Wednesday, November 30, 2022

More than a simple shoemaker

Director Luca Guadagnino (Bones and All, Call Me By Your Name) has made a  laudatory documentary about Salvatore Ferragamo, the shoemaker who became a fashion icon. 
     Ferragamo's life-long determination to make shoes took him to Hollywood, turned him into a shoemaker to the stars, and led to the establishment of an innovative global brand. 
   Largely based on Ferragamo's 1957 autobiography, Shoemaker of Dreams, the move -- entitled Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams --  includes recordings made by Ferragamo, interviews with designers such as Manolo Blahnik, archival footage, and a narration provided by Michael Stuhlbarg
   It's difficult not to fall under the glamorous sway of the stars who wore Ferragamo's shoes: Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn among them. 
   As director Martin Scorsese points out, Ferragamo's arrival in California coincided with the rise of the movie business. Ferragamo must have understood that putting shoes on famous feet would enhance his reputation. 
   Eventually, Ferragamo returned to Italy where he established himself in Florence, went through a bankruptcy, and -- of course -- re-emerged. 
   Guadagnino's film talks about the way World War II forced Ferragamo to utilize new materials but has little to say about how he felt about the rise of Mussolini. Ferragamo lived through tumultuous times but his attention seems to have remained on his work.
   Mostly an outline of a life that began when Ferragamo left home at the age of 12, the movie pays tribute to a man who thought his greatest contribution was to combine design and comfort -- maybe too much tribute because the film is overly long and sometimes digressive.
   Still, Guadagnino chronicles the career of a man who seemed to leave little to chance, fashioning his life with one calculation after another. He became an apprentice in Naples. He went to the U.S. to learn whether US manufacturing techniques could be married to an artisan's ethos. He returned to Italy to add a "made-in-Europe" cache to his wares. He was obsessed with feet, so he studied anatomy. He married when he decided it was time to marry. 
     Ferragamo seemed to be making focused decisions from the age of nine, when he made his first pair of shoes for a sister's first communion. He died in 1960 at the age of 62. The business is still family owned.*

*If you're ever in Florence, make a point of visiting  The Ferragamo Museum, where you'll find many interesting exhibits and learn a bit more about Ferragamo's connection to the artists of his day.

The struggles of a gay Marine recruit

 When it comes to depicting the way the Marine Corps trains recruits, Hollywood has tended to go hard. Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket set the brutal standard for the fervor with which drill instructors try to break down their charges before allowing them to become Marines. The Inspection is another basic-training movie but with a difference. It focuses on a gay recruit who joins the Marines after spending 10 homeless years on the streets of Trenton, N.J. Based on his own life, writer/director Elegance Bratton focuses his movie on Ellis French (a terrific Jeremy Pope), a disheveled young man whose religious mother (Gabriel Union) threw him out for being gay before he had learned to stand on his own two feet. Scenes between French and his mother have bite, mostly because Union conveys the unmitigated loathing French's mother has for her son's gayness. Most of the movie focuses on French's training days, which includes a moment in which he inadvertently reveals his gayness. A tough drill instructor (Bokeem Woodbine) makes it his business to weed French out of the Corps. Another non-commissioned officer (Raul Castillo) extends some understanding, assuring French that others like him have made it to the end. Bullied by trainers and his fellow recruits, it takes all of French's resolve to continue. He develops a tie with another "outcast" recruit (Eman Esfandi), a Muslim, but mostly he's on his own. Although the movie can feel limited, it stands as a revealing look at a young man who's trying to understand whether he can fit into a world that wasn’t designed to acknowledge his existence. It's not only the Marine Corps that's making decisions here. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

