Friday, March 27, 2020

Great story, but the movie's only so-so

Jesse Eisenberg plays Marcel Marceau in a movie about a mime who became a hero in World War II.
I wish Resistance had been the movie it could have been. Not many of us know that the world’s most famous mime — Marcel Marceau — was a member of the French resistance during World War II and that he risked his life to save many Jewish children from Hitler’s gas chambers.

That’s the core of the story that director Jonathan Jakubowicz tells in Resistance, but the movie only fitfully seems like anything other than a dutiful attempt to add another movie to the Holocaust canon.

Some of the movie's problems have to do with Jesse Eisenberg’s somewhat unexpected appearance in the movie. To me, Eisenberg never seemed like anyone other than Jesse Eisenberg, and it's a bit shocking to read (as I did after seeing the movie) that Marceau was 15 when he joined the resistance and worked to save Jewish children. Eisenberg is 36.

Still, Eisenberg's wired energy always seems to be watchable and he handles the movie's mime duties with ease and elegance.

Too bad Jakubowicz can’t sustain a unifying tone for a movie that wants to celebrate the power of artistry in dark times while not shortchanging how very dark those times really were.

I suppose the movie's greatest virtue lies in its ability to let people know that Marceau was more than an entertainer. Marceau was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, where his father (Karl Markovics) worked as a Kosher butcher. Dad thought his son was wasting his time performing in the city’s cabarets. Marcel thought of himself as an artist.

The apolitical Marcel finds himself drawn into the fray when his cousin (Geza Rohrig) and brother (Felix Moati) ask him to help a group of Jewish orphans.

Marcel — who has yet to take the name Marceau — entertains the kids, helping to lift these Jewish kids out of their confusion and funk.

The movie’s darkest current emerges when the story shifts to Lyon. At that point, Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer) enters the story. The sadistic Barbie, a.k.a., The Butcher of Lyon, is portrayed as a man Of irreconcilable polarities, a cultured German who became a murderous anti-Semitic sadist.

Through his journey, Marceau is accompanied by Emma (Clemence Poesy), a young woman who had been involved with the orphans from the beginning.

The story is introduced in a post-war ceremony presided over by none other than General George S. Patton (Ed Harris). Patton tells his assembled troops that he wants to share a story about a person who qualifies as a great hero. Marceau served as a liaison officer with Paton's army, so this may have happened but it doesn't add much to the story.

A sequence in which Marceau, his charges and cohorts try to cross the Alps to Switzerland has moments of high tension, but overall the drama feels wooden, what an after-school special might be like if it also included elements of Nazi sadism -- i.e., cold-blooded murder and torture.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 1, No. 5 We're in a waiting room hoping for the best

I haven’t been writing much these days, despite an initial plan to keep a kind of daily diary during this period of isolation. For me, isolation tends to breed as much indolence as productivity and I’ve spent far too much time reading and watching the news, worrying about the fate of family and friends and allowing my distress at the utterances of certain of our leaders, particular the one with very bad hair, to spiral upward.

I’ve been trying to reach out to friends who live alone, but it also occurred to me that these same people are the best prepared to deal with long periods of isolation. They’re ahead of the curve when it comes to coronavirus adjustment.

As for viewing ... well ... I’ve watched a couple of movies in advance of their theatrical opening, but mostly, I haven’t viewed the current situation as an opportunity to revisit favorite movies or binge-watch a new series.

I feel like I'm in a hospital waiting room waiting for the surgeon to emerge with a report. Worrying that it won't be good news.

This is the first time in the last 40 years that I haven’t been connected to the ceaseless flow of new releases and I've been wondering whether that hasn't been a somewhat trivial way to mark time, a vague equivalent of J. Alfred Prufrock’s measuring out his life in coffee spoons?

As for missing the movies. Truth be told, I’ve been missing the movies for a long time. I miss cavernous theaters with voluptuous curtains in front of the screen. I miss the thrill of playing hookey from pre-reviewing jobs to watch a movie in the middle of the day. I miss the brief moment in the 1960s and 1970s when I —- and lots of people like me — believed that movies (or cinema, if you prefer) were the best route to transcendence in art. It was a time when discovering a new Truffaut or a new Bergman or a new Altman or a new Hal Ashby or a new (at least to us) Kurosawa was thrilling.

No point in going on, but that was the moment when we (enthusiasts of a similar bent) felt a special connection to movies. We read Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. We populated art houses and theaters that had yet to become multiplexes. For a fleeting moment, we felt as if the movies belonged to us. They were ours.

None of us ever talked about box-office results.

No need to recount the story of how massive box-office juggernauts changed the movies. That’s an old story. I’ve been transported by some comic-book movies and by some of the very movies that have been blamed for the demise of movie art. I still enjoy watching Jaws, one of the oft-cited culprits in the story of how movie art was quashed by blockbuster onslaughts.

I've learned how to appreciate certain Marvel movies while detesting the depth of minutia that consumes many of those who grew up reading Marvel comics the way we grew up reading Catcher in the Rye or Mad Magazine or any of the other age-specific pleasures that flavored our youth. I've enjoyed some of the Star Wars movies but have no tolerance for those who insist on Star Wars purity.

I’m not saying that there are no good or even great movies. I seldom have difficulty assembling a 10-best list at the end of the year. Often I can’t make room for all the year’s worthy releases, but I also know that movies have lost their cultural primacy — to television, to video games, to other diversions — and that this trend will continue.

I'm sure you've read stories about how the studios are trying to adjust to the closure of theaters during the period of sheltering at home. The window between theatrical release and home viewing has been diminished and in some cases, abandoned entirely.

Theaters I believe, will come back to life, but the problems facing theater chains started long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus and will continue after the virus retreats.

Could some of what I’m saying be part of the inevitable sorrow that comes with lost youth? Probably. But as I sit in isolation, I’m also thinking about the ways in which movies flood the market, allowing little time for the culture to absorb them. Here today; on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon tomorrow. It's difficult to create a culture out of movable parts. Movies are absorbed into the culture in waves of market penetration. They touch the lives of different groups at different times.

These are not novel thoughts, but they’ve come into sharper focus with the disruption of routine that the coronavirus has brought.

I’m wondering how a country that has reveled in bloodshed on-screen and fine-tuned the aesthetics of violence is going to react when body counts (possibility in the millions) aren’t attached to movies such as the John Wick killing machines or remote battle zones that barely the make the news anymore.

When it’s all said and done, most will go one. But for some, the credits won’t roll and the lights won’t come up.

I’m thinking that those close to them won’t be consoled by a rise in the Dow Jones Average or by news proclaiming that GDP has gone through the roof and they certainly won’t be cheered by the fact that some new movie has broken every box-office record.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 1. No. 4

I've been wondering where the time has gone during this period of social distancing. So, I decided to keep track of what I'm doing as I spend even more time than usual at home. Here's a typical morning with logs for the rest of the day to follow. Maybe. But I'm not sure I can break the spell of indolence that seems to have taken over during this time when I really have time. Strange. In the time I've spent watching TV news, I probably could have re-read War and Peace.

8:00 AM Get out of bed.
8:01 Enjoy the fog of awakening, the time before I remember that there's a COVID-19 epidemic.
8:02 Remember epidemic: Resume depression.
8:03 None of your business.
8:30 I know, many unaccounted for minutes, but as I said, those were none of your business. Eat breakfast.
8:40 Experience sudden anxiety re: possible food shortages: Will Rice Krispies eventually give way to rice? We're good on rice.
9:00 Read the papers.
9:10 Wash hands. Take temperature.
9:15 Wonder if reading the papers might be contributing to malaise. Stupid question.
9:20:Realize I'm starting to skim long NY Times articles on the virus to keep from being overwhelmed.
9:30 Wonder what's wrong with people who aren't on the verge of being overwhelmed.
9:35 Read alarming headline to my wife about virus forecast. She begs me to stop, says I'm driving myself and her crazy. I remind her that, for me, it's a short ride. She reminds me that there are knives in the kitchen and she's not afraid to use them.
9:45 Put jeans over pajama bottoms. Put on a coat. Walk dog. Wave at neighbors from a respectful distance of at least six feet. Hope I don't run into anyone who's tested positive for COVID-19. Oh, wait. It's unlikely. There don't seem to be enough tests. Why worry?
10:30 Get on-line. Read emails, many from organizations telling me how concerned they are about my welfare during this terrible pandemic. Does anyone feel reassured that their bank has adopted rigorous new cleaning methods? What the hell were they doing before?
10:45 Take temperature.
10:50 Congratulate myself for not yet having turned on the TV, which is a bit like the consolation heavy drinkers take in not having had an alcoholic beverage before 5 p.m.
11:00 Wonder why everyone feels compelled to tell me what they're watching during the pandemic. Want to know what I'm watching? My temperature.
11:15 Have brief conversation with a dog about whether the term "existential crisis" rapidly is losing all meaning. Dog gives me a quizzical look. I take that as a sign of agreement.
11:30 Think about people who are feeling isolated as news of the virus worsens. I dial my own number.
11:45 Chastise myself for being forgetful and touching my face.
12:00 Realize it's noon and I still haven't decided whether the "postponement" (yeah, right, "postponement") of the Cannes Film Festival will destroy the year in art cinema. Oh well, nothing I can about that. Wash hands. Take temperature. Debate what time, in these days of too much time, is the correct time to get out of pajamas. Certainly, before dinner, I think. Heaven forbid we abandon all decorum.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Maine town that's far from idyllic

A fishing town provides the setting for a nice helping of New England noir in Blow the Man Down.

