Thursday, May 31, 2018

A cleric caught in a web of torment

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a movie with which to reckon.

In director Paul Schrader's First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays a minister who presides over the First Reformed Church, a once-proud but diminished church in upstate New York. Hawke's Reverend Toller wears a constricting clerical collar that seems more of a choice than a requirement. When he's outside of the church a long black overcoat gives him an ominous look, as if he's wrapped himself in a cloud of heavy gloom.

Toller stands on an altar built from personal guilt. As a former military chaplain, he sold family tradition to his son, urging him to enlist in the military. The young man followed his father's advice and was killed in Iraq. Toller's wife subsequently left him. From the look of things, Toller has spent the ensuing years turning his life into a form of punishing penance.

Toller's church is part of a larger organization run by a minister (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer) who understands the business of operating a mega church and wants to create a successful event as First Reformed approaches its 250th anniversary, an occasion that's to be celebrated with a reconsecration ceremony.

Worried about Toller's obvious depression, Kyles' Pastor Jeffers cautions that even Jesus didn't spend all his time in the Garden of Gethsemane. He thinks Toller should lighten up.

Both Toller and his church seem to be stuck in a harsh spiritual winter. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad and a bastion of fiery abolitionist morality, First Reformed now tries to get by with a depleted gift shop. It has become a minor tourist attraction.

Schrader broadens the movie's thematic reach by linking the future of the church to ecological plunder. Jeffers and Toller are supported by Balq Industries, a company run by Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a businessman who represents a more-or-less American attitude about separating business practices from religious dictates that might -- if taken too seriously -- interfere with those same practices. Balq is one of the country’s major polluters.

Sparse and austere, First Reformed does have a plot of sorts. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant wife turns up at First Reformed to talk to Toller. It turns out Mary's husband (Philip Ettinger) does not want her to bring a baby into a world that he believes is headed toward an irrevocable environmental catastrophe. Mary wants Toller to convince her husband to support her pregnancy.

Toller visits Ettinger’s Michael to see what he can do to persuade the young man that all hope is not lost. Schrader then does something truly rare in movies: He allows two characters -- Toller and Michael -- to engage in an extended philosophical conversation, the kind with consequences. If the world is bleak, diminished and joyless, can survival still have any meaning?

Michael soon answers the question for himself by blowing his brains out with a rifle.

Michael, who has flirted with ecoterrorism, serves as a kind of catalyst that pushes Toller deeper into a torment that's expressed in a journal that he keeps and which serves as the movie's narration. Toller, by the way, already is suffering from a serious but unspecified illness that he insists on ignoring. He urinates blood, the life leaking out of him.

Toller apparently has had a fleeting affair with a choir director (Victoria Hill) who clearly cares about him and fears that he’s unraveling. In a moment of swift and perhaps unforgivable cruelty, Toller rejects her.

The increasingly distraught Toller begins to wonder whether Michael may have been right. Perhaps an act of terror, namely a suicide bombing, is the only way to draw attention to the monstrous crimes that are being committed against God's creation.

Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, is no stranger to compelling but tormented characters. Although all the actors in First Reformed are good, Schrader puts the movie squarely on Hawke's shoulders. It's no easy job. Hawke plays a character who lives on a fault line of irreconcilable contradictions.

At one point, Toller even offers a version of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald definition of a first-rate intelligence: "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

In Toller's case, those contradictory ideas involve pain and pleasure, love and the futility, guilt and redemption. Schrader pushes those ideas to extremes that result in an ending which is both unforgettable and which surely will puzzle many viewers. I won't describe it here but I believe it is intended as a moment in which Toller's fragmented soul achieves its unity.

The movie's images are spartan and purposefully depleted -- right up until the point when Schrader includes a fantasy scene in which Toller and Mary float over the world, a visual precis of the movie’s diagnosis of the material world that begins with a natural idyll and ends with ecological catastrophe.

