Thursday, July 22, 2021

‘Old’ clould have used some new tricks

      Imagine if you aged 50 years in a single day.
      Or -- on second thought -- don't bother because if you buy into M. Night Shyamalan's Old, you'll be taking a trip that's often more ludicrous than scary, mind-expanding or (heaven forbid) insightful.
     The movie begins when a family arrives at a tropical paradise, an upscale resort with a genial manager and all the amenities anyone could want. 
    Mom (Vicky Krieps) found the place online. Her husband (Gael Garcia Bernal) seems wary, but the two children -- a six-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter -- are primed for fun in the sun. 
    Well, sort of. We quickly learn that Mom and Dad are keeping a secret about Mom’s health from the kids.
    On the morning after their arrival, the hotel's manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) suggests the family visit a beautiful beach, a secluded spot he recommends only to special guests.
    The vacationers are driven to the beach along with another couple and their daughter. Before long, a couple of additional beachgoers arrive, rounding out a cast that includes Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Aaron Pierre.
    Once at the beach, the characters begin a mysterious aging process that baffles and unnerves them. Don’t blame lack of sunblock.
     Those who try to escape immediately black out only to reawaken on the beach, trapped again in a rapid-aging nightmare by a steep cliff wall that makes the beach mostly inaccessible.
    Shyamalan employs make-up and adds new cast members to create the aging process, which includes episodes in which Sewell's character,  a surgeon, steadily loses his grip.  A girl becomes pregnant after starting the movie as a pre-schooler. The bones of a vain woman (Abbey Lee) calcify, turning her body into a mangled heap. 
     More cliched than perceptive, the movie has little to say aging, a topic that might given the movie real weight.
    None of the performances are notable, and I stopped trying to keep track of the cast other than to note that Alex Wolff has a somewhat extended turn as the boy of the early scenes at age 15. 
    Enough. Shyamalan has a hit-and-miss track record that includes movies such as Glass, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, and of course, The Sixth Sense. 
   Less mystique-oriented than some of Shyamalan's work, Old makes a lame attempt at social relevance, basing its screenplay on  Sandcastle, a graphic novel written by Pierre-Oscar-Levy and Frederick Peters.
     Not to disappoint his fans, Shyamalan gives Old one of his signature twists, a  big late-picture reveal that's easy enough to predict and which falls flat.  
     The finale strives for moral complexity but proves as unconvincing as the rest of a movie that already has drowned  in shallow thematic waters.    

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A look at a master of dance


The great choreographer Alvin Ailey died of AIDS in 1989 — but neither his name nor his fame have diminished in the 32 years since his demise at the age of 58. The documentary Ailey uses an interview with Ailey and with figures from the dance world -- Judith JamisonBill T. JonesGeorge FaisonCarmen de Lavallade -- to bring the life and work of Ailey into contextualized focus. The movie opens in 1988. Cicely Tyson is seen paying homage to Ailey at a Kennedy Center Honors program. Tyson states the movie's theme: Ailey, she says, is both Black and universal. Director Jamila Wignot's documentary sets about proving  both halves of Tyson's statement. Another way to look at Tyson's remark would be to say that because Ailey's work deeply reflects Black culture and the conditions with which he was raised, it sounds notes of sorrow, celebration, and reverence that can touch any heart.  Ailey’s story demonstrates that the universal often derives from the particular. Ailey was born in Texas in 1931, moved to Los Angeles with his mother in 1942, and later to New York, where -- in 1958 -- he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Wignot devotes considerable time to the creation of Ailey's Revelations, a 1960 ballet regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century dance. We also learn about Ailey's company and how it viewed a director who felt at home with his dancers but maintained a distance that allowed him to create his vision. There are clips of dancing (now and then) and a view of Lazarus,  a piece that's being choreographed by Rennie Harris to celebrate the company's longevity and ongoing relevance. The company continues today under the direction of Robert Battlebut there's little doubt that it's Ailey's name that has become synonymous with inventive, groundbreaking dance, Black culture, and high artistic achievement.

