Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bobs Cinema Diary: 10/23/20 -- 'White Noise'



Director Daniel Lombroso's documentary, White Noise, offers an extended look at three major personalities who represent various aspects of the alt-right world. Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern approach white nationalism from somewhat different perspectives and not one of them look like what you'd expect if Central Casting were asked to send over some white supremacists. These alt-righters are well-groomed, young and not entirely divorced from the world in which we all live. Movies such as White Noise put reviewers — at least this one — in a strange position. On one hand, I feel queasy about drawing attention to people whose views deserve to be marginalized, scorned, and generally ignored. On the other hand, there's some utility in looking at these folks and knowing what toxins course through their minds. Spencer, who at one point talks about being obeyed, seems the least prone to introspection, an ideologue wrapped in a warped ideology. Cernovich struck me as a guy who's trying to find a niche and a money stream; and the Canadian born Southern seems alarmingly sincere and aware that she's attractive, the girl next door who also happens to want to preserve white folks of European descent from being swallowed by the brown hordes of the world. By the end of the film, we learn that Southern has married and become a mother and that her husband is not white. But there's no suggestion that her views have changed. Cernovich, by the way, is married to an Iranian-American woman who hopes that her children will learn Farsi. That's not to say that these folks aren't part of the dangerous spawn of a world that's diversifying in ways that threaten what alt-righters evidently consider to be their root identities, the European -- read white -- origins they venerate. Yet, some of them are willing to hide behind facades of projected normalcy so that they can reject the possibility that they might have some responsibility for racist violence. Charlottesville? Not my fault, says Spencer. Remind you of anyone else? 


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Drugs, time travel and fatigued paramedics

 

    Time travel movies may not have dime-a-dozen familiarity, but they're not exactly novel either. That means that directors who venture into this territory must do so with an awareness that they need to come up with something that feels fresh. 
    Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who directed the tantalizing Endless, take an unusual approach in Synchronic, a movie with a time-travel twist. They tell a story that doesn't appear to be about time travel at all -- at last initially.
   Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan portray two New Orleans paramedics, best friends who are bombarded by constant drug-overdose calls, so much so that Synchronic looks like another foray into the world of drugs and despair but it's not quite that either.
   Synchronic, by the way, is a powerful pill that opens those who swallow it to seven minutes of time travel that takes place from the exact spot where the drug has been taken. Travelers play a game of time-travel roulette: They can't control the period in which they land.
  Synchronic puts plenty on its plate: friendship, the vanished daughter on Dornan's character, a crumbling marriage, a terminal disease from which Mackie's character suffers and travel to various moments in history -- the Ice Age to the time of the Conquistadors among them.
   As the movie's principal time-traveler, Mackie's Steve faces all manner of danger in his seven-minute forays into alternate realities, the idea being that past, present and future actually are concurrent. References to Einstein and physics are made, but the movie hardly qualifies as an intellectual exercise.
   The directors can't entirely fuse the movie's diverse elements and not everything about Synchronic works. For me, though, Mackie's complex character keeps the movie on track. Dornan holds his own, as well, and Synchronic nudges its way onto the plus side of the sci-fi ledger.


Borat is back and as "bad" as ever

     

   Of course, it’s too much, too gross, too over-the-top, too indulgent in whatever excesses might cross your mind.
    The latest Borat movie — prosaically entitled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — brings Sacha Baron Cohen to the pop-cultural forefront at a time when many are nervous about the upcoming election, trying not to be overly confident that four years of Trump will have been sufficient to cure the country of its roguish impulses.
     It is in this climate that Borat, the preposterous journalist from Kazakhstan, returns after his initial introduction to the big screen in 2006. 
    The plot is as unashamedly ridiculous as you might expect. Rescued from disgrace by his government, Borat is sent to America with a mission. He must deliver a token of appreciation to vice president Pence, a gift in the form of Jimmy the Monkey. 
     No one will be surprised to discover that this idiotic endeavor doesn't  proceed smoothly. Borat’s daughter Tutar (Maria Bakolva ) stows away in the crate containing Jimmy and the unfortunate creature is consumed — either in an act of self-cannibalism or by a famished Tutar before the beast even can be unpacked.
    Ever ingenious, Borat decides that Tutar herself would make a fitting substitute for Jimmy. He’ll give her to Pence as a token of his government’s wish to be acknowledged by "McDonald" Trump, who thus far has not sufficiently recognized the glories of Kazakhstan, not the real nation, but a fictional one in which backwardness has become official policy.
     Available on Amazon Prime, screening links for Borat arrived with a request that critics do not disclose anything that might ruin the movie's eruptive spray of jokes.
    I’ll abide by the semi-injunction and proceed with the most general statement I can make: When I laughed at various bits in Borat, many involving Ali G-style encounters with real people, I laughed hard. But I also found some of Borat's interactions with the unsuspecting went too far or were too pitiless. 
    Moreover, some of the gags made me wonder whether some of the people brought into Borat’s sphere were in on the joke. 
    And in a moment when reality and fiction too often have become indistinguishable, I found myself fretting about the additional blurring of lines that already are far too wavy.
   OK, a few hints about what you’ll encounter in a second helping that can't help but feel less brazenly original than the first.
  En route to their encounter with Pence — long before a fly landed on the veep's streamlined head — Borat and Tutar meet with a pastor for a joke made at the expense of a strand of  opposition to abortion. The joke is so simple and absurdly conceived that it becomes hilarious in its unabashed silliness.
    As he travels around the US, Baron Cohen tends to focus on Trump enthusiasts, at one point encountering a couple of America-first believers who subscribe to various conspiracy theories, for example. 
    Baron Cohen’s intrusion into a southern debutante ball leads to a joke of such exaggerated grossness that it may make both fans and detractors cringe.  
    And of course, there’s Borat’s state-sanctioned misogyny and undisguised anti-Semitism — which leads to a bit with a clueless bakery clerk — that defies belief. 
    Baron Cohen is Jewish, so it’s safe to assume that he’s interested in exposing anti-Semitism at its most idiotic. It's also clear that Baron Cohen subscribes to a principle I once heard articulated by political commentator Michael Kinsley in an entirely different context. If you don’t go too far,  you may not go far enough.
     Put another way — and borrowing from another side of the political coin — extremism in the defense of comedy is no vice, particularly at a time when a parade of bizarre realities has crippled the ability of satire and parody to strike major blows.
     Baron Cohen doesn’t satirize. Rather, he meets the dragons of ignorance head-on, as if to say, "I’ll fight the fires of stupidity with more stupidity, so much so that you can’t help but see what ignorance looks like when it’s stripped to its naked core."
    Maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing. All I know is that I said at the outset: Borat made me laugh very hard, made me think that Baron Cohen sometimes veered out of bounds, and made me wonder which, if any, of his real-life subjects were playing along with him.
   Of course, Borat sometimes offends, but Baron Cohen’s bet is that there’s nothing that he can do that’s more offensive than some of the realities he's exposing as Borat once again springs to life from the glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 10/16/20 -- The Devil Has a Name and The Kid Detective

