Thursday, October 27, 2016

Painting in her father's shadow

A beautifully animated film about the talented daughter of a 19th Century Japanese master.

Katushika Hokusai, the great 19th Century Japanese artist, remains best known for The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, a wood block print depicting three boats in the trough of a monstrous wave.

In the beautifully animated Japanese film, Miss Hokusai, director Keiichi Hara shifts the focus from Hokusai to his daughter O-Ei, a young woman who serves as a kind of apprentice to her father.

A gruff and critical man, Hokusai can be unsparing in his appraisals of his daughter's efforts, even though she sometimes completes his works or creates them entirely.

While keeping O-Ei in the film's center -- she narrates the story -- Hara and screenwriter Miho Maruo provide bits of biographical information about Hokusai. The artist lived in self-imposed squalor. When his quarters became too littered, he simply moved.

Her father's criticisms not withstanding, O-Ei is no pushover. She has her own standards. She never genuflects at the altar of her father's fame, and she's clearly more disciplined than her sometimes dissolute father.

This is not to say that O-Ei lacks passion. She's irresistibly drawn to the fires that frequently disrupt life in Edo, a city where wood construction dominates.

O-Ei also tends to her blind younger sister, a girl who lives with nuns in a Buddhist convent and worries that her disability will disgrace her renowned father and condemn her to hell.

At various times, Hara blurs the line between the illusory world of Hokusai's paintings and the real world or, at minimum, allows them to intermingle.

Perhaps the movie's boldest achievement involves its acceptance of the power and vivacity of artistic creation. At one point, a painting that's purportedly cursed unleashes a phantom that terrorizes the wife of its owner. It falls to Hokusai to perform a kind of artistic exorcism, putting the finishing touches on the work.

At times, Hara adds rock music to the film's soundtrack, perhaps as a way of avoiding the period-piece trappings that might have given an overly reverential air to this adaptation of Hinako Sugiura's episodic manga.

Despite flourishes of strangeness, Miss Hokusai* can be emotionally affecting in simple ways. It also respects Hokusai and O-Ei's artistic achievements. Trying to match those achievements probably qualifies as a fool's errand, but Miss Hokusai clearly draws inspiration from them. The result can be visually spellbinding.

*This is animation for adults and not for younger children.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tom Cruise brings back Jack Reacher

An adaptation of a Lee Child novel hits the skids.

Thoroughly mediocre and heavy on standard-issue action, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back showcases a haggard looking Tom Cruise and a cast of unremarkable others in an adaptation of a Lee Child novel in which everyone approaches everything with a degree of seriousness that seems at odds with the movie's lack of freshness.

As directed by Edward Zwick, who you may recall directed Cruise in The Last Samurai, Never Go Back amounts to an unsurprising continuation of Jack's adventures as a disaffected warrior.

With an occasional flex of his ever-tightening jaw muscles, Cruise frequently shows off Reacher's fighting skills. And although Reacher is often seen running, Cruise might as well be marking time until the next Mission Impossible movie.

Reacher, who's battling villainous former military types, quickly finds himself in the company of Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Reacher springs this highly competent female officer from jail after she's falsely accused of espionage.

The two, then, are off and running.

Eventually, Reacher and Turner are joined in flight by a 15-year-old girl (Danika Yarosh), a skilled pick-pocket who acts out her teen anger with occasional bouts of kleptomania.

We're also asked to wonder whether Yarosh's Samantha might be Reacher's daughter from some long-ago dalliance, an obviously contrived question that sits atop the movie like a wilted bit of garnish.

The main villain is a ruthless assassin known as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), a relentless, off-the-wrack killer who shows no compunction about exercising his trade.

Made to look as if Reacher has taken several beatings, Cruise seems to be going through the motions in movie that too often feels as if it's doing precisely the same thing.

Familiarity with just about everything in Never Go Back may not breed contempt, but it puts a damper on anything resembling real excitement.

This grouchy Swede has some heart

Swedish director Hannes Holm focuses on one of the world's great grouches in A Man Called Ove, a movie that turns a gruff and demanding character into a man with a big heart -- both metaphorically and literally. Personal redemption isn't exactly a novel twist for a story, but Holm adds enough ingratiating charm to keep a familiar tale on track. Adopting what presumably is intended as an oddball storytelling technique, Holm reveals Ove's life in flashbacks that occur during the 59-year-old widower's frequent attempts at suicide. Ove slowly recovers his humanity with help from a new neighbor (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Persian immigrant woman. We also learn that Ove's late wife (Ida Engvoll in flashbacks) was a teacher known for getting the best from her students. A love story and an ode to the redemptive powers of human connection, A Man Called Ove gains gravity from Rolf Lassgard's performance as Ove, the kind of fellow who'd sever a long-term friendship over a pal's choice of a car (a Volvo over a Saab). Ove's exacting demands on the tiny community in which he lives shield him from feelings he has no desire to face. A Man Called Ove may not make for adventurous film viewing, but it proves a pleasant enough diversion about a man who spends most of his time being as unpleasant as possible.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Nat Turner's story hits the screen

Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation strikes a powerful chord.