'White Noise' never seems to find its footing

   In adapting Don DeLillo's 1985 novel, White Noise, for the screen, director Noah Baumbach has made a wildly uneven movie that soars and sinks until it arrives at a brilliant end-credit musical number set to LCD Soundsystem's New Body Rhumba. 
      Some of White Noise struck me as abrasively funny, although it's easy to make fun of academic pretension, one of the movie's early preoccupations. Otherwise, Baumbach sends his movie here, there, and everywhere, spewing cleverness but never finding its footing. 
      Looking as if he hasn't made a trip to the gym in months, a pot-bellied Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a college professor specializing in Hitler studies, a field he pioneered. 
    Jack's wife Babette (Greta Gerwig)  works with the elderly and is addicted to pills known as Dylar. (What these pills do remains a mystery until near the movie’s end.)
   A fourth marriage for both Jack and Babette, the couple lives in a college town with the kids from their combined households, four in all.
   Don Cheadle turns up as Murray, one of Jack's colleagues, a professor who lectures on pop culture. Murray hopes to do for Elvis what Jack has done for Hitler, turn the King into an academic rage.
   At one point, Jack and Murray give dueling lectures that Jack treats as a clash of egos and which Baumbach deftly stages with each professor trying to out-dramatize the other.
    Baumbach soon introduces a disaster-movie element that’s foreshowed by an early-picture lecture Murray gives on the deeper meaning of car crashes in movies.
     When a truck and a train collide, the little college town that Jack and Babette call home is threatened by an "airborne toxic event." Toxic clouds pollute the air.
     Fearing contamination and heeding an evacuation order, the family piles into a station wagon and flees the advancing cloud. The movie suddenly becomes a cockeyed disaster pic full of roads glutted with traffic, impromptu shelters, and escalating fear.
    Baumbach keeps many of DeLillo's ironic jokes. Jack, for example, bills himself as an expert on Hitler but he doesn't speak German. Supermarkets become meccas of personal fulfillment. Consumerism attains the status of a new religion.
     All of this in the service of obliterating any consciousness of mortality in a culture that can't bear to face the prospect of death, a fear that haunts both Jack and Babette.
     A late picture development brings Jack face-to-face with unpleasant truths, including a confession of infidelity by Babette that leads to ... oh well ... it doesn't exactly matter because it feels as if Baumbach has deposited us in another movie, one in which Jack tries to unravel the mysteries of Dylar.
   Baumbach sets the story in the 1980s, just as DeLillo did. That means White Noise can feel dated. Amusing in spurts and obviously ambitious, White Noise never becomes a self-sufficient romp through a fractured culture.
    Instead, Baumbach's White Noise feels like a collection of the accumulated absurdities that once fired DeLillo’s imagination in a novel that many considered unfilmable. Pehraps they were right. Some things should be left on the page.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Stevel Spielberg, movie love and family trouble