 The Devil Has a Name

Edward James Olmos directs The Devil Has a Name, a story about a California farmer who takes on Big Oil. David Strathairn plays Fred Stern, a widower who's had enough of the California almond farm he and his late wife ran. Fred's not opposed to selling, but a Houston-based oil guy (Haley Joel Osment) offers an insultingly low price. Fred declines but he may be tempted by a bigger offer. It soon becomes clear that the oil company plays dirty, polluting Fred's land with chemicals as a way of lowering the price. Olmos plays Santiago, the manager of Fred's farm and Martin Sheen turns up as the attorney who'll lead Fred's charge against corporate villainy.  Strathairn, Olmos, and Sheen seem to be enjoying themselves as underdogs, but the story takes some disorienting turns. It's told in flashback by Gigi (Kate Bosworth),  an heir  to the oil company's fortune. The movie opens with Gigi telling the Big Boss (Alfred Molina) about Fred's journey to court. For reasons that never seem clear, Gigi talks like a femme fatale from a Neo Noir wannabe movie. The company's dirty work is handled by a thuggish sadist (Pablo Schreiber) whose hard-boiled tactics seem too far over the top for a movie that's striving to make a serious statement about the way big business can devastate the American dream. As a result, The Devil Has a Name, which is based on a real story, has its moment but lacks the expected bite.

The Kid Detective

The Kid Detective finds its groove early and mostly sticks to it -- at least until its latter going. Adam Brody plays Abe Applebaum, a small-town private detective who started sleuthing when he was a kid. As a teenager, Abe enjoyed success solving low-grade mysteries but hasn't been able to parley his triumphs into adult success.  Director Evan Morgan drops noir tropes into an unlikely small-town setting as Abe is drawn back into a teen world. Here's how it happens: One day Abe discovers a blonde (Sophie Nelisse) in his office. This time though, the blonde is a high school student who wants Abe to discover who stabbed her boyfriend to death and dumped him in the local creek. The movie follows through on its desire to mix heavy subjects (pedophilia among them) with deadpan humor that both hits and misses. His face covered with stubble, Brody is a familiar type, another guy who must shake off his immaturity. The idea that small towns can hide some very heavy perversity isn't exactly new, and the movie's ending takes a fairly serious turn, maybe too serious for what preceded it. Sarah Sutherland does nice work as Abe's couldn't-care-less assistant, but The Kid Detective doesn't quite click.



Liam Neeson plays a good-guy thief

 

   Predictable, preposterous, and typically dour, Honest Thief features Liam Neeson as a bank robber whose efforts at reform are thwarted by duplicitous FBI agents.
    These days, Neeson's presence often signals what's in store, and Honest Thief offers little by way of exception to the rule that casts Neeson as the individual who fights his own battles, sometimes to rescue a snatched loved one or, in this case, to save himself from evil FBI agents.
    Neeson plays Tom, a successful bank robber who, after eight years and 12 successful jobs, begins to crave normalcy. Tom's transformation begins when he meets this edition's stereotypical good woman. Annie (Kate Walsh) operates the storage facility in which Tom stashes his loot, some $9 million. 
    Tom, you see, is an unusual thief. He doesn't spend the money he steals. Moreover, he offers to give it all back in return for a light sentence, a couple of years in a Boston minimum security prison that’s close enough for Annie to visit.
    Of course, surrender isn't easy. A couple of devious FBI agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) learn that Tom really is the so-called "In and Out Bandit" and decide to keep the money he has stolen.
  Courtney portrays Agent Nivens, the mastermind of the scheme to steal Tom's stash. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Nivens will do anything to keep the money. He's more of an amoral nut job than his partner in crime. Married with a family, Ramos' Agent Hall suffers pangs of conscience.
    Director Mark Williams leaves few genre bases untouched. Tom not only knows how to crack safes; he also knows something about bombs, knowledge he picked up as a Marine and which allows Tom to fulfill another genre requirement, setting off at least one major explosion.
    "Wow," says Annie as she watches Tom blow a house to smithereens.
    You'd think the writers could have come up with a line that at least employed a word with two syllables. 
   Even Neeson can't sell some of the dialogue, stuff about how the robberies weren't about the money but served as a means to make Tom feel alive. 
   Tom ultimately has to settle matters his way. How else? "I'm coming for you,'' he tells agent Nivens, a line that sounds as if it has been said a thousand times before.
    The actors give it their best and, at 98 minutes, Honest Thief doesn't overstay its welcome but action, violence and the always serious Neeson can't rescue this unremarkable and sometimes ludicrously plotted thriller.



