Wednesday, November 20, 2019

A wild look at an Israeli in Paris

Director Nadav Lapid explores issues of identity and conscience in Synonyms

Sometimes a movie needn't make perfect sense. Vitality and a sense of urgent cinematic life also can create works of significance. I say this by way of introducing a review of Synonyms, a movie from Israeli director Nadav Lapid.

At heart, the movie is about one man's conflicted sense of identity. Lapid approaches this subject by following Yoav (Tom Mercier), a former Israeli soldier who arrives in Paris determined to denounce his Israeli origins and become a full-fledged Frenchman.

On the day of his arrival, Yoav finds a spacious, empty Paris apartment, goes to sleep in a cocoon-like garment and awakens to take a morning shower. While in the shower, his belongings -- most importantly his clothes -- are stolen. Naked and cold, he's reborn into his new life.

Early on, Lapid garnishes Yoav's flight from his identity with odd comic flourishes. We're kept off-guard. Are we supposed to take any of this seriously? Is everything we're seeing meant to be taken metaphorically?

Mercier's tense, withholding, and muscular performance heightens the sense of mystery. Mercier makes one thing clear: Getting to know Yoav won't e easy. That doesn't make Synonyms more accessible, but it creates a sense of mystery as we wait for Lapid to supply the narrative beats that will pull everything into sharper focus.

Lapid does and doesn't supply those beats. Mostly, he keeps us in a state of unease, but his filmmaking can be so vital that we're reluctant to cash in our chips and move on.

Early on, the naked, freezing Yoav is taken in by two people who share an apartment in the building where Yoav first staked his claim. Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) is a writer and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) plays the oboe. They're a couple of sorts, two people sharing an apartment while sustaining a relationship they've only vaguely defined.

They supply Yoav with clothing, notably a stylish, orange coat that he rarely removes as he travels about Paris.

For reasons that are never made entirely clear, Yoav becomes involved with Israelis who are resolved to fight neo-fascists in France. One of them (Uria Hayik) insists on creating bizarre confrontations with otherwise indifferent strangers. He pushes his Israeli/Jewish identity into startled faces, turning his public persona into an act of aggression. I'm an Israeli. I'm a Jew. Now do something about it. He loudly hums Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, as he confronts baffled riders in a crowded subway car.

I took this as a way for Lapid to assert another part of the Israeli identity, the part that refuses to wait for anti-Semitism to emerge before confronting it, the part that's been conditioned against any form of passivity in the face of potential victimization.

Lapid doesn't neglect the fact that Yoav becomes an object for the French to observe, sometimes in bizarre comic fashion. At one point, a French artist pays him to pose for homoerotic porn. And it's clear early on that Chevillotte's Caroline has carnal interests in Yoav's sculpted body.

The movie's title derives from Yoav's habit of walking through the streets of Paris reciting strings of related or synonymous words as part of his effort to improve his French. Yoav's transformation involves an obdurate refusal to speak Hebrew, even to other Israelis. Only French, he insists.

Yoav's life is spartan. He moves into another vacant apartment where he cooks the one meal he eats daily, inexpensive pasta topped with an inexpensive sauce.

How Yoav knows of these apartments never is made clear, although it's reasonable to assume that he has had previous contact with a network of Parisian-based Israelis.

You won't be surprised to know that Yoav's efforts to recreate himself are doomed. But in this wild and eruptive movie, contradictions aren't resolved; they're splayed across the screen in a vibrant, provocative fashion. Their absurdities taunt us.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

An exiting movie about a Le Mans race

Matt Damon and Christian Bale rev up their performances in an entertaining Ford v Ferrari.

As a person who doesn't know much about auto racing, I can't say I approached Ford v Ferrari with any kind of rooting interest. But good movies about specialized areas draw us into their worlds so that we don't mind listening to the characters when they discuss the technical aspects of building a better race car, in this case, Ford's GT 40 MK II.

