Sunday, May 24, 2020

A strange and very unlikely relationship

The Painter and the Thief disturbs as much as it illuminates.

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

Bob's Cinema Diary: 5/22/20 -- 'The Trip to Greece' and 'Military Wives'

The Trip to Greece
There are at least two ways to look at The Trip to Greece, the fourth and purportedly final episode in a series of movies from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Those familiar with the series, know the drill. Coogan and Brydon trade barbs, do a variety of spot-on imitations and roll through routines that feel entirely improvised. They also eat sumptuous meals, mostly in premier restaurants boasting spectacular views. During a time when most of us can’t travel, watching Trip to Greece either will provide welcome relief for the homebound or become a form of torment, a reminder of all that has moved beyond reach during these Covid-19 days. Director Michael Winterbottom adds a bit of story to the mix, the major one involving a saddened Coogan and his hospitalized father. Coogan, by the way, does a great Ray Winstone, casting the actor as an improbable Henry VIII. Did I enjoy seeing some of the locations? Yes. Was the idea of building the trip around Ulysses's travels in The Odyssey particularly compelling? Not really. Does it sometimes seem as if the few additional characters are around to function as a laugh track for Coogan and Brydon? Yes. Did I feel any hostility toward the series? Not a bit. Look, Coogan and Brydon have mastered their comic-duo act and Trip to Greece offers intermittent pleasures -- even if it has lost some of its freshness and even if you sometimes wish that the two would calm down and stop being two brilliant guys whose commitment to entertaining can become annoyingly incessant.

Military Wives

Director Peter Cattaneo directed The Full Monty (1997). That should tell you that Military Wives isn't about to offer a hard-hitting critique of the military or a deeply felt lament about the women who support husbands (and in one case, a wife) who go off to war. The story centers around two characters, Kristen Scott Thomas's Kate and Sharon Horgan's Lisa. Not surprisingly, Scott Thomas plays the bossier of the two with Horgan giving life to a character who's far less rule-bound. After the troops leave the movie's military base, the two begin a choir that's supposed to boost the morale of those who wait at home. Cattaneo sounds a few somber notes, but Military Wives makes no bones about its intention to write a feel-good prescription that reaches its crescendo when the choir is invited to perform at a memorial ceremony at Royal Albert Hall Scott Thomas knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to a character such as Kate. She can put her nose in the air while reassuring us that she'll eventually play the trump card of her character's humanity. Horgan makes a relaxed foil as the two clash over the kind of music on which the choir should focus. Cattaneo gins up some last-minute conflict that hardly matters, a predictable bump on a predictable road. My conclusion: I'm not a great fan of this particular kind of movie but kudos to the cast for approaching the task without apology. Sometimes, it pays not to veer too far off the main road.

Another British gangster movie takes its shot

Not for the squeamish, but Villain hits many of the right notes.

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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 3 No. 2 — The game was memorable but no one saw it

Have you watched The Last Dance, the 10-episode ESPN series about Michael Jordan's career and the 1997-98 NBA season? I have and might even watch it again. Revisiting the NBA of the 1990s was diverting, but what impressed me most about the show had little to do with Jordan’s phenomenal career or with the Bulls championship run.

I was most intrigued to learn that the 1992 Olympic Dream Team played a memorable, highly competitive scrimmage in Barcelona as they prepared for competition. No audience. No TV. Just top players trying to outdo one another.

It’s one of the few things that I’ve seen or read about lately that fired my imagination, a game played without the overhyped intrusions of crowds, television, commentary, and persistent replays. It was a game played only to be played.

As various players described the game, I could hear the echoing bounce of the ball on hardwood, the voices of players shouting instructions or taunts, the squeak of sneakers, the unfolding of a game played in what I’d like to think of as isolated purity.

I knew a guy in New York, an avid basketball fan who grew up in Cincinnati, where he worshiped at the altar of Oscar Robinson. He told me that one day he was passing a playground and he recognized a bunch of former college players who were engaged in a heated game. Something about the game seemed private and my friend wondered whether he would be trespassing if he found a seat and watched. So he asked the players if they would mind if he hung around and watched them play.

The agreed and I think he actually returned to see these intensely played games several times.

You get the gist, the players were playing for the love of the game and he was watching for the love of the game.

When I lived in New York City, I often saw great playground basketball. I was much younger then and I might be able to get into a game or two but I’d have trouble staying on the court because the losers always walked and I was never good enough to command major time on the court, which is reserved for winners.

But I still remember watching guys do exceptional things, flashing moves as memorable as anything I’ve seen from NBA players. I’m not saying they were as good as NBA players, but every now and again, a superior talent would rise above even the very good ballers.

I wondered where those playground stars went when they weren’t on the court. What were their day jobs? What was it like to soar above a rim and then return to the banalities of ordinary life?

Before the coronavirus shutdown of the NBA, there was talk of playing games in empty arenas, something that still may happen. I read that LeBron James said he wouldn’t like to play in such games. I wondered why the fans mattered so much that he might refuse to play without them.

To me, there’s something appealing about reducing the game to ... well ... the game. And I hope that if games without crowds do occur, teams will resist the temptation to supply crowd noise and other distractions. Let’s see what the games look like without the industrial-strength trappings of contemporary athletics.

