Thursday, May 19, 2022

Transcending the ranks of teen comedy

    Emergency is a comedy made enjoyable by a trio of actors (Donald Elise Watkins, RJ Cyler, and Sebastian Chacon who bring zing to the byplay in what could have been another teen comedy — albeit one built around issues faced by black college students. A trio of housemates try to deal with a major problem: What to do about a drunken white girl who has wandered into their house and lies in a near-comatose state on their living room floor. Call the cops? Not a good idea says Cyler’s Sean who's wary about how the police might read the situation. Black guys. White girl. There goes any benefit of the doubt. The presence of this girl disrupts Sean's plan for two of the three housemates to visit every campus party on the eve of spring break. Director K.D. Davila guides this Sundance favorite through a couple of tonal shifts that deposit the story on a beachhead where she can deal with conflicting black approaches to manhood (studious and street-wise to put it in the  broadest terms) and the relationship of black students to the rest of fictional Buchanan College. Davila gets close enough to success to lift Emergency out of the crowded teen gag-reel genre. Keep an eye on Cyler (Me Earl and the Dying Girl and The Harder They Fall. He’s a scene-stealer who tempers a comic performance with a knowing slice of bitterness.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A film that lingers on death's doorstep

     How’s this for an evening’s entertainment? Spend two-plus hours watching an aging couple (she has Alzheimer’s; he has heart trouble) teetering on death’s doorstep? With Vortex, director Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Climax, and Love) moves as far from feel-good escapism as possible to deliver a movie that refuses to blink while its two unnamed characters approach death. Presenting scenes in split screen, which Noe does, may sound gimmicky but the technique emphasizes the isolation of a husband and wife who have shared lots of history but who sometimes seem only to be occupying the same space. He’s an intellectual who writes about film; she was a psychiatrist. We know — without being told — that this couple lived a life of engagement with ideas and the people who espoused them. Their apartment has come to resemble a used book store with shelves and piles of books in every nook and cranny. Without employing flashbacks, Noe paints a picture of a marriage that produced a now-grown son (Alex Lutz) with drug problems and a kid of his own. Italian director Dario Argento portrays the writer, an Italian transplant to France, and Francoise Lebrun, perhaps best known for her work in  Jean Eustache’s 1973 The Mother and the Whore, plays the woman. Lebrun’s performance — a mixture of shifting attitudes and infirmity — merits special attention. It’s difficult to argue that Vortex isn’t a bit of an ordeal but Noe’s willingness to shift from bad-boy outrage (Love included what were described as real sex scenes) to a style based on the kind of unadorned observation that \ reminds us that the mortality we all share can have a merciless edge.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

It's set in 1963 but couldn't be more timely

Talk about timing. The French movie Happening reaches the US at a time when few topics feel more incendiary or relevant than abortion. Director Audrey Diwan tells the story of a 23-year-old student (Anamaria Vartolomei) who hopes to become a writer. A one-night stand has left Vartolomei's Anne pregnant. The year: 1963 and abortion is illegal in France. The rest of this spare and artfully focused movie involves the obstacles that Anne must surmount to obtain an abortion. Anne wants a chance to establish her life: She does not want to be a mother -- not now. A physician (Fabrizio Rongione) refuses to help, and as the story progresses, Anne becomes increasingly desperate. At one point, she tries to self abort with knitting needles. Nothing goes easily. Her friends don't all stick by her, classmates shun her as a woman of low morals, and the man with whom Anne had a brief fling seems clueless. Anne certainly doesn't want to marry and become a housewife. Eventually, Anne finds  a woman who does abortions, which leads to unflinchingly presented scenes that are difficult to watch. Adapting a memoir by Annie Ernaux, Diwan has made a movie that's bound to resonate with those who remember pre-Roe days and which may well serve as a warning for young women who don't understand what it's like to live in a society in which women can't control their bodies and thus, their destinies. Happening is both powerful and, in this fraught moment, necessary.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Dr. Strange vanishes in a blur of action


   Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness visits many parallel universes. Few are especially interesting but some are presented with visual extravagance bordering on the surreal.
    Too bad director Sam Raimi scurries through these alternate realities too quickly for us to savor the oddities he concocts. That might have taken the sting out of what can feel like an over-crowded assemblage of half-baked ideas.
   One of them involves something called the Darkhold. What's the Darkhold? Something that, I suppose, means something to Marvel fans and which the exposition-heavy Multiverse strains to explain.
    About these alternate realities: The multiverse concept already has become shopworn thanks partly to the recent success of Everything Everywhere All at Once. It's also been used in previous Marvel efforts.
   In Raimi's telling, Benedict Cumberbatch returns as Doctor  Strange, star of the 2016 solo effort that bore his name. Flourishing his red cape and sporting a goatee, the once-brilliant surgeon travels from one universe to another, I suppose to preserve the fundamental order of things.
    That order is threatened by the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).  The witch — a.k.a. Wanda Maximoff — wants to find the universe in which she can play mom to two boys, the generically named Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne). Poor witch. All she wants is the solace of normality.
     I’ve read that those who are familiar with WandaVision, available on Disney+ and also starring Olsen, will get more out of the movie. That wouldn’t be me.
     Raimi's appointment with Doctor Strange leans heavily on bloated displays of digital invention as Strange — with occasional help from the sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) — tries to stop the witch’s scheme.
    Oops. I forgot to mention America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who can leap from reality to reality. America doesn’t know how she accomplishes this astonishing bit of multiverse jumping.
     In Marvel language, that means America has yet to master her powers. Don't worry, she's sure to do so in another movie.
   Other characters pop up including Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo, a foe of Strange, and Rachel McAdams's Christine Palmer, the woman Strange loves. 
     There’s more. Tons more, but the movie has a repetitive feel, and watching characters hurl fiery swirls of light at one another quickly loses its charge. 
     At one point, an evil version of Strange turns up sporting a third eye, which might help him if he has to find a compelling through line in this hodgepodge of a movie.
      I hadn’t been in a theater in more than a month and I was primed for a “big” movie, particularly one from a director who did admirable work in several Spider-Man movies and who early in his career earned recognition as a bold horror maven with 1981’s The Evil Dead.
      My expectations will have to wait. Raimi offers a few amusing cameos and occasional captivating sights: a vision of New York City adorned with flowers, Strange's macabre late-movie encounters, and an imaginative bit involving animated musical notes. 
     Otherwise, this latest helping of Marvel Mania whirls, twirls, and dashes from one set piece to another, leaving little but comic-book detritus in its wake. 
     Out of such detritus, more Marvel movies likely will emerge. That's not magic; it's business-as-usual.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

A movie based on a real art theft

  A portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya disappears from the British National Gallery in London during the summer of 1961.
  Sounds like the set-up for a caper movie revolving around a carefully detailed scene in which cunning thieves find a way into the museum and a way out with the famous painting.
  But director Roger Michell has something different in mind in The Duke, the story of a real-life theft involving a 61-year-old man who never met a cause he wasn't willing to stand up for. 
 When we meet Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), he has focused considerable passion on what seems an exceedingly narrow crusade. Bunton doesn't want to pay for the TV license that allowed British TV watchers to access the BBC in the 1960s. He's disabled his set so that it can't receive the BBC and sees no reason why he should be required to have a license.
   Bunton claimed he had no interest in profiting from the Wellington  heist, insisting instead that he kidnapped the painting and planned to use it as a bargaining chip to persuade the government to fund access to the BBC for the poor and for elderly pensioners.
  He was less a robber than a quasi-imaginative Robin Hood who wrote plays that brought him little response other than a copious supply of rejection letters from the same BBC that he refused to pay for.
     Michell, who died in September of last year, is best known for movies such as Notting Hill and Venus. It's no surprise then that the director, working from a screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, has made a character comedy that places itself solidly in the British working class where we meet Bunton's family -- his long- suffering wife (Helen Mirren) and his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead)
     The Buntons reside in unfashionable Newcastle where Bunton, who ultimately returned the painting, loses jobs and conducts solitary protests. 
     Michell spends little time on the actual theft, opting to showcase Broadbent's performance as a good-hearted, obstinate fellow whose beliefs, at least as depicted in the movie, might have been authored for a Frank Capra screenplay. 
     We're meant to look out for one another. I am you. You are me, etc.
      Broadbent and Mirren play an admirable duet in a movie that has no trouble embracing an old-fashioned spirit as it ambles toward a courtroom scene in which Bunton's barrister (a fine Matthew Goode) offers a moving defense of his client.
      It's unlikely that The Duke will find a place in the pantheon of great movies. It can't quite shake its obvious sentiment and a story element about a daughter that the Buntons lost doesn't quite find the emotional resonance Michell may have wanted.
     But the movie qualifies as a solid — if small — entertainment that gives Broadbent a showcase role. Broadbent previously worked with Michell in Le Week-End, a 2013 movie about an aging couple facing up to some of life's disappointments during a trip to Paris.
     Sadly, Michell's untimely departure -- he was 65 when he died -- will prevent another collaboration. Consider it a loss.*

