Monday, February 27, 2017

It's 'La La Land.' No, 'Moonlight.'

Oscar's biggest screw-up ever? Probably.

Normally, I'd be writing something about how host Jimmy Kimmel, after a fine start, teetered as the evening wore on. I might say that I was a bit surprised that Denzel Washington (Fences) lost the best actor award to Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea). I also might have said that Viola Davis' heartfelt acceptance speech for best supporting actress was the highlight of an evening that became boring despite Kimmel's attempts at originality -- dropping candy from the rafters and bringing a tour bus full of unsuspecting gawkers onto the Oscar stage.

I also might have said that I got real tired of Kimmel's running gags about his feud with Matt Damon.

Had things gone the way they should have, I would have cheered Moonlight's victory over frontrunner La La Land for best picture.

I know. I still can't believe it, either. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who once starred as Bonnie and Clyde, stole all the Oscar thunder by announcing the wrong movie for best picture. During a La La Land acceptance speech, we learned that Moonlight -- not La La Land -- actually had won. It fell to Jordan Horowitz, a La La Land producer, to utter words that probably will haunt him for the rest of his life, "There's a mistake. ... This is not a joke, Moonlight has won best picture."

Warren Beatty lamely tried to explain what happened, something about the best actress card being in the best picture envelope. It didn't really help.

So what should have been a great night for those of us who preferred Moonlight to La La Land left a very sour taste. How could anyone not feel sorry for the folks who made La La Land? They had statues in hand -- and gracefully surrendered them to the Moonlight crew.

You'll read a lot more about this monumental screw-up, but on a night when we should be celebrating the work of Mahershala Ali, who won best supporting actor for his performance as a crack dealer with a heart in Moonlight and when we should be wondering how Suicide Squad won anything (it landed the Oscar for makeup and hairstyling), we're stuck with the most embarrassing ending to an awards program in the history of awards programs.

So I'm cashing in my chips for the evening. Maybe I'll return to Oscar tomorrow, but I'm no longer in the mood to eke some social significance out the evening, which included the expected jabs at the current administration and calls for inclusion.

Instead, I'll leave you by quoting a tweet from James Poniewozik, a TV critic for the New York Times.

"Looking forward to tomorrow morning, by which time the Oscar winner for best picture will be Hidden Figures," Poniewozik wrote.

All I can say is, "Dunaway and Beatty gave us something to talk about, but damn."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Those 'nice' folks are plenty scary

Jordan Peele makes his directorial debut with Get Out, a horror movie with a sharp and entertaining satirical edge about racism..

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) have reached the point in their relationship when it's time for him to meet her parents. Meeting prospective in-laws can be nerve-wracking under any circumstances, but Chris and Rose bring an added dimension to the situation: They're an interracial couple.

Before you start thinking I'm about to tell you about a retooled version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, you should be aware that the new movie, Get Out, was directed by Jordan Peele, half of the highly inventive comedy team of Key & Peele.

But don't be mislead by Peele's work on Comedy Central, either. Get Out isn't a comedy, at least not in any conventional sense. It's a horror movie enlivened by a wicked satirical bent and it has something to say about the pressures imposed on black people, often by condescending whites.

When Chris and Rose meet the parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford), they're greeted by instant acceptance, even though Rose hasn't bothered to tell them that Chris is black. Earlier, Rose had assured a wary Chris that everything would be OK because her dad would have "voted for Barack Obama three times if he could have."

From the start, things seem a bit off-kilter, Whitford's character tires way too hard to show his comfort in the situation, even confessing to some embarrassment about the fact that the family employs two Africa-Americans (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson) to help around the house, one working outside and the other taking care of the kitchen.

This strange pair seems to have arrived from another world, one in which everyone is polite but in a slightly off-kilter way. They're wax-works versions of people, and they seem disassociated from anything that looks either spontaneous or real.

So far, I haven't mentioned anything about the movie's horror aspects, but it's probably best that you discover them in a theater. Be aware, though, not much happens in Get Out that Peele can't shake a bit of thematic resonance out of it.

A high point arises when family friends show up for a party, a collection of white folks who manage to convey a variety of deep-rooted prejudices without breaking stride. And, of course, they seem a bit odd as well, almost parodies of white people.

The only black guest at the party (Lakeith Stanfield) is as strange as the others; he's dressed like a refugee from a country club and accompanies an older white woman.

Much of the movie hinges on Kaluuya's ability to convey Chris's reaction to all the alienating weirdness that he encounters. Kaluuya's performance never sacrifices Chris's dignity or humanity. As a photographer, Chris becomes the movie's eyes. We're seeing the white world from his perspective. It's not a pretty sight.

Signs of looming trouble emerge when Rose's bother (Caleb Landry Jones) shows up, and immediately makes it clear that he's gone over some sort of hostile edge.

To further complicate matters, Keener's character is a psychiatrist who knows how to hypnotize people. Scenes in which Chris falls under a hypnotic spell and free falls through space are rendered in an abstract way that Peele manages to pull off.

Lil Rel Howery hovers around the story's edge, providing the most obvious comic relief. He's Chris's best friend, a TSA agent who -- from the outset -- urges Chris to be suspicious about what he's getting himself into. He's a comic figure, but also the voice of common sense -- and perhaps even conscience.

Because Get Out has no interest in concealing its horror-movie pedigree, Peele can't resist a bit of end-of-picture gore, but there's a satisfying revenge aspect to all the carnage.

Get Out marks Peele's directorial debut; he has accomplished something brave, sinister and stark. Amid the jolts and creep-outs, he has made a perceptive movie about the intermingling of racism and ordinary life.

I suppose you have to have some taste for horror fully to enjoy Get Out, but Peele has served up the season's sharpest hunk of weird fun; by the end, Get Out has turned into a bloody (I mean that literally) good time.

