Thursday, July 2, 2020
Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Unlike poor Parker, Hamilton has not wanted for media attention. It has been reviewed with its original cast, with performers who have taken over for the originators and with companies that have staged touring productions. Now, Disney has made a filmed version of the original cast available for streaming.
Jasmine Cephas Jones brings seductive allure to Maria Reynolds, a married woman with whom Hamilton had an adulterous affair.
On the other hand, the presence of an audience helps overcome any distance viewers may feel as Hamilton unfolds. From the show's opening moments, audience excitement spills off the screen. The movie is two hours and 41 minutes long with a brief intermission. It should be watched straight through.
Thursday, June 25, 2020
Prior to that, you’ll find a satire that dulls its edge with unexpected timidity and a big dose of conventional comedy.
Here's the story: Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a hotshot political operative whose attention perks up when an aide informs him that a rural town in Wisconsin can be flipped to the Democratic side of the ledger. Why? Because a straight-talking farmer and former Marine (Chris Cooper) addressed the town’s city council with a speech so sincere it might have made Gary Cooper blush. He's exactly the kind of person who might lure wary independents to the Dems.
The plan: Persuade Cooper’s character to run for mayor, upset the political balance, and prove that a Democrat can capture the hearts of middle-Americans.
Gary heads for the town of Deerlarken, Wisc., where he’s a fish-out-of-water, a sophisticate who finds himself at a remove from Washington’s “civilized” ways: high-speed internet connections, fancy restaurants, and room service.
Of course, things can’t go smoothly or there’s no movie. Enter Rose Byrne's Faith Brewster, the GOP's answer to Gary. Savvy and ruthless, Faith represents powerful interests that don’t want to see the town turn Blue.
Carell and Byrne banter as they create some chemistry, the attraction of opposites who can’t resist trying to outdo each other when it comes to political maneuvering. The movie also hints at a possible relationship between Gary and Jack's grown daughter (Mackenzie Davis).
In one of the more predictable scenes, Gary takes Jack to New York City to meet a group of liberal elitists with whom he has nothing in common. He’s supposed to ask for money to finance a campaign they’ve been told might be the beginning of a national transformation. Of course, they can't get enough of Jack's homespun honesty.
All of this builds toward a twist that reveals Stewart’s real purpose, a kind of backhanded celebration of all-American wisdom that raises the question: If politics is a cynical game, why can’t more people play?
Look, I laughed some, I enjoyed watching the cast — particularly the comically gifted Byrne — and I never tuned the movie out. But in the end, I felt letdown.
In a moment of political volatility, I expected a comedy with a little more grit in its craw — not one that ends with a lecture, even one that's on-point about desperately need campaign-finance reform. Where’s the anger? Where’s the outrage? Where’s the feeling that things are so out-of-control that no fix may be possible? Where’s the recognition that even if we had campaign finance reform, there would still be voter suppression and a host of other seemingly intractable problems?
Enough. I don’t want to write a total slam, but it's difficult to see Irresistible as too much more than a movie of squandered promise.
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Henrietta (Kimberley Datnow) moves from London to Los Angeles when she's summoned to join the board of her late father's firm. It seems that Henrietta -- who aspires to be a stand-up comic -- once lived with her dad and attended school in LA. That’s convenient because Henrietta has friends from back in the day, which means the movie has a supporting cast. Alice (Alice Carroll Johnson), one of Henrietta’s old pals, tries to convince a small group of reunited friends that she's a successful talent agent. In reality, she's a gay woman trying to make ends meet by providing non-sexual companionship for a benevolent Sugar Daddy who misses his late wife and only seems to want someone with whom he can watch TV. When Henrietta moves into her father's LA house, she learns that Nolan (Tanner Rittenhouse) also lives there. He works for dad's company and developed a relationship in which Dad became a kind of mentor. Henrietta's attempt to reunite with an old boyfriend goes nowhere. Director Laura Holliday never convinced me to care about any of this or to believe that Henrietta had real comedy chops. That would have been fine had Daddy Issues been a movie about the difference between wanting to do stand-up and actually pulling it off. Somewhere, there’s a movie here, but no one seems to have found it.
