Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A movie that walks 'The Walk'

Director Robert Zemeckis recreates Philippe Petit's 1974 wire walk between the towers of The World Trade Center.

The finale of The Walk qualifies as a true astonishment, a stunning recreation of Philippe Petit's 1974 wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Director Robert Zemeckis employs 3D, IMAX, CGI and heaven knows what else to make us feel what it was like for Petit to step onto a wire 110 stories above the bustle of lower Manhattan.

Now, I can't say that this was a feeling that I ever wanted to have. As a person who's squeamish about heights, I can tell you that I found the last act of Zemeckis's movie as terrifying as any experience I've had at a movie.

Those scenes, however, remind us that movies are capable of immersing us in experiences that are entirely sensory -- in this case, making us feel as if we, too, are stepping onto a wire suspended between two monolithic skyscrapers.

The movie doesn't always soar in other areas, so whether you see The Walk depends on whether Petit's wire-walking escapade proves involving enough. It was for me.

Was Petit's famous wire walk a work of art, a dangerously illegal expression of massive irresponsibility or an act of daring so exceptional that it transcended all categories?

I honestly don't know, but like most moviegoers I'm familiar with the details of Petit's story because of James Marsh's 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, a movie that told the story of Petit's obsession.

Marsh recreated the various ruses Petit employed to gain entry into the World Trade Center so that he could string his wire. He used still photos to show Petit's walk.

I happened to live in New York City at the time Petit made his famous walk. Contrary to what Zemeckis's movie contends, Petit did not soften my view of The World Trade Center. I always thought the towers were cold, imposing and lacking in architectural elegance and invention.

So, the movie ...

Early on, Zemeckis operates in exaggerated fanciful mode, introducing us to Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he stands on the torch of the Statue Liberty, the perch from which he'll provide the tale with its intermittent narration. He talks directly to the camera.

I can only surmise that in the wake of Sept. 11, Zemeckis places Petit atop the Statue of Liberty to show that the ideals of freedom have survived, even though the towers have not -- not that Zemeckis makes any other references to the ultimate fate of the towers. He knows we know, and leaves it at that.

Speaking with a variable French accent, Gordon-Levitt displays an unbridled exuberance that mirrors the movie's buoyant tone. Aside from an occasional angry outburst and one moment of sweaty panic, he's pretty much stuck in over-drive.

During the early '70s, we see Petit working as a street performer in Paris. He juggles atop a unicycle, walks a wire strung between trees and offers constant explanations for why he's speaking English. He's preparing to visit America, he tells anyone who asks.

Petit decided his destiny involved making this particular walk the minute he saw a picture of the then-proposed towers in a magazine in a dentist's office.

The performances surrounding Levitt, notably that of Charlotte Le Bon as his girlfriend Annie Alix, truly can be deemed "supporting;" other characters exist as props either to bolster Petit emotionally or to help him plan and execute his walk.

Zemeckis treats the latter part of The Walk as a caper film. To augment the illicit feeing that accompanied Petit's efforts, he refers to his helpers as "accomplices."

The mid-sections of the film introduce us to Papa Rudy, a circus wire walker played by Ben Kingsley. Papa Rudy tries to instill Petit with the ethos of a wire walker, as Kingsley struggles to transcend the stereotype of a gruff but caring mentor.

Because Marsh's documentary didn't try to make us feel as if we were on the wire with Petit, it did a better job of taking us inside Petit's mind, exposing us to what he regarded as a mixture of art and performance -- or, to put it another way, a magical piece of performance art.

The Walk isn't a great movie, although it boasts a truly great recreation of an event with which younger audiences may not be familiar.

Those who know Zemeckis's work (from Back to the Future to Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Forrest Gump to Cast Away and The Polar Express) know that he makes little effort to hide his delight in artifice.

That tendency doesn't always serve him well in The Walk, which is at its best when Petit is alone on the wire, creating his "poetry." For all the technical wizardry required to create those moments, they don't feel nearly as self-conscious as much of what we've been watching.

Aside from the excruciating tightening of the gut I experienced during Petit's prolonged wire walk, what I'll most remember about The Walk is an image of Petit reclining on the wire as we hear him talk about the profound silence and serenity that are encompassing him, an unearthly stillness.

I can't begin to imagine what might have been going on Petit's head normally if this is how far he had to go to find such tranquility and grace.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Some traumas never seem to end

Director Zhang Yimou again reunites with actress Gong Li for a look at the impact of China's Cultural Revolution.

For more than a decade, filmgoers wondered whether Chinese director Zhang Yimou would ever again work with Gong Li, the actress who starred in some of his best movies: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern to name three landmark films from the late '80s and early '90s.

Zhang and Li did reunite for 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower, a spectacle-heavy costume drama of the kind that Zhang seemed to be gravitating toward.

Nine years later, Zhang and Gong have teamed again, this time in an intimately scaled drama about the devastating ramifications of China's Cultural Revolution.

