Thursday, January 20, 2022

Almodovar's look at mothers and history

   For much of his career, director Pedro Almodovar has devoted himself to a pleasure-filled aesthetic. Almodovar's Parallel Mothers doesn’t entirely abandon the director's love of splash colors. Almodovar's characters typically arrive on screen drenched in decor and design. The women in his movies seldom appear ordinary.
  Of course, there’s another side to this coin. Does the emphasis on exteriors cloak what’s on the inside of all those characters? Is Almodovar playing a sly game with us?
  Living in Spain, Almodovar must know that his country’s leap into post-Franco modernism carried risks, even as it brought gender fluidity, sexual expression, and bold artistic expression.
  The joys of liberation threaten to obscure a brutal past in which dissent and dissenters were not tolerated.
  That's the troubling foundation on which Almodovar allows Parallel Mothers to unfold, focusing his story on a successful photographer (Penelope Cruz) who's trying to settle a debt with the past.
   In her work. Cruz's Janis meets Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist. She wants Arturo to help excavate a site which the folks in her hometown have identified as the location of a mass murder. Janis's great grandfather was among those slain by fascist soldiers.
   As the story evolves, the personal and the political prove inseparable. Janis sleeps with Arturo, becomes pregnant, and opts to keep the baby. The married Arturo isn’t ready to leave his ailing wife. Janis seems intent on being a single mother.
   Almodovar sketches all this quickly before settling into the main part of the movie, which deals with Janis’ relationship with another young mother (Milena Smit), this one still a teenager.
    The two women meet when both are in labor and sharing a room at a Madrid hospital. 
     Almodovar opts for a contrivance (I won’t reveal it here) that easily could have sunk his movie, pushing it toward cliche. Instead, he shows us how the two women are drawn together as they face troubling questions, some  hinging on generational differences.
     Still a young woman, Smit’s Ana is less attuned to recent Spanish history than Janis. She’s a kid and she’s given a nearly impish look that’s reinforced by Smit’s performance.
     Additional characters appear. Almodovar veteran Rossy de Palma portrays Janis’s editor, a woman who hires Janis for glossy photoshoots. Ana’s mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), an actress, seems too preoccupied with her career to fully acknowledge her daughter.
    Cruz’s performance holds the movie together. Cruz has talked about the intuitive connection she has with Almodovar.  Since 1977, she has made seven films with Almodovar, including Volver (2006) and All About My Mother (1999).
   I don’t know if Cruz is romanticizing her relationship with Almodovar but her work here is first-rate. She’s playing a character burdened with her own issues while fulfilling a cultural responsibility, an obligation to the past.
    At a key point in the movie, Janis also must make a crucial decision about her own relationship to the truth.
    By the movie's end, Almodovar has reminded us of a lesson that goes beyond Spain, the Spanish Civil War, and totalitarianism. We must dig up the past before we can put it to rest. We owe it to the dead and to ourselves.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

It's January. Do we need to wake up yet?