Their love spurred an international affair

A United Kingdom stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as an interracial couple in the midst of a political storm.

For most American audiences the story of the romance between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams will be an unfamiliar one. The two met in Britain in 1947 when Khama was preparing to assume the tribal throne of his people in Bechuanaland, now Botswana and, at the time, a British protectorate. Their interracial relationship become ensnared in global politics, both in Britain and in Khama's homeland.

The British, who had multiple interests in the region, were very much against a high-profile, black/white relationship at a time when South Africa was instituting its odious apartheid policies. Not that the British, a people well-schooled in colonialism, needed an excuse for racism.

Aside from the freshness of the story, the movie seeks to score by casting David Oyelowo as Khama and Rosamund Pike, as Williams.

Oyelowo, who also produced, gives the movie a solid moral center. Loving and patient, his Khama believes that he can win the confidence of his people when he returns to Africa.

As portrayed by Pike, Williams may not know exactly what she's in for, but she clearly loves Khama, and wants to make a life with him. As time passes, she makes a sincere effort to win over resistant Africans. She's an ordinary woman who, under different circumstances, might have led a typical English life as a wife and mother.

Director Amma Asante (Belle) brings a solid, conventional style to Guy Hibbert's screenplay, but unlike Hibbert's tautly compelling Eye in the Sky, United Kingdom tends to drift toward dullness without quite surrendering to it.

For the most part, the British come across as cruel imperialists (including an unseen Winston Churchill). Tom Felton embodies the British attitude of entitled indifference to Khama's pleas.

The African characters show the opposite side of the racial coin. Khama's sister (Terry Pheto) resists accepting Williams for a long time, as does his aunt Ella (Abena Ayivor).

Vusi Kuene portrays Khama's uncle -- the man who raised him and who groomed him for royal ascendance. Kuene's character cannot reconcile himself to his nephew's marriage.

Not surprisingly, Oyelowo -- who played Martin Luther King in Selma -- has a major uplifting speech toward the movie's conclusion. The story ends optimistically with Botswana abandoning monarchy in favor of democracy. Khama became the country's first president.

A United Kingdom doesn't shrink from presenting explosive racial issues, but the movie remains a rather dry telling of an incendiary tale.

A father/daughter comedy with bite

Toni Erdmann, a telling comedy from Germany.

I saw the German comedy Toni Erdmann some time ago, so I was surprised when checking credits to note that the movie lasted for nearly three hours. I guess that's a good thing because rather than remembering the movie's length, I recalled that it made me laugh, even as it made me wince.

That's because of the way Toni Erdmann made me laugh qualifies as embarrassingly silly. A lot of the chuckles in Toni Erdmann depend on a set of fake, buck teeth, the kind that a decidedly non-funny person might use as a running gag. Only in the case of director Maren Ade's comedy, the teeth become a symbol of rebellious iconoclastic behavior, a liberating display of disregard for just about every situation requiring decorous behavior.

The teeth are worn by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a slovenly, divorced music teacher who seems to loathe decorum in all of its pretentious forms.

Winfried's grown daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) might be the person who's least amused by her father's intrusive ways. She's working for a German company in Romania, and holds herself to exacting, rigorous standards, even if she's a bit disgusted by the compromises her work requires; i.e., cooking up a massive round of layoffs for an oil company client.

The core of the comedy involves Winfried's visit to Bucharest, purportedly for his daughter's birthday. His gift: A cheese grater. What? You don't need one?

Instead of visiting and returning home, Dad stays. He puts on a ludicrous wig and the false teeth, and makes a preposterous claim; he says he coaches executives in the management arts. Of course, Erdmann looks as if he couldn't manage to find a view in a glass house, which is part of the movie's outlandish approach.

Huller's Ines finds her father's pose appalling -- and, in some ways, it is, a display of callous indifference to proprieties others take seriously.

By the end, it has become clear that director Ade has more in mind than wringing cheap laughs out of a pair of false teeth.

At its best, Toni Erdmann qualifies as a satirical shot at the suffocating conformity demanded in a business world that treats people as disposable, as well as a look at the way a daughter ultimately (and surprisingly) accepts her father's cracked but wily wisdom.

Beyond all that, the movie makes room for a rendition of Whitney Huston's The Greatest Love of All and a sex scene involving petits fours. That's enough for any comedy, especially one in which a pair of fake teeth add some real bite.

Two touching helpings of animation

What easily could have become a Dickensian nightmare turns into a deeply humanistic bit of stop-action animation in director Claude Barras's My Life as a Zucchini (Ma Vie de Courgette). Based on a novel by Gilles Paris, the movie follows a grim outline. A nine-year-old boy finds himself in an orphanage after the death of his alcoholic mother. The boy believes he is responsible for his mother's demise. Perhaps that's why he insists that everyone call him "Zucchini," a term of endearment his otherwise abusive mother used. Once in the small orphanage, Zucchini meets a boy whose parents were drug addicts and a girl who witnessed her jealous father commit a terrible crime. All of the kiddie characters have suffered childhood traumas, but Barra tempers the story to allow for nuances that redeem the bleakness. The policeman who takes young Zucchini to the orphanage turns out to be an empathetic soul, the folks who run the place really care about the kids, and the kids often enjoy playing together. Zucchini -- his real name is Icare -- has been designed with large round eyes that look like reservoirs for his damaged emotions, and My Life as a Zucchini emerges as a touching picture of childhood, complete with its pains and consolations -- and (amazingly) an allowance for kindness.


Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit collaborated with Japan's Studio Ghibli to create a wordless animated portrait about a shipwrecked man stranded on an island. Despite its adventure trappings, The Red Turtle becomes a metaphor for the ways a life can unfold as this nameless fellow tries to break down his isolation. At first, he makes multiple attempts to leave the island on a raft he builds from wood retrieved from a forest. The man's efforts constantly are frustrated by a giant red sea turtle that keeps sinking his makeshift vessel before it can get too far away from the shoreline. When the turtle washes ashore, the man furiously rolls it on its back and clobbers it over the head. Not long after he kills the turtle, a beautiful young woman emerges from its shell. Man and woman strike up a relationship that carries the man through the rest of his life. The spare beach island settings contrast with thick greenery where the man and his companion gather food. Dudok de Wit has little interest in rendering a realistic portrait of a marooned life. For him, animation becomes a medium that allows him to reduce existence to what he may see as its essentials, our need for others and, ultimately, the inevitability of losing them. Dudok de Wit has made an absorbing and captivating little movie.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Oscars: How much do you care?

The Oscars are going to be handed out on Feb. 26, and I suppose we'll all be watching.

And, yes, many of this year's nominated pictures, actors and directors are particularly deserving. Overall, this year's list is an impressive one.

And yet ....

Let's face it: It's not easy to get excited about Oscars in a moment when a new administration has been upsetting the apple cart of half the country's expectations. I'm not going to go all political on you, but I can't say that I'm especially excited about the Academy Awards in a year when so other pressing matters scream out for attention, so many -- in fact -- that it's difficult to know where to focus one's attention, much less one's efforts.

Like you, I've heard it said that we're now in a time when support of the arts is essential -- as if it weren't vital before the recent election. OK, but the Academy Awards isn't only about cinema art: It's about an industry celebrating itself. And although in recent years, Oscar nominations have done a better job of honoring artistic excellence and even idiosyncrasy, audiences don't necessarily agree.

Captain America: Civil War was the highest grossing movie of 2016, and since has been surpassed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For better or worse (and they come in both varieties), tent-pole movies still dominate Hollywood's thinking. The fact that the Academy Awards now align more closely with many critics' 10-best lists hasn't changed that.

At the same time, I expect that this year's acceptance speeches will be full of sanctimony about the need for inclusion, the need for kindness and the need for acceptance that transcends the teary-eyed acknowledgment that often accompanies receipt of one of the world's most coveted statues.

I've been making Oscar predictions since I began writing about films some 37 years ago. Some years, I've had rooting interests because a favorite actor or director happened to be nominated. Other years, I speculated about who I thought would win, but was neither buoyed nor heartbroken about who won or lost.

Besides, we all know that history has a way of dimming Oscar's glow, elevating films that may not have won anything. In the last Sight & Sound critics' poll, published once a decade, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo supplanted Orson Wells' Citizen Kane as the best movie to date.

At the awards ceremony for 1942, How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane, one of 10 nominees for best picture from a list that also included The Maltese Falcon. When it came to the 1958 Academy Awards, Vertigo was nominated in two minor categories: best sound and best art direction. It won neither. Bridge on the River Kwai won best picture.

I know what you're thinking. Movies really used to be better, but don't get carried away; those were different times, and movies occupied a different and perhaps more central place in the national conversation than they do today.

In any event, time seems a better judge of quality than the votes of the Academy or even, sometimes, film critics -- never mind the box office.

I'm moderating an Oscar panel at the Sie Film Center Wednesday (Feb. 22) at 6 p.m. I'm sure that many will turn up who have an interest in filling out a ballot for one Oscar contest or another. That's fine. There's serious movie interest. There's Oscar movie interest. Sometimes the two overlap, but not necessarily.

And in a year in which the Oscars finally show true diversity in terms of black expression, it's a little weird that La La Land probably will take home the most awards. Many have pointed out -- and it's a fair criticism -- that La La Land casts a white actor (Ryan Gosling) as a musician who champions the purity of jazz, while a black actor (John Legend) becomes a spokesman for commercial capitulation. It's also true (at least in my view) that no music in La La Land can match the sheer inventiveness of American jazz at its best.

In my judgment, both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are better and (heaven help me for saying it) more significant movies. They tell us more about the state of American life now than La La Land even knows how to tell us.


Director Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is the expression of an individual voice -- or, in the case of its main character, the devastating lack of one. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea explores the shattered life of a man who, in most circumstances, would be equally invisible.

Unlike in La La Land, the characters in Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea don't dream of success by way of acquiring an audience. They may not even dream anymore; they suffer because they are human, they are flawed and the world can be a crueler place than most of us like to admit.

But even if one of those pictures wins, will it change Hollywood's approach to green-lighting movies? Will we suddenly see an onslaught of personal movies full of the kind of honesty and grace that made Moonlight so special? What do you think?

Last year, at an Oscar panel, I suggested that -- for once -- we break the mold and talk about the issues raised by the year's nominations, most of those issues having to do with #Oscarssowhite. There was some audience impatience with my idea. Some folks only wanted predictions, but focusing only on predictions is like trying to pick the winner of the Super Bowl and not caring whether the game is any good.

But for those who insist on predictions, here are mine -- in the major categories.
Best picture -- La La Land
Best director -- Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Best actor -- Denzel Washington, Fences
Best actress -- Emma Stone, La La Land
Best supporting actor -- Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Best supporting actress -- Viola Davis, Fences
Best animated film -- Zootopia
Best documentary -- OJ: Made in America
Best original screenplay -- Manchester by the Sea
Best adapted screenplay -- Moonlight
Best foreign language film -- The Salesman
A few caveats. Sure Casey Affleck -- everyone's front runner throughout most of this interminable awards season -- easily could win best actor, but Washington's Screen Actors Guild victory tilted the scale for me. Why? Actors still make up the largest Academy voting bloc.