For those who are new to Schrader's work, it's worth knowing that when he as a young film critic, he wrote an important book: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer. Those familiar with that book and with the work of the aforementioned directors will note the way their influences play out in First Reformed. (The book has been republished with a new forward and with Schrader's observations about additional directors.)

The style to which Schrader refers has to do with holding images until they teeter on the edge of boredom, of not providing a lot of visual cues but demanding that viewers explore the images that are put in front of them, of limiting the use of music so that when it’s heard, its impact is heightened, of providing eventual release for emotions that have been tamped down throughout.

Schrader, a man of serious concerns, has managed to spend a life in film. He has written for Scorsese -- not only Taxi Driver, but Raging Bull (as co-writer), The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead. His own movies include American Gigolo, Blue Collar, a remake of Cat People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and Affliction.

Schrader can be a confounding figure who both understands Hollywood and who follows an auteur's lonely path. I'd be lying if I told you that I totally "get" Schrader, but I will tell you that First Reformed stands as a stark work that resounds with cinematic echoes (Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, for example) and yet feels rooted in the present moment of threat, disunity and unbridgeable moral gaps. It is a work that isn't' afraid to look at something most movies try their best to avoid: deep despair.

This 'Seagull' takes wobbly flight

A so-so adaptation of a Chekhov play.
The Seagull, a filmed version of Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov's 1896 play has a bumpy beginning, so much so that Chekov's language sounds a bit too contemporary, even a little trite. In the hands of director Michael Mayer, it takes some time for Chekhov's drama about a group of unhappy, self-absorbed people to find its rhythm, but it eventually does. Annette Bening plays the signature role of Irina Arkadina, an aging actress who has taken to the country with her new lover, the writer Boris Trigoren (Corey Stoll). Irina's son (Billy Howle) fancies himself a writer but has yet to establish himself in ways that allow him to be taken seriously. A fine cast also includes Saoirse Ronan as Nina, the play's aspiring actress and naive innocent; and Elizabeth Moss, as the perpetually embittered Masha. Masha always wears black because, she says, the color matches her life. Mayer's adaptation works in fits and starts, but if you're interested in the way a new group of actors approach important theatrical roles, Seagull is worth seeing for Bening's warbled, agitated Irina and, even more so, for Stoll's Trigoren, a writer whose understated personal ambitions can be alarming. Mayer's rendition of the first in a quartet of Chekhov's great plays that continued with Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard preserves enough of Chekhov’s thematic intensity to to avoid disaster. No one who tackles Chekhov entirely can miss the troubled nature of characters whose momentous concerns often seem like overwrought preoccupations. How grand we all are in our embrace of the fleeting and the trivial.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A marriage not made in heaven

On Chisel Beach shows the life-altering consequences of a single evening.
Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle are exceptionally good in theater director Dominic Cooke's On Chesil Beach, an adaptation of a novel by Ian McEwan, who also wrote the movie's screenplay.

The movie tells the story of awkward newlyweds trying to navigate the shoals of sex on their honeymoon by the sea, a situation that gives McEwan an opportunity to explore the sad consequences of attitudes that prevailed in the pre-sexual revolution days of the early 1960s.

On the surface, both Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew are promising young people. She's a classical violinist with a bright future as a professional musician. A smart history student, Edward hails from a less sophisticated background than Florence. He's more of a rock n' roll guy, but he falls hard for Florence, he did well in college and he seems in possession of a good spirit.

Scenes in the newlywed's hotel room at Chesil Beach in Dorset are interrupted by flashbacks that show the lively courtship between Florine and Edward and their sometimes uneasy introductions to each other's families.

Florence's father (Samuel West) follows a strictly business ethos, even on the tennis court. Her mother (Emily Watson) teaches at Oxford. Poor Edward is supposed to join the Ponting family business, a prospect with about as much appeal as a stint in solitary.

