Thursday, March 31, 2016

A singer as a troubled genius

I Saw the Light doesn't shine in telling the story of Hank Williams.

Who'd have thought that Tom Hiddleston -- the British actor best known for playing Loki in Thor movies -- could make a credible Hank Williams?

Williams died in the back seat of his Cadillac as he was being driven to a show. He was 29. Williams still holds a firm place in music lore, having recorded 35 singles that made the country & western bestseller list. In the world of country music, he became a bona fide superstar.

In I Saw the Light, named for one of Williams' landmark songs, Hiddleston gives a fine performance as a young man who began on WSFA radio in Montgomery, Ala. Williams and his backup band, The Drifting Cowboys, performed for 15 minutes on the station's early morning shift.

Prone to seeking comfort in the bottle, Williams didn't always arrive for the broadcast on time.

Hiddleston, who courageously did his own singing, brings puckish energy and magnetism to Williams' performances, and finds the trademark loneliness that infused some of Williams' best songs, most famously So Lonesome I Could Cry.

Williams, of course, could also bring a humorous twinkle to his lyrics, as he did in Move It On Over, a song about a man who landed in the dog house after committing numerous offenses against his sweetheart, notably "playing around."

"Came in last night about a half past ten
The woman of mine she wouldn't let me in
Move it on over
Move it on over
Move over little dog cause the big dog's movie in

Despite Hiddleston's efforts, director Marc Abraham turns out a routine "troubled genius" movie as he charts Williams' career, which was accompanied by alcoholism, drug abuse and relationships with women that caused him to take up residence in a variety of dog houses.

Joining Hiddleston are Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Williams's first wife Audrey, and Cherry Jones, who portrays Williams' mother. Both Olsen and Jones are good, but the movie doesn't do enough to define Williams' relationship with his domineering mother, and it makes only fleeting references to a mostly absent father.

At one point, Audrey wanted to sing with Williams. Not nearly in his class as a singer, Audrey put Williams' marital loyalties to the test. Band members encouraged him to get rid of her.

Williams aficionados probably will complain about what has been left out: The story of how a young Williams learned to play guitar from an African-American blues musician name Rufus Payne constitutes the movie's most notable omission.

Nicely photographed by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, I Saw the Light tends to get lost inside its period glow as it references important institutions of country music; e.g., The Louisiana Hayride show out of Shreveport and, of course, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.
There's a relaxed quality -- almost a resignation -- about Hiddleston's desperation that rings true, but the movie gets so caught up in Williams' personal decline that, at times, his musical talent becomes a bit of a footnote.

Abraham may have assumed that we all know why Williams deserved to be called a genius. He doesn't really make clear the transformative powers Williams brought to his work, an assignment Hiddleston probably could have handled.

Still, Hiddleston brings more to the role than George Hamilton did in Your Cheatin' Heart (1964). (Hank Williams Jr. did the singing in that seldom-revisited movie.)

Perhaps because Hiddleston doesn't lip synch, he's forced to capture Williams's showmanship and grit. Williams seems most truly alive and happy when he's on stage, maybe only when he's on stage.

At about two hours in length, I Saw the Light tends to plod through various episodes in Williams' short, increasingly dissolute life, but the movie misses the unaffected magic of Williams' best songs.

The third verse of I'm So Lonesome takes us deeper into Williams' defeated heart than the movie, so I'll offer it here as compensation for some of the places I Saw the Light doesn't go:

"Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me, he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome I could cry

Another disastrous family reunion

It has been a long time since I've seen a movie in which behavior seems more out of synch than it in director Matt Sobel's Take Me to the River. This story of a gay California teenager who travels to Nebraska with his mother and father for a family reunion deals with deeply buried family secrets, but can't get much beyond tense atmospherics. The twist: young Ryder (Logan Miller) is accused by his hair-trigger uncle (Josh Hamilton) of molesting Molly (Ursula Parker), his nine-year-old cousin. Sobel never really tells us how a blood stain appeared on Molly's dress when Ryder and the girl were playing alone in a barn. Molly behaves in an awfully seductive manner for a nine-year-old, which makes Take Me to the River one of the few movies to acknowledge that kids aren't asexual beings. Secrets and lies notwithstanding, there are too many times in Take Me to the River when you may find yourself wondering why these characters don't challenge one another when they see behavior that makes little sense. At one point, for example, Ryder's mom (Robin Weigert) tells the boy that he should spend the night in a dilapidated shack on the family property to ease family tensions. Really? Because of scenes such as this -- and one in which Hamilton's character puts a pistol into Ryder's hands -- Take Me to the River doesn't compute, a sin made graver by the fact that the movie is playing with the fire of child molestation.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

2 superheroes, 1 movie ordeal

Batman v Superman takes itself way too seriously. And let's face it: Some movies shouldn't try to think big thoughts.