And, yes, either Toni Erdmann or A Man Called Ove could win best foreign language film, but the Trump immigrant ban that caused Salesman director Asghar Farhadi to say that he wouldn't travel to the US even if granted an exception for the Oscars made him the favorite in my book.

Finally, some advice from someone a good deal wiser than me. The incomparable Samuel Johnson once wrote, "The natural flight of the mind is not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope." It's a great admonition for movie fans. Oscars or no, we always hope the next movie we see will be the one that fulfills and even surpasses our most ardent expectations.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

This 'Wall' is far from great

Matt Damon joins director Zhang Yimou for a giant helping of spectacle -- and little else.

Can a wall protect a country's capital from being overrun by hordes of lethal monsters?

No, we're not talking about a debate on the Senate floor, but about a large-scale movie that turns Matt Damon into a western warrior enlisted in a Chinese battle to preserve humanity.

Directed by Zhang Yimou and shot entirely in China, The Great Wall may not totally crumble, but it doesn't rise to epic standards, either.

And for cineasts, the movie hardly marks a milestone. Zhang made his entry on the international stage with Red Sorghum (1987). He continued with Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Shanghai Triad (1995). He was regarded as a young master of what was known as the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, and his work was bolstered by the presence of the beautiful and talented Gong Li.

In later movies such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), Zhang began turning out highly stylized martial arts films. And in 2008, he directed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

Now comes The Great Wall, a movie whose only virtues involve costumes, spectacle and CGI-enhanced action. It seems to derive less from Zhang's earlier work than from his spectacular Olympic contributions.

Burdened by stock characters, wooden dialogue (much of it in English), and lame attempts at humor, the movie offers a less-than-stirring rendition of a legend about creatures that storm China's Great Wall in an effort to reach the capital.

The movie's dragon-like creatures -- Tao Tie by name -- are connected to a finger-wagging theme. It seems the monsters emerge every 60 years, which evidently coincides with society having become too greedy for its own good.

The Great Wall feels overly calibrated for international success with lots of action, some of it impressive. The first assault on the Great Wall (here serving as a fortress protecting the capital) involves archers in red armor and women in blue armor who leap off towering platforms to spear the dragons. If color could kill, these warriors would have no equal.

There's a whisper of a story. Damon portrays William, a western mercenary who has traveled to China with his warrior pals in hopes of cornering the gunpowder market. After most of his comrades are killed in early-picture skirmishes, William and his pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal) become prisoners of the Nameless Order, the army that occupies the Wall, executing its various maneuvers to a variety of compelling drum beats.

There's spectacle, but much of it feels underlined to elicit oohs and aahs: a scene in which thousands of lanterns are borne skyward in tribute to a fallen general, for example.

Willem Dafoe signs on as a character who also came to China in search of gunpowder, but who has been kept inside the great Chinese redoubt for 25 years. He wants to help William and Tovar escape so that he, too, can make his way back to the western world with plenty of gunpowder in tow.

The Chinese display a variety of weapons, but William pretty much sticks to archery. His skill as an archer impresses his captors. Eventually, his prowess is recognized by Lin (Jing Tian), a woman commander. She leads the squads of blue-clad female warriors who leap off the side of the Great Wall, doing their lethal work before being hoisted back up.

There's a bit of a moral here -- albeit a hackneyed one. Will William cling to his mercenary values or will he fight for a higher ideal, as in helping to save the unsuspecting residents of the capital? The Chinese understand higher ideals: trust and sacrifice. The Westerns are decidedly more crass.

A lack of stand-out performances (Damon included) doesn't help to turn the movie into anything more than a display of visual extravagance. And there's virtually no suspense in wondering whether -- in the end -- Damon's William will do the right thing.

I won't say more about whether the Tao Ties eventually reach the capital. But I will say that our president might do well to watch this movie because it says something about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of walls when it comes to defending the populace from invasion.

Much style, too little payoff

Gore Verbinski tries his hand at stylish horror in A Cure for Wellness.

Director Gore Verbinksi's three Pirates of the Caribbean movies demonstrated a rare flare for visually based comedy -- not just sight gags, but intricately designed sequences in which the gags dropped like pins in a bowling alley. Verbinski later entered the world of offbeat animation with Rango, a story about a chameleon who poses as a tough loner in a dizzyingly off-kilter version of the Wild West.

So, despite the fact that we're bobbing in the dull waters of a pre-Oscar lull, there was reason to hope that Verbinski's latest -- a highly stylized hunk of horror called A Cure for Wellness -- would be eccentric enough to merit attention.

No, I haven't forgotten Verbinski's version of The Lone Ranger, but who in Hollywood isn't entitled to a mega-mistake?

Those looking for intriguing imagery won't be disappointed by A Cure of Wellness, which makes the most of Bojan Bazelli's stunningly suggestive cinematography. But at two-and-half hours in length, this increasingly taxing thriller suggests more than it delivers and finally goes up in flames (literally) in what amounts to a bust of a payoff.

Cast in the movie's central role, Dane DeHaan, a veteran of HBO's In Treatment, makes you wonder whether he has the right stuff to carry a movie. DeHaan, who appears in nearly every scene, plays Lockhart, an ambitious but callow young executive with dubious ethical standards.

Early on, Lockhart receives an odd assignment; he's sent to a spa in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company's CEO (Harry Groener), a man who refuses to return to the US to sign off on a pending and very lucrative merger. The CEO claims that he's seen the light, and no longer gives a damn about business.

Obviously, complications ensue for poor Lockhart. The spa's head doctor (Jason Isaacs) won't allow Lockhart to see the reclusive CEO, much less cart him off the premises. As the movie progresses, Isaacs' Volmer tries to convince Lockhart that he, too, is ill, and should avail himself of the doctor's wondrous cure.

Much effort has gone into showing the strangeness of the spa environment: With its eerie hallways, the place seems more like a mental institution than a retreat where the guests guzzle the local waters, traipse around in bathrobes and play croquet.

