Thursday, December 24, 2015

Todd Haynes: Loving and hating the '50s

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara headline a story about two women who fall in love.
Carol -- the much-praised romance from director Todd Haynes -- carefully recreates the climate of the 1950s in which an affluent WASPy husband seems to care less about his wife's sexual orientation than about maintaining appearances.

Though never overly emphasized, the social issues in Carol allow the movie to bite into the rotten apple of repression that defined a post-war decade dominated by a rigorous commitment to conformity.

But Haynes' adaptation of The Price of Salt, a 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel, hardly qualifies as a fiery expression of outrage against 50s hypocrisy: It's a double-edged romance -- one between two women and the other between Haynes and the style of the '50s.

The most powerful figure in screenwriter Phyllis Nagy's screenplay -- at least at first blush -- is Carol (Cate Blanchett): Carol lives in an upper-middle class life in suburban New Jersey. She once had an affair with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). She's well aware of her sexuality, but is languishing in a marriage that exists only on paper.

Although Carol's husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) resents the affair, he seems willing to allow the trappings of class to mute his emotions -- at least when he's not too drunk to keep his anger and need in check.

Harge clings to Carol -- if not for love than to have someone take his arm when he attends a country club function.

Carol and Harge also have a daughter named Rindy (Kk Heim), a girl who figures into their struggle: Carol wants out of the marriage. Harge eventually threatens to keep her from her daughter.

But I get ahead of myself. The story's major event occurs early. While shopping in a Manhattan department store, Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a young woman who's working the counter in the toy department. Carol instantly is attracted to this shop girl. It's clear that Mara's Therese feels something, as well.

Elegantly dressed, Blanchett's Carol exudes suburban superiority; for a movie in which desire plays an important role, it's interesting that Blanchett's Carol seems awfully calculating.

She leaves her gloves on Therese's counter, an obvious invitation for further contact. Later, she invites Therese to her home. She opens a door for this younger women (who wants to be a photographer), but doesn't push her through: She beckons Therese to enter.

I wondered whether Carol -- as a character -- would be possible without her fur coat, Olympian cheek bones and surface composure. If Carol lived in the South and things didn't go well for her, you could almost see her evolving into Blanche Dubois.

Rooney's performance is quieter, but she holds her own with a show of determined intensity. At the outset, Therese's life hovers in a kind of limbo: She has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy). He thinks they're on the verge of getting married. He's very wrong.

Things become clear to Lacy's Richard when Therese, who's only discovering her sexuality, agrees to take a cross-country car trip with Carol.

Carol's depressed about her inability to jettison Harge, who has spirited their daughter away. She's eager to feel free. Not surprisingly, it's on this trip that Carol and Therese first have sex -- in a motel in the town of Waterloo, Iowa.

Lots of emotion roils beneath the surface here, but Carol doesn't always take full advantage of its potential. The movie can be slow and intermittent in its ability to intrigue, but it builds as it goes. And Haynes finds a way (better not disclosed here) to give the movie's ending some kick.

Carol and Therese are two characters who don't necessarily live in the '50s; they live in a world that has been production designed, costumed and turned into a diorama: Carol can feel a bit airless.

And that may result from the conflict that animates Haynes' work: He seems to love the style of the '50s while chafing against the decade's constraints. It's weird in a way: The movie's volatile issues are bathed in the comforting nostalgia of its design, enhanced by cinematographer Ed Lachman's warmly conceived imagery.

Don't be surprised if production designer Judy Becker and costumer Sandy Powell carry home Oscar gold for their work on Carol, Haynes' second foray into the '50s after Far From Heaven (2002).

Love aside, Carol and Therese remain two very different women. They're from two different generations and two different social backgrounds. I won't say more, but I will tell you that I thought what happens to these women after Carol concludes might have made for an equally or even more interesting movie.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

'Hateful Eight' : blood, racial conflict -- at length

Tarantino's overlong and, of course incendiary, foray into the West.

A B-movie trying to wear A-movie clothes -- and not always doing a good job of it.

That's part of what I thought about The Hateful Eight, director Quentin Tarantino's three-hour opus, a Western that was filmed in Telluride, Colorado. Like the so-called road shows of yore, Hateful Eight begins with an overture (Ennio Morricone wrote the score) and includes an intermission.

The movie can be seen in 70mm at certain locations, although the necessity of seeing it that way can be argued. The movie's "prestige" trappings struck me as overkill, a phenomenon not unknown to a director whose seven previous movies have been known to go over-the-top.

As usual, Tarantino plays with structure, but he's decided to go against the Western grain. The snow-covered landscapes of the movie's opening suggest a spacious background, but the bulk of The Hateful Eight takes place indoors.

Tarantino's screenplay revolves around a simple premise: More than a decade after the Civil War, bounty hunters take shelter in a cabin during a blizzard. It doesn't take long before these bounty hunters are interacting with strangers in a high-stakes game not all of them will survive.

Before the movie's done, its characters are given ample opportunity to prove that they've earned the movie's title. They're a hateful bunch, several of them steeped in racism stemming from North/South divisions that haven't begun to scar over.

If there's a main character here, it's probably Samuel L. Jackson's Marquis Warren, a savvy bounty hunter who led a group of black fighters during the Civil War.

Early on, a stranded Warren stops a stage coach to ask for a ride. He's transporting two dead outlaws across the snow-covered hills: His destination: the Wyoming town of Red Rock. His goal: to collect bounties.

The stage coach has been hired by John Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter who's headed to Red Rock. Ruth is transporting a murderous woman named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to an appointment with the hangman.

It doesn't take long before another traveler joins the group. Walton Goggins portrays Chris Mannix, a former Confederate soldier and the guy who's supposed to take over as Red Rock's new sheriff.

Once the travelers reach the stage stop -- the oddly named Minnie's Haberdashery -- they encounter more characters: an English hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy who scribbles in a diary (Michael Madsen), an aging Confederate general (Bruce Dern) and a Mexican (Demian Bichir) who claims to be taking care of the place for Minnie, who's off visiting someone or other.

No one who's familiar with Tarantino's work will be surprised to learn that Hateful Eight includes considerable violence, profanity and racial slurs.

If you thought that Tarantino made his racial movie with Django Unchained, think again. Warren instantly is pitted against southern, racist sensibilities and once again, Tarantino gives the "n" word a workout. Its use here can be piercing, raw and maybe a bit forced: One presumes that Tarantino wants to use the movie's isolated setting to get at what he regards as the ugly, bottom-line truth of racial hatred.

Perhaps, but you'd think by now, Tarantino (who writes his own scripts) would have developed a severe case of "n" word fatigue.

Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has filmed many of Tarantino's movies, don't always find ways to make the depressingly brown interiors of Minnie's Haberdashery all that interesting, and this time, they're stuck in a situation in which talk mostly trumps action -- at least in the movie's pre-intermission segments.

That shouldn't be a problem for Tarantino, whose speciality is dialogue, but there are times when you're a little too aware that the characters aren't exactly talking; they're indulging in Tarantino-speak. Put another way: You can hear the writing.

Now, there are surprises here, so there's not much point saying more about what happens in this God forsaken Wyoming outpost other than to note that Tarantino breaks the movie into five acts, each introduced by a title card.

Know, though, that Jackson seems to be playing a character who's not entirely unlike Jules, the hit man he played in Pulp Fiction; he's whip smart and nasty when he needs to be.

Russell's character specializes in what appears to be misogynistic brutally, punching Daisy when he thinks she's out of line. Leigh spends much of the movie with a bloodied face. Of course, Daisy's no angel, either.

Of all the performances Leigh's feels the freshest, reaching near-demonic proportions. An enraged Daisy is something to behold; she could be a guardian at the gates of hell.