Remember when comic book movies were fun? Well, you'll have to use your memory because there's not much fun to be found in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

A Zack Snyder-directed comic book extravaganza, Batman v Superman comes on heavy, as if it's carrying the weight of a fallen world on blockbuster-sized shoulders.

I use the word "fallen" advisedly because the screenplay -- credited to Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer -- loads up on quasi-religious references as it turns Superman into a god-like savior, albeit one whose flock can turn against him.

Whatever its ambitions, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice becomes a dark and often brutal ordeal that clocks in at two hours and 33 minutes.

There are surprises in Batman v Superman, so I'll simply tell you that the movie's complicated (and sometimes incomprehensible) plot eventually features a showdown between the two superheroes; it's part of the movie's bloated, overextended finale.

Observers of the movie business have pointed out that Batman v Superman represents the opening salvo in Warner Bros. attempt to launch a series of comic book franchise movies to rival Disney's Marvel Comics fare. That may be the real battle here, and it's reflected in the way Snyder introduces many secondary characters, including the mostly superfluous Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who eventually joins the fray.

I noticed that Aquaman was listed in the final credits and had to scan backward over the movie in an attempt to remember whether I'd actually seen him.

Attempts are made to keep the movie from miring in nostalgia. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), editor of The Daily Planet, reminds us that no one reads newspapers anymore. And there are numerous references to a world so hopelessly mired in evil that the whole notion of "good" has been rendered meaningless.

In another stab at topicality, a Senate committee chaired by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) looks into collateral damage caused by The Man of Steel when he saved Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from swarthy-looking terrorists.

There's plenty of action in Batman v Superman, little of it distinguished. Snyder (Man of Steel, Watchmen and 300) seems more interested in explosions and rapid-fire editing than in imaginatively conceived set pieces.

Besides, after Brussels and in a world in which images of 9/11 still resonate, one must question the taste of filmmakers who insist on destroying urban landscapes. At one point, Bruce Wayne even gropes his way through the gray ash of a devastated cityscape in which buildings have been reduced to rubble.

Why evoke memories of 9/11 in a fantasy movie?
Now as for the casting...

Ben Affleck makes for a glowering, charmless Batman. Sporting stubble and eventually donning a Batman suit that looks as if it weighs as much as a subway car, Affleck seems to be having about much as a guy who just learned that his tax return is being audited.

Henry Cavill, who played Superman in 2013's Man of Steel , shows Superman wrestling with his conscience as he tries to sort through his loyalties. Let's just say that the movie's depiction of these inner struggles may make you wonder whether the "S" on Superman's chest might actually stand for "superficial."

In this telling, Lois Lane knows that Clark Kent and Superman are the same guy. They live together and Clark ... er Superman ... even cooks dinner once in a while.

Beyond all of this calculated updating, a "my-cape-is-longer-than-your-cape" undercurrent ripples through the movie. Putting the two superheroes in the same movie adds marquee value, but winds up shortchanging both of them.

The movie doesn't do much better when it comes to villainy. Jesse Eisenberg makes a dithering, demented Lex Luthor, a corporate tycoon who's as interested in power as he is in profits. Lex fancies himself the orchestrator of the burgeoning conflict between Batman and Superman, but comes off as a deranged twerp.

Not surprisingly, Kryptonite -- the substance that's fatal to Superman -- plays a role here; it's possible that the whole production was infected by Kryptonite. If not, something else must have robbed the movie of its powers to entertain.

Someone dropped this wedding cake

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 takes the worst aspects of its 14-year-old predecessor -- sitcom plotting, ethnic stereotyping and family bickering -- and magnifies them to nearly intolerable levels. Written by its star -- Nia Vardalos -- My Big Fat Greek Wedding II contrives to have the family patriarch (Michael Constantine) marry his wife of long-standing (Lainie Kazan). Why is such a wedding necessary? Frazzled by war, an old-country priest forgot to sign the couple's original marriage certificate. Gasp! Their marriage wasn't official. Time has soured the jokes so that even intrusive aunt Voula (Andrea Martin) seems more crass than funny. Vardalos's Toula, married to non-Greek Ian (John Corbett), frets about every family issue while worrying that her 17-year-old daughter (Elena Kampouris) will leave the Chicago area to attend college. Awkwardly assembled by director Kirk Jones, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 stumbles through what it seems to regard as a feast of ethnic color. When the movie was finished I felt nearly as embarrassed as Kampouris' character did when her whole family improbably showed up at her high school's college fair. Vardalos has a knack for projecting beaming happiness. I hope she has a better reason than this cloying sequel for looking so damn cheerful.