Oddly, Coming Home, which should have knowledgeable audiences quaking with anticipation, hasn't set off a roar of anticipation on the art house circuit.

I'm not sure why. Although Coming Home doesn't match the emotional heft or exquisite beauty of the best of Zhang and Gong's collaborations, it certainly carves out a worthy place of its own.

Gong plays Feng Wanyu, a woman whose husband (Chen Daoming) is imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. When Daoming's Lu escapes, the couple's ambitious, teen-age daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) shrugs off any association with her supposedly subversive father.

With Zhang compressing time, Lu is recaptured; the Cultural Revolution ends; and Lu is free to return home.

By this time, Dan Dan has shed the infection of rabid Maoist ideology, but Feng no longer recognizes her husband. She even mistakes him for a sadistic interrogator from Maoist days.

We're never sure whether Feng suffers from dementia or from some narrowly focused form of amnesia, an uncertainty that encourages us to view the movie as a meditation on the psychological toll of Mao's vicious cultural purge.

A persistent Lu tries to re-establish his life as a husband, an activity that eventually centers on scenes in which he reads Feng letters he wrote from prison. She still doesn't recognize him, but they become linked in this exercise at restoring lost memories.

Although there are images of sad beauty in Coming Home, the film takes on some of the modesty of its meager settings, notably Feng's small apartment or the street-level room Lu rents to be near her.

In its quiet way, Coming Home raises important questions about how to re-define normalcy in the wake of the kind of upheaval from which some never recover.

One can only hope that Gong, 49, and Zhang, now 63, will find material that allows them to collaborate again. They may never recapture the magic of the movies that helped announce the international rebirth of Chinese cinema almost 30 years ago, but they clearly know how to tap into each other's best artistic instincts.

'Stonewall' shortchanges realty

Roland Emmerich makes a film about the birth of the gay rights movement.

The Stonewall riots of 1969 are credited with having ignited America's gay rights movement. The riots were triggered by an early morning police raid of The Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned Greenwich Village bar that was patronized by transgender people, homeless gays, gay prostitutes, a portion of the lesbian community, as well as by gays simply looking for a place to meet.

The riots, which extended over several nights, are the ostensible subject of director Roland Emmerich's Stonewall, a movie misguidedly built around a fictional clean-cut Midwesterner who arrives in New York for what's made to look like a crash-course in gay life.

About now, you may be asking, "Emmerich? The director known for mega-movies such as Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 B.C., and White House Down? That Roland Emmerich?"

The answer is yes, and although Emmerich deserves credit for changing his disaster-movie pace, the resultant film is hampered by a decision to build its drama around Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a gay Indiana kid whose football-coach father (David Cubitt) banishes him.

Danny's small-town downfall culminates when he's caught having sex with the team's quarterback (Karl Glusman), an ambivalent young man who falsely insists that Danny got him drunk and seduced him.

A heartbroken Danny heads to New York City in hopes that he can enroll at Columbia University, where he has a scholarship waiting -- providing his parents send in the necessary papers.

Danny quickly falls in with a scruffy crowd on Christopher Street, characters who introduce Danny to the unforgiving rigors of street life, which for many of them involves prostitution.

Principal among these street waifs is Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a Puerto Rican kid who falls for Danny. Ray fantasizes about making a home with Danny, but he's stuck in a life in which dreams never come true.

Ron Perlman shows up as Ed Murphy, the guy who operated the Stonewall. Murphy, the movie tells us, also pimped defenseless young men to wealthy homosexuals.

Danny eventually finds himself torn between a sexy but stalwart member of the organized gay community (Jonathan Rhys Myers) and the street kids represented by Ray. Tension develops between those who want to legitimize protest and those who wind up throwing bricks.

Emmerich may have wanted to give the movie a main character with whom mainstream audiences more easily could identify. But by turning Stonewall into Danny's story (complete with flashbacks to Danny's stifling high school days), Emmerich shortchanges the political cauldron out of which the gay rights movement arose.

Moreover, John Robin Baitz's overly schematic screenplay tends to squeeze the humanity out of most of the characters surrounding Danny.

Emmerich captures some of the turbulence of the '60s, a period in which life could feel as if it were coming apart at the seams, but there's a faux quality to Stonewall, perhaps because its drawn in such emphatic strokes that it can feel almost cartoonish.

A romcom that tries to be trendy

Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie star in Sleeping With Other People.

Predictability in romantic comedy isn't necessarily a bad thing. We've all experienced the pleasures that result from knowing that two characters are destined to be together -- even if they don't yet realize it.

But the success of such movies depends a lot on how we react to the characters who are working their way toward a shared destiny.

In the case of Sleeping With Other People, I was less-than-charmed by Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, who are cast as a couple of sex addicts dedicated to protecting themselves from emotional involvement.

Reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally -- a signature contemporary rom-com -- Sleeping With Other People tries (strains?) not to get too starry-eyed about love.

Sudeikis' Jake sleeps with just about any woman who crosses his path. Larson's Lainey clings to her "love" for a gynecologist played by Adam Scott.