When it comes to color palette, Hateful Eight might be the brownest movie I've ever seen. I'm not sure what that signifies, other than that it breeds a whiff of monotony, a condition not unknown to the movie, particularly as it approaches its intermission.

Intense violence explodes during the movie's protracted finale, generating enough plasma to fill a blood bank before Tarantino brings the movie to its rueful dead-end of a conclusion. These westerners know how to get medieval on one another, to borrow one of Tarantino's signature phrases.

As is often the case with Tarantino, we're not sure whether he's reading reality or commenting, expanding on and sometimes subverting pop-cultural tropes, some of them his own. Put another way, I can't say I really believed much of anything I was watching.

Besides, volatile as it is, even hate gets boring after a while.

She mopped her way to success

Jennifer Lawrence shines. The rest of the movie? Not so much.

I've enjoyed the movies that director David O. Russell has made with an ensemble cast that capitalizes on the considerable talents of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. I was immoderately enthusiastic about both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, which is why it saddens me to report that the third time is not quite a charm.

Russell's Joy, which showcases Lawrence, crosses the line from buoyant and bracing to marginal and disappointing.

First a word about Lawrence, who brings more than the required depth to the character of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop and built a small commercial empire around the kind of products that are pitched on channels such as QVC.

Mangano exemplifies the brand of entrepreneurial spirit and salesmanship that's required to reach shoppers armed with coffee cups in one hand and remote controls in the other.

But even Lawrence's performance, a mixture of discovery and determination in the context of a supremely dysfunctional family environment, can't quite overcome the weaknesses of an episodic script by Russell and co-writer Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids).

On top of that, the rest of the cast doesn't always click, and that includes Cooper as head of QVC.

Russell's regulars are joined by Isabella Rossellini, perhaps miscast as a wealthy woman who dates Joy's divorced dad and finances Joy's early efforts. Virginia Madsen plays Joy's soap-opera addicted mother, a woman who seldom leaves her bedroom, and Diane Ladd appears as the grandmother who believes in Joy's exceptionalism.

Once again, Russell focuses on a chaotic family. De Niro's struggling character, has to move in with his daughter when his second wife gives him the boot. This means sharing the basement with Joy's ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), a guy who fancies himself an up-and-coming singer.

Joy, who evidently takes in relatives the way others take in stray cats, soldiers on, sometimes arousing the jealousy of her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm).

Pleasures pop up amid the story's clutter: Joy making her first awkward appearance on TV, for example. Or the way Rudy, no expert on relationships, criticizes his daughter for not having what he regards as a "proper" divorce.

But Russell too often gets wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of Joy's business, matters that -- at least in my book -- qualify as of minor interest. Did you know that the Miracle Mop, introduced at a price of $19.95, featured a 300-foot cotton loop that could be wrung out without actually touching the mop head? Do you care?

A late-picture introduction of legal troubles doesn't generate much suspense. We know Joy will emerge triumphant.

Moreover, the need to keep us rooting for Joy constrains any satiric bent that Russell might have brought to the world of home shopping.

Say this: Lawrence holds this somewhat scattered movie together, but it's Russell himself who raised the bar with two previous movies: This one doesn't quite measure up -- and I say that as someone who very much hoped it would.

The doctor who fought the NFL

The story of one-man's battle to warn against the damage of concussions.
Concussion, a movie about the dangers of playing pro-football, may not be a classic, but it's worth seeing, particularly for Will Smith's highly concentrated performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian born pathologist who identified brain trauma in a number of deceased NFL veterans.

Also -- and more important -- there's the subject of the movie; i.e., the dangers of prolonged football careers that can ruin lives, leading to dementia, violent outbursts, depression and even suicide.

The movie begins when Omalu, working in the Pittsburgh coroner's office, decides to do an autopsy on former Steelers star Mike Webster, rendered in small, early scenes by an appropriately alarming David Morse.

Omalu takes a detective's approach to his work; he respectfully talks to corpses, encouraging them to yield their secrets before he cuts them open. Eventually, he discovers that Webster suffered from CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the result of repeated blows to the head.

If you've been reading the papers, you know that the NFL originally paid little attention to the brain traumas caused by repeated hits. That makes for the movie's tension: Omalu's findings weren't welcomed by an organization that's heavily invested in a game that thrives on violence. (And, no, I'm not being holier than thou. I watch and enjoy professional football, too.)

Concussion, which was directed by Peter Landesman (Parkland), tells the straightforward story of a physician who worked hard to bring the truth of CTE to light and who also confronted racial prejudice, an aspect of the story that probably should have received more attention.

Smith masters Omalu's accent and gives a memorable performance as a doctor who's sure of himself, sometimes to the point of annoyance: Not everyone admires Omalu's persistence and some believe that he refuses to understand the importance of football in the city's communal life. They're right.

Albert Brooks gives a notable performance as Omalu's boss, one of the few doctors who takes his side. Alec Baldwin may be a bit miscast as a former Steelers physician who comes to see the light about the terrible consequences of head injuries and the athletic culture that produces them.

There's also a romance when Omalu meets Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Kenyan nurse who becomes his wife, as well as an important part of his support system.

It's not easy to buy Luke Wilson as NFL commissioner Pete Godell, but Smith and Landesman put their story over with enough conviction to make us a tad uncomfortable the next time we sit down for an afternoon of hard-hitting football. We're fans, yes, but let's be real: We're also enablers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A comic look at the road to ruin

Terrific performances, biting wit and insight make The Big Short one of the year's best movies.

The weird thing about The Big Short is this: At some point you realize (as do some of the movie's characters) that you're rooting for a group of guys to make a financial killing, but you also know that their success means the whole economy will tank.

So watching the movie leaves you feeling elated, dejected and angry in quick succession, which, I presume, is precisely what director Adam McKay intended when he adapted Michael Lewis' book about the devastations caused by the collapse of the subprime-mortgage market.

I've read criticisms of McKay's movie that focused on the fact that it's entertaining without being infuriating enough.

Maybe so, but I think McKay's effort has a different value: It focuses on the insanity that drove the mortgage market prior to 2008 when the bottom fell out. When confronted with this kind of damaging absurdity, we're tempted to think that two choices manifest: We either laugh or sink into the deepest of funks.

But McKay and a very able cast offer a third alternative: We do both -- and we applaud the efforts of a filmmaker who rips the mask off a brand of stupidity and greed that may not entirely have disappeared just because the economy has improved.

Now, the chances are pretty good that a whole lot of people don't really understand what happened with sub-prime mortgages. If someone asked you to define a CDO (collateralized debt obligation) could you do it? Same goes for a credit default swap.

Charles Randolph's screenplay goes a long way toward explaining such financial instruments, sometimes interrupting the movie's narrative flow with brief lectures from celebrities such as Margot Robbie, seen in a bathtub speaking directly to the camera. Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez also chime in.

At first, you wonder what the hell these people are doing in the movie, but you quickly realize that McKay has decided to make the necessary explanations as diverting as possible before returning to a story that's driven by terrific performances.

The tone is set early when Ryan Gosling appears as a Deutsche Bank hotshot who intermittently serves as our cynical guide through the story.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a former MD who wears T-shirts and shorts at work, walks around his office barefoot and sometimes sits at desk beating a pair of drumsticks against his thighs. Burry's the genius who actually peeked inside the packaging and re-packaging of mortgage-backed securities and realized that they were built on air.

Given enough time, Burry knew the whole structure would collapse, which prompted him to set about inventing a mechanism to bet against a mortgage market that most regarded as rock solid.

Then there's Mark Baum (Steve Carell) a New York hedge fund manager with a conscience. When Gosling's Jared Venentt insists that it's time to bet against mortgages, Baum voices skepticism. So does his team.