*If you’re a faithful reader of Denerstein Unleashed, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet of late. As a result of knee-replacement surgery, I have not seen some of the most recent high-profile movies nor have I been able to do much writing. I’m slowly working my way back and, although I’m probably going to be reviewing fewer movies for a while, will resume more regular publication in May.

Monday, March 28, 2022

For Oscar, it was the year of the slap

  Who could have predicted that the 94th Academy Awards  would produce a WTF moment even greater than the Moonlight/La La Land fiasco of 2017? 
  Perhaps because the Oscars honor the illusory power of movies, most folks (me included) couldn't tell whether the astonishing moment in which Will Smith slapped Chris Rock was staged or genuine. 
  When the camera (sans sound) showed Smith mouthing harsh words at Rock, the outburst suddenly seemed serious.
   Oh, and by the way, the Oscars honored CODA -- a small feel-good movie -- as the year's best picture, a coup for Apple TV+ and the world of streaming.
    Let's face it, though. In the end, all that anyone's going to talk about post-Oscar is the fact that Smith took offense at a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. 
     Rock said that he looked forward to seeing Pinkett Smith, whose head is shaved, in GI Jane 2, a surprisingly dated reference to GI Jane, a 1997 movie featuring a shorn Demi Moore in full warrior mode. 
     A duly aggrieved Smith strode to the stage and smacked Rock in the face. Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia and has said that's why she shaved her head, but still ... a roundhouse  in the middle of the Academy Awards?
      Not long after, Smith won the best actor Oscar for playing Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard. How would he address what had happened? 
    "Richard Williams was a fierce defender of family," Smith said after accepting the award. "In this time in my life, in this moment, I'm overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world."
     No comment needs to be made about whether this constitutes a statement of humility or grandiosity. You be the judge. Smith also said, "Art imitates life -- I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams ... But love will make you do crazy things."
     And I thought the dancing during a segment of remembrance for those who died during the past year might turn out to be the evening's strangest moment. 
     Or how about Wanda Sykes touring the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures while making lame jokes? 
       When it came to the awards, there were no real surprises.
       Oscars were given to those who were expected to win them. No single movie dominated, aside from Dune in the so-called technical categories.
    Some closing thoughts:
    Amy Schumer, who co-hosted with Sykes and Regina Hall, delivered what amounts to an opening monologue. Schumer put some bite in her jokes. An example: She mocked Being the Ricardos as a laughless movie about one the funniest women who has ever lived. 
       I'm happy for CODA. I'm glad that Hollywood (at least in its estimation) is the most diverse place on earth, and I'm amazed that so many films had landmark anniversaries.
     The Godfather at 50 and what seems like a zillion years of James Bond, OK. But the 28th anniversary of Pulp Fiction? Who knew that 28th anniversaries were a thing? 
    And is anyone really celebrating the 30th anniversary of White Men Can't Jump? I liked that movie but never felt compelled to keep track of its birthday.
        Oh, I almost forgot, Rock was on hand to present the Oscar for best documentary. A genuinely moved Questlove won for Summer of Soul.
        Before opening the envelope, a slightly nonplussed Rock referred to his unexpected encounter with Smith's right hand by noting,  "That was the greatest night in the history of television." 
         An overstatement perhaps, but who doubts that 2022 long will be remembered for the slap?
         By way of summation, I'll quote this headline from The New York Times website. Kudos to the Times for its deadpan embodiment of the entire wacky and indigestible evening.
        "Oscars: Will Smith Hits Chris Rock After Joke, Then Wins Best Actor."
        I guess it's true: There really is no business like show business.
If you're looking for a complete list of winners, try The Hollywood Reporter.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Another year, more Oscar predictions



