Thursday, November 30, 2017

A caustic look at the art world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A girl fights for her family's survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A movie that sets off fireworks

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Denzel Washington as a savant attorney

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

'Wonder' has lots of YA appeal

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Get thee to a nunnery -- in Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A boy longs for music in colorful 'Coco'

A Latino cast of characters fills Disney/Pixar's holiday entry. Oh, and by the way, the holiday is the Day of the Dead.

An animated movie built around Mexico's Day of the Dead and a story in which ruthless ambition and murder play pivotal roles? At first blush, such a movie seems like something that might have sprung from the imagination of director Tim Burton, no stranger to blending macabre touches into animated fare.

Not to worry. Disney/Pixar's Coco, which includes what might have been darkly hued ingredients, plants its feet firmly in a colorful world that serves as a backdrop for the movie's foray into Mexican culture. The Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) may be one of Coco's key events, but the movie puts its emphasis on family ties that extend through generations and, ultimately, serve as a source of strength for the living.

Guess what? The whole thing more or less works. Coco, Disney's holiday offering from Pixar, makes for an engaging entry into the canon of vividly realized Pixar animated features. To say that Coco bursts with visual diversity and color understates the case.

The story centers on Miguel (voice by Anthony Gonzalez), a boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his hero, a recently deceased but enormously popular singer named Ernesto de la Cruz (voice by Benjamin Brett). De la Cruz became a singing sensation; young Miguel comes to believe that he's the great-great grandson of the venerable de la Cruz.

The problem: Miguel's family has gone into the shoemaking business and has forbidden all musical activity lest such frivolity upset Mama Coco, the shriveled family matriarch who gives the film its title. An explanation of the family's anti-musical stance would require spoilers. All I'll say is that the screenplay provides one.

According to the movie, the Day of the Dead marks the occasion on which the spirits of departed ancestors are supposed to return to mingle with their still-living loved ones. A series of plot machinations involving a trip to a local cemetery finds Miguel headed in the opposite direction.

Instead of awaiting the visits of the departed, he visits them in the Land of the Dead.

Much of Coco takes place in the Land of the Dead, a domain Disney treats as if it had been conceived as an addition to one of its theme parks, a fantastical world dominated by fully dressed skeletons, dazzlingly bright colors, vaulting towers, engaging characters, a busy transportation hub, and a villain who's more pompous than scary.

Miguel hopes his trip to the Land of the Dead will be productive: He wants to meet de la Cruz, receive the great singer's blessing and return home to pursue his musical dreams. But Miguel also meets Hector (voice by Gael Garcia Bernal), a tattered skeletal presence who's on the verge of being forgotten and who may have something to do with Miguel's quest.

Hector is that sorriest of souls. He'll be forgotten because there's no one to put his photo on a family shrine; he won't be able to cross the bridge that connects the living and the dead -- an arching display of marigold petals -- for a visit with his relatives. He'll vanish from his family's records, as if he never had lived.

I can't say exactly how kids will react to a story that makes room for jealousy, ego, and deceit, but I'm guessing that Coco's bright colors and Miguel's unflagging exuberance will stave off any bouts of kiddie fright and depression.

Besides, the skeletons in The Land of the Dead lean aren't immune from cartoonish behavior, coming apart and reconstituting when bones fly in different directions. These skeletons retain the personalities and relationships that they enjoyed in life. They're a lively bunch who give the lie to any notion that an afterlife might involve eternal rest.

Among the "dead" characters, Miguel finds his great-great grandmother (Alanna Noel Ubach). On the living side, we meet Miguel's grandmother (Renee Victor), a woman who serves as the family's enforcer, but who never fails to accompany discipline with robust expressions of love.

I've read that the filmmakers worked hard to incorporate authentic details of Mexican culture into the story and to sprinkle the dialogue with Spanish. Co-directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, the movie also includes touches that anchor the story in the Land of Disney, notably a sidekick Xolo dog named Dante that accompanies Miguel on his adventures.

In Coco, Disney and Pixar realize a complex and visually dense world that contains music and musical numbers without being a musical.

The movie may encourage youngsters to ponder the perils of succumbing to the blinding light of celebrity and it shows -- in obviously literal fashion -- that there's much to be gained from honoring and remembering those who have gone before us. And, of course, there's the Disney value that transcends all cultures: pursuing a dream.