Baum seems to combine two traits that can make life difficult for an ambitious investor: He wants to make money, and he also wants to view himself as an ethical player.

When Baum and his team tour Florida's devastated luxury housing market, they hardly can believe the mortgage bankers they encounter, guys who are more likely to sprout wings than develop anything resembling a conscience.

At a conference in Las Vegas, Baum meets with another wheeler-dealer. Again, he can't believe what he's hearing from a supposed maven. It may be a rationalization on Baum's part, but he convinces himself that these smug idiots deserve a comeuppance. He's more certain than ever that it's time to sell short.

But in what may be his best performance yet, Carell makes it clear that Baum won't be laughing all the way to the bank. He's genuinely worried about the pain the economy will suffer.

Those familiar with Lewis' book quickly will note that McKay has made alterations. But the gist is the same: For a time (and who knows if that time truly has ended) the economy was based on fraud, greed and a near-total disconnect from reality.

The economy became paper, and, in the end, wasn't worth what it was printed on.

And then there's Brad Pitt. Pitt has a very nice turn as Ben Rickert, a guy who made a fortune, turned his back on Wall Street and retired to Boulder.

A couple of newbies (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) discover that they'd be smart to bet against all the phony/baloney mortgages. They convince the reclusive Rickert to help them move from the kids' table to the one where the high rollers sit.

Pitt's Rickert believes this duo, which sometimes provides straight-ahead comic relief, but he also tries to educate them: If they win, the world loses.

And, yes, before it's done, The Big Short reminds us that ordinary people suffered because of what the big boys did.

So don't bet against The Big Short. It's an exuberant, smart and pointed reminder that much of what we believe about the economy takes place in a world of smoke and mirrors.

When the smoke clears and the mirrors break, it's people like us who are left wondering what wrong. The Big Short wants us to know.

Monday, December 21, 2015

My 10 best movies of 2015

Good, not necessarily great.
That seems to be the movie mantra for 2015. There have been plenty of films worth seeing, but no clear stand-outs, a situation that's likely to make for an interesting awards seasons as we move into the new year. But don't think I'm disheartened. Lots of good is a whole lot better than a ton of mediocrity -- and we've seen plenty of years in which the majority of movies felt as if they belonged on a cinematic slush pile.
Here's my 10-best list.
But first a word about a word, "best."
I pick movies for this list based on whether they were skillful at making me feel, think or laugh -- not always in that order. I also sometimes acknowledge movies that are "important," movies that advance the case for cinematic expression or that insist that we face difficult truths.
I certainly don't mean to suggest that movies that aren't on my list are somehow worthless, except, of course, for the ones that are.

1. Spotlight

A brilliant ensemble cast led by Micheal Keaton tells the story of a team of Boston Globe reporters who exposed pedophilia and its cover-up in the Catholic Church. Director Tom McCarthy's journalism drama wisely proceeds without canonizing its journalists. The movie also astutely points to the tension that sometimes roils relations between good newspaper journalists and the communities in which they live.

2. The Big Short

In adapting Michael Lewis' book about the subprime-mortgage fiasco that led to the 2008 financial mega-collapse, director Adam McKay exhibits great dexterity and bountiful wit. McKay shows us how a band of skeptical investors profited from catastrophe. That's a tricky business because at some point, we realize that the joke is on us. Fine performances from a wonderful ensemble cast -- Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt -- add to the movie's considerable pleasures. And you will understand what happened in 2008.

3. Jafar Panahi's Taxi

Panahi's guided tour of Tehran brims with understated courage. Banned from making movies by an authoritarian Iranian regime, Panahi films encounters with passengers who represent a cross section of Iranian society. Panahi himself drives the cab in a movie that maintains its humanity without succumbing to the bitterness and rue to which Panahi surely is entitled.

4. Timbuktu

It can't be said enough: The West isn't alone in being impacted by Islamic extremism. Director Abderrahmane Sissako introduces us to a family that encounters major trouble when jihadists take over the city of Timbuktu. This simple but elegant movie reminds us that most people are interested in living their lives without the interference of those driven by untempered ideology.

5. Room

One can find things to quibble with in director Lenny Abrahamsson's adaptation of Emma Donoghue's popular novel, but it's difficult to ignore a movie that featured two of the year's best performances, one from Brie Larson as a mother held hostage and another from young Jacob Tremblay, who plays the five-year-old child Larson's character had with her captor. The movie's conclusion may not match its brilliant opening, but Room remains a triumph for not surrendering to the lurid impulses that usually dominate such stories.

6. Love & Mercy

I've never been a Beach Boys fan, but this challenging look at the life of Brian Wilson, played by both Paul Dano and John Cusack at various stages in Wilson's life, gave me new appreciation for Wilson's musical innovations, and presented us with a compelling portrait of a celebrity gradually losing his grip. Dana's performance ranks as one of the year's best.

7. White God

The total antithesis of the cute-dog movie, White God represents Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's allegorical and amazing attempt to build a story about the anger of outcasts around a rejected dog named Hagen. Mundruczo fills his story with details so grim they could make Dickens weep. Not easy to watch, but totally gripping. And, no, the movie's huge pack of dogs isn't composed of CGI phantoms; they're real.

8. End of the Tour

Director James Ponsoldt's adaptation of David Lipsky's book about a journalist's interviews with author David Foster Wallace featured fine performances by Jason Segal (as Wallace) and Jesse Eisenberg (as Lipsky). A careful look at fame and the torments of living up to a reputation, as well as an exploration of the tension between a slightly envious journalist and his subject.

9. The Assassin

I'm about to do something I normally hate, commend a movie for its cinematography. This martial arts epic tells a story that may not be entirely clear to western audiences, but the imagery in director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's look at a female assassin (Shu Qui) who's wrestling with her conscience qualifies as so gaspingly beautiful that it literally takes your breath away. Three cheers for the great cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing.

10. Ex-Machina

Alex Garland's brilliant look at a tech guru (Oscar Isaac) whose invention -- a sexy robot played by Alicia Vikander -- captivates one of Isaac's employees (Domhnall Gleeson). An insular beauty of a movie filmed in an isolated modern home that becomes one of this movie's most vivid characters.

Honorable mentions: Bridge of Spies, Look at Me Marlon, Inside Out, Sicario, The Tribe, and Beasts of No Nation.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tina Fey, Amy Poehler get lewd

A little more wit would have been welcome, but there are enough laughs to keep Sisters humming.

When a couple of guys make a movie that spends most of its running time chasing lewd laughs, we're almost never surprised. In fact, we more or less expect that comic actors such as the overexposed Seth Rogen will find new ways to push the envelope of propriety.

But women?

That's another story, even after movies such as Bridesmaids, which added a bit of raunch to the female comedy mix.

In what amounts to a small but revolutionary step, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have not only pushed the envelope, they've tried to rip it to shreds with Sisters, a comedy about two siblings who wind up throwing a wildly uninhibited house party that gives the movie its comic crescendo.

As far as plot, that's pretty much all there is.

The party happens during a visit the Atlanta-based sisters make to their parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin), who still live in Florida, where the sisters grew up.

Once in Florida, the sisters begin to revert to their adolescence. In the case of these two, it's a relatively short trip.

The party is supposed to undermine a deal the parents have made to sell the family home to a young, upwardly mobile couple. Despite the fact that they haven't lived there for a long time, the sisters refuse to let go of the house in which they grew up.

As you might expect, the folks at the party have too good a time, so much so that the house is wrecked. Don't consider that a spoiler; it's not just that the house is wrecked, it's how and who does the wrecking that leads to the movie's laughs.

Sisters was written by SNL's Paula Pell. Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) handles the directing chores, but the whole business is inconceivable without Fey and Poehler -- and even they can't make every joke work. Sisters is a bumpy affair.