After a smashing debut at last year's Sundance Film Festival, director Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. Although the reviews weren't uniformly positive, the movie -- which tells the story of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner -- seemed the perfect antidote to a year that began with a mixture of commentary and protest about the inescapable whiteness of the Academy Awards.

A prestigious rollout seemed certain, and then news surfaced about a rape allegation dating back to Parker's college days at Penn State. Although he was acquitted, Parker was forced to address questions about himself rather than about his movie.

The tragedy of all this has less to do with the impact on Parker's reputation than with the possibility that news about Parker's personal history will in some way relieve audiences of responsibility for acknowledging the painful chapter of American history that the film depicts.

This is not to say that Birth of a Nation is masterpiece, but that it is a film that should be part of an important discussion. The movie's achievement not only involves the power of its story, but the way in which Parker brings us close to his characters.

In Parker's hands -- at least most of the time -- Turner is less a symbol of the fight against injustice than a living, breathing man with hopes, aspirations and a deep love for both his mother and the woman who would become his wife. He is man before he's a rebel.

Birth of a Nation underscores the humanity of those who were ravaged, but it also exposes the institutional structure that made such exploitation possible. If that's not an entirely new revelation, it bears repeating.

In telling early imagery, we see young Nat playing with the son of the white plantation owner. Their childhood friendship seems free-flowing and genuine, but we know it won't last because the white boy will grow up to "own" Nat Turner.

We quickly learn that young Nat was an exceptional child. He could read at an early age. As a result, the mistress of the Southampton, Va., plantation where Turner was enslaved (Penelope Ann Miller encouraged Nat's development. She instructed the youngster to steep himself in the Bible, the only book she deemed suitable for a person of his race.

When Turner matured, he became a preacher who offered solace to his fellow sufferers; he also offered a means for the owner of the by-then-faltering plantation (Armie Hammer) to enrich himself.

At the suggestion of a white preacher, Hammer's Samuel Turner "rented'' Nat to others as a kind of novelty, a black preacher who could convince the enslaved that a better world awaited them in the next life. The white hope was that those who were enslaved would put aside any notions of a better life in this go-round.

Played by Parker with a watchful gaze, Turner learns to negotiate plantation perils. At one point, he persuades Hammer's Samuel Turner to purchase a teen-age slave that had caught his eye. Cherry (Aja Naomi King) later becomes Nat's wife, a relationship the movie makes clear was held in little respect by many slavehoders.

Of course, the movie must show the brutalities that led to Nat Turner's revolt. These include rapes of black women, a horrible attack on a black slave who goes on a hunger strike and many other indignities.

Hammer's Samuel is depicted as one of the kinder slave holders, but even he can't resist a vigorous defense of the status quo when he learns that Nat has baptized a white man, an act considered scandalous.

Nat receives a severe whipping for bringing a white man to faith. Soon after, he rebels, leading his small band in a killing rampage that results in the deaths of some 55 whites.

Parker spares us some of the hard-core butchery of Turner's revolt, but gives us enough to suggest the level of fury that had been unleashed among those who had been so ceaselessly oppressed.

By the end, Parker can't resist sacralizing Turner's death. Turner was caught, hanged, and -- in this version of the story -- he triumphs over his cruel surroundings, presumably with a vision of divine justice that serves as both his vindication and an act of transcendence.

Third-act hagiography aside, the most most interesting achievement in the script by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin* involves its depiction of the daily horrors of slavery.

Birth of a Nation takes its title from D.W. Griffith's silent, 1915 Civil War epic, a movie justly deemed racist for its demeaning depiction of blacks and for taking a lionizing approach to the Ku Klux Klan. The impacted ironies in Parker's choice of a title presumably were intended.

Following 12 Years A Slave, this Birth of a Nation adds to the small but significant list of movies that are trying to come to grips with a painful and shameful part of the American past.

As such, it's a powerful drama about a man driven by a burning faith that demanded that he call those who oppressed him into the severest of accounts.

I won't argue with those who choose not to see the movie because of Parker's personal history. I also won't argue with those who find fault with an imperfect movie. I will, however, argue with those who think that we don't need more movies that expose the evils of slavery. We do.

*Celestin, a roommate of Parker in college, initially was convicted of the rape charges, but the case was later dropped on appeal. I won't belabor a complicated story here. Look up Parker and Celestin, and you'll find no shortage of stories and commentaries about what has become a topic of national conversation about sexual assaults on campus.