Thursday, June 18, 2020
My Darling Vivian tells the heartbreaking story of Johnny Cash's first wife, Vivian Liberto. You won't see much of Cash in director Matt Riddlehoover's documentary because the movie focuses the woman left behind as Cash's career began to soar.
Riddlehoover weaves a sometimes mournful tale of celebrity, love, and neglect, making apt use of family photos, letters Cash wrote to Vivian in the early days of their relationship, and interviews with the couple's four daughters: Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, and Tara Cash.
The movie also serves as an antidote to the popular 2005 film Walk the Line, which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. In that movie, Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin) played the role of ball-and-chain to the artistically adventurous Cash. June Carter (Witherspoon), Cash's second wife, helped pull the singer from a drug-ridden swamp of self-destruction.
My Darling Vivian doesn't flatter Carter, showing her in a TV interview claiming credit for raising her kids and Cash's four daughters, who -- in reality -- always lived with their mother.
In many ways, My Darling Vivian adds another chapter to a long series of movies that chronicle the unraveling of isolated housewives. With Cash touring and indulging the perks of celebrity, Vivian was left to hold down the fort at a home Cash built north of Los Angeles.
Cash moved the family to California to try his hand at movies but didn't get much further than a role in the audaciously titled and deservedly obscure Door-to-door Maniac.
Riddlehoover fleshes out the story with a reference to one of the stranger moments in a story that began when Cash met Vivian at a Roller Rink in San Antonio. The movie recalls a 1965 incident in which a white supremacist newspaper in Alabama speculated that Vivian might be black. (She was a dark-complected woman of Sicilian descent).
Cash became a hate group target and Vivian received death threats, not exactly a development conducive to marital bliss. Vivian, by the way, eventually remarried but her daughters think she never fell out of love with Cash.
Sustained love or not, what began as romance produced its share of collateral damage. But when you listen to some of the letters that Cash wrote to Vivian before they were married and while he was stationed in Germany during his time in the Air Force, his ardor seems genuine and deep.
Of course, young love -- like some wines -- doesn't always mature well, which -- come to think of it -- might be the basis for a song. Too bad Cash isn't around to sing it.
On the other hand, maybe he did sing that song. Check out Cash's rendition of Hurt, a tune written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, or just consider this lyric from the song:
"And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt."
Cash died in 2003. Vivian died two years later.
Upon arriving in Moscow, Jones sought help from New York Times journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter who showed no interest in exposing the truth about Stalin’s treatment of farmers in Ukraine. As depicted here, an imperious Durante seems too immersed in his dissolute life to challenge the official line.
Vanessa Kirby impresses as a writer who tries to warn Jones that he's treading on dangerous ground by insisting on traveling to Ukraine.
Saturday, June 13, 2020
Thursday, June 11, 2020
Spike Lee, like his movies, operates on many levels. He’s a social commentator, a director and a storyteller. He's one of the few filmmakers who can be credited for creating a one-person genre. When you hear the words “a Spike Lee Joint,” you know that you’re probably entering terrain that’s part drama, part provocation, part corrective of the US historical record and part entertainment.
These ingredients can become seamless when Lee is at his best and can sometimes trip over one another when he’s not hitting his stride.
But it’s important to remember that Lee has created an aesthetic approach that practically constitutes a brand. He can poke an angry finger in your chest or flood a moment with tenderness.
So now comes Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a movie about Vietnam, black contributions to the US military, black bitterness about the lack of recognition for those contributions and, if that weren't enough, a story about a search for buried treasure — in this case, gold bullion — that sometimes intentionally evokes memories of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Using news footage to set the tone, Lee opens with a montage that surveys the boiling racial landscape that defined America during the war. Among the clips: protests, Muhammad Ali’s resistance, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at Manhattan's Riverside Church in which he turned his full attention to the war.
