Thursday, September 28, 2017

A fight for equality or more hype?

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Battle of the Sexes, a movie about the much-heralded match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

Battle of the Sexes -- the story of the much-hyped 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs -- isn't exactly a good movie, but it contains interesting work around the fringes.

Bill Pullman, to take one example, steeps his performance in a fully vested sense of privilege as Jack Kramer, a former tennis champ and executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals. A staunch opponent of the idea that women and men tennis players should earn equal money, Pullman's Kramer stood at the head of the tennis establishment.

Pullman effortlessly imbues every ounce of his performance with an ingrained belief: Women never could equal men on the tennis court. I don't know what the real Kramer was like, but Pullman has been asked to embody the sexist beliefs of a sport that was male-dominated in the 1970s, and he uses the opportunity to deliver a character who has no idea that he's confusing prejudice with fact.

Another fine -- but also minor performance -- in Battle of the Sexes belongs to Elizabeth Shue, who plays Riggs's wife, Priscilla. The scene in which Priscilla dissolves their marriage becomes an exquisite rendering of decisiveness from a woman who understands that Riggs, a compulsive gambler, never will provide the stability she needs. Priscilla tells Riggs the marriage is over with a sense of dignity, authority, and love that's stunning in its compassion.

In line with Shue's performance, the movie treats endangered marriages with a kindness that's quite unusual. Prior to the big match, King's marriage is being tested. She begins a lesbian relationship with her hairdresser. King's husband (Austin Stowell) tries to weather the storm, holding his emotions in check.

It also should be noted that Sarah Silverman has a nice turn as Gladys Heldman, the savvy woman who helped organize and find funding for the women's tour that King and others started.

I know. I haven't said a word about the big match that the movie presents as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the women's movement. I also haven't mentioned that Emma Stone does a credible job as King, although I found myself constantly evaluating her against whatever memories I have of the real person.

With a set of crooked false teeth, Carrel gives an interesting spin to Riggs's life, making him a man whose chauvinism becomes shtick. At the time of the match, Riggs was 55; King was 29. Solely on the basis of his gender, Riggs tried to sell the idea that an aging male tennis star could beat a vibrant young woman with an exceptionally strong game. Riggs, of course, couldn't conquer the difference caused by age, even with a gargantuan supply of vitamin supplements.

You don't get the sense that Riggs totally believed in his chauvinistic rants. He was trying to sell tickets and provide himself with a big payday. For him, the match was an opportunity to put himself into the center ring of a circus -- until, of course, the moment when he realized that he couldn't beat King.

For King the stakes are higher: She wants to prove that women should be treated equally by the tennis authorities. Earlier in the movie, she leads a revolt in which women players withdraw from high-profile tournaments and create their own tour. The issue: equal pay.

Much of the movie (too much, I'd say) is taken up by the budding relationship between King and her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). At the time, any hint of gayness would have destroyed King's career, so she was forced to walk a thin line between her emotional needs and her public image.

In part, the movie is hampered by its structure. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) alternate between Riggs and King, a stylistic choice that's equivalent to putting a net between two parts of the narrative and, then, shifting from one side to the other. As a result, Battle of the Sexes can feel as though it's moving sideways instead of gaining forward momentum.

Faris and Dayton do a decent job with the big event, which took place in Houston's Astrodome. The surrounding hoopla almost overwhelmed the actual match, which King won easily.

During the match, the directors show us shots of women rooting for King and middle-aged men looking disconsolate as they realize that their avatar was headed for defeat.

Granted the '70s were a tumultuous time for male/female relations. I know. I was there. But the guys I knew at the time thought the King/Riggs spectacle had less to do with gender barriers than with hype: I didn't take the match seriously enough even to watch the ABC telecast of it.

Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy, the directors must have realized that they had loaded their plates, picking a subject that touches on gay emergence, marital woes, shifting cultural norms, the inflated atmosphere that can surround sports and the desire of some to cash in on all of the above. Faris and Dayton never quite find a tone to encompass the chaos that not only rocked the culture but impacted individual lives.

Put another way, this is one tennis movie that could have used more topspin.

Wild, crazy and ... well ... dangerous

Tom Cruise plays a drug smuggler in the middle of an impossibly complicated situation.
If you really want to know the story of Barry Seal, a pilot who supposedly worked for the CIA and smuggled drugs for the Medellin Cartel, you'll have to do some on-line research or read books such as Daniel Hopsicker's Barry & The Boys: The CIA, the Mob and America's Secret History. Or you could try Del Hahn's Smuggler's End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal or you could devote your time to something other than taking a deep dive into a strange footnote to US history.

As someone who hasn't delved deeply into Seal's life (I haven't read either of the above two books), I assumed that director Doug Liman took a Hollywood-sized share of liberties with Seal's story to bring American Made to the screen. He also hired Tom Cruise to play Seal, a bored TWA pilot who -- according to the film -- went did surveillance work for the CIA in Latin America, stumbled into the drug trade with the Medellin Cartel, found himself at odds with the DEA, and cut a variety of deals as he attempted to keep himself out of jail.

Liman, who directed Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, uses a framing device to tell Seals' tale. The smuggler makes a series of videotapes that lead us into extensive flashbacks in which Seal's complicated life of crime unfolds.

Cruise portrays Seal in typical Cruise fashion. Seal is all amped-up energy as a pilot who responds to events with pinball speed and very little reflection. Cruise's Seal has enough mischievous charm to make the movie fly, that and screenwriter Gary Spinelli's appreciation for the rank absurdity that put an unknown man into the middle of a historical maelstrom.

Seal may be a pilot, but he's no Top Gun; he's a blur of serial impulses, a down-scale version of other Cruise characters, but a welcome reminder that even when he plays a less-than-admirable guy, Cruise's big-screen magnetism holds sway.