    Why hold back? Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest storytellers ever to make movies.
      Few directors pace a movie better. Few are as unerring when it comes to camera placement. And although he knows how to create stirring images, Spielberg also has gotten amazing performances during the course of what has become a long career. 
    Think Robert Shaw in Jaws. Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.
    You get the idea. Spielberg not only makes movies but, as a friend once said, he knows how to make movies.
      For the most part, Spielberg also knows what makes a good story.
      But does that mean that a movie based on Spielberg's life makes for a compelling tale? 
      That's the question that I kept asking myself while watching The Fabelmans, a quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie about an aspiring filmmaker and his sometimes troubled family.
      The answer to the question isn't a simple “yes” or “no.” 
     At nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, The Fabelmans is a collection of hits and misses that ultimately tells us that its main character has had a life-long love of movies, that making films has helped him digest difficult experiences, and (not to be too schmaltzy) that true artists never allow themselves to be dissuaded.
        Taken from a script Spielberg co-wrote with Tony KushnerThe Fabelmans probably shouldn't be taken as a definitive version of Spielberg's youthful life. It is, after all, a movie.
       The story begins when Sammy Fabelman, the stand-in for Spielberg, is taken by his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) to his first movie. Once inside the theater, young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) becomes captivated by the train wreck he sees in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth.
       Given Spielberg's penchant for on-screen action, it's hardly surprising that his first influence was a devastating train wreck, a sequence Sammy tries to recreate with a toy train he receives as a Hanukah gift. Sammy films the mini-wreck with his dad's camera.
       Sammy's early striving serves to introduce one of the movie's major themes: A frustrated concert pianist and a dreamer, Mom encourages Sammy's pursuit of art. Dad, an engineer by trade, takes a far less poetic approach. He wants his son to learn how to make things people can use. He demeans Sammy’s movie obsession by calling it a hobby.
       Fortunately for the story, the Fabelmans are a peripatetic lot. The film follows the Fabelman family (Mom, Dad, Sammy, and his three sisters) as they move from New Jersey to Phoenix to Northern California during the 1950s and 1960s.
        Surprisingly, at least to me, Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle as an older kid) doesn't encounter antisemitism until high school.
       The school’s jocks, notably an Aryan-looking popularity king played by Sam Rechner, bully Sammy.  One of school's few Jews, Sammy is accused of being a Christ-killer and is humiliated with a schoolyard beating.
       Despite such calumnies, Sammy eventually finds a girlfriend (Chloe East), a zealous Christian who, at this point in her life, has conflated her love of Jesus with her emerging sexuality. 
      The various films that Sammy makes, including a western and a war movie, are among the film's most engaging bits. Sammy develops his directorial chops as he learns about action, editing, and acting. He's his own film school.
       Williams' Mitzi anchors the movie's pivotal reveal, which Sammy discovers while reviewing footage he shot during a family camping trip. It's an important insight: Film can record truths that otherwise might remain hidden.
         As a woman whose personality embraces playfulness, determination, resolve, and caring, Williams gives the film's most memorable performance. Dano creates a kindly fatherly figure who mostly suffers in silence. Seth Rogen signs on as Benny, Dad’s best friend, a jokester family members call Uncle Benny, even though he’s not related to them
         In the middle of all this, Spielberg drops an extended cameo from Judd Hirsch, who plays Uncle Boris, a brother of Sammy's grandmother. Her death prompts Boris's unexpected visit. 
         Something of a black sheep. Boris seems to have spent his life around the fringes of show business. He sees the artist in Sammy and encourages him (more like tough-love bullying with a Yiddish accent) not to forsake his filmmaking dreams.
         I didn't need The Fabelmans to tell me that Spielberg loves movies and the treasured big-screen lineage of which he’s such a vital part.
        Moreover, I don't think The Fablemans qualifies as a great coming-of-age movie. It's probably at least 30 minutes too long, it doesn't always display the drive that makes many Spielberg movies irresistible and it can’t help but be a trifle self-serving.  
       But because Spielberg has had such an important career, the movie probably will generate interest among his admirers. I'm glad I saw The Fabelmans, even though I didn't love it in the way I love Spielberg's best work.
       Despite some painful family disclosures, The Fabelmans doesn't feel like a tell-all tale; it’s a story in which a fledgling filmmaker, quickly wins applause. The accolades may be coming from Sammy’s Boy Scout troop, but we know that’s just the beginning of what will be a great career. Sammy will not be dissuaded.
        What did you expect? A movie in which a talented kid is condemned to carry the scars of family life into an emotionally wounded and anonymous adulthood?
        No way. That could be an Arthur Miller play. Spielberg had other plans. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

‘Glass Onion’: Fakeouts, feints and fun


    Glass Onion is billed as A Knives Out Mystery, a title that links this generously entertaining movie to its 2019 predecessor. If you're familiar with the first movie, you already know that writer/director Rian Johnson will go heavy on cleverness, unsavory characters, and a plot that weaves its way through a preposterously complex series of events, some shown in flashback. 
    Aside from the central character, Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc, super-sleuth with a southern accent, the movie boasts all new characters, a group of friends (Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom, Jessica Henwick, Dave Bautista,  Madelyn Cline, and Kate Hudson) who are invited to the private Greek island of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). 
   Bron wants his guests to spend a weekend playing a game in which he's the murder victim and they must figure out who "killed" the self-appointed "genius." All in fun, right?
    Not exactly. Johnson quickly dispenses with Bron’s game and gets down to the movie's real business. When Bron's estranged former business partner (Janelle Monae) turns up, the plot wheels start turning.
    It's a pleasure to see Craig play this role again, almost an antidote to his many appearances as James Bond. Manae creates a character of mystery, resentment, and cunning, and the rest of the cast plays along with Hudson enjoying a chance to go over the top as a once-successful model. 
     The Glass Onion, as it happens, is the name of the bar where the friends met in the days before Bron bought their loyalty by financing their various efforts.
    If you want to play around with possible connections to the Beetle song from the White Album (also titled Glass Onion) go ahead, but I’m not sure the movie requires that much head-scratching. 
   A few explosive flourishes make it seems as if a leftover summer movie breeze blew through Johnson's mind, pushing Glass Onion onto a larger stage than we might expect for this kind of movie. And, a confession: It’s difficult for me to be entirely gleeful when a movie veers into franchise territory. 
   But these days, such sentiments are about as useful as complaining about the weather, and, for the most part, Johnson acquits himself well, keeping his story percolating through its many fakeouts and feints.