Lockhart also meets Hannah (Mia Goth), a strange young woman who seems to hold the key to the movie's central mystery -- which, as it turns out, is not nearly as unexpected as the filmmakers may have think.

Before reaching its overstated conclusion, Justin Haythe's screenplay has dabbled in a variety of twisted developments that include a horrific scene in a dental chair that recalls Dustin Hoffman's torment in Marathon Man, attacks by flesh-eating eels, an obsession with water, and a fairly major letdown at the end when Verbinski serves up heaving sprays of over-the-top expression.

Throughout, the movie spends time condemning the all-American tendency to sacrifice life for work, but the theme doesn't amount to much after an opening prologue in which a broker, working late at night in an empty Manhattan glass tower, keels over and dies of a heart attack.

About halfway through Verbniski's slow-moving dirge of a movie, I made a note to myself. "No matter how artful the setup (an it is plenty artful), a movie such as A Cure for Wellness depends on having one hell of a payoff. Sadly, it doesn't.

An isolated woman deals with loss

Director Pedro Almodovar blends stories by author Alice Munro and makes them his own.

Pedro Almodvar, the fine and often cheeky Spanish director of movies such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Skin I Live In and Talk to Her, always has been as much interior designer as movie director. In an Almodovar movie, everything from hair styles to wall paper take on evocative meaning.

Of course, all filmmakers pay attention to such details, but with Almodovar the icing and the cake often carry equal weight.

Beyond that, Almodovar's fluid camera creates a cinematic richness that's difficult to resist -- even when the director isn't working at peak form, as probably is the case in Almodovar's latest, Julieta.

Loosely basing his movie on several stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, Almodovar focuses on the title character at two distinct stages of her life: as a young teacher (Adriana Ugarte) and as a middle-aged woman (Emma Suarez).

We meet the older version of Julieta as she's about to leave Spain for Portugal with a grateful and admiring lover (Dario Grandinetti). But Suarez's Julieta backs out at the last minute, deciding to remain in Madrid. She leaves her upscale apartment, and moves into an building she occupied when her now-grown daughter was a teen-ager.

The story then introduces us to the younger Julieta, a woman whose life changes when she meets a young fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a train. Julieta and Xoan have an affair; she becomes pregnant. Julieta moves to a small seaside town to be with Xoan.

Xoan's housekeeper (Rossy de Palma) doesn't take to Julieta, but she's totally attached to Xoan and, then, to Julieta's child, Antia. We also meet Ava (Inma Cuesta), a sculptress who was one of Xoan's lovers -- and, on occasion, still may be.

Julieta's daughter becomes the source of the middle-aged Julieta's torment as Almodovar creates a massive generational gulf. Neither mother nor daughter can deal with tragedy, and both are mired in recrimination.

Young Antia vanishes, after participating in a mountain retreat. She hasn't been in touch with her mother in more than a decade. When Julieta settles into her depressing new digs, she begins to write letters to the daughter with whom she's lost touch. These letters serve to explain why Julieta now lives in isolation.

As much as any director, Almodovar loves the movie image, and that love often redeems his movies. In the case of Julieta, the director has found material that takes him to a familiar place: the trials of a woman who responds to a chance meeting that turns into ... well ... a life.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

He's back -- and brutal as ever

Keanu Reeves reprises his role as John Wick, a reluctant hitman who piles up a staggering body count, and keeps fans of the series happy..

In John Wick: Chapter 2, Keanu Reeves -- as the title character -- amasses a staggering body count with a pointed efficiency that befits his status as a professional hitman. And when Wick fights with his fists (and legs), the ensuing symphony of hyper-grunts creates its own gritty eloquence.

Reprising his work in the 2014 hit, Reeves takes a substantial beating as the film progresses, and Chapter 2 boldly whirls its way through car carnage and carefully orchestrated mayhem spread across a variety of intriguing and well-selected locations -- from the catacombs of Rome to the subways of New York City to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Picking up where the first movie left off, the movie concocts a scenario in which hitman Wick quickly finds himself pulled back into the action. He's asked to pay back a debt. In Wick's world, this means he must return a favor by assassinating someone.

Chad Stahelski, who co-directed the first installment, goes solo in this effort, pushing the action into new corners, and following a philosophy that insists that no amount of violent action qualifies as too much.

Another hitman, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), supplies the villainy. D'Antonio tries to manipulate Wick, and eventually to kill him -- with an assist from every hitman in New York.

Ian McShane portrays the urbane head of the Continental, a Manhattan hotel where hitman can relax (no slaughter allowed); a deadpan Lance Reddick works the hotel's front desk, and Laurence Fishburne, who appeared with Reeves in the Matrix, enjoyably chews as much scenery as possible as head of a team of hitmen who pose as New York City street people.

The Continental's sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz) adds a Bond-like touch, dispensing weapons while employing the vocabulary of a wine connoisseur.

You'll also see Common as another hitman. Like Wick, he's a pillar of stoicism. Little in this second chapter relies on expressive acting -- at least from the movie's hitmen. Killing without discernible affect might be the movie's idea of the noblest of human virtues.

Perhaps so that women don't feel excluded from this cinematic wild ride, Ruby Rose has been cast as a deaf-mute killer who communicates with Wick by signing.

From the movie's opening prologue -- Wick drives a Mustang that becomes a target for other cars -- it's clear that this second installment will rely on battering overstatement. A far-fetched plot about a global network of assassins provides a frame on which to hang the action, which, by the end, even resorts to the shopworn Hall of Mirrors effect -- and pretty much pulls it off.

Be assured, the violence never shies away from brutality of a kind that occasionally elicited audible gasps from a preview audience, a recognition that being shot or stabbed in certain areas of the body qualifies as excruciating to the max.