The terrors of long-distance warfare

Eye in The Sky brings ethnical issues into agonizing focus.

The day after I saw Eye saw Eye in The Sky, bombs went off at Brussels' main airport and in the city's subway. Although Eye in The Sky deals with fictional events in Nairobi and involves al-Shabaab terrorists who seem far removed from Europe, the movie raises issues that resound with disturbing urgency in a post-Paris, post-Brussels world.

It's also worth remembering that Nairobi has known its share of terror, including a devastating attack at the upscale Westgate Mall in 2013.

Eye in the Sky brims with questions: If it were possible to know about an impending terrorist attack or at least to suspect that one was more than likely, how much collateral damage would be tolerable to prevent it? And what if one of the people in the path of a devastating drone attack happened to be a nine-year-old girl with no connection to anyone's political agenda?

Most movies that directly tackle ethical issues melt into puddles of prosaically stated positions. But Eye in the Sky -- deftly directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi and Rendition) and sharply written by Guy Hibbert -- brings its issues to the fore without sacrificing much by way of dramatic credibility and tension.

The story takes place in several locations, notably Great Britain, the US and Kenya.

Early on, we meet Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British officer who operates out of London.

Once her mission shifts from capture to kill, Col. Powell becomes increasingly eager to get on with the job. She's a steely officer whose focus on the mission tends to obliterate all other concerns, so much so that she's willing to fudge here and there if it means taking out high-priority targets she's been pursuing for years.

Questions about the propriety of the attack are further complicated by the fact that one of the jihadists is an American citizen and two are British citizens. Under what circumstances can it be legally allowable for a country to kill its own citizens, even those participating in jihad?

Drone operations are conducted from Nevada, where a young officer (Aaron Paul) and a newly assigned co-pilot (Phoebe Fox) are charged with flying a drone over Nairobi. If there's an attack, Paul's Steve Watts will have to pull the trigger.

A conference room full of London officials must make the final decision about whether to fire a deadly Hellfire missile into a Nairobi neighborhood where the terrorists have gathered.

At this meeting, we meet a general played by the late Alan Rickman and a nervous group of civilian bureaucrats portrayed by Jeremy Northam, Richard McCabe and Monica Dolan.

Rickman's character upholds the military position. Among the others, no one wants to shoulder blame for a decision that could lead to a public relations disaster. Frequently, the characters insist on referring the matter "up," meaning they want someone of higher rank to take responsibility.

On the ground in Kenya, an operative (Barkhad Abdi) helps provide information. Abdi's character employs a battery operated camera embedded in a mechanical beetle to provide views from inside the house where the jihadists have gathered to prepare for a suicide bombing.

And that's yet another of the movie's concerns: The men and women who are conducting this mission see almost everything on screens. They're engaged in a brand of combat that operates at far remove from the scene of destruction.

But that doesn't mean that they aren't affected by what they're doing or that they're unaware of the many ironies that infiltrate their high-tech worlds.

I can't know Hood's every intention, but beneath all the bickering, politicking and worrying about who may get blamed for what, you'll find something else: The movie demonstrates that the people who make these terrible decisions don't take them lightly. They'll all have to live with the consequences of choices that seldom produce clear-cut results.

The movie's smart enough not to delude us: It reminds us that there are situations in which every option has an awful -- and perhaps even unbearable -- downside.

Taut and chastening, Eye in The Sky leaves you saddened and shaken.

An improbable tale about a Nazi hunter

Few things are as depressing in the world of filmgoing than a movie that misses its mark when it's trying to be serious, perhaps even profound. Such is the case with director Atom Egoyan's Remember, a story about a Nazi-hunting old man portrayed by Christopher Plummer). Plummer plays Zev, a widower who resides in an assisted living facility. At the behest of his pal Max (Martin Landau), Zev embarks on a mission. He's supposed to visit four men, one of whom might be the Nazi officer who murdered Zev and Max's families in Auschwitz. When Zev finds the right man, he'll kill him. Zev, who's suffering from dementia, has difficulty keeping things straight, so he carries a letter of instructions that Max has carefully written for him. Zev's encounters become increasingly strange, and the movie completely derails when Zev meets the son of a former Nazi (Dean Norris). From that point on, Remember becomes less and less credible and even a bit ridiculous. A last-minute twist and a strong cast can't redeem Benjamin August's misguided screenplay. Remember seems to want to deal with issues of memory and denial, but can't find a plausible enough story to get the job done.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Older woman, younger man

Credit Sally Field with keeping Hello, My Name is Doris on track.

Sally Field's new comedy Hello, My Name is Doris begins with a funeral. Field's Doris Miller has just lost her mother. For most of her adult life, Doris cared for her mother in the Staten Island home the two women shared.