No, the above photo does not show two people getting rid of infectious material gathered from a coronavirus hot spot.

It’s a photo from Blow the Man Down, a little helping of noir that will be available on Amazon starting Friday, March 20, and which could provide welcome diversion in these days of maniacal, single-minded focus on ... well ... you don't need me to tell you what has all our attention.

Set in Maine, Blow the Man Down marks the debut of directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage who join the ranks of those who have attempted to expose the myths about the idyllic nature of small-town life, in this case, a fishing village where something fishy (actually many things fishy) seem to be happening.

The directors use a small chorus of singing fisherman to punctuate a story that begins at a funeral. Two sisters Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor are bidding farewell to their mother. Lowe’s Priscilla has been devoted to helping her mom and dutifully wants to take over her mother’s fish market.

Saylor’s Mary Beth, the younger of the two siblings, simply wants to get out of town.

Irate when she learns that their mother left a pile of debt, Mary Beth storms off for a spitefully drunken evening. At a local bar, she meets a guy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who soon will wind up dead, a condition we're led to believe he richly deserves.

No fair revealing more because Krudy and Savage, who also wrote the screenplay, fill the story with surprising (if not entirely shocking) twists as they bring a variety of townsfolk into focus.

Margo Martindale portrays the sly and powerful Enid Nora Devlin, the woman who runs the town’s bead and breakfast, which happens to be a brothel. Gayle Rankin appears as one of the young women who works for Enid. Will Brittain has a nice turn as the local cop who’s trying to get to the bottom of the story's foul proceedings.

June Squibb, Annette O’Toole and Marceline Hugot play three women who know everyone’s history and who form a kind of court in this Irish-American community. These actresses instantly convince us that their characters have known each other forever and understand the social calculus that keeps the town afloat.

The performances are all spot-on, and Krudy and Savage add enough New England atmospherics to create the right amount of chill. Oddball noir easily can get off track. To its credit, Blow the Man Down never derails.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 1 No 3 -- Guns, toilet paper and dystopian fears

So I read this sentence in The Los Angeles Times:

"Gun sales are surging in many U.S. states, especially in those hit hardest by the coronavirus — California, New York, and Washington. But there’s also been an uptick in less-affected areas, with some first-time gun buyers fearing an unraveling of the social order and some gun owners worried that the government might use its emergency powers to restrict gun purchases."

Now, I don't want to get into arguments about the Second Amendment and there are (or should be) more pressing issues right now than gun ownership. I know many responsible gun owners. I'm not anti-gun but I am anti-crazy.

When I read the LA Times article, I wondered how bad things could get. Should we anticipate roving bands of armed desperados hijacking people on their way home from their already fraught shopping expeditions.

I hope never to read this headline: "Man shot in toilet paper hijacking."

OK, so some folks think shortages caused by pandemic panic buying will bring out the worst in people. I hope they're wrong, and I've seen evidence to the contrary.

One of my neighbors left notes for folks in the neighborhood saying he'd be happy to help bring supplies to the elderly. No one asked him. No one pressed him into duty. He took the initiative on his own, and I'm sure his offer reassured those who are worried that they might not be able to leave home to obtain food or prescriptions.

I hope that that's a more typical story than any involving those who anticipate wholesale corruption of the moral order.

Still, movies should have prepared me for the worst. When's the last time you saw a dystopian movie about how well everyone behaved during a devastating shortage of water, food or other essentials?

The apocalypse according to Mr. Rogers? Don't hold your breath.

Maybe this is a time to hope that staying at least six feet away from others will worsen the aim of any potential deviants or, better yet, to prove that we're better than some of our movies.



Monday, March 16, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 1. No. 2 — Polis orders movie theater closures

As the uncertain march to an equally uncertain future continues, a few notes: Kudos to the Sie Film Center for closing until April 3 in response to the COVID-19 threat. Shutting a theater isn’t easy. It impacts audiences, release schedules and, of course, revenues. Revenues are particularly important to a non-profit film center. Closing couldn’t have been an easy decision for the staff and for the executives of the Denver Film Society. I know many of these people; they’re committed to advancing and protecting film culture. I know it hurts them not to be able to bring new movies to their audience. But public health is important and I hope that the commercial theater chains, which also would have to pay a heavy price to do the right thing, will follow suit. But, in this case, there seems to be a right thing to do.
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Later in the day, after I posted my initial item, Gov. Jared Polis ordered that all theaters in Colorado (movies and otherwise) be closed for 30 days. As much as I believe that this is a good policy decision and will help in efforts to flatten the coronavirus curve, I'm still trying to digest the strangeness of the moment. Most of us never have lived through a time when we couldn't go to a movie, eat at a restaurant or gather at a bar for a drink after work. No more hanging out at restaurants and bars for a while, either. One consolation: The popcorn is a hell of a lot cheaper if you make it at home before looking for something to watch on your favorite streaming service.
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I never thought I'd see the day. Universal Pictures Monday announced that it would release its movies on demand on the same day as those films are released theatrically. For more information, you can check out this story on Variety's Web site. Evidently, Universal hasn't decided how long this policy will be in force.
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In the more-depressing-news department, you may want to try the New York Times story, Movie Crowds Stay Away. Theaters Hope It's Not for Good.
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With theaters closed in New York City and Los Angeles, you have to wonder when we'll see the next major release. Those two cities constitute a big part of the moviegoing market. I can't imagine that the studios will want to give them up. Many studios would rather postpone than narrow the narrow or eliminate the window between theatrical and home release. Obviously, theater chains feel the same way.
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Coronavirus news moves too fast for any of us to keep pace, but so far, I haven't seen anything that I'd call good news.
I wish that weren't the case because all of us could use a lift.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 1, No. 1

As the coronavirus winds up to deliver its haymaker blow, I’m probably going to limit the number of crowded preview screenings I attend.

Some of those advance screenings already have been postponed, others may proceed as scheduled, but I’ve decided that it might be advisable for me not to put myself in a position in which I might contract a potentially fatal disease to write about, say, the latest Vin Diesel movie, Mr. Diesel not being an actor whose earlier cultural contributions are deeply pressed into my book of movie memories.

Yeah, it’s a long sentence but what else do you have to do in these days of social distancing and dread.

Look, I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Diesel. I think you get the point; there’s a limit to what should be risked to see a movie — any movie, really.

Now, I should point out that I’m in what’s being referred to as “the high-risk group.” I’ll be turning 77 soon. Shocked? How do you think I feel about becoming part of the population that the media refers to as “elderly?” Seems like only yesterday I was applying for Medicare.

This designation applies even though I don’t live in a nursing home or an assisted living facility and, in times that are less contagious, do not restrict myself from ordinary activities such as driving and gingerly turning pages in whatever book I happen to be reading. Mostly, I walk without falling over.

My customary regimen, by the way, does not include rigorous exercise, foods labeled “organic,” gluten-free products or total avoidance of processed sugar.

I don’t know where or when a random encounter might occur, but if you happen to see me on the street, please wave from a respectful distance of six feet. It may annoy others but any conversation we have will have to be carried out at high volumes, but such is the nature of the moment in which we live.

Besides, there’s a bright side. Think of the water we’ll conserve. How bad do you have to smell before someone can pick up your scent at six feet? Why shower every morning?

As we work our way through this crisis, I’ll do some movie reviewing. I’ll expand my reach occasionally to write about television and I’ll continue to issue reports from the depressed zone, by which I mean my psyche.

What? You’re not depressed about all this?

This is weekend one of stimulation deprivation. How do you think you’ll feel when, after two months, you've been unable to watch an NBA or NHL game or drink overpriced coffee at whatever outlet you frequent or watch a baseball game or sit comfortably in a sold-out theater or jog headlong into some leisurely walker in your favorite park?

When will you start yearning for the days when you could wait on a line at a grocery store without wondering about the person in front and behind you? When will you stop kicking yourself for not being prescient enough to invest in companies that make hand sanitizer?