All of this is framed by a story with a rather straightforward plot. Four former infantrymen reunite in Ho Chi Minh city. Initially, their reunion is full of bonhomie and joy. Gradually, it becomes clear that the men, known as “The Bloods,” have more in mind than renewing old friendships.
They want to retrieve gold they buried during a harrowing mission and they want to recover the body of a fallen brother known as Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The movie paints Norman as a kind of warrior saint who held the soldiers in his squad together and tired to direct them toward higher purposes, perhaps using the gold to help black folks at home.
Of the four Bloods, as the soldiers referred to themselves, two stand out: Clarke Peters’ Otis, a down-to-earth steadying influence who learns that he has a greater connection to Vietnam than the others. A wartime relationship resulted in a daughter, now grown, who Otis meets for the first time.
Delroy Lindo gives the movie’s most vivid, conflict-riddled performance. An anti-immigration guy who wears a MAGA hat, Lindo's Paul easily taps into his anger. He's joined by his son David (Jonathan Majors), a young man who followed his dad to Vietnam because he knows that his father occupies a PTSD-world of trouble.
Norm Lewis’ Eddie and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin fill out the foursome of veterans.
Working with three additional writers, Lee isn’t entirely successful at fusing all the issues that crop up and some of the dialogue carries the burden of exposition or of establishing -- or at least making reference to -- political dynamics embedded in the way the US fought the Vietnam War.
Flashback scenes to the war feature Boseman, who's powerful even in a small role. The other soldiers aren’t played by younger actors in these flashbacks but by the older cast. Lee does his best to keep the camera away from their faces, but the juxtaposition of a young Boseman and the older guys can be distracting.
The story also brings in a trio of NGO do-gooders (Melanie Theirry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen) who have taken up residence in Vietnam to defuse bombs and dig up landmines. Jean Reno turns up as a shady figure who’s supposed to help the men smuggle the gold out of the country.
As the men move deeper into the Vietnamese jungle, they begin to squabble about the size of their respective shares. Mistrust develops and before all is done, Lee gives Lindo a wild soliloquy in the jungle as he battles with thick growth, his own demons, a venomous snake, and the historical weight of 400 yeas of American racism. In a way, this single speech does more to embody the damage these men have suffered than anything else in the film. Amazingly, Lindo pulls it off.
Will the men escape with the gold? Will they be double-crossed? Will others try to kill them?
I’ll answer only one of these questions. Others will try to kill them, resulting in gunfights and explosions of violence that reprise the war-time violence the men once experienced.
Those who expect every Lee film to speak its mind won’t be disappointed and those who are put off by the same trait will find much with which to quibble. Lee even manages to work Black Lives Matter into the film’s closing moments, giving the movie an even more topical boost — as if it needed one in this moment of intensely focused discussions of race.
No matter what the subject, Lee’s voice will be heard — and that may be why Da 5 Bloods is least interesting when it’s telling its story and most compelling when Lee does what he does best — shake things up.
Davidson is one of those rare people who seem to be able to stand in front of a camera and be himself — or at least some version of himself: a sometimes savvy, sometimes jerky New York kid who says what he thinks, reeks with attitude and (here’s the part that matters) isn't quite as together as he sometimes pretends to be.
At his best, Davidson projects a ragged authenticity and it’s that sense of authenticity that allows The King of Staten Island to get by, even when the movie begins to lose itself in its final going.
King of Staten Island teams Davidson with director Judd Apatow, who has helped the young comic shape a variety of scenes that slide toward something resembling a coming-of-age movie. And that’s the worst part about this semi-autobiographical effort, it pushes into the kind redemptive territory that has marked other Apatow work (both as a director and producer) and sometimes looks like an apology for any raunch that has proceeded the wrapup.