Edward's father (Adrian Scarborough) seems like one of those nice but ineffectual men who has spent his life trying hard without getting a grip on much of anything. Edward's mother (Anne-Marie Duff), a woman who suffered brain damage as the result of an accident, presents a particular challenge. She unselfconsciously wanders about in the nude, unmoored from ordinary restraints.

Not surprisingly, Florence and Edward's wedding night turns into a nightmare: Edward is fumbling but aggressive; Florence finds the idea of sex a bit repellant. Both are virgins.

After an unsuccessful attempt to consummate the marriage, Florence and Edward wind up on the desolate, rocky Dorset beach where it becomes clear that an impatient Edward can't transcend his ideas about marriage. Florence seems the more sensitive of the two but more than a bit unrealistic.

In its final going, the movie skips ahead to show us (perhaps ill-advisedly) what happened to Florence and Edward at various points after their fateful day at the beach.

The movie's emotions derive from Edward's regret. Thematically, we're probably meant to conclude that had these two come of age in the 1970s rather than the 1950s, their lives might have been entirely different. As it stands, Florence and Edward are young people whose lives are shaped by their inability to deal with intimacy -- either emotional or physical.

In all, On Chisel Beach is a well-acted movie that feels more slender than it probably should, neither an insular chamber piece nor a full-blown look at crippling sexual mores. It's not easy to think expansively about a movie that tries to make an awful lot out of one wretched night.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

'Solo' proves Han can fly alone

Old-school names and fresh faces combine in the latest Star Wars movie.

Director Ron Howard took over Solo: A Star Wars Story after the film already was five months into a production that, at the time, was being directed by Chris Lord and Phil Miller. Working from a script by the father/son team of Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan, Howard has given the resultant movie a bit of old pro feel -- albeit with a lot of fresh young faces.

Solo tired me out with a lengthy action sequence about three-quarters of the way through, but overall the origins story of Han Solo proves an entertaining enough addition to the Star Wars galaxy to drown out quibbles.

As the movie’s title promises, Solo tells the story of Han Solo and answers questions that, frankly, I’ve never spent a minute thinking about: How did Han get his name? When did he team up with Chewbacca? Was Han always a roguish, wisecracking space jockey?

The movie begins with Han (Alden Ehrenreich) scuffling to flee a harsh life on the oppressively trashy Planet Corellia, which he tries to escape with girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). Han makes it out. Qi'ra doesn’t.

Ford was 34 when the first Star Wars movie was released. Ehrenreich is 28. He seems to have mastered some of Ford’s attitude, occasionally revealing trace elements of Ford’s jaundiced ways in an expression or a look, but it's best to accept Ehrenreich as Solo and let go of comparisons.

The same goes for Donald Glover who plays Lando Calrissian. Solo and Lando meet at a card game that Howard handles crisply and with winking humor.

Although I tried not to nitpick my way through Solo, I will say that I had more trouble imagining that Glover, entertaining in his own right, grew into a character who looks like Billy Dee Williams, the original Lando.

All of this seems part of the now familiar Hollywood dictum that well-enough never should be left alone. And at some point, you have to wonder whether criticizing certain kinds of movies makes about as much sense as complaining about the local Walmart for not carrying Gucci or Versace.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no skill or quality in franchise filmmaking and it certainly doesn’t occur at bargain prices, but one presumes that the real reason that Solo exists is because, as the subtitle suggests, it’s part of the Star Wars brand.

And as you might speculate after perusing Ben Fritz’s new book, The Big Picture: The Fight for Hollywood’s Future, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams are expendable. Han and Lando, not so much.

But I digress.

Howard tries and often maintains the cliff-hanger spirit that Lucas tried to infuse into all the Star Wars movies, and he includes an exciting sequence atop a speeding train that amps up the tension and action.

The train sequence takes place after Solo joins a band of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and the no-nonsense woman Beckett apparently loves (Thandie Newton).

Paul Bettany provides one of the movie’s best characters. Bettany plays Dreyden Vos, a cruel crime lord who presides over a nightclub. Thanks to unseen plot developments, Vos turns Qi'ra into a kind of personal consort.