    I don't know about you but I'm sick of looking back at 2021.   
    Maybe that’s why I’m not especially stoked about the upcoming Oscar ceremonies (Sunday, March. 27). Not only has public interest in the Academy Awards waned, but we're almost three months into 2022. We’ve already seen numerous award shows and scanned dozens of  critics' year-end lists. We've also witnessed any number of promotional pushes for various of last year’s movies.
    So I’m going to be as brief as possible with my Oscar predictions, which I offer with the hope that this year’s telecast will be reasonably entertaining, produce a few surprises, and help restore public confidence in movies.
    Here are my predictions in the major categories:

    Best Picture:
    CODA beats The Power of the Dog.
    I’m a fan of CODA but it’s difficult not to argue that Power of the Dog isn’t better directed, deeper, and more enriched by cinema artistry. But Power of the Dog also has detractors and this might be the year in which a feel-good movie that displays both intelligence and emotion prevails.
    Possible surprise: Belfast. Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical movie has a chance if neither CODA nor The Power of the Dog has enough votes to carry the day. More visually accomplished than CODA and devoted to a message of reconciliation, Belfast might represent a compromise choice for voters who were put off by Power of the Dog but still want a movie that leans toward art.
     Best Director
    Jane Campion will win for The Power of the Dog.  
    Sian Heder, who directed CODA, isn’t even nominated, so ….
    Best Actor
    Will Smith wins for King Richard.
    Would I vote for him? No. But I’m not an Academy voter. A more deserving candidate (Benedict Cumberbatch for Power of the Dog) doesn’t seem to have been gaining momentum during the interminable awards season.
    Best Actress
    Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
     If I had a vote, I’d cast it for Penelope Cruz for her work in Parallel Mothers.
    Best Supporting Actor
    Troy Kotsur, CODA
    Who can beat him? Probably no one.
    Best Supporting Actress
    Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
    Would I be disappointed if Aunjanue Ellis won for King Richard? Not at all.
    Best Foreign Film
    Drive My Car
    Best Original Screenplay
    Best adapted Screenplay
    Best Animated Movie
    Best Documentary 
   Summer of Soul
   Best possible evening: I’m wrong on all counts and have to spend most of Monday trying to figure out what happened.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

This movie wants to "stop making sense"


     Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert -- a directing duo known as The Daniels -- overwhelm the screen with the aptly titled Everything Everywhere All at Once, a movie that spends more than two hours racing through a multiverse in which characters suddenly morph into alternate versions of themselves. 
     It's impossible to watch the Daniels maneuver through the chaos without acknowledging their ability to crack visual jokes, rip through dense helpings of exposition, and commit to a full-scale creative bombardment of the audience. 
     Now, it should be said that there are people who will enjoy this teeming barrage of a movie precisely because the Daniels don't skimp on invention. But those who don't think that comprehension and creativity are mortal enemies may find themselves looking for guard rails.
     No stranger to martial arts action, Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant to the US who runs a laundromat with her husband (Ke Huy Quan). Quan, you may remember, appeared in The Goonies as a kid. 
     Mired in a listless marriage, the exasperated Evelyn tries to deal with a lesbian daughter (Stephanie Hsu) who, in one of the movie's alternate universes, assumes an entirely different identity.
    If you see the film, keep an eye out for a character named Jobu Tupaki. Also watch for the giant everything bagel.
     No, I'm not kidding, although the Daniels probably are — at least I hope so.
     The Daniels seem to have dedicated themselves to the idea that quiet equals boredom. Blink and you'll be watching a fight scene in which Quan's Waymond turns a fanny pack into a weapon. 
     During a scene in a tax office, Waymond reveals a new side of himself, providing Evelyn with instruction about how to "jump" from her current life into a parallel one in which she's a martial arts maven with a mission. She’ll find additional identities as the movie barrels forward, including a stint as a movie star.
    To further complicate matters Evelyn's visiting father (James Hong) never approved of her marriage to the feckless Waymond.
      Other characters pop in and out of various universes. Damn the transitions, it's full speed ahead. 
      Sporting a puffy paunch, Jamie Lee Curtis turns herself into a sight gag; she plays a dictatorial tax auditor who's appalled by Evelyn's haphazard record keeping. 
    The Daniels (Swiss Army Knife) convert distraction into attraction -- or at least they try. In one alternate universe, the characters have hotdogs for fingers, for example. In another, Evelyn and Joy turn up as rocks. 
    And, yes, it does feel as if everything we're seeing is happening all at once. Serious issues morph into cartoon-like jests. Sure lines blur but don’t we all live in a state of disorientation? So what if the movie’s scenes play like an explosion of hyperactive production numbers?
    Everything Everywhere All at Once will delight some and confound others as it offers a cafeteria-style variety of pleasures: a terrific costume here, a funny bit there, an ingenious fight in another place.
     All frantic all the time, the movie gallops toward a conciliatory -- and I guess -- happy hug of an ending. 
     The trouble with this bumper serving of creativity is that the meal is not only glutted but served so fast, it's difficult to digest.
     Somewhere up there on the screen, there's a movie. Maybe dozens of them. If this sounds like your cup of chaos, have fun. As for me,  I guess I still prefer my movies one at a time.

