Friday, February 16, 2024

Bob’s Cinema Diary: February 16, 2024 -- 'God & Country,' a documentary, and 'Monolith, a drama set in one location



God & Country

Religion and politics can make for a toxic mix, something the founding fathers of our enduring but often wobbly nation understood. Director Dan Partland, in a documentary produced by Rob Reiner, delves into the fervor that lights the Christian Nationalist fire. Does Partland's God & Country preach to the secular choir? Not entirely. Some of the best voices in this volatile documentary are raised by people of faith, notably Rev. William Barber, New York Times columnist David French, author Jamar Tisby, historian Anthea Butler, and sister Simone Campbell, a nun, lawyer, and activist. An  equal number of fiery voices spout their nationalist convictions with tub-thumping fury. The gist of their proclamations include the claim of direct instructions from God, the assertion that the U.S. is a Christian nation, pro forma condemnations of abortion and Joe Biden, as well as unwavering allegiance to the MAGA movement. Served in large doses, so much Christian Nationalism will leave many viewers fearful about a country founded on the genius idea that church and state should be separate. I don't think Partland aims to change any minds. Instead, he sounds a warning about Christian Nationalism and explains its origins, linking it to racism inflamed by school desegregation. Put another way, the film sounds an alarm for everyone who subscribes to a common sense bromide, "You go to your church. I'll go to mine." To which I'd add, "or no church at all." Partland's incendiary documentary reminds us that if the US falls apart, it won't be because of any external enemy; it will be because of intense factionalism, in this case represented by extreme Christian Nationalism.

Monolith


Monolith
focuses on a disgraced journalist (Lily Sullivan) who’s licking her wounds at her parents' isolated but austere home. In an effort to reclaim her reputation, Sullivan's character (referred to only as The Interviewer) dives into the turbulent waters of podcasting. She works on Beyond Belief, a series in which she applies investigative skills to oddball stories.  She interviews characters (always heard and never seen) in pursuit of a story that will reopen doors for her. Early on, she encounters a woman who tells her about a 20-year-old event involving a rift with the wealthy family for whom she worked. At the heart of the story: a mysterious black brick that contains indecipherable writings and exposes those who possess them (there's more than one brick) to bizarre visions. A warning from aliens? Obscure art objects? Australian director Matt Vesely blurs the line between reality and paranoia, and fabrication and truth, putting Sullivan’s character into an increasingly agitated state. He opens up a one-woman show by allowing his camera to explore the house, observe  the journalist’s computer screen, listen to her phone calls, and see the many text messages she receives. Monolith ultimately works better as a character study of a desperate woman than as a fully realized sci-fi thriller, but credit Vesely with getting further than you might expect from a minimalist approach.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Snared in the Spider-verse web

    Just when Oscar season has diverted attention from the ever-accumulating mountain of superhero movies, we get Madame Web. Like other entries in this highly variable genre, Madame Web seems designed to expand the list of characters who, in this instance, spin their way through other movies.
   Dakota Johnson joins Sony's version of the Marvel-verse as Cassandra Webb, the daughter of an arachnologist who, in the movie’s Peruvian prologue, discovers a rare breed of spider and dies during child birth.
    Leaping ahead, the story charts Cassandra's development from a career as a New York City EMT to her belated emergence as Madame Web.
     It doesn't take long for Cassandra -- better know as  Cassie -- to discover that she has the power to see into the future, a capacity depicted in abrupt flashes that hit the screen with the force of pumpkins smashed against walls.
     Plot twists lead Cassie to take charge of three teen-agers (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor, and Isabela Merced) who are destined to play roles in the spider-verse's unfolding future.
     Responsible for the death of Cassie's Mom and some awkward early picture exposition, the movie's villain (Tahar Rahim) gains spider powers. He's able to walk on ceilings, for example.
     So where were we? Does it matter?  
     Not really, but for the record, Cassie becomes the girls' protector, forming a familial group dedicated to ... what? ... maybe future movies.
      At least in the early going, director S.J. Clarkson tries to ground the movie in recognizable reality. Cassie and her EMT partner (Adam Scott) deal with big-city perils, but the movie eventually forgets about Scott's Ben Parker, a name that provides a clue about the interconnected spider-verse Clarkson weaves.
     Only box office indifference will end the Marvel onslaught. Meanwhile, lame dialogue, a pervasive lack of wit, and an inability to overcome Marvel fatigue keep this one from going anywhere. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