As its title makes clear, Davidson's movie tries to be inseparable from its much-abused setting, Staten Island being the one place low enough that New Jersey can look down on it, as Davidson's character says.
Like many characters in coming-of-age films, Davidson's Scott is stuck. He’s directionless, living with his mom (Marisa Tomei) and watching his younger sister (Maude Apatow) prepare to depart for college and a life beyond the narrow confines of Staten Island.
Scott insists that his life is fine, except, of course, it isn't.
Scott’s father, a NY City fireman, was killed fighting a fire. (Davidson’s fireman father was killed on 9/ll). Scott never really has gotten over his father's death. Loss and the bitterness it breeds underlies everything in a screenplay that Davidson wrote with Apatow and David Sirus.
Fear of loss might be why Scott doesn’t take his girlfriend (Bel Powley) seriously. They sleep together, but he’s unwilling to define their relationship.
Scott also has a crew, young men who, like Scott, spend their time hanging out, exchanging insults, and, at one point, getting involved in a burglary at a pharmacy.
Despite what looks like an apparently underdeveloped drawing style, Scott aspires to become a tattoo artist. Having tattooed all his friends, Scott has run out of skin on which to practice. At one point, he persuades a nine-year-old kid to sit for a tattoo, an incident that brings the kid's furious father (Bill Burr) to Scott's doorstep.
As it turns out Burr's Ray is a fireman, a job that triggers Scott's anger. He thinks people who risk their lives at work shouldn't have families. After a testy confrontation with Scott’s mother, Ray decides that it’s time for him to put his divorce behind him and start dating. Scott’s mom hasn’t dated since her husband died. It's a match made in screenwriter's heaven.
Like a train that’s headed in one direction, the script then pulls into a roundhouse and changes course in a way that you can see coming and which (if you’re me) makes the heart sink a little.
Although he’s initially threatened by the relationship between Ray and his mother, circumstances force Scott to start spending time at the firehouse where Ray works. The banter and camaraderie of the firehouse replace the banter and camaraderie of Scott’s peer group, pushing him into a world of new - albeit still undefined -- opportunity.
I didn’t really want to join Scott's dive into the pool of self-improvement, and the movie isn’t substantial enough to fill its two hour and 17-minute length, but Davidson's take on his Staten Island experiences is well-grounded enough to push the movie into the plus category.
Sunday, June 7, 2020
With Tommaso, director Abel Ferrara has made a film that I've seen described as semi-autobiographical. I don't know how close to the reality of his life Ferrara has gotten. Judging by the ways in which its main character puts himself in the middle of an unraveling patchwork of a life, I hope not too close.
An independent-minded director, Ferrara has been charting his own course since the early 1970s. During his prolific career, Ferrara, who'll be 69 next month, has divided audiences and critics with movies such as The King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1994).
In Tommaso , Ferrara strikes notes that rely almost entirely on his main actor, Willem Dafoe, who has worked with the director on several other movies. Here, Dafoe plays Tommaso, a director who has been living in Rome for several years with a much younger Eastern European wife (Cristina Chiriac) and the couple's three-year-old daughter.
Tommaso is trying hard to put a turbulent past behind him; he has renounced the drugs and alcohol that wrecked his stateside life and he seems intent on constructing some kind of family life in Rome, perhaps as a form of contrition for too much previous bad behavior.
Dafoe moves Tommaso through a variety of scenes that suggest the cobbled-together life of an ex-patriot. He runs an acting school where the focus seems to be on uninhibited movement. He takes care of his daughter and cooks meals when his wife won't. He also attends meetings with fellow addicts and tries to overcome the increasing disdain of a wife who seems eager to spend as little time with him as possible.
When he's stressed, Tommaso meditates or practices yoga. Occasionally, he can be seen working on a screenplay. He's taken up Buddhism.