Besides, we need no instruction to know that driving at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour, sometimes in the rain, puts life and limb at risk, particularly in a grueling 24-hour race such as Le Mans.

Director James Mangold's movie succeeds, at least in part, because he puts a strong cast behind the story's wheel. Matt Damon portrays Carroll Shelby, a Le Mans winner, who reluctantly retired from racing (health issues) and later was invited by Ford to help develop a car that could win Le Mans, something Ford hadn't been able to do on its own.

Damon's Shelby turns to Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a skilled British driver with a knack for engineering. As it turns out, Miles and Ford are not an ideal fit. Independent and headstrong, Miles has no interest in team play. As a result, Shelby finds himself forced into the role of mediator, trying to placate image-conscious Ford executives while preserving Miles' involvement in the Le Mans project.

Bumps in the road are hit as the movie showcases its various personalities.

Notable among these is the prime mover behind Ford's build-up to the 1966 Le Mans race. Looking as if he's channeling Bale's performance as Dick Cheney in Vice, Tracy Letts creates a Henry Ford II who has little interest in Le Mans until Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) humiliates him. Ford approached Ferrari about a merger. Not only does Ferrari snub Ford, but he also belittles the American motor czar.

At the time, Ferrari had become a habitual winner at Le Mans; Ferrari couldn't believe that Ford, which (ugh!) mass-produced cars, could mount worthy competition.

Mangold, (Logan, The Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line) knows how to keep a movie moving, which is good because Ford v Ferrari runs for two and a half hours. And, no, I didn't think the movie needed to be that long.

Still, the two main performances are never less than watchable. Damon plays a confident, savvy Texan who specializes in boldness. As Miles, Bales knows when to rev his motor to the right degrees of intensity.

Miles' supportive wife (Caitriona Balfe) never stands in the way of her husband's passions. When Shelby and Miles fight outside of the Miles' home, Mrs. Miles pulls up a lawn chair and watches with amusement. Miles' son Peter (Noah Jupe) follows his dad's races with the kind of admiration an adoring son has for a heroic father.

Mangold makes sure that the race footage hums with excitement. He also sustains backstory tension, keeping just enough off-track focus on the rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari when the story arrives at Le Mans. Ferrari disdains the American who sometimes allows his marketing guy (Josh Lucas) to gum up the works, as marketing guys are wont to do in movies about men for whom racing isn't a promotional activity but a way of life.

For those unfamiliar with this true-life story, the movie may seem to cross the finish line in a way that's more downbeat than you'd expect, a slight veering from the formula line that Mangold deftly toes.

To its credit, though, Ford v Ferrari seems to know exactly what kind of movie it wants to be; that makes it an entertainment that should deliver for both racing and non-racing fans.

The sad truth: 'The Good Liar' disappoints

Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play a fine duet but an increasingly misguided screenplay lets them down.
I can’t think of a recent movie that I anticipated with more relish than The Good Liar, a semi-caper entertainment starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. Why not be excited? Finally, I thought, an entertainment aimed at adults and delivered by actors who know how to serve up a line of dialogue as if it were the main course at a five-star restaurant.

So you can imagine the scale of my letdown as The Good Liar began disappearing inside a growing fog of disappointment caused, I think, by an increasingly unbelievable and complex plot that pulls what might have been a crisp entertainment into the deadening swamp of attempted significance.

None of this is to say that The Good Liar, adapted from a 2016 novel by Nicholas Searle, doesn’t include some fine acting. McKellen plays a con man who presents himself as a good-natured Brit — not too smart, pleasant company and just witty enough to keep a conversation rolling.

Mirren portrays a retired Oxford professor who lives in an insufferably bland London suburb in a house that looks as if it had been designed to say ... well ... absolutely nothing

Director Bill Condon makes it clear from the outset that neither McKellen’s Roy nor Mirren’s Betty is on a first-name basis with the truth. Before the opening credits conclude, Condon establishes that both characters are willing to falsify descriptions of themselves on the online dating service where they first encounter each other. She checks the box that says she doesn't drink while sipping from a glass of wine. No smoking, says he, puffing away.

