Thursday, March 30, 2023

A near-wordless attempt at horror


    She lives alone on an island off the Cornwall coast. She seems to have few responsibilities other than taking temperature readings of the ground, observing rare flowers, and dropping a stone down an abandoned mine shaft. 
   Each day, the isolated character of the movie Enys Men records her findings in a notebook, capping off the numbers with an abbreviated statement that summarizes her life: "No change." 
   Even by minimalist standards, the movie seems strangely sparse. 
   Stripping the film of nearly all dialogue, director Mark Jenkin seems to be trying for a psycho/spectral horror film, an effort I found laudable but wanting in its result.
  Jenkin provides little context for a movie that takes place in 1973. We know the year because the character known only as "The Volunteer" (Mary Woodvine) marks it in the journal of records she keeps. 
  The Volunteer has a shortwave radio with which she can talk to the mainland. Mostly it delivers an eerie stream of static.
   At one point, lichens jeopardize the flowers the Volunteer observes. They also begin to grow on her body, as well. 
  Various figures from the island's past (a drowned boat crew, for example) appear. Remnants of prior activity, notably mining, crop up, as well.
  Those familiar with horror may expect Jenkin to deliver a climactic event or expository revelation. He offers neither, preferring to immerse viewers in the movie's evocative moods.
  Short by current standards (one hour and 31 minutes), the movie's repetitions can induce a bit of boredom, as well as a feeling for madness born of isolation. 
  Cheers to Jenkin for trying what struck me as a cinematic experiment, but to my eyes, Enys Men didn't quite arrive at its destination, whatever that might have been. 

Film, kids and attempted authenticity


The French film The Worst Ones raises questions about how far filmmakers should go in trying for authenticity, particularly when their work involves young people. Directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret cast real kids for a movie about a filmmaker (Johan Heldenbergh) who's trying to capture life among teenagers in the Picasso neighborhood of a town in northern France.  Forget Paris glamor; this town is full of housing projects and folks who’ll never be living upscale lives. Heldenbergh's Gabriel wants to make a tough film called Pissing in the North Wind. He's looking for the kind of teens who cause trouble. As it turns out, the film is less interested in the town’s teenagers than in the director's ideas about who they are. Independent and assertive, the director wants to show that Lily (Mallory Wanecque) is pregnant. She's not. Ryan (Timeo Mahaut) is asked to scowl and fight. He can’t suppress his smile. Jessy (Loic Pech), a real-life wise-ass, is pushed into a love scene. Melina Vanderplancke's Maylis doesn't like the idea of being on camera. The movie’s young cast gets to you,  and The Worst Ones' film-within-a-film approach proves more revealing than gimmicky.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A British romcom relies on fresh faces

    Refreshingly young, full of trendy banter, and respectful of romcom conventions, Rye Lane proves itself to be one of the year's happiest movies. 
    Directed in a peppy upbeat style by Raine Allen-Miller, Rye Lane brings new British faces to a movie revolving around a South London neighborhood. Rye Lane, by the way, is the area's colorful main drag. 
   Newcomers David Jonsson (as Dom) and Vivian Oparah (as Yas) star as two 20somethings who recently experienced breakups. 
   Sad and weepy, Dom acts as if he'll never regain his confidence. Bubbly and spirited, Yas takes the opposite approach, viewing the world as an ongoing adventure, an open book with pages she’s eager to turn.
   Based on an opposites-attract paradigm, the movie brings Dom and Yas together for a chance encounter in the bathroom of a pub. The two then spend a day together. True to form, Dom gradually yields to Yas's impulsive verve. 
  As Dom warms up, the banter that emerges from a screenplay by Nathon Byron and Tom Melia proves amusing and seldom (thank heaven) annoyingly glib. It's wonderful to see two young actors having a great time bouncing lines off each other. 
   As the film unfolds, both Dom and Yas encounter their former lovers (Malcolm Atobrah and Karene Peter) in scenes that add genuine helpings of comedy to the romcom equation. 
   Better yet, the Caribbean/British vibe of the neighborhood functions as a welcoming third character.
   The music is catchy with tracks from Stormzy, Musical Mob, Roy Davis Jr., and Blake Lab Beats featuring Ghetto Boy. I'd never heard of these British HipHoppers, but their contribution constitutes another plus.
   Still, none of the movie’s nicely employed trappings would have mattered had Jonsson and Oparah not been perfectly cast.
  They engage. They charm. And they help turn Rye Lane into an hour and 22 minutes of amiable fun.