Now in her 60s and newly liberated from familial duties, Doris is ready (sort of) to resume her life. It's hardly surprising then, that Doris attempts to pick up where she left off.

Reverting to a long-ago moment in her squandered youth, Doris falls for John (Max Greenfield), a young art director who works in the office where she toils away at the fine art of data entry.

A hoarder and idiosyncratic dresser, Doris connives to become part of John's life. It doesn't take much imagination to know that Doris will read more into this relationship than John. He sees her as a good-hearted and adventurous older woman with a taste for '50s fashion.

John can't believe Doris actually likes his favorite band. In reality, she doesn't. Doris learned about John's musical tastes by faking a youthful identity and becoming one of his Facebook friends. It's not easy for Doris to accept the fact that she's aged out of a young person's dating game.

It would be misleading to tag Hello, My Name is Doris as a comic masterpiece. Director Michael Showalter (The Baxter) sometimes allows the movie's contrivances to show. Moreover, the movie can't always encompass its broad range of tones -- from the overtly comic to the heavily emotional.

But Field holds the movie together through its various turns with Tyne Daly offering able support as one of Doris's long-standing friends and the movie's intermittently expressed voice of common sense.

Greenfield supplies the requisite charm in what has become increasingly rare, a big-screen portrayal of a truly decent guy.

In another plot current, Doris battles her brother (Stephen Root) and his wife (Wendi McLendon-Convey). They want Doris to declutter and move. They also want their share of the proceeds from the home's sale.

To that end, they've introduced Doris to a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who's supposed to help with the overwhelming task of deaccession.

But even here, Showalter resists the temptation to over-sharpen conflict. He seems to understand that the movie's beating heart belongs to Field. She's playing a woman who, through the course of the story, learns that her quirky ways needn't lock her in isolation but can be viewed as the defining characteristics of an irrepressible individuality.

It may not be perfect, but by the time it ends, you may be a little sorry to say goodbye to Hello, My Name is Doris.

Bad mix: Thanksgiving, alcohol

A domestic drama that's styled to be edgy

Director Trey Edward Shults treads a familiar dramatic path in Krisha, an edgy drama about a dysfunctional family that gathers for Thanksgiving. To his credit, Shults travels this familiar arc in a style that proves unsettling from start to finish.

Shults's tipsy camera and reliance on a disturbing stream of music enhance a story in which the title character -- a recovering alcoholic -- visits her family after a long and presumably estranged absence.

From the beginning, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) teeters on the edge of collapse. Krisha's face still shows traces of youthful beauty, but years of abuse have made it slack.

Krisha's family, including a disaffected son (played by Shults) greets her warmly but warily. She's the ticking time-bomb that's bound to explode before the holiday is done.

In her room, Krisha opens a locked box that contains her stock of pharmaceuticals, and the movie's first shot (an intense close-up of Krisha's ravaged face) underscores a feeling that something monstrous looms.

Fairchild - who in real-life is Shults's aunt -- gives an elusive performance that evade's quick categorization. Krisha's riven by contradiction: She's sincerely interested in reconnecting with her family. At the same time, she seems destined to find ways to make real reconciliation impossible.

Robyn Fairchild (Shults's mother) plays Krisha's sister Robyn; she and her husband -- a doctor played by Chris Doubek -- become background characters, as does almost everyone else in the film, including a group of young people who may be relatives or friends. Everyone assembles in a spacious Texas home that, in reality, beings to Shults's parents.

Aside from Krisha, the movie's most vividly drawn character is Doyle (Bill Wise), a man who establishes an outsiders' kinship with Krisha, but who also retains a judgmental edge. Krisha's attempts to re-establish a relationship with her son prove futile. A victim of years of neglect, he's too wounded to bury his resentments.

Shults has worked with Terrence Malick, and the master's influence becomes apparent. Shults isn't much interested in expository dialogue or explanation; he tries to set his movie in the indigestible present as he builds toward a scene of devastating emotional carnage.

After you sort through the stylistic flourishes (at times, Shults even shifts aspect ratios), Krisha becomes a fairly conventional drama that's trying as hard as it can to ratchet up tension and anxiety. Shults's movie has its searing moments, and the performances are marked by vivid authenticity.

Like a drunk who leans in too close, you may sometimes find yourself wishing Krisha would get out of your face. Maybe that's how a drama such as this has to work. Whatever you think about Krisha, Shults can't be accused of pulling his punches.