So the question immediately arises, who is trying to con whom and why? It’s a question that has produced reliable entertainment for years, so there’s every reason to expect that The Good Liar will avoid being an exception to the rule.

I’m not going to burden you with the plot because that inevitably would involve introducing spoilers. Let’s just say that the script contrives to have Roy, who feigns injury, move in with Betty. They begin to take on the appearances and habits of a couple -- sans sex.

It doesn’t take terribly long for one of Roy’s felonious associates (Jim Carter) to show up and suggest — ever so cautiously — that Roy and Betty might enjoy a considerable financial advantage should they choose to merge their finances.

As all this transpires, Roy and Carter’s Vincent carry on a complicated ruse in which they bilk unsuspecting investors out of thousands of pounds.

And, of course, we know — simply because Mirren can’t help but project a keen intelligence — that Betty also probably has something up her otherwise unruffled sleeve.

Might it have something to do with Steven (Russell Tovey), a man she introduces as her grandson, a lawyer who makes no effort to conceal his suspicions about Roy?

Eventually, the movie must reveal its secrets, which, alas, challenge credibility. I'll provide a slight clue by telling you that Roy's facade begins to unravel when he and Betty take a trip to Berlin.

These secrets attach themselves to the story, capsizing what should have been smooth sailing toward a rewarding finale, preferably delivered with a garnish of wit.

Alas, Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, which relies on lame flashbacks, has more in mind. Once again, more proves to be less.

Still, there are pleasures here. Mirren suggests much by doing little. When Roy experiences moments of lost control, McKellen’s face collapses. Uncertainty spreads across it like a spot of ink being absorbed into a blotter. And Carter, familiar from Downton Abbey, seems incapable of letting us down.

McKellen and Mirren deserve to be teamed again. We deserve some fulfilling adult entertainment. The Good Liar contains enough promise to keep us from suspending all hope that such mature pleasures someday may arrive — even if, for now, they must be deferred.

When no one wants to know the truth

Adam Driver stars in The Report, a movie about a senatorial aide who tries to uncover the real story behind CIA torture.
Adam Driver's single-minded intensity perfectly suits the character of Dan Jones, a Senate aide charged with investigating the CIA's use of torture in the days following 9/11.

Jones's boss -- Annette Bening's Sen. Dianne Feinstein as chair of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence -- supports him but exercises more caution than Jones would like.

It makes for a heady conflict, the committed truth-teller vs. the politically astute senator who wants to find the truth but who can't avoid playing all the angles. It works because Bening's too nuanced an actor to let us push Feinstein into the box of caricature.

If you're looking for a political slant, know this: The movie tries to balance anti-Bush leanings with a slam at the Obama administration, which wasn't eager to see Jones's report see daylight, either. Jon Hamm appears as an Obama aide who insists that his boss knows the score, even if he doesn't want to spread it across the nation's headlines.

Director Scott Z. Burns has assembled a fine group of supporting actors in what amounts to a by-the-numbers procedural about the ways one branch of government tries to exercise oversight over a government agency that relies on secrecy.

Maura Tierney portrays a CIA agent of single-minded intent; i.e., she sees nothing wrong with what became known as "enhanced interrogation techniques;" i.e., waterboarding and other forms of humiliation. Corey Stoll plays a lawyer who, at the film's opening, tries to school Jones in the unhappy fate of whistleblowers.

We also learn that the enhanced interrogation techniques were developed by independent contractors (Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith) who challenged CIA agents who believed the best way to obtain information was to convince detainees that an agent was on their side. The argument: Not only were the enhanced interrogation techniques immoral; they didn't work.