The sex in doc's office is great, but he's engaged to someone else.

When Jake and Lainey, who had a brief fling in college, become friends as adults, they listen to each other's sexual tales while insisting that their relationship remain platonic.

At one point, Jake becomes involved with his boss, a woman of preternatural understanding played by Amanda Peet.

Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage turn up as the family folks in Jake's bachelor life.

Sudeikis and Brie aren't helped by glib dialogue that sounds so written, you can almost hear the clatter of typewriter keys.

When Harry Met Sally probably remains best known for its feigned orgasm scene. Perhaps by way of competition, Sleeping With Other People features a scene in which Jake offers Lainey advice about how she can more effectively masturbate.

He conducts a demonstration with a bottle that I won't describe in any detail, but know that, at minimum, it's indicative of a movie that feels as if it wants to be both shockingly frank and romantic.

As in life, those may not be complementary ambitions.

What if "mommy" is an impostor?

A mother (Susanne Wuest) builds an emotional wall between herself and her nine-year-old twin sons (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) in the Austrian horror import, Goodnight Mommy. To add to the viewer's discomfort, bandages from a recent surgery cover Mom's head. Mommy looks like a mummy. That's the set-up for directors Severin Fialo and Veronica Franz's debut, a movie that's tightly crafted, nearly to the point of suffocation. Set in a modern, sparsely decorated home in the Austrian forest, the movie serves up off-kilter behavior that remains eerily ambiguous. An example: Mom won't feed one of the twins. The boys insist that Mom's personality has changed; she's no longer the loving parent they knew. Eventually, Mom removes the bandages, and the boys become increasingly convinced that she's an impostor. Insular and creepy, Goodnight Mommy thrives on atmospherics and restraint. Fialo and Franz also do a good job of making us feel uncertain about where to place our sympathies. There's no denying the movie's directorial competence, careful cinematography and chilly production design, but Goodnight Mommy eventually turns into an extended torture fest that revolves around a twist that didn't really take me by surprise. In sum: This one's better in its build-up than in its resolution. Fortunately for horror fans, the build-up occupies most of the movie's 99 minute running time.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

An adventure that scales major heights

It's people vs. the mountain in a dizzying Everest.
Take a bunch of actors with bushy beards that conceal their identifying features, dress them in bulky snow gear, cover their noses and mouths with oxygen masks and make them wear goggles to reduce glare from the sun. Do that and you'll be making a movie in which it's not always easy to tell one character from another.

That's what happens in Everest, the true story of a guided expedition that tried to scale Everest in 1996. You may have to hang around for the end credits to make sure you've gotten the actors straight.

Normally, that would be grounds for failure, but director Baltasar Kormakur's 3D IMAX adventure into mountainous terrain effectively builds tension around harrowing set pieces and spectacular scenery.

The movie also has a point: Everest can make a mockery of human ambition. You look at the steep precipices, the tangle of ropes and litter left by previous climbers, and rock faces that seem alien to human life, and you wonder whether the mountain isn't the movie's loudest voice: Everything about Everest says that people don't belong there.

Working from a script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, Kormakur wastes little time trying to flesh out a story that can be summed up in a few words: Folks climb, the weather turns bad, not everyone survives.

Confusion not withstanding, it's possible to provide a Who's Who in this Himalayan adventure.

Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall, the leader of the expedition and the closest the movie gets to having a main character.

At the outset, Clarke -- who projects good humor and climbing competence -- leaves his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), and heads to Nepal to join colleagues who also work for a company that helps climbers reach the summit.

Included in the cast are Sam Worthington (as another member of the team); Emily Watson (as the person who holds down operations at the base camp), and Elizabeth Debicki (as the team doctor).

Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Scott Fischer, a tour guide who joins forces with Hall to make the climb a bit easier. Ingvar Sigurdsson portrays a Russian climber who seems to think oxygen is for wimps.

John Hawke appears as one of the climbers, a mailman who wants to prove that an ordinary guy can dream big.

Providing one of the movie's more recognizable faces, Josh Brolin portrays a climber who learns that Texas-style bravado isn't much help under dire, blizzard conditions.

The real-life story of what happened on this expedition was written by Jon Krakauer , who recounted the tale in his book, Into Thin Air. Michael Kelly portrays Krakauer, who joined the expedition to report for Outside Magazine. (The screenplay, by the way, isn't adapted from Krakauer's book.)

To the movie's credit, arrival at the summit occurs about half way through. Everest lets us know that the real accomplishment involves more than reaching the top: The triumph rests in getting back down.

The second half of the movie involves the climbers' descent, a trek that turns into disorganized frenzy with the arrival of a ferocious storm.

The movie leaves you to ponder why anyone would risk life and limb to make this sort of climb, but Kormakur (2 Guns) mostly avoids philosophical musings.

Instead, he makes us feel the sting of blowing snow or the apprehension of climbers traversing a narrow ledge or inching their way across ladders that span impossibly deep crevasses.