Dafoe rarely disappoints. He gives Ferrara everything he can, never shying away from the fact that Tommaso can be a real pain in the butt.
It's unlikely anyone will confuse Tommaso with an exercise in rigorously disciplined filmmaking, and there are images (Tommaso meeting a naked woman at a coffee shop) that aren't easily explained. Scenes set in Tommaso's 12-step group feel repetitive and Ferrara can't resist adding an explosive bit of violence toward the end.
No faulting Dafoe, who's game for anything, even allowing Ferrara to refer to the actor's appearance in The Passion of the Christ. You’ll have to get to the film's end to find out how this happens.
Many flaws can be tolerated when a filmmaker works close to the bone, but for me, the movie’s indulgences, its insularity, its fantasies and confessions left little room for any characters other than Tommaso, which, in turn, made me wonder whether Ferrara hadn’t made a film that’s talking mostly to itself.
Thursday, June 4, 2020
Directed by Josephine Decker and starring Elisabeth Moss as Jackson, Shirley takes place at Bennington, a Vermont college where Jackson battles with herself and her husband (the always terrific Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor who teaches myth and folklore with a very strong minor in philandering.
Into an atmosphere redolent with Scotch, venom, and caustically expressed intelligence, walk two apparently naive acolytes: Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young). They're invited to stay with Jackson and her husband Stanley, an offer Fred sees as an opportunity to advance his fledgling academic career.
I have no idea how Moss approached the role, but she creates a woman for whom cigarettes and Scotch are as essential as the carapace of nastiness in which she encases herself. Amid the uproar and toxicity, Jackson struggles to finish the novella on which she's working, a story inspired by a young woman's mysterious disappearance.
Rest assured, if Jackson suffers, others also will be tormented.
Overflowing with faux generosity and intellectual verve, Stuhlbarg's Stanley pushes his wife to finish her book. As much a showman as an academic, Stanley proves as slyly manipulative as his talented spouse.
As the story unfolds, Sarah Gubbins' screenplay, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, evokes memories of Edward Albee's George and Martha with a dowdy-looking Moss devouring every ounce of Jackson's vitriol much like she attacks a bowl full of mashed potatoes at dinner.
Too good an actress to deliver a one-note performance, Moss also suggests the deeper terror, if only vaguely defined, with which Jackson grapples.
Decker sets the movie almost entirely in the house shared by Jackson and her husband; the cast has no trouble filling it, although the same can’t always be said of Decker.
Tamar-kali's pulsing, ominous score suggests a little more than the movie delivers and at times, Jackson seems less a writer than a mental case, perhaps pushing the movie into the kind of suspect terrain in which madness and hostility are seen as a birthright of the talented.
Weirdness accumulates, sometimes pushing the movie toward indulgent excesses, even as Rose and Jackson begin to bond and their relationship leans toward the erotic.
Significantly, the movie is set at an all-women's college during the 1950s, a time when young, educated women often were expected to finish college and then disappear into suffocating marriages, a theme that's stated a bit too obviously toward the movie's end.
So, a slightly mixed reaction from me: A collection of sharply honed performances and of shifting moods and tones, Shirley stands as a clear work of artistic ambition, but one that doesn’t seem fully to have mixed the ingredients of its odd brew: a great writer's struggles, marital minefields, academic treachery, and the mysteries of womanhood.
Monday, June 1, 2020
Nicole Beharie plays Turquoise Jones, a woman who once held the title of the town's Miss Juneteenth. Juneteenth, you'll recall, is the holiday that acknowledges Texas's belated recognition that slavery had been abolished in 1965. It took Texas an additional two years to get around to catching up with Lincoln's proclamation.
Beharie's character suffers from a familiar problem. Turquoise is one of those unfortunate people whose major life experience happened when she was a teenager. She won the town's Miss Juneteenth crown and the scholarship that went along with it. But life intervened and Turquoise failed to take full advantage of the opportunity. She now works in the town's bar-and-barbecue joint. She's also pushing her teenage daughter to enter the current Miss Juneteenth contest and having an on-and-off relationship with her former husband (Kendrick Sampson).
