Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 12/31/'20 -- "Sylvie's Love," "I'm Your Woman," and "Hunter Hunter"

Sylvie's Love
 Almost everyone who has written about Sylvie's Love has mentioned director Douglas Sirk. Sirk's career has become synonymous with lush 1950s melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and Magnificent Obsession. The luscious colors of those melodramatic movies tended to ease the pain  experienced by characters who sometimes found themselves shackled by  convention. Those familiar with Hollywood of the 1950s will have no trouble understanding the references to Sirk when they watch Sylvie's Love. If Sirk had been black and if Hollywood were a more equitable place during the 1950s, he might have made Sylvie's Love, the story of star-crossed lovers played by Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha with direction by Eugene Ashe. Thompson portrays Sylvie, a young woman who works at her father's Harlem record store. There, she meets jazz saxophonist Robert (Asomugha). The two obviously are meant for each other, which, in the world of this and so many other movies, means they can't be together -- at least for most of the movie. Social pressures arise. Sylvie's mother operates a finishing school for young Black women. She believes her daughter should fulfill her promise and marry Lacy Parker (Alano Miller), her fiancee who's on military duty in Korea. Lacy guarantees a life of bourgeois comfort; Robert may be the next Coltrane, but he offers the instability of a musician's life. It's hardly surprising that it takes a full 115 minutes to iron out the complications, including the fact that Sylvie does marry Lacy, even while pregnant with Robert's child. Cinematographer Declan Quinn, production designer Mayne Berke, and costume designer Phoenix Mellow make substantial contributions and Thompson makes a glamorous yet plausible romantic lead with Asomugha bringing cool reserve to the role of Robert. Bottom line: Ashe and his team have made a movie about passion, love and the binding stricture of convention that's ... well .... notable for making the style of  yesterday feel fresh.

I'm Your Woman
Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fame, stars in I'm Your Woman, a convoluted neo-noir from director Julia Hart, who wrote the screenplay with her husband Jordan Horowitz. Brosnahan plays Jean, a woman who's married to a thief (Bill Heck). Tired of playing the bored housewife, Jean's life receives a jolt when her husband Eddie shows up with a baby, supposed compensation for the fact that Jean hasn't been able to have a child of her own. It takes a while to learn how Eddie obtained this baby, an infant who Jean names Harry.  The movie takes its time offering an explanation for baby Harry's arrival and just about every other question it raises, putting Jean in the center of a dangerous drama that she doesn't understand. When Eddie fails to return from a job, Cal (Arinze Kene) shows up and takes her to a supposed safe house. She asks questions but gets no answers.  Patience is required if you're going to follow I'm Your Woman to its conclusion as Jean makes the transition from a helpless wife and clueless mother to a woman who attempts to control her own fate. I imagine that some viewers will simply give up, having decided that Jean's journey isn't worth all the uncertainty. Supporting performances by Marsha Stephanie Blake and Frankie Faison add weight, though, and, by the end, everything has been explained and nothing makes total sense. Still, I stuck with I'm Your Woman which offers surprising twists as its story unfolds around a character who seems to know less about what's going on than anyone in the movie -- other than the audience. That’s not always a bad place to be.

Hunter Hunter
At some point, nearly everyone has entertained a fantasy about living off the grid in an isolated cabin in the woods. For me, that's a 30-second fantasy. I know myself well enough to know that it wouldn't take more than a couple of hours for me to get  sick of the natural world and for it to tire of me. But the family in Hunter Hunter is living their wilderness dream, supporting themselves with the little money they're able to earn by selling the furs of animals they trap. A survivalist dad (Devon Sawa)  takes his daughter (Summer H. Howell) on instructional hunts and Mom (Camille Sullivan) cooks the meager fare that keeps the family alive. She wouldn't mind a move back to town. One day, Dad discovers something grisly in one of his traps. A killer wolf may be on the prowl. You can bet that not everyone will make it out of the woods alive. Director Shawn Linden introduces a wounded man (Nick Stahl) into the story, someone we presume will threaten the already teetering lives of these woodsy folks. I was up for a movie that shared my wariness about immersion in the natural world, but Hunter Hunter eventually turns into a helping of horror with an ending that sears itself into memory. No fair saying more, but know this: Linden creates a credible backwoods drama and he  delivers a message about who might be the forest's most dangerous predator. I can't say I endorse the movie's ending, which lands a punch that's gory and wince-inducing enough to put you off your feed for several hours after viewing.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

'Soul' puts imagination on display


     Imagine being on the verge of achieving something you've dreamed about your whole life. Jazz pianist Joe Gardner (voice by Jamie Foxx) finds himself in exactly that position in Soul, the latest animated feature from Pixar.  
     Sounds like a serviceable enough premise, but directors Peter Doctor and Kemp Powers quickly pull the rug out from under us, catapulting us from the streets of New York into an alternate reality -- in this case the gateway to the afterlife. 
     Here's how it happens:  Elated at having landed a gig with a renowned jazz combo led by saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe loses himself in a moment of elation, falls into a manhole, and finds himself on the edge of death.
     Doctor, who directed the much-admired Inside Out, allows his team's imagination to rip as Joe tries to figure out how not to climb the conveyor belt to the Great Beyond. He wants to play that gig more than he wants to ascend into any heavenly realm.