The script isn't big on motivation: Bored with his TWA gig and dabbling in the occasional smuggling of cigars, Seal becomes a prime target for CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). Schafer assures Seal that legality doesn't really matter so long as he's working for the "good guys."

Seal lies to his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) and tells her that he's leaving TWA to open his own business. As the movie progresses, Lucy senses the truth, but she, too, is dazzled by the riches that Seal's drug smuggling brings, especially when the CIA relocates his operation from Seal's native Baton Rouge to the small town of Mena, Arkansas.

Liman approaches a fractured narrative with speed that tends to give a near antic quality to the proceedings which also include an appearance by Caleb Landry Jones as Seal's dirt-dumb brother-in-law.

If you approach American Made as a Cruise-driven entertainment, you'll find an involving helping of all-American cynicism in which the world spins without the benefit of a moral compass.

To bolster the film's authenticity, Liman makes occasional use of news footage, but in American Made, tone convey's more of the movie's truth than any particular incident, and -- like most movies that deal with the rise and fall of a criminal, American Made shows the dizzying fun of Seal's rise, a time when he had so much money, he couldn't launder it fast enough.

The difficulty with this kind of buzzed filmmaking is that it immerses us in a world that spins without the benefit of any moral compass, obliterating any real sense of personal responsibility. Part conniver and part pawn, Seal resembles an adrenaline junkie looking for the next high.

Whether you see this as a statement about American life during the 1980s or as a perverted form of entrepreneurial striving may not be the point: Cruise and Liman ask us to share Seal's kicks and risk, right up until the inevitable crash puts a stark exclamation point on what has been an enjoyably crazed ride.

An aging queen finds renewal

Victoria & Abdul focuses on Queen Victoria and the Indian Muslim who perked up her final years.

If nothing else can be said about Victoria & Abdul, a nicely appointed period piece starring Judi Dench as England's fabled Queen, it should be noted that director Stephen Frears has come up with one of fall's best special effects. No, it's not an explosion and it has nothing to do with the far reaches of space; Frears's great contribution to the world of effects arrives in the form of a sculpted, multi-colored gelatin dish that is served as dessert to the Queen, who -- in her dotage -- no longer has the most impeccable table manners.

The dessert serves as a reminder of courtly opulence, a bit of ornamentation that tells us far too much time is being spent on matters of far too little importance.

Enjoyable in the way of slightly wry British period pieces, Victoria & Abdul is so dominated by Dench that it could have been named solely for the Queen who ruled from 1837 to 1901. Victoria died at the age of 82 to be succeeded by her son Edward VII whose reign lasted a mere nine years.

When we meet the Queen, she's in that phase of life in which she's being indulged (sometimes grudgingly) by the royal household that attends to her. She falls asleep during formal dinners and needs servants to help her to sit upright in bed, as if they were pushing a great rock up a steep hill.

As imagined by Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall, the Queen's problems are twofold. She's bored and lonely, never having totally recovered from the death of her husband Albert, some 31 years prior to the start of the movie.

The emotional vacancies in Victoria's life are addressed when chance brings an Indian Muslim to London to present the Queen with a ceremonial coin. Tall and handsome, Abdul (Ali Fazal) arouses the Queen's interest. She gives him and another Indian jobs as footmen and later makes Abdul her munshi; i.e., her teacher in matters pertaining to the mysterious ways of the East. Victoria learns Urdu and listens as Abdul slips in the occasional slice of wisdom gleaned from the poet Rumi.

In the early going, Frears sets a mostly comic pace, suggesting that he may be trying to mock the pretentious formalities of court life. The burden of representing all this pretension falls on actors surrounding the Queen: Tim Pigott-Smith as her flustered secretary, Michael Gambon as the dour prime minister, and Eddie Izzard as Bertie, the Queen's ambitious but patently hollow son and heir.

Dench, who played Queen Victoria in 1997's Mrs. Brown, provides the best reason to see the movie. She makes the Queen's loneliness convincing and even conveys hints of girlish infatuation as she gets to know Abdul. She's charmed by him. She badly needs to be charmed by someone because everyone around her seems to have curdled into near-parodic members of the aristocracy.

But Victoria & Abdul has more in mind than comedy. It also assays the cultural frictions created by the presence of a Muslim in this upper-class gaggle of bigots and stuffed shirts, a crowd in which eyebrows seem to be raised in perpetual disapproval.

Victoria & Abdul is based on a true story, but I don't know whether it's accurate to say that in her final years, Victoria tried to pierce the curtain of propriety that surrounded her, taking aim at the royals who wanted Abdul sent back to Agra, India, and the obscurity from which he emerged.

Unfortunately, Abdul becomes a kind of prop, a character who allows Victoria to show her decency, as well as to make one last stab at asserting her authority. When Abdul's wife and mother-in-law arrive, their faces are hidden behind burqas. In a way, Abdul himself remains hidden. Is he a simple naif whose motives are pure? Is he a bit of a charlatan trying to advance himself? Frears would have done well to give us more than glimpse into Abdul's soul.

Speaking of Frears, it's worth noting that some of his sharper edges seem to have soften from the days of the 1980s when he gave us movies such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Dangerous Liaisons. There are traces of bitterness and restrained sarcasm in Victoria & Abdul, but nothing the will unsettle most viewers.

Though their main characters find themselves in quite different circumstances, Victoria & Abdul seems aligned with Frears's Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) in which Meryl Streep plays a deluded New York heiress. Both movies have crowd-pleasing elements and moments of rue and both deal with aging women who face debilitating losses of luster as the ticks of mortality's clock grow ever louder.