Reeves's barely buried fury sets a tone of semi-seriousness that director Stahelski maintains, creating a giant, grind-house conspiracy between the audience and a movie that loads up on chaos. We all know the movie is preposterous, so it doesn't have to wink at us.

And, yes, Wick once again has a dog, a conceit that forces us to worry over the animal's fate. And, yes, the door is open for another sequel, which I'm guessing will become inevitable after this chapter finishestearing up the box office.

Darker? A bit. Dumber? I'll say.

Fifty Shades Darker: A low-rent soap opera punctuated by a soft-core porn approach..

The first movie was better than expected. The second edition -- a soap opera punctuated with soft-core porn -- is precisely what I expected, a silly helping of romance which seems bound to make titillated audiences giggle.

Once again, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) hooks up with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Just in case she didn't learn enough about Christian's sadistic proclivities the first time around, Anastasia returns for a second helping.

Despite attracting the attention of her publishing company boss (Eric Johnson), she seems intent on testing the reformation that Christian claims to have undergone. He wants Anastasia more than he wants his S&M playthings -- up to a point. At least, he'll try to stay on track.

Hey, breaking habits isn't easy. Besides, what to do with all that kinky paraphernalia? Does Good Will accept nipple clips?

History aside, Christian seems a better bet than Anastasia's boss, who turns out to be a bit of a sleaze.

Anastasia doesn't seem to know what's obvious to viewers in the first five minutes. She loves this rich guy who has a special red room in his Seattle apartment. That's where he inflicts pain on women who -- ready for some psychology? -- represent the poor guy's crack addicted biological mother. She neglected him. He gets off on punishing others.

Christian's idea of commitment includes lots of oral sex and a semi-humorous bit involving small balls inserted in Anastasia's ... well .... you know. Which orifice did you guess? Still, we're supposed to believe he's trying to fight his baser impulses. He really wants his relationship with Anastasia to work, even though he can't entirely curb his possessiveness and jealousy.

Besides, Anastasia's into some of the more adventurous sex play. Turns out she likes a kink or two, so long as it doesn't tip into sadism.

The hapless supporting cast includes Rita Ora as Christian's sister Mia, and Marcia Gay Harden as Christian's adoptive mother. She hopes her son will find something resembling a normal life with Anastasia.

Kim Basinger shows up as Elena, the older woman who jealously guards what's left of her former relationship with Christian, who -- as I mentioned -- tries to behave himself.

Occasionally, another of Christian's former lovers (Bella Heathcote) -- a young woman gone creepy -- turns up to lend an air of mystery. A helicopter crash is inserted awkwardly into the proceedings.

Director James Foley takes over the helm, and does his best to give a high-gloss treatment to low-rent material.

For all its attempts at eroticism, the movie is aggressively uninteresting, a problem that's not helped by Dornan's lifeless performance and what seems like Anastasia's bubble-headed approach to everything.

Oh wait. I forgot. She's smart. She's read Austen and Bronte.

There's another Fifty Shades on tap, so if you're addicted to the E.L. James' stories, you'll have more chances to immerse yourself in the romantic falderal as Christian fights his worst impulses, the smitten Anastasia devotes herself to love, and dark forces threaten the couple's happiness.

Meanwhile, this edition of Fifty Shades Darker arrives in time for Valentine's Day, prompting only one question. Whatever happened to the simple, old-fashioned box of chocolates?

An Iranian couple faces a tough test

In The Salesman, director Asghar Farhadi's latest, nothing is as simple as its characters wish.

Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman is an Oscar nominee for this year's best foreign-language film. If you've been following the news (and who hasn't?), you already know that Farhadi, an Iranian, would be prohibited from attending this year's ceremony if the seven-country immigration ban instituted by the Trump administration goes into effect. The ban currently is moving through the courts, but Farhadi already has said that he won't attend.

Perhaps court action will allow Farhadi and actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who also said she wouldn't be walking any red carpets, to attend Hollywood's annual ceremony.

Say this, though. When one of the world's best filmmakers can't attend Hollywood's biggest ceremony, something has gone seriously wrong.

Those familiar with Farhadi's work (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly, The Past and the Oscar-winning A Separation), already know that Farhadi is a deeply humanistic director who deals with the personal lives of his protagonists as influenced and sometimes constrained by Iranian cultural imperatives.

Although set mostly in Iran, the characters in Farhadi's films never seem totally unfamiliar.

As if to underscore that point, The Salesman has an American play at its core. An Iranian actor couple (Alidoosti's Rana and Shahab Hosseini's Emad) are staging a version of the Arthur Miller classic, Death of a Salesman. The issues in Miller's play and the issues faced by the characters are meant to mingle in illustrative ways.

The movie begins when the apartment building where Rana and Emad live begins to collapse as a result of nearby construction. The couple must find new digs. Both are in the process of rehearsing Death of a Salesman when one of their colleagues tells them that he knows of a vacancy where they can take up temporary residence.

The former tenant of this new apartment may have been a prostitute, but Rana and Emad know nothing about the previous occupant, except that she's supposed to turn up at any moment to pick up the belongings she has left behind.

A pivotal plot point occurs when a stranger shows up at the apartment. Rana, who's taking a shower, forgets to lock the door, and is assaulted by this stranger. She winds up in the hospital.

This incident becomes the motor that drives the rest of the story. Rana falls into a depression, and Emad feels that his manhood has been challenged. He becomes obsessed with avenging what he regards as an affront to his honor.

Always a nuanced director, Farhadi brings the drama to an intense ethical confrontation that plays out in thought-provoking ways.

