Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Can she rap her way out of Jersey?

Gritty and energetic, Patti Cake$ gives Danielle Macdonald a breakout role.

It's important to know that Patti Cake$, a movie about the emergence of a female rapper, takes place in the lower-class depths of New Jersey. First-time writer/director Geremy Jasper understands that for some folks, Jersey can be the place that nurtures them and the place they most want to escape. This dual pull infuses Patti Cake$ with dynamism.

Jasper tells the story of Patti Dombrowski, played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald. A heavy-set young woman, Patti dreams of shaking the world with her rap lyrics.

It's easy to accuse Patti Cake$ of being a formula job about a no-name woman who tries to buck the odds and make it big. It's also fair. Patti Cake$ qualifies as a kind of a rap Rocky built around a female character who's taunted by neighborhood jerks who derisively call her "Dumbo," a nickname she's been saddled with since childhood.

Fortunately, there's more to Patti Cake$ than the formula suggests. Among other things, it introduces audiences to Macdonald, who brings swagger, pathos and an ability to rap to the screen.

At 23, Macdonald's Patti calls herself "Killa-P" or "Patti Cake$," alter egos that help her survive the hard life to which she has been assigned.

So let's be clear. I'm not a rap enthusiast, but I recognize that rap requires a significant skill set: the ability to rhyme, the ability to create a narrative -- and, perhaps above all, a vocal dexterity that can turn a voice into an instrument of street poetry, blunt assertion, and staccato riffs.

I've read that Macdonald never had rapped before landing the part. I don't know who schooled her in the fine points of rapping, but she's plenty convincing as the driving force behind a group called PBNJ, initials derived from peanut butter and New Jersey.

Joining Patti in PBNJ are Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) and a character who dubs himself Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). A strange, nearly silent dude, Bastard lives in a shack in the woods and provides music and rhythms for the group.

Jasper mixes kitchen-sink grit and fairy tale aspiration to create a movie of power and pulse.

Patti, who works as a bar tender, lives with her mother (Bridget Everett) and her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Mom, who once aspired to be a singer, drinks too much and relies on Patti to help keep the family afloat financially. Mom also makes fun of Patti's dreams.

But Mom is an alcoholic with a twist; she actually can sing; her abilities come into play during the film's appropriately rousing finale.

Populated by the aging and embittered, the bar in which Patti works stands as a metaphor for dead-end Jersey lives that wind up stewing in a shot-and-a-beer world they'll never escape and which Patti longs to flee.

Patti's role model is a rapper and impresario known as O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), a member of rap royalty who lives like a pasha in a beautifully appointed home where Patti finds herself working a party after landing a catering job. Patti decides to take a chance and rap for O-Z, who cruelly dismisses her, accusing her of being a "culture vulture," a white person who appropriates black culture for their own purposes. I wish the movie had allowed for a little more reflection about that, but it clearly sets up O-Z as a rap elitist, one more obstacle for Patti to overcome.

The movie soothes some of the sting of cultural appropriation because "Bastard" is black and because Hareesh, who works in a pharmacy, has Middle Eastern roots. PBNJ is a multi-cultural experience.

Audiences pretty much will know where Patti Cake$ is headed, but its familiar path is paved with a Jersey spirit that's reinforced by the introduction of a Bruce Springsteen song during the end credits.

Not surprisingly, the movie ends at a contest in Newark where wannabe rap stars square off against one another. It's a fitting denouement for a movie that, like its main character, succeeds in firmly planting its feet and announcing, "I'm here. Deal with it."

In the movie, the period in the preceding sentence probably would be followed by a profane exclamation point, a word beginning with "m" and ending with "rs." And, yes, there's an "f" in the middle.

A Lake Bell comedy about marriage

As someone who loved Lake Bell's comedy In a World, I was looking forward to Bell's next movie, I Do ... Until I Don't. Oops. My expectations weren't entirely rewarded by Bell's new comedy about couples who participate in the filming of a documentary about marriage. The film is being made by an embittered British woman (Dolly Wells) who believes that marriages should have an opt-out clause that comes into effect every seven years. Bell's Alice is married to Noah (Ed Helms), who -- along with his wife -- struggles to make his window blinds business grow. Carol's hippie sister (Amber Heard) lives with her lover (Wyatt Cenac) in what they proudly bill as an open marriage. Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) is married to Harvey (Paul Reiser); it's her second marriage and it's gone stale. Steenburgen almost always is a joy to watch, and Bell and Helms are fine, as is everyone else in a strong cast, but I Do ... Until I Don't turns out to be wan and predictable. I wouldn't give up on Bell, though. She seems intent on writing, directing and starring in comedies that have something to say. She has the talent to strike again and make it work.

Another marriage in disrepair

Had we met Marie and Boris under different circumstances, we might actually have liked them. But in Belgian director Joachim Lafosse's After Love, we encounter Marie and Boris at their worst. They're in the midst of a break-up, but -- for reasons both practical and emotional -- they're living in the same apartment with their two daughters (Jade and Margaux Soentjens). Boris (Cedric Kahn) is bad with money; Marie (Berenice Bejo) pays most of the bills. The couple tries (frequently without success) to be civil to each other because of their daughters. Marie's mother (Marthe Keller) works at keeping the peace, encouraging her daughter not to give up on the marriage. But Marie no longer loves Boris and has become an expert at giving him an icy cold shoulder. She wills herself to shut him out, and anyone who's ever been walled off by another person will recognize the authenticity in Bejo's performance. Set mostly in the apartment Marie and Boris share, the movie observes the couple as they fight, enter periods of rocky co-existence, and, occasionally, reach a temporary rapprochement. Lafosse creates plenty of domestic tension, leaving us to pick our way through the rubble of a relationship that clearly has no future. Both Kahn and Bejo are well suited to playing former lovers who, over time, have become hopelessly mismatched. It's not easy to be around these two, especially in a movie that maintains such a tight focus, seldom leaving their apartment. It doesn't take long before we start rooting for Boris to move out -- mostly so that we can get away from both husband and wife. That's the point, of course, to give us a realistic picture of a marital end-game. Slow moving, the movie wades through a sea of hostilities while we wait for a major blow-up or a thaw in the ice that allows these two to reveal something about what made them a couple in the first place. As it stands, both Marie and Boris seem destined to gain by bidding each other farewell. Credit Lafosse for making a stab at honesty, but you may be glad finally to be liberated from that emotionally congested apartment.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