How Dickens wrote 'A Christmas Carol'

The Man Who Invented Christmas has a lively spirit.

Few things are more boring than watching someone write unless it's watching some think through the kind of problems that can furrow even the most confident authorial brows during the creation of a written work.

Such is the obvious difficulty that confronted director Bharat Nalluri in making The Man Who Invented Christmas, the story of how Charles Dickens wrote his beloved A Christmas Carol.

To accomplish his task, Nalluri presents a series of scenes in which the great author tries out names in search of one that fits a character. He also shows Dickens meeting people in the real world who inspire characters who later appear in his fiction or tossing things about in his study as he agonizes about how to bring his story to its memorable conclusion.

Based on a book by Les Standiford, Nalluri's movie introduces Dickens during a period when, at the age of 31, he already had become famous. But after a trip to America, Dickens -- played in generally cheerful fashion by Dan Stevens -- was forced to deal with a couple of commercial flops, not to mention the high standard of living the author had set for himself.

What to do when sales of Martin Chuzzlewit fizzled? The movie's title, of course, tips us off.

Born of desperation and pressing monetary concerns, A Christmas Carol pushed its way into the holiday canon, a sheer act of authorial will. To show us exactly how this happened, Nalluri takes us into Dickens' study where the author meets and converses with characters who'll appear in the finished work. These "ghosts" or figments of Dickens' imagination (played by a variety of actors) don't always soothe the panic that besets the author as he struggles to finish the work in time to reach bookstores by Christmas.

I don't know if Dickens literally invented Christmas spirit as we have come to know it, but that's the notion that underlies the movie which gives the role of Scrooge -- as he evolves in Dickens' imagination -- to Christopher Plummer. Plummer makes a worthy addition to the gallery of embittered Scrooges who have been brought to the screen by any number of actors. (I still favor Alastair Sim in the 1951 version.)

While writing, Dickens also must attend to his domestic life. Morfydd Clark portrays Dickens' devoted but never subordinate wife, and Jonathan Pryce shows up as Dickens' father, a playful but fiscally irresponsible man who once, to Dickens' lasting shame, did a stretch in debtors prison.

Nalluri handles this difficult period in Dickens' life with flashbacks that build toward a not-so-surprising reveal about the indignities Dickens faced as a boy.

A fine cast of additional supporting actors keeps Stevens from having to fly solo. Justin Edwards portrays Dickens' agent John Forster. Dickens and Forster make a couple of visits to the Garrick Club, a writers' haunt where Dickens sometimes is tormented by another novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp). Few things, we presume, buoy a writer's spirits as much as the difficulties faced by a rival.

We also find Dickens befriending and then offending one of his servants (Anna Murphy), an uneducated young woman who nonetheless has a sharp taste for stories.

Simon Callow adds late-picture tang as John Leech, the renowned illustrator who did the artwork for A Christmas Carol.

For all of Nalluri's invention, watching Dickens develop his story becomes a bit repetitive, and those who believe that someone other than Dickens actually invented Christmas may be surprised by the movie's reminder that Christmas wasn't always celebrated with decorated trees, plum pudding and gifts. Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne treat the matter with a throwaway line when a character wonders why Dickens wants to make such a fuss over a "minor holiday."

I can't say that The Man Who Invented Christmas will (or should) hang at the top of anyone's cinematic tree, but, at its best, the movie has a lively spirit that keeps us from crying "Humbug."

On being young, gay and angry

If the makers of God's Own Country had been looking for an alternate title for their movie, they could have stolen Mudbound, not that this British drama has anything to do with Mudbound's foray into racism and the American South. My suggestion involves the movie's commitment to stripping all traces of rural romanticism from the mud-splattered lives of sheep farmers in Yorkshire, England. Set in an atmosphere in which the birth and death of animals can be bloody, God's Own Country tells the story of a romance between Johnny (Josh O'Connor) and a Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). Director Francis Lee makes his debut with a movie in which O'Connor's angry young man makes the transition from rough faceless sexual encounters to something more substantial. The supporting cast includes Ian Jones as Johnny's debilitated father and Gemma Jones as the young man's grandmother. Johnny isn't conflicted about being gay, but he seems to be caught in a more generalized form of rage that may have something to do with the mother who left the family and with the hardscrabble life that has become his lot in life. The movie belongs to O'Connor, so convincingly and off-putting sullen that when Johnny offers the hint of a smile, it seems misplaced on his otherwise brooding face. God's Own Country becomes memorable for its unrelenting naturalism and for its refusal to see hearts and flowers where only mud, animals, walled-off human emotions and rare moments of tenderness are able to survive. But survive they do.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Ai Weiwei's look at refugee life