Burns, who wrote the screenplays for The Bourne Ultimatum and An Inconvenient Truth) dutifully follows the drama as it depicts Jones's five-year effort to discover the truth. He also offers unflinching views of some of what the CIA did to detainees in its fruitless efforts to get the jump on terrorism.

The Report sometimes lacks the pulse-pounding excitement we expect from political thrillers, but it's a serious effort and it offers a rare view of the kind of person who can’t be sidetracked. For Jones, learning exactly what happened becomes a near-sacred duty.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

'The Irishman' -- stories from a hitman's past

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci have made an epic that reminds us how terrific all of them can be.

I wondered why, at the end of director Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, I felt so sad. The movie concludes — and I don’t consider this a spoiler — with an aging union official, who’s also a hitman, contemplating his demise. Shouldn’t I have felt a sense of satisfaction that the inexorable flow of time was about to do to Frank Sheeran, a.k.a., The Irishman, what he had done to so many others?

The reason for the sadness, I think, is complex. It mixes love for the movies of my younger days with the arc of Frank's story. I'm unable to separate the two, so I'm not going to try.

Frank Sheeran first came to light in a 2004 book by Charles Brandt. Titled, I Heard You Paint Houses, the book included the claim that Frank killed Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamster boss who was revered by his membership. (Painting houses evidently is a mob euphemism for carrying out murders.)

For the record — and also in the movie — Frank also said he murdered Joey Gallo, a.k.a. Crazy Joe, a famous mob murder that took place in 1972 at Umberto’s Clam House in Manhattan's Little Italy.

In the movie, Robert De Niro portrays Frank and Al Pacino plays Hoffa. Frank’s closeness to Hoffa made the assassination possible. As someone who seldom seemed troubled by his work, Frank found himself in an uncomfortable position regarding Hoffa. He had to kill a man he admired and with whom he shared a common ethnic background.

Frank’s crime life began in earnest when he met Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a soft-spoken guy who ran a crime family in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Bufalino took a liking to Frank and recommended him to Hoffa, who eventually made him a union official.

When Hoffa tried to reinstate himself as Teamster president after spending time in jail for jury tampering, the mob got tired of his bravado. They wanted him gone. Hoffa didn’t want to be gone. They decided to make him gone.

But the plot and its revelations about corruption, though carefully detailed in Steve Zaillian’s fine screenplay, aren’t at the heart of what makes The Irishman great.

To understand that, you need to understand that Scorsese, who'll be 77 when The Irishman begins its run on Netflix on Nov. 27, has returned to the gangster turf that spawned his signature work. Only this time, like his aging characters, he's moving at a slower pace. The Irishman runs for three hours and 20 minutes -- and, no, it never seemed too long to me.

In The Irishman, Scorsese seems to take less delight in the colorful way his characters speak and in the way their violence can spark a scene. A more deliberate pace takes the Scorsese's characters beyond amusement and, at times, even makes them seem a little pathetic.

The bulk of the action takes place in the 1950s and ‘60s, which enables Scorsese to use lots of period music. He begins with the Five Satins' In the Still of the Night for an opening that finds Frank old and friendless in a nursing home. He begins talking about his life. In The Still of the Night, the background singers chime in with a telling two-word refrain: "I remember. I remember."

As Frank remembers his life, dozens of characters come and go. Scorsese’s large cast includes Ray Romano, as Bill Buffalino, a Teamster attorney; Bobby Cannavale as a gangster Felix 'Skinny Razor' DiTullio; and an incendiary Stephen Graham, as Tony Provenzano, a New Jersey-based hot-head who challenged Hoffa’s Teamster leadership.

The connection to movies proves inescapable. It’s not only Frank who's dying: It’s a certain kind of gangster film; it’s the period in which De Niro, Pacino and later Pesci rose to prominence. The Irishman might be Scorsese’s goodbye to a part of his own big-screen life -- and maybe to his youth.