'Good Time' takes propulsive flight

Brimming with propulsive energy and full of domineering close-ups, Good Time comes across as a strange hybrid, a movie that blends the frenzy of Road Runner cartoons with the lives of characters living on society's shadowy margins.

This adrenalized movie about a couple of guys who botch a robbery may be about the ways in which movies can get in your face and stay there. At times exhilarating and at times overbearing, Good Time never backs off, which can make watching it akin to the experience of being unable to escape a conversation you're not always sure you want to have.

Directors Josh and Benny Safdie come across as unashamed proponents of the cinema of immediacy; the Safdies' characters are pushed through panic-fueled flight in a race to avoid capture, an old story but one viewed through a jangled urban lens.

Robert Pattinson, who rose to prominence in the Twilight series, continues to demonstrate that he has significant acting ability by playing small-time crook Connie Nikas.

Early on, Connie ropes his mentally challenged brother (portrayed by Benny Safdie) into joining him for a bank robbery. A wily bank teller outsmarts this masked duo by inserting a dye pack into their haul of cash. When the pack explodes, the brothers are marked by paint and doomed to run.

Battered in jail after being arrested, Nick winds up in a hospital: Connie, who's still running, attempts to spring his brother. Whether Connie does this out of love or out of fear that his brother, lacking in larcenous wiles, will spill the beans, remains an open question.

Before that, Connie tries to raise bail money with his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who evidently has been pulled into Connie's dangerous orbit before.

The movie's great gimmicky twist introduces us to Ray (Buddy Duress), a man newly released from prison. Never mind how the movie works Ray into the story. That's something to be discovered in a theater and it helps give the movie some comic edge.

While seeking refuge from the police, Connie hides out with a Haitian woman and her teenage granddaughter (Taliah Webster). Connie uses and betrays Webster's character, but also shows flickers of genuine concern for her. Street-smart, but inexperienced, Webster's Crystal can't keep up with Connie's manipulations.

Lest we mistake Connie for a lovable goofball, the Safdies show him brutally beating an amusement park security guard (Barkhad Abdi) who discovers Connie and Ray's intrusion into the park where they're searching for a hidden stash of drugs and money.

It's not the only time the Safdies make you wonder whether they've gone a little too far.

I don't know if Pattinson is improvising, but he creates the illusion of a character who's entire approach to life is improvisational. Connie doesn't plan; he reacts and relies on his instincts.

Duress adds humor as a guy too dim and drunk to avoid trouble. Duress's Ray is motivated by a desire to celebrate his recent release from prison, a place he doesn't wish to revisit. You don't need to be a seer to know that Ray's evening won't end well.

With the skilled help of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the Safdies give their movie kinetic life that seems to be spring right from their nerve endings.

What they can't do is make us -- or at least me -- root for Connie's redemption, and they sometimes left me wondering as Pauline Kael did at one point in her contrarian review of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull: "What am I doing here watching these two dumb f...ks?". (Jake LaMotta and his brother Joey.)

I didn't agree with Kael about Raging Bull, but after her review, I began to look for a genre you might call "dumb f...k" movies, if I may borrow the New Yorker's ellipsis. I'm not talking stupid comedies, but films with serious aspirations.

Compelling and impressive as it can be, Good Time left me mulling whether it shouldn't be tagged with a little bit of that label.

Inspired impressions in (not of) Spain

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon traveled this route before, but in The Trip to Spain the combination of Coogan and Brydon still clicks. After The Trip (2011) and The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain makes us wonder if these two don't plan to visit every country in Europe. To tell the truth, I don't mind if they do. Both Coogan and Brydon play themselves -- or at least versions of themselves. They travel to Spain, enjoy stunning vistas, eat disgustingly well and entertain us with a variety of impressions -- from Michael Caine to Sean Connery to Mick Jagger to Woody Allen. We've seen some of these impressions before, but it doesn't really matter because there's an unsettled quality to the relationship between the two men that makes their byplay feel fresh. Coogan and Brydon can be competitive and wry and Coogan can't always suppress his annoyance with his traveling companion. The reason for the trip: Steve plans to write a book about his Spanish travels; Rob supposedly is reviewing restaurants. Coogan and Brydon's dueling Roger Moore impressions have a pun-based twist, playing on the mistaken notion that Moore was a Moor. Coogan also worries about his career, an uninitiated change of agents, as well as alarming calls from his son and from a woman he's seeing in New York. The complication: She's married. Director Michael Winterbottom infuses the movie with a sad undertone involving the fact that the divorced Coogan -- as opposed to the married Brydon -- seems destined for perpetual unhappiness. It's arguable that this journey goes on too long. Still, I haven't tried of watching Coogan and Brydon do their dueling impressions act, which doesn't entirely hide traces of bitterness and, of course, the kind of self-absorption that keeps two men focused on each another, often at the expense of the mind-broadening pleasures of travel.

A drama set in Columbus, Ind.

Columbus makes modern architecture as important as its characters.