No medal for this profane comedy

A classic one-joke movie, The Bronze offers a few chuckles, but can't overcome the unpleasantness of its main character, a one-time Olympic gymnast (Melissa Rauch) whose career stalled with a Bronze medal. Years later, Rauch's Hope Ann Greggory has become an embittered, profanity-spewing woman whose personality is stuck in adolescence, complete with an ever-present pony tale, carefully arranged bangs and a refusal to wear anything but her Olympic warmup suit. Working from a script co-written by Rauch and her husband Winston, director Bryan Buckley seldom gets past a stream of profane humor delivered by Rauch in clipped staccato bursts. The joke, of course, is that Hope Ann Greggory looks like a pert cheerleader, but curses like an unrepentant sailor. Unable to move on with her life, Hope lives with her father (Gary Cole), a mailman who tolerates her massively annoying assaults. The story shifts gears when Hope is asked to train a rising star (Haley Lu Richardson). Thomas Middleditch plays the owner of the aging gym where Hope trains Richardson's character; Sebastian Stan portrays the egotistical coach of the US women's gymnastics team. A sex scene staged like a gymnastic routine serves as a comic high point, but the movie ultimately does precisely what you expect; it sells out its nasty side for a bit of soggy redemption. The Bronze might have worked as a skit, but can't make the cut as a movie.

Friday, March 11, 2016

They're trapped in a bunker

10 Cloverfield Lane generates low-key tension, but still packs a wallop.

Boasting only the loosest of connections to 2008's Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane generates plenty of tension before delivering a third-act jolt.

Director Dan Trachtenberg bravely challenges shock-hungry audiences by slowing the pace of a drama in which a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens in a bunker built by a survivalist farmer (John Goodman) after her car spins off the road.

Goodman's Howard tells Winstead's Michelle that the US has suffered a terrible attack that has left the atmosphere poisoned. There are no survivors, he says.

Therein lies the source of the movie's tension: Is Howard a kidnapping monster or has the world really been ravaged by aliens or Russians, as he suggests?

Inside Howard's bunker, Winstead's Michelle also meets Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who helped build the bunker and who was allowed in by the domineering Howard.

At times, the movie becomes a claustrophobic three-hander with the wary survivors trying to get along. They adjust to one another as best they can. They play board games. Howard watches a video tape of Pretty in Pink, perhaps the least likely choice for such a hulking colossus.

Trachtenberg slowly reveals the ways of the bunker, which is equipped with a kitchen and living room area, a pantry where food is kept, separate rooms for Michelle and Howard and an air filtration system that blocks out lethal gasses.

Both Gallagher and Winstead hold their own, but Goodman gives the movie's most compelling performance as a survivalist and conspiracy nut of intimidating bulk.

I won't say more, but 10 Cloverfield Lane deserves credit for not trying to mimic the found-footage approach of the original Cloverfield. You won't get dizzy watching it.

Before it's done, 10 Cloverfield Lane takes an unexpected turn or two. So don't be fooled by a bit of rope-a-dope pacing; by the end, the movie delivers a strong punch.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Confronting the Amazon's mysteries

Colombia's Embrace of the Serpent takes on two compelling river journeys.

The Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent sees white, western civilization as terminally exploitative. Moving deep into the Amazonian jungle, this rich and unsettling movie focuses on the life that's being trampled and squandered as rampant colonialism gobbles up the world's resources and murders its primal dreams.

Virtually a journey into an alien world, Embrace of the Serpent also reminds us that tribal life in the jungles had a striking abundance and that its loss does irreparable harm to the human spirit.

Photographing in black-and-white, director Ciro Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego take us on a trip down the Amazon: The result is a film steeped in exoticism and full of imminent dangers.

Guerra and his co-writer Jacques Toulemonde chronicle two different trips into the jungle, shifting between stories that are united by the presence of a shaman named Karamakate.

As a young man and, later, as an aging shaman, Karamakate -- played by two actors -- leads two different white men on searches for the Yakruna plant, a rare species known for producing psychedelic effects when ingested. Ultimately, the Yakruna becomes a vehicle for a white men to be schooled by the natural world, which Karamakate insists must be heard, not conquered.

The first journey begins in 1909. Young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) is approached by Manduca (Yauenku Miguel), a native who has had exposure to whites. Manteca wants Karamakate to save the life of a German (Jan Bijvoet) explorer who has taken ill. Only the Yakruna plant can stave off death.

This white character -- Theo by name -- is based on Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a real Amazon explorer who wrote extensively about his encounters with indigenous peoples along the Amazon.

In the second story, Antonio Bolivar Salvador plays an aged but still imposing Karamakate; he agrees to help an American botanist (Brionne Davis) search for the Yakruna plant. Davis' character says he has devoted his life to plants, something Karamakate finds admirable.

But like his predecessor, Davis' Evan doesn't always find it easy to accept Karamakate's sternly applied discipline.