Farhadi is too good a director to draw clear-cut moral lines: good, bad, etc. The beautiful Rana is easily damaged. The robust Emad has strong creative impulses, so we're a little surprised to learn that culturally reinforced machismo so dominates his attention. Even the perpetrator of the attack on Rana -- vaguely defined to begin with -- evokes some pathos.

I don't think the movie reaches the level of complexity Farhadi achieved in A Separation, and the connection between Miller's play and the couple's reality makes The Salesman feel less organic that most of Farhadi's previous work. But that shouldn't stop you from seeing a movie about characters who must deal with one another, with their social environment, and, perhaps most importantly, with their flawed but recognizable humanity.

As is the case with many fine movies, you carry these characters forward after the movie's conclusion, knowing that they have been transformed in ways that will echo profoundly in the rest of their lives.

And just to put a cap on this review, one more observation. I would hate to see a time when a director such as Farhadi can't or won't visit American film festivals or accept an American award in person. The shame would be totally on us.

Shorts go long on substance

A son's guilt (Borrowed Time), an Algerian man being interrogated by an immigration authority in France (Enemies Within), and Greek Coast Guard workers trying to save Syrian refugees off the island of Lesbos (4.1 Miles) are all part of the amazing spectrum of people and issues highlighting this year's packages of Oscar nominated short films in the animation, live action and documentary categories.

In Denver, the programs are being shown at the Landmark's Mayan Theater (animated shorts and live action) and the Sie Film Center (documentaries). Each program consists of five films.

In my view, the documentary program ranks as this year's strongest entry, partly because three of the films deal with the heartbreaking plight of Syrian refugees. An example: Watani: My Homeland follows a mother and her children from the bomb-ravaged streets of Aleppo to a small town in Germany. White Helmets tells the story of rescue workers who attempt to dig people out of Aleppo's rubble.

The sights in the three documentaries about Syria prove particularly memorable. You'll meet young children so terrorized by bombings that the sound of an airplane is enough to send them into a panic. You'll see brave men risking their lives to save others. You may find yourself moved to tears.

Equally affecting -- albeit for different reasons -- is Extremis, a look at an American doctor dealing with patients facing death. Families agonize about what to do in a film full of caring people who must face moments fraught with wrenching difficulties.

It says something about the severity of this year's documentary entries that Joe's Violin, about a Holocaust survivor who donates a violin to a New York City school program, is the most uplifting of the documentary shorts.

I found this year's animation program to be perhaps the weakest of the Oscar-nominated lot, but that doesn't mean you won't find creativity. Blind Vaysha -- from Canada -- tells the story of a young woman who sees the past out of her left eye and the future out of her right. It may be the most inventive of the animated shorts.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes may remind you of a short story with its focus on the once-promising life of one of the director's most annoying yet irresistible friends.

Also included on the animated shorts list, Piper, a six-minute work from Pixar that's amusing though perhaps more conventional than its competition.

In the live-action shorts category, the Danish drama Silent Nights might have the best chance at landing an Oscar. It tells the story of a Danish woman who strikes up a relationship with a Ghanaian immigrant. Time Code -- about security guards at a parking lot -- contains nice surprises, and La femme et le TGV features Jane Birkin as a Swiss woman who has organized her lonely life around the daily passing of a train.

I'm not going to deep-dive into every film, but offer this brief piece as an invitation to expose yourself to the emotional dynamics of important social issues and to remind yourself that short films are a part of the cinematic vocabulary that you by no means should ignore.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Forget Mars, this one dies on Earth

The Space Between Us mixes teen romance and sci-fi -- to no apparent avail.

A teen romance decorated with sci-fi frosting, The Space Between Us builds a mush-minded scenario around an effort to colonize Mars, a planet Hollywood never seems to tire of abusing.

After some sketchy initial storytelling about how a colony on Mars has been established, the movie introduces us to 16-year-old Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield). Gardner is the only human ever born on Mars, a distinction that stems from the fact that his astronaut mother, was pregnant when she landed on the Red Planet. Mom didn't survive childbirth.

Like any teen-ager, Gardner craves contact with age-appropriate peers; he wants to visit Earth so that he can pursue a relationship with a young woman (Britt Robertson) with whom he's been carrying on an interplanetary version of Skyping.

In addition, Gardner never has met his father; the boy's search for Daddy becomes another thread in a predictable tapestry that mixes budding romance and fish-out-water cliches when the lonely, soulful Gardner gets his wish and lands on Earth.

The movie's adult cast includes Carla Gugino as Kendra, the woman who raised Gardener on Mars. Gary Oldman portrays Nathaniel Shepherd, a cheerleader for extraterrestrial living, who runs a company called Genesis Space Technologies. The Mars colony is Nathaniel's brain child.

Because he has spent his entire life on Mars, Earth's gravity threatens Gardner's biological system, so much so that if he remains on Earth, he could be doomed. Ready for a metaphor? Gardner's heart has become dangerously enlarged.

Before Gardner begins to fade, he and Robertson's Tulsa race around the country in variety of cars they steal, apparently without repercussion. The feisty (and annoyingly brash) Tulsa becomes Gardner's guide to Earth-bound living, as well as his love interest.

Director Peter Chelsom's (Hannah Montana: The Movie and Shall We Dance) doesn't create a seamless fit between teen-movie scenes and images of spaceships, the colony on Mars (dubbed East Texas) or any of the movie's other mildly futuristic touches.

Neither credible nor fanciful, The Space Between Us travels the vast distance to Mars and back, but winds up going nowhere.

Love on a South Pacific Island

The Australian movie Tanna has been nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category.

Tanna -- the first film shot in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific and acted by non-professionals -- caused a stir at last year's Venice Film Festival and has been nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category. Both a celebration of indigenous life and a tragic romance, Tanna introduces us to Dain (Mungau Dain) and Wawa (Marie Wawa), a couple from the same small tribe.