Mild attempts at characterization are made: Fey's Kate is a mom with a disapproving teen-age daughter (Madison Davenport) and not much talent for hairdressing, which is unfortunate because that's how she tries to earn a living.

Poehler's Maura is a do-gooder who can't pass a homeless person without offering help. To the extent that Maura has a character arc, it involves dropping her reserve and emerging as a hard partying demon.

Maya Randolph has a nice turn as a former high school classmate of the sisters who feels superior to them. John Leguizamo plays a former high school chum who seems happy despite the fact that his life has gone nowhere. John Cena portrays a heavily muscled drug dealer, and Ike Barinholtz appear as a handyman who arouses Maura's not so latent desires. As a nerdy partygoer, Bobby Moynihan starts at a high pitch and becomes even more manic.

I have to confess that it took me a while to adjust to the low level of humor Fey and Poehler have adopted in their third joint outing after Mean Girls and Baby Mama.

But these are two funny women, who are so heartily committed to this comedy, you might as well surrender -- at least until something a little smarter comes along.

Alpine elegance and aging prostates

The images are impressive, the performances are good, but Paolo Sorentino's new movie brims with art-house familiarity..

What happens when a group of smart, privileged people gather at a beautiful European Alpine resort? Do they enjoy the doting service, beautiful views and rarified air? In reality, maybe. In movies -- particularly those that slip into art-house terrain -- they suffer.

Welcome to the world of Paulo Sorentino's Youth, the follow-up movie to the director's Academy Award winning Great Beauty.

I took Youth as a highly stylized -- if occasionally amusing -- form of whining that focuses on two characters: a retired composer (Michael Caine's Fred Ballinger) and a writer/director of films (Harvey Keitel's Mick Boyle).

Ballinger seems to have given up on pretty much everything. Boyle, who still has a bit of hope, has gathered a team of youthful subordinates in hopes of finishing a script that he regards as his "testament," the final statement of a Hollywood survivor.

A variety of additional characters circle our two principal sufferers, satellites affixed to these two waning moons.

Rachel Weisz portrays Ballinger's daughter Lena. Lena, whose marriage breaks up during the course of the film, manages her father's affairs, which seem to consist of saying "no" to everything.

An American movie star (Paul Dano) smokes cigarettes and carries himself with aloof poise. A Miss Universe (Madeline Ghenea) glides through the premises. A very fat man with a portrait of Karl Marx tattooed on his back occasionally turns up.

Early on, a representative of the Queen of England arrives with a request. The queen would like Ballinger to conduct his signature composition -- it's called Simple Song, No. 3 -- at a concert celebrating Prince Philip's birthday. Citing personal reasons he prefers to keep murky, Ballinger refuses.

Those familiar with Sorentino's work know that he's heir to Federico Fellini's creative spirit. La Dolce Vita informed Great Beauty; hints of 8 1/2 waft through Youth.

This is not to say that Sorentino lacks for original talent: His images can be archly witty, and he's able to create mood with a single shot.

Watching a group of folks filing through the spa in their white bathrobes suggests an assembly line of submissive sheep en route to their slaughter.

Death becomes the unseen character in Youth, coloring everything about the movie, including its sense of elegant ennui.

If Ballinger and Boyle (would have made nice law firm, no?) are any indication, Youth wants us to remind us that the most creative among us have their moments -- but even they die.

And even if they're not instantly forgotten, what does it matter to them: They've joined the anonymous ranks of the formerly living.

This kind of supernal detachment gives the movie a feeling of doomed grace that impacts its imagery. At times, though, I half wondered whether Sorentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi were engaging in an exercise in which they were required to bring as much visual invention as possible to a movie shot on a single location.

Smoothly edited and languid in its pretensions, Youth can be genuinely beautiful, although its sense of visual invention isn't always matched by a script whose tropes suffer from art-house familiarity, grapes that have been pressed too often, and, therefore, robbed of bite.

Surely, there were better ways to have two aging men lament about their diminishing powers than by having them chat about their difficulties with urination. Caine's character also jealously wonders whether Boyle ever slept with a woman that they both desired when they were younger men.

In examining a list of credits on IMDb, I noticed that a good many of the characters aren't given names but are referred to by function or some other general descriptor: escort, Buddhist monk, South American, South American's wife, bearded screenwriter, etc.

Perhaps that's fitting because most of these characters are little more than props in Sorentino's visual stroll through the wrinkled, withering manhood of his main characters.

Amid an atmosphere ripe with defeat and resignation, two explosive moments stand out.

At one point, Weisz's Lena unloads on her father, puncturing any delusions he might have about having been a decent parent. Later, Jane Fonda shows up to deliver a blistering rebuke of Keitel's character.

Fonda plays Brenda Morel, an aging actress who has starred in many of Boyle's movies and whose presence is necessary if Boyle has any hope of financing his swan son.

Caine and Keitel play an intriguing duet, but at the same time, I can't say I totally believed in either of their characters. In the hands of two lesser actors, Ballinger and Boyle might have come off as mere shadows, weary confirmations of the trials of aging.

Frequent images of Caine receiving massages struck me as emblematic: At times, it feels as if Sorentino is massaging the audience, winning it over with smooth edits, eye-opening shots and pacing that can seem hypnotic for those who fall under its spell.

Youth's final scene -- which blends into the end credits -- is a true beauty. For fear of spoilers, I won't describe it here, except to say that it floats past us, lifted by swells of Ballinger's music. It's like watching the curlicues of a skilled skywriter whose images impress and then evaporate into nothing, leaving you to wonder why you're still looking.

A classy but staid 'Danish Girl'

It looks great, the performances are solid, but early story of a transgender heroine doesn't quite connect.

Einar Wegener was as one of the first people to undergo gender-altering surgery. An artist working in Denmark during the 1920s, Wegener transformed himself into Lili Elbe as he gradually changed his style of dress, added wigs to his wardrobe and ultimately elected to have the surgery that would complete his transition.

According to The Danish Girl, a movie that focuses on Lili's struggle, Elbe died of complications resulting from a succession of difficult surgical procedures, namely the one that was intended to give her a vagina.

As directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), The Danish Girl -- a fictionalized account of Lili's life based on a novel by David Ebershoff -- seems to value classy presentation as much as the emotional dynamics of a story that -- by the end -- becomes an anthem for those who regard their biological genders as mistakes.

Fresh from his Oscar-winning turn as Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne portrays Einar who, during the course of the movie, becomes Lili. Alicia Vikander portrays Gerda, a lively and spirited artist who's married to Einar and who remains loyal to Einar/Lili throughout.

The movie makes it seem as if Einar discovers his true gender identity almost by chance. Early on, Gerda's seen working on a large painting of a ballet dancer. When one of her models fails to show up, Gerda asks Einar to put on a pair of stockings and serve as her leg model.

We know from the rapturous, trembling expression on Einar's face that he's begun to acknowledge that he's a woman mistakenly lodged in a man's body.

At first, Einar and Gerda have a good time with Einar's fascinations. Gerda even encourages her husband's interests, suggesting he dress as a woman to attend an annual artists' ball. They'll pass Lili off as a visiting cousin.

At this point, both husband and wife treat Einar and Lili as separate characters, one real, the other, an amusing pose.

Hints of discord arise when Gerda sees Lili kissing a young man (Ben Whishaw) at the artists' ball. Doubts suddenly arise about which part of Einer's dual identity is real and which, a sham.

Redmayne's performance involves a lot of whispered dialogue, and intense observation: He frequently watches women to see how they move, trying to teach himself the externalities of the gender to which he believes he truly was born.

Redmayne's concentrated performance has a dual effect. It makes us wonder how much of what we consider "natural" gender behavior is merely an accumulation of learned gestures.