The director who calls himself Kogonada (not his real name) previously has made short films inspired by directors such as Ozu and Wes Anderson. Kogonada's debut feature -- Columbus -- premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it received mostly glowing reviews.

Kogonada's love of Ozu shows in Columbus, a movie in which the camera often remains stationary and in which the actors, for the most part, perform with admirable restraint.

The movie is named for Columbus, Indiana, a city known for its modern architecture, buildings from the likes of Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and James Polshek sit improbably in the heart of this small Midwestern city.

Columbus and its architecture become a character (perhaps the most interesting character) in Kogonada's story about two people moving in opposite directions.

Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) has graduated high school but is stuck. She feels obligated to remain in Columbus to take care of her mother, a recovering meth addict played by Michelle Forbes.

John Cho portrays a Korean-born translator who arrives in Columbus because his father, an architecture scholar, has collapsed and fallen into a coma. Unlike Casey, Cho's Jin needs to come to grips with his past, not move away from it. He hasn't spoken to his father for a year.

It should be apparent from the opening shots that Kogonada has a strong compositional sense that's bolstered by cinematographer Elisha Christian's ability to bring calm, ravishing light to almost every scene.

As the story evolves, Casey and Jin develop a flirtatious friendship. She works in the town library and derives pleasure and solace from the town's architecture. Jin claims to have no interest in architecture, which probably has something to do with his inability to feel anything about his father's impending demise.

Kogonada adds two additional characters to the mix, an associate of Jin's father (Parker Posey) and one of Casey's library co-workers (Rory Culkin). The conversations tend toward the intellectual; these characters evidently are accustomed to channeling their feelings into thoughts that they can share more easily than emotions.

Richardson, last seen in M. Night Shyamalan's Split, plays a coming-of-age role, and Cho conveys the weariness of a man who has been fighting his demons for a long time. Both do fine work.

Always great to look at, Columbus nonetheless can feel boring, studied and overly composed, so much so that it made me hope that Kogonada would loosen the arty cords that may be binding him and that sometimes constrict this otherwise promising work.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The bicker, they kill. That's the movie

Medicore Hitman's Bodyguard breaks little new ground.

In The Hitman's Bodyguard, bickering buddies shoot lots of people amid a flood of explosions, car chases and other forms of visual mayhem. There's also ample use of the "MF" word and a mounting pile of action sequences that have been edited to create a feeling of maximum frenzy.

The buddies in question are played by Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, two stars who have branded their big-screen personalities to the point where it's almost impossible for either of them to do anything unexpected.

Reynolds can be smart in the glib way of characters created by snark-capable writers. Jackson does variations on the savvy, profanity-spewing killer who eventually reveals a moral foundation for his seemingly reprehensible actions.

Watching Reynolds and Jackson go through their standard motions provides most of the pleasure in The Hitman's Bodyguard, an action comedy that tries to blast its way through the brick wall of late summer indifference.

The title pretty much tells the story. Reynolds portrays Michael Bryce, a bodyguard whose A-list career shatters when he fails to protect an important client from assassination. Reduced to second-rate protection jobs, Michael basically hangs around waiting for the plot to arrive.

The story kicks in when Jackson's Darius Kincaid turns up. Imprisoned for being a hitman with hundreds of kills, the notorious Kincaid makes a bargain with Interpol. If he testifies against a vicious Belorussian dictator (Gary Oldman), the authorities will release Kinkaid's equally lethal wife (Salma Hayek) from the Amsterdam prison where she's being detained.

At various points throughout, Hayek's Sonia is seen terrorizing her cellmate, exposing her cleavage, and trying to make up for limited screen time by contributing her own carload of profanity to the movie's "R" rating.

Elodie Yung plays Amelia Roussel, an Interpol agent, and Michael's former lover. She promises to help Michael regain his status as a high-priced bodyguard if he'll agree to escort Kincaid from prison to the Hague, where Oldman's character awaits trial for crimes against humanity.

You don't need to be a genius to know that the trip will leave many bodies strewn in its violent wake or that credibility takes an early hit.

After taking a bullet in his knee, Kincaid limps through action sequence after action sequence with the movie stopping for occasional flashbacks to explain how Kincaid met Hayak's character or how Michael developed a relationship with Yung's character.

Director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) seems to buy into to the theory that all action should be edited into fragmented shards, and the incessant banter between Reynolds and Jackson provides little that would make Oscar Wilde envious.

There's not much else to say about this formula job, which never rises above genre mediocrity, but may satisfy those who find this sort of rampant destruction appealing.

A caper movie, country style

Director Steven Soderbergh has fun with Lucky Logan, a heist movie set in West Virginia.
It's a bit of a stretch to think that anyone has been eagerly waiting to see Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, play a hillbilly safecracker from West Virginia. But Craig does just that in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky, a caper movie in which a group of West Virginia rednecks stage a robbery at the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600, a NASCAR race held on Memorial Day weekend.

Those who try to mine veins of importance from Logan Lucky, which was written by Rebecca Blunt, may find themselves straining. Logan Lucky stands as an enjoyable -- if slight -- caper comedy build around odd ball casting that creates much of the movie's appeal -- that and Soderbergh's understanding of how to freshen a formula.

An unlikely duo of Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play brothers. Tatum's Jimmy Logan is a beleaguered construction worker who loses his job for not reporting a pre-existing health condition; he has a limp. Jimmy's brother Clyde (Driver) works as a bartender despite having a prosthetic lower left arm, a souvenir from his military service in Iraq.

Jimmy would like to spend more time with his daughter after his divorce from Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). But Bobbie Joe and her husband (David Denman) plan to move to a swankier town, leaving Jimmy with a great need for money if he wants to maintain a relationship with his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie), a child who participates in beauty pageants.