But Everest offers more than pure action; it also creates understanding of the teamwork required to accomplish this kind of feat and the pain and loss that accompany failure.

And although Everest hardly qualifies as a character study, it conveys the love that professional climbers have for one another. That feeling helps generate emotion, particularly at the end.

Not surprisingly, Everest is about courage and stamina, but it also tells us that sometimes these qualities aren't enough. That's not exactly the message one expects from a big-ticket movie that most people will see because it's the closest they'll ever want to get to this kind of experience.

Depp puts ice water in a movie's veins

Black Mass , a gangster movie played in a very minor key.
Those of us who've been hoping that Johnny Depp would take a break from Pirates of the Caribbean-style clowning have gotten our wish.

In Black Mass, Depp gives one of his strongest performances as Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, the character who inspired Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in director Martin Scorsese's The Departed.

For better and sometimes for worse, The Departed casts a shadow over Black Mass, so much so that the movie can be seen as a commentary on its 2006 predecessor.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it turns Black Mass into a gloom-shrouded reflection on life in South Boston, an area that spawned its share of Irish-American criminals in the 1970s and '80s.

With his hairline made to recede and his teeth made to look rotten, Depp uses his face as a frightening mask. He portrays Bulger as a man who easily could put a forgiving arm around someone who insulted him and then fire a bullet into the guy's head.

In scene-after-scene, Depp gives Bolger -- head of the notorious Winter Hill Gang -- his scary best.

That's not to say that Depp's performance becomes monotonous. Bulger could be respectful of older women in his neighborhood; he doted over a son who died at the age of six; and he remained loyal to his younger brother (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Cumberbatch's Billy Bulger became a state senator and later the president of the University of Massachusetts, a job he ultimately lost because he communicated with Whitey after the gangster had become a fugitive.

Told in chronologically delivered chunks as various of Bulger's henchman rat him out to the feds, the story hinges on an "alliance" between an ambitious FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) and Bulger.

Edgerton's John Connolly protects Bulger from prosecution in return for information that supposedly helps topple Italian mobsters from Boston's North End.

Having been raised in Southie, Connolly believes in the loyalty of the streets, which -- of course -- is the kind of loyalty that lasts until it doesn't. The threat of prison has turned many a "loyalist" into a "rat."

Director Scott Cooper surrounds Depp with a fine supporting cast that includes Kevin Bacon (as an FBI agent who's at odds with Connolly); Peter Sarsgaard (as a low-level, drug-addicted thug); and Rory Cochrane (as another of Bulger's henchmen).

Corey Stoll makes a late-picture appearance as a no-nonsense prosecutor who wants to unravel the law enforcement web that enables Bulger to conduct his business unimpeded.

This isn't the world or the movie in which to look for heavy contributions from women, but Dakota Johnson has a nice, small turn as Lindsey Cyr, the mother of Bulger's child; Juno Temple does stand-out, cameo work as a prostitute; and Julianne Nicholson portrays Connolly's increasingly frustrated wife.

It falls to Nicholson's character to peer into the darkest corner of Bulger's plenty dark soul in a scene that brims with sexual menace.

Cooper (Out of the Furnace) brings grim steadiness to a narrative that ultimately leads to Bulger's disappearance from Boston in December of 1994.

Bulger, who hid from authorities for 16 years, was captured in California in 2011. He's now serving two consecutive life terms plus five years for involvement in 11 murders and for racketeering.

We've seen movies about the Boston criminal milieu before. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) still tops my list. And like it or not, The Departed (over-rated in my view) probably defines Boston crime drama for most contemporary audiences.

All of this means that Black Mass can feel shackled to the past. Moreover, Cooper's avoidance of the rise-and-fall energies that drive most gangster movies doesn't always pay off.

Still, Black Mass unfolds to disquieting effect. Much of the credit for that goes to Depp. Like a winter plunge into an icy Charles River, Depp's performance leaves you chilled and unsettled.

Bobby Fischer's twisted world

Tobey Maguire portrays Bobby Fischer as a man caught in a propaganda war between the U.S. and the Soviets.
I'm not a chess enthusiast, so I can't totally appreciate Bobby Fischer's accomplishments at the chess board. From what I've read, it seems Fischer was a genius when it came to chess and reprehensible in many other ways: a Jew who became a vocal antisemite, a demanding diva of the chess world who never appreciated those who helped him and a competitor so ruthless, he might have made Donald Trump cringe.

The new movie Pawn Sacrifice provides a look at Fischer's development as a chess virtuoso, but gathers most of its steam by focusing on the 1972 match between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

If you're looking for a documentary approach to Fischer's life, you may want to try Liz Garbus' 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. If you're looking for a movie that builds tension without a deluge of pyrotechnics, director Edward Zwick's often intense Pawn Sacrifice should do the trick.

Two young actors (Aiden Lovekamp and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) portray Fischer as a self-contained kid who was put off by the lifestyle of his single mother (Robin Weigert).

