired old standby that elicits audience groans and laughter. At one point, Good's character descends into a creepy basement with a flashlight. A vocal audience at a preview screening had no difficulty letting her know that she'd just made a really dumb move.

This kind of manipulation can be fun, but in the case of The Intruder, it drags the movie into a junk heap of silliness.

There isn't much help by way of a supporting cast, aside from Joseph Sikora, who plays Mike, a business partner of Ealy's Scott. They run a trendy San Francisco ad agency that has made them both a ton of money.

Feeble attempts are made to add psychological depth. Good's Annie can be jealous of her husband, who -- we learn -- has a good reason for not wanting guns around the house. But Quaid's Charlie Peck emerges as a monster who requires no other explanation than the fact that we're watching a movie that can't resist horror movie cliches. Oh well, Quaid takes on this duty with apparent glee.

Sledgehammer jolts of music and a tendency to telegraph its moves trample any suggestion of subtlety on the part of The Intruder. The result: The only thing that's intruded upon here is any desire the movie might have had to be taken seriously.

A dramatized look at Ted Bundy

Zac Efron makes a convincing Bundy, but it's not always easy to figure out what director Joe Berlinger has in mind.

I can't say that I recommend Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile -- a dramatized version of the murderous years of serial killer Ted Bundy's life. To be honest: I'm still grappling with my own reaction to this Netflix movie.

As someone who worked on a Denver newspaper's city desk back when Bundy was being held in an Aspen jail (he escaped), I'm not sure that I know much more about Bundy than I did before I saw Extremely Wicked. Directed by Joe Berlinger, who also created the Netflix series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the movie builds around Zac Efron's terrific performance as the charming, intelligent killer.

On the surface, Bundy was a young law student, who, as the judge at his trial stated, could have led an admirable life but who went a different way. Talk about understatement.

At the same time as I say that I can't recommend Extremely Wicked, I have to admit that I watched it with interest, mostly because Berlinger -- an Oscar winner for his documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory -- makes two interesting choices: First, he doesn't show us Bundy committing his most brutal crimes and second he allows Efron to stay within a range of normality that's challenged by everything we already know about Bundy.

When Bundy gently caresses the neck of girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), we fear for her, even though she seems to be part of the "ordinary" existence that Bundy tries to maintain. This may make it sound as if Berlinger, who based the story on Kendall's book, The Phantom Prince; My Life With Ted Bundy, suggests that Bundy had a split personality. He doesn't.

If the movie has a point: It's this: This apparently normal guy -- good-looking and with plausible political aspirations -- is exactly the same fellow who mercilessly kills young women.

Efron gives a compelling performance but Berlinger doesn't dig deeply enough into Liz's love for Ted. As a single mom, she trusted Bundy with her young daughter. She couldn't deny her feelings for him. As Bundy moves through his various legal tribulations, Liz drinks too much. She struggles to fend off the truth about the man she once intended to marry. Perhaps Liz alone should have been the movie's main concern.

Like many true crime movies, Extremely wicked ends up in a courtroom. There, Bundy proves adept at defending himself. John Malkovich portrays the judge who presides over Bundy's trial, but Malkovich's innate eloquence can’t quite accommodate the homespun remarks of a judge who speaks the words that give the movie its lengthy title.

At 110 minutes, the movie feels long because, in the end, it has only one point to make: Bundy, whose ease and charm fooled many women into becoming victims, may have been able to fool himself, as well.

So don't ask me if you should see this movie. The answer depends on whether you want to see a sometimes intriguing movie that may leave you unsure about its merits. All I'll say is that Efron seldom has been better and that fascination with a 1970s story that once gripped the nation hasn't entirely faded.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/2/29 -- Ask Dr. Ruth and Red Joan

Some weeks, the number of movies challenges even those of us who tend to review as much as possible. This is one of those weeks. As a result, I'm trying something a bit different; i.e., I'm going to write about as much as possible in the most efficient way. I'm calling it a "diary" even though it reflects nothing about my life -- other than the fact that much of it has been measured in movies. Make what you will of that.

Ask Dr. Ruth

At 90, Dr. Ruth Westheimer remains a kick. The intrepid sex therapist and giver of advice possesses enough spunk and spirit to fill two documentaries. Fair to say that director Ryan White lucked out by getting Westheimer to participate in his bio-doc. Amusing and lively, Westheimer fills Ryan's Ask Dr. Ruth with the charm, candor, and personality that made her a natural for radio, television and offbeat celebrity. Hearing Dr. Ruth talk about subjects as varied as masturbation, orgasm, and anal and oral sex is a bit like listening to candid sex talk from the Jewish grandmother you wish you had had. Those unfamiliar with Dr. Ruth's story will learn much about a woman who left Germany for a Swiss orphanage as a child; her parents were murdered in the Holocaust. We learn how she became educated and how she made her unabashed way into a world that easily could have crushed her. I wish that Ryan hadn't relied on animated sequences to tell the story of Westheimer's war years as a child, but that may be a quibble. Westheimer, who has lived in the same Washington Heights apartment for 50 years, has the kind of star power that belies her diminutive stature. Her intriguing story and her commitment to speaking frankly about sex make the film irresistible. The thing about asking Dr. Ruth a question is that -- like it or not -- you're going to get an answer.
Red Joan

