Sunday, December 24, 2017

Poker for big names and fat wallets

Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with Molly's Game, a movie that features some winning hands from a somewhat limited subject.

When I was browsing the internet looking for information on the real Molly Bloom, I came across a review of Bloom's book, which serves as the basis for writer Aaron Sorkin's eagerly awaited directorial debut.

A website devoted to books about poker featured a headline that suggested that the book struggled to find both an audience and a point.

I'm not sure that Sorkin's adaptation of Bloom's book, Molly's Game, will have trouble finding an audience, but it does have a bit of difficulty finding a larger point. Bloom's journey took her from an Olympic caliber skier to a woman who made a ton of money running high-stakes poker games before running afoul of the law.

In real life, Bloom's LA-based game attracted players such as Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire. She evidently operated legally until she began taking a cut of the biggest pots. Such "raking" is illegal and evidently changes friendly games (even when played for ridiculously large stakes) into crimes.

Don't get me wrong. Molly's Game can be entertaining, and it features an energized performance from Jessica Chastain as Bloom, a woman whose brother Jeremy Bloom became both an Olympian and an NFL player.

Molly Bloom was on a similar Olympic track until a freak accident derailed her career. At loose ends, she headed to LA where she eventually moved from a gofer at high-stakes card games to an impresario of such big-money affairs.

Perhaps taking a cue from Bloom's book, Sorkin has Molly narrate the movie, a dialogue-heavy plunge into her point of view that, at times, makes it feel as if Molly's reading us the movie.

As much as any writer, Sorkin has a way of making it seem as if he's in the know about whatever subject he tackles. He floods the screen with poker jargon and makes sure that every actor speaks with the kind of rapidity that marked the great screwball comedies of yesteryear. The result can be dizzying, skilled actors engaging in tricky verbal workouts.

Idris Elba adds weight as Molly's attorney. Watching Elba and Chastain bat words over the metaphorical net that separates their characters creates a pleasure all its own.

Bloom's story moves from Los Angeles to New York City, unfolding in episodic fashion, almost as if Sorkin drops little short stories into the larger mix. This approach highlights the work of a strong supporting cast.

Jeremy Strong portrays Molly's first LA boss, a character who makes no attempt to be anything less than obnoxious. Michael Cera does good work as an arrogant player with skills; Bill Camp does a terrific job as a skilled player who swan-dives into a terrible losing streak, and Chris O'Dowd impresses as a dim-witted drunk who works off a gambling debt by bringing some troubling folks into one of Molly's New York games, figures from the Russian mob.

Kevin Costner has one of the movie's best small roles. He plays Molly's authoritarian father, a philandering psychology professor who presides over a flock of high-achieving offspring.

Up to a point, Sorkin benefits from the lavish surroundings that Molly created for those who gambled at her table: drinks, fine food, fancy hotel rooms and beautiful women to wait on both winners and losers.

Earlier, I mentioned that the movie might have difficulty making a point. By the end, it seems as if Sorkin wants to hold Molly out as an example of female achievement. She used her wits to create a small empire and honorably refuses to supply the FBI with the names of those who sat at her table. Public exposure might have ruined lives and destroyed families.

Pretty noble for someone who knows she made a small fortune serving the gambling addictions and fantasies of men who were willing to throw money at her in the form of out-sized tips.

I was entertained by much of Molly's Game, which -- at 140 minutes in length -- probably runs 20 minutes longer than necessary: Sorkin turns cards over with enough flair and snap to keep his movie watchable, but, in its entirety, the movie doesn't make the case for why Bloom's story is more than a sketch in a bigger picture that remains unpainted.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

My 10 best movies of 2017

In the year of #MeToo, the biggest movie news took place off screen, and, as most of the world knows, involved accusations of odious sexual behavior on the part of big-name actors and others. (See Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and the rest of what has become a distressingly long list). On screen, 2017 proved a fairly strong year for movies of the "good" but not "great" variety. I offer my 10-best list with pleasure but little by way of staunch passion. And I note, as the great Samuel Johnson aptly said, "the natural flight of the mind is not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope." Let's look forward to 2018 with hope. Some of those hopes, we know, will be dashed, but other movies will emerge to remind us why we still love going to the movies -- or watching them on DVD or streaming them or ... waiting until they show up on cable or ... oh, well ... you get the idea.

1. The Florida Project

Director Sean Baker revivifies the cinema of marginal lives with a beautifully filmed story about a girl (the amazing Brooklynn Prince) trying to get by with her loving but irresponsible mother (Bria Vinaite) in a rundown Florida motel near Disney World. Baker conveys both the joy of childhood and the perils of lives lived on society's economic fringe. The movie also includes a wonderfully sympathetic performance from Willem Dafoe as a motel manager who tries to maintain order without denying the humanity of his renters. In all, a sonorous and moving work.

2. Get Out

Jordan Peele accomplished an amazing feat. He wrote and directed a trenchant satirical movie about race that also did a ton of business at the box office. Peele mixes horror and comedy in a story that skillfully takes on the notion that we've arrived at a post-racial moment in American life. In telling the story of a young African American man who spends a weekend meeting his white girlfriend's family, Peele gives his directorial debut bite even as it makes us laugh.

3. Graduation

Few directors combine storytelling and social criticism with the skill and insight of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days). In the multi-layered Graduation, Mungiu focuses on a father who's desperately trying to get his daughter into a British college so that she can escape the Romanian morass of corruption and cronyism. Mungiu gives us a movie in which nearly every scene reveals new wrinkles of character, and equally important, of the society in which these characters are struggling to find their footing.

4. A Ghost Story

Director David Lowery tells a very unusual ghost story that put Casey Affleck under a sheet, turning him into a bizarre version of Casper the Friendly Ghost. As goofy as that sounds, Lowery delivers a serious movie about the majestic sadness that accompanies the passage of time. Perhaps more than any other movie this year, A Ghost Story lingered in my mind as a statement about our tenuous place in an ever changing landscape. A little movie that dares to think big -- and pulls it off.

5. The Big Sick

Co-writer and star Kumail Nanjiani presents a comic version of his real-life relationship with his wife, co-writer Emily Gordon. This fine romanic comedy also deals with questions of assimilation, the power of family ties, and includes an engaging performance from Zoe Kazan, as well as fine supporting work from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Michael Showalter directs with sensitivity and a flair for dealing with difficult issues in a way that's both funny and insightful.

6. Lady Bird

Although Greta Gerwig's directorial debut has been a bit overrated, I put it on my list because it's an enjoyable coming-of-age movie that's both smart and nuanced and because it helps establish Saoirse Ronan as one of our best young actresses.

7. Dunkirk

Dunkirk has its flaws -- most of them involving a structure that can be confusing -- but director Christopher Nolan's World War II epic revolves around a notion too often neglected in war movies. War, at least for those who fight it, is about little more than fear. Dunkirk tells an interesting story about how civilian boaters help evacuate British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk where they awaited annihilation by a fast-approaching German army. The movie reminds us that, as its lived, history neither is certain nor inevitable. Nolan makes it clear that once the bullets start flying, the desire to survive can trump any devotion to cause and the lines between heroism and necessity quickly blur.

8. Call Me By Your Name

Director Luca Guadagnino tells the story of a teenager (a terrific Timothee Chalamet) who falls in love with an older man (an equally terrific Armie Hammer) who has traveled to Italy to serve as an assistant to Chalamet's character's professor father (Michale Stuhlbarg). What distinguishes Guadagnino's movie from other such stories is its delicacy and, equally important, the director's ability to convey the warmth and casual feel of a northern Italian summer -- not to mention its re-interpretation of T.S. Eliot's famous line, "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

9. A Quiet Passion and Lady Macbeth

I know, it's cheating to put two films on the same line, but why have rules if they can't be bent.