Wednesday, October 14, 2020

A powerful portrayal of a working-class writer

 

    These days when we talk about big movies we're usually referring to comic-book extravaganzas stocked with superheroes and explosive special effects. It's unusual to find a "big" movie that allows its main character to unfold against a sweeping backdrop of politics, change and social upheaval.
    Perhaps that's why director Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden qualifies as a welcome throwback, a movie that's scaled to cover lots of ground and touch a variety of subjects -- all revolving around a writer (Luca Marinelli) who emerges from Italy's  working class.
    But scope isn't the only distinguishing characteristic Martin Eden brings to the screen. It's an Italian movie with an unexpected pedigree. Marcello's movie is a big-screen adaptation of a 1909 semi-autobiographical novel by Jack London.
   Yes, I know that sounds improbable, but Marcello and his leading man mostly succeed in creating a story that boils with incident and ideas, some a bit half-baked, but ideas nonetheless.
  Marcello does a surprisingly good job of shifting London's story to the area around Naples, adding plenty of color and grounding the story in a bit of  working-class romanticism. Occasionally, Marcello shows us the real faces of the residents of Naples, perhaps a bow to Italy's Neo-Realistic tradition.
    Marinelli gives a robust, physically dominating performance that holds the movie together. A sailor by trade, Martin's artistic aspirations are triggered when he becomes involved with a well-to-do family. 
     Martin falls for Elena (Jessica Cressy), the family's daughter, an educated woman who has been exposed to a genteel life of manners. She introduces Martin to Baudelaire and he's off and running on his own, reading everything he can get his hands on.
    He must be on his own because his brother-in-law (Marco Leonardi) throws him out after Martin refuses to join his brother-in-law's business. Martin won't spend his life consumed by work-a-day concerns. When he needs money, he heads out to sea.
    An enthusiastic autodidact, Martin eagerly consumes heady theories. He becomes enthralled with the work of Herbert Spencer, a 19th-century philosopher who concocted the theory of social Darwinism and became a champion of individualism.
    Marco refuses to allow class differences -- one of the movie's more obvious subjects -- to thwart his desire to improve himself through self-education. He has a near-boundless faith in the strength of his individuality, and he won't be dissuaded from writing stories that Elena finds too "raw" and uncompromising. 
    Martin's early work arouses little interest but the self-taught writer perseveres until the day a magazine editor decides to publish one of his stories. An authorial career is launched and, in its latter goings, the movie will see Martin shift to a bombastic narcissist whose belief in himself begins to verge on parody.
   All of this takes place against a backdrop of philosophical struggle. Eventually, Martin acquires a mentor. Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), a socialist and a poet, pushes Martin into the world of politics. 
    Martin, however, remains true to his belief that the individual supersedes the collective and the movie's politics (perhaps clearer to an Italian audience) become a bit muddy. The best that can be said is that Martin seems to scorn anything that might define him as a member of a group.
   The movie loses steam in the final act when Martin allows success to go to his head. The transition from authenticity to an insufferable commitment to his own rugged image never seems entirely convincing, even though Martin is aware of the ways in which his life has become preposterous.
   But that doesn't make the story and its cast, particularly the magnetic Marinelli, any less appealing. Flaws aside, Martin Eden has the one thing its title demands, a powerful main character and a director who knows how to get the most out the actor who's playing him.

A woman's fight to free her husband

 

    My introduction to Time, a documentary about the struggles of a Louisiana wife to free her imprisoned husband, began with the number 60.
    Watching the film, I learned that Rob Richardson had been sentenced to 60 years for a botched Louisiana bank robbery. I thought I must have misunderstood. Sixty years seemed like an extraordinarily long time for a robbery in which no one was hurt. Must have been 16. But no, I heard right. 
      Contrary to what you might expect, Time has less to do with doing time on the inside than with what happens to those outside prison walls. Director Garrett Bradley focuses on Rob's family, particularly his wife Sibil Fox Richardson, who shared her life Bradley over the two decades in which she worked to bring her husband home.
   Fox  herself had been sentenced to 12 years for driving the getaway car while her husband and a nephew entered the Shreveport Credit Union. She served two and a half years.
   Guilt is not the issue here. The injustice stems from the length of the sentence, the unavailability of parole, and its impact on a mother and her six sons. Bradley doesn't have to say it, but before the film's 81 minutes are done, you may find yourself questioning the whole idea of what punishment means.
    The courts turned Fox Richardson into a single mom who had to cope with raising her children and keeping her family afloat. She was pregnant with twins at the time of her husband's sentencing.
     The Richardsons veered into the bank robbery after a stop at  desperation.  They're not looking for exoneration. Fox understands the role she played a role in what happened to her. She has asked for forgiveness. The kids she's raising seem to be exemplary young people. It's impossible not to conclude that her debt to society has been paid in full -- and with interest.
    The same goes for her husband.
So what we get is something more than a cry for legal justice. Bradley gives us a poetic, heartfelt look at Fox's life, and Time makes it clear that punishment can do more harm than the crime. 
    Sometimes we see Richardson talking in videos she made for her imprisoned husband; sometimes we see home footage of her family. Sometimes we see footage Bradley shot. Together, these various threads create a feeling of intimacy that few documentaries are able to achieve.
    The film doesn't unfold chronologically but commits to a subjective view as Bradley offers us opportunities to contemplate the many meanings of time: how it changes Fox and those around her physically; how it seems to go on forever when a goal seems unattainable; and then there are the small, agonizing moments in which Bradley asks us to sit with time, to feel it expanding to the point where it threatens to swallow us.
     It's maddening, for example, to watch a very polite Fox on hold as she waits for a secretary to tell her whether a judge has reached a decision about her husband. It's an encapsulating moment that opens a window into Fox's soul: her patience, her anger, her determination, and her ability to control her emotions as she works her way though a situation in which she's dependent on the decisions of others.
    Anyone who has ever found themselves in trouble would be lucky to have a woman such as Fox Richardson behind them. She gives new meaning to what it means to have someone's back. She's also a living testament to what family ties can mean, having kept those ties alive during the 21 years of her husband's incarceration. 
    Bradley bravely avoids the bog of legal maneuvering. Instead, she shines light on one woman's awesome commitment. What sustained Fox through her tribulations can't simply be attributed to persistence. It's something more, a mission driven by love, devotion and an insistence that -- no matter what -- her family would not shatter. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Bob‘s Cinema Diary: 10/9/20 — My movie week beginning with ‘The War With Grandpa’