A mother who cares for someone else’s kid

  Billed as a horror movie, Nanny takes us into a world where social and psychological issues collide. As can happen with revealing movies, director Nikyatu Jusu embodies her themes in a single character, a nanny played by Anna Diop
  A Senegalese immigrant, Diop’s Aisha lands a job working as a nanny for a well-heeled Manhattan couple, a wife (Michelle Monaghan) who's struggling with a demanding job and a photo-journalist husband (Morgan Spector) with a wandering eye.
   Jusu doesn't have to underline the movie's central irony: Aisha cares for someone else’s child so that she can earn enough money to bring her young son to the US from Senegal. 
   Jusu also doesn’t overplay the movie’s racial dynamics, but they can't be ignored.  The only person who relates fully to Aisha is the girl (Rose Decker) she cares for. Aisha pays attention to Rose. She sees her as more than a source of logistical problems for her parents.
   The movie’s horror tilt appears when Aisha begins having hallucinations that reflect the already heightened anxiety she feels for the son who has been left in the care of a Senegalese cousin. 
   Visions aside, life progresses as Aisha develops a warm relationship with Malik (Sinqua Walls), the doorman in the building where she works. 
   Well-schooled in West African lore, Malik’s grandmother (Leslie Uggams) sees terrible forebodings in Aisah’s hallucinations.
    Jusu includes one shocking scene in which Aisha is almost overcome by her “visions,” but the movie isn’t particularly scary and, in truth, I could have done without the supernatural suggestions.
    That doesn't mean that Diop and Jusu haven't combined for a movie that brings us close to a part of life that too often is ignored. In New York, it’s possible to see African women sitting on benches in playgrounds, chatting while keeping a watchful eye on their scampering charges. 
   Jusu challenges us not to be passersby but to take a closer look. 