With no legitimate prospects in sight, Jimmy uses the code word that his brother knows signals trouble. "Cauliflower."

The rest of the movie follows a pleasingly predictable pattern in which Jimmy assembles the crew he needs to pull off the heist. One of Jimmy's primary partners in crime is Joey Bang (Craig), a felon whose participation presents Jimmy with an obstacle. Joey's in jail. Jimmy contrives a scheme to get Joey out of the slammer so that he can put his larcenous plan in motion.

Jimmy's sister (Riley Keough) plays a role in pulling off a robbery that allows Soderbergh to revel in West Virginia color, sometimes in ways that seem a trifle self-conscious.

To further complicate matters, Joey insists that his participation is contingent on Jimmy involving Joey's two brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), a couple of guys who probably never will be mistaken for MENSA candidates.

Two additional performances are worth mention. Seth MacFarlane shows up as Max Chilblain, a British race car impresario, and Hilary Swank makes a late-picture appearance as a cop who's trying to nab the thieves.

Like many heist movies, Logan Lucky requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, and it's tough to avoid not thinking of the movie as a kind of knockoff of Soderbergh's Ocean's series, only with dirt under its fingernails.

I enjoyed Logan Lucky, even though I was seldom unaware that I was watching actors tapping into their inner rednecks. As it stands, the cast seems to be having the kind of good time that transfers to an audience.

A couple of clicks toward even more weirdness and Logan Lucky might have landed Soderbergh in Coen Brothers territory. Now that really would have been something to behold.

He fights to be a father

Menashe, a Yiddish-language film, tells the story of a widower whose relationship with his son is threatened.

Menashe, the main character in the movie of the same name, lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a member of a Hassidic sect, Menashe tries to adhere to the letter of Jewish law.

Not a man of worldly ambition, Menashe earns his living working the cash register at a local grocery store. Menashe speaks mostly Yiddish and the subtitled movie about him -- directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein -- makes room for only a smattering of English.

Those unfamiliar with Hassidic life may find Menashe as foreign as if it were taking place in another country. We're in the US, but Menashe immerses us in a culturally isolated community made up only of Hassidic Jews.

That doesn't mean that Menashe's story fails to strike a few universal cords. A widower, Menashe has been told that can't keep his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) unless he remarries. Menashe's rabbi (Meyer Schwarz) has ruled that every child must grow up in a two-parent household. The
complication: Menashe has no desire to submit to another arranged marriage.

As a result, Rieven lives with his stern uncle (Yoel Weisshaus), a man who's married, has his own family and views Menashe as incurably irresponsible.

Menashe Lustig, a bearish man whose story inspired Weinstein's screenplay, portrays the title character in a movie that has been cast with non-actors who appear to be deeply embedded in the world that Weinstein apparently had to film on the sly so that he did not run afoul of the Brooklyn-based community where the story takes place.

You'd think that our sympathies automatically would go to Menashe. But Weinstein makes it clear that Menashe doesn't really know how to raise a child -- even as he shows the father's love for the boy and the boy's love for his father.

As played by Niborksi, Rieven comes across as a smart kid who, at times, understands that his father might be in over his head.

The movie includes a wonderful scene in which Menashe shares beers with two Puerto Rican co-workers during a break from work. He also shares the story of his less-than-happy marriage. Honest and relaxed with these strangers, Menashe unburdens himself in English. His companions tell him that without a wife, he's free to do what he pleases, analysis that couldn't be further from Menashe's truth.

This lovely, human scene reminds us that there's life beyond Borough Park, even if Menashe and every other character in the film have no pressing desire to interact with it.

The first year anniversary of the death of Menashe's wife drives the story over the course of a single week. Despite his brother-in-law's objections, Menashe insists on holding the memorial service in his cramped apartment. He wants to prove to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi and to the community at large that he's capable. To the movie's credit, we're not convinced that Menashe is up to the task. He may not believe it, either.

Weinstein leaves it up to us to decide what to make of the lives he so richly evokes in a movie that qualifies -- on the basis of language alone -- as one of the year's more unusual offerings. It has been a long time since I've heard this much Yiddish, the language with which my grandparents were most comfortable and which my parents spoke when they didn't want either myself or my brother to know what they were talking about -- or when English simply couldn't match the richly sardonic capabilities of Yiddish.

Language aside, Weinstein's Menashe succeeds in doing what many good films do; it opens the door to a world most of us don't really know and allows us to meet the characters in it on their own terms. Nice work.

'Brigsby Bear' and 'Dave Made A Maze'

It's unusual that two movies, both of which risk silliness and both of which achieve some success, open during the same week. But that's the case with Brigsby Bear and Dave Made A Maze, both of which arrive in Denver and presumably around the country this week.
Brigsby Bear, the more engaging of the two movies, tells the story of a young man who was kidnapped as an infant. Kyle Mooney plays James, a man who's freed from captivity after 25 years.

James wasn't physically abused by his kidnappers; instead, he was isolated from everyone else by two people (Mark Hammil and Jane Adams) who claimed to be his parents and who evidently told him that the world was too contaminated for him to venture beyond their well-sealed home.

During his years of captivity, James became totally absorbed in the world of Brigsby Bear, a TV show that he watches on videotapes which his faux father, who dons a gas mask when he leaves the family compound, brings home.

Clunky looking and amusingly amateurish, Brigsby Bear introduces James to a complex fantasy universe that encompasses a variety of different worlds and villains.

There's no reason why the now-grown James should continue his interest in something as child-centered as Brigsby Bear, a series that wouldn't cut it even during the less sophisticated 1970s.

But the totally isolated James no longer makes any distinction between Brigsby's world and his own.