     Doctor and Powers use Joe's quest to cling to earthly life as a vehicle for introducing a variety of characters, the most important of which is voiced by Tina Fey. She's Soul #22, a soul that has no desire to experience earthly existence.
    It's not that Soul #22 hasn't had decent guidance. Souls are instructed by mentors and #22 has had some of the best, including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa. 
     Soul #22 and Joe team up as they juggle their various agendas: It takes a taste of physicality in the form of a slice of pizza to make #22 think life on Earth might not be so bad. 
      The movie also takes us to various other realms that are quickly explained and that are populated by  various characters that provide voice work for Wes Studi, Richard Ayoade, and Alice Braga.
      A confession:  For all of Soul's other-worldly creativity, I hated to see Joe fall down that hole. I wanted to see an animated feature about a jazz musician. 
     I knew that Pixar wasn't going to do a full Ralph Bakshi (if you don't know, look him up), but the opening and some of the music segments of Soul offer jazz and idealized urban landscapes that are so warmly appealing I hated to leave them.
    The movie's jazz score was arranged by John Batiste, familiar from  Stephen Colbert's Late Night. Music for the rest of the movie was written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
      Not surprisingly, there's a moral to the story. Joe must learn that the pursuit of a single-minded dream can blind one to the small wonders of simply being alive, joys that are available to all of us simple because we're inhabitants of Earth.
    Not many will want to argue with the message and Pixar offers another deluge of creativity. Whatever else they may be, Pixar movies tend to be celebrations of animated artistry and its ability to stir the imagination.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A portrait of '60s madness in the Soviet Union

 

    Director Andrei Konchalovsky's Dear Comrades! takes its cue from an event that may be unfamiliar to most American audiences. In 1962,  26 striking workers in the city of Novocherkassk were killed by Soviet Soldiers. The workers were upset that they were facing lower wages at a time when prices were rising and goods were scarce. 
    The story of what happened in Novocherkassk didn't emerge until the 1990s but Konchalovsky uses it to explore the complex political and personal currents that swirled in the Soviet Union during the 1960s.
    Much of the movie centers on Lyudmila  (Julia Vysotskaya), a woman who pines for the days of Stalin when workers supposedly fared better. She's disappointed by Nikita Khrushchev's leadership. 
    A devout party member, Lyudmila opposes the protests that triggered military action. When her daughter (Yuliya Burova) joins the protestors, Lyudmila finds her political and personal loyalties put to the test.
     Shot in black and white, Dear Comrades! features the artfully composed cinematography of Andrey Naydenov. Don't expect Dear Comrades! to leap from from one beautiful image to the next. But the movie's  images have depth and resonance, even when Konchalovsky takes us inside meetings where bureaucrats debate.
    Vysotskaya commands the screen as a woman whose staunch convictions have provided her with various privileges. In an early scene, the cuts a food line to obtain the best available rations.
     Konchalovsky gives fly-on-the-wall immediacy to a story that reveals the hypocrisies and betrayals of Soviet life ignited by the strike. Strikes weren't supposed to happen in a purported workers' paradise.
     The movie doesn't shrink from the violence brought against the workers, mayhem that resulted in a cover-up in which just about everyone tried to evade responsibility.
      During the picture's final act, a frantic Lyudmila and a sympathetic KGB officer try to locate Lyudmila's daughter who has gone missing and who may have been killed.
      For a boldly realistic movie, the ending that Konchalovsky gives his story seems a bit of a cheat. Perhaps he wanted to light the lamp of hope.
     But that doesn't negate the rest of Konchalovsky's achievement: He shows us what happens to people when their world seems to be collapsing. Not unexpectedly,  what we see is far from pretty.





Everything but a consistently involving story

 

     At two-and-a-half-hours, Wonder Woman 1984 doesn't have a compelling enough story to keep the movie from wearing out. Gal Gadot returns as Wonder Woman. And director Patty Jenkins again takes charge of a movie that at least in its early going delivers the humor and buoyancy that make superhero movies fun.
    A prologue showing us Wonder Woman as a child stands as a masterful action sequence in which young Diana competes with grown women of her island home in games that recall TV shows in which contestants are pitted against one another on fiendishly designed obstacle courses. 
    The movie then shifts to Washington, D.C. The now-grown Diana, who in case you haven't already figured it out is also Wonder Woman, works at the Smithsonian. She dresses stylishly and avoids anything resembling a social life. 
    She hasn't gotten over losing the love of her life (Chris Pine), a World War I pilot. That happened in the last movie, but as we all know, sadness lingers.
    Sorrow aside, Diana remains Wonder Woman, saving kids at malls in set pieces that assure us Diana hasn't lost her mojo. 
     Enter Barbara (Kristen Wiig), a klutzy bespectacled anthropologist who's beginning work at the Smithsonian. Socially awkward and burdened by a hairdo in which no two strands of hair seem to be traveling in the same direction, Barbara badly needs a pal.  
     And unlike Diana, Barbara also would like to find love. She envies Diana's coolness and preternatural composure.
    While perusing her department's various treasures, Barbara comes across a crystal that she quickly deems worthless and which we immediately understand will be thrown into the plot in a big way, 
    OK, might as well spill the beans: The crystal can fulfill wishes, a power that will be bent toward evil before Wonder Woman's protracted finale.
    Eventually, the movie must get around to a plot. This one involves Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a conman who uses TV to try to persuade ordinary people to make what he calls sure-fire oil investments. Remember, it's 1984 and oil still rules. 
    Lord refers to himself as a "TV personality," not a conman Any resemblance to any real-life public figure must have been purely coincidental.
    Anyway, the crystal falls into Lord's hands and he uses it  (surprise!) to threaten global catastrophe. 
    Oh, I forgot to mention that the crystal's wishing power also brings back Pine's Steve Trevor, which allows Jenkins to add a variety of comic bits (selection of clothing being one) that play on Steve's awe at the '80s world into which he has been reborn. 
     Steve's return also provides Pine with an occasion to apply techniques gleaned from the open-mouth school of acting as he gapes at the special effects.
    Once Steve arrives, the movie becomes a twosome. Diana and Steve travel to far-flung places -- Egypt among them. Their mission: to put an end to Lord's malicious plans. 
    I don't think it's a spoiler to let you know that the villainy is ... well ... only adequate. Pascal gives a pitchman's one note performance. It's almost like watching a comic-book character scream as he tries to lift himself off the page.
    When envy prompts Barbara's transformation into Cheetah, the evil opposite of Wonder Woman, the movie seems more silly than scary.
    Wonder Woman isn't a dreadful misfire, and it's difficult to imagine that we've seen the last of the superhero who speaks to issues of women's power. 
    After its long -- intermittently amusing journey -- Wonder Woman 1984 does some undisguised cheerleading for the truth, make that Truth with a capital "T."
    So here's my truth, subject of course to a bit of relativism that may be unsuited to a comic book world: Wonder Woman 1984 struck me as part engaging entertainment, part overlong franchise entry, part inflated action movie, and one more stop on what seems to be an endless superhero highway.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A revenge movie with topical thrust