It seems ridiculous, not to mention unfair, to review Ai Weiwei's epic Human Flow in abbreviated form. But faced with the choice of ignoring Ai's movie during a busy week or calling attention to it -- even in meager fashion -- I decided to choose the latter course. An artist with an international reputation, Ai takes a sweeping, often heart-breaking look at the throngs of people who, through no fault of their own, have been dislocated. Making use of drone shots and of more intimate earth-bound footage, Ai condenses a year's worth of filming into two hours and 20 minutes, occasionally appearing in the movie to console those who are suffering. (I didn't see Ai's on-camera stints -- though brief -- as necessary.) Ai and his crew capture so many memorable images that it becomes nearly impossible to sort through them. A group of refugees crosses a turbulent river only to face a terrible obstacle, a barbed wire fence at the Greek/Macedonian border. Exhausted refugees are picked out of boats by rescue workers. Muddy refugee camps look dauntingly bleak. Ai isn't afraid to let his images speak for themselves, but he also puts bits of information on the screen and adds interviews. We meet Syrian refugees, as well as refugees from Kenya, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Gaza. We travel with Ai along the U.S.-Mexican order. The film makes you realize how violence has caused massive movements of people across the surface of our battered planet. In all, Ai visited 23 countries, and he exposes the kind of suffering that comes from losing one's place -- both geographically and culturally. An overhead shot of refugees in Turkey makes people look like microbes; it's as if we're observing life on Earth from the perspective of aliens and wondering about the conditions that have forced more than 65 million people from their homes since the end of World War II. The movie's title includes the word "human." And Ai leaves us with a question he doesn't have to state: If we wish to call ourselves human in any meaningful way, how can we ignore what we've seen?

Sunday, November 19, 2017

'Mudbound' tells an epic story of race

Mudbound, the big-screen adaptation of a novel by Hillary Jordan, has had a limited theatrical release but is available to all Netflix subscribers. Director Dee Rees (Pariah) tells the story of two families, one white, one black -- both living in Mississippi before, during and just after World War II. The white family consists of Henry McCallan (Jason Clarke), a farmer who's forced onto a muddy, unproductive parcel of family land after a swindle destroys his dream of striking out on his own. Henry lives with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and his kids. He's later joined by his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a dashing young man who becomes a pilot during the war and returns home as an emotionally wounded hero. The vile patriarch of the McCallan family (Jonathan Banks) spews his racism with the bitter snarl of a man expectorating spittle from tobacco juice. The movie's black family -- the Jacksons -- are tenant farmers living on McAllan land. Rob Morgan portrays Hap Jackson, a hard-working father who hopes someday to own his own piece of land. Mary J. Blige (in a finely controlled performance) portrays the mother of a family that includes a son (Jason Mitchell) who joins the Army when war breaks out. Not surprisingly, Mitchell's Ronsel returns to Mississippi to face the kind of racism he never experienced while serving in Europe. Rees allows each of the characters to deliver some of the movie's off-screen narration, sometimes bringing moments of poetic grace to the proceedings. It's not difficult to see where Rees's drama is heading once Jamie and Ronsel become friends, but the movie unfolds with stature and sorrow. A strong collection of vividly drawn characters carry Rees's epic American story to a conclusion in which pain can't entirely trample hope.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Superheroes unite to save the world

Justice League may not be great, but it registers as OK.

When I was a kid, the only thing I liked about getting haircuts involved the well-stocked stash of comic books that the neighborhood barber kept in his establishment. I consoled myself about the discomfort of itchy hair down the back and ungodly applications of hair tonic by visiting Gotham and Metropolis or maybe even Smallville, the town where Superboy was still finding his superhero legs.

I took solace for my impending misery in Clark Kent's square-jawed righteousness as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet and in Batman's colorful gallery of villains -- the Penguin and Joker. I loved the blocky apartment buildings that defined the urban landscapes of the cities where these Manichean dramas unfolded.