A key figure in the struggle for rights

The documentary Dolores tells the story of Dolores Huerta, a Mexican-American organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez to found and advance the United Farm Workers union. Director Peter Bratt focuses on Huerta's long career of activism, which tends to be lesser known than Chavez's. In addition to charting the work of an activist, the movie also lets us know how Huerta's 11 children viewed their mother's life. For Huerta's offspring, their mother's commitments caused resentment and, later, insight and admiration. Even within the movement for the rights of farm laborers, Huerta sometimes was criticized for not staying home with her kids. Huerta paid other heavy prices for work; she was severely injured by police during a protest in 1988, an experience that brought her family together. Bratt's film helps give Huerta, instrumental in organizing the multi-year grape boycott that ended in 1970 with the signing of a new contract, the importance she deserves. More importantly, Dolores reminds us of what's possible when pressure is exerted at the grassroots level -- not to mention the persistence and sacrifice required by those who strive to bring about change. As one of her sons says, "If you're going to walk away from your family like that, you gotta believe in something bigger." Huerta, who also understands the pain her children sometimes felt, certainly believes in something bigger and she has spent almost all of her 87 years fighting for it. Dolores opens in Denver on Sept. 29 at the Mayan Theatre with appearances by Huerta for Q&As during the film's opening weekend. Check with the theater for the show times at which Huerta will be present (303-744-6799).

Looking for some peace and quiet

In Pursuit of Silence reminds us that silence really is golden.
If ever there were a time for a documentary such as The Pursuit of Silence, it's now. Director, editor and co-cinematographer Patrick Shen has made a movie that reminds us of the necessity to find some peace and quiet -- and also that the two are intimately connected. We all know a lot about the opposite condition in a time when Kim Jung-un screams at Trump and Trump yells back at Kim, when TV news often consists of antagonists shouting at one another, when sporting events are filled with wall-to-wall noise having little to do with the games, when volume in movie theaters can be cranked to ear-splitting levels, and when the ubiquitous rings of cell phones are likely to jar the senses at any moment. When you watch The Pursuit of Silence, which informs us of the high decibel counts with which most of us live, you may find yourself longing to find a silent space. Even our national parks and forests aren't entirely immune to noise from passing cars or from planes passing overhead. Shen keys on composer John Cage as an early and important artistic proponent of silence, citing Cage's 4'33, a totally silent piece that he debuted in 1952. If you can't get away from the din of the city, you'll find a bit of respite in some of Shen's beautiful imagery, glimpses of Alaska's Denali National Park, for example. A tea ceremony in Kyoto made me wonder whether every world leader shouldn't be required to engage in such a ritual before giving a speech. Shen interviews experts on the impact of noise on human well-being and leaves us with a quote we'd all do well to inscribe on our doorposts: "Silence returns us to what is real." To use a popular phrase in a new context, "Maybe it's time we all got real." The above image, by the way, is one of the calm, meditative sights that Shen uses to put us back in touch with the silence many of us spend excessive amounts of time trying to avoid.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Learning to survive catastrophe

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs during the Boston Marathon bombing.

For most of its 116-minute running time, director David Gordon Green's Stronger stakes out a claim to importance. In telling the story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), the movie becomes one of the rare entertainments that isn't about graphic displays of violence but about realistic depictions of the effects of violence on those who experience it.

For those who don't recall, Bauman was waiting at the finish line for his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) to complete the 2013 Boston Marathon. He lost both his legs when two bombs exploded. Bauman also was able to identify one of the bombers, having stood about a foot away from the perpetrator.

In the climate of "Boston Strong" that followed the bombings, Bauman became a hero. He was honored at a Boston Bruins hockey game and later at a Red Sox game. He was bombarded with public adulation. As a survivor of a cruel tragedy, he became a symbol of triumph over terrorist mayhem.

Green shows us what Bauman's life was like in the post-bombing days. In a wheelchair and reliant on his girlfriend and his mother (a strong Miranda Richardson), this goofy but good-hearted son of Boston faced dual problems: adjusting to a disabled life and also to the attention he never sought.

Gyllenhaal's performance anchors the movie; he mixes moments of humor with moments of self-pity. Gyllenhaal portrays a man who others see as a hero, but who would rather get drunk with pals than pat himself on the back. Who can blame him? For Bauman, using the bathroom has become a physical ordeal.

To play the role, Gyllenhaal lost weight, turning Bauman into a gaunt figure with a crooked, diffident smile. A Costco employee who worked roasting chickens before the bombing, Bauman never seemed to have any great ambitions. Had the Marathon explosion never happened, he might have been content to watch Red Sox games in bars while exchanging stinging insults with friends. He might have been a working-class Peter Pan, a young man who sees no great benefit in entering the adult world.

Bauman doesn't always appreciate the help he gets from Maslany's Erin, the girlfriend who quits her job to help him through his arduous therapy, which includes learning how to use artificial legs.

Green tries for authenticity in his depiction of working-class Bostonians, a little grittier than what we saw in Peter Berg's Patriots Day, another movie about the Boston Marathon bombings.

Bauman's family and friends are tough, profane and not altogether agreeable people who are only too happy to join him at a bar or try to capitalize (emotionally) on what they view as his ascendance. As Patty, Bauman's Mom, Richardson creates a character who's jealous of Erin's potential to replace her as the central figure in Bauman's life.

Richardson's face reflects a mixture of bitterness, fear and occasional hope; she never tries to make us like a character who has difficulty letting go of her son. Bauman lived with his mother at the time of the bombing and remained at her home afterward.

Maslany proves equally determined as Erin, a young woman who goes through hell along with Bauman and is pushed to her breaking point. Like everyone in Stronger, she's not afraid to lose her temper.

Green doesn't dwell on the explosion that took Bauman's legs, although he brings it up in quickly inserted flashbacks that, by the end, of the movie, blossom into a more vivid (and perhaps unnecessary) display of the blast that changed Bauman's life.