Guess what? ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ isn’t bad


   Any review of a movie with Dungeons & Dragons in its title should begin with a personal statement about the famous game. Here's mine: I couldn't care less about a role-play game that has captivated so many since its release in 1974.
  After reading that a second Dungeons & Dragons movie was on the horizon (the first was released in 2000), I wondered whether the game still could command interest.
  Or maybe it was me. Maybe I was out of touch; maybe Dungeons & Dragons hadn't become a pop-cultural relic.
  Judging by the audience at a preview screening of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the game still has plenty of devotees, the kind who show up at screenings wearing costumes and who are well attuned to the intricacies of D&D. 
  OK, that's my confession. Dungeons mania aside, a movie should, like a mythological dragon, breathe its own fire. That's how I approached Honor Among Thieves. 
   I can't say I loved every minute of Honor Among Thieves, but I found myself watching a reasonably entertaining movie that features a well-cast Chris Pine in a lead role and gives him Michelle Rodriguez as a tough sidekick and Hugh Grant as a villainous foe. 
   The rest of the cast proves equally able. Sophia Willis augments the team as a shapeshifter with a very useful set of skills. Justice Smith portrays Simon, an endearing sorcerer who has yet to develop full confidence in his conjuring powers.
   The plot begins with Pine's Edgin and Rodriguez's Holga escaping from prison where they're serving time for theft. Edgin wants to reunite with his young daughter (Chloe Coleman), a girl who has fallen under the sway of Grant's Forge Fitzwilliam, once a member of the felonious gang to which Edgin and Holga belong.
   An aggressively amiable chiseler, Forge tries to convince Coleman's Kira that he has her best interests at heart. Edgin is a self-centered thief who has no genuine concern for his daughter. Why else would he leave her in Forge's care? So goes Forge's spin on the story.
   But what of Kira's mom? Oops. I mean her late mom.
   Edgin’s to-do list includes another item: He wants to revive his deceased wife (Georgia Landers), a task that requires possession of the Tablet of Reawakening. Good luck finding that, not to mention a helmet that has its own important powers.
   The world Dungeons creates includes a lot more complexities but there's no point turning a review into an annotated glossary of Dungeons lore, which I couldn't do anyway.
   Know, though, that a character called Xenk (Rege-Jean Page) eventually joins the group. Sincere and literal to a fault, Xenk can't  understand irony, a trait the movie rightly plays for laughs. In the end, the joke's on us, though. Xenk proves a worthy fellow.
   The screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, and Michael Gilio presents its characters with an on-going series of challenges, some accompanied by nice effects work and action that’s neatly staged by co-directors Goldstein and Daley.
  Honor Among Thieves probably isn't destined to make my top-10 list of 2023 movies, but much its two-hour and 14 minutes passed easily. Besides, the actors, notably Pine and Rodriguez, gave the movie enough heart, grit and humor, to ward off negative vibes.
   What else can you ask from a movie that takes its cue from a game that's nearly 50 years old?

