Thursday, February 2, 2023

How to stop the end of the world


  M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin is based on a Paul G. Tremblay novel entitled The Cabin at the End of the World. Shyamalan's awkward transformation of Tremblay's title indicates what goes wrong with a potentially interesting movie.
   Not content to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions -- as the novel did -- Shyamalan steeps the story's conclusion in the kind of face-value thinking that undermines the screenplay’s stabs at ambiguity.
  Knock at the Cabin centers on two gay dads (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff) who have taken their adopted Chinese daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) on vacation to a cabin in Pennsylvania.
    If an isolated setting in the woods didn't already signal trouble to anyone who has ever seen a movie, Herdis Stefansdottir's groaning score further tips Shyamalan's hand: A horror scenario involving home invasion will be flavored with quasi-religious suggestion.  
   It doesn't take long for four strangers to force their way into the cabin, carrying ominous looking homemade tools that bear little resemblance to anything available at a local hardware store. 
    Shyamalan gives us a modern version of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, harbingers of punishing global judgment: Dave Bautista's Leonard, Nikki Amuka-Bird's Sabrina, Rupert Grint's Redmond, and Abby Quinn's Adriane.
    A massive hulk of a man, Bautista's Leonard emerges as the stand-out character. In an early scene that's both lyrical and creepy, Leonard meets Wen. We wonder whether he might be the screen's latest serial killer.
   Instead, Leonard turns out to be a bespectacled second-grade teacher who speaks with alarming sincerity about his "mission." 
    He insists that he and his cohorts have had visions. They've been instructed to find this particular cabin so that global catastrophe can be averted. Only one act will stave off devastation. One of the family members must be killed by the others. 
    Are we watching a hoax perpetrated by four brainwashed strangers who we’re told met on-line or is this the real deal, the last days of humanity? 
    The home invaders have convinced themselves that their visions are real. They don't like what they've been sent to do but insist they have no choice. They implore the two dads to take action. When the dads refuse, the invaders kill one of their number and the global devastation begins.
    Leonard turns on the TV, and Shyamalan shows snippets of apocalyptic destruction. Tsunamis vanquish Hawaii. Planes fall from the sky.  
    Putting a child in danger and using the prospect of human sacrifice to drive the plot give the movie a warped undertow that's as distasteful as it is unnerving. For the most of the movie, the two dads remain tied to chairs.
     If a drama such as this is to work, we probably should be encouraged to ask ourselves what we’d do if faced with such a terrible choice. That level of involvement would have required a sense of identification Knock at the Cabin seldom delivers.
   Shyamalan creates tension as the dads try to find a way out of a horrible situation. But watching characters we hardly know struggle their way through the movie's reductive moral dilemma doesn't make it easy for us to find a way in.

A deeply human drama in an Arab village

 Sami (Alex Bakri) is a sad man, so sad that he seldom smiles or warmly engages with others. Sami’s mood colors nearly everything in Let It Be Morning, the story of a Arab/Israeli citizen who returns to his small village for his brother’s wedding.
  Don't be misled, Let It Be Morning is no nostalgic chronicle of a homecoming. After the Israeli army seals off the village, Sami becomes stranded in a political and personal limbo: He's uncomfortable being away from his fast-paced life in Tel Aviv and the mistress who seems to exemplify a typical midlife crisis.
   Sami and his wife Mira, played by Juna Suleiman, have a much loved young son but Suleiman makes it clear that Mira understands the reality of a life that has stagnated.
   Directed by Eran Kolirin (The Band's Visit), Let It Be Morning relies fine performances from Bakri and Suleiman to enhance its low-key, character-driven approach.
  The Arab community depicted in Let It Be Morning, adapted from a novel by Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, isn't unified. Some villagers want to cooperate with the Israelis, who have blockaded the village as part of a campaign to identify illegal West Bank Palestinians who are seeking work. Others want to protest.
   Ehab Salami portrays Abed, a newly minted cabbie who has accumulated crippling debt to buy his vehicle. Once a friend, Abed has become a source of embarrassment for Sami. His insistent presence pushes Sami to face a background he thought he had shed. 
   Simple on its surface, Let It Be Morning leaves viewers with much to digest; the movie stands as a quietly realized counterpoint to current newspaper accounts about Israeli/Arab conflict. 
   That's not to say that the conflict is ignored but that Kolirin takes a  humane approach to tension as his characters struggle to find their footing.
   Let It Be Morning makes it impossible to overlook the humanity of people whom we might otherwise meet only in news reports. Kolirin tells a story about complex characters living in a complex situation over which they don't always have control. In other words, his movie  mirrors life.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Hits and misses in an interracial romcom