Scenes in which Bauman meets Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the bystander who helped him at the site of the bombing, are well played by both Sanz and Gyllenhaal. Carlos lost a son in Iraq. Evidently, many who had relatives who were killed or maimed in America's recent wars looked to Bauman's story to reassure them that life could go on.

Toward the end, Green yields to a temptation that he manages to elude for most of the movie. He allows the movie to join the inspirational chorus in which Bauman, as a person, and Bauman, as a symbol, begin to merge. These final scenes have an unavoidable taint of hagiography that mingles with a genuine thematic attempt to give Bauman moments of reconciliation that allow him once again to be comfortable in his own skin.

Obviously, there will be those who find the film's conclusion more stirring than I did, but Gyllenhaal's strong performance and equally vital contributions from a fine supporting cast keep Stronger on track, making it a powerful look at what happens when ordinary people are damaged by events over which they have no control.

I can't think of a more wrenching scene than the one in which doctors remove the bandages from Bauman's remaining legs. Not only is the removal screamingly painful, but it also serves as a stamp of finality on Bauman's condition.

Green shoots the scene creatively, showing us Bauman's tormented face and the face of his girlfriend in profile; what remains of Brad's legs appears in soft focus between them. Do we want to see? Does he?

Together, Green and Gyllenhaal have made a movie that asks us not to look away.

He thinks everyone else is better off

Director Mike White casts Ben Stiller as a father whose confidence is lagging in Brad's Status.

Ben Stiller knows how to squirm in his own skin. Cheers for writer/director Mike White, who has found the perfect vehicle for Stiller to express a nearly intractable case of mid-life jitters. In Brad's Status, Stiller portrays a father who accompanies his son on a tour of the New England colleges to which the young man has applied. The trip forces Stiller's Brad to evaluate his own life. Mostly, he doesn't like what he sees.

Brad believes his old college chums have surpassed him in the success department, and Brad wonders whether he hasn't wasted his life running a non-profit when he could have been focused on magnifying his bank account.

Not that Brad is suffering. And that, ultimately, may be the movie's point. Brad and his wife (Jenna Fischer) live a comfortable life in California with a son (Austin Abrams) who's going to have no difficulty attending a good college and finding a place for himself in the world.

But Brad is undone by his ceaseless competitiveness. He insists on evaluating his life in terms of others -- even to the point where he might be envious of his son should the young man be admitted to Harvard. Brad graduated from Tufts, a fine school but not Harvard.

White, who wrote the screenplays for Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and Beatriz at Dinner and who directed Year of the Dog, this time adopts an accessible approach, keeping his focus on the way Brad's rampant feelings of inferiority look when contrasted with what seem to be his more or less problem-free life.

To make the point, White's screenplay introduces us to the men with whom Brad compares himself.
White plays a successful movie director who happens to be gay but who didn't invite Brad to his wedding. Luke Wilson portrays a hedge fund manager who has acquired all the accouterments of great wealth, including a private jet. Jermaine Clement appears as Billy, a tech whiz who made a fortune and retired to Maui to live with two young women who know how to fill out bikinis.

Michael Sheen's Craig rounds out the quartet of jealousy-inducing stories that torment Brad; Sheen's Craig is a pundit who often appears on TV. He teaches a course at Harvard and can't make it through a restaurant dinner without someone approaching him to offer praise.

During Brad's visit to Boston, he and Troy meet one of Troy's friends. Shazi Raja portrays a young woman who seems to grasp the magnitude of privilege that supports Brad's life, but she's not entirely likable, either. She's a little too glib, a little too quick with her accusations, and a little too disrespectful of Brad's experience.

That, too, gives Brad's Status a welcome sense of realism.

White brings the movie to a somewhat predictable conclusion and he pretty much follows a blueprint in scenes that show us that the objects of Brad's envy aren't problem free. Everything looks better when viewed from the outside, and Troy seems far better adjusted than a father who picks at his life as if it were a scab that's beginning to itch.

OK, so it's not an insight that will rock your world, but White delivers it in a movie that manages to be easy going and troubled at the same time -- more insightful and a bit more rueful than you'd expect from what initially sounds like such an unpromising premise.

A kinder, gentler boarding school

Some time after the film's debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, someone decided to change the title of a winning new documentary from In Loco Parentis to School Life. In loco parentis refers to situations in which an educational institution assumes parental responsibilities for a young person.

When I was in college, issues of in loco parentis were routinely discussed in campus newspapers. I'm not sure discussions about the role of college administrations vis-a-vis the lives of their students are conducted in quite the same way anymore, but the initial title of School Days suggests a role for schools that goes well beyond classroom instruction.

That approach certainly applies to the Headfort School, Ireland's only primary-age boarding school and School Life's fascinating subject. I don't know if you can extrapolate larger educational meanings from School Life, but I do know that I would have loved to attend such a school, this one located on the remnants of a large estate.

School Life focuses on a husband and wife who have taught at Headfort for almost 50 years. Both are dedicated teachers who bring their own personalities to everything they do. The students at Headfort range in age from three to 13, but the film concentrates mostly on the older students.

Amanda Leydon teaches literature; her husband John Leydon teaches Latin. She supervises school dramatic productions; he helps students with their musical development, most of it centered on rock. John's demeanor and wry delivery may put you in mind of actor Bill Nighy, which -- for me at least -- created an instant fondness for the man. The Leydons manage to stay in touch with their students, even as they occasionally sneak off for a cigarette, blowing smoke out of a school window.

Because directors Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane focus mostly on the Leydons, their documentary tends to highlight the arts. The film avoids spoon feeding us information, preferring instead to stay close to students and teachers in ways that allow us to draw our own conclusions about Headfort.

I would have loved to see how subjects such as mathematics, which John Leydon also teaches, and science are taught, but School Days certainly gives us a feeling for an institution that has been built on the idea that a kinder, gentler experience can achieve as much as those built around unflagging discipline.