An abridged view of Bob Marley's life


  Aside from a stop as one the Kens in Barbie, British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir might be en route to an icon-centered career. In Regina King's One Night in Miami, Ben-Adir gave an almost bookish spin to his portrayal of Malcolm X.  Now, he appears as Bob Marley in director Reinaldo Marcus Green's Bob Marley: One Love
  Speaking in Marley's Jamaican patois, Ben-Adir radiates the power of Marley's stardom, along with a sense that, like many stars, something about Marley evaded capture. Ben-Adir, by the way, did his own singing. 
   Far from a comprehensive biopic, One Love covers the years 1976 to 1978, referencing Marley's youth in vaguely drawn flashbacks. 
   The flashbacks -- like lyrics in a memory song -- too often leave us wanting more information about Marley's formative years and certainly more about the journey that elevated Marley and his band, The Wailers, to prominence in the reggae world and beyond.
    After an assassination attempt on his life during a period of intense political strife in his native Jamaica, Marley moved to London, where much of the movie takes place. 
   Green's major accomplishment involves allowing his movie to spin in Marley's orbit, giving us flashes of how stardom in Europe pushed him off-center. We also get glimpses of Marley's Rastafarian beliefs, his copious ganja consumption, and his interactions with the Wailers.
      Marley's wife Rita (a magnetic Lashana Lynch) gives the movie its steadiest beat. She eventually erupts over Marley's infidelities and excesses. standing her ground with fiery conviction.
      Even in a movie that covers only two years, it sometimes feels as if Green (King Richard) is skimming,   touching on Marley's multiracial background and his conversation to Rastafarianism. He was raised as a Catholic.
      Much attention is given to the creation of Marley's signature album, Exodus, and the movie's other musical numbers land on the right bases, e.g., I Shot the Sheriff, No Woman, No Cry, and Get Up, Stand Up.  Ben-Adir captures Marley's on-stage performing style, nailing the agitated moves that animated his presence.
      One Love culminates with Marley's triumphant return to Jamaica, where he was adored. Ben-Adir's performance, replete with winking humor -- makes clear why Marley became an admired avatar of liberation and of a pan-Africanism that melded spiritual and musical aspiration.
     Marley died from melanoma at the age of 36. Brief as it was, his life deserved a richer movie. Despite the virtues of its performances, One Love feels truncated, even fragmentary.
     For now, Marley's music will have to stand as his most enduring legacy.

Friday, February 9, 2024

When the partying gets too hard


 How to Have Sex should not be mistaken for a big-screen instruction manual for those hoping to spice up life in the bedroom. Director Molly Manning Walker delivers a movie that's less libidinous than woozy with drink, partying, drugs, and excess. The story, if it can be called that, begins when three British teens (Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, and Enva Lewis) arrive in  Greece for a bust-out, post-exams holiday. The girls are determined to have sex, or so they say, and McKenna-Bruce's Tara aims to lose her virginity, a reversal of the usual adolescent boy ploy. Two boys (Shaun Thomas and Samuel Bottomley) soon figure into the mix. The movie immerses us among partying teenagers whose lives unfold against an incessant baseline beat. At first, the girls operate at party peak but  something must shatter the upbeat throb of drunken teenage mania. It shouldn't surprise you to learn that the sex Tara finds has nothing to do with love, affection or even pleasure. McKenna-Bruce's performance deepens as the movie progresses. She hasn't done well on the exams that determine whether she’ll be college-bound. No amount of diversion can conceal her future, and it's possible we're meant to think that Tara finally attains some form of realization. Maybe How to Have Sex is a telling picture of young people, many of whom are on the cusp of ... well ... nothing much. Perhaps these kids party like there's no tomorrow because they can't envision one. Whatever Manning Walker had in mind, her movie struck me as too much of an ordeal. Mania has its place in movies but it also tends to breed exhaustion. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

A 45,000-year-old hunk of horror

 The inhabitants of the world created by first-time director Andrew Cumming in Out of Darkness -- a movie that travels 45,000 years back in time -- may be dressed in furs and armed with wooden spears but they communicate in ways that feel authentic. Avoiding cartoonish grunts and exaggerated gestures, Cumming presents the movie's  dialogue with subtitles. A language reportedly was invented for the movie, which begins when a group of wanderers arrives on a barren shore, six people who've risked death to avoid starvation. Led by Adem (Chuku Modu), these nomads wind up fighting a screeching demon that seems to be mutilating whatever game it finds. One of the members of the group (Sofia Oakley-Green) is called a "stray,"  a woman picked up along the way. Oakley-Green's character doesn't fit easily into the patriarchal hierarchy that has been built around Adem. When Adam's son (Luna Mwezi) is snatched, Adem begins the search for him. Much of the movie takes place in dark wooded areas as Cumming works his way through what plays like a routine horror scenario. Turning the "stray" into one of the most assertive of the travelers  adds a feminine twist to a story that tries to expand its way out of what initially appears to be a genre trap. Cumming has more in mind than gore and jolts, but it's not easy to escape the horror trap he's set for himself. I give him credit for trying and offer this footnote: Once you’ve finished watching, you may want to rethink the title's meaning. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