       For various reasons — not all related to the national news — the week of Oct. 5  began in depressing fashion. Yes, Trump treated a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans as an excuse for demonstrating image-stoking bravado. Yes, I finished the novel Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar and felt a touch of loneliness for the company of its narrator, a Muslim steeped in the contradictions of being an American whose family hailed from Pakistan. And, yes, the sustained ugliness of public life continues to be inescapable.
     There's more. The 2020 edition of the Denver Film Festival looms, but — unlike in previous years — I won’t be seeing old friends because most of the festival is taking place virtually, as it should. 
    And then there’s the chaos related to release-upon-release of movies that make me to wonder how much the barrage of streaming opportunities and limited theatrical possibilities matter to anyone. To keep up, The New York Times employs a battery of reviewers, many contributing short reviews. Last week, I reviewed  seven movies and couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a Prufrockian quality to it all, measuring life in tiny increments, movies that come and go.
And then there’s the movies themselves. So, a few words about what I watched this week.
War with Grandpa
opens this week; call it an intergenerational comedy starring Robert De Niro with featured appearances by Christopher Walken and Cheech Marin. De Niro, of course, is no stranger to low-grade comedies, having made all manner of them, many quite popular: the Meet the Parents series, Analyze This among those that have been successful at the box office.
   It's difficult for some of us who honed our movie taste in the 1970s not to see these cinematic cash registers as betrayals or maybe they should be taken as warnings. Perhaps we were wrong to invest so much hope in actors we thought were redefining performance and, in the process, changing movies themselves.
    You know the names: De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman, and more.
     So here’s War With Grandpa, a movie that has no particular reason for being other than to follow its formula. 
    De Niro plays Ed,  a widower who moves in with the family of his married daughter (Uma Thurman) because he’s no longer able to live independently — a move that never feels unconvincing because Ed hardly seems physically or mentally incompetent.
    To adjust to Ed's presence, the host family awards him the bedroom occupied by the family’s son Peter (Oakes Egley). Two sister siblings (Laura Morano and Poppy Gagnon) play less of a role. Besieged and displaced, Peter is forced to move into the attic, which is rundown in the way that you might expect an attic in a movie to be rundown. Birds fly in. A mouse roams freely. 
  I’m thinking Mom and Dad (Rob Riggle) might be candidates for abuse charges. Aren’t they supposed to make sure that the kid’s quarters amount to something more than a place to stow familial overflow?
    The movie’s title tells you most of what you need to know. Egged on by generic-looking middle-school classmates, young Peter declares war on grandpa for having invaded his territory. 
    When reason fails, grandpa decides to fight back.
    One of the major laugh scenes involves grandpa awkwardly trying to keep his balance as he slips on a stream of marbles that have been unleashed beneath him. His fall would decommission most grandpas, but we're supposed to excuse such assaults in the name of physical comedy.
     Did I mention the very large snake Peter puts in grandpa's bed?
    Director Tim Hill (The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie)  stocks the movie with more such shenanigans as he follows the blueprint that will lead to the ultimate battle, which takes place at the birthday celebration of the family’s youngest daughter, who happens to have been born on Christmas Eve. 
   At this point, the destruction rises to epic levels with Hill trying to wring new levels from what feels like spare parts from other movies.
    I would have enjoyed seeing more of Walken and Marin, particularly Walken, who plays Ed's friend Jerry, an aging man who fills his home with toys that, one supposes, are meant to divert him from the reality of any approaching infirmities: a One-Wheel board challenges Jerry’s balance and affords him an opportunity to fall on his ass, too.
    Enough of this. I’m sure you get the idea. I leave it to you to decide whether you wish to venture into the theatrical world during a pandemic to see The War With Grandpa

    So what else? Well, how about From the Vine?

   Director Sean Cisterna is so determined to charm us with scenery that From the Vine plays like the cinematic equivalent of a travel brochure. And that, for me, was the best part. The setting: Acerenza, a medieval hilltop town south of Naples.
    The story centers on the Italian-born Marco (Joe Pantoliano), a businessman who runs a small American automobile manufacturing company. Disgruntled by his board's refusal to acknowledge environmental concerns, Marco quits, moves to Italy against his wife's wishes, occupies his late grandfather's spacious house, and decides to enter the wine businesses. 
    Craftsmanship and hands-on labor will replace the brutalizing abstractions of corporate life -- or so the fantasy goes. No troublesome construction problems emerge, as they did in Under the Tuscan Sun. The residence that belonged to Marco's grandfather needs little by way of reclamation. It’s Marco's spirit that undergoes renovation.
     Adapted from a novel by Kenneth Canio Cancellara, the screenplay adds an array of dutifully colorful characters.
     These include the local policeman (Marco Leonardi) and a disheveled squatter (Tony Nappo) who has taken up residence on Marco's land. Conveniently, Nappo's Enzo used to work  for a company that produces special oak barrels in which fine wines can be aged. This will come in handy later. 
     The property's caretaker (Toni Nardi) fills out the roster of characters; he’s a  wine expert who eventually agrees to help Marco realize his dream.
    To make matters even better, Marco's dream neatly intersects with the town's revival. A restored vineyard will cure the town’s  unemployment and perhaps even stem the flight of the village's young people. 
    Eventually, Marco's wife (Wendy Crewson) and his grown daughter (Paula Brancati)  travel to Italy. They plan to drag Marco back to the US to resume the life he's sworn off. But Marco is too busy having flashbacks to his youth or listening to the leaves on the olive trees talk to him, an occurrence visualized with help of an animated effect.
    Only the most naive of viewers possibly could believe that the movie will have an ending that does anything but confirm the validity of its fantasies. 
    If you enjoy movies in which the major feature is mildly expressed niceness, From the Vine may prove pleasing and, yes, there’s all that scenery, idealized to the max, as is everything else in this Italo-escapist massage of a movie.