But this approach also focuses our attention on Redmayne's performance as much as it takes us into the psyche of a character named Lili Elbe.

Vikander gives the movie much of its life, particularly as the couple begins to confront a medical world which either wants to cure Einar of his "perversion" or have him committed to an asylum.

When the couple travels to Paris so that Gerda can exhibit her work, a relationship between Gerda and one of Einar's childhood friends (Matthias Schoenaerts) develops: Schoenaerts' Hans Axgil, a Parisian art dealer, offers emotional support to both Gerda and Lili.

Eventually, Lili and Gerda meet a surgeon (Sebastian Koch) who has been experimenting in gender reassignment surgery. He believes that Lili is precisely what she thinks she is: a woman in a man's body. Lili's willing to brave the risks of surgery to achieve her dream.

Beautifully composed and meticulously upholstered with period detail, The Danish Girl feels like three-quarters of a fine movie: Perhaps Hopper tried so hard to keep things under control that he's locked Lili's pain safely in the past.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Yes, the Force really awakens

J.J. Abrams gives George Lucas' franchise new life.

A mixture of new and old faces help director J.J. Abrams relaunch the Star Wars series, now part of the Disney empire. Those who feared that Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens wouldn't honor George Lucas' long-running achievement needn't fret: Abrams has created a transitional movie that contains a mostly winning mix of Star Wars nostalgia and new additions.

Truth be told, the series may be better off now that Lucas has handed the reins to someone else. Abrams, who also helped revive the Star Trek franchise, easily surpasses the last three films: The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005).

Abrams took no chances when it comes to filling the movie with actors who serve as reassurance that Disney plans to respect the Lucas legacy.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is not that Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo, but that he's actually in a substantial amount of the movie -- along with his old pal Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Ford's appearance -- as well as that of Carie Fisher, C-3P0 and R2-D2 -- helps launch the cast that presumably will carry the series forward, namely Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, a feisty young woman who rises from the role of space scavenger to helping to save the galaxy from the First Order.

In case you haven't been reading the advance stories, The First Order is the evil organization that has taken over where the Empire left off.

Ridley's Rey, who lives on the planet Jakku, is joined in her efforts by Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who defects from the First Order.

Finn has no interest in being an enforcer for the Dark Side, represented here by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).

Driver's Ren gets the most screen time: He wears a mask and speaks in a Darth Vaderesque voice, although he's not quite as imposing as his predecessor.

Oscar Isaac turns up as another newbie; he plays Poe Dameron, a gung-ho pilot for the Resistance.

Without making too much of a fuss about it, Abrams introduces a variety of new creatures and a new droid, a rolly-polly creation known as BB-8 that struck me as something of a lovable high-tech beach ball.

The movie's meager plot involves a search for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Luke must be found because he's the last remaining Jedi, the only person capable of ensuring that the Force is passed to a new generation.

Did I care about the plot? Not really. And although the movie's screenwriting team (Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt) adds plenty of winking humor, it may be less about generating laughs than serving as a welcome reminder that the original movies weren't ordeals: They were fun.

There's even a scene that pays homage to Lucas' penchant for taking us to bars where aliens hang-out with Lupita Nyong'o giving voice to Maz Kanata, a space pirate whose eyes are covered with goggles and who dispenses a bit of wisdom -- or what passes for it in a Star Wars movie.

Of course, composer John Williams returns to score his seventh Star Wars film.

Despite the presence of the kind of father/son elements that informed the better Star Wars movies, we probably should consider it a positive development that a young woman has a major role here and likely will continue to have one as the series progresses.

Who knows? Given enough time, Rey may even give Katniss Everdeen a run for her money.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Critics' Choice Awards nominees announced

Mad Max: Fury Road topped the list of Critics' Choice Awards nominees, earning a total of 13 nominations across a variety of categories including best picture.
The Critics Choice Awards are given by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, a group to which I belong. This year, the awards show -- the Association's 21st -- will be broadcast live on Jan. 17 by A&E, Lifetime and LMN, and for the first time, will combine both film and TV. (I only vote in the film portion.)
Each year I run a list of the film nominees as a way of revving up our collective engines for the coming awards season.
So, here they are:

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling,
45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
RJ Cyler, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Shameik Moore, Dope
Milo Parker, Mr. Holmes
Jacob Tremblay, Room

The Big Short
The Hateful Eight
Straight Outta Compton

Todd Haynes, Carol
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies

Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, Bridge of Spies
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Inside Out
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, The Big Short
Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
Drew Goddard, The Martian
Emma Donoghue, Room
Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs

Carol, Ed Lachman
The Hateful Eight, Robert Richardson
Mad Max: Fury Road, John Seale
The Martian, Dariusz Wolski
The Revenant, Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario, Roger Deakins

Bridge of Spies, Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo
Brooklyn, François Séguin, Jennifer Oman, Louise Tremblay
Carol, Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler
The Danish Girl, Eve Stewart, Michael Standish
Mad Max: Fury Road, Colin Gibson
The Martian, Arthur Max, Celia Bobak

The Big Short, Hank Corwin
Mad Max: Fury Road, Margaret Sixel
The Martian, Pietro Scalia
The Revenant, Stephen Mirrione
Spotlight, Tom McArdle

Brooklyn, Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Carol, Sandy Powell
Cinderella, Sandy Powell
The Danish Girl, Paco Delgado
Mad Max: Fury Road, Jenny Beavan

Black Mass
The Danish Girl
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Ex Machina
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
The Walk

The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Furious 7
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Daniel Craig, Spectre
Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road
Chris Pratt, Jurassic World
Paul Rudd, Ant-Man

Emily Blunt, Sicario
Rebecca Ferguson, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World
Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

The Big Short
Inside Out

Christian Bale, The Big Short
Steve Carell, The Big Short
Robert De Niro, The Intern
Bill Hader, Trainereck
Jason Statham, Spy

Tina Fey, Sisters
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Melissa McCarthy, Spy
Amy Schumer, Trainwreck
Lily Tomlin, Grandma

Ex Machina
It Follows
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian

The Assassin
Goodnight Mommy
The Second Mother
Son of Saul

Cartel Land
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
He Named Me Malala
The Look of Silence
Where to Invade Next

Fifty Shades of Grey, Love Me Like You Do
Furious 7, See You Again
The Hunting Ground, Til It Happens To You
Love & Mercy, One Kind of Love
Specter, Writing’s on the Wall
Youth, Simple Song #3

Carol, Carter Burwell
The Hateful Eight, Ennio Morricone
The Revenant, Ryuichi Nakamoto and Alva Noto
Sicario, Johann Johansson
Spotlight, Howard Shore

Thursday, December 10, 2015

'Heart of the Sea' quickly sinks

You'd be better off re-reading Moby-Dick than watching this lame attempt to explain the novel's inspiration.

Director Ron Howard's big whale movie slaps its enormous tail fins against a rising sea of Christmas entertainment, but produces only a dull thud.

Spread the blame: Lame dialogue, overly familiar characters and an unforgivably bland central performance are among the prime factors keeping the movie from attaining epic status.

One expected better because In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was destroyed by a huge whale in 1820. The crew of the Essex was stranded for months after their ship was wrecked in the southern Pacific.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it could be for two reasons: The story of the Essex reportedly inspired (at least in part) Herman Melville's masterwork, Moby-Dick.

Or perhaps you're aware of Nathaniel Philbrick's award winning nonfiction account of the Essex's tragic fate, also called In the Heart of the Sea and the principal source for Charles Levitt's soggy, cliched screenplay.

Howard frames his story with a visit by Melville (Ben Whishaw) to Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last remaining Essex survivor. With some prodding from his wife, a reluctant Nickerson begins to recount what happened to him and his shipmates some 30 years earlier.