In both stories, a representative of an invasive civilization is said to be more interested in robbing the forest of rubber than in appreciating the lives of native peoples. And both white men are burdened by excess baggage -- suitcases full of equipment -- that they insist on piling into Karamakate's canoe.

By the time we meet the older Karamakate, he has begun to complain about having forgotten the ways of his people. He, too, may have lost his connection with ancient secrets.

Western religion is not spared. In one 1909 scene, Karamakate and his companion stumble upon a Christian missionary who abuses native children. In later scenes, we meet a strange group of cultists led by a man who proclaims himself the messiah and who seems to have submitted entirely to his darkest impulses.

Both of these incidents dramatize the distortions that occur when the values of the outside world penetrate the jungle and are allowed to marinate in isolation.

No description of events does justice to this odd and absorbing movie. Daringly, Embrace of the Serpent tries to cut away the obscurations that obscure the jungle's mystery.

I suppose, then, that it's possible to characterize Embrace of the Serpent, which seems aimed at western audiences, as an instructive and necessary act of trespass.

A frustrating 'Knight of Cups'

Director Terrence Malick's journey through Los Angeles.

I know many serious film lovers who are slavishly devoted to the films of director Terrence Malick, so much so that they transfer the brilliance and emotional depth of films such as The Tree of Life to lesser works, notably the recent To the Wonder (2012).

With Knight of Cups, Malik provides another test for devotees because this strange foray into the libidinous world of Hollywood leaves a gaping maw of consternation in its wake.

Malick begins with a quote from The Pilgrim's Progress, a 1678 Christian allegory. Author John Bunyan's work about a journey to the Celestial City isn't the only source Malick quotes: He also cites passages from The Hymn of the Pearl, a Gnostic myth about a boy sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent.

I bring all this up not to demonstrate my knowledge of Christian literature, which is -- at best -- confined to perusals of Wikipedia, but to suggest that Malick's willful obscurity seems a frustratingly protracted exercise in navel gazing as filtered through what feels like a dense spiritual fog.

Equally troublesome is Malick's tendency to pepper his films with the barely audible thoughts of his characters. He blurs their speech and de-emphasizes anything resembling human connection. His characters live in worlds of their own.

This approach has been likened to dreams; but dreams and poetry always have been tricky stuff for movies, and they can do a filmmaker in as quickly as they can save him or her.

In Knight of Cups, Malick mostly abandons linear storytelling as he soaks in the often beautiful imagery of his collaborating cinematographer, three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki.

Taking its title from a tarot card, Knight of Cups casts the always adventurous Christian Bale as Rick, a screenwriter who's searching for meaning in his generally hollow life. Foundering in a sybaritic material world, Rick is a forsaken man.

When he's not engaged in sexual relationships, Rick is seen walking, driving his vintage convertible or looking at things. Of course, the gifted Lubezki gives Rick (and us) plenty at which to stare as Malick's camera explores Los Angeles.

Because most of Rick's quest (if that's what it is) involves women, Malick finds an opportunity to bring a diverse core of actresses to the screen.

Nancy (Cate Blanchett) plays Rick's ex-wife, a physician who works in a clinic. Karen (Teresa Palmer) appears as a Las Vegas stripper. Helen (Frieda Pinto) works as a model. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) gets pregnant by Rick. She's married to someone else.

As if flipping through a deck of Tarot cards, Malick structures his story around chapter headings such as The Moon, The Hermit and more. It takes more effort than it's worth to connect these titles to the hazy unfolding of Malick's Los Angeles-based scenes, some which include Rick's father (Brian Dennehy) and his bother (Wes Bentley).

Father and son are locked in an explosively angry duet.

Antonio Banderas presides over a Hollywood party attended by various Hollywood "insiders," a boisterous Bacchanal.

At first, it seems as if Malick wants to make a movie about another lost soul snared by the siren call of Hollywood hedonism. But he also seems to want to give Rick's searchings spiritual meaning: A lost soul, Rick is separated from God and trying to establish a connection or maybe he's just seeking meaning in a godless world or maybe ...

Well, in the end, who really cares what Rick is seeking?

We've all got troubles of our own, and Malick never convinces us (or at least me) that we should get involved with his.

Young and ambitious in Brooklyn

Creative Control paints a telling portrait of life in the high-tech fast lane.

As a young Brooklynite working at an ultra-hip advertising agency, David (Benjamin Dickinson) finally has gotten creative control over an important account. He'll lead the campaign for a product called Augmenta, glasses that allow wearers to create virtual experiences that come close to simulating the real thing.

In David's case "the real thing" happens to be having sex with a co-worker (Alexia Rasmussen). He seldom takes off the glasses he's supposed to be selling.