Friday, November 18, 2022

‘Bones and All’ difficult to digest

    If you simply described the premise of Bones and All, a story about two cannibalistic teenagers trying to find their place in society, it might sound like an ordinary horror film with lots of coagulated blood and amped up tension. 
   In the hands of director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) the movie turns into something different, an indie-spirited accumulation of strange scenes that suggests deeper meanings, “suggest” being the operative word. 
   But suggesting and saying aren’t the same thing, and for most of it two-hour and 10-minute running time, I kept waiting for Bones and All to find something. I'm no sure what. Not some on-the-nose declaration of purpose but perhaps a door that swings open, inviting us to drop beneath the surface.
   Instead, Guadagnino suspends his movie in a low-rent limbo where nearly everything seems drab, unappealing and only potentially meaningful.
  Those looking for color will find it mostly in the blood that stains the faces of the movie’s young cannibals after they chow down.
   Without making too big a fuss about it, Guadagnino lets us know that the film, based on a YA novel by Camille DeAngelis,  is taking place during the ‘80s. Working phone booths. A TV repairman’s truck. (Yes, kids, people once had their TVs repaired). Music on the soundtrack. It's all from the '80s.
  In the film’s best performance, Taylor Russell portrays Maren, an 18-year-old cannibal kid who’s abandoned by her father (Andre Holland), a caring man no longer able to cope with his daughter’s proclivities. Every time she bites, they must uproot.
  Once dad is gone, Maren sets out on her own. Early in her journey, she encounters Sully, played by Mark Rylance with a vaguely southern accent, a long braid, and skin-crawling creepiness. Sully wants to teach Maren how to live as an “eater,” which is how those driven by irresistible flesh-eating urges refer to themselves. He also craves company.
  After wisely splitting from Sully, Maren meets Lee (Call Me By Your Name star, Timothee Chalamet), another “eater. 
   Unable to find niches in the “normal” world, the two travel around the country in Lee’s pick-up truck. During one encounter, they meet a couple of good-ole boys, also eaters (an unrecognizable Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green). 
  Stuhlbarg’s character explains the title. Ominously, he tells Maren and Lee that they won’t be full-fledged eaters until they consume a body “bones and all.”  
   There’s before bones & all and after, he says, signaling what I took to mean full and gleeful submission to one’s cannibal self. 
   Unlike the movie’s two main characters, these two are barbaric eaters. Or maybe they just don’t like leftovers.
  In another encounter, Maren meets her institutionalized mother (Chloe Sevigny), who presumably passed the macabre genetic heritage of “eating” to her daughter. Mom, by the way, had herself locked up so that she wouldn’t victimize anyone else. 
  The supporting cast fully embraces these whacky roles. Chalamet charts his own weird course.
  The movie attempts to redeem itself by showing that Maren and Lee don’t really want to be “eaters,” although they take different approaches to their unexplained  “affliction.” 
  Maren adopts a moral stance: She’d rather not kill. Lee says he has no choice. It’s not clear, though, whether Maren can choose to be a more acceptable kind of carnivore.
  Guadagnino doesn’t cop out on gore and those who are squeamish about such things should probably find another movie about two outsiders roaming a lonely, creepy world. 
   If you’re wondering whether Maren and Lee eat regular food, they do — at least until the need to feed on human flesh overcomes them. I guess the movie wants us to see them as a couple of kids desperately in need of connection. 
  The movie's saving grace, such as it is,  lies in Guadagnino’s understanding of the sadness of outcasts.
   And, yes, it takes talent to draw us into this bizarre world and accept (or at least adjust to) its terms, so much so that we forget to step outside and consider what we’re watching. 
   Should we do that, we might see Maren and Lee as needy kids who also happen to be killers who can’t control themselves. 
   When these kids get hungry someone dies. Just sayin’.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Two reporters dig for an important story


 She Said, the story of how two The New York Times reporters exposed the abusive conduct of Harvey Weinstein, effectively dramatizes 
the ins and outs of reporting a big story in which sources are reluctant to talk and the target of the investigation wields significant power. 
    As the co-founder and the public face of Miramax, Weinstein was a major player in the world of movies, a producer of influence that he evidently used to help those whom he favored and thwart those he didn't.
    For some women, the side of the equation on which they landed depended on how they responded to Weinstein's sexual advances, some made in startlingly crude and even criminal fashion.
    Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) revealed that Weinstein, now serving a 23-year prison sentence for rape and sexual assault, had been settling sexual abuse cases with women for years, silencing them with restrictive non-disclosure agreements.
       Mulligan's Twohey seems the more aggressive of the two, more seasoned in pitfalls of pre-#MeToo harassment. Early on, we learn that Twohey wrote stories about women who had things to say about Donald Trump’s behavior. She was dejected when the stories appeared to change nothing.
       Kazan's Kantor gives the movie a steady beat. Despite discouragement, Kantor persists and she shows that reporters can respect the sensibilities of those with whom they deal. Better yet, her concern never seems like an ingratiating journalistic ploy.
      Brief references are made to the home life of each of the women. Husbands aren't upset that their wives are working feverishly, as often happens in such movies. Both women deal with the demands of motherhood. But the movie’s focus remains on the work required to nail the story.
      Of the supporting performances, the always interesting Patricia Clarkson proves an unsurprising standout as a Times editor. Samantha Morton makes a strong impression as Zelda Perkins, a woman who once served as a personal assistant to Weinstein. Ashley Judd plays herself, a prominent show business figure who ultimately went public about Weinstein.  Jennifer Ehle has a nice turn as Laura Madden, a woman who was battling breast cancer when she told her Weinstein story.
     Andre Braugher is convincing as Times editor Dean Baquet, particularly in a couple of scenes depicting terse conversations with Weinstein who tried to derail the story.
     Dramatizing the grunt work of journalism isn't easy. At times, it almost looks as if Schrader has made a movie about cell phone calls -- calls that awaken the women from sound sleeps, calls while walking in parks, calls while walking with husbands, calls that disrupt meetings, and on and on.
      I'm not sure how the problem could have been resolved; besides, the story and its detail have more to do with the movie's success than cinematic flair. 
     We only see Weinstein (an actor) from the back in one scene near the end of the movie but we're made to understand the power that he used to impose himself on women, many of them young and naive.  Schrader includes a real phone call between Weinstein and Ambra Gutierrez, an Italian model, but she wisely creates no scenes in which we see Weinstein committing his crimes.
     That doesn't mean that Weinstein's presence isn't felt throughout. With help from enablers, he abused his position and got away with it -- until some of the women he harmed and two determined reporters helped bring his misdeeds to light.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