A tough woman in a tough world


   What does it mean to be "with" a movie? For me, it means that from beginning to end, I'm totally absorbed by what's happening on screen.
    I definitely was "with" A Thousand and One, the story of a mother (Teyana Taylor) who rescues her young son (Aaron Kinglsey Adetola) from foster care. The movie isn’t without imperfections but A Thousand and One overcomes them with emotional power and a fiercely compelling lead performance.
  A singer, choreographer, and actor, Taylor plays Inez de la Paz, a woman we meet when she's released from New York's notorious Rikers Island. Inez hits the streets of Harlem but soon makes an effort to see the six-year-old son she had to abandon when she was sentenced. 
   Without a hint of sappiness, Inez walks out of foster care with the boy. She then begins the difficult task of establishing life with a kid, a task she must accomplish without much help.
    The catch: Because she took the boy without permission, Inez has opened herself to charges of kidnapping.
   Director A.V. Rockwell, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, sets us up for a life-on-the-run urban adventure but the movie's better than that. To her credit, Rockwell has her eye on the long haul, with all its hardships, setbacks, and small triumphs.
  Mostly set in the 1990s, the story extends over a 15-year-period and casts two additional actors to play Inez’s son Terry. Aven Courtney portrays Terry at 13. Josiah Cross takes over when Terry turns 17.
   Because authorities are looking for Inez, she creates a new identity for Terry. She enrolls him in school, gives him plenty of love (some of it tough), and guides him to the point where he's on the verge of applying for college. 
   When it's time to apply for college, Terry needs documentation that Inez can't provide without exposing what she's done.
   Rockwell fleshes out the portrait she paints of a struggling mom with scenes built around a long-standing romantic relationship between Inez and Lucky (a terrific Will Catlett). 
   Lucky moves in with Inez after his release from prison, but doesn't always stick around. He denies being Terry's father but slowly connects with the boy and shares some tender moments when Terry hits his teen years.
   That's a mark of the movie's depth. Lucky may be flawed but we realize he’s trying to hang onto his humanity.
    The story takes place when police crack downs on crime were followed by gentrifying moves aimed at transforming Harlem. Neither Terry nor Inez can escape the cruel consequences of these trends.
   A shocking end-of-movie reveal throws the story out of whack -- in a good way. We’re reminded that what we think we know isn't always true. Before the movie's done, Rockwell not only surprises, she enriches the web of motivation from which Inez operates.
   Rockwell’s bold direction matches Taylor’s vivid performance, ensuring that A Thousand and One packs a wallop.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Problems? This movie has lots of them


Heavy-handed and melodramatic,  A Good Person stars Florence Pugh as happy fiancee Allison,  a woman who's behind the wheel when her fiancé's sister and her husband are killed in a terrible crash. The sister happened to be the daughter of an alcoholic former policeman (Morgan Freeman) who’s left to care for Ryan (Celeste O'Connor), his teenage granddaughter. As contrivance would have it, Freeman’s Daniel, who's been sober for years, and Pugh’s Allison meet at an AA meeting when Allison decides it’s time to quit the opioids that numb her post-accident guilt and pain. Allison tries to bolt but Daniel encourages her to stay, and the two develop an unlikely, if sometimes strained, relationship. Chinaza Uche plays Daniel's son, the fiancé Allison dumped after the accident. He's estranged from his father. For added quirk and ham-handed metaphor-making, Daniel is a model train enthusiast whose hobby allows him to control the world he builds for his trains. Life, he recognizes, isn't so easily tamed. Writer/director Zach Braff 's overheated drama can't be saved by its cast or by sincere concerns about forgiveness, perhaps because the screenplay checks off an encumbering list of problems, including drug addiction, careless driving, alcoholism, child abuse, and teen sex. The result: A misfire of a movie that tries to stuff  its two-hour and five-minute running time with more issues than you'd need to stock an eight-part series. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

‘Wick’ as crazy as ever. No, crazier


      John Wick: Chapter 4 is one wild movie, a two-hour and 49-minute stream of action that makes a virtue of excess.
     If you’re familiar with WickWorld, you know that action means violence, executed with guns, knives, nunchucks and anything else that can be weaponized — cars and motorcycles included.
     Director Chad Stahelski ably threads a plot through the real draw, a slew of action set pieces.
     You either like this sort or thing or you don’t. If you do, Chapter 4 delivers. Sure, Stahelski pushes the violence to the point at which logic evaporates. But style, invention and skill keep the bloody bounty from curdling into exploitation. 
     Considering how much physical effort Reeves expends during Wick's globe-hopping endeavors, it’s a wonder the actor still is able to walk —much less ignite the engine that drives Wick's fighting fury.
      About those set pieces:
      A dizzyingly impressive battle sprawls its way through a Berlin nightclub where Wick confronts Killa (Scott Adkins), a hulk of a man with golden teeth who looks as if he might have been resurrected from an early Bond movie. 
       In another set piece, drivers race against the flow of traffic at an Arc de Triomphe roundabout. It’s funny and, yes, crazy,  a near-cartoonish blur of motion punctuated by staccato bursts of gun fire
       A climactic sequence takes on Sisyphean dimensions as antagonists fight on the steps leading to Paris's Sacre Coeur.
       The story? Oh yeah, that.
       A fiendish villain called the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard) hires hitmen to put Wick out of commission. 
       These include Tracker (Shamier Anderson),  an assassin who travels with his beloved but brutal German shepherd, and Caine (Donny Yen),  a blind warrior brought into the game when the Marquis threatens his daughter.
       Hiroyuki Sanada operates a swank Osaka hotel that provides safe-house refuge for assassins who serve a mysterious organization known as The Table.
       The cast roster also includes  returnees Laurence Fishburne, as the Bowery king, and Ian McShane, as the sly operator of New York City's safe house. 
      Is the movie too long? Of course it is,  but then again it’s too much of everything. 
       That's the Wick way. Again evoking memories of bygone Hong Kong action movies, Chapter 4 brings commitment to its ceaseless battling and avoids the worst label you can apply to any sequel. This is no pandering cash grab.  
       Stahelski ups the ante with each successive set piece, thus proving you can give audiences what they want without cheating or insulting them in the bargain.