Dain and Wawa love each other, but their union is thwarted when their tribal elders offer Wawa in marriage to a warring tribe as part of a much-needed peace settlement.

Additional characters include Wawa's rebellious sister Selin (Marceline Rofit) and Selin and Wawa's grandfather (Albi Nangia). At one point, Grandpa brings the headstrong Selin to the edge of an active volcano, which the people regard as the home of the planet's spirit mother. Grandpa hopes that education in tribal customs will make Selin a bit less obstinate.

Directed by two Australians -- Bentley Dean and Martin Butler -- the movie offers a fair measure of island beauty, and makes it clear that the islanders are defending their way of life by resisting the encroachments of Christian influences. Their numbers are shrinking, but they have no wish to abandon the ways of their ancestors.

Tanna mixes anthropological interest with simple story telling, and if the movie doesn't always work at the deepest emotional levels, its lush island settings prove captivating.

Having said that, it also should be noted that Tanna isn't an exercise in voyeuristic exoticism. Credit Dean and Butler with achieving something more: These characters may be living tradition-bound lives, but they emerge as real people rather than as figures in a some colorful diorama seen through prying western eyes.

De Niro tries his hand at stand-up

A movie about a comic that's neither funny nor illuminating.

If we didn't already have enough to be depressed about, we can add one more thing to this abysmal winter of teeming discontents.

Robert De Niro has made another movie that probably will disappoint those of us who've been waiting for a great, latter-day return to form from an actor whose recent choices sometimes feel like a betrayal of his talent.

In the new movie, The Comedian, De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a comedian who hit it big with a '90s sitcom. Haunted by the character he once played on TV and unable to build on his early success, Burke has turned into an embittered (and decidedly unfunny) stand-up comic who specializes in insulting any audience has the misfortune of becoming his prey.

Absent the thematic resonance and insight of De Niro's King of Comedy, The Comedian puts De Niro in an awkward position. It's not easy to believe that Jackie has anything resembling worthy comedy chops. We wonder, then, why we're being asked to watch him.

A script credited to Art Linson Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman tries to put Jackie into a variety of situations that illustrate his desperation and persistence.

After a raucous incident in a nightclub, Jackie serves a month in prison followed by a stint of community service. During his community service he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), a young woman who's also doing community service.

Director Taylor Hackford (Ray), who may be ill-suited to movies with a sneer, can't make much out of a relationship that doesn't really make sense -- at least in any way that isn't a bit distasteful.

We also are shown Jackie's relationship with his long-suffering but indulgent brother (Danny DeVito), a restaurant owner who serves as an ATM machine for the perpetually broke comic.
Patti LuPone portrays the brother's much less supportive wife.

Say this: De Niro's presence draws talent. Edie Falco plays Jackie's manager, and Harvey Keitel shows up as Harmony's father, a man almost as unpleasant as Jackie. Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman and Billy Crystal appear in cameo.

The big joke that Jackie ultimately unveils centers on a parody of Makin' Whoopee. At a home for seniors in Florida, he offers his mock version entitled Makin' Poopy. Let's just say that this is not a moment of high wit.

It's daring, I suppose, to make a movie about a comedian who isn't particularly funny, but it's not clear whether the filmmakers understand that -- which only makes the movie more difficult to digest.

Bringing James Baldwin's voice to life

A powerful documentary that's full of a writer's searing truths.

In 1979, the great, sometimes incendiary and often heartbreaking author, James Baldwin, decided that he would study three pivotal lives of the Civil Rights movement. Baldwin planned to write about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were murdered and none of whom lived to be 40.

It's shocking to be reminded that Martin Luther King Jr., now enshrined in ageless-icon status, was only 26 when he emerged as a national Civil Rights leader and moral force.

Director Raoul Peck uses elements of Baldwin's writing (beautifully delivered by an off-camera Samuel L. Jackson) to give life to Baldwin's passion, intelligence and insight, often playing Baldwin's words against photographs and news footage that evoke the volatility of a country torn by racism, particularly a South mired in cruel Jim Crow segregation.

As the Civil Rights movement grew more heated, Baldwin left Paris where he'd taken up residence in 1948. He knew he had to return home to pay dues that he was watching others pay. He missed the life that had produced and nourished him, but he also had become a stranger in America.

Peck's movie becomes a kind of blistering diary in which Baldwin assesses his responses to what he saw as a child and what he's rediscovering as an adult.

Baldwin talks about the films he saw as a young man. He despised and feared white heroes who took vengeance into their own hands, as in John Wayne vs. Native Americans. He opines that a black man who sees the world as the John Wayne of popular culture sees it would be deemed a "raving maniac."

Such piercing observations are intercut with a research trip Baldwin took through the South. During those travels, Baldwin saw the line between witness and participant become thinner.

The years covered by the movie were marked by successive tragedies. Baldwin communicates the hollowed out feeling that comes from hearing streams of bad news.

"Medgar, gone," he says after Evers was murdered, a simple line delivered by Jackson with shattering finality.

That's a clue to the sorrow that underlies I Am Not Your Negro, a movie steeped in the pain of loss and the rage inspired by injustice.

As Baldwin says toward the movie's end, "The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story."

Baldwin, who died at the age of 63 in 1987, raged at American racism. Today, his voice sounds as powerful as ever. Baldwin reminds us that much of America's economic success was built on the backs of black people, through slave labor and oppression.

Peck uses clips of Baldwin speaking and many well-chosen scenes from movies that prevailed during Baldwin's life as a way of bringing his stunning documentary to its compelling, still necessary life.

I Am Not Your Negro, as much about Baldwin as it is about the men he hoped to study, makes us wish that in our days of turmoil, strife and division, we still had Baldwin's invaluable voice to pierce and illuminate the rancid din.