This set-up may prime expectations for a derivative bit of sci-fi, but a mixture of fresh insight and observation turn Creative Control -- which Dickinson also directed -- into an up-to-the-minute comedy of manners.

Perhaps to facilitate his illusory sexual adventures, David makes sure not get along with his live-in girlfriend (Nora Zehtener). Zehtener's Juliette teaches yoga. She seems a "natural" alternative to David's high-tech mania.

By the end, though, the movie skewers Juliette, as well, turning her into an advocate for some sort of loopy, peak-consciousness experience.

Set in the near future, Creative Control imagines a world in which phones are made of translucent material. Today's familiar devices (cell phones, lap tops, etc.) have progressed.

Writing a text message, for example, is like writing on air, and at meetings, it's not unusual for someone to refer to a holographic chart that materializes over a conference table.

What saves Creative Control from being another screed about the ways in which technology separates us from the tumult of flesh-and-blood experience is Dickinson's spot-on portrayal of what it means to be young, upwardly mobile and wildly immature in Brooklyn.

Arrogant on the outside, David is a seething mass of insecurities on the inside. After a commanding performance at a client meeting, for example, he heads to the men's room to throw up. He's not nearly as sure of himself as he initially seems.

David decides to build the Augmenta campaign around the work of Reggie Watts, an experimental musician and comic (played by himself) who dispenses mind-altering drugs to the other characters. Watts devises what he sees as a deeply meaningful ad, but it probably couldn't sell water in a desert.

Dan Gill plays Wim, David's best friend, a fashion photographer who's in the midst of an affair with Rasmussen's Sophie -- and lots of other women, as well.

David increasingly has difficulty separating illusion from reality, but the real enjoyment in Dickinson's movie stems less from the disconnect between the real and the synthetic than from gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and from the way Dickinson captures David's urban milieu.

The upscale environment of David's office contrasts with the low-tech streets of Brooklyn. Despite the dizzying achievements of a youth-oriented business culture, Brooklyn remains recognizably Brooklyn.

Funny and fresh, Dickinson's movie manages -- and not incidentally -- to rake Brooklyn's hip young residents over some well-earned satirical coals. It's one of the season's bigger surprises.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

London (and taste) under siege

This lame sequel to 2013's Olympus Has Fallen involves little more than sustained violence built around the need for Gerard Butler, who again plays a Secret Service agent, to squelch swarthy looking foes who have blown up much of London and who threaten the life of the US president (Aaron Eckhart). The plot kicks in when Britain's prime minister passes away, and Eckart's Benjamin Asher travels to London for the state funeral. The picture quickly reduces itself to following Eckhart and Butler as they race around London in an effort to save the president from being beheaded by the Barkawi family. The Barkawis are arms dealers seeking vengeance for being victimized by a US drone strike. As vice president Trumbull, a concerned looking Morgan Freeman presides over a table of US government types who fret about the situation. One might rattle on about the movie's unashamed bombast and exploitative violence (See Westminster Abby topple! Watch London Bridge blown apart!), but that would be a waste of my time and yours. London isn't the only thing that has fallen with the release of this noisy mess of a movie; so have my hopes of seeing Butler, an appealing enough actor, in something that didn't leave me rolling my eyes in dismay.

There's lots of fun in 'Zootopia'

Sometimes fun is the best ambition.

I have no idea whether Zootopia -- the latest animated fantasy from Disney -- will become a classic, but I do know that it scores high on the fun meter.

So three cheers for a story about Judy Hopps (voice by Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny who aspires to become a cop in the city of Zootopia. Police work has been Judy's ambition since she was a child.

Primed for action and a do-gooder's career, Judy wants to leave the countryside and her family of underachieving carrot farmers.

When Judy arrives in the city, she becomes the first bunny on the Zootopia PD. An unimpressed chief Bogo (Idris Elba), arbitrarily decides that Judy's fit only for parking duty. He doesn't believe a bunny can hold her own on Zootopia's mean streets, hardly a surprising opinion from a water buffalo.

Zootopia is unique because the animals all get along. That's why it's called Zootopia. Predators and prey may not be the best of friends, but the former have learned to refrain from devouring the latter.

While handing out parking tickets, Judy meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a conniving con artist of a fox who eventually teams with Judy to help crack a case involving the disappearance of 15 mammals.

If Judy can solve the mystery, she'll get herself off parking duty, maintain a position on the force and climb out of Chief Bogo's (you'll pardon the expression) dog house.

Judy and Nick make an odd couple as they learn some shocking news: Some predators suddenly are turning on prey, thereby threatening Zootopia's peaceable social structure.