These were comics made for the clickety-clack of typewriter keys, for Clark Kent's fedora and for the overwrought prose of melodrama: "The Batman, having lost his way on a lonely by-road, stops before a lone house to ask directions. Suddenly, from the house comes a scream of a wild beast in pain ...."*

I get no such kick from the current wave of comic-book movies, which typically contain bloated action sequences that rely heavily on CGI, so much so that the villain in League of Justice, the latest entry from DC Comics, is a CGI creation called Steppenwolf. In tones that sound as if they've been augmented to suggest sonic boom, Ciaran Hinds provides Steppenwolf's voice.

Justice League, which brings together a quintet of superheroes (Batman, Cyborg, Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman) can be judged decent by current standards and it certainly represents an improvement over the somber and self-serious Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

This episode has been directed by Zack Snyder, who ceded control to screenwriter Josh Whedon when Snyder, who directed Batman v Superman, left the production to be with his family after the death of a daughter.

The resultant movie isn't nearly as dark as Batman v Superman and pretty much functions as a foundation for the next installment, as well as a lively introduction to several superheroes who are new to the big screen.

Early stages of the story involve Batman's attempts to assemble a crew to fight Steppenwolf, a villain in horned-helmet who's trying to gather three mysterious boxes so that he can unleash their power and bring about (what else?) the apocalypse.

This set-up requires the movie to do some quick backup work in the form of abbreviated origin stories for Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa).

We already know Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and, of course, Ben Affleck's Batman. Not quite as gloomy as he was in the previous movie, Affleck's aging Batman isn't exactly charismatic, either.

These early sections work well and include the usual amount of extended action, which often seems more aimed at satisfying audience appetites for noise than advancing the story.

The main problem with the movie involves its villain, an off-the-rack menace who commands minions of flying, bug-like demons who feed on fear.

Gadot, who earlier this year established Wonder Woman as one of the best comic-book franchises, acquits herself well as a member of the emerging Justice League. Equally engaging is Miller, who has been given the lion's share of the movie's wisecracks. Another welcome presence, Momoa turns Aquaman into a tattooed rogue whose attitude ranges from casual to cynical.

The story unfolds against a backdrop of doom. Since Superman's death in Batman v Superman, villainy has erupted and the world has lost its knight in shining armor. Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is listed in the movie's credits, but I won't tell you more about how the Man of Steel figures into the story.

The movie's superheroes must hold their egos in check and unite to conquer evil; saving the world proves to big a task for any single superhero. "Stronger together" didn't quite carry Hilary Clinton to the heights she hoped to scale and it doesn't totally work for Justice League, either, but the movie has entertaining elements and enough superhero chemistry to keep the DC wheel spinning toward the next movie.
*I have this quote on a Batman comics cover and linked to it. The link didn't take and I couldn't find the source again, but you get the idea about the overheated prose.

A coming-of-age movie with smarts

Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut with the perceptive Lady Bird.

Lady Bird was so rapturously received on the fall festival circuit that when I finally saw this enjoyable coming-of-age movie, I was slightly taken aback by a level of critical enthusiasm that, for me at least, seemed excessive. I'll put some emphasis on the word "slightly" because I did find Lady Bird entertaining and worthy, a smart movie that picks its way through a well-worn genre without engendering any of the contempt usually bred by familiarity. That's because the movie's writer/director Greta Gerwig has a singular sensibility and because Gerwig, who does not appear in the movie, seems to be mining her own adolescent memories.

I don't know how much Lady Bird adheres to Gerwig's life, but the movie has been made with the kind of affectionate observation that suggests a strong connection between this fictional account and the reality of Gerwig's teen years.

To fully appreciate what Gerwig has accomplished, it's necessary to understand what she hasn't done. She introduces but doesn't overplay the story of a teenager who suddenly becomes friends with an attractive, popular girl and, as a result, ignores her best friend, someone who'll never be Homecoming Queen.

She includes a scene in which the movie's main character -- played by the emotionally supple Saoirse Ronan -- loses her virginity and winds up disappointed, a familiar teen-movie ploy but one that's freshened by Gerwig's idiosyncratic take on the collision between romantic expectation and reality. There's even a prom, but that, too, has its own off-kilter charms.

Although it doesn't always occupy center stage, the key relationship in Lady Bird revolves around Ronan's character and her mother, a psychiatric nurse played by Laurie Metcalf. The central issue in that relationship involves a mother's accusatory view of her daughter's aspirations, a sense that Ronan's Lady Bird (the name the character has chosen for herself) might be dreaming too big and, thus, heading for inevitable disappointment.