At the time of the Essex's voyage, Nickerson was a cabin boy. Tom Holland portrays Nickerson in the movie's flashback scenes.

Howard makes a point of reminding us that in the early part of the 19th century, whale oil was the elixir that kept society's lamps burning, a bulwark of the economy and, therefore, a very big deal.

The movie's principal human conflict arrives early on. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) lands his position as captain of the Essex because of family connections. He takes the job that had been promised to Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an able first mate.

Our sympathies are meant to lean toward Chase, clearly the more competent and manly of this pair of antagonists. Besides, who wants to root for a legacy case who lands a job he hasn't really earned.

Cillian Murphy signs on as the Essex's second mate, but doesn't have enough to do, especially considering that Hemsworth's performance seems to consist mostly of looking ruggedly handsome.

Howard devotes considerable attention to the brutality and sometimes repellant demands of whaling. At one point, Nickerson is ordered to climb into a dead whale's blowhole so that he can retrieve buckets of oil, a job that's difficult to accomplish without losing one's lunch.

When the Essex finally encounters the heavyweight champion of whales -- the product of a team of CGI wizards -- the Essex and the movie are ready to capsize. A behemoth of a creature, the whale has a speckled gray body that's bigger than the Essex, but it's no Moby-Dick.

Once relegated to small boats, crew members struggle to survive, even resorting to cannibalism, the principal cause of the terrible guilt that burdens Nickerson in his intermittently presented conversations with Melville.

Melville took this story and made something towering, great and classic of it: Too bad he wasn't around to help with the script for Heart of the Sea, which leaves only intimations of what might have been in its otherwise forgettable wake.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, an illuminating duo

A documentary that takes us inside the mind of a master.

Most serious film lovers are familiar with Hitchcock/Truffaut, a book first published in France in 1967. The book offered a meticulously edited version of a week-long conversation between two very different directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut.

In this essential volume, Hitchcock not only reveals his ideas about cinema, but engages in detailed discussions of how he achieved some of his most notable effects.

Unlike many books, Hitchcock/Truffaut can be opened almost anywhere and still yield abundant rewards. Credit Truffaut -- who began his career as a critic for the vaunted French publication Cahiers du Cinema. Truffaut venerated and understood Hitchcock, and was intimately familiar with his work.

Now comes director Kent Jones's documentary of the same name, another essential work that either will serve as a welcome amplification for devotees of the book or an introduction to it for cinema newbies.

Using segments of the recorded conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, well-selected clips from Hitchcock's films and commentary by a variety of current directors, Jones has assembled a film that deserves to become part of every film lovers collection.

Happily, those commenting on the films are not the usual suspects, aside from director Martin Scorsese, who always adds something valuable to any film about film in which he appears.

Jones also includes insights from other directors, notably James Gray, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader.

Of course, few can do a better job of describing Hitchcock's work than Hitchcock himself, and he does so with the kind of candor and generosity that he might only have been able to achieve with another filmmaker.

At the time of the book's initial publication, Truffaut hoped that a comprehensive look at Hitchcock's work would help change the view that some held of the "master of suspense." Truffaut believed that in the U.S., Hitchcock was regarded as a talented entertainer who made commercially successful thrillers. No more.

That view seems remarkably dated now: Few knowledgeable filmgoers would dispute the inseparability of Hitchcock's visual and narrative mastery, and most of us are willing to acknowledge that art and commerce needn't be irreconcilable enemies.

It's encouraging to hear a new generation of filmmakers talk about what they learned from watching Hitchcock's movies. Gray marvels at the perverse genius of Vertigo, for example.

But perhaps the best thing about Hitchcock/Truffaut is that it reaffirms what it means to take a serious approach to film -- not pompous, overly academic or self-impressed, but one that delights in rich analysis and deep appreciation.

As a result, Hitchcock/Truffaut provides us with abundant and durable pleasures.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Spike Lee issues call to disarm

A showy Chi-Raq breaks genre boundaries. Some of it even works.

Say this about director Spike Lee: At 58, the man's no less risk averse than when he was a much younger filmmaker.

Lee bravely models his new movie, Chi-Raq, on Lysistrata, a comedy by Aristophanes that dates back to 411 BCE, not exactly a period known for its hip-hop atmosphere.

Aristophanes' central conceit involved the efforts of Lysistrata to persuade women to stop having sex with their husbands and lovers as a way of forcing them to bring peace to a society enmeshed in the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that lasted for about 27 years.

Lee, who wrote the screenplay with Kevin Willmott, finds his Lysistrata (a dynamic Teyonah Parris) conspiring to withhold sex from Chicago gangbangers who are contributing to the horrifically high rate of homicide among young black men.

Using a splashy graphic (a map of the U.S. composed of drawings of rifles and revolvers), Lee opens the movie to Nick Cannon's Pray 4 My City, a harsh but hopeful rap anthem.

Chi-Raq, of course, is the name given to Chicago's mean streets, not the city of great architecture, abundant culture and commercial bustle, but the city where gun violence reigns and even the youngest children aren't excluded.

Lee effectively makes this divided-city point by contrasting images of stately downtown Chicago with neighborhood scenes that focus on a far less affluent kind of life.

Lee reduces the Greek chorus to a one-man show put on by Dolmedes, a dapper and sometimes sarcastic Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson's Dolmedes puts the story in perspective.

That perspective includes information presented early on about how fatalities from Chicago's murders outnumber American lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. The story, we'll learn, will be focused on Englewood, one of the city's more dangerous neighborhoods.

What unfolds is a movie of desperate parts, some successful, some less so. Part agitprop, part melodrama, part broad comedy, and part soulful lament, Chi-Raq exists in its own world. You'll either enter that world or turn away.

But if you stay, you'll see a movie that, in addition to everything else, offers a vigorous display of female power, particularly as expressed by Parris, who comes closer than anyone else to dominating Lee's large ensemble cast.

Lee employs many talented actors in what often feels like a wild, theatrical experiment. In addition to offering the opening song, Nick Cannon plays the leader of a gang called the Spartans. As if to absorb all the city's misery, pain and fury, Cannon's character has taken the name Chi-Raq.

Wesley Snipes appears as Cyclops, the orange-clad, one-eyed leader of the Trojans, a rival gang.

Jennifer Hudson plays Irene, the mother of a daughter gunned down by a stray bullet; Angela Bassett plays Miss Helen, a woman who surrounds herself with books and serves as the movie's voice of sanity.

In an unexpected turn, John Cusack turns up as a priest modeled on real-life Rev. Michael Pfleger, an activist who works out of Chicago's St. Sabina Church.

In a lengthy sermon, Cusack rips through a monologue that excoriates the society from whose soil Chicago's violence grows, as well as the community that must rise up to put a stop to it. It's an impressive piece of work that sometimes sounds like a hortatory condensation of Michelle Alexander's important book, The New Jim Crow.

Not all of the bits work and some are ridiculously conceived, notably a scene in which a general wearing Confederate flag underwear (David Patrick Kelly) mounts a Civil War cannon as he lusts after Lysistrata at a National Guard armory. Lee's at his funniest when he nails character, not when he tries to create comic situations.

It's difficult to imagine that Chi-Raq -- the first production from Amazon Studios -- will shatter any box office records. It can be too didactic for its own good, and it's possible that a straightforward story about the impact of gang violence might have been more powerful than Lee's ultra-stylized shout-out of a movie.

But Lee and Willmott, who wrote the satiric C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America, have gone their own way in arguing that the U.S. needs to wake up and do something about violence that is ravaging places that -- more than ever -- need a sense of community.

And at a time when we're again despairing over another mass shooting, this one in San Bernardino, Ca., there's definite value in shining light on Chicago's overlooked carnage

Whether anyone heeds Lee's call to disarm remains to be seen.