When food is more than just a meal

   It's nearly impossible not to get caught up in the images of haute cuisine that help define The Taste of Things, an elegant beauty of a film from Vietnamese French director Tran Anh Hung
   Stimulated appetites aside, Tran's movie, based on a 1924 novel by Marcel Rouff, is as much about the intimacies of a long-standing relationship as it is about the meals that are alluringly photographed by cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg.
   Tran creates an insular world inhabited by a small group of epicures who visit chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel) to savor his subtly flavored creations. Juliette Binoche portrays Eugenie, the cook who lives and works in Dodin's house and sometimes sleeps with him.
  The movie opens in the bustle of a 19th century kitchen where cray fish and quenelles are being prepared along with a lion of veal. The dialogue is minimal, task-related, and warm. The atmosphere is enriched with the aromas we imagine to be emanating from Eugenie's stove, a flat surface heated by burning coals.  
   Preparation marked by diligence dominates the early scenes. Roles in the kitchen have been developed and refined during the course of the 20 years in which Dodin and Eugenie have collaborated.
   So what's all this labor for? Dodin has built a reputation as a chef of some renown; he creates meals the devoted men who gather at his home, sometimes covering their heads with napkins so that they can concentrate on the aromas of a newly served dish. 
   Despite its intensely narrow focus, the movie never feels pinched. Violette (Galatea Bellugi) works as Eugenie's assistant. A girl (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire) hopes to benefit from Dodin's tutelage, perhaps becoming his apprentice. When it comes to food, she's a bit of a savant, able to identify almost all the ingredients in a complex dish at first taste.
   All of this could have been the subject of a satire about effete bourgeois snobs whose lives have narrowed to a squint, 19the century aesthetes who have blinded themselves to the rest of life. Tran (The Scent of Green Papaya) has no such inclinations.
   It's possible to view the movie’s meals as stand-ins for art or what it takes to produce a great collaborative work, something on the order of an important director who has developed an essential relationship with a favored cinematographer. 
   The title has significance. It seems crude to refer to the consumption of this food as "eating." It's more about tasting and dazzling the senses in the pursuit of pleasures available only to those with enough cultivation and refinement to appreciate each bite.
   If The Taste of Things reveals character, it does so more through suggestion and quiet conversation than declarations.
    Dodin isn't an autocrat of the kitchen. His feelings for Eugenie are complicated but sincere. Fair to say he loves her. Perhaps he wants to marry Eugenie to cement her presence in his household, but he's also a tender man who respects the skills on which he relies.
    When Eugenie becomes ill, Dodin cooks for her, serving the meal in the dining room where the men usually gather, a loving act of role reversal.
  For her part, Eugenie is skillful, independent, and sound of judgement. Her current arrangement allows her to determine when the door to her bedroom will open to Dodin. She'd rather be a cook than a wife because she knows that marriage will restrain her freedom, substituting duty for choice.
  Plot developments emerge during a movie in which small gestures prevail. Better to discover them in a theater than in a review.
  The Taste of Things tells a story about two people who are together but separate, in other words, a relationship.  Tran not only allows his characters fully to inhabit their environment. He treats them with the respect their dedication to excellence has earned.
   Like the meals we see, The Taste of Things has been assembled with taste, balance, and artistry. 

A birthday party at death’s edge

 


   Totem from Mexican director Lila Aviles brings us into a house where a child must deal with the impending death of her father. 
   Leaning heavily on intimate close-ups, Aviles approximates the viewpoint of seven-year-old Sol (Naima Senties), a girl whose artist father (Mateo Garcia Elizondo) has been crippled by cancer.
   As if to add to the child's natural bewilderment about losing her father, the fractious family of Garcia's Tonatiuh has gathered for what will be his final birthday, a celebration in the face of death. Tona, as he's affectionately called, refuses chemo; he's had enough of suffering. 
  By the time we meet the family -- aunts, brothers, and a grandfather -- Tona has become nearly invisible in the house. He  spends most of his time in his room, where he's attended to by his nurse and caretaker (Teresita Sanchez). 
  Sol's mother (Iazua Larios), an actor who works in the theater, seems as devoted to her theatricality as to her husband. She drops Sol off at the family home and leaves to attend to other business.
  One of Tona's sisters (Montserrat  Maranon) clouds her grief with drink. Another sister (Marisol Gase) hires a spiritualist to try to save her brother, adding a weird comic flourish to the proceedings. 
  Aviles doesn't do much explaining, perhaps because she often presents the world as it might appear to Sol and her cousin (Saori Gurza), who's also too young to grasp what’s happening.
  Did I mention that grandpa (Alberto Amador) also has had cancer -- his of the larynx? He's now speaking through a device that his grandchildren find amusing. He doesn't.
   It’s possible to wonder whether the family isn’t engaged in a bustling exercise in avoidance. Commotion, chaos, and competition for the bathroom blur opportunities for focused attention. Animated by dread and party preparations, everyone stays busy.
   Sol is fascinated with the life in and around the house  -- snails and insects in particular. Perhaps she's wondering about the proliferation of living things whose existence has nothing to do with the preoccupations of the adults in Sol's life. Or maybe that’s just me.
  I sometimes wondered whether Aviles had over-committed to the kids' point of view -- not only visually but in terms of how she reveals relationships within the family. 
   There's a tradeoff, though: Totem has a lively present-tense feel, an immersion in the precarious moments before a multitude of feelings can be sorted. It's also one of the few movies that deals honestly with how people cope (or don't) with mortality.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