For her part, Lady Bird wants to escape what she views as the stultifying confines of Sacramento to attend college in the sophisticated East. Her mother wants her to stay closer to home, a preference that's not only geographical but metaphorical. Mom, who lives a conventional life with her newly unemployed husband (a fine Tracy Letts), may be envious of her daughter's desire to escape the weight of obligation.

The fact that Lady Bird -- a.k.a. Christine McPherson -- attends a Catholic high school adds more flavor. Happily, Gerwig resists caricature, presenting the school's faculty with sympathetic humor. Sister Sarah Joan (an amiable Lois Smith) displays unexpected humor. Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson) runs the drama club but is subject to bouts of depression. When Father Leviatch takes a leave of absence, the junior varsity football coach (Bob Stephenson) substitutes, preparing the cast for a production of The Tempest as if he were giving a half-time pep talk to a roomful of jocks.

One of the movie's best scenes occurs when Lady Bird meets with Sister Sarah Joan to discuss her college essay. Sister Sarah observes that Lady Bird has written affectionately about Sacramento, the city she purportedly loathes. Lady Bird says that she guesses that she pays attention, and Sister Sarah comments that paying attention qualifies as a form of love.

The boys in Lady Bird's life become part of her growing-up process. Lucas Hedges, familiar from Manchester by the Sea, portrays Danny, a star of high school musicals. He becomes Lady Bird's first boyfriend, but the relationship takes a turn Lady Bird fails to anticipate.

Lady Bird later develops a relationship with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), a teenager who seems to have watched too many James Dean movies, internalizing an alienated pose.

Nice work from Odeya Rush as a Jenna, the unbearably popular girl, and from Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Lady Bird's BFF and the total opposite of Rush's Jenna.

Gerwig, familiar as an actress from movies such as Francis Ha, has made her directorial debut with an easy touch that results in a crowd-pleasing entertainment. The best compliment I can give Lady Bird is to insist that it’s a movie about a particular teenager rather than another entry in Hollywood's endless stream of generic and often dim-witted coming-of-age movies.

Happily engaging and marked by Ronan's wit and vulnerability, Lady Bird introduces us to a young woman who's taking small and large steps on one of life's more exciting journeys: discovering herself.

McDormand bristles in 'Three Billboards'

In the town of Ebbing, Missouri, things aren't going well.
Mildred Hayes doesn't brood. After her daughter was raped and murdered on a stretch of lonely Missouri highway, Mildred ran out of patience with the local police for failing to locate a suspect and make an arrest. Mildred took matters into her own hands, renting three rundown billboards outside of her hometown of Ebbing, painting them red and advertising the fact that the police chief dropped the ball.

"Raped While Dying." "And Still No Arrests" "How Come Chief Willoughby?"

Mildred's bold move upsets the police and the townsfolk of Ebbing, Mo. But here's the thing: Mildred doesn't give a damn who she offends. She's angry, grief-stricken and intent on obtaining justice for her departed daughter.

Director Martin McDonagh's often funny third feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, brings the British/Irish director to the American heartland for a movie that proudly displays its wild variations in tone. Three Billboards makes its mark as a genre farrago: it's a dark comedy, a profane assault on authority figures, a diatribe about small-town hypocrisies and a comedy built around characters whose speech boils with profanities.

Frances McDormand receives showcase space from McDonagh as Mildred, a woman who spreads her venom the way bees pollinate flowers -- liberally. No one is spared: not the terminally ill Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), not Mildred's son (Lucas Hedges), not her former husband (John Hawkes), an unreliable fellow who left her for a 19-year-old (Samara Weaving), and certainly not police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-bulb of a cop with a vicious streak and a reputation for racism.

The British born McDonagh (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) occasionally seems to be straining to hit notes of political incorrectness as he reveals the blatant homophobia and racism of some of his characters. But touching moments and genuine expressions of feeling also turn up as characters are brought face-to-face with their humanity -- often under terrible circumstances.

Whatever its ambitions, Three Billboards derives its charge to McDormand; Mildred is so furiously committed to her own truth that she doesn't hesitate to provoke, even tossing the local priest out of her home. Of course, Mildred's language proves significantly less polite than a simple invitation for the priest to leave.