The Pink Cloud

     The thing about January, at least in terms of movies, is that there’s not much to say. Many moviegoers are still catching up with last year’s best efforts. Moreover, a kind of tacit acknowledgment among the movie faithful promises that nothing terribly significant will happen before the new year tightens its grip on the collective consciousness.
    I’m excluding deaths, which this January included Peter Bogdanovich and Sidney Poitier. 
     Sad news aside, it’s with low-voltage spirit — or maybe it’s just a mood — that I turned my attention to two movies that have the year 2022 firmly affixed to their release. 
    I begin with Shattered, a movie that falls into the category commonly known as thrillers. Such movies often tell stories in which crime figures prominently.  The nastier the crime, the bigger the supposed thrills.
     Classified as a thriller, Shattered caught my attention because it features an appearance by John Malkovich.  Malkovich can project a judgmental quality embellished by hints of superiority. He knows how to add a sinister garnish to a commonly turned phrase.
    Unfortunately for Shattered, Malkovich portrays a minor character, a motel operator whom the screenplay eventually feeds to its femme fatale, a conniving woman who inflicts pain and death with an angelic, choir-girl smile plastered on her face.
     Shot from certain angles, this woman (Lilly Krug) looks beautifully innocent. We’re meant to understand that a lonely, newly divorced tech whiz (Cameron Monaghan) could easily be infatuated by her.
     Having sold his company for a mega-fortune, our tech whiz has moved into an isolated house in Montana that reeks of modernism. 
      Shattered involves a home invasion with a twist. The homeowner -- Chris by name -- invites the perpetrator into his house after she offers to nurse him back to health. While walking to his car with his new love interest, Chris was attacked by a pipe-wielding thug. The result: a badly broken leg.
    The screenplay touches the expected bases. We’re briefly introduced to Chris's former wife (Sasha Luss) and his young daughter (Ridely Asher Bateman), a sure sign that they will re-emerge at some later point.
       Krug's Sky has no interest in the tech whiz aside from the fact that he’s rich. Predictably heartless, she's unfazed by the sadistic impulse required to drill into the cast that encases Chris's mangled leg. She wants to steal Chris's identity and take his fortune. She's cruel but shallow.
       Just in case we didn't know that Sky is up to no good, she also murders her lesbian lover and roommate (Ash Santos), having moved in with Santos's character because her digs offered a view of the tech whiz’s home. Sky used a telescope to case the joint.
      Eventually, Sky's partner in crime (Frank Grillo) shows up, perhaps for no other reason than to break the sadistic monotony of Sky’s cruel rampage. 
      A familiar, played-out story leaves us to wonder how much we're supposed to care about an MIT grad who seems to have over-achieved himself into what looks like early and pointless retirement.
       Formula hardly matters in movies anymore but character still does, and Shattered’s crew falls low on the interest scale.
       Nothing about The Pink Cloud -- an allegorical offering from Brazil -- qualifies the movie as a thriller. Though shot before COVID, the movie acquires topical resonance in these days of quarantine and isolation, which -- as I'll explain later -- becomes a double-edged sword.
       The Pink Cloud poses an interesting question: What would happen if you found yourself quarantined with a stranger with whom you’d just had a sexual encounter? What if a diverting afternoon's   pleasure suddenly turned into a kind of sentence?
        So goes the fate of Giovana (Renata de Lelis) and Yago (Eduardo Madonna), the unfortunate duo that learns they are stuck in Giovana's apartment after a lethal pink cloud descends on their  town. 
   Once exposed to the mysterious cloud, death occurs within 10 seconds.
    The situation might have been bearable for both Giovana and Yago had it not gone for years. But the damn cloud won't go away.
     As time passes, the movie’s reluctant couple deals with the birth of a son, the result of their first encounter. They eventually tire of each other and seek ways to escape their isolation. He tries virtual relationships and she immerses in a virtual reality mask that enables her to simulate the experience of lying on a sandy beach. 
       Pink Cloud explores relationships in pressure cookers while glancing at parental responsibilities in a severely limited world. 
     Interesting stuff, but the movie solves some of its problems a bit too easily. Food and other purchases are delivered through a tube that attaches to one of the apartment's windows. It’s not clear how the movie's implied economy works. 
    And, of course,  neither we nor the characters know where the cloud came from. Perhaps, it originated in Metaphor Land, inviting comparison to any situation in which the atmosphere suddenly turns toxic.
    Director Iuli Gerbase's employs a couple of Zoom calls and FaceTime exchanges to open things up, but the movie centers around the way Giovana and Yago differ. Simply put, she yearns for the outside world; he comes to terms with confinement and may even like it.
    The two actors are good, but haven't we had a taste of isolation and sensory deprivation during the past couple of Covid years? The idea of experiencing more of it in a movie may not be the most appealing of prospects. 
    It may be odd to say but Gerbase seems to have made the movie too effective for its own good. I appreciated the effort but wanted out.