Disney loads up on animals and voices, but I particularly enjoyed an arctic shrew mobster who'll remind adults in the audience of Don Corleone. Mr. Big, as he's called, is brought to gravelly voiced life by Maurice LaMarche.
Appropriately, I suppose, the Zootopia's DMV is staffed by sloths, a joke that surely will appeal to every adult who's ever endured what seems like an interminable wait at any department of motor vehicles.

The story evolves into a light-hearted police procedural that winds up preaching a lesson about acceptance and free will -- if that's not too grandiose a term for the fact that the animal characters are forced to decide whether to be ruled by instinct or choice.

Directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush do a fine job of keeping Zootopia amusing for kids and equally enjoyable for the adults who accompany them to theaters.

Disney's animators seem to have had a grand time creating Zootopia -- which consists of districts such as Tundratown, Little Rodentia and Bunnyburrow.

OK, that's a bit theme-parkish, but dividing Zootopia into distinct environments must have kept the animators from getting bored. It also gives Judy and Nick an opportunity to venture into Zootopia's bad neighborhoods.

At various times Judy must prove to herself and the world that she's no dumb bunny; the same goes for this frolic of a movie. The highest compliment I can pay Zootopia? It's no dumb bunny, either.

Feuding brothers and their sheep

Director Grimur Hakonarson's Rams is, by any definition, a small movie. But that doesn't mean, it's not a resonant one. In Rams, Hakonarson, a documentarian by trade, tells the story of two feuding brothers who tend sheep in an isolated part of Iceland. Bearded and as shaggy looking (perhaps more so) than the sheep they tend, the brothers (Theodor Juliusson) and Sigurour Sigurjonsson) constantly are competing over who has the best groomed sheep. It's impossible to watch a movie this spare in tone without thinking of the bible; i.e., Cain and Abel reflections seem entirely appropriate. The story kicks in when a plague hits the area; sheep are inflicted with scrapie, a fatal sheep disease that means entire flocks must be put down. Brother Gummy (Sigurjonsson) kills his sheep, but Kiddi (Juliusson) resists, ultimately hiding several of his most treasured animals in his basement. Although Hakonarson doesn't resist comic impulses, his movie can't help but turn serious and its ending manages a neat trick; it's both affirming and chastening. Again, small doesn't mean unimpressive: Rams serves up a haunting blend of rural realism, cultural eccentricity and near-mythic poetry.

A Norwegian helping of disaster

I don't know if I've said it in this context before, but those familiar with my movie tastes know that I'm a generally impartial fan of disaster movies.

Because I have many things about which I legitimately can worry, I never have spent much time trying to determine why I enjoy this particular brand of guilty pleasure.

I say only this, "Earthquake? Bring it on?" "Flash flood? I'm there." "Tornado? Well, why not?"

So it was with more than the usual anticipation that I watched The Wave, a Norwegian entry into the kind of wanton destruction only nature can deliver.

The first thing to know is that The Wave takes place far from any beach. The movie involves the separation of a massive chunk of rock from a cliff wall. This huge mass of rock and debris plunges into a fjord.

As a result, a 250-foot towering wall of water surges through the fjord, overwhelming the small town of Geiranger.

We've already had a serious tsunami movie (The Impossible). We don't need another, so director Roar Uthaug takes a different tack. He focuses on geologist Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner), a dad who works at a mountain station that monitors seismic activity in the cliff wall.

Kristin seems to like his job, but he's about to give it up. He has taken a position with an oil company, which offers a higher salary and more stability in a less remote part of the country.

At the last minute before the move, Kristian decides not to take his two kids (Jonas Hoff Oftebro and Edith Haagenrud-Sande) to the city, but to stay in Geiranger until he can shake the feeling that big trouble looms.

Kristian's wife (Ane Dahl Torp) already had agreed to stay behind in order to complete her work at the town's hotel.

I don't suppose I need to tell you that all hell breaks loose, and that husband and wife, each with a different child in tow, are separated.

The actors are likable enough to create the level of concern this sort of picture requires; the effects are good; and director Uthaug creates some nail-biting tension, particularly in scenes staged in the depths of a mountain fissure.

And, yes, the CGI rendered wave that descends of the tiny town is convincing enough to inspire the expected response, something along the lines of "Oh, shit."

None of this is to say that Uthaug totally avoids the cliches that weaken every Hollywood disaster movie. There's the usual tension between commercial concerns and life-saving procedures -- albeit in a lower key than usual. Worse yet, the movie's slide of rock is accompanied by an equally dense cascade of improbabilities and an unfortunate, last-minute bow at the altar of uplift.

OK, so The Wave won't be anyone's perfect movie, and it's not nearly as morally ambiguous as Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure, a Swedish film about a family torn apart by an avalanche.

But as a good, old-fashioned hunk of big-screen disaster, you could do a lot worse than The Wave, say last year's far more expensive and less involving San Andreas.