Anything else?

Well, yes, My Name is Pedro, a documentary that plunges headlong into many fractious issues. Director Lillian LaSalle tells the story of Pedro Santana, a dedicated educator who has worked as a teacher, a principal, and an assistant school superintendent. The heart of the story takes place after Santana moves from the Bronx to the East Ramapo school district outside New York City. The community Santana inherits is beset by problems. Hasidic Jews, who don't send their kids to public schools, compose three-quarters of the district's population.
    To further complicate matters, the Hasidic Jews also constitute the majority of the school board and, according to the movie, are  intent on reducing funding for the community’s multi-racial educational institutions, channeling the funds into the religious schools they favor.
   Santana turns out to be one of those people with a personality so large, it can’t be contained by institutional boundaries, an innovative teacher whose concern for kids seems undeniable.   
    He wants them to succeed. He’s imaginative when it comes to designing curriculum. He sports a wild crop of hair that must be taken as a statement, something he wants people to notice. Wherever he goes, he's an undeniable presence.  
     Santana’s personal story intrigues, but the community he serves reflects the tensions that often arise when various ethnicities try to navigate the same choppy waters.
    If you’re unfamiliar with Santana’s life, I won’t tell you more. I will, however, say that a generally inspirational story isn't without complications and setbacks, including a certification scandal that ostensibly wound up costing Santana his job. 
     LaSalle left me with a few questions that I thought she might have answered, but in its overall parameters, My Name Is Pedro, qualifies as an important cinematic document with plenty of live-wire urgency.
   As that’s my movie week.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll return to my state of low-level depression, a curtain that closes shortly after I stop writing. I’ll be peeking out again soon.
    

Friday, October 2, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 10/2/20 -- A Call to Spy, The Keeper, and Once Upon a River

A Call to Spy



 Few things remind us of what might have been than a fascinating story told without the pulsing urgency it deserves. That's the case with A Call to Spy, the story of a secret British intelligence organization that sent women into unoccupied territory in France to report on German activities during the early days of World War II. Composed largely of amateurs, the force put many women at risk as they tried to gather intelligence on the invading Nazis. The story begins in 1941. A Jewish refugee from Romania, Vera Atkins (Stana Katnic) takes charge of recruiting efforts while she attempts to obtain papers that will allow her to remain in London. The movie focuses mostly on one of Atkins' recruits.  Sarah Megan Thomas portrays Virginia Hall, an American woman who unsuccessfully tried to join the US diplomatic core. She's also disabled. Having lost  a leg in an accident, she now has one wooden leg. Radhika Apte plays Noor Inayat Khan, a wireless operator who also becomes part of the force. The spies face a variety of difficulties: encounters with complicit residents of France and with German soldiers who were poised to complete the occupation. Director Lydia Dean Pilcher has hold of a strong story that isn't widely known. Moreover, Thomas' escape from occupied France, which required crossing the Pyrenees on foot, generates something close to amazement. Still, A Call to Spy fails to take full advantage of the thriller elements that might have elevated it from a movie of interest to a movie of riveting power.

The Keeper

Bert Trautmann became a sports icon in Britain, having played goal keeper for Manchester City from 1949 to 1964. Trautmann's ascendance as a national football hero took off in 1956 when he guided Manchester to a championship in a game he finished despite having broken his neck. But Trautmann was not a typical British sports figure. Born in Bremen, he fought for the Germans during World War II before landing in Britain as a prisoner of war. He stayed and met with plenty of resistance, particularly early on when memories of the war were still vivid. The Keeper, a movie directed by Marcus H. Rosenmuller, takes a by-the-numbers approach to Trautmann's story. David Kross stars as the goalkeeper who wins
 over his future wife's  cantankerous father (John Henshaw).  Trautmann and his  British wife (Freya Mavor) later lost a young son in an accident. Harry Melling appears as the British sergeant who works extra hard to make life miserable for the German prisoners he supervises in England. As can be the case with movies that want to make clear points (in this case, one about forgiveness), The Keeper isn't strong on nuance. The movie mostly accepts Trautmann's assertion that he was a young soldier with no alternative but to fight in the Wehrmacht. An appealing cast sells the story, but questions of choice and complicity don't always fit neatly into a sports story that features a likable main character whose “guilt” is concentrated in a single war-time incident.


Once Upon a River
Adapting a coming-of-age novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, director Haroula Rose drains her movie of everything that might be deemed inessential. Her sparse rendering of a story about 15-year-old Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna) feels like the kind of effort that once defined indie cinema -- minimal and striving for authenticity. Margo lives with her Native American father (Tatanka Means) in rural Michigan. A sexual episode with a predatory uncle (Coburn Goss) sparks a story that puts Margo in flight. She commandeers a rowboat and takes to the river that flows past the small town where she lives. Her goal: to find the mother (Lindsay Pulsipher) she hasn't seen for years. En route, Margot meets a young man (Ajuawak Kapashesit) who sleeps with her but urges her to go back to school lest her life drift into as series of hopeless dead-end jobs. Later, she finds temporary refuge with a dying old man (John Ashton),  still chain-smoking despite his emphysema. Rose works hard at capturing her characters in real and unvarnished fashion. Moreover, Margo's ultimate reunion with her mother brims with obvious realizations about the yawning gap between them. Well and good, but Once Upon a River -- set during the '70s -- doesn't always work on an affective level. Emotionally well-defended and somewhat stoic, Margo isn't the easiest character to approach. Too often, the movie leaves on the outside looking in.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