    So that’s early January. 
     I want to say something about Poitier. Poitier became a star when I was a kid. I saw The Defiant Ones (1958) at the Embassy Theater in North Bergen, New Jersey. I remember thinking that Tony Curtis, with a southern accent by way of New York, was no match for Poitier. 
     With its italicized symbolism — white and black convicts chained to each other and on the run — survives more as a social artifact than a telling statement about race in America.  
     Times have changed but current views about race haven't impinged on Poitier’s movie-star status. 
    If I had to pick a favorite Poitier movie it would be Raisin in the Sun, a 1961 big-screen adaptation of Loraine Hansberry’s play. As Walter Lee Younger, Poitier gave one of his angriest, most vulnerable performances. He made us feel Walter Lee’s delusions, as well as the intensity of his desire to break the bonds of a suffocating job as a white man’s chauffeur.
     Like most memorable actors, Poitier infused his work with flavors (anger, conviction, and stature among them) that suggest far more than what was often written on the pages of the screenplays he brought to life.  
       He was one of the greats. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

They can save world. What about the movie?

  Who says movies can't be educational? 
  The 355, a Bond-like thriller starring Jessica Chastain, derives its title from Agent 355, a real-life woman who spied for the rebel colonists during the Revolutionary War. 
  Yes, that was news to me, too.
  Oh well, the movie's title hints at the only revolutionary thing about it. The 355 quickly establishes itself as a formula job that tries so hard to attain franchise status, it might as well have been called The 355, Chapter 1. 
  Directed by Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) from a screenplay he wrote with Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith, The 355 pits five women -- Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, and, late in the movie, Fan Bingbing -- against an evil genius who's trying to snare a device that can cripple the world's computer networks.
    Much of the time, it seems as if The 355 has been concocted to demonstrate the obvious: Women can make butt-kicking movies, too. 
    Of the women, though, only Kruger seems adept at projecting a killer vibe. Nyong'o plays a computer whiz who's trying to break with her MI6 past. Cruz? I'll get to her later.
   Chastain's Mace (short for Mason) and Kruger's Marie, a German agent, begin the movie as antagonists, squaring off in a chase sequence set in the Paris Metro. 
    Mostly, though, these women don't travel by subway. Instead, they globe hop from Paris to Marrakesh to Shanghai as the story contrives to unite them against a common foe.
   Absent a compelling story, we're left to wonder whether someone thought A-list pizzaz could elevate the movie's collection of undistinguished action, predictable plot points, personal betrayals, and slick packaging. 
   The 355 does feature one unusual job: Cruz plays a shrink with a narrow specialty. Her Graciela counsels Colombian secret agents and enters the picture to provide therapy for a rogue agent played by Edgar Ramirez
   Sebastian Stan portrays one of Mace's fellow CIA agents as well as a sort of minor (very) love interest.
   If by some miracle, there's a second helping of this uninspired brew, a title already awaits. How about The 356?

Thursday, January 6, 2022

He becomes a hero. Is that a good thing?


 Iranian director Asghar Farhadi embraces moral ambiguity. His characters almost always are complex creations, which means that his is a cinema built on unreliable first impressions.
   In A Hero, Farhadi shows us that a web of lies can ensnare just about everyone it touches. And as is often the case, Farhadi uses a specific story as a lever from which to launch a many-faceted look at Iranian society.
   The movie begins when Rahim (Amir Jadidi),  a divorced prisoner, visits a historical site where his brother-in-law (Alireza Jahandideh) plies his trade as a construction worker. On a two-day pass from confinement, Rahim hopes to find a way to repay the debt that sent him to prison in the first place.
  Rahim, we soon learn, owes money to an unforgiving creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh) who believes that Rahim is a fraud and who also happens have been a relative from his former marriage.
   A specialist in bad luck, Rahim is also a victim: He borrowed money to start a business but his partner absconded with the funds
    Rahim's goals are simple: He wants to reestablish a relationship with his young son (Saleh Karimai) and marry his new sweetheart (Sahar Goldust). 
    Worthy aims, but nothing in Rahim's life can proceed until he pays off his debt. He's trapped by circumstance, and Jadidi makes us feel the squeeze that tightens around a man with few resources at his disposal.
     I guess you could say that Rahim wants to claw his way back into the middle class. 
    The movie hinges on a whopping contrivance. Early on, Goldust's character finds a handbag containing 17 gold coins. Could this be the change of luck that enables Rahim to pay his debt and resume a normal life?
   Unable to sell the coins for enough money to clear his debt, Rahim decides that he might as well submit to the dictates of conscience. He begins posting fliers announcing that he has found a handbag and wants to return it its owner. 
    A grateful woman shows up, claims her property, and vanishes.
     Much of the rest of the movie involves the various ways in which others perceive Rahim's “honesty.”
    Hearing of Rahim's "heroism," the prison authorities try to capitalize on the story of an honest prisoner. When a TV crew interviews Rahim, a nonentity becomes a role model. 
    Rahim exemplifies the success of the prison system -- and he begins to enjoy his new status, which is also celebrated on social media, not a good sign because we all know that what social media gives, it also quickly can take away.
     Eventually, a bureaucrat begins to investigate Rahim's story and we sense that nothing good will come of the fuss when Rahim creates a ruse of his own.
     Farhadi (A Separation) piles on the complexities -- perhaps to the point where his characters are slightly obscured and the movie begins to feel too issue-oriented, an attempt to find the point where the personal and social conflate and collide.
     Still, A Hero shouldn’t be discounted. In a contest that could be viewed as a measure to see who (if anyone) will emerge as a good guy, it should surprise no one that Farhadi finds no real winners.