Sally Hawkins dominates 'Lost King'

      Director Stephen Frears has made groundbreaking movies (My Beautiful Launderette) and movies that haven’t matched his best work (Victoria & Abdul). Now comes The Lost King, a movie based on a screenplay be Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
      Lost King may not be a landmark work for Frears, who's now 81, but a memorable performance by Sally Hawkins keeps the movie on track.
     The Lost King tells the story of Philippa Langley, the woman who instigated the real-life effort to discover the remains of King Richard III. If you recall the news stories from 2012, Richard’s bones were discovered in the parking lot of a social services office in Leicester. The less-than-majestic setting turned the discovery into irresistible headlines fodder.
      But the movie is more about Philippa than the king Shakespeare vilified. At the outset, a downtrodden Philippa is passed over for a promotion at work. A bit harried by her two young sons, she's   separated from her husband (Coogan). A new love interest hasn't kept him from remaining part of Philippa's life.
     Hawkins mixes insecurity and assertion as Philippa embraces a quest that few others take seriously, including representatives of the academic establishment she eventually encounters.
     The screenplay tells us Philippa’s interest was sparked by a production of Richard III. She was taken with the performance of the actor (Harry Lloyd) who played Shakespeare’s fabled hunchback.
    As the movie develops, Philippa begins seeing Lloyd as Richard everywhere she goes. I’m not sure we needed visual assistance to understand Philippa’s obsession. Hawkins makes Philippa’s undaunted commitment clear enough -- sans hallucinations.
    Before launching her project, Philippa joins a branch of the Richard III Society,  a group that harbors a contingent of Richard nerds, some of whom claim that Richard was neither a hunchback nor the ambitious murderer of Shakespeare’s play. He was, they insist, a rightful king, England's last Plantagenet monarch.
   Philippa's work picks up speed after she convinces an archaeologist (Mark Addy) to join her search, but her instincts prevail over his more measured approach. 
   Eventually, hypocritical institutions try to cash on Philippa's work but Frears sticks to the point: Sometimes, it takes an obsessive outlier to push a cause to its satisfying conclusion. Philippa did that for Richard; Hawkins does it for the movie.

Friday, March 17, 2023

A dreary true-crime story


You can't say they didn't try. Whoever assembled Boston Strangler -- a movie about reporters covering a famous case of the 1960s -- hired a first-rate cast. Kiera Knightley and Carrie Coon team as reporters for the Boston Record American. Knightley's Loretta McLaughlin rises from lifestyle obscurity to become an ace crime reporter. She was the first journalist to report that a string of 13 horrific murders were connected. Coons portrays Jean Cole, a veteran journalist who already had broken into the male-dominated ranks of “hard” news. The two give fine performances, although the movie tilts more toward McLaughlin, showing snippets of her home life. Chris Cooper, as the paper’s editor, and Alessandro Nivola, as a detective working the case, add heft. Writer/director Matt Ruskin conveys some of the ambiguity about the case’s resolution. Tagged as The Strangler, Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian) became known as killer but was positively linked to only one of the 13 murders. Attempts to tell the story of a woman battling for a bigger journalistic role are conjoined with a dreary narrative that also dips into police bungling. For the most part, Ruskin proceeds in a prosaic fashion that tends to drag. What feels like a dutiful approach to storytelling often robs the movie of opportunities to sizzle.