 

    A 35-year-old woman gets drunk at a club and goes home with a stranger. What, we ask? Another movie about a confused single woman who stumbles toward late-picture self-realization? Or worse, a looming romcom?
    Wrong.
     In the hands of first-time director Emerald Fennell and star Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman becomes something more. 
     Turns out that Mulligan's Cassie (short for Cassandra) is an avenger. Born into a world of tolerated sexual abuse, Cassie feigns drunken submission before humiliating the horny but unsuspecting guys she picks up.
      Cassie, who dropped out of medical school, works as a barista in a coffee shop owned by the savvy Gail (Lavern Cox), a character who helps fulfill the movie's wisecrack quota.
    I won't tell you what pushed Cassie into an under-achieving life devoted to avenging herself on men but the explanation allows Fennell to assay some of the ways in which women who've been abused can be treated.
     Ruthless as she can be with men, Cassie hasn't totally give up on the opposite sex. Ryan (Bo Burnham) shows up at the coffee shop: A pediatric surgeon, Ryan attended med school with Cassie. He knows that she's whip-smart and begins his pursuit. Cassie doesn't make it easy for him, but he persists and ultimately, her cast-iron will begins to bend.
     A supporting cast that includes Alison Brie and Connie Britton, also boasts a fine small performance by Alfred Molina as a regretful, self-hating lawyer.
     Mulligan ably fills the movie's center, even if you can see some of the twists coming and an exaggerated conflation of events strains credibility at the very end.
      Maybe it doesn't matter. Fennell, the actress who plays Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown and who served as a show runner on the Killing Eve series, knows that when you put so much in motion, there must be an out-sized payoff. She tries hard to deliver, but this could be a case in which the finale would be better appreciated in a theater where a vocally responsive audience might add some extra charge. 
      Still,  Fennell creates a pointed bit of entertainment that may not be perfect but leaves you eager to see more.

Tom Hanks anchors an episodic Western


     Set in Texas during the years immediately following the Civil War, News Of the World takes place against a backdrop of lingering southern bitterness. In this often-ugly world, law can be an afterthought, bigotry often surfaces and a lone traveler never moves escapes danger.
    Who better to navigate such treacherous territory than Tom Hanks, an actor whose even keel and unshakable sanity seem geared to surviving all manner of trials? Having worked together on Captain Phillips, Hanks reunites with director Paul Greengrass for what might the year’s most diligently assembled movie.
    As was the case with George Clooney in Midnight Sky, Hanks spends most of the movie in the company of a girl (Helena Zengel). Zengel’s Johanna has been living with the Kiowa people after they murdered her parents on their small homestead. 
    A bit of a wild child, Johanna speaks no English and barely remembers the German settlers who had been her family.
    The movie's title stems from the unusual job that Hanks's character performs. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels from one town to the next where he reads selections from the nation's newspapers.
    Kidd says that he hopes his readings provide a bit of uplift to hard-working folks who have no time for reading newspapers.
    The movie's point is made explicit in the lives of both Kidd and the girl he's trying to reunite with her last remaining kinfolk. Each must come to grips with a painful past. Kidd saw the horrors of war up close and lost his wife to cholera during the fighting. Johanna must remember her life before being taken by the Kiowa.
    Working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Greeengrass creates a vision of a west that includes lonely open spaces and cramped towns with interiors lit by oil lamps. The disruptions of war have created a pervasive sense of rootlessness.
    A peaceable soul, Kidd has had his fill of fighting. That doesn't mean that he won't use his rifle to stave off thuggish attackers led by a former Confederate soldier (Michael Angelo Covino) who wants to buy Johanna for less than honorable reasons. He's also shaken by the sight of a black man hanging from a tree, a victim of post-war racism.
    Hanks, who stands as one of the last of cinema's beacons of decency, doesn't have to do much here. Bearded and warn, he's playing a character who clearly will overcome his reluctance and become Johanna's savior. For her part, Johanna proves resourceful enough to help when the travelers are under threat.
   The story unfolds episodically. Early on, Kidd tries to persuade a couple (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham) to look after the girl. That doesn't work out. It's not until he meets the owner of a Dallas hotel (Elizabeth Marvel) that he's able to talk with Johanna. Marvel's Mrs. Gannet speaks the Kiowa language.
    The movie's darkest moment arrives when Kidd and his companion meet a group of rogues who slaughter buffalo under the leadership of an obviously evil man named Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). In what might be intended as political commentary about certain politicians who insist that all news about them be laudatory, Farley wants Kidd to confine his reading to self-serving testimonials from the local paper.
   Eventually, Kidd finds himself in San Antonio where he meets with a friend (Bill Camp) from his pre-war life. He also visits his wife's grave and Hanks conveys the poignancy of a deeply sorrowful man.
    These days, Westerns can be minefields for filmmakers when it comes to issues involving race and the treatment of Native Americans. News of the World seems neither revisionist in its outlook nor is the movie committed to the genre's most insistent cliches; it has the feel of a kind of middle-ground effort.
    When a director tells a story consisting of serially realized  episodes, it's not easy to maintain a constant sense of vitality and for all its attempts at authenticity, News of the World can lose chapter-to-chapter momentum, an oddity for Greengrass whose movies (notably Bloody Sunday, United 93 and the Bourne movies) typically thrive on speed and pulse.
     News of the World is another kind of effort, one that relies on Hanks to stake out solid ground as Kidd tries to save Johanna  and re-establish himself as what you may want to regard as the Walter Cronkite of the Old West. 
     With Hanks at the movie's center, the idea almost seems plausible.