Red Joan, a movie that explores the motives behind a treasonous act in which a young woman provides the Soviets with secrets that lead to their development of an atomic bomb, might have been better had Judi Dench -- as the Joan of the title -- been used as a little more than a framing device. Arrested years after her crime, Dench's Joan has flashbacks in which she recalls the bulk of the story, which centers on her love life and gradual emergence as an idealistic physicist. Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan. Cookson is fine as a bright young woman who, while at Cambridge, falls for a Jewish Communist (a cliche) portrayed by Tom Hughes. The movie doesn't establish sufficient context to explain why many bright young people became enamored with Russia during the 1930s. Another leftist (Tereza Srbova) introduces Joan to Hughes' Leo, who appears throughout the story as he tries to persuade Joan about the rectitude of his cause while raising suspicions that he’s simply using her. Stephen Campbell Moore plays the head of the British research team that's trying to develop the bomb in an information-sharing effort with Canada. The movie's geopolitics produce little by way of sizzle, and director Trevor Nunn's effort to turn Joan into a peace-seeking heroine seem, at best, naive. In sum, fine cast; tepid result.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

'Endgame' delivers what fans expect

It takes three hours for this Marvel Comics series to reach its conclusion, but the movie mostly succeeds..

Watching Avengers: Endgame —- the last chapter in what seemed an endless series of movies that kicked off in 2008 with Iron Man — another title kept running through my head, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It’s not that Chandler’s 1953 novel, made into a fine movie by director Robert Altman, resembles this Marvel Comics extravaganza in any way. It’s simply the title. At three hours in length, Marvel takes its time bringing this long-running series to a close. Judging by Endgame's sometimes melancholy tone, Marvel itself had a difficult time letting go.

Before we continue, I should tell you that this isn’t the end of Marvel comic movies or of every character who has graced the Avengers series. And, no, I’m not going to dwell on plot, partly because critics have been cautioned about including spoilers and partly because I’m not sure that the plot and its various twists make much difference. The general outline of the story already has been drawn; the last installment —- Infinity War —- pitted the Avengers against Thanos (James Brolin}, a super-villain. Even before the beginning of Endgame, Thanos had wiped out half of the universe's population.

This edition includes a robust cast of characters from the Marvel Universe, so many that all but the most avid Marvel fan would be wise to attend the movie with a scorecard. But if character development doesn’t entirely surpass action in Endgame, it at least stands on equal footing. There’s also a fair amount of humor in the work of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers who brought us 2018’s Infinity War.

About the movie's humor: Reviewers will mention it for good reason. Endgame doesn’t skimp on humor, much of it self-referential, some of it simply amusing. But this doesn’t mean you’ll be falling out of your seat; it does mean that the filmmakers understand that a three-hour journey can’t be made unless it provides a few laughs.

Endgame stands as a sequel to Infinity War although you probably needn’t have seen that movie to follow this one. Still, if you’re not plugged into the Marvel universe, I see no reason to start now. And, yes, I’m wary of movies that have helped turn popular entertainment into a comic-book-based smorgasbord. I’m also aware that there’s little point railing against an already-established victory. As far as the box office is concerned, these movies represent a Hollywood Olympus that most viewers are happy to revisit with a frequency that has enriched much of Marvel's empire.

As for Endgame, I’ll give you a few of the high points. First, Robert Downey Jr., whose work as Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, ignited the Avenger's flame. A distressed-looking Stark is seen early in Endgame; he’s on a space ship floating through the outer reaches of space or as he puts it, a thousand light years from the nearest 7-Eleven. Without offering any overly revealing explanations, suffice it to say that Downey gives a real performance; i.e., one in which Stark relates more to his human side than to his superhero self.

Joining Downey are a variety of other superheroes. These include Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, the anger-motivated muscle man who in this edition has found a way to blend his fury with the normal intelligence of his alter-ego Bruce Banner. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor makes a large impression, not only by wielding his mythic hammer but by displaying a new and expanded girth. Thor, we learn has become a beer-guzzling sloth complete with a potbelly. The newly debauched Thor adds welcome laughs.

We see more of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) than I expected. Same goes for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. As I've said, bring a scorecard and you'll be able to check off every superhero arrival in the movie's bulging roster.

The Russo brothers try to give each of the main characters his or her due by introducing a plot conceit that allows the movie’s structure to be divided into a variety of mini-movies that include moments of genuine poignancy.

Let’s talk about the movie’s ending. Yes, it’s protracted but it’s also marked by a reasonably surprising undertow: Victories seldom come without an underlying sense of what has been lost in the fight. That's not to say that you'll be weeping uncontrollably. The Russos deftly engineer the finale in ways that are bound to elicit cheers from the faithful; they nicely balance moments of loss with the obligatory rush derived from superhero achievements.

But wait; there’s more. The climactic action is followed by a series of epilogues that are meant to tug at the heartstrings and which probably will accomplish this goal for many of the faithful.