For those of us in the “elderly” population, an extra degree of fear has arisen, the grim specter of becoming the victim of a Sophie’s Choice moment.

I’ve read news stories about how doctors in Italy are being forced to make life and death decisions about who gets treatment and who doesn't and that such a situation could arise on our increasingly walled-off shores.

I imagine myself lying on a pallet (are those someone else's bloodstains?) in some vast field house that has been dedicated to housing the gravely ill. I’ve been deposited there by burly volunteers in hazmat suits.

A 34-year-old doctor, still in the middle of his medical residency, approaches. He quickly surveys what remains of my gasping body before scanning the person next to me.

“Background,” he says dryly, as one of the men in a hazmat suit shuffles papers.

"Well, this gentleman on the right (that’s the other guy) is a 46-year-old who works for a high-tech company, belongs to a volunteer fire department, regularly donates blood, and, by the way, is the father of 13-year-old high-achieving twins, one of whom just won a national science contest."

“And this one?” he asks, barely looking up from his phone.

“He spent most of his adult life writing about movies at a newspaper that no longer exists and now writes on-line. If he drinks, he’s partial to vodka, Polish preferably. He’s part of the cohort we call the elderly or, as we in the triage trade like to say, the "expendables."

He points at me and intones, “Non respirator.”

He uses Latin to send me to my doom because it fits his status as a newly empowered master of life and death, this aforementioned 34-year-old who’s still doing his residency.

So what’s the decisive factor here? Overall health prior to contracting the virus? An assessment of social utility? Friends in high places? Or is it age?

If it’s age, two of our presidential candidates and the current president seriously should start thinking about what happens if someone rules that they should shuffle off their mortal coils. So should Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman, names I only include because I usually write about movies.

Sorry, Mery Streep, you're a septuagenarian, too.

OK, so you’re not in your 70s. Your immune system runs like that Tesla you're thinking about buying. You go to the gym. You’re so damn healthy you don't even get a flu shot. But, listen, you’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that the age scale will become lower and lower as the demand for treatment exceeds the resources necessary to deliver it.

The virus could get you, too, my young friends.

So, yes, be depressed. Be forlorn. Be as bored as you want about not be able to leave the house.

Where to turn? If you’re looking for something that captures the current mood, you might want to watch that half mordant, half sincere moment in David Lynch’s Eraserhead when the Lady in the Radiator sings, “In heaven everything is fine.”

Too weird?

Well, tell these are not weird times.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The liberals in 'The Hunt' are lethal

After a delay, this violent bit of pseudo-satire arrives in theaters.

The Hunt originally was scheduled to be released last September but was delayed after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. Violent and armed-to-the-teeth, Hunt has arrived and it’s safe to say that the movie doesn’t live up to its volatile hype.

The Hunt has one of those “what-if” premises. What if a group of liberal elites decided to join forces to hunt down and kill selected members of the various groups it finds “deplorable:" i.e, all those who fall short of the rigid political correctness standards supposedly espoused by liberals or who support an unnamed president who all elitists disdain?

As you might already have guessed, the movie matches its violence with cliches about both those it deems as champagne-sipping liberals and those it deems as backward bigots. Although presented for laughs, the stereotypes are drawn in too broad a fashion to have any real bite.

The Hunt also employs a blood-splattering level of violence, the sort of mayhem you expect from movies in which the carnage occupies the uneasy terrain between humor and repulsion.

The Hunt provides actress Betty Gilpin with a showcase opportunity and she makes the most of the it. Gilpin plays a badass woman who’s captured and hunted by the elites along with 11 others. It's all part of a lethal game. Kidnap the so-called "deplorables." Arm them for the sake of feigned fairness and then hunt them down like dogs.

Unlike her fellow sufferers, Gilpin has near superpowers when it comes to survival. The movie never shows Gilpin’s character spewing racist comments but relies on her southern accent to suggest that she might hold all the "lower-class" prejudices the movie seems to expect her to have.

Oddly, the movie turns Gilpin's Crystal into the only character for whom it's possible to root, which forces the screenplay to engage in some end-of-picture wriggling.

Director Craig Zobel (Compliance) keeps the movie zipping along, but the mixture of violence and humor and humorously depicted violence struck me as skin deep.

When Gilpin’s character squares off against the mysterious woman who runs the hunt (the actress who plays her probably is intended a surprise), the movie pretty much loses all traces of satire in favor of a no-holds-barred knife-wielding battle.

In the end, The Hunt expends most of its creative energy cooking up violent encounters; the rest, not nearly isn't as well thought out. Had The Hunt realized Gilpin’s full potential it might have jettisoned its superficial culture-wars BS and given us a female action hero worthy of a franchise.

An unlikely pair of business partners

First Cow takes some patience but its rewards are worth it.

Cookie and King Lu are as unlikely a pair of felons as you'll find in movies.

Frontiersmen in the Oregon Territory during the 19th Century, Cookie and King Lu team up to bake biscuits which they sell to locals. Their business runs smoothly and the biscuits — Cookie’s recipe — are great. There’s a catch, though. To make the biscuits, Cookie and King Lu rely on the milk they steal nightly from the area’s only cow.

Working in a style defined by a leisurely, restrained naturalism, director Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy) establishes an environment in which bathing is infrequent and life can be brutal. I don't mean to deter anyone from seeing Reichardt's First Cow, but she creates a mud-caked world in which you practically can smell the characters.

When we meet Cookie, he's working as a cook for a group of trappers who berate him for not finding anything more than mushrooms to eat. On one of his food searches, Cookie encounters King Lu, who's hiding naked in the woods. Cookie helps King Lu, who says he's fleeing a vengeful group of Russians. King Lu later returns the favor, inviting Cookie to share his ramshackle cabin.

By the time, Cookie and King Lu start sharing digs, Reichardt has deposited them at Fort Tillicum, a settlement populated by Native Americans and grizzled-looking white men. The local boss (Toby Jones) owns the cow that tempts Cookie and King Lu into their life of crime.

Reichardt doesn't see this odd-ball duo as criminals and neither will audiences. Cookie and King Lu are budding entrepreneurs. Lacking capital, they must be extra-enterprising about how to begin collecting their share of the great American profit stream.

The movie deals with prejudice and class differences without italicizing a point of view. As a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee) isn’t exactly greeted with open arms. He dreams of owning a farm. Cookie (John Magaro) has his own cockeyed ambition: He’d like to own a hotel with an adjoining bakery.

In a land where fistfights are as common as handshakes, Cookie and King Lu form an alliance that blossoms into a genuine friendship. They make a good team. With Cookie handling the baking and King Lu, the marketing, a thriving business develops even as the threat of exposure looms. We already know from the movie’s opening — set in the present — that Cookie and King Lu are fated to run into some bad luck as the tale unfolds in one lengthy flashback.

The conversations between Cookie and King Lu aren’t exactly memorable, but they have their own amusing rhythm.

First Cow requires a taste for cinema that’s in no hurry. It’s as if Reichardt wants us to feel the earth under Cookie’s boots and to understand that these men inhabit a historical moment when the passing of time felt different than it does today.

Reichardt’s approach allows for brief detours, odd moments that help make the movie memorable. Through an open window, for example, a captivated Cookie sees a Native American doing what looks like a North Woods form of Tai Chi.

At other times, the movie discovers absurd contrasts, notably Jones’s character and one of his guests chatting about what’s happening in Paris. Their discussion includes references to the colors currently dominating the Parisian fashion scene.

For Cookie and King Lu, such talk has about as much significance as a weather forecast for Mars. They do, however, know enough to realize that in this harsh world, some are faring better than others. Cookie and King Lu take a bit of getting used to, but they make for a memorable duo.

A former convict poses as a priest

The Polish movie Corpus Christi deals with philosophical issues while telling a down-to-earth story.
What are the essential qualities of being the leader of a church -- not of a whole religion, but of a single parish in rural Poland? Is ordination essential? Could the empathy and common sense of the man who functions as the town's priest be equally important — even if the young man posing a priest sometimes learns about Catholic ritual from the internet?

In Poland, a nation that's predominantly Roman Catholic, a movie such as director Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi, which poses all of the above questions, might have a different resonance than it does in the US. It occurred to me that Komasa wants his audience to at least ponder whether the "official" church hasn't lost touch with something more essential than priestly bona rides.

The story revolves around Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia). When the movie begins Daniel is being released from a juvenile detention center where he recently watched another prisoner being severely beaten. He's told that, as a former convict, he has no chance of being accepted into a seminary.

A priest (Lukasz Simlat) tells Daniel before he's released that there are many ways to serve other than being a priest. Good deeds aren’t the sole province of those wearing clerical collars.

The first order of business for Daniel upon being released from jail hardly qualifies as spiritual. He gets high and indulges in carnal pleasures unavailable in prison.