Monday, December 21, 2020

Midnight Sky falls short of noble goals



   I wish Midnight Sky had been able to live up to its lofty ambitions. As star and director, George Clooney aims big, constructing a variety of impressive set pieces, including a terrific spacewalk sequence and scenes that unfold in the middle of a blinding arctic storm.
  Despite reaching such visual heights, the movie falls short of achieving the semi-mournful, vaguely hopeful impact for which it's apparently striving. Midnight Sky is serious, steadfast but seldom grand.
   Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist working at a deserted facility in the Arctic Circle. The year: 2049.
    Augustine, who's suffering from terminal cancer, decided to remain in the Arctic after the rest of his co-workers departed. An   unspecified global disaster has doomed the Earth's entire human population.
   At the same time, a manned-mission to one of Jupiter's moons is working its way back toward Earth, having scouted the place as a possible alternative residence for humanity. Augustine has taken on the task of delivering a devastating message: The crew is returning to a doomed planet. He thinks they should head back to Jupiter.
   The movie divides between action on the ship (the exterior has been beautifully designed) and Augustine's efforts to reach it — with a few flashbacks inserted to give a hint of Augustine's character and to allow him to be played by an actor (Ethan Peck) who looks nothing like a younger Clooney.
    Augustine, we learn, has devoted his life to science at the expense of maintaining important family connections.
    While roaming in his Arctic observatory, Augustine discovers a girl (Caoilinn Springall)  about age seven. The evacuating team somehow left her behind. 
   Resigned to his lonely solitude, Augustine doesn't know how to care for the girl, a task made more difficult because she doesn't talk.
    Slowly, he develops a relationship with her, which means he has to take her with him when he begins a cross-ice trek to reach a radio transmitter at a weather station located away from his home base.
    The onboard crew of the spaceship Aether includes David Oyelowo as the captain and Felicity Jones as a crew member we soon learn is pregnant. Jones's Sully and Oyelowo’s character developed a relationship during the flight, which includes other  less intriguing astronauts played by Tiffany Boone, Demian Bichir, and Kyle Chandler
    Transitions between Earth and space don’t always feel fluid and I wondered whether the obvious physical difficulties of the shoot had blinded the filmmakers to the movie’s narrative insufficiencies and thinly developed characters.
   Based on a novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Midnight Sky hobbles itself with weighty themes. The possible extinction of the human race might be as weighty as themes get — at least for those of us who belong to it. But Midnight Sky yields to mild attenuation, offering hope with an ending (which if you think about it) raises a ton of questions.
   I won't say more. Midnight Sky generated no animosity on my part, just a sense that the movie resembled a space voyage that didn’t carry enough fuel to penetrate the existential questions it tries to probe.

2020: Best movies in a very strange year

      As far as movies are concerned, 2020 seemed more like a dream than a collection of lived experiences. Since theaters shuttered in March, I’ve been streaming so much, I’ve nearly drowned in what feels like a non-stop torrent of movies, each screaming for attention in the cluttered online world.
   I shouldn’t complain, though. If one has to be isolated, how fortunate to have the company of a variety of movies that, at minimum, serve as reminders that an outside world still exists.

    When it comes to picking the 10 best movies of the year, I’m more wary than usual. Aside from the customary fear that I’ll forget something obvious, I have to confess that, at times, I had difficulty keeping up with all the screening opportunities. 

    Like everyone else who writes about movies, I’ve also had to think about the possible demise (or at least severe diminishment) of the theatrical experience. I’ve often bristled at the fare that pops up in the nation’s multiplexes but never thought of them as points of literal rather than cultural contagion.  

    Vaccination looms, but few of us think the post-Covid world will be a precise mirror of the pre-Covid world. 

    As you peruse the list, you'll notice a preference for what might be termed "thematic heaviness," but, hey, I didn't make the movies: I only reviewed them.

    So, I offer 10 movies with an admission that I not might have seen every movie relevant to the task.


1. On the Rocks


Director Sophia Coppola brought a light but knowing touch to a comedy that teamed Bill Murray and Rashida Jones as a New York father and daughter. Jones's character suspects that her husband (Marlon Wayans) might be cheating on her. Murray's character is all too eager to prove her right. The result: A first-class piece of escapism that, for me, became a perfect antidote to bouts of Covid-induced blues. And, yes, in a different year, I might not have put On the Rocks at the top of my list but Coppola reminded me of how much I miss escapism that doesn't make you hate yourself for enjoying it.