The movie shifts gears when the local police -- led by an amiable detective (Greg Kinnear) -- liberate James. He's returned to his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins. They try to bring James up to speed about a world that has passed him by.

When James's interest in Brigsby doesn't subside, his parents decide that he ought to see a therapist (Claire Danes). She tries -- without much success -- to convince James to abandon Brigsby and drop in on the "real" world once in a while.

But James persists, so much so that he and a new pal (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) decide to continue making Brigsby Bear videos. James wants to fulfill the only destiny he can imagine, bringing the series to its conclusion.

James becomes author, filmmaker, and star (in a bear suit) of the Brigsby Bear show.

Look, all of this sounds a bit ridiculous, but director Dave McCary, working from a screenplay by Mooney and Kevin Costello, displays a light, sensitive touch that eschews ridicule, even as it examines the role fantasy plays in keeping James going.

McCary could have put a sneer on the movie's face, turning it into a kind of hip satire about the danger of losing oneself in pop-cultural fantasies. Instead, he has made a captivating charmer of a movie about a young man trying to negotiate a world he may never fully understand.

Dave Made A Maze takes a different tack with its silliness, introducing mild elements of horror and danger along with a healthy dose of 20something dislocation.

Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives home from a weekend trip to discover that her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has erected a cardboard maze in their small living room.

The structure looks entirely wobbly and unsophisticated, a warren of boxes and smoking chimneys that might not withstand a strong wind.

From inside the maze, we hear Dave telling Annie that he's lost. He also makes the preposterous claim that the maze is much bigger on the inside than it appears when viewed from the outside.

Not knowing what to do, Annie asks for help from Dave's pal Gordon (Adam Busch). Others turn up, including a guy (James Urbaniak) who wants to make a documentary about the maze.

Eventually, Annie and company enter the maze, where they discover that Dave was right about the scale of the structure -- and also about its dangers. Booby traps lurk everywhere and a lethal Minotaur roams the premises.

Like Dave's maze, the movie adds creative, low-rent effects, some quite clever and most making inspired use of cardboard.

Dave Made A Maze ultimately wears out a thin premise. But at a swift 80-minutes, it proves more engaging than you'd think for a movie with a substantial number of cardboard sets.

A look at a Hollywood life

Michael Almereyda, who directed Ethan Hawke in a version of Hamlet set in Manhattan, brings his skills to a documentary about Hampton Fancher. If you just said, "Hampton who?," you're not alone. Fancher isn't exactly a household name, although he's credited as one of the writers of 1982's Blade Runner. Fancher also gets a writing credit for the screenplay for the much anticipated Blade Runner 2049, due this fall. Once an actor, Fancher appeared in a variety of shows during the 1960s: Bonanza, Perry Mason and Gunsmoke among them. Not afraid of the talking-head approach, particularly in his film's latter going, Almereyda concocts a fascinating look at a California life that led Fancher to the movies. Fancher fled home at the age of 16 and traveled to Barcelona to study flamenco. He's been married and unmarried and involved with a variety of women, including actress Barbara Hershey. Fancher is an interesting talker and storyteller, the kind of guy who always sounds like an "insider" no matter how obscure the story he's telling. Sci-fi fans will most appreciate the movie for Fancher's explanation of how he became involved with author Philip K. Dick and later with Blade Runner, which was based on a Dick novella. Almereyda allows Fancher to tell his own story, but often shows us photos from Fancher's past or from TV shows and movies in which the actor appeared. I enjoyed spending time with Fancher in Almereyda's documentary about a man whose life seems possible only in a place where everyone aspires to make movies.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trouble on a troubled reservation

In Wind River , an FBI agent and a tracker look into the mysterious death of a young woman.
There are so few movies with Native American characters that one is tempted to recommend Wind River solely on the basis of casting that includes many Native American actors. But in the hands of writer/director Taylor Sheridan, Wind River can't entirely balance concerns about terrible conditions on a Wyoming reservation with the genre demands of a thriller.

A subdued Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a Wyoming-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer who becomes involved in investigating the murder of a Native American teenager, whose body he finds in a snow-covered field. The young woman has been shot and sexually violated.

Olsen's Jane Banner, a newly minted FBI agent, arrives in Wyoming to figure out exactly what happened to the dead girl (Kelsey Asbille), a resident of the grimly impoverished Wind River reservation.

The screenplay puts Cory in a difficult spot. He knows the terrain and he knew the dead girl. Unlike the outsider played by Olsen, Cory has long-standing relationships in the Native American community. He had been married to a woman from the Wind River Reservation (Julia Jones), but their relationship ended in divorce after the disappearance and death of their daughter.

Obviously, Cory can't look into the death of another young woman without confronting the burden of grief and guilt that he carries with him. He couldn't protect his daughter from the sometimes lethal hostilities directed toward Native American women.

Sheridan wrote the screenplays for two better movies -- Sicario and Hell or High Water. This time, he creates a story that wallows in the dour resolve of men accustomed to suppressing anger and pain. Many of the characters seem to have accepted injustice as part of the fabric of a world that, for them, long ago slipped beyond redemption.

Only the town's sheriff (Graham Greene) shows splashes of humor, but it's of the deadpan variety, and the movie's snowbound landscapes add to the feeling of emotional desolation.

A skilled tracker, Cory spends most of his time hunting animals that prey on sheep and cattle. He wears a snowsuit to protect him from lethally cold temperatures. (The movie actually was shot in Utah, so if you've been to Lander, Wyo., where some of the movie supposedly takes place, don't be surprised if you feel a bit disoriented.)
Scenes between Cory and his young son and those between Cory and his estranged wife add humanity, as do scenes in which Cory meets with the father (Gil Birmingham) of the dead teenager. Such moments suggest that Wind River might have been more affecting had it spent even more time with the dead girl's shattered family.