Life on Mars is no day at the beach


    Few movies are as focused as Settlers and, in the case of this story about stranded Martian colonizers, that focus can be cruel and unremitting. 
    Settlers has little or no interest in the technology of survival -- a biosphere enables its inhabitants to breathe -- or in the earthly breakdown that brought colonists to Mars in the first place. 
    The movie's interests center almost entirely on what people will do to survive.
   Minimally populated and sparse, Settlers raises questions about whether the characters we see are the only residents of this desolate world. Might there be other, unseen colonists on the fabled Red Planet?
   Filming in a South African desert, director Wyatt Rockefeller turns Mars into a planetary frontier resembling an isolated outpost in the mythic Old West. 
     The story begins by introducing us to Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), and their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince).  
    For this trio, life has a bereft quality that's mirrored in the unforgiving Martian landscape. 
    One day, the trio -- sole occupants of the movie's biosphere-- sees the word "leave" scrawled on the transparent shield that separates them from the lethal Martian atmosphere. 
    A group of invaders wants to appropriate what might be the planet's last habitable space. They wear oxygen masks and are armed. A small battle ensues and a new character -- Ismael Cruz Cordova's Jerry -- enters the mix. 
    No fair telling exactly how but the power dynamics inside the biosphere shift as the story poses questions about how much the characters can accommodate themselves to the new reality of other people and the conflicts they breed.
     The only other creatures in the movie are a pig that Remmy treats as a pet, some chickens, and -- if you want to stretch the point -- a robot named Steve, a boxy machine with stem-like legs. Steve screams of low-tech inefficiencies but has just enough personality to prompt empathy.
     The actors are up to the task with Prince (familiar from The Florida Project) giving the film its anchor. As time passes,  Nell Tiger Free takes over the role of Remmy and Rockefeller moves toward the film's uncompromising conclusion.
   Settlers  doesn't entirely hold up when you begin thinking about its backstory, the groundwork that paves the way for Rockefeller's drama. Moreover, the movie  requires patience, particularly at times when the story loses its drive.
    But Rockefeller effectively abandons us in a forbidding environment with characters who are forced to confront themselves and make choices that spring from unalterable necessities. 
    As a result, we're left to wonder whether these characters aren't playing a terrible end game.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

New ‘Space Jam’ aims low on the age scale

   LeBron James and Warner Bros. 
   If you ask me what Space Jam: A New Legacy is about, that's pretty much all I have to say. 
   Beginning with an ode to LeBron's basketball achievements and then turning into a running advertisement for Warner Bros, the movie branches out from the original Space Jam, which was released in 1996 and starred Michael Jordon.
   Early in the movie, James stresses the importance of fundamentals on the basketball court, a view that's at odds with a film that's overwhelmed by flash and dash, razzle-dazzle,  moves that may make you long for a time out.
   Warner has moved Space Jam into the 21st century by sending LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) into a virtual world run by Al-G-Rhythm (Don Cheadle), a villain who resides in a giant server. Al-G feels slighted because LeBron has rejected a bid to star in a video world that Al-G has created. 
   The movie also features a father/son story. LeBron pushes his son to play basketball, to "put in the work." Dom prefers inventing video games. He doesn't want to be a mirror image of his highly disciplined dad.
    Once inside Al-G's computer world, LeBron becomes a cartoon figure -- at least some of the time and the movie cooks up a plot that pits LeBron and his cartoon cohorts (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, and others) against the Goons, a team of menacing opponents modeled on real players such as Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard. 
    Can LeBron act? It hardly matters. He only has to be LeBron -- or some version of LeBron, in this case, the dad who learns that he must respect his son’s ambitions.
   Perhaps to amuse adults and maybe to remind the world of a  proud Warner Bros. history, you'll find references to Casablanca and Mad Max: Fury Road. Did I mention references to Harry Potter, Superman,  Scooby-Doo, and oddly for a kids' movie, Clockwork Orange?
    The big basketball game might have capped a brisk 60-minute movie, but New Legacy runs for one hour and 55 minutes and the game feels endless.
    Director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Barbershop, the Next Cut) and a team of screenwriters push New Legacy toward the positive side of the value scale, but a message about allowing  young people to follow their interests seems muted in a movie whose style leans more toward agitation than illumination. 
    King Kong, Iron Giant, and others watch the big game from the sidelines. The stakes: If LeBron loses, he and his Tune pals will have to remain in Al-G's virtual world forever. If they win, they go home.
    Kids may respond to this amped-up cartoon, but for me,  a Tune victory and home couldn't come soon enough.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The life and times of Anthony Bourdain