2. Beanpole

When Americans think about the end of World War II, we often are reminded of a country buoyed by the elation of victory, a precursor to the boom years that would follow. The experience in Russia was different. Partly because much of the war was fought on Russian soil, the country's devastation was greater than anything America experienced. Beanpole gives us a stark picture of just how bad things were. Director Kantemir Balagov steeps his movie in the deprivations of post-war Leningrad as he tells the story of two women who fought together in the war. A shattering blow of a movie, Beanpole reminds us that the price of war doesn't stop just because the guns have gone silent.

3. First Cow

Director Kelly Reichardt brings a restrained sense of naturalism to a mud-caked work in which you practically can smell the characters. Without italicizing anything, Reichardt deals with prejudice and class differences in the Pacific Northwest of the 1800s. Put aside expectations, Reichardt and her two principal actors (Orion Lee and John Magaro) take the movie where it needs to go.

4.  Martin Eden

This out-sized hunk of cinema places its main character against a backdrop of sweeping political and social upheaval. Luca Marinelli gives one of the year's most robust performances as a writer cut in the Jack London mold. That's because this Italian import from director Pietro Marcello relocates a 1909 semi-autobiographical novel by London to Italy -- and makes it work.

5. Kajillonaire

Director Miranda July's movie resembles other movies about con artists save for the fact that the stakes are low and the con artists are anything but super-slick. Visiting the world of down-and-out Los Angeles, July obtains fine performances from Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood, and Gina Rodriguez. Purposefully strange, Kajillionaire nonetheless is rooted in a young woman's need for love and acceptance.

6. David Byrne's American Utopia

Director Spike Lee more than does justice to Byrne's stage production,  a musical brimming with irresistible polyrhythmic energy. Lee and Byrne create what is essentially a concert film -- but one with topical spin and winking humor. If you can sit still while watching this one, you need a pulse check.

7. City Hall and Collective
   

     On the surface, it seems as if a four-and-one-half hour American documentary and a 149-minute Romanian documentary would have little in common. And literally speaking, they don't.
     But putting them together makes a strong and necessary statement about one government that works as it should and another that's riddled with corruption.
    Frederick Wiseman's City Hall delivers a powerful reminder of how government looks when it's well-intended and trying to work. Wiseman creates a ground-level portrait of Boston that introduces us to the people who make the city run. A well-documented antidote to the anti-government ranting that too often tears at the American psyche.
     Collective takes us inside an horrific Romanian scandal. Director Alexander Nanau chronicles the devastating impact of a scheme in which diluted disinfectants were sold to Romanian hospitals. A potent expose of corruption carried to an extreme, Collective becomes both a cautionary tale and a tribute to those who shed light on egregious wrongs.

8. Sorry We Missed You

Many of British director Ken Loach has a knack for capturing social and economic realities, often in telling slices of contemporary life. In this outing, Loach introduces us to Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a husband and father who's trying to make ends meet by working as a driver for a delivery service. What better time to think about those who struggle to survive and the toll it takes on their families?

9. The Personal History of David Copperfield

Director Armando Iannucci and a terrific cast convinced me that one can never get enough of Charles Dickens on screen. In Personal History, Iannucci employs a winking sense of humor and a multiracial cast to wonderful effect. Credit Dev Patel with freshening the main character. Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep, and The Death of Stalin) adds a tasty variety of supporting performances with notable contributions from Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood), and a delightful Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick.

10. Time

Rob Rich and his wife Fox were imprisoned for a botched 1997 bank robbery. Director Garrett Bradley's moving documentary takes us deep into Fox's post-prison attempts to obtain her husband's release. Rich was sentenced to an unreasonably long 60 years. Fox commands the screen as a wife and mother of fierce determination. Not a documentary about guilt or innocence, Time instead takes a deep, often poetic dive into the injustices found in the American judicial system, leaving us to ponder the meaning of the words "fair" and "equitable."

Honorable mentions: Gunda, Forty-Year-Old Version, Bacurau,  and Minari.






Friday, December 18, 2020

Fatale: A shiny surface with pulp beneath

 

     It always starts with infidelity.
    An otherwise successful man veers from the straight-and-narrow by sleeping with an alluring woman who seems free of any moral constraints. Of course, it’s an illusion and his slip will lead to catastrophic consequences.
    Fatale — which stars Hilary Swank and Michael Ealy— presents itself as an unashamed piece of pulp entertainment that bends itself out of shape trying to add new wrinkles to a Fatal Attraction formula. 
     Ealy portrays Derrick Taylor, a  highly successful sports agent and partner in a super-profitable company. Swank’s Valerie Quinlan, the movie’s femme fatale, is a detective.
    I won’t say more other than to tell you that Derrick winds up as the suspect in a double murder that introduces more infidelities and betrayals into an already strained plot.
    Director Deon Taylor takes full advantage of the upscale aspirations of his characters. Derrick's home proves magazine-worthy and even Valerie's downtown loft seems stylish and desirable. 
    Put another way, just about everyone in the movie seems to have lost touch with the meaning of the words “middle class.” 
    At the same time, the screenplay by David Loughery imagines that the nouveau-riche sports agents — who happen to be black — can’t entirely escape motivations that push them into dangerous territory.
    Whatever the movie has to say about race comes across as inadvertent as Fatale tries to score with a mixture of glitz and voyeurism to which it applies dabs of violence and motivation.
    Mike Colter appears as Derrick's partner, a businessman who's eager to sell the firm, and Damaris Lewis appears as Derrick's beautiful wife. Neither actor gets much chance to stand-out.
    Danny Pino portrays a corrupt councilman who once was married to Valerie and now has custody of their daughter.
    Swank gives Valerie just enough suggestions of sanity to create some doubt about her motivations but formula demands that her character yield to the required extremes. 
    The rest of the cast serves the story but Fatale winds up as another helping of glamorized nonsense that shows little interest in anything more than its own glossy surface.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

A musical that's all exclamation points!!!