Olsen, so good in Martha Marcy May Marlene -- isn't able to bring much depth to a character who makes up half of a cliché; she plays novice cop to Renner's savvy frontiersman.

Sheridan shows some of the physical and emotional impoverishment of life on the reservation. Wintry atmospherics and pervasive gloom almost become characters in a story that ultimately succumbs to a burst of extreme violence.

This finale involves a flashback and a shoot-out that overwhelms some of the movie's earlier observational insights. A final title card about the disappearance of Native American women from reservations -- evidently a widespread a problem -- struck me as too little, too late, almost an apology for the violent crescendo that preceded it.

A 2012 New York Times article about the Wind River Reservation, provides a better feel for life on what the locals call "the res." The article notes that, at the time of its writing, those living in Wind River had a shorter life expectancy than the inhabitants of war-torn Iraq.

The story also attributes the following quote to a tribal advocate:

"This place has always had the gloom here. There has always been the horrendous murder. There has always been the white-Indian tension It's always been something."
To his credit, Sheridan captures some of that feeling, but in the end, the sound of gunfire drowns out the cries of characters whose lot in life seems to demand that they find ways to bear the unbearable.

Young women step toward college

The students we meet in the documentary Step are spirited and entirely engaging.
The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009 with the stated aim of getting every one of its students into college. Modeled on the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, the Baltimore edition accepts 100 students a year. Students are selected through a lottery process.

If you look at the school's Web site, you'll find prominent mention of the BLSYW's competitive Step team and of Step, the much-heralded documentary about the team's young women. But, and this is a key to understanding the school, you'll find more emphasis on academics, counseling and on an educational culture that stresses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In what presumably was an attempt to honor the school's mission, director Amanda Lipitz's documentary spends as much time on the lives of three seniors as it does on the school's Step team, which is in the midst of trying to recover from an off year in which the team's best stepper -- Blessin Giraldo -- missed 53 school days.

The charismatic Giraldo comes closest to being the film's main character; she's from a home in which the refrigerator can remain empty until the Food Stamps arrive. As the school year progresses, Blessin's mother misses parents' nights, and her counselors struggle to motivate her to commit to the academic excellence which they're confident she can achieve.

At one point, a school official asks Blessin why she can't make as big a commitment to the school's academics as she has made to Step.

All of the students on whom Lipitz focuses come from economically strained backgrounds and all of them have grown up around the violence that continues to plague Baltimore. The movie begins with clips of protests that erupted after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of spinal cord injuries sustained in the back of a police van.

The point is that none of these young women are sailing smoothly toward success; their challenges are many, but -- if Step is any indication -- their spirits are strong enough to meet them.

Lipitz also introduces us to Cori Grainger, the class valedictorian. She's part of the Step team but dreams of attending Johns Hopkins. Cori's mother -- Triana -- was 16 when Cori was born.

Like any teenager, Tayla Solomon, the movie's third student, sometimes finds her intensely focused mother "annoying." But Mom, who's employed as a corrections officer, clearly works hard to ensure that her daughter doesn't drop her guard. When Tayla's grades slide, Mom -- who attends every practice of the Step team -- lets her daughter know that she's skating on thin ice and that boys will not be a distraction.

The Step team's coach -- Cari "Coach G" McIntyre -- proves supportive of the Step team, but she, too, has a single-minded focus on achieving excellence.

Lipitz includes lots of scenes at Step practice, where Coach G supervises. Her goal: To win a championship at an annual Step competition held at Bowie State University. The steppers, who call themselves "The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW," must be in top form to compete against teams from several other states.

The movie makes clear that for these young women success can be motivated by their desire not to lead lives that constantly are shortchanged by money woes and hardship.

I found Step a bit scattered, and I wish Lipitz had spent more time showing how step routines are developed. But I was impressed less by the filmmaking than by the young women of Step and by their school's supportive but disciplined approach, which seems to insist that in a sink-or-swim world, sinking simply won't be accepted as an option.

Marion Cotillard in 'Land of the Moon'

Marion Cotillard plays a woman longing for love and sex in From the Land of the Moon, a movie based on a 2006 novella by Milena Agus. Set mostly in Provence during the 1950s, the movie introduces three men into the life of Cotillard's Gabrielle. A high school teacher who loans Gabrielle a copy of Wuthering Heights becomes the first man on whom she has a crush. When that proves disastrous, Gabrielle's mother decides that her daughter ought to be married. Mom suggests that Gabrielle marry Jose (Alex Brendemuhl), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who works on the family farm. Jose agrees even though Gabrielle has vowed never to love him -- and, at least in the beginning, never to have sex with him. The third unlucky chap is Andre Sauvage (Louis Garrel), a veteran of the Indochina war whom Gabrielle meets at a Swiss spa where she has been sent to recover from kidney stones, which the movie refers to -- presumably with metaphoric/psychological intent -- as "stones disease." Throughout, director Nicole Garcia offers suggestions that Gabrielle may be mad. Lush photography aside, everyone in From the Land of the Moon seems to be burdened by unfulfilled desires. Cotillard proves more than capable of playing a woman distracted and possessed by her own inner life. Cotillard dominates every image in which she appears (which is most of them), giving her character an air of troubled beauty; her performance is almost (but not quite) enough to carry From the Land of the Moon to success. A surprise late-picture twist fails to ring true and isn't all that surprising, anyway.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

When the police become torturers

Detroit immerses us in a brutal racist incident that took place during the city's 1967 riot.
I found it impossible to watch Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit and not be flooded by a complex torrent of reactions to the movie's undeniable visceral power. Bigelow takes an unflinching look at a little known racist incident that took place during the Detroit riots of 1967. Police brutality and racism are awful, of course, but how much of it do we need to see before that point effectively has been made?