Avengers: Endgame goes to great lengths to deliver what its fanbase expects: big battles with cosmic stakes, a bit of self-deprecation and a plethora of superheroes that are happily and reverentially showcased.

More cinema diary: 4/24/19 -- Little Woods and Stockholm

Some weeks, the number of movies challenges even those of us who tend to review as much as possible. This is one of those weeks. As a result, I'm trying something a bit different; i.e., I'm going to write about as much as possible in the most efficient way. If it works, you may see this approach again. I'm calling it a "diary" even though it reflects nothing about my life -- other than the fact that much of it has been measured in movies. Make what you will of that.

Little Woods

With Tessa Thompson in a starring role, Little Woods takes a grim but clear-eyed look at the difficulties of surviving in a small North Dakota town where the oil workers use opioids to stave off pain and just about everyone struggles to make ends meet. Thompson's Ollie is just finishing a stint on probation after being jailed for transporting drugs across the Canadian border. She's committed to building a new life and hopes to move to surroundings that are less conducive to the kind of dead-end living that trapped her in the first place. But Ollie's efforts are thwarted by her half-sister (Lily James), a young mother with a talent for trouble. Threated with losing the house where her late mother lived and worried about her sister's second pregnancy, Ollie does the one thing she pledged to avoid: Sell drugs. Little Woods hardly qualifies as a festival of joy: James's Deb barely scrapes by. She lives in a trailer in a parking lot; we know it's only a matter of time until that situation goes bad. The best reason to see Little Woods stems from Thompson's performance, which finds her branching out from previous work in movies such as Thor: Ragnarok and Sorry to Bother You. Little Woods adds tension to the proceedings by giving Ollie a week to raise enough money to save her mother's house from foreclosure. Some stretches of director Nia DaCosta's feature debut tend to drag. Still, Little Woods stands as a serious attempt to explore lives that seldom find their way to the screen, and Thompson's performance keeps the wheels turning.

Stockholm

Regular readers of my reviews know that I think Ethan Hawke was robbed of an Oscar. The injustice began when Hawke wasn't even nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for his performance as a guilt-ridden pastor in First Reformed. Awards or no, Hawke makes interesting choices about the movies in which he appears. In Stockholm, the story of a real-life bank heist that took place in Sweden in 1973, Hawke plays Lars Nystrom, a jacked-up criminal who invades a bank where he holds a couple of employees hostage. Lars wants $1 million and insists on obtaining the release of his bank-robbing pal Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong). The movie is meant to illustrate something about Stockholm syndrome, the way hostages can come to sympathize with their captors. To that end, Stockholm builds a relationship between Lars and Bianca (Noomi Repace), one of his hostages, a vulnerable but savvy bank employee. Director Robert Budreau, who worked with Hawke on Born to Be Blue, treats the robbery as an example of bumbling lunacy on the part of the thieves, Stockholm's stolid chief of police (Christopher Heyerdahl) and the Swedish prime minister (Shanti Roney) who refuses to let Lars leave with the hostages. The supporting cast acquits itself well, but Stockholm belongs to Hawke, who creates a portrait of a self-dramatizing felon with a limited capacity for planning and a tendency to panic. Lars even wears a costume to his criminal outing, entering the bank in a leather suit, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. If you've been reading this and thinking about 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, I don't blame you. It's difficult to watch Stockholm without remembering director Sidney Lumet's look at a bank hostage situation in New York. In that movie, Al Pacino played a thief with an agenda. Here, Hawke follows suit, capturing the chaotic pathos in Lars' misguided fever dream of a heist.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/24/19 -- Wild Nights with Emily, Peterloo and Sunset

Some weeks, the number of movies challenges even those of us who tend to review as much as possible. This is one of those weeks. As a result, I'm trying something a bit different; i.e., I'm going to write about as much as possible in the most efficient way. If it works, you may see this approach again. I'm calling it a "diary" even though it reflects nothing about my life -- other than the fact that much of it has been measured in movies. Make what you will of that.


Wild Nigh Nights with Emily

The movie, A Quiet Passion (2017), took us inside the isolated life of poet Emily Dickinson. Cynthia Nixon led director Terrence Davies' somber look at a poet who could be preoccupied with mortality. It's not easy, after all, to be upbeat about a poet who wrote this line: "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Those familiar with Dickinson's work may be a bit shocked to find that Wild Nights with Emily, which casts Molly Shannon as the poet, sheds the shroud of gloom that usually accompanies talk of Dickinson. Shannon portrays a poet who carried on an enduring lesbian relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler). Don't fret about Dickinson's brother Austin (Kevin Seal); he busies himself with an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), the woman whose lecture about Dickinson's life and poetry frames the story. The movie traces the relationship between Amy and Susan back through their teen years, and director Madeleine Olnek often takes a frolicking approach without dismissing the seriousness of Dickinson's work. The movie doesn't short change the difficulties Dickinson had finding acceptance as a woman poet in the 19th century but approaches much of the story with a sly understanding of the absurd propriety that keeps everyone from acknowledging the obvious. Shannon and Ziegler make what initially seems an unlikely approach (fiction based on reasonable speculation) into something that challenges Dickinson's image, cracking the ice of literary reverence to find a real person. At one point, Dickinson writes a poem on the back of a sheet of paper containing one of her recipes. She supplies some of the local Amherst kids with gingerbread that she lowers in a basket from her bedroom window and, thanks to Shannon, has an expression that punctures pretension. I have no idea how Dickinson purists will react to the movie, but it made me feel better about a poet who seemed to live with an eye on the grave. If it's wishful thinking, then consider it a good example of such license: In Wild Nights with Emily, we meet a Dickinson who seems to defy convention without guilt, particularly when it comes to tasting the pleasures of love, sex, and emotional intimacy.