This is not to say that anyone in The Irishman plans to retreat from the screen. But I can’t imagine that they’ll ever make another film like The Irishman, an epic tale of corruption and color that reminds you that De Niro, who has been in a lot of questionable movies, still can be great, that Pacino’s flare and bombast can imbue a character with brute power, and that Pesci, the movie’s true revelation, can find a quiet resolve in himself, a sense of proportion that allows him to steal the movie. Bufalino asserts his power with a spirit bordering on resignation.

To allow his characters to appear youthful in early scenes, Scorsese employs a de-aging technique that can be a little disorienting, making the faces of his characters look slightly unreal at times. But somehow it works and the acting is so strong that the de-aging becomes part of the atmosphere Scorsese creates, one of estrangement and distance.

At one point, Bufalino and Frank drive across the country with their wives (Kathrine Narducci and Kate Arrington). They're en route to a wedding in Detroit, but the trip really is a cover for something more sinister. The drive crops up from time-to-time as Frank narrates a story full of vividly recalled memories that still feel anchored in the past.

I loved that sense of fading time about The Irishman, which also has plenty of the expected ingredients: violence, bloodshed, and the gangster grit that Scorsese’s moving cameras have been spreading across screens for years.

The Irishman may impress you as somber, particularly as the story nears its resolution. The feeling is reinforced throughout by Frank’s relationship with Peggy, one of his four daughters, played as an adult by Anna Paquin. She knows her father and rejects him. Forget the law. She's his judge.

Peggy and also time. Mobsters, union leaders, violent men, and blowhards are all subject to the same destiny. All of them eventually will die and be forgotten.

Frank doesn’t relish the idea. At one point, he talks to a priest. Frank is too honest to say he feels remorse. He says he feels nothing about the things he's done. One thing he does seem to feel — and De Niro’s performance reflects it — is a reluctance entirely to vanish. Frank wants his body housed in a vault because it strikes him as a little less final than burial or cremation.

It’s the last futile hope of a gangster, the idea that somehow he’ll be able to evade — if only by a shade — the one hitman that can’t be beaten.

The fight against a pedophile priest

It took me a while to commit to director Francois Ozon's By the Grace of God, a movie about the justice-seeking efforts of a group of men who, as children, had been abused by a pedophile priest. As adults, the men joined forces to seek some acknowledgment of what had happened to them, and, in some cases, to find peace for themselves. Ozon (Double Lover, Swimming Pool) focuses on the French city of Lyon, where the men live. Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) begins the charge against the priest. Motivated by conscience, Alexandre remains faithful to the church. He and his family are practicing Catholics. As the movie develops, we learn that Alexandre wants to reform the church from the inside. Francois (Denis Menochet) takes another view. He joins the fray as an atheist. He, too, has a family but has given up on the Church. Swann Arlaud portrays Emmanuel, the most damaged of the men. Despite a genius IQ, he has wasted his life in failed relationships and chronic underachievement. Eric Caravaca portrays Gilles Perret, a level-headed surgeon who also joins the group. So why -- given the movie's topicality and the explosive nature of its subject -- did I have initial difficulty getting into the film? At first, By the Grace of God seems as if it's going to be an anti-church procedural. But Ozon carefully lays out the story, allowing its complexities to emerge as the men band together and the story deepens. Representatives of the Catholic Church don't fare well but aren't turned into caricatured villains, either. Francois Marthouret portrays Cardinal Barbarin, a churchman who knows how to be sympathetic while simultaneously doing nothing to address the problem of a pedophile priest. As the priest who abused the boys when they were Scouts, Bernard Verley creates a character who's contemptible and pathetic. The priest admits his wrong-doing but when he meets with any of the adult men for attempted reconciliations, he still seems to relate to them as children. In all, By the Grace of God winds up being about more than child abuse. It's also about the complex group dynamics that develop when victims seek justice and about the lasting impact of one of the most severe of all imaginable betrayals.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

'Doctor Sleep:' a sequel we didn’t need

Ewan McGregor stars in a labored rendition of Stephen King’s follow-up to The Shining.
Perhaps as a way of establishing its bona fides, Doctor Sleep makes what struck me as strained references (I'll reveal no more) to The Shining, the movie it follows some 39 years after its release. I won't say more, but I begin this way because, for me, Doctor Sleep stands as an act of imposture, an attempt wring more from a story that already had been told. Of course, it's difficult to call the movie a ripoff: The movie stems from a 2013 sequel that Shining author Stephen King himself wrote.