Director Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion features an amazing performance from Cynthia Nixon as poet Emily Dickinson and is steeped in the stark silences of 19th century life. In Lady Macbeth, director William Oldroyd tells the story of a British woman living in rural England in 1865. Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a woman stuck in a loveless marriage. A bone-chilling movie that cut deep.


Director Dee Rees follows two familes -- one white, one black -- in the days before, during and just after World War II. Mudbound may feel like an old-fashioned movie, but it doesn't flinch from taking a comprehensive look at race relations in the South. Rees obtains fine performances from Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan and Jason Mitchell. This one showed on Netflix, but had a rich look that deserved theatrical exposure, which the movie did receive in select markets.

Honorable mentions: Columbus, The Shape of Water, Logan, Wonder Woman, Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and City of Ghosts.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Tiny people produce small payoff

After a clever start, the pleasures of Downsizing begin to shrink.

Let's get the movie's premise out of the way. Downsizing, director Alexander Payne's latest semi-satirical effort, imagines a world in which it's possible to shrink people to a height of five inches. Why would anyone submit to such diminishment? Because those who shrink can buy their way into the good life with very little money. Small people help society, too. They can consume all they want without devouring obscene amounts of the world's dwindling resources.

The first hour of director Alexander Payne's Downsizing has been made with cleverness and nicely executed effects, but what starts as an imaginative and amusing look at the ways in which a scientific "advance" can be commercialized eventually degenerates into a morality lesson for the main character who must be schooled in the ways of life and love.

Payne begins in bravura fashion when we meet Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard), the inventor of downsizing. I won't spoil the reveals of these early scenes, but they give Payne an opportunity to play with scale in ways that surprise and amuse. Lassgard's Asbjornsen is a true believer: He thinks downsizing can solve the world's ecological problems.

The story then shifts its focus, introducing us to Matt Damon's Paul, a disaffected occupational therapist whose ambitions have been thwarted. Paul's wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) wants to move into a better house, but Paul can't afford to pay for Audrey's dreams. As a result, Paul and Audrey are stuck living the drab life in the Omaha house Paul inherited from his late mother.

The idea of "downsizing" begins to take on more appeal for Paul and Audrey when they meet a downsized couple (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe) at a school reunion. Sudeikis' Dave sings the praises of Leisureland. The residents of Leisureland may be small but their happiness is expansive, in part because they've left all their financial worries behind.

Once Paul and Audrey decide to downsize, the movie hints at a conflict that threatens to lift the story out of the thematically limited sphere of middle-class self-satisfaction that Payne so easily skewers.

At a bar after their pre-downsizing party, a drunk sneers at Paul and Audrey. Why should small people receive the same social benefits as large people? After all, small people contribute so much less to the economy. Aren't they ciphers?

Despite the tongue lashing, Paul and Audrey proceed to the downsizing station: Scenes at the reduction center are well executed and funny in a dry way: Payne treats this amazing process in a matter-of-fact fashion.

But Payne, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, has more in mind than a looming clash between resentful big folks and happy little people. He enlarges the movie by raising the stakes to say something even bigger and, in so doing, allows the movie to deflate.

The movie takes a turn away from itself with the introduction of some new characters: Christoph Waltz) portrays Dusan, an escapee from Eastern Europe, who seems savvy about life in Leisureland. Waltz's Dusan and his pal Joris (Udo Kier) are party animals who devote themselves to sensual pleasure and shady entrepreneurial efforts. Dusan's credo: Tomorrow be damned. Party on.

After one of Dusan's epic parties -- at which Paul samples his first hallucinatory drugs -- Paul meets one of the Vietnamese women (Hong Chau) who arrives with a crew to clean up the previous evening's mess.

Hong's Ngoc Lan Tran was transported from Vietnam to Leisureland against her will, something to do with her role as a staunch dissident. A shabby prosthetic device has replaced the leg Lan Tran lost during her ordeal. For a hot minute, Lan Tran was a political celebrity in Leisureland. Now, she runs a cleaning crew.

It's just here that the movie loses steam. Lan Tran introduces Paul (and us) to the Third World aspects of Leisureland, impoverished people who are even further removed from life's luxuries than Paul. Leisureland, we learn, has slums and some of its residents die for a lack of medical care.

Much is made of Paul's last name. He's Paul Safranek. No one seems to be able to say Safranek without mangling it, a running bit that suggests Paul's inability to establish himself in the world. Paul ultimately affirms his identity through exposure to those less fortunate than himself, folks who seem to be either Latino or Asian.

Speaking in a clipped style, Hong Chau becomes a jarring voice in the midst of Leisureland's soothing prosperity. Hong's expressiveness and determination in the face of her character's limited language skills can't quite overcome the stereotypical nature of the character she's playing.

As the movie progresses, Payne tries to deal with environmental catastrophe and the kind of love that's expressed by caring for others, turning the self-serving delusions of Leisureland on their head.

I guess that Payne wanted to transcend satire and find something human, but in the attempt, the movie loses touch with its resourcefulness. It becomes ... well ... downsized.

A summer romance in Italy

Elio falls for Oliver in a story set in 1983, but Call Me By Your Name seems as much about the seductions of summer as the seductions of sex.

Call Me By Your Name -- the much-acclaimed movie from director Luca Guadagnino -- stands as a love story between a 24-year-old man and a 17-year-old young man who's just discovering his sexuality. The age difference has put some folks off, but if you see Call Me By Your Name, you'll understand that Guadagnino's work has little to do with sexual exploitation.

The movie has more to do with what happens between two characters during the languid and irresistibly pleasant summer of 1983. Set in the northern Italian town of Crema and the surrounding countryside, Call Me By Your Name is a movie marinated in sensual pleasures, not all of them having to do with sex.

When young Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet in a career-making performance) speaks of going swimming, he's talking about a plunge into summer and you almost feel the gentle embrace of the pond where Elio and his friends swim.

The movie's context adds interest, as well. Chalamet's Elio isn't some sad, isolated figure; he lives with his mother and his father (Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg). Stuhlbarg's Professor Perlman studies classical sculpture, particularly Greek renditions of the idealized male body. Each summer, Professor Perlman invites a promising grad student to work with him, helping to catalog his research.

In the summer of 1983, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives to work with Perlman.

It's clear from the outset that Elio is taken with Oliver, something in the way that a young man might be taken with an older, more worldly and much more confident man. Perhaps sensing Elio's interest, Oliver reacts cautiously -- but he does react.

Working from a screenplay adapted by James Ivory from a novel by Andre Aciman, Guadagnino creates sensual scenes between Elio and Oliver and also makes it clear that Elio's hormones are raging. He has sex with a girl from town and satisfies himself with a juicy peach, a strange take on the TS Eliot line from the The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: "Do I Dare to Eat A Peach."

Oliver and Elio spend their summer together, but it's also clear (at least to us) that Oliver will move on. He'll finish his internship, resume his life in the US and press the summer of 1983 into his book of distant memories.

Call Me By Your Name brims with warm-weather leisure: Elio plays classical piano, reads and sometimes hangs out with the local teen crowd. He also explains that his Jewish family believes in a kind of discreetly expressed Jewish identity. If the Perlman family belongs to any tribe, it's the tribe of international intellectuals.

The sex scenes between Elio and Oliver have been filmed as much to express sensitivity as desire, and it's Chalamet's performance as Elio that sets the tone.