   The humor in You People sometimes is broad enough to encourage a call for a clean up on aisle sitcom. 
    I wish that weren't the case because this comedy about tensions spawned by a looming interracial marriage has a sharp comic cast built around Jonah Hill, Eddie Murphy, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, all of whom have their moments.    
    Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Kenya Barris (Blackish), plays Ezra Cohen, a broker who wants to make a living as a podcaster with his partner Mo (Sam Jay). Jay and Hill give the movie a promising opening, bantering freely about hiphop culture. 
   But romcom rumbles loom and along with them typical comedy ploys.
   After concluding that he'll never find true love, Ezra has a meet-cute with Amira Mohammed (Lauren London). The two connect, but the movie takes a Meet-the-Parents turn with emphasis on racial and cultural differences taking charge, too often in obvious ways.
     Louis-Dreyfus plays Ezra's mom as a stereotypical liberal who spills her wokeness like a drunk trying to hold an overfilled glass of wine. She’s inappropriate in her blatant displays of “liberalism
    Murphy portrays Akbar, Amira's Muslim dad. Murphy occasionally succeeds at squeezing a bit of funny out of a stern character and gives the film its strongest presence.
    David Duchovny and Nia Long are largely wasted as respective spouses. 
   How broad can the humor get? At a dinner where the parents meet, Louis-Dreyfus's Shelley sets fire to Akbar's kufi, a treasured cap supposedly given to him by none other than Louis Farrakhan. Attempts to introduce humor about Jews and Blacks are more referenced than explored.
    Ezra's Las Vegas bachelor party (Akbar attends) also lands with a thud and a gratuitous introduction of cocaine use.
    London also could have used some scenes of her own.
    Look, there are laughs to be found here, particularly in the early scenes, but You People shows little interest in ruffling feathers. 
    Before the movie concludes, everyone learns lessons about tolerance, love, and open-mindedness and You People squanders an opportunity to take a more challenging ride across comedy’s cutting edge.


'Shotgun Wedding' fires blanks


There are silly movies and then there are really silly movies. Shotgun Wedding fits into the latter category — and I don’t mean that in a good way.  A destination wedding romcom, Shotgun Wedding stars  Jennifer Lopez. An able comic actress, Lopez gives the movie her all but like her unfortunate cohorts, she's burdened by a preposterous story line that generates as many groans as laughs. Director Jason Moore guides J.Lo and Josh Duhamel (the story's groomthrough scenes in which  ransom-seeking pirates invade the wedding and hold the guests hostage. Additional cast includes Cheech Marin as the wealthy father of Lopez's Darcy and Lenny Kravitz as Darcy's smooth-talking ex. Sonia Braga has a brief turn as Darcy's mother and Jennifer Coolidge  appears as the comically brash mother of the groom. Add some late picture stunts that wobble their way into action/comedy turf and you've got ... well ... a romcom with grenades and explosions. A lame screenplay, set at a Filipino resort,  forces the cast to try too hard  for laughs. Let me clarify. I called this a really silly movie. In fairness, I should say that Shotgun Wedding isn't trying to be an exercise in high wit. Still, it's difficult to say "I do" to a wedding comedy that's married to so many ill-conceived gags.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Oscar nominations in a "go-figure" year

    Perusing the list of Oscar nominations for 2023 was a bit like scanning a giant smorgasbord table at which no one bothered to coordinate the cuisines. 
   Perhaps taking a cue from the title of the most nominated picture — Everything Everywhere All At Once — the Academy created a crazy quilt portrait of an industry torn by pressures to diversify, wobbly box office, and no clear consensus about what constitutes high-quality viewing.
   Writing in The New York Times, Brooks Barnes provided the best overview of Oscar 2023:
    “In some ways, spreading nominations widely reflected the jumbled state of Hollywood. No one in the movie capital seems to know which end is up, with streaming services like Netflix hot then not, and studios unsure about how many films to release in theaters and whether anything but superheroes, sequels and horror stories can succeed.”

   Go figure. On the 10-movie best-picture list, you’ll find titles as wide-ranging as Top Gun: Maverick, Triangle of Sadness, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Elvis. Talk about a multiverse.

    Each of those movies, by the way, already can be streamed, as can many of the other Oscar nominees. Gone are the days when Oscar nominations provided theaters (remember them?) with much-needed revenue boosts.

    If home is where the movies are, that's also where a lot of movie talk has gone. With more people opting to work from home, water-cooler talk may have vanished from the American experience, having been replaced by any number of online options.

  By evening, more folks likely will be wondering about the classified documents that turned up at Mike Pence's house than whether Women Taking, a best-picture nominee, has any shot at winning.

  No matter what levels the Oscar buzz reaches or doesn't, the Academy Awards will be telecast on March 12. You can find a full list of nominees on the Academy's site.

   And good luck to Jimmy Kimmel, who'll try to re-establish the role of host. What, by the way, is the over/under on how long it will take for someone to mention last year's slap heard 'round the world?

Thursday, January 19, 2023

A frustrated father and a troubled son

 In adapting his stage play, The Son, for the screen, director Florian Zeller finds emotional moments that ring true amid many that miss badly. Zeller, the French playwright who directed The Father (2020), explores what happens when a father (Hugh Jackman) -- divorced and remarried -- tries to keep his mentally troubled son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) from ruining his life. Jackman's convincingly exasperated performance reflects the difficulty of communicating with a kid who dissembles and has little insight into his self-destructive behavior. The New York-based story kicks off when Nicholas's former wife (Laura Dern) asks Jackman's Peter for help dealing with Nicholas, who has been skipping school. Peter and his wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) take in the seventeen-year-old, a decision that's complicated by Peter and Beth's situation; they've recently become parents to a new infant son. Nicholas's increasing inability to cope diverts Peter's attention from work and the important Washington job he's about to land. During a trip D.C., he's lectured by his high-achieving, bullying dad, played by a briefly seen Anthony Hopkins in a powerful scene. Among the movie's problems: We don't really get to know Nicholas, partly because he keeps himself hidden and partly because he's reduced to a single dimension: The problem kid who resents his father for leaving his mother. The movie contrives to reach its expected conclusion with Zeller adding a misguided scene that just doesn't play. Too bad. The Son misses an opportunity to deal convincingly with a difficult but important subject.