The key to film involves Turquoise's relationship with her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Kai has little interest in Miss Juneteenth and the culture that surrounds it. She prefers dancing to dramatic recitation and has no use for the primping that goes into a beauty pageant.
An obvious psychological dynamic presents itself: Turquoise wants her daughter to take advantage of the opportunity that she was unable to realize. But like most teenagers, Kai needs to stake out her own turf.
The men in Turquoise's life are her ex, a decent guy with a fondness for gambling, and Bacon (Akron Watson) the local funeral director who's carving out a secure economic future and who wants to share it with Turquoise, who's always facing economic pressures of one sort or another.
Turquoise, who tends to be an over-protective mother, also must deal with her church-going mother (Lori Hayes) who also happens to be an alcoholic.
Peoples' fondness for her characters becomes apparent as she allows the story to chart its generally predictable course.
That's not to say that the movie lacks substance: The movie's central mother/daughter relationship is well-drawn, as is Kai's relationship with her not entirely responsible father. And both Turquoise and Kai move toward hard-won moments of self-fulfillment with Beharie's performance as a woman who won't surrender all of her dreams leading the way.
Fair to call Miss Juneteenth a different kind of feel-good movie: one that knows the world it's depicting and the characters who live in it.
Sunday, May 31, 2020
Consider only these few headlines from Sunday's newspapers:
"Fury in the Streets as Protests Spread Across the U.S." -- The New York Times
"Unrest spreads as police cars, government buildings set on fire" -- The Washington Post
"Across the country, cities take stock after a night of protests" -- The Boston Globe
"Street patrols, anger and fear follow a night of escalating violence" -- The Los Angeles Times
“George Floyd protests: National Guard to have 'limited presence' in Chicago; 240 arrests, 1 fatal shooting, city reduces access into downtown area" -- The Chicago Tribune
"Swift show of force in Mpls. pushes out curfew violators" -- Minneapolis StarTribune
You get the idea: This is a sad Sunday in America, a day in which racial disparities, the coronavirus, unfocused and focused outrage, and a general mood of despair are proving that we are all in this together. The problem of course is that the "this" in which we all find ourselves is the chaos that has come roaring to the surface of a country that until recently has been closed for business.
As society's doors began to swing open, a lot more came rushing through them than the desire once again to dine at restaurants.
And all of this is happening during a time when we can't even agree on whether to wear masks that protect our communal health.
According to a recent article in Vox, Shan Soe-Lin, described as Yale global health specialist, said that if the US "had masked up sooner, I think we could have prevented a lot of these infections."
But some still see mask-wearing as an assault on their freedom. Freedom to what? Get sick or make someone else sick?
By the way, if you're against mask-wearing and you ever happen to need surgery, insist that your doctor not be "masked up" because you don't want to violate his or her inherent rights. Perhaps doctors who want to defend their freedoms also should be permitted to operate without gloves or protective surgical gowns.
I know the slogan that animates some patriots is "Give me liberty or give me death," but I don't know that Patrick Henry had Covid-19 in mind when he said it.
You can find a variety of studies that support the efficacy of mask-wearing, but that's not my point.
My point is that we find ourselves in a sorrowful state or perhaps it's a state in which our woe has become more painfully evident than ever.
America had racial issues before Covid-19. Police-community relations in minority neighborhoods were far from idyllic. The erosion of even a modicum of goodwill between the country's polarized political factions was apparent long before anyone had thought about "social distancing" as anything more than the search for a little peace and quiet.
But, as others rightly have observed, Covid-19 has turned up the temperature and no feel-good bromides can lower the heat.