Less well-defined, Oliver is a visitor in Elio's life and, in some ways, in the movie. You can see that as a flaw, but I assume that Guadagnino chose to present Oliver in this fashion. Despite being plenty smart, only Elio could have seen the relationship extending beyond the summer or maybe he had no real vision for it at all.

Although it doesn't occur until the end, a conversation between Professor Perlman and his son puts the story in context. Perlman's speech interprets the summer for Oliver from the perspective of an older and impressively tolerant man who understands that pleasure and pain exist on a continuum and that experiencing one means not shutting out the possibility of the other.

You may wish to think of Call Me By Your Name as life on vacation -- and that means that the movie is as lost in summer idyl as its characters. I suppose that qualifies as a weakness, but this self-contained world functions like a cocoon that protects all those in it.

Does that make Call Me By Your Name a fantasy? Maybe, but in Guadagnino's hands, it's an artfully constructed one.

'Hangman' chokes on bad dialogue

I don't make 10-worst lists anymore, mostly because I'd rather devote my end-of-the-year writing to movies that earned praise and did something to advance what I think of (perhaps naively) as cinema culture. If I did want to point to some of the year's worst movies, I'd have difficulty keeping Hangman off the list. A thriller that allows an exhausted looking Al Pacino to dredge out a southern accent, Hangman involves its entire cast (also included are Brittany Snow and Karl Urban) to founder. Another police procedural about cops trying to catch a serial killer, Hangman serves up reams of unimaginative dialogue and dull plot twists. Snow plays a New York Times reporter who returns to her southern hometown to do a story about what it's like to be a detective. She joins Urban's character as the stumbles through an investigation. The screenplay contrives to bring Pacino's Archer, a retired detective with a fondness for crossword puzzles, into the fray. Director Johnny Martin gets nothing out of his cast as this preposterous thriller lumbers toward obscurity. The title, by the way, derives form the killer, a fiend who uses the Hangman game in his crimes, adding a letter to each blank as he commits a new and grisly murder. If someone were to autopsy this dud, only three letters would be possible: DOA.

The super-rich also can be cheap

In All the Money in the World, director Ridley Scott tells a 1973 story in which the grandson of J. Paul Getty was kidnapped -- and grandpa refused to pay the ransom.

All the Money in the World stands as a triumph of sorts. With his film already shot, director Ridley Scott decided to replace Kevin Spacey in a principal role. Scott's 11th-hour decision qualifies as an act of cinematic bravado designed, I suppose, to stave off any focus on Spacey, the recent subject of much-publicized sexual abuse allegations.

So the first question: Do the seams show? The answer: Not really.

Although it's difficult not to be aware that Christopher Plummer was a last-minute addition to the production, Scott's skill and Plummer's canny performance as J. Paul Getty help create a spry thriller with plenty of pulse.

In 1973, J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher) was snatched off the streets of Rome, where he was wandering aimlessly, a long-haired hippie without much personal direction. Paul's billionaire grandfather, the world's wealthiest man at the time, refused to pay the $17-million ransom the kidnappers demanded.

It falls to Paul's mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), to try to free the boy, no easy task. Divorced from her wayward husband, J. Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), Harris has no money of her own and doesn't really want the help of an ex-CIA operative (Mark Wahlberg) dispatched by the elder Getty to help with any negotiations to free his grandson.

We get the sense that Getty wants Wahlberg's character to clean up a mess; perhaps Getty see the kidnapping as a nuisance that interferes with his obsessive fondling of ticker tape from the markets; Getty enjoys watching his already staggering wealth increase.

Plummer, who played Scrooge in this year's The Man Who Invented Christmas, expands on his performance as a classic miser; Plummer creates a man of great wealth whose sole devotion is to things. Unlike people, things remain unchanged by any winds of betrayal. Getty collects art on a major scale but otherwise establishes himself as a world-class cheapskate. He believes that anyone can become rich, but only a select few can "be" rich.

Plummer doesn't look particularly convincing as a younger version of Getty in a few awkwardly inserted flashbacks, but those are among the few distractions in Plummer's rendition of one of history's major skinflints, a self-absorbed tycoon. In this telling, Getty values his name more than anyone who inherited it from him. He keeps a payphone in his London estate for anyone wishing to make a call. If necessary, the butler will supply change.

Young Getty's kidnapping gives Scott a premise that plays to his strengths, propelling the movie forward and creating tension.

The kidnappers eventually "sell" Getty No. III to Calabrian mobsters who hope to succeed where the first crew faltered. More ruthless than their predecessors, these second-wave kidnappers eventually cut off one of the boy's ears and send it to an Italian newspaper, affording Scott an opportunity to create a wincingly painful scene.

One of the kidnappers -- Romain Duris' Cinquanta -- develops a relationship with young Getty. Cinquanta eventually tries to help the young man who had been summoned back to Rome by his mother after spending time with his father, who -- at the time -- was immersed in drug-fueled Moroccan escapades.

Williams leads Scott's strong cast as a self-assured woman. Her Gail Harris refuses to be intimidated by Getty. A single attribute gives her leverage: She doesn't want any Getty money. Harris' crisp manner suggests that she's not the warmest person: She may not have money, but you'd never know it from her behavior.

Fine performances and the sense that the story lifts the veil on a lifestyle few of us ever will encounter help Scott sell All the Money right up until the end.

During the film's closing scenes, Scott suggests that Getty dies just as his grandson's story reaches its conclusion. Getty actually died several years later, but Scott shows Getty as a man staggering through his cavernous mansion with only his cherished possessions, a dying titan capable of seeing the beauty in a painting of the baby Jesus but unable to find any in his own children or grandchildren.

The moment feels contrived, an all-too-pat restatement of what's already been said. All the Money may not reach as powerful a crescendo as Scott probably wished, but that doesn't mean his thriller isn't involving. In a crowded holiday field, All the Money holds its own.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Not the greatest movie musical

The Greatest Showman feels like a generic version of a big-screen musical.

A musical about P.T. Barnum -- a man whose name has become synonymous with all-American hucksterism -- might be a welcome addition to the current moment of hyperbole and rant. But The Greatest Showman, which stars Hugh Jackman as Barnum, isn't that movie.

Torn between mild criticism of Barnum's ability to sell anything and a view of Barnum as a champion of those who are different (he invented the circus sideshow), The Great Showman lands a middling blow.

Director Michael Gracey, an Australian who thus far has done lots of work in commercials, turns out a generic musical that features lots of bubbly music from a quartet of songwriters that include two lyricists from La La Land (Benj Pasik and Justin Paul). I never thought the music in La La Land reached knock-out levels; the same goes for the music in The Greatest Showman, which feels like a musical that has been engineered to hit all the appropriate notes -- from buoyancy to lyricism to foot-stomping rigor.

But the calculation is impossible to ignore as we learn the story of Barnum, a man from the wrong side of the tracks who married upward. Michelle Williams portrays Charity Barnum, a character who doesn't allow her affluent upbringing to stand in the way of her unwavering support for Barnum, a lower-class striver who wants to prove that he can give Charity the kind of life her snooty family regards as her birthright.

As the story develops, Barnum opens a circus/museum in New York City. He acquires a variety of acts -- from the diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) to a bearded lady (Keala Settle) with a robust singing voice.

The movie also shows how Barnum develops a relationship with the more artistically oriented Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). Barnum persuades Carlyle to join his circus as an investor and partner. Carlyle quickly falls for a trapeze artist named Anne (Zendaya), but class strictures and the racial prejudice of his family limit Carlyle's willingness to acknowledge his feelings publicly.