An assassin with a strange MO

     Visually arresting and steeped in bloody chills, Possessor does something that many horror movies fail to accomplish. From the start, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg presents us with a strange, forbidding world. There's hardly a moment of Possessor that doesn't sustain its weird, unsettling  mood. Don't look for guideposts.
       (In case you haven’t already guessed, Brandon's father is David Cronenberg, no slouch when it comes to brainy horror.)
       Although Possessor deals with recognizable themes -- identity, privacy, and the link between sex and violence -- it  seldom feels anything less than an expression of high artifice. 
      Take that as a tribute to Cronenberg's skill: Steeped in disorientation, his movie surrounds us like a creepy embrace -- albeit one that's often followed by a piercing knife to the jugular.
     Of course, there's a story. Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, a woman with a difficult job. Tasya works for Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), proprietor of an odd business. Girder projects Tasya into other people's bodies so that she can carry out assassinations.
     To return from an assignment, Tasya must shoot herself. Once her host body dies, she'll wake up gasping in the room where Girder launches all this body invading.
      I know it sounds crazy, but Cronenberg plays things straight, employing arty effects to show us how these transformations look.
      The main part of the story begins when Tasya is ordered to enter the body of  Colin (Christopher Abbott), a man with an unsavory occupation. Colin spies on others, using a virtual-reality device that relies on cameras planted in places where cameras shouldn't be. 
     The company for which Colin works is run by an arrogant businessman (Sean Bean): Colin is engaged to the man's daughter (Tuppence Middleton). 
     Tasya has three days to use Colin's body to kill both father and daughter, off himself, and return home.
     Thankfully, Cronenberg doesn't overdo the gender confusion that becomes available to him when Tasya occupies a man's body. He wisely leaves it to us to wonder what she's feeling.
      Not surprisingly, things go wrong. Tasya already has shown signs of cracking under the strain of her work. She's separated from her husband (Rossif Sutherland) who has taken over custody of their young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot).
     No fair telling more about a plot that takes time revealing itself, sometimes opts for atmosphere over clarity. Know, too, that Cronenberg spills plenty of plasma in the movie's highly stylized displays of violence. 
     Among other things, Cronenberg seems interested in the mind-warping powers inherent in Tasya's job. Tasya must learn to act out the various roles she plays and we're always aware that when we're looking at Colin, Tasya is pulling the strings.
     That's where I'll leave it, except to say that the movie raises  an intriguing question about the perils of performance. If a self becomes too lost, can it ever be recovered?

A charming father/daughter comedy

 

    Sophia Coppola brings a light but knowing touch to On the Rocks, a comedy that teams Bill Murray and Rashida Jones and is bound to evoke memories of Murray's terrific turn in 2003's Lost in Translation, another movie in which he teamed with Coppola. 
    But this is a different Murray, at once more familiar but also cracking open new terrain as a father who believes that he must  help his daughter (Jones) determine whether her husband is cheating.
     Murray's performance is so engaging, it's easy to forget that Jones keeps pace. She portrays Laura, a Manhattan novelist who's juggling motherhood (two young children) and a stalled attempt at writing a new mystery. She also suspects that her husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair. 
     It's not difficult to understand why Laura has become  suspicious. Frustrated and harried, she's pretty much on her own. Wayans' Dean constantly travels for work, some sort of tech business that seems to be booming. 
     And what's that woman's cosmetic bag doing in Dean's  suitcase anyway?
    Coppola captures a level of Manhattan living in which no one spends much time worrying about money and in which busy lives are the norm. The movie's surfaces are warm and inviting, but On the Rocks boasts just enough depth to kick superficiality to the curb. 
     The story opens with Murray's Felix speaking to his then young daughter. "Remember, don't give your heart to any boys. You're mine until you're married. Then you're still mine."
     This kind of statement could have opened a door to psychological waters in which another movie might have drowned. 
      But as the story unfolds, we learn that Felix views his daughter as a companion and playmate. And despite frequent expressions of exasperation, Laura enjoys meeting her father's expectations. 
     Murray makes it easy to see just how persuasive Felix can be as a man of relaxed charm and good humor. He's rich, well-traveled, appealing and obviously smart enough to have made a small fortune in the art business, wealth that entitles him to move about the city in a chauffeur-driven limousine. 
     He also owns a classic sports car, the centerpiece of a very funny scene. Watching Felix talk a New York cop out of giving him a speeding ticket makes for a richly humorous pleasure. 
      When it comes to male and female behavior, though , Felix remains happily "unwoke." As an experienced philanderer, he  knows enough about men to be confident in his judgment.
      Although he fudges a bit here and there, we suspect he's certain that Dean is cheating. Of course, the male behavior Felix knows best is his own.
     The movie's plot finds Felix suggesting a variety of measures to track Dean's movements. 
      By the time Felix and Laura follow Dean to a Mexico, traces of sitcom thinking have begun to peek through. Still, the Mexican setting allows Murray to sing a surprisingly sweet version of Mexicali Rose.     
        From the start, it's clear that Coppola plans to travel first class, putting us into luxe Manhattan settings, swank restaurants, and upper-crust parties. She's selling a New York fantasy that's difficult to resist. 
    And in these COVID times, not only does resistance seem pointless, it would be downright foolish.  Obviously, Coppola had no idea that her movie would hit during a pandemic. But On the Rocks qualifies as a smart piece of escapism and a perfect antidote to the desperation of the moment. Enjoy.


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

When absurdity becomes very serious

 