     God, I miss that guy. 
     Odd thing to say about someone I never met, but that's how I feel about Anthony Bourdain, the TV personality who traveled the world. Bourdain ate and drank in numerous settings -- and he did it with acuity and generosity.
    Like just about every other fan of Bourdain's CNN Parts Unknown, I was shocked to learn that Bourdain had committed suicide. In June of 2018, he hanged himself in a hotel room in an Alsatian town in northeastern France.
   It was impossible to believe that a man who seemed so engaged with the world would voluntarily leave it.
    I suppose everyone who watches Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will be looking for clues about why he chose to end an amazing life in which he was, roughly in this order, a kitchen scrub, a chef, a heroin addict, a husband, a father, a lover,  and a celebrity.
   Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom and Won't You Be My Neighbor?) doesn't exactly answer the big question as he chronicles Bourdain's life. Bourdain was one of those rare people who didn't perform on TV: He lived on it.
   The closest we come to understanding Bourdain's death comes toward the end of the movie when Neville deals with Bourdain's relationship with actress Asia Argento, his involvement with the #MeToo movement, and the tangles of an affair gone sour.  
    An engrossing look at an extraordinary life, Roadrunner does a fine job showing how Bourdain's career unfolded -- not according to some planned trajectory but as something that seemed to happen to him as he became chef at Manhattan's Les Halles. His life changed when he forayed  into authorship with Kitchen Confidential, a compulsively readable insider's view of restaurant life.
    Before Parts Unknown, Bourdain had two other TV shows -- A Cook's Tour and No Reservations. He became the guy who'd try anything. To underscore the point, Neville shows us Bourdain in Vietnam where he ate the heart of cobra, telling us that he could still feel it beating as he swallowed.
    Bourdain did a lot of crazy things but avoided turning them into self-aggrandizing stunts. Adventure eating became a form of cultural sharing, a commitment to bonding with the people with whom he mingled. He wasn't just tasting food; he was tasting the world -- with a camera crew to record his observations, often delivered in beautifully written narrations.
    Neville tells about Bourdain's marriages and we learn that domesticity couldn’t survive a travel schedule that would have destroyed most of us. Bourdain realized that he had bypassed normality. 
    All of this is tempered by appearances from people who knew Bourdain. Celebrity chefs Eric Ripert -- who discovered Bourdain's dead body -- and David Chang and other pals. We also hear from former wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain and, importantly, from the producers and crew members who worked with him.
    So, no, there's no Rosebud moment in Roadrunner and we and Bourdain's legacy probably are better for the lack of it. Maybe that's the only gift Bourdain's terrible departure gave us. 
   We'll never really know why he ended his life, and that allows Roadrunner to leave us with an enticing plate of leftovers; i.e., plenty to think about: food, culture, celebrity, and what it’s like to ride a wave that never seems to break or settle on any shore.