PETERLOO

A bit of background for those of us who aren't particularly well-versed in English history. In 1819, the British cavalry spent three hours stomping through a crowd of as many as 80,000 protesters in St Peter's Field, Manchester. The protesters were demanding that parliamentary representation that reflected a one-man-one-vote approach. (It would be nearly a century before women in Britain won the right to vote.) It pains me to say that director Mike Leigh, whose work I take seriously, has turned a potentially volatile story into a series of illustrated position papers that expose all sides of the disputes leading up what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Heavy on mise-en-scene, Peterloo devolves into a series of meetings that make it seem as if the movie's real subject is oratory. Suffice to say that none of the movie's various politicians could survive the age of Twitter. The movie clearly expresses its main conflict: The elite want to keep the discontented masses at bay, and those same masses want to be heard. The oppressed consist of those who work the mills of Manchester, eking out a living and trying to cling to their dignity. Leigh's approach requires him to introduce a large number of characters, many defined almost entirely by their political stances and by whatever flavor the actors are able to bring to the enterprise. Leigh clearly sides with the downtrodden, beginning his movie by following a young bugler (David Moorst) who returns to Manchester in a near daze after the Battle of Waterloo. The movie builds toward the fated demonstration at which the great orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) has been scheduled to address the crowd. At times, Leigh creates the illusion that events almost are unfolding in real time. But there's hardly a shot or scene that doesn't overstay its welcome, and Leigh winds up with a movie in which honorable intentions aren't quite enough to stave off the feeling that we're undergoing a bit of an endurance test.


SUNSET

I was not among those who found Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015) as stunning as many other critics. That film, Laszlo's first, won an Oscar for best foreign-language film. I suppose, then, that I shouldn't have been surprised that Laszlo's second outing -- Sunset -- proves even less successful. Over-using his signature camera move -- he follows characters into scenes in a way that disorients the viewer -- Nemes takes us to Budapest on the eve of World War I. The movie focuses on Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who arrives in Budapest from Trieste. She hopes to find employment at a renowned millinery shop. It doesn't take long to learn that Irisz is the daughter of the shop's former owners, a couple who were killed in a fire that ravaged the store. The meticulous Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov) has rebuilt the business. He has no wish to hire anyone from the family of its previous owners. Irisz, who was sent to an orphanage at the age of two, also learns that she had an apparently wayward brother who murdered the husband of a countess (Julia Jakubowska). A variety of characters keep warning Iresz to leave town; she keeps ignoring their advice. Pressing on as she tries to locate her brother, Irisz begins to learn dreadful secrets about the hidden agenda behind the hat business. Confusing and ultimately unsatisfying, Sunset adheres to the rules of slow disclosure as if they were holy writ; but, in this case, the gradual revelation of information not only keeps the audience from getting ahead of the story but creates considerable frustration. In Sunset, slow disclosure comes perilously close to no disclosure at all. Sunset constantly flirts with larger meanings, but no deluge of insight arrives to quench the thirst for a comprehensible resolution.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Elle Fanning receives a showcase

Sometimes, critical standards need to be twisted a bit. That's how I felt about Teen Spirit, a somewhat flimsy Max Minghella-directed variation on a Star is Born theme that places Elle Fanning in a starring role. No one is going to confuse Fanning's Violet with a character from Chekhov, but Teen Spirit bounces its way into theaters with a tailwind of energy behind it and a commanding performance from Fanning. A young woman living on the Isle of Wight, Fanning's Violet wants to sing. Her singing voice -- yes, it's really Fanning's -- proves stronger than anything Violet might say in normal conversation. Fanning makes it clear from the start that Violet isn't happy living with her Polish immigrant single mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). While singing to a sparse audience at a local bar, Violet meets an unlikely mentor, a disheveled Croatian (Zlatko Buric) who once was an opera star and now seems to be a drunk. Initially timid about the possibility, Violet quickly decides to enter a local talent contest. The winners will appear on a nationally televised talent show called Teen Spirit. Minghella fully embraces the absurdity of a story in which an opera star helps fashion a rock idol. He wisely refuses to wink at the brazen obviousness of any of the conceits in the screenplay, which he also wrote. Look, I'm not arguing that Teen Spirit ascends the ladder of greatness; I am saying that the highly energetic Teen Spirit gives Fanning a well-deserved showcase and that she takes full advantage of it. She creates a character who -- as her coach advises her -- sings from the heart.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