The movie's intemperate characters sometimes soften: A bit of homespun wisdom emerges from an unlikely source or a touch of decency is expressed by a character such as Rockwell's Dixon, a comic-book-reading cop who may be too stupid to know how thoroughly reprehensible he can be.

To keep everything slightly off balance, McDonagh sometimes mixes brutal and tender sentiments in the same scene. His approach creates ragged edges, but, like his main character, McDonagh may not care. Three Billboards takes its cues from McDormand, who infuses Mildred with uncompromising strength, the kind that allows a formidable woman to go toe-to-toe with any man and strike fear into his trembling heart. She marches to her own drummer and is more than ready to knock down anyone who stands in her way.

Three Vietnam veterans take to the road

Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying , a moderately successful mix of humor, sorrow and the bonds of brotherhood.

In director Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying, three Vietnam veterans reunite for a sad task. One of them has lost a son in Iraq. The mission: To bury a young Marine.

Two former Marines are played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. Steve Carell 's Larry Shepherd -- nicknamed Doc -- served as medic in the Navy and wound up alongside Cranston and Fishburne's characters in the heat of Vietnam combat.

Last Flag Flying is based on novelist Darryl Ponicsan's sequel to The Last Detail, which was made into a 1973 movie starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young. Ponicsan co-authored the screenplay for Last Flag with Linklater, and the movie has some (but not all) of Last Detail's comic bite.

It's 2003: The movie's principals may have thought that their war-time experiences were safely locked in the vaults of the past, but their journey forces them to come to grips with their war-time behavior as well as with the nature of the sacrifices all young men make when they go off to war.

Low key and steeped in the kind of naturalism Linklater favors, the director's moderately affecting look at the deep-rooted impact of war begins when Doc tracks down Cranston's Sal Nealon, a boisterous fellow who owns a Norfolk, Va., bar where he seems to drink as much as he sells. The two then set out to find Fishburne's Richard Mueller, a tightly wound former Marine who has tried to push the war and his wild youth out of his consciousness. He has become a reverend.

Doc, who was dishonorably discharged from the Navy, is younger than the others and going through a particularly bad patch. Not only has son been killed in action, but he recently lost his wife to cancer. Doc refers to his Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD) as a Better Career Decision, but it's clear that the military made Doc something of a goat. Doc has not had an easy time of it, but somehow has avoided trapping himself behind bars of bitterness.

Questions arise about how Doc's son died. The Marines want to enshrine the young man as a hero, but the details of the young man's death turn out to be more horrific than heroic.

When Doc learns the truth, he refuses to have his son buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Despite the urging of a Marine colonel (Yul Vazquez), Doc won't allow the Marines to propagandize his son's death. He insists on burying the boy in his hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Military protocol requires that the young man's body be accompanied to its resting place. J. Quinton Johnson plays the young Marine assigned to this grim task: He joins the three older men as they make their way north from Delaware, where they have traveled to pick up the body.

As is the case with any road movie, the personalities of the men emerge as the trip unfolds: Cranston's Sal is happily boorish; Fishburne's Mueller has given up drink and tried to live a life of serenity and prayer, but you get the feeling that his newfound propriety can't entirely protect him from his past. "Doc" proves the quietest of the trio, a man whose soul droops with the weight of grief and regret. Doc found stability and peace in family life -- but, now, even that has been taken from him.

There's plenty of bickering as the men move toward the movie's sad finale, and some of the screenplay's bits feel labored: Sal's attempts to bring his compatriots into the 21st Century by buying them cell phones, for example.

Linklater mutes any political messaging. By the end, he makes it clear that these men aren't interested in honor or even patriotism. They claim a devotion to the Marine Corps, but what they really seem to cherish is their relationship to one another, bonds forged by a shared experience none of them ever will fully digest and which always will threaten to consume them. Still, like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, they abide -- psychic wounds and all.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Kenneth Branagh rides the Orient Express

Branagh directs and stars in Murder on the Orient Express, but his version of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel seldom clicks.

I'd be lying if I told you that I recall every detail of director Sidney Lumet's 1974 hit Murder on the Orient Express, but I do remember that the movie was fun. Albert Finney appeared as the great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, heading an all-star cast that included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud and Sean Connery.

The trouble with Kenneth Branagh's new version, which stars Branagh as Poirot, is that the movie can't wring enough enjoyment out of the journey from Istanbul to Calais -- not for the train's passengers and, more importantly, for us.