Trying to understand life among trees

I've read reviews of Peter Wohlleben's 2015 book The Hidden Life of Trees that took issue with the way the renowned German forester tended to anthropomorphize nature. I don't know how to feel about that but watching Jorg Adolph's documentary -- also The Hidden Life of Trees -- the benefits of accompanying Wohlleben on a tour of many forests more than compensate for any reservations you might bring. Besides, at this point, anything that alerts us to our rapacious consumption of the natural world should be welcomed. I won't try to summarize Wohlleben's entire approach, but its essence involves the idea that trees are sentient beings. They have their own coping mechanisms and socialization processes and can care for one another. I'm probably guilty of oversimplification and it should be said that Wohlleben isn't against the use of wood, arguing instead for efficiency over speed. If we take our cue from trees -- which he describes as occupying nature's slow lane -- we would pay more attention to what we're doing to the world in which we live. Among the places Wohllenben visits, a spot in Sweden where we see 'Old Tjikko, a 9,550-year-old tree. It's helpful to think of forests as living organisms that can be used for human benefit but which must be respected -- not least of all because we need them to slow the impact of climate change. So file The Hidden Life of Trees under an ecological heading and, while you're at it, cross your fingers that it's not too late to heed its message.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Nicolas Cage's deep dive into isolation


     When Nicolas Cage plays a depressed man, sadness rolls off the screen like a heavy fog. 
   You'll discover this if you see the simply titled Pig, the story of an Oregon hermit who truffle hunts with a pig that lives with him in an isolated cabin in the woods. The man -- we eventually learn that his name is Robin -- treats the pig as a household pet, sharing food with the animal who sleeps in a small bed next to his.
    Initially, Pig looks as if it's going to be a strange wilderness saga about a wounded man who has withdrawn from society.
   But, no. Thieves burst into the cabin and steal the pig, presumably because premier truffles can be so valuable.
    Until then, Robin has dealt only with Amir (Alex Wolff), a young man with the demeanor of a small-time hustler. Amir acquires truffles from Robin in exchange for supplies and resells them to upscale restaurants.
    Once the pig is taken, Robin and Amir head to Portland where Robin demonstrates how determined he is to retrieve his pig.
   If you've seen some of Cage's recent work, you may find yourself thinking that you've stumbled into another revenge saga in which Robin will slow burn his way toward an explosively violent finale.
   Director Michael Sarnoski has something different in mind. He begins a journey that takes Robin from a private fight club where he allows himself to be beaten for money to an exclusive restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy. 
    Robin's takedown of the restaurant's chef (David Knell) is delivered by Cage with so much insight and conviction it's scary. 
   Questions emerge: Who is Robin? What tragedy reduced him to his current state? And what future does he have -- if any?
   Cage finally encounters the man who may be the source of his troubles (Adam Arkin). Turns out he's Amir's father.
    Cage could have loaded lines such as "I want my pig" with sneering ironies, but we don't know quite how to read a man who sees himself and perhaps the rest of the world as doomed. Cage never winks at the audience or undermines the truth of Robin's loneliness. He makes it seem like an honorable choice.
    Although some of Pig can be viewed as a satire about upscale food fetishism, it comes across as muted and doom-struck, full of felt sorrow for characters who begin to realize what their lives have become. Robin already knows. 
    Looking so grungy and battered you half wonder whether he might have been arrested for vagrancy on his way home from the set, Cage creates a memorable character, particularly when you consider the kind of notes Pig could have sounded.
    Just as important, Pig proves smart enough not to italicize every unexpected turn. Pig doesn’t earn trust by trying to make us feel better; it earns trust by not being afraid to dive deep into Cage's character and the fallen world he inhabits.

Women kick butt in 'Gunpowder Milkshake'