‘The Menu’: a tasty satire about foodies

     The Menu takes aim at restaurant obsessives, folks who'll pay a fortune to be served fashionably minuscule portions.
   Price tags, however, are anything but small. The well-heeled or wannabes willingly open their wallets. In return, they're rewarded with super creative dishes prepared under the guidance of executive chefs who have attained celebrity status.
      In The Menu, director Mark Mylod employs a strong cast -- led by Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy -- for a darkly hued comedy with an amply stocked side dish of horror. Food snobs beware, Mylod's coming for you. 
     For most of its one-hour and 46-minute run-time, The Menu serves its observations with a sharp satirical edge.
       The movie owes much of its success to Fiennes, who plays Chef Julian Slowik, the culinary genius who presides over a restaurant so exclusive it's located on an island where all the food that's served is locally harvested. Diners arrive by boat.
     When he introduces a new course to the assembled diners, Slowik claps his hands loudly and the kitchen staff -- visible to the diners -- snaps to attention.  Slowik has turned his staff into a paramilitary food force. 
      The only response to any question Slowik might ask: "Yes, chef."
       The diners are a select group. John Leguizamo appears as an actor whose career has hit the downside. He arrives with his assistant (Aimee Carrero), a young woman who's ready to seek greener employment pastures.
        Judith Light and Reed Birney play a couple celebrating their anniversary, although they don't seem especially happy about it. 
        Taylor-Joy appears as the date of a young man (Nicholas Hoult) who thinks he knows a great deal about food. Hoult portrays the diner who hopes to impress the chef with his vast food acumen. He's eager to genuflect at Slowik's culinary altar.
        Diners also include a powerful career-making food critic (Janet McTeer) and the editor (Paul Adlestein) who publishes her work. 
       A table of young tech execs (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr)  tosses around credit cards with the kind of abandon that lets everyone know they believe in their own sense of entitlement.
      A memorably scary Hong Chau portrays the stern maitre d of the restaurant Hawthorne. She greets guests, gives them a quick tour of the island, and otherwise informs them of the rules by which they must abide if they're to get the most out of their dining experience.
      The meals are amusing. A lone scallop served on a rock drawn from the sea, for example. Or how about a bread course distinguished by the absence of bread? The guests (only 12 are allowed) pay $1250 per person for the evening.
      Aside from Taylor-Joy's outspoken character, most of the guests are pretentious jerks. The screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy leads these exemplars of privilege to their well-deserved, often violent comeuppances.
       Fiennes makes an imposing dictatorial chef, who regards himself as an artist. Slowik instructs patrons that they must taste, not eat. People aren't eating meals, they’re sampling food conceptions, many mimicking the ambitions of “molecular”  gastronomy.
       A study in austere modernism, restaurant Hawthorne isn't just a place to eat, it's the physical embodiment of rarified consumer aspiration, which is pretty much what the movie’s about — not exactly a theme on which to feast but sufficient for some tasty grazing.