'The Chaperone,' a lukewarm period piece

In 1922, a wife from staid Wichita, Kansas, accompanies 15-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City where the young Louise continues studying dance. Played in The Chaperone by Elizabeth McGovern, the wife eventually returns to Wichita -- albeit in a somewhat revised version of her early-picture self. Brooks, portrayed by a vibrant Haley Lu Richardson, achieves movie stardom and a notorious reputation that turns her into an icon. Director Michael Engler sets up a familiar conflict in this fictionalized account of Brooks' teen years: Brooks' free-spirited volatility bumps against the strictures of middle-class life. Norma, who vainly tries to teach Louise propriety, has problems of her own: Her husband (Campbell Scott) has been unfaithful to her with another man. Richardson captures Brooks' unbridled energy and McGovern's character wrestles with her long-repressed impulses. Norma's desires are awakened by a handyman (Geza Rohrig) who works at the Catholic orphanage where Norma was raised and where she hopes to learn the identity of her biological mother. As the title suggests, the movie focuses mostly on the chaperone, a shame because Norma isn't interesting enough to compete with Richardsons' Brooks. Based on a novel by Laura Moriarty, Julian Fellowes' screenplay provides Norma with a dramatic arc of her own, but The Chaperone escorts us through a period piece that's often too lukewarm to simmer, much less to boil.


A musical set in a subway car

A group of strangers stuck between stations in a New York City subway car seems an unlikely premise for a musical on film. But that didn't stop writer/director Michael Berry from trying. The result is Stuck: A mixed bag of a musical that has its moments, thanks mostly to a game cast. Giancarlo Esposito anchors the show as a homeless man with a philosophical bent. Joining Esposito are Ashanti, as a young woman with a chip on her shoulder; Arden Cho, as a dancer who walls herself off from contact with the other passengers; and Amy Madigan, as a sad woman who can't find the right key for talking with her fellow riders. Omar Chapparo plays an angry construction worker who can't afford to miss a day's pay, and Gerard Canonico portrays a young artist who has created a comic book about a disabled superhero named Maggie. Each character is given a musical number -- with Canonico's song affording Berry an opportunity for the addition of special effects that fit the generally modest nature of the enterprise. Before the train restarts, each character offers a glimpse into his or her true self. It doesn't take a genius to know that this serviceable collection of musical numbers and dialogue will result in mutual understanding, a conclusion the movie reaches within a reasonable 90-minute running time.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Floating toward the void in a spaceship

Director Claire Denis suggests more than she may be saying in High Life.

A group of convicts floats through space in a vessel that looks more like a barge than something designed by anyone who'd ever seen a spaceship or a movie about one. These unfortunate souls evidently thought that traveling through the darkened void en route to a black hole would be better than submitting to the death penalty on Earth.

Earth, by the way, has become so distant for them that there's barely enough memory of it left to fuel a decent flashback. Later, we'll learn that the Earth is pretty much doomed and that these voyagers might be what's left of humanity. In the movies, humanity never has difficulty finding its way toward extinction. All connections to reality, we presume, are purely intentional.

French director Claire Denis begins her movie by showing us an onboard garden where vegetables are cultivated. A shoe, apparently detached from its owner, peeks out from beneath the soil. We'll also see a man in a space suit (Robert Pattinson) tightening bolts outside the craft. Inside, an infant girl happily makes infant-girl noises. We presume the man in the space suit is the girl's father.

Gradually, Denis -- working in English for the first time -- reveals her approach, which has less to do with sci-fi than with quietly subjecting her characters to the kinds of cruelty desperate people are prone to inflict on one another. She's also studying sexual gratification, which takes place on the ship in a device called "The Box."

In conjunction with the movie's approach to sex, we meet a crazed scientist (Juliette Binoche) who's obsessed with reproducing life in deep space. Many bodily fluids flow as Dibs, who seems to be in charge of the others, collects sperm samples from the men as part of her experiments.

The scene in which Binoche's character enters "The Box" for sexual stimulation requires the actress to abandon all inhibition. At the same time, it can feel more squirm-inducing than erotic. Dibs, after all, is getting it on with a machine, perhaps the most elaborate sex toy ever to spring from someone's imagination.

No, I haven't forgotten the infant, who showed up early in the movie but who represents a later development in the story's shuffled chronology. Baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) receives tender treatment from Pattinson's Monte. She also drives him crazy with her crying.

Denis gradually reveals what happens to the rest of the crew, pacing her movie so slowly you might wonder whether she regards anything resembling narrative drive as a cardinal sin.

Other passengers on this voyage include a black man (Andre Benjamin) who says he volunteered to bring glory to his family and a variety of women (Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, and Gloria Obianyo).

After the passage of time, Jessie Ross portrays the teenage Willow. Ewan Mitchell appears as one of the more violent passengers on this trip toward the void.

Pattinson, who often whispers his character's thoughts, continues to be one of today's most adventurous actors. Same goes for Binoche. I didn't always know what Denis' purposes were, but these two actors seem to suit them perfectly.

Credit Denis with creating a pervasive sense of weirdness that gets under the skin, insinuating itself into consciousness, somewhat in the way that the steady flow of an IV drip invades the veins. You may leave the movie in a kind of art-induced daze.

But what does it all mean? Too much? Too little?