And that returns me to The Last Dance and a practice game at a long-ago Olympics. Perhaps there still can be moments in which something unfolds without the need for anyone to consume it, players playing only for themselves and for one another.

I once saw Dave Brubeck rehearsing with one of the groups he formed late in his career. I was there as a journalist, writing a story about Brubeck's scheduled appearance. I had a similar feeling at the time, musicians appreciating what they were doing without the need of further adulation.

It makes me hopeful to know that such moments exist. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t see that scrimmage in Barcelona. I didn’t need to see it. It now lives in my imagination as something timeless, something as perfect as anything I've actually seen, a game that wasn’t doubling as a platform to sell products or support anyone's brand. Just a game. Sometimes, that's enough.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 3, No 1 ... On the matter of eating in restaurants

In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis has said that he‘ll examine the data on May 25 to determine whether restaurants can reopen. Should he give restaurants the go-ahead, I suppose, the governor also will issue guidelines about how restaurants can renew operations while providing as much safety as possible.

Presumably, when they open, restaurants will offer limited seating that accommodates social distancing guidelines. The staff probably will be required to wear masks and gloves. Additional cleaning and disinfecting probably will be practiced. How much testing of employees will be possible is anyone's guess?

But there are other details to consider, sanitizing surfaces after every use and the ways in which ventilation systems circulate air. You can look up additional suggestions yourself or you simply can think about what you would require to return to restaurant eating.

Now, I should say that I've spent a lot of time and money in restaurants, at least before Covid19. I often eat at restaurants that provide quick service because I’m in a rush to get to an evening screening. I also enjoy the kind of dining that qualifies as entertainment. I’m talking about dinner with friends, lingering over the food with drinks and conversation, the usual stuff.

And like many other diners of moderate means, I'm sometimes jolted by sticker shock at the price of a meal, a glass of wine, and perhaps a dessert.

Still, I go to restaurants. I always have and hope that I always will.

But I do not care what decision the governor of Colorado makes about restaurants. I'm won't be dining out until there's either a reliable medical intervention to treat Covid19 or a vaccine that keeps me from getting the virus in the first place.

There simply are too many variables to make dining out feel safe at the moment. Even with testing and tracing — which doesn’t seem to be widespread enough yet — I don't want to be among those who need to be traced in order to be tested should someone eating in the same restaurant as I become infected.

But there's an even more important reason I won't be slipping my credit card under a plexiglass shield, putting on a mask between courses or waiting outside at six feet intervals for the next seating.

It's simply this: Going to a restaurant should be an anxiety-free experience. It should be relaxing. It should be pleasant. It should not be marred by the aroma of disinfectant wafting from a nearby table. I’ve always hated it when someone cleans a table and the smell of disinfectant suddenly overwhelms the table at which I’m sitting.

I will continue to order takeout from restaurants that I want to support, either directly, through a third-party delivery service or through curbside pick-up. But I'm not planning on in-person dining any time soon. Do I hope that my favorite restaurants survive? Of course.

And if restaurants are, as many argue, a vital part of every urban economy, they should be able to qualify for government financial support during the pandemic.

Do I miss restaurants? Very much. But I'd miss breathing even more. And I believe that the best way to make sure that restaurants survive is to fight (and win) the health battle.

Everything else is Russian roulette with the only variable being how many bullets have been inserted in the chamber.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

She barges into the world of rock

Beanie Feldstein gives a powerhouse performance in How to Build a Girl.

In How to Build a Girl, an adaptation of an quasi-autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran, director Coky Giedroyc tells a high-spirited story about a nervy girl from Britain's Wolverhampton who crashes her way into a role she's not prepared to fill.

A movie such as How to Build a Girl requires a star who can handle its main character's volatile mix of ambition, insecurity, and smarts. Giedroyc finds one in Beanie Feldstein, an actress who provides the strongest reason to watch a movie that can't quite accommodate all of its tonal shifts -- from exuberant comedy to typical cautionary tale.

In the movie, the Moran character — called Johanna — begins her "career" in the early 1990s as an ungainly 16-year-old who submits a review to a weekly rock magazine. Wildly out of touch with the magazine's vibe, Johanna reviews the soundtrack of Annie. After meeting with a skeptical crew of rock journalists, Johanna barges her way into a tryout for the magazine. Her initial goal is modest: To make enough money to reclaim her family's recently repossessed TV.

The movie remains peppy and engaging as Joanna tries to adapt to her new life. She dons a top hat, fishnet stockings, and applies ample amounts of lipstick. She's reborn -- or at least thinks she is.

Nothing if not lively in her approach, Giedroyc also makes use of fanciful touches: When Johanna talks to the various star photos that adorn her bedroom wall, they talk back to her. Johanna's wide-ranging gallery includes Sylvia Plath, Julie Andrews, Sigmund Freud, and the Bronte Sisters. It's a nice way of showing that Johanna's chaotic consciousness is far from fully developed.

It doesn't take long for Johanna to meet a rocker (Alfie Allen) who sweeps her off her feet — not a difficult task when it comes to a teenager who doesn’t know how to avoid the traps a more seasoned writer would have sidestepped.