A girl gives 'The Wonders' its heart

The Wonders, a Cannes favorite, turns out to be an odd duck of a movie that focuses on a mixed Italian-German family living near Tuscany. Twelve-year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) anchors what can be viewed as a slightly jumbled coming-of-age tale. Director Alice Rohrwacher does her best work when she stays close to Gelsomina's world. Bickering between Gelsomina and her younger sister (Agnese Graziani) is well observed, and Gelsomina tends to the family's bee-keeping operation with competent assurance. The family, which includes two other daughters, runs a foundering honey-making business. Despite the objections of Gelsomina's staunch father (Sam Louwyck), Gelsomina secretly enters a reality show contest that's offering prize money. The show is hosted by the glamorous Milly Catena (Monica Belluccii), who serves the story as a kind of fairy godmother. Gelsomina's answer to financial distress is fanciful. Dad's answer is bluntly pragmatic. To augment funds, he takes in a troubled child (Luis Hulica Logrono), a silent German delinquent who earns the father's praise. The Wonders includes offbeat and even bizarre touches (the arrival of a camel on the family property, for example), but it's Gelsomina's attempt to define a life apart from her father's implacable ways that holds the film together. The Wonders takes place in less than gorgeous part of Italy, immediately setting it against the grain of expectation. The film was shot in terrain between Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany, perhaps indicative of the fact that this unusual family doesn't quite belong anywhere.

Janis Joplin: One of a kind

When Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in October of 1970, she was 27 years old. Fair to say, Joplin packed a whole lot of living into 27 years that began in Port Arthur, Texas and ended on the floor of a Hollywood hotel room. Director Amy Berg captures most of Joplin's short, hectic life as a bullied Texas girl who blossomed into a rock star whose emotions were expressed in raw, howling fashion in venues ranging from Monterey to Woodstock. If you don't know what I mean, check out 1968's Piece of My Heart or Cry Baby, released in 1971 after her death. Berg, who told the story of a pedophile priest in the chilling Deliver us from Evil (2006), uses letters written by Joplin (read by Cat Power) and lots of great archival and private footage to paint a portrait of a hard-living, but deeply vulnerable woman who seemed to feel alive only when she was on stage. Off stage, Joplin never seemed to know what to do with her emotions, so she lived with a blues' singer's load of pain. From early days, through her years with Big Brother and the Holding Company to stardom as a headliner, Janis: Little Girl Blue offers a compelling portrait of a woman too free to be contained and too wounded to call any place home. A must for music fans and those who want to recall a bit of the mind-blowing chaos of the '60s.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A sobering look at immigrant plight

Director Jonas Carpignano makes his debut with Mediterranea, a timely story about African immigrants who find their to Italy from the West African nation of Burkina Faso. The early part of the film deals with the dangerous travels of two men Ayiva (Koudos Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy). A perilous trip takes the duo, along with other migrants, through Algeria to Libya and then, by boat, to Italy. Every step of the way, the travelers encounter obstacles. These range from attacks by bandits to nearly losing their lives when their boat capsizes during a storm. Once in Italy, the film settles down a bit, but troubles don't abate. Aviv and Abas struggle to obtain proper papers, to survive on low wages and to endure living conditions that make substandard sound like an upgrade. The Africans find both compassion and hostility from the residents of Rosarno, a Calabrian town known for strained relations between locals and immigrants. Carpignano's direction can be choppy, but he doesn't canonize what seems a varied group of immigrants. A Skype call between Ayiva and the seven-year-old daughter he left behind proves particularly affecting, and by the end, we recognize that immigrant stories -- once so full of promise -- now can become stories of brewing bitterness and crushed hopes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'Creed': sequel follows a 'Rocky' road

Director Ryan Coogler tells the winning story of a driven young boxer and the aging Italian Stallion who trains him.

The trailer for Creed suggests we're in for a story about a young boxer fighting his way up from a tough neighborhood. That's not exactly an original idea, but it's the kind of reliable old chestnut that never seems to wear out its big-screen welcome.

Then Sylvester Stallone pops into the trailer as Rocky Balboa. Stallone delivers a line about how the young boxer, a determined looking black kid who wears his muscles like armor, should know that he'll never face a tougher opponent than himself. The inner battle must be won before the kid can triumph in the ring.

Stallone? Rocky? Really?

In case we hadn't already guessed, the title of the movie -- writ large at the trailer's end -- let's us know that the upcoming movie will be grown from Rocky roots: Creed.

The boxer Apollo Creed, of course, made his way into a quartet of earlier Rocky movies. Now, we were going to meet Creed's son, another boxer who shoulders a burden of anger, ferocity and drive.

But wait ...
Creed features yet another level of promotion. The trailer tells us that the movie was directed by Ryan Coogler, the same guy who brought us Fruitvale Station, a troubling indie drama about the death of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by a police officer while riding a BART train in Oakland.

That film starred Michael B. Jordan, the actor who appears as Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed in a movie that takes the Creed name because it's unlikely that anyone would turn out for a movie called Johnson.

The trailer got my mind moving in what seemed like two irreconcilable directions. Would it be possible to add the authenticity and power of Fruitvale Station to a Rockyesque formula job? And if so, what exactly would be the point?

After seeing Creed, I'm still not sure about the point part, but Coogler has made an enjoyable crowd-pleaser by focusing on a light heavyweight boxer who -- despite a staggering lack of experience -- lands a title shot after being trained by none other than Rocky Balboa.

If you stop and think about it (and I'm not suggesting that you should) Creed is one wacky movie.

Consider Adonis' less-than-hardscrabble background: After stints in juvenile detention, Adonis was adopted by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad). He grew up in a luxurious atmosphere, landed a good, post-college job and seemed primed for a fine middle class life -- except for one thing: He couldn't stop fighting. Adonis made a habit of traveling to Mexico for low-rent bouts. Eventually, he decided that his destiny wasn't to be found in an office, but in the ring.

So it's off to Philadelphia to find Rocky, whose life consists of sitting around his red-sauce restaurant with pictures of halcyon days on the walls. Reluctantly, Rocky takes Adonis under wing setting off a flurry of father/son dynamics and raising issues about family and responsibility.

As the movie moves forward, it peppers the screen with references to Rocky's past. Coogler's camera gravitates toward the same gritty locations that gave the Rocky movies their faux authenticity. Carefully placed traces of the triumphal Rocky score help energize Adonis' training regimen.

Every boxer needs a love interest. Creed doesn't shortchange in that department, either.

When he moves into a ratty apartment, Adonis meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who's gradually going deaf, perhaps for no other reason than that every character in any kind of Rocky movie needs an obstacle.

Jordan gives Adonis palpable hunger, but keeps him likable. Thompson, terrific in the movie Dear White People, adds the spark of a self-assertive feminine presence.

But it's Stallone who gives the stand-out performance as an aging boxer whose balloon of hope slowly has deflated. Now 69, Stallone can't conceal the slight sag in his jowls. And are those strands of gray peeping out from under Rocky's trademark Pork Pie?

Wacky, yes, but the movie's willingness to adopt a fluid approach to urban cliches from two different eras (Adonis' and Rocky's) adds a layer of freshness. Creed has the good sense to pull the rug out from under itself: Like its predecessors, the movie manages to be serious and a goof at the same time.

Coogler knows that every boxing movie ultimately must climb into the ring. Adonis' championship fight is replete with resounding body blows, sprays of blood and heightened brutalism.

Thanks to some last-minute plot manipulations, a bout is arranged between Adonis and the current champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew). The fight takes place in Liverpool after Conlan's manager (Graham McTavish) insists that Adonis boost interest in the fight by using the Creed name.

Coogler's screenplay keeps reminding us of the psychological tension in a young man who wants to be known for his own accomplishments but who also must come to terms with the image of a famous father -- even though he never met the man. Apollo died before Adonis was born.