Once he establishes himself as a circus impresario, Barnum decides that he needs to class-up his act: he brings Swedish songstress Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) (a.k.a., the Swedish Nightingale) to the states for a series of concerts that make a ton of money.

Tempted by an opportunity to elevate his status, Barnum turns his back on the unusual people who helped him become rich. He devotes all his time to Lind, wrecks his marriage and eventually sees his fortunes reduced to nothing.

Will he come back? Does the circus have three rings?

Of course, Barnum eventually transcends his vanity and again becomes a champion for the purity of family love and for those society sees as "different," all of which plays like the hooey that Barnum tried to sell to the rude and scoffing multitudes of his day.

Jackman knows how to occupy the center of a musical and does so with verve, style and unflagging command. Efron holds his own as a sidekick. Williams and Ferguson, along with Zendaya, give the movie some welcome female presence.

The retro 1800s production design keeps pace with the performances, but a ton of effort and expense can't elevate The Greatest Showman to the upper levels of the movie musical pantheon. It's gaudy, overproduced and, for the most part, more committed to spectacle and shine than anything of lasting worth.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Gary Oldman's finest hour

An actor's portrayal of Winston Churchill carries Darkest Hour to victory.
The most striking thing about Darkest Hour, the story of how Britain teetered on the edge of defeat in World War II but regained its moral resolve, involves Gary Oldman's make-up and performance as Winston Churchill. Although he seems the least likely of actors to tackle Churchill, Oldman and makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji pull off a near miracle. They give us a Churchill who's domineering, insecure and witty, but also a man sagging as the weight of decision falls on his shoulders.

There aren't many sure bets these days, but it seems certain that Oldman will be nominated for a best-actor Oscar for what he has done in a movie directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina).

Wright directs with a sure if somewhat heavy hand, underscoring the momentous nature of nearly everything that happens in Darkest Hour. The major question before Churchill and his war cabinet: Should Britain negotiate some sort of peace agreement with Herr Hitler, as Churchill refers to the Austrian paperhanger?

The alternative: battle until victorious or until the last British warrior falls.

We all know how the story turns out, but at its best, Darkest Hour -- which depicts some of the events leading up to the civilian evacuation of British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk -- reminds us that history only looks inevitable when viewed through a rearview mirror.

In 1940, it was by no means certain that Britain could withstand the German onslaught. The US had yet to enter the war, and Hitler's armies were toppling one European country after another.

Audiences that have seen Dunkirk already are prepped for Wright's movie, which recreates behind-the-scenes haggling among the anti-Churchill forces. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who Churchill replaced as Prime Minister, wanted to stave off destruction by negotiating with Hitler. Stephen Dillane appears as Viscount Halifax, a Chamberlain ally who was even more anxious to capitulate than his friend.

King George VI (in a fine, subtle performance from Ben Mendelsohn) had doubts about Churchill, whom he both feared and mistrusted -- at least during the early days of Churchill's Prime Ministership.

Wright doesn't pay a great deal of attention to the women in Churchill's life. His wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) bolsters Churchill's ego when it begins to flag. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's secretary, a young woman he initially intimidates but whom Churchill eventually sees in human terms.

Some scenes are as hokey as Churchill is bombastic. Besieged by doubts late in the movie, Churchill takes a ride on the underground (supposedly his first ever) to mingle with the people, listen to their views and draw on their strength.

Of course, Churchill was a large man -- both physically and in importance. The movie is at its best when Oldman delivers important Churchill speeches ("We shall fight on the beaches, etc.") and when peppering his performance with Churchill's many peculiarities: He couldn't abide single-spaced typing, drank whiskey with his breakfast and throughout the day and seldom could be seen without a cigar.

So the verdict is mildly mixed. Darkest Hour isn't as great as the historical moment it depicts but Oldman's performance certainly rises to the occasion.

A Syrian refuge in Helsinki

Time was Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki was one of the hottest names of the festival circuit, having made his big splash with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), a movie he followed with the equally praised The Match Factory Girl (1990). No longer the next big thing in international cinema, Kaurismaki -- now 60 -- has been plugging along for several decades, building a filmography that consists of movies that support his distinctive voice. Almost every description of a Kaurismaki movie involves the word "deadpan." His cigarette-smoking characters are people whose muted emotional responses make them difficult to read, and Kaurismaki supports them with a stable camera that doesn't attempt to examine every corner of every room. Kaurismaki survives as an artist because, in his case, deadpan isn't the same as moribund. Life in a Kaurismaki movie may be drab and dreary, but it's still life. In The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismaki examines the relationship between immigrants and their often reluctant hosts. Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives in Helsinki hoping to be granted asylum. Khaled's story contrasts with that of the dour Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a man who leaves his alcoholic wife, unloads his shirt business and -- thanks to some luck at the card table -- puts together enough money to buy a restaurant. It's obvious from the start that the restaurant qualifies as a loser, but Wikstrom persists, even -- at one point -- trying to go trendy by serving sushi. The joke: He doesn't sushi from a Baltic herring. The restaurant's meager staff and its various failed attempts to reinvent the business are presented in Kaurismaki's dryly funny style. The movie's two threads (a refugee looking for a home and an established man trying to create a new life) come together when Khaled, having been denied asylum, escapes a detention center and lands a job at Wikstrom's restaurant. Kaurismaki dealt with issues of immigration in La Havre (2011), but he's clearly not done with the subject. Credit Kaurismaki with dredging compassion and even a bit of heroism from places where we least expect to find it and from people who, at first blush, don't seem capable of breaking through their isolation.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A welcome 'Star Wars' addition

Director Rian Johnson takes the reins for Last Jedi and the result mostly satisfies.

Now, where were we?

If you're among the zillions of Star Wars enthusiasts, you know that the last chapter (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) concluded with young Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding her way to a remote island where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) had withdrawn from all things Jedi, including battling whatever evil currently had harnessed the dark side of the series' fabled Force. Luke, we learned, had hung up his Lightsaber.

Now comes Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the next installment of what's billed as a Star Wars sequel trilogy -- and the plea for Luke to shake off his funk continues.

This edition should please fans as it deftly barrels its way through two and half hours with only a few lags as the screenplay fulfills expositional obligations.

Director Rian Johnson (Brick and Looper) picks up the reins from J.J. Abrams and gives us a Star Wars with a bit of nuance, flashes of humor and plenty of well-crafted action.

What brings the whole enterprise to life -- aside from the generosity of its spectacle -- are the inner torments of characters who embody the great Star Wars theme: the tension between the light and dark sides of the force. This clash, of course, includes the knowing acknowledgment that even the most morally superior characters might be a hairsbreadth away from answering the dark call.

In a way, the plot of any Star Wars movie could be its least important attribute. You already know that Rey has found Luke Skywalker, so the only remaining question is whether she persuades him to leave his island retreat -- formally known as the planet Ahch-To -- and return to action as an inspiration for the Resistance, which is busy fighting the First Order.

The First Order, of course, is run by Supreme Leader Snoke, a cadaverous-looking creep played by Andy Serkis with the usual CGI boost. Snoke has great power, but looks so decayed, you half wonder how he lifts himself out of bed in the morning.

Disney, which has taken charge of the Star Wars franchise, has cautioned critics against revealing spoilers. I don't consider it a spoiler to tell you that unlike its 2015 predecessor, this edition includes more than a cameo appearance by Hamill. His Luke quickly establishes himself as a cranky, bearded figure who has shed every bit of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his character's youth.