He then travels to a small town where he's been instructed to work at a sawmill as part of his rehabilitation. It doesn't take long before Daniel, who believes he has a calling, begins posing as a priest. He takes over the small parish when its priest takes a leave of absence for health reasons.

As it turns out, the town is going through a period of collective grieving. Seven of its younger residents were killed in a recent car crash. The town hasn't come to grips with questions of loss, responsibility, and blame.

As the story progresses, Daniel develops a relationship with Marta (Eliza Rycembel). Komasa keeps us on edge about where this relationship might be heading. We're conflicted. We don't know whether to root for consummation or hope that Daniel keeps his vows. But wait. We must remind ourselves that Daniel hasn't taken any vows.

A provocative premise provides Komasa with a ton of underlying tension. We wonder if and when Daniel will be exposed and if he is exposed what will happen to him.

Komasa ably blends philosophical and practical concerns and obtains a powerful performance from Bielenia, whose closely cropped hair and intense gaze make him look like a penitent or perhaps a religious mystic. He's neither. Daniel doesn't pretend to be a priest to hide from the law or to pilfer money from the collection box. He genuinely wants to minister to his flock and he has his own ideas about how to serve.

As the story unfolded, I began to grapple with an insoluble contradiction. Can there be such a thing as an impostor who's genuinely authentic?

Never reductive or sentimental, Corpus Christi deals with complex issues in a down-to-earth way that can be humorous, intense, and, above all, deeply human.



The Peter Pan story re-imagined

Wendy feels tipsy and offkey right from the start

Director Benh Zeitlin follows his much-admired Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) with Wendy, a newly imagined version of the Peter Pan story that feels too disarrayed to captivate.

This time, I was put off by Zeitlin's approach. He pushes us into scenes with close-ups, eschewing anything as orienting as an establishing shot. And as the story -- stocked by a cast of children -- unfolded I couldn't help wonder for whom Zeitlin had made this woozy film. Wendy could be too confusing for kids and too literal for adults who may find the screenplay's on-the-nose dialogue and obvious didacticism more deflating than uplifting.

Wendy (Devin France) lives with her mom (Shay Walker) and her twin brothers (Gavin and Cage Naquin) in a small Louisiana town where mom runs a diner located next to the railroad tracks.

Yashua Mack portrays Zeitlin's waif-like Peter Pan.

But let's begin at the beginning. After a short introduction to the diner and Wendy's home life, she and her brothers hop a freight. On an earlier night, Wendy had spotted Peter running ghost-like across the top of a passing train, leaping from car-to-car. Wendy may only be 10, but she's already wondering whether small-town life might be uneventful and boring. Where's the adventure? She's heard Peter's call of the wild.

Fable trumps logic and Wendy and her brothers wind up on a volcanic island where Peter and his crew of Lost Boys are committed to remaining young forever.

A glowing sea creature that the youngsters call "Mother" lives off the island's coast and seems to be the source of the boys' eternal youth.

But wait. It turns out loss can begin the aging process. When one of the twins vanishes, his broken-hearted sibling begins to age. One of his hands takes on the withered look of old age. Duly alarmed, he invites Peter to stop the onslaught of deterioration by cutting off the offending appendage.

Adults inhabit the island, too. These withered folks look like aging hippies and evidently were unable to maintain their perpetual youth. Lest the proceedings endorse romanticized notions of the way wildness dies when children begin to grow up, Zeitlin makes sure that Wendy learns that growing up also qualifies as an adventure, too -- perhaps the greatest adventure of all.

Images float by like boats unmoored from a dock as Zeitlin makes references to some of the trademark characters (Captain Hook, for example) of J.M. Barrie's original. The kids make a lot of noise and so does the movie, which includes underwater sequences, steaming geysers, and a volcano that long-ago erupted and killed most of the island's residents.

Focusing the film on Wendy gives the tale a girl's spin. It's not enough, even with numerous sequences that exalt in the joy of childhood play. Opinions surely will vary, but I'd call Wendy a sophomore misfire and leave it at that.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 3/13/90 -- Swallow and St. Francis

Swallow

If there’s a mental disorder to be found, the movies eventually will find it. Watching Swallow, a domestic nightmare of a movie, I learned about pica, the compulsion to swallow things that don’t belong in the human digestive system. As the story unfolds, an oppressed housewife (Haley Bennett) swallows objects as diverse as a marble, a double-A battery, a push pin, and a screwdriver. These objects pass through her system, often resulting in a bloody exit. As directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Swallow avoids disease of the week pieties; it's less a story about a woman with a mental disorder than a metaphoric look at a woman who’s being held prisoner by her marriage to a young businessman (Austin Stowell) whose life is run by his father and mother (David Rasche and Elisabeth Marvel). Sporting a Kewpie Doll hair cut and rosy cheeks, Bennett’s Hunter initially seems like a parody of a wife, a woman desperately trying to meet her husband's outmoded standards. Much of the movie takes place in the aggressively modern home Hunter shares with her affluent husband, the man who — at least in his view — rescued her from a retail job selling toiletries. The movie's pivotal event arrives when Hunter learns that she’s pregnant. If she has a child, her fate will be sealed. She’ll never escape her husband’s family’s clutches. Hunter’s in-laws try to obtain help for her disorder, but their objective has less to do with Hunter’s well-being than with maintaining the family’s pubic facade. Watching Hunter swallow the various objects that entice her proves difficult. Many will find themselves turning away from the screen. The screenplay puts a lot of weight (too much, perhaps) on a late-picture encounter between Hunter and a man (Denis O'Hare) who played an important role in the formation of her psyche. But Mirabella-Davis' ultra-composed images and Bennett's wide-eyed performance give Swallow an edge you won't soon forget.

Saint Frances

If you're squeamish about vaginal bleeding, you may not want to see Saint Frances, a movie about a nanny (Kelly O'Sullivan) who finds some confidence when she becomes involved with the two women who are parents to young Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), a charmingly assertive six-year-old girl. Then again, if you're a guy you might want to ask yourself why references to vaginal bleeding on screen should be any more unsettling than the copious amount of plasma spilled in the average action movie. As is the case with many current characters, O'Sullivan's 34-year-old Bridget is single and adrift. She meets a guy (Max Lipchitz) but doesn't want to formalize her relationship with him, even after she becomes pregnant. Frances parents,
a mixed-race lesbian couple played by Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), have problems of their own. Mojeku’s character works constantly and Alvarez’s character feels the strain of having a new baby in the home. Enter Bridget as the nanny who’s supposed to help relieve some of that stress so that Alvarez's character doesn't fall any deeper into postpartum depression. Bridget bonds with Frances and begins to feel a connection to her employers. Without over- or underplaying the moment, the movie takes a level-headed approach to Bridget's decision to have an abortion. Working from a screenplay by O'Sullivan, director Alex Thompson, ups the pressures on his characters until they reach a cathartic boiling point. I won't say that Saint Frances is a great movie but it succeeds in involving us with characters who are dealing with lots of problems — all at the same time. In the end, it’s probably best to view Saint Frances as a story about how women develop sustaining connections and what those connections can mean to each of them and to the group as a whole.



Thursday, March 5, 2020

Can he coach his way to sobriety?

Ben Affleck plays an alcoholic basketball coach who takes over a failing team.
An abysmal high school basketball team finds its footing when the school's alcoholic former star takes over coaching duties. Ben Affleck portrays Jack Cunningham, a man who peaked as a basketball player at Bishop Hayes High School and whose refrigerator now is stocked with beer. Jack spends his days working construction and his evenings at the local bar. When he showers, he places a can of beer where others might put a bottle of shampoo.

Director Gavin O’Connor, who previously directed Affleck in The Accountant, quickly establishes Jack’s dissolute life. Bearded and grim of temperament, Jack can be loving with his nieces and nephews but he clearly rages inside -- when he's not reeling in a woozy alcohol-induced haze.

Working in mostly somber tones, Gavin draws on Affleck’s deeply realized performance to anchor a movie that tries, perhaps a little too hard, to avoid the obvious moves we expect from a story about an underdog team overcoming great odds.

Jack returns to basketball when a priest (John Aylward) asks him to take over the school’s coaching duties from a man who recently suffered a heart attack. The team’s assistant coach (Al Madrigal) teaches math. He's burdened by too family responsibilities to be the head coach.

An unruly bunch, the Bishop Hayes team must learn discipline. Melvin Gregg plays the team’s tallest member, a kid who displays more confidence than his talent has earned. Kenny (Will Ropp) spends too much time flirting with coeds. Brandon Wilson portrays the player with the most talent. Jack must convince the kid that he can lead the team to success.

But the players, many from tough backgrounds, play second fiddle to Jack’s alcoholism. O’Connor skimps on game footage, preferring to show the sidelines where a hot-tempered Jack spews profanity at the refs. We never really learn a lot about how Jack schools the team: O'Connor presents Jack's coaching in incendiary flashes.