No knockout for this rumble in the jungle

      Action, comedy, and romance are the hallmarks of many movies.
     The Lost City serves up generous amounts of each of these  ingredients yet still feels no more than adequate, possibly because the movie -- which pairs Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum -- doesn't provide its stars with anything that doesn't feel a little too familiar. 
    In itself, such a limitation might not be fatal but the movie also fails to sustain the comfort that sometimes makes formula movies not only tolerable but desirable, a feeling akin to stepping into a well-worn but comfortable pair of shoes.
     Bullock plays Loretta Sage, a successful author of romance novels who's sick of writing them. She's also sick of the model (Tatum) who has been posing for all of her book covers. 
    Tatum’s Alan appears on covers as Loretta's star creation, Dash, an adventurer with shoulder-length locks and a pumped-up body. Women love the books and swoon over Dash.
    Early on, Loretta is kidnapped and hauled off to a jungle island by a pampered rich guy (Daniel Radcliffe) who's given the unlikely name of Abigail Fairfax. 
    Fairfax's goal echoes that of many other villains: He's looking for lost treasure. He drags Loretta into the search because her late husband was an archaeologist and because a couple of ancient symbols appeared in one of Loretta's novels. 
    Neither provides much of a reason for kidnapping but then there isn't much reason for anything in The Lost City -- other than to dish out entertainment that floats in the wake of better movies -- from Romancing the Stone to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
     The initial kidnapping occurs while Loretta is on a book tour that has been arranged by her manager (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and another tag-along character (Patti Harrison as Loretta's social media manager.)
      Determined to rescue Loretta, Tatum's Alan follows. The two eventually find themselves tromping through jungles with motorcycle-riding thugs following in hot pursuit. 
      Among the movie's "big" moments: Channing bares his butt in a scene in which Loretta picks leaches off Alan's exposed body. Given a full frontal view (unseen by the audience), Loretta marvels over the size of Alan's ... well ... you know.
     Early on, the movie shows promise. Alan (in full Dash regalia) upstages Loretta during a tour appearance and when she disappears, he enlists the help of a mercenary played by Brad Pitt
     Had Pitt -- decorated with tattoos and a pony tale -- been in more of the movie, Lost City might have found a sweet spot. Pitt's Jack Trainer, a warrior and mediation master, has the skills of an adventurer that, for Alan, don't go beyond posing for book covers.
     Sadly, Pitt's appearance amounts to a slightly swollen cameo. That leaves Bullock and Tatum with the task of gradually igniting the sparks of romance.
     OK. No need to go overboard with negativity. The movie's comic byplay scores as passable. Moreover, the movie doesn't want for exotic locations. (Most of the filming was done in the Dominican Republic.)
    Adam and Aaron Nee (Band of Robbers) handle directing chores in breezy if not buzz-worthy fashion. 
   But the main attractions are Bullock and Tatum. They know how to work the material but the material ... well ...  that's another story and not a particularly inspired one.