A determined Jordan drives the movie forward, a dialed-down Stallone keeps a light foot on the breaks, and somehow the whole thing coheres to make for ardent and rousing entertainment. Creed may not be a knockout, but I'd score it a surprise winner on points.

A new look at Dr. Frankenstein

It's sufficiently dark, but Victor Frankenstein also can be quite silly.
James McAvoy takes avidity so far over the top, we can see spittle flying from his mouth in the late scenes of Victor Frankenstein, another take on Mary Shelley's much abused novel.

Perhaps following McAvoy's lead, Scottish director Paul McGuigan joins McAvoy in excess. Maybe he encouraged it. In any case, McGuigan -- along with a more subdued Daniel Radcliffe as Igor Strausman -- pushes the production over a steep Gothic cliff until it plunges into a pool of silliness.

Before the lightning strike that brings Frankenstein's man/monster to life, the movie spends much of its creative capital recreating a 19th century environment in which the insane rationalism of Dr. Victor Frankenstein vies with more traditional views, namely that the creation of life is not the business of science.

Prior to the unveiling of his major achievement, Dr. Frankenstein introduces a small sampling of London's scientific community to a homunculus, actually a monstrous creature resembling a mutant chimpanzee. The movie clearly wants us to know that Frankenstein may have bitten off more than he can chew by zapping life into dead flesh.

As Igor -- introduced as a circus hunchback who Dr. Frankenstein cures -- Radcliffe provides the film with sporadic narration and a bit of welcome sensitivity. (Frankenstein discovers that Igor isn't a hunchback at all; he has a very large abscess.)

An autodidact, Radcliffe's Igor has taught himself medicine and anatomy. He's so grateful to Dr. Frankenstein for liberating him from his circus-freak existence that he readily joins the doctor's search for a new Prometheus.

Igor even has a love interest, a trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay) he saves in the movie's opening scenes.

Andrew Scott signs on as a grim inspector from Scotland Yard, a policeman who insists on investigating Frankenstein's activities, which he's certain are pernicious.

Drawing from previous movies and playing with our perceptions about Shelley's story, McGuigan relies on production design and computer graphics to create an eerie environment.

And, yes, it all might have made for a rousing good comedy had Mel Brooks not already done it in 1974's Young Frankenstein. The screenplay pays a quick homage to Brooks when Frankenstein corrects someone who pronounces his name -- and I'm going phonetic here -- Frank-en-steen.

The resultant movie may not be monstrous; it is, however, somewhat risible, a dark, labyrinthine affair in which great wheels turn, electrical flashes erupt and the whole business -- which begins in near arty fashion -- eventually short circuits.

Tom Hardy' is the stuff of 'Legend'

A rambling British gangster film has everything but a deeply affecting story.

You'd have to be a great actor to play twin brothers and never -- not once -- confuse an audience about who's who. Tom Hardy is one such actor, and in Legend, he manages a neat feat: He portrays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, notorious British gangsters who took London by storm in the 1960s.

Director Brian Helgeland, who wrote the script for LA Confidential, can't quite turn Legend into a gangster classic, but his direction can be lively, and in Hardy, he has found an actor whose skills are sharp enough to play both brothers.

Consider the Krays as blunt instruments. They never seem capable of the kind of cunning found in a Michael Corleone. Their strong suit is their frightening physicality.

The story of the Krays was told before in director Peter Medak's 1990 film, The Krays. Helgeland freshens the tale by allowing Reggie Kray's wife Frances (Emily Browning) to narrate the story.

Frances is swept away by Reggie's brashness and rough charm. Inevitably, she pays a steep price for dancing a little too close to Reggie's fire.

Additionally, Helgeland populates the movie with a terrific cast of British character actors, many of whom speak with cockney accents that can reduce American ears to capturing only the gist of their conversations.

David Thewlis has a nice turn as Leslie Payne, the man who handles the Kray finances. Chazz Palminteri shows up as Angelo Bruno, an Italian mobster from the US who negotiates a deal with the Krays.

Christopher Eccleston stands out as Nipper Read, the lone representative of Scotland Yard who persists in hounding the Krays.

Still, it's Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Drop and Locke) who gives the film its kick.

Handsome and intermittently violent, Reggie becomes the more appealing of the brothers with his green Continental and lounge lizard suits.

An avowed and very public homosexual, Ron represents the psychopathic half of the Kray personality: Hardy gives Ron a demeanor that wavers between funny and frightening. Ron's muted-trumpet of a voice seems to emanate from a place that no voice should.

Helgeland's team recreates London of the '60s with style and verve: its clubs and music define a free-wheeling atmosphere in which the city's notables got a kick out of rubbing elbows with gangsters.

Although Helgeland clearly understands that such associations could be costly, he's unable to give the movie the kind of thematic weight that would have lifted Legend out the gangster ghetto.

Instead, Helgeland, who wrote the screenplay based on John Pearson's book, The Profession of Violence, falls into the trap of letting the story unfold as a series of ramshackle episodes, some steeped in Kray brutality.

At 122 minutes, Legend probably overstays its welcome, but behind Reggie and Ron, you'll find one of the best movie actors of our time bringing an explosive power to the screen -- or maybe that's two helpings of explosive power for the price of one movie.

A boy's adventures in the desert

This Jordanian import boasts harsh beauty and a simple -- but compelling -- story.

Set in 1916, the Jordanian movie Theeb introduces us to a Bedouin boy (Jacid Eid) who's stranded in the desert. In order to survive, the boy must form an uneasy alliance with a wounded bandit (Hassan Mutlag).

Though accurate, that description doesn't do justice to director Naji Abu Nowar's debut movie: A gripping, often stern adventure, a study of tribal and familial loyalties and a glancing commentary on the dissolution of the Bedouin way of life, Theeb attains a stature and resonance that goes far beyond its easily summarized premise.

Shot in Jordan, Theeb makes full use of a desert environment. Arid stretches of sand make the purple striations in rock walls seem even more breathtaking, as do occasional bursts of green shrubbery that sprout up near a well. Nowar's camera captures the desert with painterly beauty.

The movie begins in a Bedouin encampment where Hussein (Hussein Salameh) teaches his younger brother to use a rifle and to handle a knife. The brothers are the sons of a recently deceased Sheik.

The plot wheels begin turning when an Arab (Marji Audeh) and a British Army officer (Jack Fox) arrive and are taken into the small camp where the brothers live. After a meal, the two strangers ask to be guided across a dangerous trail so that the British officer can rejoin his regiment.

Hussein joins these two wanderers for what promises to be an arduous and possibly life-threatening journey.

The movie takes place during a historical moment when Arabs were seeking to break from the Ottoman Empire. As was depicted in Lawrence of Arabia, Arabs were moving awkwardly toward the creation of a unified state. That political backdrop -- though treated in sketchy fashion by Nowar -- gives the movie added richness.

Hussein and his two charges ride their camels into the desert. Theeb, who's supposed to stay behind, follows at a respectful distance. Eventually, he joins the travelers, who have no choice but to take the boy along.

I won't give away more plot details except to tell you that a panicky Theeb winds up alone until a wounded marauder rides into the canyon where the boy faces certain death. Let's just say that this is no ordinary man, and that his relationship to Theeb is deeply fraught.

For Theeb (the name means wolf) the world becomes a hazardous place. The desert can be merciless: One easily extends hospitality; trust, much less so.

Using a mostly non-professional cast, Nowar's movie begins with an admonition about wolves that offer friendship. When the chips are down; they probably can't be relied upon, we're told.

Theeb allows that raw truth to spring from the desert's lonely, shimmering beauty and from the fear and determination of a boy forced by circumstances to confront dangers beyond his years.