Familiar scenario but a few new twists

In 1967’s Wait Until Dark, Audrey Hepburn played a blind woman confronting a vicious criminal (Alan Arkin). The idea of a blind person trying to fight off home invaders hardly qualifies as new, but See For Me benefits from a couple of novel twists, the principal one involving an app called See For Me, which gives the movie its title. A blind woman (a visually impaired Skyler Davenport) takes a job cat sitting in a luxe home in a forest. As a former skier, Davenport's Sophie has become bitter at being robbed of her career by a degenerative eye disease. Upon arriving at the home,  Sophie calls her pal Cam (Keaton Kaplan) and asks him to guide her through the house using her cell phone. He balks when Sophie proposes stealing an expensive bottle of wine for re-sale, something she’s evidently done before. When Sophie locks herself out of the house, she calls the See for Me app and makes contact with Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a young woman who helps Sophie re-enter the house and also becomes her lifeline when Sophie realizes that several men have broken into the house. They're thieves for whom Sophie becomes a surprise obstacle. Director Randall Okita occasionally taxes credibility but deftly builds tension in ways that may remind some viewers of Don't Breathe, a 2016 movie in which a blind veteran confronts three thieves. While not entirely fresh, See For Me proves a mostly efficient helping of genre entertainment. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Dinklage gives 'Cyrano' wit, heart, and bite

   Some characters never vanish. Consider Cyrano de Bergerac. The witty, eloquent outsider has been pining for Roxanne  since Edmond Rostand's play debuted in 1897. 
   Feelings of inadequacy keep Cyrano from confessing his love for Roxanne. Instead, he tries to win her for Christian, a handsome soldier who lacks the necessary poetic skills for inspired wooing. Cyrano writes beautiful letters for Christian.
    A variety of versions of Rostand’s play have made it to the screen. Steve Martin appeared in Roxanne (1987) and Gerard Depardieu proved memorable in Cyrano de Bergerac, a 1990 French version. A 1950 entry starring Jose Ferrer and Mala Powers -- the first one I saw -- occasionally turns up on TV.
     Typically,  Cyrano believes that his large nose excludes him from harvesting the fruits of love.  He lives in a world in which appearances matter.
    In director Joe Wright’s addition to the de Bergerac canon, Peter Dinklage makes a smart, cocky Cyrano who believes that his diminutive stature (not his nose) overrules his consummate wit and intelligence -- not to mention his skill with a sword.
      Cyrano, therefore, demurs when it comes to courting the beautiful, brilliant Roxanne (Haley Bennett) -- albeit not without a measure of resentment.    
       The first requirement of  any production of Cyrano: The actor who plays Cyrano must be good. 
     Dinklage proves a worthy Cyrano. An opening scene in which Cyrano banishes a bad actor from the stage brims with gusto and imagination, giving Dinklage the entrance the character deserves.
     Not surprisingly, Wright hasn't neglected the movie's looks. Period trappings are gorgeously rendered and cinematographer  Seamus McGarvey floods the screen with color. 
       All good, but Cyrano is also a musical based on a stage production written by Erica Schmidt, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie.
       Yes, a musical. I didn't mention it earlier because I've hardly thought about the music since I saw the movie.
       The tunes by Bryce and Aaron Dessner (lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser) can feel almost prosaic, unlike what we might expect to hear in 17th Century France. Perhaps this is because the lyrics are tailored for actors who aren't all singers. Maybe the music had more impact when performed live on stage.
     Whatever the case, the actors sketch their characters with ease and flair. It's the performances not the music that stick.
     Bennett creates a vibrant Roxanne,  a woman of beauty and wit. Ben Mendelsohn earns his villainous stripes as the conniving Duke De Guiche. Kelvin Harrison Jr. winningly portrays a clueless, handsome, and, ultimately, noble Christian.
    Bashir Salahuddin plays Cyrano's friend and confidant, a comrade who appreciates Cyrano's gifts.
     Like its main character, the story endures. It's not for nothing that it has been re-told so many times. Even with its farcical moments and darker turns, Cyrano always retains some charm. 
     So, if you’re looking for a single reason to see Cyrano, try this: Dinklage's portrayal -- angry, rueful, and sad -- is bound to earn him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. 
     The music may not burn its way into memory, but Dinklage gives Cyrano a taste of bitterness that stings.