A bit of sadness tempers the fun. The Last Jedi marks Carrie Fisher's last performance. Fisher appears as General Leia Organa, head of the Resistance, and yes, Fischer's presence is more than ceremonial. (Fisher died a year ago this month.)

Johnson does a good job of weaving new characters into a mix that brings back Adam Driver, who digs as deep as he can as Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren tops Snoke's list of prospects to become the new Darth Vader. Ren, you'll recall, killed his father, Han Solo, in the last episode.

Look for Laura Dern, with purple hair, as Vice Admiral Holdo, evidently the second in command of Resistance forces after General Leia. Benicio del Toro plays DJ, a hacker who knows how to disable a device that figures heavily in the plot. Del Toro gives Last Jedi a sly, juicy boost. Finn (a returning John Boyega) and Rose Pico (newbie Kelly Marie Tran) are forced by circumstance to trust del Toro's genially larcenous character.

As you can tell, many characters populate this increasingly complex story. Oscar Isaac returns as the dashing pilot Poe Dameron. Also returning: Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, another First Order purveyor of evil, and Lupita Nyong'o, the goggle-eyed pirate Maz.

Ridley already proved herself a worthy addition to the Star Wars fold and does nothing here to convince us that we weren't right to welcome her for what evidently will be a long run.

Johnson and his production team gives us plenty of visual diversion -- from Luke's monkish stone hut (it looks like something sculptor Andy Goldsworthy might have created) to the imperially sized vessels of the First order to the obligatory trip to a bustling casino planet -- it's called Canto Bight -- where rogues, aliens, and intergalactic swells meet and mingle.

New creatures pop up, notably cute little Porgs, a type of seabird that inhabits the planet Ahch-To. Thankfully, the Porgs are used sparingly enough not to create an overdose of cuteness, the dreaded Ewok effect.

Look, directing a Star Wars movie requires an ability to juggle a large cast of characters without creating too much confusion, as well as a commitment to preserving Star Wars mythology without miring the series in undue reverence for its past. Every new Star Wars movie must earn its own stripes.

Johnson gets the job done and, in the bargain, makes us the beneficiaries of his success.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro

The Shape of Water, a romantic fantasy about a cleaner and a "monster.''
Guillermo del Toro chases dreams, attempting (and often succeeding) in mixing horror and romanticism as he allows his ample imagination to invade reality. In his great 2006 movie, Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro produced a dark fantasy about Franco's Spain. Now in The Shape of Water, del Toro turns to American shores, for a fairy tale about the love between a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) and a creature who has been brought from the depths of the Amazon to the US by government officials who see him as a threat.

The second half of del Toro's conception -- the part involving an attempt by a government agent (Michael Shannon) to destroy the creature -- might be the weakest part of the movie, flirting with cliches about the way officialdom inevitably becomes the enemy of beauty and mystery.

But this creature is different. Called Amphibian Man in the credits (Doug Jones under a ton of make-up), the creature has the physique of a man but also has scales and the ability to be fierce when threatened. In the Amazon, natives thought Amphibian Man was a god. Rather than trying to trample his strangeness, they elevated it.

Perhaps never quite as poetic as its wonderful title, The Shape of Water nonetheless allows del Toro to give full vent to an imagination into which movies flow, cinematic tributaries that fuel his sense of invention. It's not coincidental that Hawkins' Elisa lives above a theater called the Orpheum where The Story of Ruth is playing or that her neighbor (a gay artist played by Richard Jenkins) obsessively watches old movies, preferring them to the news of the day.

Set in Baltimore during the 1960s, the movie alternates between two major locations: Elisa's apartment and her place of employment, a government installation where Amphibian man is being held prisoner.

Elisa and her co-worker (a down-to-earth Octavia Spencer) learn that the creature is being tormented by Shannon's character. An authoritarian jerk, Shannon's Strickland becomes the real monster, a self-justifying sadist disguised as a "normal" man. Shannon's Strickland lives in suburbia, indulges himself by buying a Cadillac and pounds away (literally) during sex with his mildly libidinous wife.

Michael Stuhlbarg makes an appearance as a scientist who wants to preserve the creature. He believes that it would be a crime to destroy Amphibian Man. Stuhlbarg's Bob has a double identity. It's not much of a spoiler to tell you that Bob is also a Russian spy and that the Russians have their eye on this creature. They, too, would like to harness its powers.

Hawkins excels in her performance as a silent woman who gradually reveals her strengths. From the beginning, del Toro establishes Elisa's affinity for water. For Elisa, water and sexuality are intimately connected. And, yes, Elisa not only has a romantic interest in the creature; she has sex with him. She explains to Spencer's curious Zelda how this union is possible in one of the movie's giggly joking moments.

Del Toro delivers on the promise of the title. There's a lot of water in The Shape of Water, arriving in the form of flooded rooms, downpours and the tank in which Amphibian Man languishes. Water is life and, as such, can't always be contained.

The movie's romanticism extends to its elements that in the 1960s might have been considered "subversive," a woman who can't speak, a gay man, and a black woman. It falls to these outsiders to appreciate Amphibian Man in all his scaly glory. It is only in union with Amphibian Man that Elisa finds her true identity. She's finally complete.

Those familiar with del Toro's work won't be surprised at the movie's visual mastery, greatly aided by the cinematography of Dan Lausten and the production design of Paul D. Austerberry; they help the movie live in a world all its own.

The Shape of Water doesn't quite reach the magical heights at which del Toro must have been aiming, but it stands as a work in which sweet and sour tones bump against one another with del Toro insisting that only in the full embrace of those we deem alien do we find our deepest humanity -- or maybe he's just telling a small story about a woman who deserves more than life has given her.

Either way, The Shape of Water brims with strange charm.

He made the world's worst film

James Franco directs a comedy about the making of The Room, an awful movie about a comedy that has developed a cult following.
All through the preview screening of The Disaster Artist, I found myself looking for James Franco's face, a strange preoccupation because Franco's in nearly every frame of the movie. We catch glimpses of what we know as Franco's face but he's mostly unrecognizable as Tommy Wiseau, a wannabe film director who made The Room, a movie so awful it has acquired cult status among those who enjoy unadulterated badness.

Often shown at midnight, The Room probably is best appreciated in the company of audiences who feel liberated to hoot and holler at the screen. In real life, Wiseau frequently attends screenings of his movie, which has been called the worst movie ever made.

I don't know if The Disaster Artist will rock your world, but I do know that I laughed at the comic touches that Franco, who also directed, brings to the subject of dismal failure.

As is the case with most good comedies, Franco and his fellow actors play things straight. Wiseau had no idea that he was making a bad movie; in fact, he seems to have had a wholehearted belief in the quality and importance of his effort.

In dead-on fashion, Franco replicates scenes from The Room as the production is being filmed. He also replicates Wiseau's shoulder-length hair and odd manner of speaking; his accent has a marble-mouthed, eastern European flavor. Wiseau says he's from New Orleans.

Given the outrageousness of the subject, there's no need for Franco to veer from straightforward narration in a screenplay that has been adapted from a book written by Greg Sestero, another wannabe actor who traveled to Hollywood with Wiseau to pursue fame, fortune and a career in movies.

Sestero (Dave Franco) met Wiseau in 1968 when both were attending a San Francisco acting class. Sestero saw Tommy do a balls-to-the-wall, completely insane version of a Stanley Kowalski speech from A Streetcar Named Desire. He was impressed by Tommy's willingness to go "raw."

No one knows where Wiseau got the money to support himself and Sestero in LA or how he financed a movie that he believed would put him on the map. A deluded Wiseau also says that his work has a Shakespearean quality, a comparison that, to say the least, represents a stretch.