     The 1969 Trial of the Chicago 7 was an early piece of real-life political theater, a warped legal proceeding staged against a backdrop of roiling protest against the Vietnam War. 
      In The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer/director Aaron Sorkin mixes the account of an absurd courtroom drama with a slightly dimmed appreciation of the American spirit as embodied in the "radical" defendants and their rebellious lawyer.
     In addition to the seven white defendants, Bobby Seale, a member of the Black Panthers, was attached to the proceedings as a kind of sidecar on the countercultural rollercoaster. 
      And rollercoaster it was: Sorkin zips his way through scene-after-scene as he dramatizes portions of a trial that lasted five months. Flashbacks enable him to abandon the confines of the courtroom. The organizers seek permits for the demonstrations. The police fire tear gas. A female FBI agent tries to cozy up to Jerry Rubin.
     The period was chaotic and so, at times, is the movie, a series of sketches that bump up against one another, sometimes without great finesse. And for all its tumult, the movie offers little by way of game-changing overviews either of the period or of trial.
     Limitations aside, the greatest allure of Sorkin's entertaining effort involves the work of a strong cast, an ensemble of gifted actors who walk us down the movie's countercultural memory lane.
     Standouts include Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman and Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society. Hoffman and Hayden shared common goals but disagreed on how to attain their goals.
     Hoffman, who was very funny, relished theatrics; Hayden approached protest with high-stakes seriousness. Their disagreements and ultimate rapprochement underlies Sorkin's recreation of the trial. 
      The defendants weren't the only stars of the proceedings. A fine Mark Rylance portrays William Kunstler, the radical  attorney who defended the seven. 
     Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes a formidable Seal, the Black Panther who, along with the others, was charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot. But unlike his co-defendants, Seal wasn't involved in planning the event and had been in Chicago for only two days during the 1o68 convention.
    The so-called riot that's at the heart of the case took place in Chicago's Grant Park during the Democratic convention at which Hubert Humphrey was nominated to run against Richard Nixon. 
      In an introduction to the movie, Sorkin uses real footage in which the esteemed Walter Cronkite sets the stage: "The Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn't seem to be any other way to say it." 
     The defendants ran a gamut of personalities, but the size of the cast forces Sorkin into sketching rather than painting detailed portraits. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) serves as a conventional guy with deep political convictions and Jeremy Strong portrays Jerry Rubin, who plays a kind of goofy second fiddle to Hoffman.
     And, yes, Cohen gets pretty close to capturing Hoffman's Massachusetts accent and comedic instincts.
    Hoffman and Rubin were Yippies; i.e., members of the Youth International Party, a group that flew a sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll banner over its protests.
    Every trial needs a judge and this one had a particularly incapable one. Frank Langella's Julius Hoffman makes ridiculous decisions without ever really sensing the absurdity that threatens to overwhelm him.
    Perhaps Hoffman's greatest faux pas occurred when he had the disruptive Seal, who eventually asked to defend himself, bound and gagged in the courtroom. The judge made Seal an advertisement for the oppressive nature of the trial. Charges against Seal were dropped before the trial finished.
     Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the prosecutor, a decent enough fellow who, nonetheless, approaches his job seriously. John Mitchell (John Doman) -- Nixon's Attorney General -- personally assigned Gordon-Levitt's character to the trial for reasons that had more to do with what he thought the seven represented than with anything they did.
    Michael Keaton does effective cameo duty as Ramsey Clark, the attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, who became a witness for the defense in the trial.
    It may be difficult for those who weren't alive during the '60s to grasp just how incendiary the times were. The trial may have had a disembodied theatrical quality, but Americans and Vietnamese people were dying in a senseless war that awoke a generation of protest.
     When the chips are down, Sorkin turns earnest and I wondered how another director might have lit  the match that needed to be thrown onto this political gas can of a movie. 
     Still, the performances and byplay (a Sorkin specialty) give the movie plenty of burn. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A hit-and-miss portrait of Gloria Steinem


      Few would argue that Gloria Steinem -- one of the founders of Ms. magazine and a leading voice in the latter-day feminist movement -- helped transform American life. Fair to say, then, that Steinem deserves a biopic. 
    I'm not sure that The Glorias, which was directed by Julie Taymor, qualifies as that movie. The Glorias proves sweeping and general, often outlining the social and personal parameters that defined Steinem's life.
    Perhaps Taymor was trying for a biopic-plus, a movie about a woman and also about a movement from which her life proves inseparable. 
    But at two hours and 17 minutes, the resultant film often outsmarts itself by juggling time and by including embellishments such as scenes of Steinem in dialogue with herself: the older Steinem talking to the younger Steinem, for example.
     Four actresses play Steinem at different ages. Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays Gloria as a child. Lulu Wilson handles the teen-age years. Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore take over adulthood.
     The most developed relationship in the film involves Gloria and her father (Timothy Hutton). Hutton's Leo Steinem moved the family around as he drifted from one scheme to another. His instability and hucksterism may have helped drive Steinem's mother (Enid Graham) into extended bouts of depression and anxiety.
    At the same time, Steinem shows affection for her often-absentee father whose unbridled -- if unjustified -- optimism is not without charm. He's one of those men who insist on improvising their way through life.
     A post-college trip to India seems illustrative of what keeps The Glorias from soaring. Traveling alone in India, the adventurous Steinem mingles with the poor, honing her social conscience. 
      But the trip to India, like other of the movie's segments,  feels as if it were designed to display one of Steinem's many admirable traits, in this case, her concern for lower-caste women.
    Put another way, too much of what happens in The Glorias feels pre-programmed rather than discovered. We're making stops at key biographical points rather than leaping into an unfolding world of possibility.
    Maybe because the journalism in the late '50s and '60s was such a far cry from the journalism of the 21st century, I was most interested in Steinem's life as a young woman newly arrived in New York. 
     An aspiring writer and recent Smith graduate, Steinem -- played by Vikander at this point -- lands a series of jobs with various organizations, The New York Times among them. Editors persistently try to push her into the world of soft features. She wants her work to hit harder.
    One of her articles, a 1963 expose of what it's like to work as a bunny at a Playboy Club, attracts significant attention but threatens to typecast her. Her male editors want more of the same.
    By the time, Moore becomes Steinem in the movie's final going, The Glorias seems less a biopic than a look at a burgeoning movement with strong contributions from Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monae as Dorothy Pitman Luge, and Lorraine Toussaint as activist Flo Kennedy. 
    Taymor the keeps touching movement signposts,  perhaps because Steinem is wary about not turning herself into an icon. She wants the movement to get top billing.
    Steinem's transition from journalist to activist hardly coms as a surprise. Throughout Taymor's collage of a biography, Steinem remains a woman of courage and conviction.  She seems to have been born "woke." 
    Taymor has directed films (Titus, Frida, A Midsummer Night's Dream) and also is known for adventurous theater,  most prominently, The Lion King.  Here, she adds theatrical flourishes, self-conscious flights into surrealism that break the biopic mold but disrupt as much as they illuminate. 
     She also uses real news footage and shows the real Steinem at the 2017 Women's March in Washington, DC.  
    Steinem, who's now 86, has lived through many stages  of the women's movement. That means the movie serves as an important reminder of what life was like prior to the 1970s, prior to Roe v. Wade and prior to the arrival of women in important roles in business and public life.
    Many rightly will view The Glorias as call to take heed at a time when such gains are being threatened. Sexism and misogyny are still with us, of course, but that doesn't mean The Glorias couldn't have been better.
     The Glorias isn't a bad movie, but it teases us into wondering what might have been. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 9/25/20 -- "Kajillionaire" and "The Artist's Wife'