Dermot Dix, the school's headmaster, discusses the Headfort mission on the school's Web site: "The children's happiness is central and precious."

At Headfort, that ideal doesn't seem to interfere with helping Headfort's students gain admission to some of the best Irish and British secondary schools.

The directors' approach precludes giving certain information, so I did a bit of research myself. By my rough calculations, the cost for Irish students who board at Headfort and who are over 10 years old is roughly $7,710 per term and about $2,400 more for students who do not reside in Ireland. The school offers scholarships for children under 10 and "a small number of bursaries" for older students who may not otherwise be able to afford private education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the annual cost per pupil of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. was about $11,222 in 2013-14. According to the Private School Review, the national average private school tuition is about $9,975 per year. Private elementary school tuition is $8,918 per year and private high schools average about $13,524 per year in the US.

But money isn't the only measure of value. Lest potential parents worry that their students will be unable to compete, Headfort's web site assures readers that children are taught the national curriculum and work to standardized tests, but the school also emphasizes the hope that its students will become "critical, rather than dutiful, thinkers. At Headfort, we know that education is a means of liberation, rather than confinement."
Watching School Life convinced me that, at Headfort, these words transcend the usual brochure boilerplate. If the Leydons are any indication, everyone at Headfort practices exactly what the school preaches.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

It's one 'Mother!' of a movie

Director Darren Aronofsky's wild-ass horror movie aims big -- maybe too big..

Take the exclamation point in the movie's title seriously. Watching director Darren Aronofsky's Mother! is like reading a book in which every word has been italicized for effect: the silences are oh so ominous, the creak of a shoe on a wooden floor can be jarring and when a furnace fires up, it's like a bomb has exploded. The aural atmosphere of Mother! has been amped up to take what starts as a chamber-piece helping of horror and inflate it to the point of explosion -- maybe beyond that.

In his efforts to harness as much on-screen venom as possible, Aronofsky has enlisted an A-list cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Bardem plays a poet; Lawrence plays his devoted wife. The couple has just moved into an isolated country home.

Irritable to the point of hostility, Bardem's character ignores Lawrence's character. She plasters walls and works on turning the house into a little piece of paradise. You probably have a pretty good idea where all attempts at creating paradise wind up.

Buried in an increasingly chaotic plot, you'll find a mordant comedy about the burden of uninvited guests. The first of these is a man who identifies himself as an orthopedic surgeon (Ed Harris). The surgeon excuses his intrusion by saying he thought he had arrived at a bed and breakfast inn.

Harris' character smokes when asked not to, and claims to be a devoted fan of Bardem's work. He also says he's dying. It doesn't take long for the surgeon's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to show up. She's so rude, she makes Harris's character look considerate. She leaves a mess wherever she goes and pushes Lawrence's character into all manner of unwanted conversations.

To augment this bizarre scenario, the couple's two grown sons (Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and immediately engage in a Cain-and-Abel style fight over their father's will.

The credits identify Lawrence's character only as Mother; Bardem is referred to as Him. This tells us that we're watching a film that wants to mine a metaphorical motherland. As is often the case, Aronofsky aims big.

Aronofsky toys with every horror trope he can find: eerie basements, spurts of blood and a steady stream of unexplained noises.

All the while, Aronofsky frames Lawrence's face in booming close-ups; Lawrence expresses perpetual consternation over the fact that her husband insists that these uninvited guests stay; his desire amounts to a betrayal.

Generally, Lawrence's character behaves in ways that make little sense, a problem that afflicts much of the rest of the movie, but Aronofsky seems intent on making us ride a wave that swells with bizarre shocks.

With a movie such as Mother!, much hinges on whether Aronofsky can tie things together. Watching Mother! is like listening to a very long (and not entirely interesting joke) hoping that the punchline makes the time we're investing worthwhile.

Now if you want to excavate some meaning from all the stylistic bric-a-brac, try this. Bardem's character is a self-absorbed artist who pays very little attention to his wife. He allows his guests to insult and berate her, every now and again offering his apologies. The fact that Harris's character is a fan suggests that Bardem's character will put up with anything -- so long as it's accompanied by massive adulation.

Aronofsky carries this notion to wild extremes in the movie's final act, which I won't describe here because Aronofsky's images do have a surprising quality that should be discovered in a theater.

Aronofsky (Noah, Black Swan, The Wrestler and The Fountain) certainly knows how to create vivid images but when he finally wraps up his movie, I had the sense that I had just watched a perversely overproduced and willfully malicious episode of The Twilight Zone. It's as if Aronofsky has channeled impulses from filmmakers such as Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby) and Michael Haneke (Funny Games) and given them an even more twisted spin.

Mostly I felt sorry for Lawrence, a gifted actress playing a character who takes a psychological and physical beating as the film progresses. Aronofsky may be trying to describe a particularly loathsome form of male behavior, especially among artistic men, but to make his point Lawrence must become the movie's sacrificial lamb.

Whatever the case, it's worth noting that in enlarging the characters played by Bardem and Lawrence to float his allegorical balloons, Aronofsky mostly ignores their humanity. I took the movie's preoccupation with close-ups as significant, a way of locking its characters in the prison of a tormenting vision.

With Mother!, Aronofsky huffs, puffs and damn well tries to blow the house down. But this time out, I found myself wondering whether there was anything more to the movie than the ominous howl of all that huffing and puffing.

He's very tough but who really cares?

Mitch Rapp, the hero of American Assassin, battles bad guys and a muddled script.

Loads of people are familiar with author Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, a disaffected loner recruited into the CIA after a terrorist murders his girlfriend on a beach right after the two have become engaged. It may take every fan of Flynn’s 16-book series to turn American Assassin — the first Mitch Rapp movie — into a hit.