The Room, the picture Wiseau's making, centers on Johnny (played by Wiseau) and includes some ridiculous sex scenes which Franco shows us as he chronicles the shooting of the movie with an actress (Ari Gaynor), a script supervisor (Seth Rogen) and a small crew.

Jacki Weaver appears as one of the film's actresses, a woman who claims that even a day on the set of the world's worst movie beats a day of longing to act.

It's impossible to make a movie like The Disaster Artist without a bit of condescension toward the movie's woeful cast of characters. We laugh at them precisely because it's so obvious that Wiseau's project is doomed from the start. Nothing would (or could) redeem it.

Franco fully immerses in Tommy's life, presenting it with the same cockeyed seriousness with which Wiseau seems to have lived it. Wiseau released The Room in 2003 and claimed that he always intended it to be funny.

I'm not sure what Wiseau really had in mind, but unlike a lot of other would-be comedies, Franco's rendition of this real-life story actually is funny.

Watching Wiseau try to throw a football, for example, presents a moment so void of athleticism, it's close to astonishing. And that's the whole joke in a nutshell. From the outset, it's clear that nothing about The Room will succeed, yet -- to the amazement of everyone involved -- Wiseau persists.

And, no, you don't have to have seen The Room to go along for this enjoyably nutty ride.

She copes with hard times in Kinshasa

You think you're going through a rough patch. Consider the fate of Felicite, a woman living amid the corruptions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Felicite, the title character of Alain Gomis's latest movie, must raise money so that her son can have his broken leg surgically repaired. Felicite also has been robbed by a person posing as a do-gooder and, to add aggravation to insult, her refrigerator is perpetually broken. To fully appreciate Felicite, the movie about this beleaguered but defiant woman, you need tolerance for hand-held camera work, but the technique makes sense because Felicite lives in a chaotic world. Felicite (Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu) sings at a local nightclub and proves a force with which to be reckoned, a woman of ample girth who meets trouble head-on when she learns her 14-year-old son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), has been taken to the hospital. As she tries to gather money for the boy's surgery (the doctor won't operate without a substantial down payment), Felicite takes us on a journey that brings her into contact with a variety of people from whom she hopes to raise money. She also strikes up a relationship with Tabu (Papi Mpaki), a boozer who spends a lot of time trying to repair Felicite's refrigerator. Gomis obtains a fine performance from his lead actress, a singer in her first acting outing. We also are shown glimpses of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra playing in interludes that provide a stark contrast with the rough-and-tumble life of the city's nightclubs and streets. In all, Felicite strikes a powerful chord, taking us into a society in which every reward feels hard won. The language (Lingala and French with subtitles) also has a distinctive quality. At one point, Felicite tells Tabu that she likes his way of being in the world. It's not the only expression in Felicite that opens the eye while pleasing the ear.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Broadcast Film Critics nominees

The Shape of Water tops list of nominees for the 23rd annual Critics' Choice awards.
I know. You've hardly digested Thanksgiving dinner and you're already being inundated with talk of year-end movie awards. Well, here's another awards alert: The Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I'm a voting member, has announced the nominees for its 23rd annual Critics' Choice Awards.

The Shape of Water led the list with a total of 14 nominations, including best picture. Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Lady Bird and The Post followed with eight nominations each.

At some point, I'll publish my 10-best list for 2017, but for the moment, I offer the BFCA list as a way to get you started on your own year-end thinking.

The CW Network will broadcast the Critics' Choice Awards show on Jan. 11 at 8 p.m., eastern time. The BFCA, by the way, represents more than 300 television, radio and online critics.

The Big Sick
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Jake Gyllenhaal – Stronger
Tom Hanks – The Post
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Meryl Streep – The Post

Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Armie Hammer – Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Patrick Stewart – Logan
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Hong Chau – Downsizing
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Allison Janney - I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

Mckenna Grace – Gifted
Dafne Keen – Logan
Brooklynn Prince – The Florida Project
Millicent Simmonds – Wonderstruck
Jacob Tremblay – Wonder

Lady Bird
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Luca Guadagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Steven Spielberg – The Post

Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani – The Big Sick
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer – The Post
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Jordan Peele – Get Out

James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist
Dee Rees and Virgil Williams – Mudbound
Aaron Sorkin – Molly’s Game
Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad, Stephen Chbosky – Wonder

Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Hoyte van Hoytema – Dunkirk
Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water
Rachel Morrison – Mudbound
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom – Call Me By Your Name

Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeff Melvin – The Shape of Water
Jim Clay, Rebecca Alleway – Murder on the Orient Express
Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis – Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola – Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer – Beauty and the Beast
Mark Tildesley, Véronique Melery – Phantom Thread

Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar – The Post
Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos – Baby Driver
Lee Smith – Dunkirk
Joe Walker – Blade Runner 2049
Sidney Wolinsky – The Shape of Water

Renée April – Blade Runner 2049
Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran – Beauty and the Beast
Lindy Hemming – Wonder Woman
Luis Sequeira – The Shape of Water

Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
I, Tonya
The Shape of Water

Blade Runner 2049
The Shape of Water
Thor: Ragnarok
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman

The Breadwinner
Despicable Me 3
The LEGO Batman Movie
Loving Vincent

Baby Driver
Thor: Ragnarok
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman

The Big Sick
The Disaster Artist
Girls Trip
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

Steve Carell – Battle of the Sexes
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Chris Hemsworth – Thor: Ragnarok
Kumail Nanjiani – The Big Sick
Adam Sandler – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Zoe Kazan – The Big Sick
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Emma Stone – Battle of the Sexes

Blade Runner 2049
Get Out
The Shape of Water

BPM (Beats Per Minute)
A Fantastic Woman
First They Killed My Father
In the Fade
The Square

Evermore – Beauty and the Beast
Mystery of Love – Call Me By Your Name
Remember Me – Coco
Stand Up for Something – Marshall
This Is Me – The Greatest Showman

Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water
Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread
Dario Marianelli – Darkest Hour
Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049
John Williams – The Post
Hans Zimmer - Dunkirk

Monday, December 4, 2017

This 'Wonder Wheel' turns lame

Woody Allen's latest sinks toward the bottom of the director's large filmography.

At times, Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel feels more like a play than a movie -- and not a very good play at that, something along the lines of cut-rate Eugene O'Neill.

As with most Allen movies, a nicely composed surface masks the paucity of the drama. Put another way, the peripherals are top notch. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography and Santo Loquasto's production design skillfully blend beauty and nostalgia in creating the world of Coney Island during the 1950s. Visual competence goes only so far, and the overall effect of Wonder Wheel tracks toward abiding unpleasantness.

Allen breaks little new ground as he tackles familiar themes in this aggressively retro setting: love, betrayal and the way sexual desire and love can blur, creating uncomfortable emotional smudges for all involved.

If you want to spend time wondering how all this relates to Allen's well-publicized private life, have it. But taken on its own terms, the movie represents a misbegotten journey into a lower-class hell of the 1950s. The movie feels strained, artificial and tawdry.

Wonder Wheel revolves around a massively disappointed woman named Ginny (Kate Winslet). After a disastrous first marriage (she cheated), Ginny married Humpty (Jim Belushi). Humpty provides Ginny with stability and safety. He more or less tolerates Ginny's young son (Jack Gore), who happens to be a pyromaniac. The kid likes to set fires.

The arrival of Humpty's daughter (Juno Temple) from a previous marriage upsets Ginny's applecart, which isn't all that sturdy to being with. Humpty, a raging alcoholic who's no longer drinking, still manages to rage. He's Ralph Kramden without the laughs.