Murder on the Orient Express mostly serves to showcase Branagh's turn as Poirot in his version of Agatha Christie's classic 1934 mystery, and, no, Branagh isn’t as good as Finney.

Before the preview screening of Orient Express, I wondered why Branagh had bothered to remake it. After the movie concluded, I could find no special reason for him to have taken another go at material that also has yielded a 2001 TV movie in which Alfred Molina portrayed Poirot.

In this latest outing, Branagh upstages a hefty cast, which includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacoby, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. Johnny Depp signs on, as well.

Branagh tries to provide visual bang for the buck with exterior shots of the mountains across which the train speeds, an avalanche that derails the engine, and even a few scenes outside of the train. The drama’s resolution takes place in a tunnel where the suspects are lined up at a long table as if they were about to stage a news conference.

I tired of Branagh's Poirot, particularly given the movie’s monotonous structure: Poirot interviews suspects (i.e., the supporting cast) one after another, each appearing in perfunctory fashion as if Branagh is following a time table rather than a script.

Nothing, of course, is as it seems, but Branagh doesn't optimize the participation of a strong cast. Only Pfeiffer comes close to receiving her own small showcase. Mostly, the supporting characters fail to generate keen interest.

For those who haven't read Christie's novel or seen the 1974 movie, there's no point spoiling the mystery, although it's worth noting that lots of attention seems to have gone into the movie's production design, creating the illusion that we're on a most opulent journey.

When Poirot finally solves the mystery, the movie hits its stride, but much of Orient Express proves a snooze-worthy ride in the company of a morally insistent detective who so values balance that he only eats eggs of precisely the same size.

If the light from your mobile device weren't likely to disrupt the experience of others, I'd suggest that this is one journey on which you might consider bringing a book -- perhaps something by Agatha Christie.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thor returns to the screen with a wink

Thor Ragnarok has humor (nice), battles (who cares?), and some appealing supporting characters (welcome).

If you've been worrying about the fate of the beleaguered population of Asgardia, you've even more reason to fret now that the residents of that peaceable realm face a dire threat in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest big-screen entry from (who else?) Marvel Comics.

There's even more about which one can fret in this latest Marvel entry. It's possible, for example, to fear that Hela (sister of Thor and daughter of Odin) might seize control of Asgardia and begin her malicious rule.

Actually, you needn't worry about any of that because there's nothing much at stake in the amiable Thor Ragnarok aside from the future of the Thor franchise -- and that's pretty much assured anyway.

Hela, by the way, is brought to life by Cate Blanchett who has been outfitted with a piece of headwear that sprouts what look like antlers when Hela's fury rushes to the surface.

Blanchett's Hela, by the way, must not be trifled with. We know this because she's also known as "the goddess of death," a description that probably doesn't help her on intergalactic dating sites.

Should you find Hela too serious, perhaps you'll be amused to see Chris Hemsworth (as Thor) try to function without his trademark hammer as his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) alternates between the roles of ally and foe in the battle to save Asgardia. The banter between Thor and Loki constitutes one of the movie's high points, and the two actors navigate the screenplay's sillier waters with old-pro ease.

New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilder People) attempts (often successfully) to leaven the proceedings with humor. Even detractors may be forced to acknowledge that Waititi imbues the proceedings with a level of self-mockery that, at the very least, demonstrates that he's aware that the fate of one more Marvel Comics franchise may not be essential to the continuation of our fragile species.

Waititi's also makes nice use of a supporting cast that includes Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a valiant warrior woman who drinks too much, and Mark Ruffalo, who -- in this edition -- turns up as Bruce Banner after having spent several years in captivity as his CGI alter ego, The Hulk.

The triumph of Hulk over his Banner self has something to do with the evil Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum in a one-armed golden cloak). The Grandmaster presides over the planet Sakaar, where he runs an in-house battle between unwitting invaders and his captive champion, the Hulk.

Many Marvel movies depends heavily on the ability of the director to make us overlook their plots, a task you may wish to regard as dramatic accessorizing. In this regard, you'll meet Korg, a creature who looks as if he were made of rocks. Korg (voice by Waititi) is very strong but speaks softly in a signature scene in which he commiserates with Thor over the loss of his mighty hammer.

At one point, Thor also loses his hair -- or at least his long locks are trimmed, making him look like a very buffed businessman who has spent too much time at the company gym, a comic-book Sampson.