Muddled by a scattered screenplay and hampered by Dylan O’Brien’s notably unremarkable performance as Rapp, American Assassin does a fair share of globe hopping but manages to go nowhere.

After his fiancee’s death, Rapp trains himself to become a killing machine, staging a one-man Libyan mission to kill the leader of the terrorist group responsible for his fiancee's death. When American troops disrupt his work, Rapp finds himself in the hands of the CIA, where the head of counter-intelligence (Sanaa Lathan) turns him over to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a former Navy SEAL who trains his charges to be merciless killers.

At first, it seems as if swarthy complexions constitute the movie's only requirement for villainy, but we soon learn that a disaffected American (Taylor Kitsch) is trying to arrange a plutonium deal in Poland. Kitsch's character plans to sell Russian plutonium to Iranians — or some such.

That’s only the beginning of global hopscotching that takes Rapp to Turkey, Italy and other places, moving too quickly even to offer travelogue diversions.

In my view, only three reasons justify seeing American Assassin: a reasonably imaginative virtual reality training sequence, Keaton's crazed handling of a wince-inducing scene in which Stan is tortured and a late-picture explosion that can’t be described without giving away the movie’s climax.

Most of the time, American Assassin -- which was directed by Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger) -- fails to distinguish itself, looking like a low-rent version of the Jason Bourne movies with a little Jack Ryan thrown in.

For all its fights and action, American Assassin fails to generate the excitement we associate with the discovery of a new hero. The movie pauses for occasional chunks of listless exposition before leaping ahead to the next scene or country.

The net effect: Watching American Assassin made me feel as I if were skimming a second-rate novel, leafing from one chapter to the next, vainly hoping to stumble on something good.

Dancing her way toward freedom

A classically trained Russian ballerina wonders how much self-expression she must sacrifice in preparing for her audition for the Bolshoi Ballet. Anastasia Shevtsova, a real dancer, portrays Polina, the movie's title character as a young woman. Based on a graphic novel by Bastien Vives and directed by Valarie Muller and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj , Polina follows Polina from childhood into her 20something years. Initially, Polina studies with Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), no-nonsense teacher who doles out compliments parsimoniously. When Polina travels to Moscow to try out for the Bolshoi, she falls for a French dancer (Niels Schneider) and decides to return to France with him, much to the dismay of her father. Miglen Mirtchev plays Polina's Dad, a man who has fallen into difficulties with the Russian mob but who always wanted to see his daughter become a prima ballerina. In France, Polina joins a company run by Lira Elsaj (Juliette Binoche), a character whose style is freer and more modern than anything to which Polina has been exposed. Trouble looms: An ankle injury hampers Polina's career and her romance falls apart, leaving her to travel to Antwerp, where she works as a bar tender. There, she meets Karl (Jeremie Beligard); you won't be surprised to learn that Polina and Carl wind up dancing together. Hardly groundbreaking, Polina nonetheless features two fine performances from the actresses who play Polina (Veronica Zhovnytska as the young Polina and Shevitsova as the more mature dancer). Polina isn't the deepest drama but the dancing elevates a story that sometimes feels predictable. Credit Shevtsova with creating a character who's trying to use her training and develop her own style. Polina doesn't necessarily want to throw away the past; she hopes to carry it into a more liberated future.

Outrage after a police shooting

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis deliver a strong, clear message in Whose Streets?, a documentary about what happened in August of 2014 after Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. The message: The Civil Rights movement as we once knew it is dead, but that doesn't mean protest has ended. Whatever you think about Brown's killing, Whose Streets? proves informative because it focuses on the people who took to the streets in the wake of Brown’s death; i.e., it can be seen as a portrait of a deeply aggrieved community. The U.S. Justice Department eventually found that the police in Ferguson consistently had violated the rights of African Americans, so it's hardly surprising that Whose Streets? captures the outrage and frustration felt by Ferguson residents who view the post-Brown response as an armed invasion of their community. No disputing the conclusion; we all saw the armored vehicles roll in. Some of the footage comes from cell-phone images captured by protestors, which gives Whose Streets? an appropriately shaky and chaotic feel. Disturbing, if a bit repetitive and digressive, Whose Streets? reflects the mood and concerns of a much-abused population, the residents of Ferguson who weren't shot but who too long have lived with a police force that seems to have done little to serve and protect them -- and, as the movie makes clear, that treatment didn't start with Michael Brown's death.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

'It' sends in the clown -- and he's a killer

Latest Stephen King adaptation likely to score with audiences. To me? A yawn.
The working-class adults in It, an adaptation of a 1,000-plus page 1986 Stephen King novel, are abusive, cruel and, in some cases, detestable. Whether this arises from economic pressures or stands as some sort of class bias isn't entirely clear. Maybe it doesn't matter because the adults aren't the obvious focal point of director Andy Muschietti's adaptation; it's their kids.

To explore the fears of adolescent life, It follows -- if distantly -- a 1990 TV adaptation in which Tim Curry distinguished himself as Pennywise, the clown who terrorizes the children of Derry, Maine.

Muschietti and a trio of writers (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman) shift the time frame of King's novel from the 1950s to the 1980s and deal only with the first half of King's opus. A sequel is set to follow in which the teens of this edition return as adults.

Arriving more than 30 years after the novel's publication, this big screen version suffers from inevitable comparisons with a rash of other horror movies in which teens are terrorized by evil forces and by memories of another King-inspired movie, Stand By Me (1986).

By now, gory horror (icky streams of blood, razor-sharp teeth and other foul manifestations of malignant forces) make it seem as if we've seen It before and deprive the movie of some of the resonance that King must have intended.

Full of familiar King tropes, It tries to follow King's lead, allowing evil figures to provoke familiar fears of childhood. Who, at one time or another, hasn't trembled at the thought of entering a dank basement? That sort of thing.