   

      Garish and bubbly, The Prom makes no attempt to disguise its message, something on the order of the now-familiar yard sign that says, "We believe love is love." 
     Put another way, The Prom  tells us that a high school senior who happens to be a lesbian should be treated no differently than any other teenager. She should be able to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend.
     Of course, if Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) were easily able to attend the prom with her girlfriend (Ariana DeBose), there's no movie ...
    So.....
    Director Ryan Murphy, working from a screenplay by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, does what the Broadway production of The Prom did: He follows a scenario in which four not-entirely-successful Broadway actors travel to middle America -- specifically Indiana -- to oppose the bigoted forces that want to cancel the prom because they're outraged at the prospect of having "a gay prom."
    To make the movie version, the filmmakers have swallowed an A-list pill, employing the services of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and James Cordon
    Watching The Prom, I wondered whether every cast member was required to down a case of Red Bull before filming. If you like high energy, The Prom provides it and for the first hour or so it works so hard to be giddy you can almost feel it sweat.
    Streep portrays Dee Dee Allen, a diva of Broadway musicals, who -- along with Cordon's Barry Glickman -- is coming off a massive flop, a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. 
     In trying to assay what went wrong, Barry, who describes himself as "gay as a box of wigs,” decides that the actors must change their images. They must prove that they're not narcissists, that care about something.
    Joined by chorus girl Angie (Kidman) and actor turned bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they set out for Indian to support Ellen's efforts to attend her prom. 
     In Indiana, they find a principal (Keegan-Michael Key) who's totally on their side and who happens to be a fan and long-time admirer of Streep's character, so much so that the story later takes a love tilt in his direction.
     Opposition to the gay prom is led by Kerry Washington's Mrs. Greene, whose daughter, it turns out, is (what else?) gay.
      The Prom -- with songs such as One Thing's Universal -- can't help but fall prey to obvious right-thinking, surrendering f the mild satirical bristle that marks the movie's first half.
     There's no faulting the performances. Kidman happily accepts a second-fiddle role that's enliven by Zazz, one of the movie's signature numbers. Cordon may have been born to appear in musicals and Rannells has fun as a failing actor who consoles himself with reminders that he once attended Juilliard.
      Streep knows how to do diva and gives it her all.
      At 131 minutes, the whole thing goes on a bit too long and the movie's mixture of glitz and sincerity won't raise the curtain on every viewer's enthusiasm. Me, for example: I'm not one to surrender to material that's delivered with nothing but exclamation points. I tended to forget each song, the minute it ended. 
       Yes, The Prom has its moments, but on screen it often feels as if it has been factory produced to become a hit. Damn, if it doesn't want to please the daylights out of us.

    
    

A whimsical (heaven help us) romcom

 

     
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley's new movie -- Wild Mountain Thyme -- takes place in Ireland where 
Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan star as a couple of farmers who've known each other all their lives. 
     Their families own adjacent farms, but Blunt's mother (Dearbhla Molloy) refuses to sell a strip of land to Dornan's father Tony (Christopher Walken). 
  Although this squabble over land creates mild tension, the bulk of the movie involves the halting relationship between Blunt's Rosemary and Dornan's Anthony. 
    The savvy Rosemary understands that they're supposed to be together. Preternatural shyness keeps Anthony from popping the question. 
    Shanley sets us up for a flavorful romcom, but whimsy, romance, and occasional splashes of rue aren't enough to give this adaptation of a Shanley stage play (Outside Mullingar) new life. 
   Trailers for Wild Mountain Thyme riled the Irish press. The movie was mocked for cliched Irish accents that seemed tailored for characters who felt as if they'd been drawn from fantasy. 
    Fair enough and casting Walken as an Irish father with a highly variable accent doesn't help.
    American audiences, who may not be quite so unhinged by the accents, will find an otherwise slender movie in which Blunt gives the stand-out performance.
     Frank and cynical, Rosemary knows what she wants. She doesn't need to be romanced. She's eager to arrive at the destination. Reticent but not lacking in self-insight, Dornan's Anthony doesn't make for the most interesting counterpoint to Rosemary's determination.
     The arrival of an American cousin (a bland Jon Hamm) threatens the already tenuous relationship between Rosemary and Anthony.     
    Scenes that are intended to be funny (Anthony practicing his proposal speech by kneeling before a donkey) don't quite work  and Shanley's effort to preserve the play's darker currents don't really pay off. Rain soaks several scenes and an early encounter involving Walken and Molloy is steeped in talk of death.
     Shanley gives the characters a wary sense of skepticism, but  for all its trying, Wild Mountain Thyme doesn't stir the heart. 
     Shanley, who wrote and directed Doubt (2008), also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck (1987), a charmer that was directed by Norman Jewison. Those were two strong movies, but this time, attempts at quirky authenticity feel strained.
     Weird, no? In Wild Mountain Thyme, what must have been intended as idiosyncratic and flavorful too often feels stereotypical.
      