Weigert's Regina Fischer's devotion to sexual freedom and communism -- beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1950s -- may have inspired Fischer's abiding contempt for the Soviet Union. For him, the political and personal seem to have merged.

Maguire takes over the role as Fischer approaches adulthood, and begins to establish himself as a world-class player.

No stranger to controversy, Fischer walked out on matches, accused the Soviets of conspiring to keep him from taking the world title in 1962 and became increasingly adept at making sure the world understood that he made no bows to convention.

Along the way, two men take an interest in Fischer's career. The always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg plays Paul Marshall, a lawyer who believed in Fischer and who also saw the symbolic value in using Fischer to make an anti-Soviet statement. If Fischer could beat the Soviets at a game they cherished, he'd serve as living proof that the Communist system had failed.

That may seem a bit far-fetched today, but it perfectly reflects the heated logic of a Cold War period steeped in mistrust and mutual hostility and in which both the Soviets and the U.S. were hungry for symbolic triumphs.

Peter Sarsgaard proves equally good as William Lombardy, a chess grandmaster and Catholic priest who coached Fischer and who, in this telling, understands that there's more to life than chess games.

Zwick sets up the international dynamics of the Fischer/Spassky match in ways that insure that the chess scenes have augmented force.

When Fischer arrives in Reykjavik, Iceland, for his fateful match with Spassky -- actually the second time the two had squared off -- he begins making demands. He refuses to play in front of an audience, insists on preternatural quiet (even the hum of cameras was too noisy for him) and expresses a deep paranoia about everything the Soviets might be doing, including bugging his hotel room.

Throughout these scenes, Maguire never shrinks from making Fischer semi-intolerable, a man whose indifference to what others think borders on the pathological.

The movie's exceptionally able cast handles the story in convincing fashion, although we don't get much about the reclusive but vitriolic latter days of Fischer's life. He died in 2008.

Still, Zwick effectively tailors the drama to accommodate both the personal and geopolitical levels of Fischer's story. He also made me think another movie might be in order, the one in which Schreiber again plays Spassky, and we see the story from the Russian master's point of view.

The troubled life of a math whiz

A Brilliant Young Mind tells an affecting story.

The superior intelligence of math prodigy Nathan Elis (Asa Butterfield) separates him from the rest of the society. As a kid who also suffers from a variety of autism, Nathan may be even more isolated than an ordinary genius -- if there is such a thing.

As handled by director Morgan Matthews -- who previously made a documentary about kids such as Nathan -- the fictionalized A Brilliant Young Mind eventually involves Nathan in the International Mathematical Olympiad, a world competition for brainy high school students.

As the story develops, young Nathan travels to Taiwan to train and to determine whether his brilliance at discerning patterns will win him one of six slots on the British team.

Prior to his trip to Taiwan, Nathan is coached by a troubled teacher (Rafe Spall). An epic underachiever and former Olympiad competitor, Spall's Martin Humphreys suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease that has diminished his hopes for excelling either in professional or personal realms.

Nathan's story hinges on a terrible loss. Early on, his father (Martin McCann) dies in an automobile accident; Nathan's condition worsens, and his relationship with his mother (Sally Hawkins) is made more difficult by the fact that Nathan can't bear to be touched.

Hawkins' Julie appreciates Nathan's gift, but doesn't totally understand him. She encourages Nathan, but his inability to respond to her leaves her as isolated as her son.

Mom's also a bit tyrannized by Nathan's eccentricities. Among other things, Nathan insists that the shrimp balls in a carry-out dinner must add up to a prime number. The stability of his world depends on such things.

While training in Taiwan, Nathan meets a Chinese Olympian (Jo Yang) who takes a liking to him, and coaxes him out of his shell -- at least a little. Unlike Nathan, Jo's character believes there's more to life than numbers.

Butterfield (Hugo and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) doesn't short change Nathan's difficulties or inwardness, but suggests enough vulnerability to make us fearful that Nathan will be chewed up by a world that has little tolerance for his idiosyncratic compulsions.

Once on the Olympiad track, Nathan finds himself in an intensely competitive environment. The coach of the UK team (Eddie Marsan) demonstrates more interest in winning than in dealing with the personal issues of his charges. Marsan's character is no ogre, but he insists that his young charges be focused.

Flashback scenes between Nathan and his late father have a lovely, playful tenderness; they serve to make scenes between Nathan and his mother even more painful. She lacks the ease and humor with which Nathan's father approached his son.

Sensitive and willing to set formula aside at key moments, A Brilliant Young Mind tells a moving story about a shy genius who knows how smart he is -- and who also senses that his great "gift" may not be enough to make him happy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

'The Visit' earns more scorn than cheers

M. Night Syhamalan fails to recapture horror magic.

The Visit offers yet another variation on the nauseatingly familiar "found footage" ploy, straining to give it a fresh spin.

In this case, a 15-year-old makes a documentary about a visit to grandparents she's never before met.