We learn the reason for Jack’s bitterness when the movie expands to introduce us to Jack’s estranged wife and his immediate family, scenes that might easily have been sacrificed to give the kids on Jack's team more off-the-court presence.

The Way Back isn’t likely to join Hoosiers as one of the great high school basketball movies. The movie is too committed to the grim realities of Jack’s alcoholism to swell with feel-good notes.

But credit Affleck with making Jack’s torments feel real. Basketball rivalries aside, the inescapable battle here is between Jack and the bottle.






Two black men outsmart a racist system

Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson play men who learned how to play a rigged game and win -- at least for a while..

Toward the end of The Banker, Joe Morris — a streetwise nightclub owner played by Samuel L. Jackson — explains why he has joined forces with brainy Bernard Garrett, Jr. (Anthony Mackie) in a plan to circumvent race restrictions and get rich in real estate.

“The game is fun, even when it’s rigged,” says Joe.

When The Banker, which is based on a true story, sticks to Joe's idea, it’s both informative and entertaining. Both Jackson and Mackie are in fine form as very different men who become partners out of necessity. As a black man, Mackie’s Garrett can’t raise sufficient money to enter the real estate game in Los Angeles during the 1950s. Thwarted by the financial establishment, Garrett turns to Morris for financing.

Although he claims to trust no one, Morris becomes involved. He believes in Garrett’s confidence and in his demonstrated ability to master the mathematics required to succeed in real estate.

The movie acquires additional social meaning when Garrett devises a plan to break the color barrier. He’ll school a white laborer (Nicholas Hoult) in how to play the part of a wealthy entrepreneur. Hoult’s Matt Steiner becomes a student with two teachers. Garrett tries to bring him up to speed in math; Morris teaches him how to play golf so that he can associate with the country-club crowd.

Steiner will play a role similar to a ventriloquist's dummy while an unseen Garrett pulls the strings. Garrett and Morris will own everything; Steiner will be an employee.

As the story develops, Garrett also uses his success to engage his social conscience. He rents and sells homes to black buyers in formerly white neighborhoods. He knows that a burgeoning black market can make his plans work.

All goes well until Garrett decides to buy a bank in the highly segregated Texas town where he grew up. Again using Steiner as a front, Garrett purchases the Mainland Bank and begins loaning money to aspiring black businessmen — on the QT, of course. A wary Morris reluctantly goes along.

Every story needs an arc, so we’re pretty sure that Garrett and Morris will hit some major snags, most relating to Texas-style racism. The town's white population would be appalled if they learned that two black men owned the town's bank. How long can Garrett and Morris remain invisible?

Morris proves himself a master of wily pragmatism, posing as Steiner’s chauffeur so that he can keep on eye on his charge. At one point, Garrett’s devoted wife (Nia Long) poses as a cleaning woman so she can observe Steiner, who eventually begins to confuse his faux prowess with the real thing.

Without Garrett's genius, Steiner's bound to mess things up.

Strongest as a commentary on how entrenched racism kept blacks from accumulating wealth, The Banker, director George Nolfi eventually allows the story to bog down in the details of deals that led to Garrett and Morris's undermining. They eventually did jail time.

But Mackie and Jackson never are anything less than convincing as a savvy odd-couple that wouldn't take "no" for an answer. The key: If the front door is locked, look for another way in.

Of course, the overall point trumps the movie's slyer observations: The doors to success never should have been locked in the first place. Or as Joe might have put it: The game shouldn't have been rigged in ways that worked against the smart, well-prepared Garrett from achieving his goals.

A KKK zealot finds a measure of redemption

In Burden, a member of the Ku Klux Klan finds redemption when he encounters a black preacher for whom the Klansman poses an extreme test of love and forgiveness. That sounds interesting and, at times, Burden fulfills its promise. Overall, though, the movie — set in a small South Carolina town in 1996 and based on a true story — takes obvious aim at white supremacy and makes us wonder whether the redemption of a Klansman is worth more attention than the stories of those victimized by the organization's hate. Garrett Hedlund gives the year’s twitchiest performance as Mike Burden, a Klansman who earns his living repossessing TVs. Mike is part of a Klan faction that has decided that what his town needs is a KKK museum. A local black clergyman (Forest Whitaker) leads protests against the museum. The museum's founder, a Klan honcho played by Tom Wilkinson, raised the orphaned Mike on a diet of supremacist ideology and white rancor. Director Andrew Heckler doesn’t explain Mike’s distracting shuffle and bobblehead movements until late in the movie, too late to keep them from driving us crazy. Mike’s reformation begins when he meets Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a young mother who has no use for the Klan. Her son plays with black children, just as Mike did when he was a kid. Heckler’s unsteady direction works against involvement in a story that spends too much time in KlanWorld. Tensions between Whitaker’s Reverend David Kelly and his son deserved more attention and I left unconvinced by the movie's suggestion that love conquers hate. How about fair laws, rigorous enforcement, and public condemnation? Just sayin'. Though intermittently effective, Burden stands as an anecdote straining to carry a larger message.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 2/6/20 -- Extra Ordinary and Greed

Extra Ordinary
I can’t tell you how little I wanted to see another movie that deals with demons and ghosts — that is until I saw Extra Ordinary, an Irish movie with the good sense not to take itself (or its subject) seriously. Irish comedienne Maeve Higgins plays Rose Dooley, a woman who hides her paranormal gifts by working as a driving instructor. Rose comes by her powers naturally; her late father (Risteard Cooper) made his mark as a man who could commune with ghosts. Enter Martin (Barry Ward), a widower who can’t get rid of his late wife’s ghost. Martin’s daughter (Emma Coleman) gives her father an ultimatum: Either find an exorcist or she’s going to split. Rose initially resists Martin's request for help, but signs on after Coleman’s character falls prey to a once-popular musician (Will Forte) who’s trying to make a Faustian bargain to restore his popularity. The musician's foul plan involves the sacrifice of a virgin. In their debut outing, directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman give Extra Ordinary the right twisted spin. An adept cast makes the ridiculous amusing as Extra Ordinary takes supernatural flight. Alfred Hitchcock often found amusement in the way his characters were forced to deal with corpses. Ahern and Loughman do the same — only with the body of Martin’s levitated daughter. Enjoy.

Greed

Director Michael Winterbottom and actor Steve Coogan, collaborators on the Trip series of comic travelogues, again team for Greed, a satirical look at a wealthy man who uses the fashion business to finance a series of businesses that keep him in cash even when they fail. Sporting a set of gleaming predatory choppers, Coogan plays Sir Richard McCreadie, an entrepreneur who also happens to be an unredeemable jerk. Winterbottom sets the story against the backdrop of Mykonos, an island paradise where McCreadie is preparing for his massive 60th birthday party, complete with the creation of a mini-coliseum -- lion included. The guests will wear (what else?) togas. The story skips around in time to show us how McCreadie evolved from a conniving kid to a greedy adult. It’s impossible to watch Greed without thinking about movies such as The Big Short and Laundromat, both of which took better aim at corporate avarice and wealth disparity. A group of Syrian refugees camped on the beach in front of McCreadie’s island digs presumably is meant to expand the movie's social reach. No faulting the cast, but this is well-worn material, presented by Winterbottom with comic buoyancy that also feels familiar. Oddly, the end credits — which detail the vast gap between underpaid garment workers and the companies that profit from their labor — proves the affecting part of the movie.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

When a woman's abuser can't be seen

Elisabeth Moss dominates a smart new version of The Invisible Man.
Her antagonist may be invisible, but the same can't be said for Elisabeth Moss. The actress dominates nearly every scene of The Invisible Man, a #MeToo-influenced take on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells.

The setup: Brilliant scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has been abusing his wife, Moss's Cecilia. After Cecilia leaves him in the movie's pulse-pounding prolog, Adrian feigns his death. The twist: He's able to make himself invisible so that he can torment Cecilia. He refuses to let her go.

As Adrian begins to make his invisible presence felt, director Leigh Whannell creates plenty of high tension, punctuated by a few nicely placed jumps scares.

There's no mystery about what's happening to Cecilia, but Whannell wrings suspense out of Cecilia's situation: She can't convince anyone else that her former husband isn't dead. We're left to wonder when and how Mr. Invisible will strike next.

The screenplay, also by Whannell, adds some tasty complications. Turns out that Adrian's lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman) is the executor of the scientist's estate. He tells Cecilia that she's been left $5 million by Adrian, money that will be doled out in $100,000 installments.

Although the focus remains on Cecilia, additional characters turn up. Harriet Dyer plays Cecilia's sister, a woman with whom Cecilia hasn't always gotten along. Aldis Hodge portrays James, a cop who takes Cecilia into his suburban home when she's fleeing her husband. James' teenage daughter (Storm Reid) bonds with Cecilia. Reid's character wants to study design. Cecilia is an architect by trade.