If you think about the US as a Venn diagram, you get the picture. The more the circles overlap, the more coherent and stable the society. But the now unavoidable truth is that the circles are moving further apart: black and white America, masked and unmasked America, armed and unarmed America, religious and secular America, rich and poor America, hungry and well-fed America, and more.
We mostly knew this to be true, but the fragmented nature of society seems so much clearer now that we don't have multiplex mega-movies and sports to blur the view, distracting us and creating a fragile impression that we share the same culture. Given our current deprivations, it seems pointless to channel our furies into arguments about whether Joker is an anarchic beauty of a movie or an exploitative piece of crap.
These days, you can't bury your head far enough into the sand to deny that we're mired in a dismal, balkanized morass. More serious thinkers than yours truly have taken to wondering whether the US has become "a failed state."
If you're not already alarmed enough, you should read George Packer's Atlantic article, "We Are Living in a Failed State. The coronavirus didn't break America. It revealed what was already broken."
As I worked my way through the Sunday papers, my heart sank; I could find little to prove Packer wrong.
It's enough to make you weep.
Thursday, May 28, 2020
Director Andrew Patterson's nifty first feature is a hoot. Self-consciously packaged as if the movie were a bit of '50s television on the order of The Twilight Zone, The Vast of Night tells the story of two teenagers in Cayuga, New Mexico, kids who clearly aren't caught up in the town's ordinary pursuits.
Patterson opens his movie by moving his camera into the screen of a mid-century style TV for an episode of a show called Paradox Theater, complete with an introduction delivered in Rod Serling-like tones.
Black-and-white fades into color and the main portion of the story unfolds. Early on, we meet the movie's principal characters. Everett (Jake Horowitz) chain-smokes and works as a night-time DJ at a radio station WOTW. High school student Fay (Sierra McCormick) holds a night job as the town's telephone operator. We're in a time when calls were made by picking up the phone and telling the operator what number you wanted to reach.
Set during the night of Cayuga High School's opening basketball game, the story raises its ante when Fay hears a strange sound over her switchboard. She calls pal Everett, who broadcasts the sound on the radio and asks whether anyone knows what it might be.
A caller to the station tells Everett what he thinks the odd noise is about. He's Billy (Bruce Davis), and he slowly describes a secret Air Force experience that sounds very much like a plot hatched to conceal troubling facts from an oblivious public.
By now, you've probably guessed that we're talking UFO's, a suspicion that's confirmed when Everett and Fay visit Blanche (Gail Cronauer), an elderly woman who claims that her son was abducted by aliens.
But the fun of The Vast of Night has little to do with the story and much to do with how it's told. Presumably responding to budgetary constraints, Patterson proves inventive. He sometimes uses prolonged blackouts, dropping them into the movie in ways that unsettle, something on the order of older times when you might have found yourself banging on the side of a recalcitrant TV in hopes of a restart. Patterson also gives Fay an extended set-piece at her switchboard that makes the most out of a high school girl's vivid energy and a cramped setting.
Adding to the enjoyment, Patterson's camera proves amazingly agile when it moves through town.
The journey here is better than the destination but like the mysterious sound from above, Patterson makes a noise that's worth noticing.
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Sunday, May 24, 2020
The most amazing thing about the new documentary The Painter and the Thief is the improbable friendship at the film’s core.
Director Benjamin Ree begins his story when an artist whose career seems on the rise learns that two of her paintings have been stolen from an Oslo art gallery. Such an art theft could have been the basis for a conventional thriller, but as Ree discovered, the story took the most unexpected of turns.
Artist Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech emigre to Norway, decided to meet Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of the pair of men who stole her paintings. Nordland claimed that his brain was so fried on drugs at the time of the theft that he couldn't remember what he did with the piece he took.
Felonious behavior aside, Ree’s movie has less to do with theft and possibly even with art than with the bizarre relationship that develops between Kysilkova and Nordland.