Trying to solve a mystery on-line


A free-standing offshoot of 2018’s Searching, Missing follows its predecessor’s lead by taking place entirely on screens: computers, cell phones, and other devices. A gimmick? Sure. But first-time directors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick use devices and the images they convey mostly to good effect. Still, the movie, which sports more twists than an amusement park ride, can’t overcome the sense that it’s not about much more than the agility with which it stitches together a plot. And, by its third act, the screenplay strains credibility. Storm Reid plays 18-year-old June. June’s mother (Nia Long) embarks on a Latin American vacation with her new love interest (Ken Leung). When Mom goes missing, June — initially delighted to be free of parental oversight — swings into action. She does her best to discover what happened, even enlisting the help of a low-rent but helpful Colombian investigator (Joaquim de Almeida). The screenplay reveals secret after secret, some of them offering jolts. The performances play second fiddle to the movie’s overall approach, which — though deftly manipulated — ultimately has the feel of a surface affair. Enough. Missing keeps you watching even if it fades from memory as quickly as one of those lost emails you swear you didn’t mistakenly delete.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The relationship between an editor and writer

    Robert Gottlieb, now 91, has spent most of his life publishing books. As editor-in-chief at Alfred A. Knopf and Simon & Schuster, he nurtured a gallery of important writers: Doris Lessing, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, and Michael Crichton, for example.
   Gottlieb also edited and published the work of Robert Caro, the 87-year-old author who created a stir in 1974 with The Power Broker, a definitive work about New York builder Robert Moses. Caro followed with a massive quartet of books about the life and career of Lyndon Johnson. 
    Directed by Gottlieb’s daughter Lizzie Gottlieb, the documentary Turn Every Page examines the relationship between Caro and Gottlieb, offering biographical sketches, career summaries, and interviews in which both men discuss what has been a productive, sometimes contentious collaboration. Both are motivated by high standards.  
    Caro is nothing if not focused. He has spent much of his life producing four volumes about Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power.  A fifth book will appear when Caro, not one to hurry, completes a series that justifiably can be called monumental.
    Tireless and exhaustive, Caro conducts interview after interview,  pours over documents, and writes as he uncovers the theme of each  book. A masterful reporter, he takes nothing for granted.
    If you’re a stickler for details, you’ll particularly enjoy learning about the ongoing disagreement between Caro and Gottlieb concerning the use of semi-colons, not a barn-burner of a topic, but one that demonstrates each man’s commitment to the most effective use of language.
    Gottlieb serves the texts of others but isn’t shy about expressing his ego;  he credits himself with having changed the name of Heller's Catch 18 to Catch 22. Another World War II book with the number 18 in the title loomed. Gottlieb also thought 22 was funnier.
   Caro has earned the right to the exhaustive, time-consuming efforts that have defined his career and have produced books that are no strangers to best-seller lists.
    If you're interested in writing, journalism or publishing I wouldn't miss the opportunity to glimpse into the worlds of a consequential editor and writer who have produced important work of lasting value.
   I don’t think Gottlieb doubts his skill and insight as an editor. His record speaks for itself. But he'd also probably agree that finding a Robert Caro doesn't hurt, either.

'Alice, Darling' shows the impact of abuse


Alice, Darling -- a psychological study bolstered by thriller elements -- relies on the observation that not all abuse is physical. The story centers on Alice (Anna Kendrick), a successful young woman who lives with her boyfriend, an artist played by Charlie Carrick. The two appear to be happy, but Carrick's Simon continually gnaws at Alice’s confidence. The plot, such as it is, begins to unfold  when Alice agrees to spend a weekend with two girlfriends (Kaniehtiio Horn and Wunmi Mosaku). The occasion: Horn's Tess has arranged a women-only celebration of her birthday at an isolated cabin. Alice tells Simon she's taking a business trip because she knows he’d object to her spending time with women who will encourage her independence. Kendrick captures Alice's ably fears, which limit her willingness to make her own decisions. Her friends try to loosen her up, but she's still under Simon's control. Director Mary Nighy creates a mood of uneasiness as Horn and Mosaku push Alice toward assertion. They know their friend is being tyrannized. The story's final eruption verges on overstatement  — and at times, the movie seems to be straining, particularly with a story about a missing local girl that lingers in the background. Working from a screenplay by Alanna FrancisAlice, Darling works best as a well-observed study of the effects of abuse, and Kendrick’s complex performance as a vacillating, conflicted woman gives Alice, Darling some painfully real bite.