Strong atmospherics add to the gathering unease. Whannell turns his camera into a stalker, giving us the Invisible Man's point of view at times when it's most frightening. He skillfully deals with the standard elements of horror, a scene in which Cecilia enters an attic in hopes of confronting her nemesis.

Scenes in the mental institution where Cecilia eventually finds herself are chilling and give Moss an opportunity for some Grand Guignol theatrics.

Moreover, Adrain's house -- the place where he maintains his lab -- is a tour de force of icy modernism, full of sleek surfaces that give you the impression that in Adrian's house, nothing has ever been misplaced. Adrian hasn't allowed an ounce of warmth to penetrate his retreat.

Now, it would be misleading if I didn't tell you that the story falters here and there and the whole idea of building a movie around the notion that someone has mastered the art of becoming invisible remains ... well ... preposterous.

But Whannell, who acted in the Saw movies and who wrote and directed Upgrade, clearly has chops for this kind of movie. He also demonstrates that he's paid attention to Alfred Hitchcock's understanding of how to create a menacing mood.

Now, I said that the movie seems like a spawn of the #MeToo moment. That's true -- and also obvious. It's worth pointing out an irony, though. Many of those accused of sexually and psychologically abusing women hardly could be called invisible. They were protected by their visibility and power.

OK, so The Invisible Man doesn't plumb every inch of metaphoric depth contained in its principal conceit. But Moss and Whannell serve up enough chills to make the movie as effective as James Whale's 1933 version. and unlike many wise-ass forays into the pop-cultural closet, The Invisible man wastes no time winking at us. It's smart enough to take itself seriously, which makes it easy for us to follow suit.

When life becomes a very tall order

A Russian movie shows post-war devastation. That may not sound like fun, but Beanpole should be seen.

When Americans think of the end of World War II, we often see a country buoyed by victorious elation, a precursor moment to the boom years that followed.

The experience in Russia was quite different. Partly because much of the war was fought on Russian soil, the country's devastation was far greater than anything that America experienced.

We get a stark picture of just how bad things were in director Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole, a movie so steeped in the deprivations of post-war Leningrad that it carries nearly unbearable weight. I say that hoping that it won't deter you from seeing Balagov's artfully created story. Some movies should be hard to take.

Beanpole tells the story of two women who were warriors together during the war. Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a tall woman who was sent home after receiving a concussion during the fighting. When the movie opens, Beanpole works in a hospital that treats badly wounded soldiers. She lives in a communal apartment with her young son Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). Sometimes, perhaps as a result of wartime trauma, Beanpole freezes, immobilized in the middle of chaos. If that weren't enough, her height makes her stand out in any gathering.

Despite her afflictions, Beanpole carries on a cheerful relationship with a paralyzed soldier (Konstantin Balakirev) who has no hope of recovering his mobility. The hospital's administrator (Andrey Bykov) can't conceal his weariness. He's overwhelmed by daily suffering he can't escape, but he looks out for Beanpole, whose real name is Iya. He offers her food so that her young son can escape the ravages of malnutrition. He longs for the days when all he did was treat simple hernias.

At one point, Iya brings young Pashka to the hospital. The soldiers play a game with the boy, asking him to mimic animals. Bark like a dog they suggest when the boy hesitates. How can he bark like a dog, one man asks? He's never seen a dog. They've all been eaten.

What happens next not only proves shocking but so deeply tragic that you may find yourself refusing to believe it. Balagov doesn't dwell on this agonizing moment. But we've already learned a hard truth. Even after the guns have gone silent, there's enough death in Leningrad to turn the city into a kind of morgue. And those who have survived can seem like the walking dead, pinched souls who have seen so much horror they've numbed themselves.

It doesn't take long for Masha (an amazing Vasilisa Perelygina) to turn up. She served with Iya at the front and seems eager -- too eager perhaps -- to satisfy her sexual cravings. Balagov reveals the nature of the bond between Masha and Iya, another surprise that's best discovered in a theater.

But know that as the two women try to adjust to post-war life, they'll encounter more than a few problems. A young man pursues Masha, eventually bringing her home to meet his parents in an excruciating scene in which the parents treat her like a social outcast. Don't fret, Masha can give as good as she gets.

For her part, Iya agrees to a scheme to make up for a loss in Masha's life. I don't think it qualifies as a spoiler to tell you that the plan, which I won’t describe here, doesn't work.

Beanpole delivers a shattering blow that reminds us that the price of war doesn't stop just because peace has been declared. Gifted and clear-eyed, Balagov proves that an anti-war movie needn’t be set on the battlefield.

Another ‘Emma’ reaches the big screen

An aggressively well-appointed version of a Jane Austen novel gets the job done.
We hardly need an introduction to Emma, the title character of Jane Austen's 1816 novel. The young woman was the subject of a well-received 1996 Douglas McGrath movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Even greater numbers of viewers probably are familiar with Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which starred Alicia Silverstone in a smartly conceived, high-school updating of Austen’s story.

Other Emmas have come and gone and some adventurous souls may even have read Austen’s novel. But Austen never seems to lose her appeal, which may explain why we now get director Autumn de Wilde’s 21st Century addition to the Austen big-screen canon.

De Wilde's Emma stars Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Glass) as the smugly self-assured Emma, a young woman who has lived in happy isolation from life’s harder knocks.

For reasons that I couldn’t entirely discern, de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt decided to present the movie in a kind of strange way. Everything about the movie’s settings and costumes seems perfect, yet nothing seems entirely right. It may be pushing the point but it’s as if we’ve landed in a theme park devoted to the novelist’s work. Think Austenworld, where visitors are separated from the exhibits by velvet ropes.

If the approach was meant to heighten the cloistered rigidity of the world Austen observed, it becomes superfluous. Austen was no satirist, but she needed no help in pointing out the pretensions, social limitations, and hypocrisies of her characters.

Thankfully, Austen’s attempts to humble Emma -- making her aware that the world may not revolve around her -- remains. Better yet, the secondary roles are well-cast, from Bill Nighy as Emma’s constantly fretting father to Miranda Hart’s annoyingly loquacious but well-meaning Miss Bates to Mia Goth’s Harriet, a young woman who falls prey to Emma’s thoughtless manipulations.

Early on, Emma dissuades Harriet from marrying Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a farmer who makes an obviously perfect match for her. Not good enough, says Emma as she sets Harriet up for disappointment.

Such is Emma’s issue; her faith in her own judgment blinds her to the feelings of others.

The key role of Mr. Knightley goes to Johnny Flynn, who brings hunky appeal to the character and who has the distinction of being the only Knightley in the story’s long history to be given a rear-view nude scene.

Austen’s story revolves around misdirected romance and signals that are misread, some involving Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and the supposedly irresistible Frank Churchill (Callum Turner).

The key scenes — Miss Bates’ humiliation by Emma, for example — work well and Austen’s idea that love must be earned with expressions of good moral character survives. Besides, it's reassuring to see that, even with limited screen time, the ever-resourceful Nighy refuses to be held prisoner by a costume so constricting it made me uncomfortable just looking at it. (See photo above.)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

‘Call of the Wild’ goes digital

It may not be a dog but this adaptation of a Jack London novel stakes out a mediocre claim.
In The Call of the Wild, an adaptation of a classic Jack London story, the heroic dog at the center of the movie has become a digital creation. But it’s not only the dog that doesn’t seem real. The same goes for the Yukon town where the dog — Buck — winds up and for much of the movie’s romanticized sentiment. In Alaska, Buck learns to become a true part of nature, joining forces with wolves and creating a family.

Harrison Ford takes the starring human role; he’s John Thornton, a man who has fled to the Yukon after the death of his young son wrecked his marriage and his life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When we first meet Buck, he belongs to a judge in a small California town. Banished to the judge's porch, the unruly Buck is stolen and shipped to Alaska, the wilderness where a gold rush has created a growing need for sled dogs.

Initially, Buck is trained to pull sleds by a mailman played by Omar Sy. Sy's character travels with a woman (Cara Gee), who seems to around so that she can fall through thin ice and be rescued by the always heroic Buck.

Buck becomes a leader among the mail-service dogs but eventually loses his status when the government suspends mail delivery to remote towns that are hundreds of miles apart.

Harrison's Thornton immediately appreciates the dog's finer nature but only reluctantly forms a bond with Buck. Meanwhile, a wealthy man in search of even more wealth (Dan Stevens) tries to exploit Buck. Steven’s character becomes a classic boo-hiss villain.

The story goes exactly where you'd expect as Buck and Thornton begin life in the woods, but this version lacks the kind of grit we might expect from a story by London. It feels bloodless.