African immigrants in Brooklyn

By nature, stories about immigrants are tales of adjustment. In Farewell Amor, immigrants must not only adapt to a new country but to one another. Having fled Angola, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) has been in the US for 17 years. After almost two decades, Walter has succeeded in bringing his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and his teenage daughter (Jayme Lawson) to the US. By the time, mother and daughter arrive,  Walter's adjustment to a new life has radically altered his ability to accept some of the ways he left behind. During his 17 years in the US, Walter earned his living driving a taxi. He also developed a relationship with Linda (Nana Mensah), a nurse. His  daughter, an infant when he left Africa, is a virtual stranger to him. His wife's religious devotion no longer makes sense to him. Director Ekwa Msangi divides the story into three acts, each focused on the perspective of one of the principal characters. Msangi enriches the film with nicely observed scenes illuminating Brooklyn's immigrant Africa culture and Joie Lee registers as a neighbor who advises Esther about how to navigate this somewhat free-form world. Dancing plays a role in the movie. Both father and daughter see dance as an important means of self-expression. By the time the movie concludes, we have a sense that we've lived with these characters. Happily, Msangi isn't out to vilify anyone. He knows these characters and he wants us to know them, as well.



Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Three friends on an uneasy crossing

 


     Some viewers may decide that Steven Soderbergh's new movie reminds them of the work of John Cassavetes. Dialogue in Let Them All Talk can feel improvised, the movie's structure  slowly reveals character and the whole enterprise relies heavily on its actors.
     The same could be said about most Cassavetes movies. But Cassavetes often seemed to elbow his way toward urgent truths that were deeply embodied in performance. Soderbergh's approach is more casual, elegant even.
     Working from a screenplay by Deborah Eisenberg, Soderbergh places his cast on the Queen Mary 2 as they journey from New York to London. Luxe onboard settings can't entirely calm the tensions that ripple among three women played by Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest
    Streep's Alice Hughes has sponsored the trip, which Soderbergh filmed on an actual eight-day Atlantic crossing.
    A novelist, Alice has been awarded a literary prize and must travel to London to receive it. She refuses to fly so her publisher books her on the Queen Mary 2. She insists that she take two friends from college along. 
     And let's be honest: The suites, decks and restaurants on the Queen Mary II give the movie an additional layer of pleasure.
     Bergen's Roberta lives in Texas.  Because her marriage to a wealthy man crumbled, she's been reduced to selling lingerie in a department store.  A Seattle resident, Wiest's Susan devotes her life to advocating for women in prison.
     Alice's nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) accompanies his aunt, as well. Young and smart, he's supposed to keep tabs on Alice's friends while she attends to her latest manuscript. 
     Alice doesn't know that her literary agent (Gemma Chan)  also has boarded the ship. She's eager to learn whether Alice's new the new book will be a sequel to her best-received work. 
     Bergen gives the movie's most outsized performance.   Dressed in near-parodic Texas style, Robert overtly scans the ship for wealthy prospects, as if her rights have been violated by no longer being rich. 
      Roberta also believes that Alice appropriated part of her life for her book. She feels betrayed and does her best to keep contact with Alice to a minimum.
     Initially, Wiest's Susan seems the most timid of the three, but as the story unfolds, she emerges as a woman of substance. She and Roberta often are seen playing games (Scrabble or Monopoly). When she wins, Susan turns a simple phrase into a surprisingly resonant statement of character.
     "Bow down, bitch," she orders Roberta. 
      To further complicate matters, Alice not only must contend with her friends but with the presence on the ship of Kelvin Kranz (Dan Algrant), a super-successful mystery writer.
     Despite initial efforts to belittle Kelvin, Alice eventually acknowledges that he's a decent man who speaks perceptively about her work. Alice, of course, sees herself as a literary figure. A formulaic writer, Kranz neither deludes himself nor apologizes for what he is.
      So what about Streep? Her portrait of Alice might be the most meticulously conceived of the three women. Alice never seems entirely comfortable around her old college pals or perhaps anyone else for that matter. Sometimes, it seems as if speech has become an effort for her. 
     Let Them All Talk demands one more comment. When aging male actors are brought together for movies, they usually try to reenact their youths, often making fools of themselves.
     Here, we watch three accomplished actors flirting with cliche but subverting it in favor of something Soderbergh has the good sense to appreciate: The imaginative exploration of character.

Friday, December 4, 2020

When van living becomes a way of life


      In Nomadland, director Chloe Zhao mixes real wanderers  and actors in ways that illuminate the lives of people who’ve permanently hit the road. The stock market may be breaking records, but a variety of people have checked out of the economy, some because they have no options and some by choice.    
     Frances McDormand plays Fern, a Nevada widow who lived in a town that vanished when its only employer -- the gypsum mine -- closed.  Fern's van has become her home. She sometimes finds temporary employment at an Amazon facility or in a restaurant. 
     "I'm not homeless. I'm just houseless," she says. 
    During her travels, Fern meets people who also are committed to the wandering way of life. Some move in caravans; others are loners. Some live off the grid. 
    Bob Wells, a real nomad, explains the ethos by which these travelers live, never going much beyond minimal necessities.
     Fern also meets Dave (actor David Strathairn). Although he’s on the move, Dave looks to Fern for company, at one point inviting her to stay with him at his daughter's home. 
    But Shao is too committed to realism to create characters who will be redeemed by anything resembling romance. Zhao, who previously directed The Rider, is one of those rare filmmakers who places her films at ground level, close to the way real people live and survive.
     Basing Nomadland on a nonfiction work by Jessica Bruder, Zhao takes her camera to Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, and California. She doesn't shy from showing the difficulties of van living: looking for bathrooms, dealing with cold, finding a place to shower, and locating hassle-free places where a van can be parked. 
    McDormand creates a character of ferocious independence. Fern never asks for sympathy. At one point, Zhao photographs Fern floating naked in a river, a woman who may be alone but who also can be at home in nature. 
    At times, Nomadland feels like a documentary, particularly when actors are interacting with non-actors. Fern, like us, hears the stories these folks tell.  A woman with cancer talks about her life.
  Whispers of plot emerge: At one point, for example, Fern visits her sister (Melissa Smith) in search of a loan to finance an expensive van repair. Generally, though, she wants nothing from anyone.
   Together, Zhao and McDormand introduce us to a woman who has lost everything (home, family, employment) but refuses to bend. Tragedy doesn't defeat Fern: It offers her glimpses of freedom. 
     That's not to say that Zhao romanticizes Fern's traveling life. She presents it without flourish or hype. Like Fern, the film demands to be taken as it is.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