In what can be viewed as thematic piling on, the teens of Derry not only must confront the buck-toothed Pennywise but are also taunted by the town bully (Nicholas Hamilton). Anyone who remembers his or her teen years may find Hamilton's character a good deal more frightening than any of the movie's booming effects, delivered with considerable verve and polish but too easily left behind in the theater, along with kernels of spilled popcorn.

The teens in the movie have named themselves the Losers Club. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) leads the group. Bill's younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by Pennywise in the movie's swiftly stated prologue.

The rest of the club members mostly are distinguished by single traits. One kid (Wyatt Oleff) is Jewish; another kid (Chosen Jacobs) is black; still another (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is overweight.

Every group of screen kids needs a wise-ass. In this case, the job falls to Finn Wolfhard. Jack Dylan Grazer portrays a kid dominated by his mother.

As the story develops, a girl (Sophia Lillis) joins the pack. Lillis' Beverly has a sexually abusive father and, unfairly, has been branded as "a slut" by her classmates.

Among the movie's problems: Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the scary clown whose makeup and goofy affect conceal his true nature, hovers near cliche, even with his ability to transform from a clown into his horrific real self.

Having pretty much found It to be a yawn, I should hasten to say that the movie likely will add some spin to the multiplex turnstiles after a lackluster couple of late-summer weeks.

Before a preview screening of It, King appeared in a short clip addressed to the audience. He said he was happy with the adaptation and praised the movie's young cast, all of whom do fine work as they spout profanities, shriek and behave as credibly as the story allows; they also discover that their hometown is targeted by waves of violence that appear in 27-year intervals.

Sometimes, it feels as if It lumbers from one set piece to another, giving each of the teens a scene that plays to his or her major fear. Each eruption of shock creates the aura of a super-charged fun house -- vivid but depthless. And at 135 minutes, the film begins to feel as lengthy as the book.

The movie teaches the members of the Losers Club a lesson that might have been culled from Hillary Clinton's campaign slogan: "Stronger together." The monster can't win if the kids unite to overcome their fears.

Although It takes full advantage of current technology in producing its many effects, the movie nonetheless feels trapped by the well-worn demands of a genre in which nearly every move feels too ingrained to break the bounds of the screen and take up residence deep inside our worst nightmares.

When Alice, 40, meets Harry, 27

Reese Witherspoon can't save a rom-com in which the romance isn't great -- and neither is the comedy.

Viewed through the most positive possible lens, the new romantic comedy Home Again has one element that might be regarded as fresh. A 40-year-old woman (Reese Witherspoon) disregards age differences and has an affair with a 27-year-old man (Pico Alexander).

Fair enough, but Home Again breaks little new ground with a mostly desexualized affair that stems less from desire than from confusions caused by a dissolving marriage. Besides, the whole age thing would have been more daring had Alice been written as a 50-year-old woman.

Witherspoon's Alice Kinney has arrived in Los Angeles with her two daughters (Eden Grace Redfield and Lola Flannery) to occupy the house of her late father, a well-respected director who also was known for his womanizing.

While partying at a bar with girlfriends on the occasion of her 40th birthday, Alice meets Harry (Alexander), an aspiring filmmaker.

Harry has arrived in LA with two filmmaking buddies (Nat Wolff and Jon Rudnitsky). The trio hopes to sell a screenplay writing based on a short that gained some recognition of the festival circuit.

After a drunken attempt at romance between Alice and Harry misfires, the three young men wind up living in Alice's guest house where they engage in annoyingly positive interactions with Alice's daughters and prove to be ideal tenants. Why not? They're not paying rent.

It's nice to see Candice Bergen in a brief role as Alice's mother, the woman who suggests that Alice shelter these apparently talented young men. Too bad, the screenplay gives Bergen so little to do.

Alice and Harry eventually begin a romance. The other two guys also have their eyes on Alice, but behave like gentlemen who become ridiculously (if not amusingly) protective of her when her estranged husband (Michael Sheen) arrives with hopes of patching up the marriage.

Director Hallie Meyers-Shyer -- the daughter of filmmakers Nancy Meyers (The Intern) and Charles Shyer (Baby Boom) -- has made the kind of romantic comedy that seems to exist behind the walls of a gated community where suffering is limited and all consequences easily are attenuated.

In starting her own business, Alice meets the duplicitous Zoey (Lake Bell), who hires Alice to decorate a child's bedroom. Zoey takes advantage of Alice, treating her like a nanny. Oh, the indignity.

OK, so rom-coms often rely on easy to swallow situations and posh surroundings, environments that soothe, offering palliative care for reality-weary audiences. But it's definitely disappointing to see Witherspoon, who created a real character in HBO's Big Little Lies, step backward into a world in which the most adventurous thing anyone might do is forgo the luxury of a personal shopper.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Murder and mystery in Victorian England

There aren't many actors I can say this about, but I'd watch just about any film that features work from Bill Nighy. In The Limehouse Golem, a melodramatic period piece set in Victorian London, Nighy sheds the customary twinkle in his eye (and, yes, it's always a wry twinkle) to play Inspector Kildare, a detective whose colleagues scorn him because of rumors that he might prefer men to women. As played by Nighy, Kildare doesn't seem particularly interested in having sex with anyone; Nighy brings a spirit of existential weariness to his portrayal of a man desperately in need of one last battle to fight. Kildare finds it when he's assigned the unenviable task of solving murders committed by a fiend who refers to himself as The Limehouse Golem. Olivia Cooke portrays Lizzie, a music hall star who becomes the wife of wannabe playwright John Cree (Sam Reid). When Cree, whose career failed to launch, is found dead, Lizzie is accused of having poisoned him. Kildare believes in Lizzie's innocence and thinks that he can exonerate her by solving the Limehouse murders, which are conducted in particularly brutal fashion. Adapted from a novel by Peter Aykroyd, The Lime House Golem includes a string of real-life characters, among them Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and music hall performer Dan Leno, rendered in a terrific performance by Douglas Booth. Many of the characters become suspects as the movie hops from one red herring to the next before reaching its somewhat strained conclusion. Director Juan Carlos Medina (Insensibles) delivers a richly appointed evocation of 19th Century London in a movie that makes use of twists that are revealed in flashback and speculative scenes about the Golem's true identity. Well acted and richly atmospheric, The Limehouse Golem doesn't quite terrify, even though its talented cast and abundantly colorful artifice sustain interest. Eddie Marsan has an unnervingly creepy turn as Uncle, a music hall master of ceremonies who harbors secret perversities.