Heavyweight cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Post) does justice by the Alaskan scenery and it's no surprise that Ford holds the screen. But even Ford can’t elevate this one from the mediocrity to which its tethered — or should I say leashed.

The dog’s movements reportedly were created in motion-capture by Terry Notary, who's known for his creation of animal movements. He does good work but I seldom forgot that I was looking at a digital creation rather than a living, breathing slobbering animal.

Call of the Wild did make me think about the advantages of digital dogs, though. They don't poop. They don't throw up on the rug. They don't need to be walked. Vet bills are negligible.

Unconvinced? Me too. Both on-screen and off, real dogs are better.

A portrait becomes a gateway to love

Portrait of a Lady on Fire immerses in a woman's point of view
There might be no greater difficulty in portrait painting — particularly in the days before photography — than a subject who refuses to sit, someone who doesn’t want to be pinned to canvas for as long as the painting lasts. Consider that when watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a romantic story about a love affair between two women, one a painter, the other the subject of her painting.

Having said that, I think it would be a mistake to look at director Celine Sciamma’s movie as a deep reflection on the painter’s art. Judging by the portraits we see in the movie, the story’s main artist hardly qualifies as an undiscovered master.

So if the movie isn’t about painting, what is it about?

I’d say that it’s about two women, each weighing the potential in the other before committing to a sexual relationship. Because the movie takes place on a remote island where there are no men, Sciamma achieves a kind of pristine isolation. For most of its 121-minute running time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire becomes a laboratory in which two actresses and the director try to see what happens when the currently out-of-vogue male gaze vanishes.

How could it be otherwise? Aside from a few intrusions, the cast consists entirely of women who have been directed by a woman.

The setup: Marianne (Noemie Merlant) has been hired by a French countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of the countess’ daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). An unseen male — an Italian nobleman who is considering marrying Heloise — has requested the portrait. Presumably, he wants to inspect the merchandise before consummating the purchase.

A reluctant Heloise has resisted her mother’s efforts to obtain such a painting, having totally frustrated the previous artist who tried to paint her portrait. To get the job done, Heloise’s mother concocts a ruse. Marianne will pose as a companion hired to take walks with Heloise. During these excursions, Marianne will observe Heloise. She'll then retreat to her room to paint.

At first, this observation must be done slyly. But it’s also clear that Heloise wants to take the measure of her companion. If you look at the movie as a courtship, it becomes clear that these women are feeling each other out. They’re making assessments. Both actresses handle this period of evaluation with exceptional precision.

Sciamma introduces a bit of a story. Marianne arrives on the island in a storm-tossed sea in which her canvases are thrown into the drink. She dives in after the canvases, which are crated in a large wooden box. Left on the beach, she must haul her canvases up a steep hill to the countesses’ home.

As the story unfolds, Sciamma introduces historical context. We’re in a time when it was difficult for women to establish themselves in the male-dominated art world. At one point, Marianne says that women artists have been kept away from the great subjects, a way of trivializing their work.

The fact that Heloise is a character of mystery and opinion becomes the movie’s saving grace. It soon becomes clear that she won’t cooperate with Marianne unless she feels the two are on an equal footing. She's quick to figure out what Marianne is doing and she rejects the painter's first effort as being too restricted by convention. She wants to participate in determining how she will be portrayed.

Marianne eventually follows this lead — and the two wind up on as much equal footing as can exist between an artist and her subject.

All of this takes place in a sparse environment. Sciamma uses little music and emphasizes natural sound, the creak of shoes on exposed wooden floors, for example. Cinematographer Clare Mathon lights the interiors in ways that fit a period when the best light existed before the sun went down.

It takes time for the sexual relationship between Marianne and Heloise to reach the screen. After an initial encounter (not depicted), we see the two of them in bed. Their nudity makes for the least strained scene in the movie. They share an intoxicating substance (presumably marijuana obtained from one of the women on the island). Freed from bodice-heavy clothing, they finally seem unbound by the constraints of their time.

Moments of female solidarity can be found. Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who works as a maid on the estate becomes pregnant. Marianne and Heloise help her to obtain an abortion from one of the women on the island, a strange scene in which both Marianne and Heloise are present and which takes place with Sophie lying on a bed with a toddler, a child of the abortionist or perhaps a child in her care.

Initially, Marianne looks away, but Heloise insists that she not avert her gaze, perhaps a way of showing what it means for a woman to take control of her body. I’m not sure.

Much of the movie unfolds after Golino’s character has left the island, leaving Marianne and Heloise to live in relative freedom. At one point, they join a group of women on the beach who are engaged in a strange ritual that’s mysterious — if a bit cryptic.

Now, I have to confess that all this gazing between Marianne and Heloise can become a bit dull, even repetitive. Moreover, the movie’s mixture of gothic elements, melodrama, and naturalism doesn't always work.

But the movie’s ending has emotional power. When Marianne returns to society, the appearance of men feels almost shocking. She’s back in a world that has little use for her work, although she now has an enriched inner life. Portrait of a Lady On Fire tells the story of a moment in two lives, a big moment.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A mobster turns agains the mob

Director Marco Bellocchio tells a detailed story about one of Italy’s great mafia trials.
We haven't exactly been suffering from a shortage of mafia movies but director Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor is a Cosa Nostra movie with a difference. Bellocchio centers his story on a real-life figure -- Tommaso Buscetta, the Sicilian gangster who in the 1980s made history when he testified against his former brothers in crime.

Not surprisingly, Buscetta’s foes thought he was a rat. But Buscetta, played with commanding power by Pierfrancesco Favino, maintained that he had remained loyal to the governing ethos of Cosa Nostra. He believed that the mob's entry into the heroin trade had helped plunge it into levels of brutality that went beyond anything that might be justified by loyalty or business.

When the movie begins, two rival Sicilian families meet in Palermo to forge a truce. Buscetta’s group reaches an accord with the Corleone mob, a group named for the Sicilian town where its operation has its headquarters. After the truce, which no one seems to take seriously, Buscetta heads to Brazil, where he also conducts business. He hopes to escape whatever bloodbath will follow.

The "peace" negotiations involved Buscetta's family. One of Buscetta's sons from a previous marriage had become addicted to heroin. The addicted son and his brother weren't supposed to be harmed after Buscetta left the country. Fat chance.

Buscetta eventually was arrested in Rio. The police dangled his third wife (Christina Fernanda Candido) from a helicopter while he was made to watch from another chopper. The presumably cornered, Buscetta had a change of heart. He was extradited to Italy, where he decided to testify against the mafia.

As the story unfolds, Buscetta develops a respectful relationship with the prosecutor who was trying to bring down the mob. The prosecutorial team was led by Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), an attorney who later lost his life in a mob-engineered explosion.

After his initial testimony, Buscetta and his wife (safe after her helicopter torment) were sent to the US and placed in the witness protection program. But Buscetta's grudging respect for Falcone led to his return to Italy to help nail Salvatore Riina (Nicola Cali), the head of the Corleone faction.

Rina prides himself on propriety and family values but turns out to be one of the more vicious members of Cosa Nostra. Buscetta hates what he sees as Riina’s s hypocrisy.

But make no mistake. Buscetta is no angel. He's less interested in doing the right thing than in finding a path on which he can take vengeance against former cohorts and save his own skin. He's never less than unremittingly tough.

Bellocchio tells the story with flashbacks and courtroom scenes. In the courtroom, the mobsters who were about to be convicted based on Buscetta’s testimony were held in cells at the back of the room. They had no interest in decorum and frequently shouted profanities at their accuser.

Bellocchio isn’t interested in following a mob-movie blueprint. He’s telling a real story, which may have more meaning to Italian audiences than to the American art-house crowd. He covers a long period. Italy’s famed mafia trails lasted six years - from 1986 to 1992. That makes The Traitor a kind of procedural epic.

It may take a few scenes for audiences to settle into the movie, but Bellocchio has taken an unblinkered look at a man who helped make the mob and ultimately decided to bring it down.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 2/14/20 -- The Woman Who Loves Giraffes and Olympic Dreams

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes
Even as a child, Anne Innis Dagg loved giraffes. Dagg becomes the subject of director Alison Reid's The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, a documentary about Innis' life that conflates biography with the story of how giraffes are becoming an endangered animal. After college, Dagg traveled to South Africa where she was able to observe giraffes and keep detailed records of their behavior. She became an expert on giraffes and tried to parley her knowledge into a professorship at The University of Guelph in Canada. She was denied tenure. Reid couples the story of giraffes with Dagg's struggle to establish herself in a zoology world ruled by men. Without the benefit of a university attachment, she was left to fight a legal battle with the university and to write independently. Fortunately, Reid had access to 16 mm footage that Dagg shot in 1956, the year of her first trip to Africa. If you're interested in wildlife and would like to see it preserved, Reid's documentary has plenty to offer. It also works as the biography of a woman who followed her interests and refused to be deterred by misogyny. And, yes, the giraffes are fascinating to observe.