Friday, December 24, 2021

My 10 best movies of 2021

     Year-end lists never have been of much interest to me. It would take a brave critic to return to a decade’s worth of such lists and see how many of those 100 movies still occupy a special place in memory.
      The Covid years (no, I never thought I’d be talking about Covid in plural years) have been even stranger than usual because it hasn’t always been possible to keep up with a flood of streaming opportunities. 
       Anyway, I’m going to make quick work of this year’s list. I think it’s best for readers to use lists as springboards for making their own judgments or as a guide to catching up with movies they may have missed.
       So, here’s my list. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments section.

1. Power of the Dog
The more you think about director Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog the less you may want to call it a Western. Set in Montana in 1925, the movie boasts big vistas, horses, cattle, and grit. But Campion upends expectations with a story steeped in mysterious menace. She also obtains remarkable performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirsten Dunst. It's possible and also correct to view Power of the Dog as a mediation on western myths fostered by relentless machismo but the forces at work seem deeper and more primal — so does the filmmaking.

2. Drive My Car
Sometimes, the shape of a life can be determined by something that goes unsaid or issues that remain confronted. It's not easy to write a single sentence that captures the complexity of director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's story about a theater director who's staging a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. Themes of grief, avoidance and regret emerge as Hamaguchi allows the movie's purposes and ideas gradually to emerge. I love movies in which the meaning of events change and expand as the story progresses. Drive My Car is that kind of experience. It doesn’t explain; it unwinds.

3. Summer of Soul
This documentary takes place during the summer of 1969 in Harlem and features a series of concerts that became known as the Black Woodstock. If you were alive when much of this music emerged from artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson, the movie likely will blow summer breezes of memory through your mind, much of it with an irresistible beat. Musician Quest Love directs this invaluable tribute to a cultural moment full of optimism, outrage, and, yes, joy.

4. Passing

Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with an adaptation of a novel set in the 1920s. Two childhood friends (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) meet in Manhattan. One of them has been passing as white. Hall’s black-and-white imagery tightly frames a story that deals with racism and also with Harlem's cultural life among middle-class Blacks. Anchored by two fine performances and a strong supporting cast, Passing deals offers some of the year's most beautifully realized performances. Volatile issues are contained by tightly focused images: The movie feels both concentrated and deep.

5. Azor

A Swiss banker and his wife travel to Argentina in 1980. The bank's previous man in Argentina mysteriously vanished. Now, the banker wants to reassure the bank's clients that their money is safe -- which also means that their well-heeled way of living can be sustained. A terrific examination of the way a political climate of menace impacts even those living in a gated, affluent world. You very likely won't see the movie's ending coming as director Andreas Fontana deals subtly but provocatively with ethical issues.