Director M. Night Shyamalan leavens latest plunge into horror film with a bit of macabre comedy, but The Visit is no triumph for Shyamalan, who's making a return trip to the arena where modestly budgeted chillers live.

The movie may be seen by some as a restoration of a career that has dipped and sagged since Shyamalan's breakthrough with 1999's The Sixth Sense.

Don't count me in that group. I suppose it's possible to argue that The Visit represents an improvement after duds such as After Earth and The Last Airbender, but we're talking about an awkward leap over a low bar.

The Visit contains a trademark Shyamalan surprise twist, but the movie is neither funny or scary enough to thrive, primarily because it has no credible psychological underpinnings.

The Visit serves up standard horror tropes, while trying to convince us that it's not really following a familiar blueprint. At times, it tries to goof on ploys we know too well: warnings to stay out of creepy basements and such.

The movie begins when a single mother (Kathryn Hahn) sends her two children -- 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) to visit their grandparents.

The catch: Hahn's character left home when she was 19, and hasn't talked to her parents in 16 years. When Grandma and Grandpa first expressed a desire to meet their grandchildren, Mom resisted. She ultimately agreed because the kids thought it was a good idea and because Mom wanted to take a trip with her latest boyfriend.

For no good reason other than lame comic relief, Tyler fancies himself a rapper. When he and camera-toting Rebecca arrive at their grandparents' rural home, they quickly learn that Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a couple of weird old coots.

I won't describe all of the weirdness, but you should know that one of them involves Pop Pop's penchant for storing his dirty adult diapers in a shed. And, no, that's not the last use to which Shyamalan puts those filthy diapers.

For her part, Nana sometimes runs around the house at night sans clothing, either vomiting or clawing at the walls.

All of these bizarre shenanigans are sloughed off as typical behavior from old people, a suggestion that's both unbelievable and offensive.

OK, there are some strange amusements here (Pop Pop's commitment to highly competitive games of Yahtzee, for example) and a couple of well-presented jolts, which can't be described without adding spoilers.

But so what?

The movie's ending -- gross and violent -- goes way over-the-top before Shyamalan adds a quasi-dramatic coda, along with a supposedly comic footnote, both of which play like apologies for everything that we've already seen.

I've always liked Hahn, and she's quite good in the small role as Mom. But Hahn's minimal presence only served to remind me that the rest of this dumb movie has very little to offer.

A socially oriented comedy from Brazil

When the hired help lives in the same house as those who hire the help, boundaries very likely will blur -- until class distinctions override any feelings of professed intimacy. That's the kind of observation that gives the Brazilian movie, The Second Mother, its kick. The story focuses on Val (an exceptional Regina Case), a maid in the home of a well-heeled Sao Paulo couple. A decade ago, Val left her daughter Jessica in the care of others, devoting her energies to raising the pampered son (Michel Joelsas) of her wealthy employers (Lourenco Mutarelli and Karine Teles). When Jessica -- now grown -- arrives for a visit, the household's order is upset. Tensions exacerbate as the highly independent Jessica (Camila Madila) ignores the unspoken rules that are supposed to keep the help in line. Some of these rules center on who's allowed to use the family swimming pool and who's permitted to dig into a tub of ice cream that the family has set aside for Joelsas's character. Director Anna Muylaert nicely balances comic and dramatic elements, and the movie seldom loses sight of the social issues that enhance it. The story may move too easily toward a feel-good conclusion, but there are many pleasures to be found in this Brazilian import -- whether you jump fully into its pool or not.

This is not your grandma's 'Grandma'

Lily Tomlin plays an acerbic grandmother on a quest.

It's difficult to think of any actress who more deserves center stage than Lily Tomlin. Tomlin has had a memorable career in movies, television and in one-woman shows. At 76, she's still a force.

In director Paul Weitz's Grandma', Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet whose moment in the sun long ago was clouded by the shadows of obscurity. A lesbian, Elle recently lost her long-time partner, and has turned even more sour than she might have been before.

The movie opens with Elle dispatching her much younger girlfriend (Judy Greer) by cruelly announcing that Greer's Olivia has been nothing more than a "footnote" in Elle's increasingly miserable life. Ouch!

Elle is drawn out of embittered solitude when her granddaughter (Julia Garner) turns up asking for money. Garner's Sage is pregnant and needs money for an abortion, a procedure she's scheduled for later that same afternoon.

Without shedding her snide side, Elle, who's newly broke, travels around Los Angeles in search of friends that might loan her the $600-plus needed for Sage's abortion.

The day long journey brings Elle and Sage into contact with a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black) and an ex-lover (Sam Elliott), the guy who she left years ago after acknowledging her gayness.

Both Sage and Elle are trying to avoid asking Sage's successful but angry mother (Marcia Gay Harden) for financial assistance.

The movie gives Elle space for a stream of rude encounters, one in a coffee shop, another at the apartment of the kid (Nat Wolff) who got Sage pregnant.