That's a question that every moviegoer will have to answer for his or herself, but -- I wondered, if in trying for unblinking honesty, Bigelow hadn't sometimes mistake intensity for insight.

Bigelow divides her movie into three unequal parts. She begins with an appropriately frenzied approach to the Detroit riots, settles into a disturbing and violent example of racist brutality, and then -- as if to temper the horror of what we've been watching -- spins out a courtroom finale in which the offending police officers are brought to trial.

Bigelow bases her movie on a true story, chronicled in a 1968 book by John Hersey, The Algiers Motel Incident. Events at the Algiers were a kind of adjunct to the Detroit riots that began when the police raided an after-hours bar frequented by black patrons.

No matter what side of the political divide on which you fall, it's nearly impossible to watch Detroit without making references to the climate between black communities and police forces that have been infected by institutional racism -- not only in 1967, but in 2017.

At the Algiers Motel, several young black men, two white women, several police officers and a black security guard are thrown together during the heat of the riot. The police officers -- led by a racist cop (Will Poulter) -- terrorize their captives in ways that result in psychological trauma and, ultimately, killing. By the end of the night, three young black men are dead.

From the outset, we've tagged Poulter's Krauss as an undisguised racist. Even before the incident at the Algiers, he goes unpunished for shooting an unarmed black man in the back.

The movie's segments in the Algiers Motel are on a par with the kind of sustained cruelty we sometimes see in horror films. Of course, torture is precisely what the police are doing to their innocent victims, perpetrating an invisible slice of horror during the intensely pressurized atmosphere of a violent outburst that made Detroit resemble a war zone.

During this portion of the film, the police line their victims against the wall, singling them out for humiliation, along with two white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) who were partying at the Algiers. The cops accuse the women of being prostitutes, an opinion they seem to justify only because the women have been hanging around black men.

Three figures stand out among the black men, the lead singer of a group called The Dramatics (Algee Smith), a military veteran recently returned from Vietnam (Anthony Mackie) and a friend of Smith's character (Nathan Davis Jr.).

No one is more conflicted about what's happening at the Algiers than John Boyega's Dismukes, a security guard sent by his employer to protect a store from looting. Dismukes becomes caught up in the Algiers' drama. He's a law-and-order guy, but he's not blind to the racism that's being displayed by out-of-control cops.

All of this begins because the cops believe that someone in the motel fired a gun at them. As it turns out, the gun was a starter pistol fired by a young man (Jason Mitchell) who had been trying to frighten a small gathering at the Algiers by mimicking the way white policemen treat blacks. To make his act more convincing, Mitchell's character draws the fake gun, eventually firing it out a window.

I don't want to leave the impression that Detroit proceeds entirely without nuance. In the movie's later going, we meet cops who are appalled by what happened at the Algiers. We sometimes see the movie's brutal but self-serving cops trying to find a way out of the situation they've created. Not every black character is willing to stand up for truth when it comes to exposing the viciousness to which they've been subjected.

Bigelow may want us to understand that the cops have deluded themselves into believing that abuse is not only justifiable but a privilege of their positions of authority. Once the firebombs start flying, these policemen seem to think they've been granted license to do anything.

All of this unfolds after a prologue featuring paintings by Jacob Lawrence that try to provide some context for the riots: northward migration by blacks devolved into segregated housing projects and high unemployment. That's the gist.

Later, we'll see news clips of George W. Romney and President Lyndon Johnson, political leaders who remind us that what we're witnessing springs from a reality; the government apparatus geared up to meet what it saw as the challenge of unleashed fury and wanton destruction.

Written by Mark Boal, who also wrote Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit might have been even more daring had it taken some time to show us the pre-riot atmosphere in the Detroit police department, the conditions that presumably made Poulter's character possible.

As the movie unfolded, I found myself wondering how a director as meticulous as Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) would have handled such a volatile story.

It's also worth remembering that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing already made a statement about the ways in which racial violence can be kindled.

So a confession: At various points during events at the Algiers Motel, I wondered what Bigelow was trying to accomplish by allowing them to drag on so long.

Other points are more economically made. Mackie portrays a Marine who recently returned from Vietnam. Having served his country offers him no protection from the wrath of the police.
That's a powerful observation.

It also helps to remember that many of the current and well-publicized incidents of questionable police conduct did not take place under violent duress; racism hardly needs riots as an excuse to express itself. Sometimes, all it takes is a traffic stop.

Little illuminated in 'Dark Tower'

Inspired by eight Stephen King novels, this summer movie may do a quick fade.
One of America's most popular and prolific authors, Stephen King wrote eight novels in his Dark Tower series. Instead of picking one of them, director Nikolaj Arcel and his team, which included Arcel and three additional writers, decided to make a big-screen mash-up of King's opus, cherry picking what they must have seen as choice elements for a screenplay.

The resultant movie -- The Dark Tower -- can be taken as a pean to unabashed eclecticism, drawing on everything from spaghetti westerns to sci-fi ploys to Tolkien-like fantasy.
Early fears that the movie would veer toward incoherence can be set aside. The Dark Tower -- which alternates between a world called Mid-World and present day New York City -- can be followed, but before it's done a different question emerges: Followed to what end?

Neither bad enough to offer the guilty pleasures of pure trash or good enough to constitute enthralling summer fun, the movie -- which clocks in at a merciful 95 minutes -- features a cast that includes Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, each of whom plays a character representing a different moral polarity. Elba portrays The Gunslinger, a cowboy seeking revenge against the Man in Black (McConaughey).