An ode to the once ubiquitous typewriter

For these enthusiasts, the typewriter is a hallowed instrument

There are good reasons why the computer has replaced the typewriter as the best way to write almost anything. Word processing has proven far better than pounding the keys of a typewriter; computers are faster and make it easier to correct mistakes. Besides, as someone raised on typewriters -- even throughout a good part of my newspaper career -- I can attest to the fact that typing wore you out, although the manual carriage return created a motion that probably cut down on carpal tunnel syndrome, providing a built in motion that required taking at least one hand off the keyboard.

Don't tell any of this to the people in Doug Nichol's documentary, California Typewriter. These typewriter collectors and steadfast users of a now defunct technology believe that nothing surpasses the typewriter for composing written material.

Tom Hanks, for example, talks about his collection of typewriters and tells us how much more he appreciates a typewritten thank-you note than one delivered by email. I don't know why Hanks doesn't handwrite such notes, taking up an even older and more personal technology, the pen. But that's another story.

Much of California Typewriter centers on a Berkeley, Calif., typewriter repair shop owned by Herbert Permillion III, who opened his business in 1981 after spending years working on IBM Selectrics.

Ace repairman, Ken Alexander, who works in Permillion's shop, emerges as one of the documentary's singular voices. Alexander expresses his love for typewriters and talks about the increasing difficulties of repairing them. Replacement parts are vanishing.

We also hear the late Sam Shepard talking about his Swiss-made Hermes 3000 and the hallowed rituals made necessary by using a typewriter, inserting new sheets of paper, for example.

Younger viewers will recognize singer/songwriter John Mayer, another typewriter convert.

Not all typewriter fans are equally respected by purists. Take Jeremy Mayer, who collects typewriters and uses their parts in his sculptures. Desecration, some say, although Mayer also has a trove of spare parts that sometimes helps Alexander in his work.

How serious are typewriter collectors? As committed as the collectors of anything, including someone who paid $210,000 for the Olivetti on which Cormac McCarthy wrote most of his novels.

The history of the typewriter proves fascinating, and the movie thrives on the obsessive charms of its human subjects, qualities that prove infectious even if you're not tempted to start browsing the Internet in search of a machine of your own. The Internet, by the way, plays an instrumental role in helping to save Permillion's business from extinction, an irony that's not lost on anyone.

When it comes to obsession, I, too, am not immune. I found myself browsing various Web sites to see what it would cost to obtain a Smith Corona Clipper or, better yet, one of the Hermes 3000s about which Shepard waxed poetic. Personally, I never much like the IBM Selectric or any other electric typewriters. And, yes, I suppose I could drum up some nostalgia for the days when newsrooms were full of bulky Underwoods and you always seemed to get one that had been so abused that at least one key no longer worked or had the inconsiderate habit of sticking to the paper.

Ah, the good old days.

The Nile Hilton Incident and The Oath

Great quantities of tobacco and a few joints, as well, are smoked in The Nile Hilton Incident, an Egyptian film noir based on a true story. Swedish/Lebanese actor, Fares Fares, plays a detective who tries to solve a murder, even as he takes payoffs as routinely as he lights his ever-present cigarettes. Fares Fares's Noredin may be corrupt, but he's part of a culture in which bribery has been routinized. Still, Noredin gets hold of one case he really wants to solve, the hotel murder of a beautiful young woman. A rich and powerful man is implicated. As it turns out, a hotel maid (Mari Malek) saw the murderer leaving the scene of the crime. For American audiences, a decaying Cairo becomes as much of a character as any of the story's humans. Director Tarik Saleh conducts a rambling, sometimes disjointed tour of an entirely compromised city in the days just prior to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Seedy and alluring, The Nile Hilton Incident may not be the greatest detective story you've ever seen, but its setting and the looming protests that soon would fill Tahrir Square and lead to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak give the movie a serious tone that points to the conditions that, at least in part, led so many Egyptians to demand change.


Anyone who makes a thriller that's able to capitalize on the lonely frozen vistas of Iceland begins with a leg up. Baltasar Kormakur, the Icelandic writer, director and star of The Oath makes sure that we see these landscapes in ways that intensify and add depth to this story about an obsessive heart surgeon (Kormakur) who wants to save his wayward daughter (Hera Hilmar) from a drug-dealer with whom she has fallen in love. Kormakur portrays Finnur, a man who also has a young daughter with his second wife (Margret Bjarnadottir). But it's Finnur's 18-year-old daughter, Anna, who occupies his attention. Although Finnur pays his daughter's rent, she spends most of her time with the irresponsible Ottar (Gisli Orn Garoarsson). The movie twists itself into a thriller in which Finnur and Ottar square off, each threatening the other. Psychological edge becomes subordinate to a prevailing question: How far will Finnur go to protect a daughter who doesn't want his help. Finnur eventually gets the upper hand on Ottar, but not without terrible consequences. A serious tone and stabs at nuance can't disguise what at core begins to feel too much a prisoner of a familiar genre.