But the movie can't sustain its rocket ride forever, Johanna who adopts the pen name Dolly Wilde, eventually begins to founder in a lifestyle in which she can't separate her own notoriety from the musicians about whom she writes. She becomes too self-impressed and never really understands that she’s more of a curiosity than a bona fide critic.

Giedroyc does a nice job with the movie's supporting roles. Sarah Solemani plays Johanna's worn-down mother, a woman who no longer harbors any dreams about her life. Johanna’s good-natured father (Paddy Considine) still thinks he might make it as a jazz musician, a vision in which only he believes.

More fun during Johanna's ascendance than when she reaps the consequences of her sometimes abominable behavior, How to Build a Girl nonetheless gives Feldstein a showcase role as a young woman who doesn't live life but insists on plowing through it.

An experiment -- and its problems

What if you could enter a spacious, self-sustaining environment, say one with 3.4 acres of floor space? You’d be able to see the outside world, but your immediate environment would include a variety of climates — from rain forests to oceans to a wetland. Your new habitat would generate its own air supply and water. You’d grow and harvest your own food.

Sound appealing at this moment when the world beyond your home feels especially dangerous thanks to Covid19?

After seeing the documentary Spaceship Earth, such sequestered living may lose much of its appeal.

Director Matt Wolf’s documentary tells the story of Biosphere 2, a well-intended experiment that was conducted in the early 1990s in hopes that it would serve as a preview of coming of attractions for colonizing distant planets.
That’s interesting enough, but the movie isn't only about a large-scale experiment; it’s also about the spirit and commitment of a group of people who decided to spend their lives thinking outside whatever boxes they could find.

Wolf introduces us to the team of men and women who initiated many other projects before winding up in the aptly named town of Oracle, Arizona, home of Biosphere 2. Led by John Allen, a kind of modern Renaissance man, this group of adventurers built a ship and sailed it around the world. The people who undertook these projects looked much like other communal adventurers of the 1960s — except for one thing.

As one participant put it: We weren’t a commune. We were a corporation.

The group tried to generate profits from its efforts, which included a traveling theater company and establishment of an art gallery in London.
With Allen at the helm (more or less), the group became innovative capitalists with a consciousness that turned them into early actors when it came to climate change.

By the time, Allen and committed to the Biosphere project, major money was needed, something on the order of $150 million: Ed Bass, a Texas billionaire with a taste for visionary projects, became the project's financier.

But scaling up brought other problems, a need for publicity and the arrival of throngs of tourists, as well as the curse of marketing.
Mistakes were made, one of which included a severe drop in oxygen levels inside Biosphere 2.

But even as things soured (Allen eventually lost control fo the project), some of the group's idealistic spirit remained, particularly among the eight so-called Biosphereans who lived apart from the world for two years.

Biosphere 2 eventually became the property of the University of Arizona.

Oh, and by the way, unless you already know, you won’t believe who shows up at the end when the project needs rescuing — one of the last people I’d expect to have seen in a film such as Spaceship Earth.

Monday, May 4, 2020

It feels as if we've already traveled this road..... but how much do we really care?

The movie revolves around the drug trade, drips with Arkansas-style colloquialisms, unfolds in clearly marked chapters, and plays around with the sequence of events that drive the story. Sound familiar? If so, it's because we've seen any number of movies that dive into a pool of tricky currents, ripples from a wave that’s broken before. Now that I've sounded a cautionary note, you might want to set it aside because Arkansas, a thriller starring Liam Hemsworth and a strong cast of supporting actors, resembles the way I feel when someone asks me how I'm doing in these days of coronavirus. "Good enough," is my standard reply and it fits director Clark Duke's debut movie. The pleasures of a movie such as Arkansas have little to do with its many plot twists. The fun here involves waiting to see who'll crop up in which role. The list includes John Malkovich as a park ranger mixed up in the drug trade, Michael Kenneth Williams as a dealer operating out of a convenience store, and Vivica A. Fox as a character who goes by the name "Her." She's some sort of a middle-person in the drug-dealing chain the movie rattles. Sitting atop this criminal pyramid, we find a character named Frog (Vince Vaughn in some of the wildest western shirts I've seen in some time). Functioning as a kind of straight man, Hemsworth portrays a shiftless drug dealer who hooks up with an ambitious young man named Swin (played by Duke). Every story needs a love interest, and Arkansas provides one in the presence of Johnna (Eden Brolin), a young woman who takes up with Swin. Swin? Yeah, the movie sometimes strains to be colorful and you may find yourself catching onto Duke’s character-heavy game. I don't mean to suggest that Arkansas should be mistaken for a character study. It's a merry go round that passes by a variety of characters, each a little more offbeat than the last one. Still, the screenplay by Duke and Andrew Boonkrong seldom trips over its own feet as it pirouettes through its abundant idiosyncrasies. "This world we're livin' in. It's morally atrocious," says one of the characters and we wonder whether the writers aren't trying to let us know that they're hip to their own game. But as I said at the outset, Arkansas is good enough for a look with Vaughn scoring as the piece's casually vile villain.