 Kajillionaire


     Kajillionaire is like almost every other movie about con artists except for two things: the monetary stakes are pitifully low and the aspiring felons are strikingly weird. 
     How low? Well, these con artists steal from post-office boxes, dodge landlords, and try their best to avoid being caught on security cameras. If they had a motto, it might be, "The family that cons together has no choice but to stay together."
      And how weird are they?  The Dyne family consists of Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins), who are the parents of a daughter named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). Mom and dad basically exploit their daughter by having her carry out their larcenous schemes.
     Mom tends to be quiet but not entirely without menace. Dad makes claims at knowledgeability and the family's daughter is so obviously depressed and withdrawn that her long stringy hair looks as if it might be weeping. They’re all nervous wrecks.
     Now, I said the stakes were small -- but I was talking only about money. Emotionally, the stakes are plenty high, revolving around a daughter who never has gotten what she needs from her conniving parents.
     I don't know of actors other than Winger, Jenkins and Wood who could have pulled off director Miranda July's foray into the world of Los Angeles down-and-outers, people who live in an apartment adjoining a bubble factory.
     The movie takes a new direction when Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) shows up. Self-assured and as ethically dubious as the Dynes, Melanie is Old Dolio's polar opposite. (And, yes, the movie offers an explanation of how Old Dolio got her name. Let's just say the name alone speaks to unspeakably bad parenting.)
   Every movie about con artists needs a good final twist and Kajillionare has one, but July (Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future) infuses genuine pathos into the lives of characters who live in a world in which everything's slightly askew. 
     And weirdness aside, you may even find yourself feeling something for Old Dolio, a young woman who can’t con anyone out of what she really needs: Love and acceptance.

The Artist's Wife

     Lena Olin joins Bruce Dern in a story triggered by an aging artist's slide into dementia. 
      In part, The Artist's Wife paints a portrait of a cantankerous, egotistical painter who abuses his students and takes the long-standing devotions of his wife for granted. 
      An abstract painter of some repute, Dern's Richard Smythson lives comfortably in the Hamptons with Olin’s Claire. Richard may be long past the starving artist phase, but he's definitely losing his grip. 
     As the story unfolds, Claire increasingly takes over the movie’s center: Claire -- as Richard says -- creates everything about the couple's life, except the art. She’s the engine that keeps their lives running. 
      Claire, of course, paid a price for her marital choice: Living in Richard's shadow meant sacrificing her own career as painter. We're told she had promise.
     Fearing the moment when Richard entirely fades, Claire tries to reconcile Richard with his estranged adult daughter (Juliet Rylance) from an earlier marriage. Richard knows little about the life of his grown gay daughter who has a six-year-old son (Ravi Cabot-Conyers). 
     Although The Artist's Wife creates interest as a piece of adult-oriented entertainment, the movie doesn't click. Claire's brief interest in a younger man (Avan Jogia) seems forced, dementia has been handled better elsewhere and the arc that Claire's story follows proves dismayingly predictable.
     In sum: a quietly disappointing effort.
     

The fine art of pastries


      The image of Versailles as a monument to ornamentation and excess long has been established in the western mind. The great palace with its manicured garden and gilded ... well ... almost everything ... has so often been taken as a symbol of royal indulgence that you probably couldn't be blamed for taking it as the animating cause of the French Revolution. 
     Having said that, it's my pleasure to report that Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles has less to do with history than with a memorably playful event.
    In 2018, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an exhibit called Visitors to Versailles, a show that drew on the Met's vast collection and from the Chateau de Versailles. The Met tried to give viewers a taste of life at Versailles from 1682 until 1789 when Louis XIV -- a.k.a., the Sun King -- worked his magic on the place.
     As part of the festivities for 2018, the Met asked renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi to assemble an event in which a variety of pastry chefs would create temptations based on their interpretations of Versailles. 
    To fulfill his charge, Ottolenghi invited five pastry chefs to indulge their royal instincts. The five were: Dinara Kasko from Ukraine, a chef whose architectural creations, inspire gasps; Ghaya Oliveira, who plies her trade at New York's Manhattan's Daniel and specializes in chocolates; Janice Wong, who hails from Singapore; Bompas & Parr, a duo from England that employs English jellies as their medium. 
    The seriousness of the chefs belies what might seem an entirely frivolous event, nearly as decadent as anything that transpired during Louis XIV's sugar-coated watch.
    Additional attempts at seriousness fall on the shoulders of Deborah Krohn, a Bard College historian who paints a picture of Versailles that has more to do with fact than fancy. 
    As it turns out, the French hoi polloi were allowed to wander the grounds, a gesture of openness with unintended consequences: The French learned that the very rich were not like the average Pierre or Paulette. 
    As amusing as it can be, Cakes doesn't always rise to perfection. I would have liked to know more about the guests who consumed those cakes at the Met and it struck me that some of the inventions we see when Ottolenghi introduces us to these masterful chefs are more stunning than what they created for the Met. 
    Moreover, attempts to introduce the subject of wealth equality in our own time seems intended to keep the movie from becoming an endorsement of opulence.
    Still, only a spoilsport would discourage someone  from slicing into director Laura Gabbert's  cinematic cake. The Israeli-born Ottolenghi makes a genial and informative host, sprinkling the documentary with biographical information about himself, and we all can indulge a moment of happy fantasy: The one time when dessert truly qualifies as the main course.