Elle's definitely a well-oiled mean machine, and she's played with no trace of vanity by a disheveled and massively cynical Tomlin.

But the truth is that we know that Elle really has a heart -- if not entirely of gold, at least of gold plate, and Grandma is sometimes hampered by both the modesty of Weitz's filmmaking and the predictability of his screenplay.
Weitz (About A Boy and American Pie) may have wanted to make a little, emotionally affecting movie -- and, but the end, it is.

Although it grapples with issues involving abortion and abiding unhappiness, Grandma proves a minor success, notable mostly for the way in which Tomlin, Garner, Harden and Greer all come to grips with a resolution wrought by the urgent pressures of the present and the sadness of the past.

Could the movie have been deeper? Sure. But because of Tomlin and her the movie's fine supporting cast, we probably should be grateful for what we've gotten.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Kingsley, Clarkson elevate 'Learning to Drive'

An odd-couple story built on a woman's search for control of her life.
Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson play an interesting duet in Learning to Drive, a movie about a New York woman who responds to end of her marriage by taking driving lessons.

This may seem like a trivial premise, but during the years I lived in the mass-transit world of Manhattan, I knew many people who didn't drive. Some never even bothered to obtain licenses.

Based on a 2002 autobiographical New Yorker article by Katha Pollitt, Learning to Drive introduces us to Clarkson's Wendy, a woman at an emotional low point in what seems an otherwise successful life.

It doesn't take long for Kingsley's Darwan to enter Wendy's world, bringing with him hope for transformation.

A Sikh who had been a political prisoner in India, Darwan has been granted asylum in the US, and now lives in Queens, N.Y.

Obviously bright and capable, Darwan chooses to support himself driving a taxi at night and giving driving lessons by day because he doesn't want to abandon the beard and turban that help define his identity as Sikh.

As directed by Isabel Coixet (Elegy), Learning to Drive becomes a tasteful (and perhaps overly tame) look at two people from different worlds.

Although this sounds like a formula for predictability and boredom, Kingsley and Clarkson fill the movie with enough convincing life to make Learning to Drive palatable and entertaining.

The reason Wendy wants to learn to drive -- aside any metaphoric value -- involves her daughter (Grace Gummer). Gummer's Tasha and her boyfriend live on a food commune in Vermont. Wendy reluctantly decides that it's time she paid a visit.

As the movie evolves, we can't help wondering whether Wendy and Darwan will become romantically involved, but the script by Sara Kernochan is a bit cagier than that.

About mid-way through the movie, Darwan begins a new chapter in his own life with the arrival from India of his soon-to-be wife (Sarita Choudhury), a woman sent to him for a marriage arranged by his sister.

The difficult adjustment required of both parties could (and perhaps should) have made a movie of its own. Coixet handles this awkward relationship with sensitivity and a sense of realism.

Coixet does an equally good job of sketching the life of an immigrant who has landed in Queens. Economic pressures force Darwan to share an apartment with roommates, some of whom fear discovery by immigration authorities.

As a man of character and principles, Kingsley's Darwan tries to bridge the gap between cultures: one represented by the Sikh religion, which governs his behavior, and the other, by Wendy, who offers increased intellectual stimulation.

For the most part, Wendy is a wreck, an older woman forced to abandon her old life. Divorce forces Wendy to give up the brownstone to which she's extremely attached, move into a new apartment and otherwise accept the notion that she's now traveling without a co-pilot.

Learning to Drive is not a volatile movie or one that requires pressing into anyone's book of memories: all the more reason that Kingsley and Clarkson deserve credit for getting more out of it than a formulaic premise would seem to promise.

It's intense, but to what end?

Not long after the suicide of her famous father, Catherine is dumped by her boyfriend. We know this because director Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth begins with an infuriated and aggrieved Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) screaming directly into the camera, attacking her former boyfriend with the reddened virulence of an infected wound.

Clearly Catherine needs a break. Perhaps that's why Perry's intensely muddled tale takes Catherine to the country for a post-breakup retreat with her supposed best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), who's staying in her the lakefront home of her parents.

A reticent Virginia looks on as Catherine, whose father was a celebrated painter, draws Virginia's portrait or wanders about in her nightgown.

Occasionally, one of Virginia's neighbors (Patrick Fugit) visits. He's having a fling with Virginia. Catherine can't conceal her disgust for him, at one point clobbering Fugit's Rich with one of the screen's most withering insults.

She tells him that he's the reason smarter and better people fall into life-threatening depressions.

Occasionally flashing back to a happier time -- the previous summer at this lakefront home -- Perry makes it increasingly clear that the relationship between these two "best friends" is riven with antagonism.

An over-reliance on unkind close-ups of faces fills Queen of the Earth with Bergmanesque echoes, but the movie can seem more pretentious than profound, and Keegan DeWitt's edgy score makes you wonder how long it will take for something disastrous to happen.