Creatures abound with Phoebe Waller-Bridge doing a nice job voicing a droid that results in one of the movie's emotional high points. I also liked Rio Durant, a four-armed pilot who flies with Beckett, but don't take that as a suggestion that I'd like to see a movie based on Rio's backstory.

Of course, rebellion and the evil Empire create thematic winds -- maybe breezes in this case -- that blow through the movie as reminders of the large stakes that animate the main-event Star Wars movies.

Every now and again, the classic Star Wars musical theme turns up, a reminder that we're still in the teeming Star Wars universe. I wouldn’t have objected to hearing more of that theme, but Howard seems intent on striking a balance so that the movie is recognizably Star Wars while standing on its own. For the most part, he succeeds.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

'Book Club' reads like a sitcom

A terrific cast can do little to save a lightweight comedy about mature women who, thanks to a shared book club reading of Fifty Shades of Gray, decide that they must fight against the dying light of their aging libidos. Those who know that Book Club stars Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen and Jane Fonda will have their expectations raised -- only to be crushed by an insipid premise and shallow execution by director Bill Holderman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Erin Simms. Keaton plays the recently widowed Diane, a woman who's being pestered by her daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to leave California and move in with one of them in Arizona. Fonda plays Vivian, owner of a major hotel who claims to have cherished her life of sex without emotional attachment. Bergen portrays Sharon, a respected judge whose husband (Ed Begley Jr.) left her for a younger woman. Steenburgen's Carol is married to the recently retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), a man who has lost all interest in sex. Crippled by a fear of flying (in planes and in her social life), Keaton's Diane meets a handsome older man (Andy Garcia) on a flight to Arizona. Fonda's Vivian finds herself being pursued by an old flame (Don Johnson), a guy whose proposal she declined many years ago. Adding to the overall mediocrity are Richard Dreyfuss (as one of Sharon's first online dating partners) and Wallace Shawn (another of Sharon's suitors). Nothing of note happens in this predictable outing, but it is marked by a certain sadness, the sadness of watching gifted actresses play desperate women in the service of a movie that has nothing in mind that doesn't spring either from cliche or from the dictates of the kind of screenwriting that makes it seem as if these characters have lived most of their lives in sitcoms.

A showcase for actress Juliette Binoche

If director Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In were nothing more than a tribute to the allure and complexity of actress Juliette Binoche, it would be well worth seeing. The movie, however, offers more than a showcase for Binoche, putting her at the center of a story about a woman struggling to come to grips with the relationships in her life. In Let the Sunshine In, Binoche plays Isabelle, an artist of some repute. Yet, the film is not really about Isabelle’s art or about her creative aspirations. And it's not really about her role as a mother, either. Throughout the course of this 96-minute movie, we see Isabelle's daughter for only a few seconds. Like Isabelle, the movie fixates on relationships, most of which are, in one way or another, unsatisfying. Denis doesn’t shortchange Isabelle’s sexual life; it opens with her in bed with one of her lovers (Xavier Beauvois), a banker who we quickly learn is a certified jerk. Later, she becomes involved with an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who’s married. She’s almost, but not entirely, done with her ex-husband (Laurent Grevill) and she meets a guy in a club (Paul Blain) with whom she seems to make a powerful connection. Isabelle’s conversations take her on a stutter-step journey in pursuit of lasting commitment. Isabelle’s art life nips at the movie’s fringes but her conversations become a series of false starts and perhaps even avoidance of what's going on with the men in her life. The men in the movie aren't much better at establishing real connections. In the movie’s final going, Gerard Depardieu somewhat inexplicably shows up as a psychic who has a long reassuring talk with Isabelle as the final credits roll. Are we to believe him when he says she’ll ultimately find the longed-for love? Is he fueling her delusions, renewing her hopes in a life that isn't really going to change? I’m not sure, but I found this novel approach to the movie’s closing credits mesmerizing, as full of twists and blind alleys as the rest of a movie that only an actress as supple, furious and open to confusion as Binoche could have pulled off.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The pope speaks his mind -- from the heart

Director Wim Wenders showcases the work and ideas of a pope who wants to establish a church of the poor.
Director Wim Wenders has made an early bid for the canonization of Pope Francis.