Denis operates light years away from thrill-a-minute Hollywood cinema; her style requires patience and perhaps a little caffeine. I wish I could say, High Life produced a more discernible reward. I'm not sure that the movie's images lend themselves to any resounding thematic statement. High Life just might be a movie that wants to say something profound but leaves us wondering exactly what that might be.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Laughs sporadic in 'Little' comedy

Here's a test you can apply: If you find Little consistently hilarious, you and I are on different comedy wavelengths. Executive produced by 13-year-old Marsai Martin (of TV's Blackish), Little reverses the Tom Hanks' comedy Big (1988). The twist: This time, an adult (Regina Hall) winds up in the body of her 13-year-old self (played by Martin).

The movie's single joke is tethered to the kind of feel-good message you might find in a self-help book: Adults shouldn't abandon the kid in themselves; they should respect the true self they learned to repress when they reached maturity.

Hall plays Jordan Sanders, the bitch-on-wheels owner of a company that invents apps -- at least it's supposed to invent them when Jordan isn't terrorizing or berating her employees.

After an encounter with a kid with a wand (yes, it's a flimsy conceit), Jordan wakes up as the 13-year-old she once was. Jordan has a teenager's body, but she retains her obnoxious adult personality. She also finds herself in the care of her astonished assistant (Issa Rae). Rae's April seems to have one job: allowing herself to be abused by her dictatorial boss. Now that the boss has shrunk to kid size, could the tables be turned?

It doesn't take long for an over-amped but mostly wasted Hall to take a back seat to Martin, who -- fairness dictates -- must be credited for turning herself into a convincing teen version of Jordan's older self, a kid who still carries the adult Jordan stylish purse wherever she goes.

A bit of psychology may have been intended to temper Jordan's meanness. She's overcompensating for childhood humiliations by becoming an adult ogre. When she was a kid, Jordan's dad told her that no one bullies a boss. Sick of being pushed around, she vowed that she would join the ranks of those who push others around.

It's nice to see a movie portray a black woman as successful, although Little takes the easy out to make the point: Jordan lives in a super-slick Atlanta apartment and drives a BMW that's a real head-turner.

The adult Jordan doesn't have much time for romance: Luke James signs on as a suitor but Jordan refuses to make an emotional connection with him.

A subplot about the pressing need for Jordan's imperiled company to invent a business-saving app doesn't add much. Neither does 13-year-old Jordan's relationship with a trio of nerds, the only kids who are willing to befriend her, and Little suffers an unpleasant taste lapse when Jordan -- in her 13-year-old body -- flirts with her hunky teacher (Justin Hartley).

Martin obviously has a future, but Little isn't the new Big. As far as broadly conceived comedies go, it's medium-sized at best.

A movie about ramen and reconciliation

If you don’t like your movies seasoned with sentiment, you don’t have much reason to see Ramen Shop, a sweetened concoction that tells the story of a half-Japanese/half Singaporean chef who wants to unite two cuisines and also re-connect with the family his mother left behind when she moved with his father to Japan. Directed by Eric Khoo (My Magic, Tatsumi), the movie may delight foodies because it contains ample shots of ramen preparation, particularly a concoction known as pork rib soup. It helps to know that Singapore still harbors resentments about brutal treatment by the Japanese during World War II. Takumi Saito plays the chef who returns to Singapore after his Japanese father dies. He wants to connect with his late mother’s family, an uncle (Mark Lee) who knew him as a boy and a grandmother (Beatrice Chien) he’s never met. Angered by the loss of her husband to the Japanese, Chien’s character refused to speak to her daughter once she decided to marry a Japanese man who had been working in Singapore. Khoo aims for reconciliation, always a good thing, but the movie’s sometimes disorienting use of flashbacks diminishes the story as does a treacly musical score. Watching the painstaking commitment of ramen chefs to their craft makes for its own reward, although you’d probably get at least as much out of an Anthony Bourdain episode.

On the road with Steve Bannon

Known for his right-wing nationalism, Stephen K. Bannon remains a controversial figure who enjoys his role as a provocateur for his ideas about what constitutes patriotism. Director Alison Klayman tags along with Brannon as he travels the US and Europe, either trying to create support for his movement or offering his support to those who already espouse his nationalist cause. In The Brink, Bannon wears his trademark two shirts, living up to his reputation for a slovenly appearance as Klayman charts some of the ups and downs of Bannon’s recent career. He may have lost his White House job and his traditional stomping ground, Breitbart News, but his zeal for his cause remains undiminished. Bannon hopes to save America from elites who think only of themselves. Bannon claims to champion ordinary people with his a neo-populist assault on the status quo. Bigotry? Not him, he suggests. Bannon's cause is open to anyone — regardless of race, religion or gender — so long as they are willing to join the America-first chorus. Tellingly, Bannon says that Trump taught him that there’s no such thing as bad media coverage. He clearly delights in the media glare and doesn’t seem to hold grudges against journalists who push him or who obviously disagree with him. Klayman spent a year filming Bannon and she seems to have gotten the exposure she wanted. But back to where I started: If you’re not a Bannon fan, you probably already have an opinion about his views and his personality. If you are a fan, you already know what Bannon thinks. I couldn't help wondering why a filmmaker would want to provide Bannon with something he really seems to prize: More attention.