6. The Lost Daughter

Olivia Colman
gives a compelling performance as an older professor 
recalling her conflicted life as a mother. Jessie Buckley energizes the movie as the younger version of Colman's character, a woman who feels most alive in work, sex, and other assertions of independence. Still, she can't shake her guilt about what she regards as her maternal failings. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this brave adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel. 

7. The Green Knight

Don't look for knights in shining armor in director David Lowery's story about severe challenges faced by Gawain (Dev Patel), who aspires to become part of King Arthur’s retinue. The catch: Whatever he does to the Green Knight, a character we meet early on, will happen to him a year later. Effectively, Gawain chases his own fate. Scene-by-scene Green Knight becomes increasingly strange. Lowry's eerie atmospherics tend to wash away the movie's confusions as Lowry moves toward a severe and bracing conclusion.

8. West Side Story
I was a West Side Story skeptic. I saw no reason why Steven Spielberg or anyone else for that matter would want to have another go at a 1961 movie that was honored in its day. Working with playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg updates the story in mostly in effective ways and West Side story emerges as a fresh, visually dynamic version of a classic musical that bowed on Broadway in 1957. The New York Philharmonic almost turns Leonard Bernstein’s great score into another character. The movie didn’t impress at the box office and has been the subject of controversy about stereotyping — but over time, I think West Side Story will hold up as a fine example of a Broadway musical transferred to the screen by one of our most talented filmmakers.

9. Cruella

Emma Thompson and Emma Stone create sharply drawn characters in a lavishly designed production that boasts witty costumes and plenty of flair. Director Craig Gillespie gives the movie a fashion-world insiders' kick that the 1961 animated version lacked. Gillespie honors Disney's past but takes the story of 1961's 101 Dalmatians to entertaining new levels. Who’d have though it possible? Another movie about fashionistas that’s dressed for fun.

10. Parallel Mothers

Director Pedro Almodovar focuses on two women (Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit) who, by chance, become roommates in a hospital maternity wing. Almodovar employs a major contrivance that, for an instant, makes us fear the movie will follow a formulaic path. If you know Almodovar's work, there's no reason to worry. Rather than yielding to the demands of contrived comedy, Almodovar tells a serious story about the meaning of motherhood. He also allows the story to touch on the generational perils of forgetting past horrors.

Honorable mentions: CODA, Pig, Wife of a Spy, Old Henry, and The Tragedy of Macbeth

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A stark and powerful 'Macbeth'


   The Tragedy of Macbeth is a film from a Coen brother.
    I put it that way because director Joel Coen takes on  Shakespeare with The Tragedy of Macbeth and, yes, it feels weird to talk about a film with the name Coen attached without following with the word "brothers."
    The result of Joel Coen's solo effort is visually striking, intense, and bursting with fury.
     Employing an old-time aspect ratio and cutting through dark swaths with paths of white light, Coen simplifies the movie’s environment while simultaneously amping up its power.
     He opts for minimal but suggestive design. A castle still feels like a castle — albeit one you might find in an Ingmar Bergman film.
     I begin there because what stayed with me about Coen’s movie was its atmosphere and visual poetry, the way Coen married Shakespeare and back-and-white imagery of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel.
    Coen and his team allow Macbeth to strike its own pose. And I don't mean "pose" in a pejorative sense, I mean it the sense of a movie that has the power of a starkly drawn silhouette.
    Coen isn’t trying to make Macbeth feel “real;” he bends cinematic convention to allow Shakespeare’s story and language a place where tragedy gathers force.
    A grizzled Denzel Washington provides the centerpiece of the drama. Washington doesn’t underline the play's great monologues  ("Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow"). You won’t catch him orating; he delivers the dialogue as if it were his own speech.
    Washington's performance brims with emotional undercurrents, perhaps driven by the guilt that accrues to Macbeth as a result of killing his king (Brendan Gleeson) and then slaughtering rivals and their families. He even turns on his best friend and ally Banquo, a fine Bertie Carvel.
    Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) encourages Macbeth in his murderous ways, prompted by the king’s announcement that he plans to make his son Malcolm (Harry Melling) his successor. 
    Washington makes Macbeth's attitude less a matter of naked ambition than of reaction to a slight: Macbeth, who looks ready for an AARP membership, fought tirelessly for the king and never got his proper reward. If his anger has a modern equivalent, it's getting passed over for a promotion someone thought he had earned.
    All the actors rise to the occasion. Corey Hawkins makes a fine Macduff, perhaps the best and most human of the characters.
    Coen does a wonderful job with a bizarre and unforgettable performance from Kathryn Hunter as the witch who offers her prediction: Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and then king. Coen suggests the presence of Shakespeare's three witches by using a reflecting pool and adding ominous circling crows. 
   Hunter's performance is haunting enough to take the place of a half dozen witches, had Shakespeare wanted to increase their number.
   Coen’s Macbeth seldom finds itself idling and, thanks to a pared-down text, moves quickly toward a conclusion in which he makes it clear that, for him, Macbeth speaks loudly about dark forces that can be unleashed but seldom controlled.  
   This Macbeth screams when it needs to scream.