Moss, who appeared in Perry's brilliant Listen Up Philip and who is familiar from her fine work on Madmen, gives Queen of the Earth her ferocious all, but this is a case in which a movie about woman who's coming apart never really comes together.

The good, bad and ugly about Steve Jobs

By now, nearly the entire world knows that the late and much-lamented Steve Jobs was a complicated mixture of businessman and artist.

A tech whiz and marketing genius, Jobs twice headed Apple, the company that created whole new behaviors with the introduction of products such as iPods, iPads and, of course, the iPhone.

Director Alex Gibney's new documentary -- Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine -- offers a comprehensive look at Jobs's career, reminding of us of his well-documented abilities and also examining his less-attractive personal traits: a willingness to intimidate subordinates and an equally well-documented denial that he was the father his first-born child, a daughter. (Jobs eventually admitted he behaved badly, and reconciled with his daughter.)

As willing as he is to look at Jobs's personal warts, Gibney also doesn't shy away from examining Apple's seamier side: its use of cheap Chinese labor, a scandal involving backdated stock options and Jobs's control-freak style of management.

Personality and business practices aside, Jobs, more than anyone, helped take the fear out of computing, creating devices that set the current standard for design and user-friendliness.

I don't think Gibney has uncovered a trove of new information, but he knows a good subject when he sees one. Prior to Man in the Machine, Gibney's most recent effort was the HBO documentary Going Clear, a scathing look at the Church of Scientology.

Four years after his death, Jobs continues to fascinate, and Gibney's movie serves as a warm-up for the upcoming Aaron Sorkin-written, Danny Boyle directed bio-pic, which casts Michael Fassbender as Jobs.

That film, entitled Steve Jobs, will have its debut during Labor Day's Telluride Film Festival, and is due in theaters on Oct. 9. (And, yes, for the record, I'm an Apple user.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

This 'Walk,' hobbled by low-grade material

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte search for laughs on the Appalachian trail.

One of them is a trim 79-year-old whose still-spry voice and white teeth don't seem to have aged at the same pace as his weathered face. The other is a 74-year-old who seems to have aged to the point where his face and body stand as a harsh rebuke to every trace of youthful grace.

I'm talking about Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, the unlikely pair of actors who try out their version of a Grumpy Old Men routine in A Walk on the Woods, a comedy in which an aging travel writer decides to take a re-invigorating 2,118 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail.

When Redford's Bill Bryson can't find a partner to join his adventure, he settles for the company of Nolte's Steve Katz, an alcoholic who only recently put aside the bottle. As young revelers, Bryson and Katz once traveled in Europe together.

The duo long-ago parted company. Katz continued his dissolute life in Iowa. Bryson stayed in England where he met and married a nurse (Emma Thompson). The couple now lives in New Hampshire, where Bryson tries to avoid funerals, treats the world with cynical indifference and occasionally writes a forward for someone else's book.

At one point, Bryson's wife suggests that he talk to people.

Bryson says he doesn't like to talk to people, an unlikely trait for a supposedly great travel writer and an indication of missteps to come.

Under the uninspired direction of Ken Kwapis (He's Just Not Into You and License to Wed), Walk in the Woods turns into a broadly conceived comedy that wanders a long way from the kind of chemistry generated by Redford and Newman in movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968) and The Sting (1973).

I can't imagine what Walk in the Woods would have been had Newman lived long enough to play opposite Redford again, and I'm glad that I can't. I really don't want to think about it.

Beyond that, I'm a little surprised that Redford, who served as one of the movie's producers, was attracted to material that required him to cover himself with mud, fall into a rushing stream and tumble over a cliff that brings him and his slovenly partner to the brink of a death defying leap which -- unlike Butch Cassidy and Sundance -- Bryson and Katz wisely avoid.

Even though Nolte's voice has devolved into a cross between a garbage compactor and a growl and Redford's chops don't necessarily stretch toward the movie's occasional displays of physical comedy, both actors know how to handled themselves on screen. Still, they can't overcome a trail of second-rate material that -- like the Appalachian -- could stretch from Georgia to Maine.

The movie's more serious moments -- Bryson and Katz sharing thoughts on what their lives have meant -- feel worn out. Every now and again, Bryson stops the story in its tracks to deliver a small lecture on the fate of disappearing varieties of trees or the staggering multiplicity of stars in the heavens.

Aside from a few brief appearances by other actors, A Walk in the Woods remains a two-hander. Kristen Schaal plays a female hiker whose presence grates on Bryson and Katz's nerves, and ours, too. Mary Steenburgen brings her luminous smile to the role of a motel owner who flirts with Bryson.

A jokey bit about an overweight woman who becomes the object of Katz's lascivious desires takes on an ill-fitting antic quality.

At times, A Walk in the Woods seems like a goofy east coast version of Wild, the movie in which Reese Witherspoon played a woman who took a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In some respects, A Walk in the Woods could have taken its title by going in the opposite direction from Wild. This one is harmless, and that's a shame for Redford and Nolte, both of whom are capable of better.