Sporting an abundance of tattoos and looking as if he’s en route to a skinhead convention, Nordland tells Kysilkova about his eight years in prison, his crummy childhood, and his drug addiction. She paints his portrait, demanding free modeling services as an act of contrition for having stolen her paintings.
About three-quarters of the way through, Nordland suffers a serious injury in an automobile accident and is sentenced to more prison time. Kysilkova helps Nordland with his rehab, and in his second stint in prison, Nordland begins to reform himself.
By this time, we've also met Kysilkova's husband, a guy who not surprisingly wonders why his wife insists on sustaining this relationship. His questions lead the couple into therapy. We also learn some telling details about Kysilkova's pre-Oslo life, which involved a terribly abusive relationship.
I can't say that I related to Kysilkova's art. One of the stolen paintings is called Swan Song; it depicts a dead swan — limp, and, of course, lifeless. Kysilkova's work puts a high-sheen gloss on morbidity. I also never quite bought the suggestion that we're watching an irresistible attraction between two damaged souls, each of them drawn to dark impulses.
If you're looking for an arc of character development, it might go something like this: By the end of the film, Nordland seems to be on an uptick while Kysilkova might be treading water.
I had a strange, fractured reaction to The Painter and the Thief. I was fascinated by the film at the same time as it left me with a sense of dissatisfaction, a suspicion that despite the movie’s intimacy, the story might have benefited from a bit more perspective.
Ree’s film pulls us into the lives of characters who live in ways that never totally compute. As far as Kysilkova is concerned, it's not clear how much she understands about herself or even wants to.
Whether this is the stance of a person who’s unwilling to explore her motivations or the insistence of an artist who doesn’t wish to get in the way of her aesthetic impulses is anyone’s guess, and you'll have to decide for yourself.
Thursday, May 21, 2020
The opening of Villain, the latest addition to the densely populated British gangster genre, clearly establishes the tension that will drive the movie.
Even before the credits roll, a whimpering thug is dragged from the trunk of a car, humiliated and almost killed by a couple of hard guys to whom he owes a considerable amount of money. This bit of brutality is followed by views of a convict being released from a 10-year-stretch in the slammer. We'll soon learn that the two men -- the victimized thug and the former prisoner -- are brothers and that one will drag the other down.
Craig Fairbrass, an actor whose face looks as if might have been carved from granite with a chipping hammer, portrays ex-con Eddie Franks. Fairbrass creates a character of appropriately mixed attributes. A stand-up guy, Eddie's loyal to his profligate brother (George Russo), a junkie who has gotten himself in debt to a menacing loan shark (a terrific Robert Glenister).
Eddie’s word may be good, but he makes no bones about the brutality that has kept him alive since he was a kid.
Villain makes little effort to break its genre mold, but it updates the ethnicity of its characters to include a bit of multi-racial mixing. Eddie, for example, fathered a biracial child (Izuka Hoyle) who’s now grown but who can't resolve her anger toward a father who has played little role in her life.
The movie's depth stems from Eddie's fractured personality. He's trying to straighten out the mess his heroin-addicted brother has made of a pub the two own. Eddie even performs a Gordon Ramsey-style makeover on the place. But we never really believe Eddie will transcend his doom-struck fate.
If you're squeamish about movie violence, you may want to take a pass on Villain, which includes vicious beatings with a hammer, knifings and a murder that leads to a body-disposal sequence that makes one the characters vomit and could have a similar effect on viewers who are unaccustomed to the genre's down-and-dirtiest maneuvers.
Add a drug-addicted stripper (Eloise Lovell Anderson) and you've pretty much got the gist -- except that Villain does a decent job of turning Eddie into a tragic figure. A man who tarnishes everything he touches, Eddie knows that he won't be able to outrun his destiny. Fairbrass imbues Eddie with grim resignation that he carries with something bordering on acceptance.
I wouldn't call Villain a classic but director Philip Barantini hits most of the right notes, although you may need a machete to cut your way through some very thick accents. Subtitles would have been welcome.