OK, so not all the joke are great. At one point, Valkyrie helps Thor escape through something the film inelegantly calls the Devil's Anus, a passageway linking two of the movie's worlds.

You'll also find spaceships, combat and a constellation of jokes, as well as a story in which Karl Urban portrays Skurge, a character who's recruited (more or less against his will) into Hela's evil orbit.

And, yes, Anthony Hopkins shows up (at least briefly) as Odin, although in this outing, Odin has more to do with establishing the plot than with participating in its development.

Parts of Ragnarok slog more than they soar, but Thor Ragnarok offers a bit of fun, and if we must have more Marvel movies (and we have little choice in the matter), we need more directors like Waititi, good-humored souls who refuses to be over-awed by the prospect of steering a movie into blockbuster terrain.

Better, I suppose, than the previous two Thor movies, Ragnarok nonetheless resembles a mirage; it allures, amuses and appeases before quickly receding into the dim recesses of memory.

At this point, you may be asking a pertinent question. What the hell is Ragnarok? I think it has something to do with a Norse prophecy about impending catastrophe.

The movie itself is no catastrophe thanks in part to Hemsworth who gives one of his more likable performances. Besides, it's difficult to hate any movie that allows Blanchett to chew the movie's abundant and not always impressive scenery -- archly, of course.

Childhood longing in 'Wonderstruck'

Director Todd Haynes takes on a serious structural challenge and sometimes meets it.

Based on a novel by Brian Selznick, Haynes's Wonderstruck tells parallel stories that evoke deeply human concerns, namely our ability to deal with loss and accept consolation. At its best, Wonderstruck showcases Haynes's ability to mix melancholy and nostalgia without succumbing to either. His movie can have the feeling of something dreamt.

One of Haynes's stories takes place in 1977 shortly after the death of a 12-year-old boy's mother. Once orphaned, Ben (Oakes Fegley) discovers a book called Wonderstruck among his late mother’s possessions. The book evidently was purchased at a New York City book store. A neatly placed bookmark suggests that Ben's father, a man the boy knows nothing about, gave the book to his mother (Michelle Williams in brief flashbacks).

Just as Ben dials the store to see if he can locate his dad, he's struck by lightning. As a result of the shock, Ben loses his hearing.

After a brief stay in the hospital in his home state of Minnesota, Ben sneaks away and hops a bus to New York City to continue the search for his father.

The movie's parallel story takes place in 1927 and involves a deaf 12-year-old girl (Millicent Simmonds) who, like Ben, heads for New York City. Simmonds' Rose tries to reunite with her mother, a star of silent films.

Cinematographer Ed Lachman shoots the 1977 segments in color; those in 1927 are shot in black and white.

While Haynes tries to get the feel of this parallel structure, the movie remains wobbly, but there’s little question that Wonderstruck aims to become a seriously lyrical helping of film. It succeeds in fits and starts.

Because much of the movie involves children, the child performers assume unusual importance. Simmonds, who’s actually deaf, acquits herself beautifully. But a lengthy scene in which Ben spends time with his new friend Jamie (Jaden Michael) in New York’s Museum of Natural History over-taxes both young actors and also stops the movie's flow.

When it’s working, we get hints of what Wonderstruck might have been: the 70s funk that Haynes finds in Manhattan’s streets; the melodramatic recreation of a silent film called Daughter of the Storm, and scenes in which Simmonds’ dazzled character arrives in New York City, having run away from Hoboken and a stern father (James Urbaniak) who clearly has no love for her.

Haynes couples a sense of childhood longing with notions about the importance of collecting items from the past, which explains why much of the movie takes place in museums. Toward the end, we even see a miniature model of New York City in a museum at the Queens, N.Y. site of the 1964 World’s Fair. The movie also includes a lengthy flashback that makes use of models and puppets to fill in some of the story's gaps.

Point of view shots that show us the world as seen but not heard by those who are deaf are intriguing, although they might have been even more effective had Haynes dropped Carter Burwell’s sometimes syrupy score.

Wonderstruck highlights its characters' need to acknowledge and get past painful loss without giving up on the mysterious wonder of existence.

Early on, young Ben reads a tone-setting Oscar Wilde quote his mother has pasted on her office wall. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
The idea that distant heavens lend awesome perspective to the shocking meagerness of our lives certainly carries weight, but in Wonderstruck the message can be more stated than felt. Enchantment is only half achieved.