Friday, April 5, 2019

Story can't match scenery in 'Storm Boy'

Based on Colin Thiele's children's book, Storm Boy, the movie of the same name, sinks under the weight of its obviousness. The movie is constructed around a story involving a retired corporate head (Geoffrey Rush) who arrives in Australia for a board meeting at which his son-in-law (Erik Thomson) wants to push through a deal with grave environmental consequences. As a result, Rush's Michael Kingsley faces the wrath of his environmentalist granddaughter (Morgana Davies). She wants him to vote "no." The story of corporate intrigue quickly gives way to the bulk of the tale: As he tries to explain himself to his granddaughter, Kingsley recounts his experiences as a boy who lived with his father (Jai Courtney) in a remote corner of Australia. Finn Little portrays Kingsley as a kid. Young Michael takes an interest in pelicans and, with encouragement from the movie’s wise indigenous man (Trevor Jamieson) decides to raise three baby pelicans whose mother has been shot by hunters. This small-scale environmental story -- conservationists vs. hunters -- sets the backdrop for a story in which Micheal raises the orphaned pelicans, developing a special relationship with the one that he names Mr. Percival. The beachfront scenery does more to advance the cause of nature than anything else. The movie obviously wants us to appreciate and respect natural life. But telling the story through the adult eyes of Rush's character creates a bogged-down structure in which the shifts from present to past and back again disrupt the movie's flow. And for a film that wants to celebrate nature, Storm Boy spends an awful lot of time showing the cute ways in which young Michael's pelicans begin behaving like pets.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

An unlikely alliance in Durham, N.C.

The Best of Enemies is a stranger-than-fiction story buoyed by a strong cast.

The essential part of the story told in the new movie The Best of Enemies is true. In 1971, during a fierce argument over the integration of the public schools in Durham, N.C., a black woman and a Ku Klux Klan leader co-chaired a charrette at which the future of the city's schools was to be decided. Rather than impose a solution, the idea was to allow Durham's residents to determine how to proceed.

A Raleigh-based community organizer named Bill Riddick came to Durham to run the two-week charrette, a big meeting at which issues were hashed out in hopes of presenting several resolutions that would be voted on by a committee of Durham's citizens, half white and half black.

The story of an uneasy relationship between a Ku Klux Klan leader and a no-nonsense black activist is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that can't help but intrigue. And you needn't be a genius to know that the resolution will involve a major transformation on someone's part.

The movie owes much of its success to casting. Taraji P. Henson plays Anne Atwater, a woman who has spent much of her life fighting with Durham's white power structure and upholding the rights of the city's black residents. Sporting outfits that add considerable enlargement to her body, Henson virtually disappears into the role of a woman whose determination and sense of righteousness speak of a drive that will not accept defeat.

Sam Rockwell, who already played a racist in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, portrays another in Best of Enemies. Rockwell's CP Ellis faces a challenge when he's asked to rub elbows with members of the city's black community.

The white power elite -- represented in part by a smooth-talking councilman (Bruce McGill) -- wants a reliably racist person to uphold support for segregated schools and to serve as its man on the inside of the charrette.

Rockwell's performance reflects the inner struggle of a man whose sense of belonging has been challenged. CP can seem a bit goofy, but we know there's something percolating inside this gas station owner. CP unexpectedly finds himself immersed in a major debate.

When CP tries to persuade the liberal owner of a local hardware store (John Gallagher Jr.) to vote with the white majority, a saddened CP is taken aback. CP learns that this man who employees blacks served in Vietnam. He fought for his country. CP didn't. For once, CP has no comeback. His world has begun to fall apart.

The supporting cast helps. Anne Heche plays CP's wife and Babou Ceesay portrays Riddick, a man with the unenviable job of trying to get the blacks and whites of Durham to listen to one another.

To me, the Klan venom in Best of Enemies seemed a trifle toned down, but Wes Bentley does a convincing job as a Klansman who has no interest in examining his values.

Robin Bissell, who has spent most of his career producing movies, makes his directorial debut. He smartly relies on his actors to carry the day.

Look, no one likely will mistake Best of Enemies for a great movie and there's always a danger that a movie such as Best of Enemies encourages people to elevate the anecdotal to something more than it is. I wish Bissell had found ways to show more of the discussions that took place at the charrette, and the movie sometimes loses dramatic steam.

Still, you could do worse than Best of Enemies and Hollywood has, many would argue that the Oscar-winning Green Book is one such example.

A small aside: Three recent major movies -- The Best of Enemies, Green Book, and BlacKkKlansman -- have been set in the 1960s and 1970s. Whatever you think of these movies, another truth must be acknowledged: It's past time for Hollywood to catch up and give stories about racism some present-tense urgency.

A juvenile 'Shazam!' has its virtues

It's not perfect but this kid-oriented superhero movie can be fun.
If you're a fan of comic-book movies, you've probably been engaged in discussions about the meaning of the minutia that pertains to whatever universe about which you happen to find yourself obsessing. Participating in such conversations can be fun, but they do have at least one minimum requirement: Participants must take the genre seriously.