Olympic Dreams

This unsatisfying romantic comedy takes place against the backdrop of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Director Jeremy Teicher sets his story at the real games which make this a case in which the movie's background seems more interesting than its principal characters. Alexi Pappas, who competed in the 2016 Olympics as a long-distance runner, plays Penelope a cross-country skier from the US. Nick Kroll portrays Ezra, a dentist who has volunteered to work at the Olympics. The need for dentistry seems negligible, which means Ezra has a lot of free time. So does Penelope who loses early and is left to wander around the grounds with nothing much in mind. The two meet and talk (uninterestingly, I'm afraid) as Teicher's cameras wander through the Olympic village and later the city of Pyeongchang. Neither Penelope nor Ezra are particularly intriguing and the movie crosses the finish line without creating much by way of romantic charge. Nor does it really explore the alienation and need that can arise when people are adrift in unfamiliar surroundings.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

It’s all ‘Downhill’ from here

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star in an American remake of a much better Swedish movie.
What didn’t make sense in 2014’s Force Majeure, a film from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund, makes even less sense in Downhill, an American remake starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. Though still set in Europe, this American version suffers from one of the worst things that can happen to a film: indecision about what it wants to be.

Hovering in limbo between comedy and drama, Downhill won't be helped by audience expectations. Both Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are gifted comic actors and you can’t fault an audience for expecting some major laughs, particularly when the film’s trailer plays up moments that can be read as comedy.

At heart, though, Force Majeure was a film about a failing marriage. It explored issues of manhood and fatherhood and tried to understand the mentality of a middle-aged man who was drifting away from his wife and two children. That movie’s darkly comic elements have absorbed too much sunlight in this meager translation. Though brightened, the comic moments feel as slushy as melting snow.

The dynamic of a troubled marriage remains in directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s version of the film, but it has lost the subtle flavors that helped elevate Force Majeure.

As with the original, the story revolves around a pivotal event. Louis-Dreyfus’ Billie and Ferrell’s Pete are the mother and father of an American family that has traveled to Europe to ski and regroup.

On a break from the slopes, Billie and Pete are having lunch with their two young sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford). An explosion is heard in the distance. A controlled avalanche has been set off, not an unusual occurrence at ski resorts.

Suddenly, though, a large cloud of snow descends on the restaurant. It doesn’t look as if it's going to stop. Those dining on the outdoor deck where the family is eating scream in panic. Ferrell’s Pete grabs his phone and runs, leaving his family behind.

As it turns out, everyone’s safe but major questions linger. Why did Pete run? What did his flight mean? Can his marriage survive this act of cowardice? Should it?

Initially, Pete tries to downplay his behavior. Everyone’s fine. What’s the big deal?

The growing tension between Billie and Pete proves as annoying as it is revealing with Louis-Dreyfus drawing sharper lines than Ferrell, whose character often seems a trifle pathetic. The fact that Ferrell is considerably taller than Louis-Dreyfuss creates a kind of jarring visual contrast that doesn’t help, either.

The story introduces a few supporting characters. Zach Woods and Zoe Chao play a touring couple. Pete knows Woods' character from the States. Eager to escape the routine of a family trip, Pete asks the couple to visit. The blind-sided Billie doesn't want company. She views the trip as an opportunity for the family to renew bonds that were fraying in the wake of Pete's grief over his father's recent death.

Miranda Otto shows up as a concierge, an out-sized bombshell of a character who espouses sexual freedom; Otto's Charlotte splashes through the movie like a tipped-over can of paint.

Individually, Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell do some interesting things, but both struggle to find the right rhythm for material that’s not sure whether to go for laughs or dive into the messy world of a foundering marriage. Not surprisingly, Downhill doesn't do much of either.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 2/14/20 -- A fallen Russian oligarch and a very eccentric woman

Citizen K
Convoluted and full of intrigue, director Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K opens a window into post-Soviet Russia. Not surprisingly, the air that blows in is tainted by corruption. Gibney focuses on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a dethroned oligarch who served 10 years in a Russian prison on charges of tax evasion. Khodorkovsky, who now lives in London, has become a vocal critic of the Putin regime. Khodorkovsky’s fortune was built on oil and, at one point, he was the richest man in Russia. He bought up Siberian oil fields at bargain prices as he built a fortune of $16 billion. The 56-year-old Khodorkovsky serves as our principal guide through a story that Gibney lays out in detail. Khodorkovsky, by the way, is a very rich dissident; he’s supposedly worth about $500-million, a demotion from the upper tiers of super wealth but enough to stave off worries about paying the rent. Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) isn’t about to let the wily Khodorkovsky rule the movie’s roost. The director's voice-over narration, along with additional interviews, gives the film an independent voice. Khodorkovsky now runs an organization called Open Russia, which tries to support opposition to Putin. I don’t know what to make of Khodorkovsky, but if you’re looking for insight into how Russia operates, Citizen K makes for a start, particularly at a time when Putin’s Russia figures so prominently in our news.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Eccentricity can be irresistible — so long as you don’t have to live with it. I thought about that as I watched Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. Stokes, who died in 2012 at the age of 83, was the ultimate tape-head. She used VCRs, as many as eight at a time running 24 hours a day, to record every television show that aired in Philadelphia, the city where she lived. She carried out this activity for 30 years as she made the transition from a Communist activist in the 1950s to a reclusive woman who began hoarding newspapers, books and various versions of Apple computers. Stokes needed eight apartments to store all of her stuff. No person is entirely comprehensible, but Stokes seems more inscrutable than most. Her second marriage to John Stokes -- a man with whom she once hosted a public access TV show -- created a cocoon in which she was able to pursue her interests, which had something to do with the way media informs (and perhaps controls) perception. A librarian by trade, Stokes created a catalog of the evolving nature of television news. Director Matt Wolf interviews Michael Metelits, Stokes' son from a first marriage, as well several people who worked for her in her later years. Whatever you make of Stokes, it’s impossible not to get caught up in her story, which means living in her world for the movie’s length. Clips from Stokes’ collection are seen throughout, turning this weird but rewarding movie into a kind of review of 30 years of history. And, yes, you'll learn what happened to all of Stokes' tapes.

When sexual abuse is normalized

The Assistant takes us inside a movie production company where the boss is a sexual predator.
If you’ve followed Harvey Weinstein’s New York trial, you’ve read about women who say they were sexually assaulted by the former movie mogul. You’ve also probably seen plenty of stories that deal with the #MeToo movement in other areas; sadly, we’ve grown accustomed to a steady stream of news about women who’ve suffered sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men.

With The Assistant, director Kitty Green dives into the MeToo pool, but with the kind precision that only can be bred by minute observation. Unlike the splashier star-driven Bombshell, which looked at the women who helped bring down Roger Ailes at Fox News, The Assistant marries its larger themes to the quotidian details of life on the job. Green sets her story in the modest offices of an independent but evidently successful movie company.

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It's clear from the start that the boss's authoritarian demands have been incorporated into the psyches of his employees. He expects his assistant (Julia Garner) to arrive early, turn on the lights and do menial chores designed to remind her of her lowly status. Green doesn't have to say it, but the message is clear: People will put up with a lot to feel as if they're part of the movie business.

Garner brings a sense of unease and palpable uncertainty to the role of a character who's trying to keep her head above water. When Garner's Jane finds an earring on the floor of the boss’s office, she can't ignore the fact that she’s working in a place where women may be expected to do more than recite lines when they audition for parts. Moreover, the boss’s lusts aren’t confined to actresses with aspirations.

When a young woman from Boise (Kristine Froseth) shows up to become another assistant, she’s taken to a fancy Manhattan hotel. Garner’s Jane knows that the newcomer is prey.

A pivotal scene finds Jane meeting with the company’s head of human resources (Matthew Macfayden) to express her fears about the safety of the newly arrived employee. Initially sympathetic, he twists Jane's perceptions and uses them against her. He’s supposed to help — but it’s the boss’s interests that he serves.

Green wisely keeps the boss offscreen. The choice makes sense because it’s clear that the other employees, including two men (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) who share space with Jane) are well-schooled in the company ways. The boss isn't really the movie's subject anyway; it's the impact of the warped office atmosphere on an impressionable young woman that matters.

There’s a downside to Green’s narrowly focused approach. By covering a single day in Jane's life, the story can feel constricted, but Green deserves credit for skillfully exposing the go-along, get-along atmosphere that the boss requires. The Assistant isn’t a story of great transformation; it’s a story about the ways in which a powerful man can create an environment in which everyone understands the unwritten rules.

You want to play, you'd best look the other way. Complicity becomes a job requirement.