A movie about men and their crazy ideas

 

If Another Round, the latest film from director Thomas Vinterberg, is any indication, Denmark might be badly in need of a national 12-step program.  As the title suggests, Another Round takes on the subject of excessive drinking, tying it to the sagging ego of its main character, a high school teacher convincingly played by Mads Mikkelsen
    Mikkelsen portrays Martin, a middle-aged man who seems to have lost his Mojo. He's become an indifferent teacher and husband. His wife (Maria Bonnevie) works nights and he doesn't pay a lot of attention to his teenage children. 
    The story kicks in when Martin attends the 40th birthday celebration of a colleague (Magnus Millang). As the evening’s designated driver, Martin initially resists taking a drink but finally decides to join the party.
     Not long after this celebratory night, Martin has an idea. Citing a Norwegian psychologist, he suggests that he and his pals test a hypothesis that claims they all need to raise their alcohol content by .5 points. The four men agree. Suddenly, they begin to snap out of their doldrums. Martin once again reaches his students and his cronies seem to be faring equally well. 
   It takes no crystal ball to predict where all this alcohol consumption will take the men, especially when they decide to push things to dangerous heights. Physical ed teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) fares worst and Vinterberg doesn't shy from questions about addiction. 
    But what keeps Another Round from becoming another cautionary tale about excessive consumption is its recognition that men living deadened lives are willing to risk everything to feel the soaring intensity of being fully alive, of breaking from the routine that seems to have numbed them all.
      Sure, these guys should have known better than to fool with a substance that has life-wrecking potential but Vinterberg isn't one to wag a finger in the faces of characters who’ve chosen obviously ruinous paths. Together with Mikkelsen, he makes the movie’s theme clear: Martin becomes a case study in what can happen to men when all sense of promise drains from their lives. 

Two fine actors, one muddled mess


Some movies just don't work -- nearly from start to finish.
Director April Mullen's Wander, a thriller starring Aaron Eckhart and Tommy Lee Jones, fits the description. Muddled to the max, Wander tells the story of Arthur Bretnik (Eckhart), a former cop who spends his time investigating conspiracy theories. Bretnik is the quintessential emotionally wounded man: An automobile accident resulted in the death of his daughter. As a further result of the crash, his now hospitalized wife (Nicole Steinwedell) has withdrawn into a catatonic state. Did all this havoc result from a crash or was the crash representative of something more sinister? Arthur occupies himself with an assignment: A woman asks him to look into the death of her daughter. A major question arises: Is Bretnik a nut or is he really onto something -- with help, of course, from his pal Jimmy Cleats (Jones)? Arthur and Jimmy host an amateur radio show in which conspiracy-minded folks call in to vent and air their thoughts. Not worth belaboring, Wander is one of those WTF movies that drowns inside its endless convolutions, dodges, and cuts.  The overall confusion breeds wide-eye disbelief and offers the viewer little choice but to give up caring.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Scarred by war, she visits Luxor

 

Sometimes a movie can be so inward-looking it threatens to vanish inside its own navel. That may be the case with Luxor, a movie about a physician who has been emotionally scarred by serving in a Syrian war zone. 
  Luxor is one of those movies in which setting, performance, and atmosphere far outweigh anything that might be considered a plot. 
   Andrea Riseborough plays Hana, a doctor who has chosen to take a bit of R&R in a city whose main tourist attraction consists of ancient tombs and temples, sobering reminders of lost civilizations.
   Director Zeina Durra builds her movie around Riseborough, who conveys deep spiritual fatigue, delivering a solitary aria of self-imposed isolation. 
    The film's main interaction brings Hana into a chance reunion with Sultan (Karim Saleh), a Yale-based archaeologist who's doing a stint in Luxor. 
    Durra hints that Hana may have wanted to see Sultan and we feel as though their relationship once involved a deeper connection than what we're now seeing. 
    But what are we seeing? 
    Hana does touristy things. She has a meaningless but regrettable sexual encounter. She comes to the aid of a woman who passes out while touring a temple. She wanders outside of the luxury hotel where she has taken up temporary residence. She has conversations, mostly initiated by others. 
   Durra makes intermittent use of music, but for the most part, Luxor feels encased in tomb-like quiet with Hana attempting to touch a long-vanished past. 
    Clearly, Hana needs some kind of rebirth before traveling to her next assignment in Yemen.  
    A man of generous spirit, Sultan provides a strong contrast with Hana. Significantly, his memory hasn't been marred as has Hana's. It's as if she's depriving herself of the sensory input that triggers memory, perhaps because for Hana the act of remembering means recalling scenes of unspeakable horror. 
    Honesty compels me to say that I didn't quite know what to make of Luxor. Durra and her cast make the movie seem entirely believable as a portrait of westerners in an Arab country but, for me, its purpose never comes clearly into focus.
    It's possible that Luxor springs from an unresolvable contradiction: It asks us to involve ourselves with a person who’s — at least — temporarily lost her taste for involvement.