Juno's Carolina has been estranged from Humpty, but she fears reprisals from the mobster husband she's fleeing. Humpty warned his daughter against marrying a mob guy, but Carolina didn't listen. It doesn't take long for Humpty to crack; he loves Carolina too much permanently to reject her. Besides, she has no place else to turn.

All of these characters are penned up in a shack overlooking the Coney Island boardwalk, where Humpty operates the merry-go-round and Ginny works as a waitress in a clam house.

Allen sets us up for a kitchen sink drama that's intermittently narrated by a Coney Island lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), a dreamer. Timberlake's character aspires to be a playwright. He also starts an affair with Ginny, who once had acting ambitions and who imagines that she might find a better life with Timberlake's Mickey. She separates herself from reality by claiming that she's only "acting" the part of a waitress.

The actors are often stuck with dialogue that might better have suited Allen's contemporary New York characters, but, in this instance, turns them into labored fictional creations. Temple does her best to be young and flighty. The usually wonderful Winslet elbows her way into an unappealing version of a Blanch DuBois-scale unraveling. Timberlake does his best to portray an Army veteran who dropped out of NYU but doesn't take easily to the role. Belushi either pleads Humpty's case or bellows like a wounded ox.

I'd put Wonder Wheel near the bottom of Allen's abundant filmography. The story isn't very good and it leaves a bad aftertaste when it's done. I'd call that a double whammy of badness.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A caustic look at the art world

Sweden's The Square takes us into a world where art and basic human values seem constantly to clash.

You could spend a couple of hours unwinding the many subjects addressed in Swedish director Ruben Ostlund's The Square. Ostlund, who shook up the art-house world in 2014 with Force Majeure, takes on the pretensions of the art world and the split between purported cultural values and simple expressions of humanity. He also tackles class divisions and the way a hopelessly elitist art world pushes itself toward weird extremes.

The Square of the title refers to an art space created outside of a museum of modern art in Stockholm. Inside the space, which actually is quite small, the atmosphere is supposed to be one of helpfulness and toleration, a tiny retreat devoted to trust and caring. Not surprisingly, the world outside the square turns out to be ridiculously corrupt.

Ostlund builds his story around the museum's curator. Claes Bang portrays Christian, a museum executive whose hypocrisy will be exposed as the movie unveils a series of episodes that sometimes amuse, sometimes confound and sometimes seem a little too on the nose to be as provocative as Ostlund may have intended.

If you're the sort of person who believes the art world is hopelessly out of touch with anything that concerns "normal" experience, you'll probably side with Ostlund as he poses a series of arty jokes. The main exhibit at the museum consists of piles of gravel assembled in the shape of small pyramids across a gallery floor. It's silly, of course, but just plausible enough to make us see why visitors to the museum might spend hours trying to tease possible meanings from these piles of rocks.

You may do the same with The Square. The movie is ambitious, scattered, funny, flawed and disjointed.

Say this, though, as the curator of the museum, Bang proves an able ringmaster as he presides over Ostlund's circus of a movie. American audiences also will recognize Elisabeth Moss, who turns up as a TV reporter doing a story on the new exhibit. Later, she climbs into bed with Bang's character.

Post sex discussion between the two characters hardly leans toward sweet talk, degenerating, instead, into an argument about who's going to throw away the condom the couple used. Perhaps a suspicious Christian thinks that Moss's character wants to set him up for a Lewinski-like dress moment. Who knows?

Did I mention that before the reporter and her subject have sex, a chimp wanders through Moss's character's apartment, creating both laughs and consternation? It’s one of the film's several WTF moments.

During the interview with Moss's character, Christian reveals that his major (and possibly only) concern centers on raising money for the museum.

That's not the only money-oriented moment in The Square. At a fund-raising dinner, a performance artist pretends to be a gorilla and winds up terrorizing the guests. This bizarre twist presumably is meant to show how much abuse viewers will tolerate if they believe they’re looking at art. The scene also exposes the ruthlessness that afflicts the art crowd. Under those tuxedos, monsters lurk. The whole scene would have made a spectacularly unnerving short.

Earlier, a couple of hip marketing geniuses persuade the museum’s staff that tolerance and compassion never will draw attention to The Square. To spice things up, they create a promotional video in which a girl is blown up. They wanted to give the project an edge.

Perhaps to knock Christian out of his protected cocoon, Ostlund includes a mugging in which Christian loses his wallet, his phone, and a pair of prized cufflinks. The resultant developments expose his silliness, as well as his inability to get beyond his own preoccupations.

So what to make of all this? Clearly, Ostlund has skills. He's a filmmaker who's interested in morality and responsibility, subjects that need plenty of attention at the moment. But in The Square, he's got so much on his plate that it takes him all of 2 1/2 sometimes taxing hours to unravel the movie's many threads.

As a result, The Square stands as a triumph of ambition that results in a wildly mixed achievement, water balloons dropped by a prankish director on the art world's many targets of opportunity.

A girl fights for her family's survival

The Breadwinner takes an animated look at life in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
The Breadwinner isn't the first film to deal with the plight of Afghan women living under the Taliban (2003's Osama was devastating), but it may be the first animated feature to tackle such a difficult subject.

Irish director Nora Twomey, who co-directed the much-admired The Secret of Kells, takes us to Kabul for a story about Parvana (voice by Saara Chaudry), a girl whose father (Ali Badshah) is arrested for possession of a book the Taliban disdains. The young thug who betrays this peaceful older man has personal motives for his actions. Besides, we get the impression that any book, other than the Koran, would have offended Taliban sensibilities.

Parvana's mother Fattema (Laara Sadiq) and her older sister Soraya (Shaista Latif) don't know how they are going to survive because, as women, they can't even venture into the street unaccompanied by a male relative. This prohibition makes a dangerous ordeal out of such simple tasks as buying groceries or fetching water from the local well.

Early on Fattema, who's also caring for her toddler son, attempts to visit her husband in the forbidding prison where he's being held. She's badly beaten for her efforts.

It falls to Parvana to devise a solution to keep the family afloat. She cuts her hair, pretends to be a boy and begins to move about Kabul with new-found freedom. She also receives help with her ruse from Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), another girl who has adopted the same strategy as a means of coping with Taliban tyrannies.

The Breadwinner focuses on children but should not be considered a children's movie, even though older kids would do well to see it. It's a harsh story about what happens when fanatics terrorize a culture.

The story also puts special emphasis on the importance of storytelling as a means of helping people to survive terrible conditions. The movie opens with Parvana's father telling her stories about Afghanistan's past and includes a running fable that Parvana tells her baby brother. Parvana's story involves a boy who must try to save his village from the ravages of the evil Elephant King, a tale that roughly parallels Parvana's efforts to help keep her family afloat.

The animation is simple, sometimes involving cut-outs: Twomey's team creates a dusty picture of Kabul as a place where the life of the marketplace hasn't entirely been squelched.

The Breadwinner, which derives from a young-adult novel by Deborah Ellis, affirms Parvana's strength and determination and serves as a moving introduction to what it means for women to live under constraints that serve to subjugate and dehumanize them. Small but powerful, The Breadwinner qualifies as an adept telling of an important story.