In this overlong edition — the movie clocks in at 2 1/2 hours — Ewan McGregor plays a grown-up version of Danny Torrance, the kid from the original movie. Adrift in alcohol and dereliction, Danny winds up in a small New Hampshire town, where he joins AA and tries to make peace with the terrifying visions in his head. He receives help from an AA pal (Cliff Curtis) and from his mentor, played in the original by Scatman Crothers and in the sequel by Carl Lumbly.

To give the movie a plot, Danny hooks up with Abra Stone (Kyliegh Currran), a girl who has mighty shining powers; i.e., she can see things in other dimensions and project herself into distant places without leaving her bedroom. She also sees visions that scare her and are supposed to do the same to us.

The dread, in this case, stems from a traveling band of folks led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman whose extra-long life is sustained by sucking the life out of those with the ability to shine. Zahn McClarnon plays Crow Daddy, Rose’s devoted number two.

Lest the supply of demonic fiends runs short, Rose recruits a young blond woman (Emily Alyn Lind to her evil cause. It doesn’t take long for Lind’s character, who's given the charming nickname of Snakebite Andi, to become as bad as the rest of the group.

What any of this has to do with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 original seems marginal, although by the end, director Mike Flanagan transports the story to Colorado for a big showdown between Danny and Rose at the fabled Overlook Hotel, which like lots of ‘80s real estate, has become a mere shadow of itself. Danny must save Abra and rid the world of this pesky group of soul-sucking demons.

More muddled than the usual King offering, Doctor Sleep can at times seem ridiculous as it groans under the weight of having to connect with its predecessor. The movie's title, by the way, derives from Danny’s ability to help the aging slip gently into death after he lands a job at a hospice. Just like falling asleep he assures the dying.

Stuck playing a character battling his inner demons, McGregor doesn’t do much to fill the movie’s center. Ferguson, embodying a series of adjectives -- sexy, demonic, vicious and snide — deserves credit for hitting the right notes.

I’m not going to belabor this one. Shining fans seeking a second helping probably will give the movie an initial boost, but even diehards will have to admit that Flanagan (Oculus) doesn’t have Kubrick’s visual sense nor can he imbue his movie with the brooding grandiosity that made the original seem like a major movie.

I don’t know if The Shining should be called a classic, but it still has some sway. This one? Just another day at the multiplex — or maybe considering its length, a day and a half.

When art really does meet life

Mostly we think of art as something separate from ourselves, something we go someplace to see, a gallery or a museum. We think of art as something visited rather than as an outpouring of creativity that grows organically -- and perhaps surprisingly -- from our own surroundings. The documentary Gift counters that notion. Basing her film on Lewis Hyde's book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (1983), director Robin McKenna introduces us to a variety of art environments. You'll find The Metropoliz Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere in a building in Rome that once housed a sausage factory. More than a place to view art, the museum also provides homes for 200 migrant families. Another example: Marcus Alfred, a native American chief in the Pacific Northwest carves a totem for a potlatch, a ceremony in which participants give away their belongings. A bee-keeper constructs a giant mechanical bee that she brings to Burning Man, the annual festival in Nevada. Gift seems designed to make viewers question the commercialization of art and to think about what it might mean if we gave things away without expecting anything in return. McKenna’s documentary can seem like a bit of a stunt, but for the 90 minutes it takes to watch Gift, it's possible to surrender to its spirit. Why not -- if only for an hour and a half -- feel better about the world and the motives of those who occupy it?