Should you happen to be sick of such seriousness, Shazam!, like the Deadpool movies, provides an antidote. A lesser DC Comics offering becomes an entertaining look at a teenager who's able to transform himself into an adult superhero -- but not in all ways. He remains a teenager in mind, humor, spirit, and outlook. He reverts to his teen body when he has no superhero business to transact.

This approach makes Shazam! a bit juvenile or, to put it more favorably, the movie takes undisguised aim at younger audiences and mostly connects.

We first meet Shazam as Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a kid who has spent his youth in foster homes but hasn't abandoned hope that he can locate his real mother, a woman from whom he was separated as a boy.

Zachary Levi portrays Shazam, the caped, adult semi-crusader who emerges when Billy transforms himself.

How you react to Shazam! depends in large part on how you react to Levi's performance, which can be unabashedly goofy. A superhero of greater stature probably wouldn't be caught dead in Shazam's red outfit. And the movie has fun watching Shazam try to adjust to his grown-up body.

Still, I must admit that I felt a bit of relief when Angel reclaimed the role and the movie returned to a point at which the characters no longer needed to shave.

Shazam! also introduces us to Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong), an abused child who becomes Shazam's adult nemesis.

The movie includes a multicultural kiddie crew of Billy's friends and the screenplay finds a way to integrate them into Shazam's superhero adventures. Moreover, Billy's best friend (Jack Dylan Grazer) becomes a kind of guide for Shazam as he goes through his changes.

Djimon Hounsou portrays the wizard who engineers Billy's transformation, suggesting that young Billy is the long-awaited "champion" that the world needs. Boy am I sick of long-awaited heroes who are supposed to fill a role destiny has set for them, but that's the comic-book world.

In this case, the champion's mission has something to do with being able to vanquish the Seven Deadly Sins, all presented as statues that lurk in the wizard's lair while waiting to spring to life.

Director David F. Sandberg keeps Henry Gayden's script moving until about three-quarters of the way through when we realize that Shazam! -- like so many other movies -- doesn't know when to quit. At 132 minutes in length, the movie would have needed a better story to sustain interest.

Enough. Shazam! launches a superhero franchise that has a quality that shouldn't be dismissed: It doesn't seem to matter much and, in the high-stakes world of other superheroes, that's a definite virtue.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Love and loyalty in a changing China

Ash Is Purest White sets the story of a strong woman against a backdrop of economic upheaval.

Chinese director Jia Zhangke sets his new movie -- Ash Is Purest White -- in a climate of economic change and moral collapse. In telling the story of a woman (Tao Zhao) who sacrifices five years of her life for her crime-boss lover (Fan Liao), Jia also manages to explore China's shifting economic climate, a move toward what appears to be unbridled entrepreneurship that began roughly in 2000.

To emphasize such seismic social upheaval, Jia begins his movie in a former coal-mining town before moving through some of China's newly developed cities; he immerses us in a world in which people feel increasingly unmoored.

Tao, who's married to the director, gives the movie its unshifting center. Her Qiao hitches her fate to that of Fan's Bin, a gangster who doesn't exactly wield Godfather-like authority.

At one point, Bin suffers a terrible beating at the hands of young rivals; Qiao saves him by firing a gun in the air and dispersing Bin's assailants. She winds up doing five years in prison for illegal possession of a firearm. The gun belonged to Bin.

After her release from prison, Qiao travels up the Yangtze River, thinking that she'll reunite with Bin and resume her life where it left off five years earlier. It doesn't take much foresight to know that by this time, Bin will have moved on.

Divided into three main sections, the movie charts Quai's life in the coal town of Datong, follows her to jail and then moves into China's rapidly developing cities, faceless towns that seem to have burst on the scene in the wake of the Chinese boom. A final chapter, almost an epilogue, takes place when Qiao returns to Datong and, more or less, takes charge of the gang Bin once led.

As it turns out, the mobsters -- who initially pledge themselves to loyalty, righteousness, and brotherhood -- can't abide by any of their values. Only Qiao adheres to them; she lives by a code that the much weaker men are all-too-willing to bend. In this brotherhood of crime, the only truly staunch person is a sister.

Jia supports the plot with plenty of intriguing incidental observations: frenzied dancing to the Village People's YMCA at a mob-run nightclub, the gloomy fate of coal miners who are being left behind by an evolving economy, the transition from old-fashioned crime to a white-collar era, and, in an incident on a train, the need for ordinary people to enlarge themselves in the eyes of others. A passenger Qiao meets while traveling claims to be running a business based on tracking UFOs.

There are other oddities, some of with a comic twist. A real estate magnate who seeks Bin's help claims to have two interests: animal documentaries and ballroom dancing. Two of his hand-picked favorite dancers strut their stuff at his funeral.

Not all of this works equally well, but Jia aims big: telling an old-fashioned story of betrayal and loyalty while showing how social change works to undermine any sense of communal cohesion.

Not that the director takes sides: At the end of this often-odd but never uninteresting movie, we're left wondering whether any of the characters have gotten anywhere or whether, as one of the movie's strangest moments suggests, they're all marching to beats made hollow by a cosmos that couldn't care less what any of them are striving toward.