A movie that sets off fireworks

Tultepec, a town of about 92,000 people located about 20 miles north of Mexico City, goes crazy for fireworks. This obsession manifests most prominently during the annual celebration of San Juan de Dios, a holy figure who's venerated as the patron saint of fireworks makers. Fireworks, of course, have dual potential: They're beautiful to observe but also, dangerous. Brimstone & Glory, a documentary by Viktor Jakovleski takes us to Tultepec, where residents are preparing two massive displays: The Castles of Fire and the Burning of the Bulls, both highlights of the town's week-long fireworks festival. The peril becomes apparent when we see one town resident who has lost a hand to fireworks. He still helps make them. Early on, one of the young men helping to create a frame for a giant bull that will blaze with fireworks, says that no one who participates in what he calls "the running of the bulls" escapes without burns. The fireworks we see are amazing, and Jakovleski leaves it to us to decide what to make of this town's obsession with lighting up the sky for an event that evidently attracts upward of 100,000 visitors. I wondered why so many risk injury year-after-year, but most of the people we meet accept the town's commitment to fireworks as an essential part of a community event that celebrates local artisans. (A footnote: In December of 2016, after Brimstone and Glory was completed, a massive explosion in a Tultepec fireworks market resulted in 42 deaths.)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Denzel Washington as a savant attorney

Roman J. Israel, Esq. makes room for moments that are so thought-provokingly enjoyable that the movie, which can't be called a success, may be more interesting than movies that would have garnered more praise. Denzel Washington creates one of his more memorable characters, a legal savant whose values and tastes are firmly stuck in the 60s. Washington's Israel sports an afro, baggy-ill fitting pants, and glasses a couple of sizes too big. Directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Roman J. Israel, Esq. is at its best when it's focused on this misfit of a man whose heroes include Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis. A key story element arrives early: Israel has spent 36 years working for a famous lawyer. Israel has been the backroom brains for William Henry Jackson, an attorney who knew how to handle himself in a courtroom. Jackson suffers a heart attack and slips into a coma, igniting a plot that brings Israel into touch with a hot-shot attorney portrayed by Colin Farrell. Farrell's George Pierce has been asked to dissolve Jackson's firm, which -- unbeknownst to Israel -- has never turned a profit. Israel also meets a civil rights activist (Carmen Ejogo). She sees past Israel's strange behavior and finds a righteous man. The plot puts Israel into a position in which he must decide how righteous he really is, a development the movie doesn't seem to know how to explore. For roughly half of its two-hour and 9-minute running time, Roman J. Israel, Esq. complies scenes that don't quite cohere. It's almost as if Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplay, can't figure out precisely what he wants to say. He compensates by giving Washington some scorching dialog and with a bit of cinematic daring, even employing some throwback style to evoke a feeling of '60s cinema. Roman J. Israel, Esq. emerges on one of the year's true oddities, a film that stumbles but, before it falls, hits notes you're not likely to hear anywhere else.*
As was the case with Wonder, I had a conflict with the preview screening of Roman J. Israel, Esq. and caught up with the film after its opening.

'Wonder' has lots of YA appeal

Because of scheduling conflicts, I was unable to attend an advance screening of Wonder, the big-screen adaptation of R.J. Palacio's 2012 YA novel. Directed by Stephen Chbosky and starring Julia Roberts, Wonder tells the story of 10-year-old Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a boy born with facial deformities. Roberts portrays Auggie's mom, a caring mother who decides that it's time for Auggie to leave the protected safety of home schooling and attend school with other kids. Owen Wilson appears as Auggie's dad, a father who thinks it's a mistake to expose Auggie to the bullying and ridicule that surely will taunt him, even in an upscale New York City private school. The Pullman family, of which Auggie is a member, lives comfortably in a Brooklyn brownstone. No arguments about money in this household. Wonder touches many bases. Auggie's older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) tends to be neglected by her parents, who are consumed with Auggie's welfare. Via has her own problems: Her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell) stops speaking to her at the beginning of a new school year. Julian (Bryce Gheisar) becomes Auggie's chief tormenter; Jack (Noah Jupe), a scholarship student who's not sure he fits in either) befriends Auggie. Mandy Patinkin portrays the school's understanding principal; Daveed Diggs appears as one of Auggie's teachers, and Nadji Jeter plays Via's boyfriend. The performances are all up-to-snuff in a movie that explores real issues in an idealized environment. Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) engineers the story to jerk some tears and provide hope. Wonder qualifies as worthy YA fiction. I saw it at a showing that was full of kids, who seemed involved in the movie's every turn, but as an OA (old adult), the movie struck me as a bit of an after-school special -- albeit one emboldened by marquee names and an estimable message; i.e., that we never can be entirely sure we understand why people behave as they do.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Get thee to a nunnery -- in Tennessee

Novitiate explores the interior life of a devoted young woman, strains in the Church and the way of life in an isolated convent.
The time: 1964. The Sisters of Blessed Rose convent in Tennessee are so isolated they don't know about reforms taking place in their own church. Pope John XXIII and Vatican II have begun the difficult process of opening the Church to views that are foreign to some of its older clerics, especially Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), the nun who presides over Blessed Rose.

Although director Maggie Betts focuses most of her attention on an aspiring nun (Margaret Qualley), Leo's Reverend Mother casts a long and sometimes harsh shadow over the proceedings in Novitiate, a movie about young women whose ages (most are in their teens) make it difficult for them to be as somber as their new surroundings.

Some of the questions that Betts raises about the Church and its adherents can feel imposed on the story, but Betts' filmmaking has a controlled assurance that keeps us locked into her movie in much the same way as the movie's nuns are cloistered in this fictional convent. We may not know why we're there, but, then, neither do all of these young postulates.

Leo's character justifies her strict, sometimes punishing methods by insisting that aestheticism, discipline, and penance provide a proven path to God. The penance Reverend Mother favors can seem indistinguishable from abuse.

When pushed to temper her views, the Reverend Mother feels betrayed. She has devoted her life to behavior she sees as righteous. With the Church insisting on loosening the reigns, Reverend Mother's choices no longer make sense.

Reverend Mother is also disturbed that a patriarchal church can dictate what's appropriate for its female devotees. They'll no longer be required to wear habits.

Novitiate, the movie that contains all this turmoil, revolves around young women who are trying to understand their relationship to Jesus. They're eager to do the Church's bidding and marry Jesus but their love is touched by large amounts of teenage romanticism and inchoate longing.

Qualley's Cathleen was attracted to the Church at an early age, after having been taken to mass by her mother (Julianne Nicholson). No great believer, Nicholson's character views her daughter's entry into the convent as a tragic mistake.

So why does Cathleen want to become a nun? Her background may have influenced her decision. Cathleen's father (Chris Zylka) cheated on her mother before walking out on the family. Moreover, Nicholson's character doesn't seem able to provide her daughter with some much-needed stability.

Betts stops short of suggesting that Cathleen's decision derives entirely from her upbringing. Her commitment seems to arise from a mysterious place even Cathleen doesn't fully understand. Could her's be a case of true and abiding faith?

Betts doesn't take a judgmental attitude toward the nuns, especially the young aspirants. Cathleen and her fellow novitiates are being trained to combat their desires in order to focus entirely on God. That's a lot to ask of hormonally active teenagers, and not all the novitiates are sure of their calling. One young nun says she joined because she was inspired by Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story.

The key question posed by the movie -- and embodied in Qualley's luminous performance -- is whether the attempt to find a path toward God requires squelching kindly impulses, as well as the desire for physical human contact?

Early in the story, one of the sisters (Dianna Agron) leaves the convent because she can't reconcile the softness in her heart with the staunch methods imposed by Reverend Mother. And eventually, even the devout Cathleen can't contain her desires.

Betts leaves us in a state of uncertainty about what she's after: a study of one young woman's search for transcendence or an examination of the wrenching difficulties of changing deeply ingrained values -- or, more likely, both of those things.

Neither of those currents fully satisfies but both provoke interest and absorption.