'Argylle': a spoofy but hollow spy game

 

   The screen bursts with activity in the unashamedly silly Argylle, but too little of it matters.
   Known for his work on the Kingsman franchise, director Matthew Vaughn lifts tongue into cheek for a multi-layered espionage spoof that casts Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway, a successful spy novelist who gets caught up in the real thing. 
   The title stems from one of Conway's characters, a  debonaire agent known as Argylle (Henry Cavill) who squares off against an evil consortium known as The Division.
  Conway's pet cat Alfie accompanies her everywhere, peering out from a plastic window in her backpack. And, yes, the cat -- or some CGI version of it -- eventually figures in the story.
   Vaughn jams the movie with names and faces, offering cameos from Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBoseJohn Cena, and Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson spends much of his screen time watching an NBA game. Aside from a punchy  opening scene, the others seem inconsequential.
    Vaughn includes extended work from Sam Rockwell, as Aidan, a real spy who meets Elly and, in the film's early stages, emerges as her protector. 
     Bryan Cranston turns up as the head of The Division and Catherine O'Hara plays Elly's Mom. 
     Most of the characters have dual identities, a ploy that mostly serves to muddy the already murky waters. Know, though, that Elly sometimes watches real-world characters morph into her fictional creations, blurring lines in a way that's not particularly confusing but becomes repetitive.
      Jason Fuchs's screenplay includes a few clever touches and a bit of amusement. Vaughn goes for broke when he turns a major fight sequence into a dance number shrouded in clouds of red smoke. In another fight, he makes clever use of an oil slick.
       And, yes, there's a big plot twist. And, no, it probably won't knock you out of your seat.
       Neither does Argylle, which feels like an evocation of similar movies -- some directed by Vaughn.  Little more than a helping of CGI-fueled cinematic play, Argylle  overstays its welcome at a length of two hours and 19 minutes.
       But play isn't enough to save the day -- or a movie that doesn't seem to have much else on its mind.

   

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Dealing with death at an early age

    Max, a teenager, has fallen into a coma as a result of terminal brain cancer. His mom brings him to a hospice where he'll receive palliative care. As it turns out, the young man has landed in the same Florida hospice where Terry Schiavo's husband is fighting a bitter right-to-die battle. 
   In Suncoast, director Laura Chinn’s debut film, the din of protest surrounds the hospice, but the movie doesn't boil with issue-driven fervor. 
   Instead, Chinn assays the strain caused by a Max's impending death while also exploring his younger sister's struggle to experience something akin to normal adolescence, assuming there is such a thing.
  Understandably unnerved, Max's single mother (Laura Linney) can't focus on much else. It's difficult for her to see that her son's illness also casts a shadow over her daughter (Nico Parker), a high school senior who has had to care for Max so Mom could work.
  Afraid to leave her son alone, Mom decides to move into the hospice with him. Parker's Doris is left on her own, a potentially enviable position for a teenager. 
   Despite some initial wariness, Doris allows a group of girls to host parties at her modest home. She begins to develop friends. She begins to see what she's been missing.
  Chinn mostly avoids mean-girl cliches, obtaining nicely modulated performances from her youthful cast and from Linney as a preoccupied woman who can't always suppress her rage. 
   The movie has a mild Christian backdrop. Woody Harrelson plays a widower and protest regular. Religious but not dogmatic, he tries to befriend Doris, encouraging her to acknowledge her grief.
   Harrelson's Paul doesn't allow his beliefs to stand in the way of trying to help a kid who doesn't share them, a nice touch, but his character seems a bit of digression.
   Doris attends a Christian school but neither she nor her classmates are particularly religious and one of her teachers (Matt Walsh) conducts an ethics class that's so even-handed, it feels contrived.
  Through it all, Chinn doesn't forget that her story hinges on grief and loss. She brings the drama to its tear-jerking peak during Doris's prom, a celebration she's clearly earned even though it's taking place against a backdrop of illness and death.
   This keen sense of loss elevates the movie even when Chinn rounds off the sharp edges a better movie might have had. She makes the heartbreaking finality of what mother and daughter must face feel achingly real.