A writer's journey begins at a bar


    Some thoughts after watching The Tender Bar, the big-screen adaptation of JR Moehringer's 2005 memoir about growing up in Manhasset, NY: I'll get to a review of the movie in a bit, but I left s preview screening with two thoughts I couldn’t shake.
   First, Ben Affleck is getting better and better as an actor. He was terrific as the flamboyant Pierre d'Alencon in The Last Duel and equally good as a beer-soaked alcoholic in The Way Back, the story of a high school basketball coach wobbling toward redemption.
   In The Tender Bar, Affleck scores again as Uncle Charlie, a bartender who schools his nephew JR, the story's ostensible main character, in a variety of arts -- thinking, reading, drinking, and the behavior of men.
   A bachelor and barroom philosopher, Uncle Charle proves vital to young JR's survival -- and also to the movie's.
    Observation two: I wish I could say that George Clooney was getting more interesting as a director.
   Clooney started with the brilliant Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and followed with the solid Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) but his Midnight Sky (2020) foundered (at least in my view) and The Tender Bar, with a screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), doesn’t meet expectations, either.
  Moehringer, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, wrote a well-received memoir but the movie feels cut from pieces of variable interest. 
   Played by Daniel Ranieri as a nine-year-old boy and as a young man by Tye Sheridan, JR wants to be a writer but the movie never persuades us that we should care whether he achieves his goal. 
  It's not JR's dream that made his book enjoyable; it was his practice of the writer's art, which he brought into play when dealing with the bar -- named the Dickens. Uncle Charlie presided over the Dickens and its  cast of oddball characters who gathered for fun, solace, and moments of commemoration.
   On screen, the story becomes a collection of episodes joined by several themes: The absentee father, the devoted Mom, and JR's initiation into the world of love. None of these land with much force.
   JR's biological father (Max Martini) is barely a presence in his life. He's a New York disc jockey who JR's family calls "The Voice." Abusive and prone to drink, he's hated by JR's mom (a warm Lily Rabe). 
    Rabe's Dorothy has one dream for young JR. He'll attend either Harvard or Yale. He's going to get a first-rate education.
    JR, by the way, attends Yale, where -- in the movie version -- he tells friends that he wants to be a writer. He also meets a young woman (Briana Middleton), a biracial student whose snooty architect parents make it clear they have little use for someone of JR's low breeding.
   The movie works overtime trying to establish JR's working-class bona fides; he may be a Yalie, but he's more a graduate of the bar and of his unruly family than of the prestigious university. 
   Christopher Lloyd portrays JR's grandfather, a grump who comes through for JR when it counts.
   The picture loses focus as JR steps into the "real" world, landing a job as a copy boy at the New York Times and trying to figure out next steps.
    Sheridan may be stuck with a thankless job. If JR entertained as a writer; Sheridan can't entertain by telling us he wants to be a writer.
   The story weakens whenever Uncle Charlie isn't around and feels far more comfortable with scenes in the bar than anywhere else.
   Enough. The Tender Bar generates neither antagonism nor deep affection. Put another way: If you haven’t read the book, you’d do well to start there.