This disreputable Man in Black, also known as Walter, killed The Gunslinger's father and has devoted himself to destroying the Dark Tower.

The tower, which looks like a giant stalagmite that has been painted black, can be found at the center of a circle that encompasses many universes. If the tower falls, demons will be unleashed. Horrors will ensue. The Man in Black will capitalize, reigning over the chaos.

To achieve his evil goal, the Man in Black appropriates the energy of specially gifted children to beam potent rays of destruction at the tower.

A Manhattan teenager named Jake (Tom Taylor) is the most powerful of these psychically gifted young people. The Man in Black wants to use Jake to destroy all the universes, which are connected by portals.

Nutty? To be sure, but most fantasies resist careful scrutiny, and -- in this case -- themes about sons who lose fathers barely resonate.

Add some creatures with skin that they wear (seams show) and a variety of other tricks that give birth to special effects that fall short of knockout levels, and you've got the idea.

Elba, a fine actor, looks great in a Clint Eastwood-style duster. Sporting an upwardly brushed hair style that might make Christopher Walken envious, McConaughey does his best to convey the eerie villainy of a character who refers to his various abilities in the plural, calling them "magics."

The Man in Black can work simply, as well, killing people by passing a hand over their faces and telling them to "stop breathing."

It seems cavalier to dismiss a movie inspired by eight novels with a short review, but I see no reason to belabor this one or to suggest that I returned from any of the movie's various universes with anything resembling great rewards. Despite lots of huffing and puffing on the part of the filmmakers, The Dark Tower seems far too easy to shrug off.

Family problems, '90s style

How you react to Landline, a comedy set in 1995, depends a lot on how you react to Jenny Slate, a comic actress whose performance encompasses what might be called a level of hysteria you'll either find endearing or annoying. (I leaned toward annoying.) On the verge of marriage, Slate's Dana is one of those characters who hasn't settled into her self. As a result, Dana's not sure whether she's ready to spend a lifetime with her fiancé (Jay Duplass). Dana's father, on the other hand, has been in a long marriage with his sometimes sardonic wife (Edie Falco). An advertising copywriter who aspires to be a playwright, Dad (John Turturro) is having an affair that's discovered when Dana's rebellious younger sister (Abby Quinn) finds a series of love poems Dad has written to his mistress. How rebellious is Quinn's Ali? She smokes cigarettes, has become sexually active and even tries snorting heroin. Meanwhile, Slate's Dana acts out her uncertainty about marriage by having an affair with an old college flame (Finn Wittrock). The supporting performances are sharp and the writing by Lillian Robespierre, who directed, and Elizabeth Holm, can be funny. (Robespierre, by the way, directed Slate in Obvious Child, a 2014 rom-com involving a woman who has an abortion). Landline never creates the feeling that anything momentous hangs in its easy-going balance, but it has been drawn with affection for characters whose struggles, for the most part, feel real -- if not profound. Remember it's the '90s, a time when people still had dot-matrix printers attached to their clunky looking computers. It doesn't have much to do with what the movie's about, but looking at these techno dinosaurs made we wonder whether anyone ever swooned with nostalgia over yesterday's technology. I'm guessing, no.

A sex object from another world

One woman's husband is having an affair with her brother. Another woman, seen having sex in the movie's opening scene, shows up at a hospital to be treated for a mysterious injury she tries to pass off as a dog bite. We've already got enough grist for any dramatic mill, but The Untamed -- directed by Mexican director Amat Escalante -- adds a bizarre twist to its sexually loaded scenario. The movie's Lothario turns out to be an alien creature whose tentacles are the source of intense sexual pleasure for all of the characters; the alien creates sensations so intense, they either become addictive or wind up killing those touched by the creature. Escalante works in a straightforward style that never calls attention to the movie's inherent weirdness. The principals in this helping of quasi sci-fi (Eden Villavicencio, Ruth Ramos, Jesus Meza and Simone Bucio) play characters living in a limbo between the mundane and the extraordinary. Add the tyrannical mother of one of the characters and you have a domestic drama with a wild card (the alien) that may represent an unleashed helping of id. The Untamed won't appeal to every taste -- especially those who think the idea of sex with an octopus-like alien slithers toward the repulsive. Despite its deadpan treatment of an implausibly weird premise, the movie's gamble (mixing the unquestionably strange with the drearily familiar) yields mixed results.

A career role for Catherine Deneuve

Always an actress of elegant beauty, Catherine Deneuve lets down her guard in The Midwife, a movie about a midwife (Catherine Frot) whose life is upset when Deneuve's character turns up after a long absence. Deneuve portrays Beatrice, the mistress of Frot's character's late father. Director Martin Provost begins by introducing us to Frot's Claire, a woman devoted to a profession that helps bring new life into the world. A single mother with a son in med school, Claire spends her free time tending to a communal garden in a Parisian suburb. There, she meets a genial truck driver (Olivier Gourmet) who's interested in starting a relationship. But the relationship that most impacts Claire involves tense meetings with Deneuve's Beatrice, a flamboyant woman who has exaggerated her station in life. As it turns out, Beatrice has contacted Claire out of desperation: A brain tumor has left Beatrice with a limited amount of time to live. The movie serves as a showcase for Deneuve, who's playing a character who's both irresistible and annoying. Frot ably abets Deneuve's performance. Together Deneuve and Frot deliver a nice duet in a somewhat forgettable melodrama with an interesting sidelight. Claire's small maternity clinic is about to be overwhelmed by a high-tech addition to the health landscape that's sure to sacrifice the kind of personal touch that Claire very much values. The movie's irony, I suppose, is that Claire, a woman skilled in birth, is asked to help Beatrice face her death.