     I didn't think that I'd be even a little impressed by another violent comic book of a movie that makes the phrase "over-the-top" seem understated. 
    Credit director Navot Papushado with making a movie that boasts a strong female cast and blasts its way into summer with gusto, style, and a surfeit of butt-kicking pleasures.
    The movie begins when an assassin (Lena Headey) shares a milkshake with her 12-year-old daughter. Crosswise with her employer, an outfit known as The Firm, Mom flees.
     The story then leaps ahead 15 years and the daughter (Karen Gillan) -- now a young woman -- has gone into the family business. She, too, works for The Firm,  taking assignments from Nathan (Paul Giamatti), an "executive" who consults with a board composed of men cut from corporate cloth. 
    Gillan's Sam, who hasn’t seen her mother since that fateful day at the diner, attracts trouble when an assignment puts her at odds with the evil Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson). A furious McAlister vows vengeance because his son was among Sam's victims.
    You needn’t know much more about the plot which quickly lands Sam at a “library” where three women (Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett) lend weapons to a select clientele. They know Sam's mom, who once was a fellow "librarian."
   As the story unfolds, Sam finds herself looking out for Emily (Chloe Coleman), an eight-year-old whose father had the misfortune of being shot by Sam. Realizing that she probably shouldn't have shot Emily's dad, Sam takes the kid underwing. Emily starts referring to herself as Sam's "apprentice."
    Emily also insists on reminding folks not to shortchange her age: She's actually eight and three-quarters.
    Papushado understands that movies such as Gunpowder Milkshake live or die with their set pieces. For the most part, he delivers.
    Among the best action: Sam engages in combat after her  hands have been paralyzed by a fiendish doctor (Michael Smiley). To up the preposterous ante, Papushado has Sam battling three thugs who are stoned on laughing gas.
    As the story barrels along, Emily receives what might be the wildest driving lesson in movie history, sitting on Sam's lap as the movie burns rubber in a nifty sequence that takes place mostly in a parking garage. Where else?
    Gillan makes a strong impression and Gugino (bookish), Yeoh (reserved), and Bassett (censorious) give brief but pointed performances that don't disappoint when the chips are down. 
    Reminiscent of the best of old-fashioned Hong Kong-style action and lots of other predecessors, the movie's finale pits the women against what seems like a legion of angry men.
   Clever and engaging, this wild goof on exploitation cinema is lifted by a kick-ass female cast that easily could turn up in a second helping. Worse things could -- and probably will -- happen at the movies.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Poets take a street-bound tour of LA

      I've never been to a poetry slam. 
     You need to know that because I'm about to review Summertime,  a movie in which a collection of 25 “oral” poets representing various parts of the Los Angeles experience recite their work: women, blacks, Latinos, Koreans and gays.
     You may want to think of Summertime as a slam+.
     The movie derives much of its energy from the palpable need  these young people feel to be seen and heard. Summertime takes place during a single day and travels to a variety of Los Angeles locations, Venice Beach and the Hollywood Hills included. 
     Members of the movie's ensemble recite their poems which, in my view, vary in impact. A young black gay man (Tyris Winter) reveals himself through a series of Yelp reviews, one of a restaurant where he objects to the trendy menu and its upscale prices. His quest for an old-fashioned hamburger becomes one of the movie's motifs and, perhaps by extension, a critique of the encroaching niceties of gentrification.
     Director Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspsotting) also includes another running bit. Anewbyss and Rah (Austin Antoine and Bryce Banks) make the journey from unrecognized rappers to mini-stars who learn a disappointingly cliched lesson about the emptiness of the celebrity they had set out to achieve.
     Estrada does a good job of creating the threads that tie all of the characters into a somewhat unified whole.
      But the movie also has an us-against-them quality that can feel contrived. In one segment, Mila Cuda defends her sexual orientation to a passenger who objects to watching two older women kissing on a LA bus. It feels like a set-up, which — at least literally — it is. It's a bit of staged conflict and we know the outcome the minute the poetry even starts.
     Later, Marquesha Barbers earns cheers from her companions and presumably from the audience for confronting a former boyfriend who ditched her because she did not conform to his ideas about beauty.
     My favorite moment arrived when a rebellious Asian man (Gordon Ip) rails about the indignities heaped on him by customers at the burger joint where he works. He reaches a breaking point and begins a tirade that could serve as an anthem for the nation's fast-food workers.
     The finale arrives when a dispirited Anewbyss and Rah turn their stretch limo over to the other poets who then are driven to a spot that offers a gleaming scenic overview of their city at night.
    I can't say Summertime convinced me that every voice can fill  a platform but it's difficult to dismiss Estrada's attempt to tell us that the city's overlooked and sometimes marginalized youth deserves to be heard.