Wenders’s laudatory documentary — Pope Francis: A Man of His Word — serves as an inspiring, if mostly unquestioning, look at the priest who heads the Roman Catholic Church. Looking straight into the camera, the pope speaks his mind. Wenders gives the pope a platform that creates the intimacy of a private audience with the pontiff.

In keeping with Francis’s disdain for the pomp of the Vatican, Wenders goes beyond interviews, spending much of the movie's time focusing on the pope's travels, journeys that take the pontiff to migrant camps to Auschwitz to a hospital in the Central African Republic and to lots of other places that aren't typically visited for pleasure.

Not much that the pope says would cause arguments among people of any faith. Moreover, Francis projects a natural warmth that contrasts mightily with his predecessor, the retired Benedict XVI, a man whose theological interests seemed to outweigh his people skills.

For those who aren’t Catholic, there’s much to admire about Francis's social conscience, but Wenders isn't big on follow-up questions.

Wenders’s documentary mentions but doesn't dig deeply into controversial issues such as child abuse within the Church. Wenders also doesn’t do much to explore the split between conservative Catholics and the more progressive followers of Francis, a rift that has found its way into a variety of recent discussions about the future of Catholicism.

Wenders includes the pope's now famous remark on gays. "Who am I to judge?" The pope tells reporters on a Vatican flight that if a gay person seeks God, he wouldn't judge that person. Does that mean that he would judge gay atheists?

Wenders also mentions Laudato Si, Pope Francis's controversial and comprehensive encyclical on the environment, which includes the assertion that wealthy countries are destroying poorer nations, a radical thought, but Laudato Si also includes what isn't talked about here: the pope's argument that population control doesn't address the problems of the poor, an observation that leads to a reinforcement of the Church's anti-abortion stance.

I can't read Wenders's mind, but I wondered if he weren't trying to present a universalized version of the pope that skates past sectarian concerns, questions that almost always produce divisiveness.

To that, Wenders's supporters might say that the director was far more interested in character than controversy. For me, the keywords in the movie’s title are “a man.” Wenders's camera reveals a life-sized pope, an approachable figure who took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi as a mark of humility, a decision that leads Wenders astray. Re-enacted footage of the 12th-century saint who inspired Francis to take his name could have been discarded. A slender account of the saint's life disrupts the movie's flow without adding much to our understanding.

The title of Wenders's documentary suggests that Francis lives as he preaches, insisting on a joyous approach to God that sounds more appealing than clerical finger-wagging.

And when it comes to expressing ultimate values, Francis keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground. He elevates the value of a smile and a sense of humor over self-seriousness and somber piety.

Wherever your political and religious sympathies lie, you'll discover a leader who cares about and identifies with the poor and who seems as comfortable among them as he is behind a pulpit.

Some may find it difficult to see Pope Francis: A Man of His Word as anything more than hagiography, but it's impossible to deny Francis’s appeal to a deep sense of humanity that he himself reflects. Whatever else can be said about Pope Francis, he comes across as a man who would like nothing more than to awaken our better angels.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Get your snide on with 'Deadpool 2'

Ryan Reynolds proves that he's still got plenty of life as Deadpool.

Deadpool 2 was shown at a preview screening with a caution to critics to avoid spoilers. I'm not sure that anything you could know in advance would ruin the experience of watching Deadpool 2, a sequel to the snidely effective first installment of a Marvel Comics series that seemed perfectly matched to Ryan Reynolds' mocking awareness of comic-book movie tropes.

The movie also made a ton of money.

But about those spoilers. I'll demure by telling you that there are sight gags, a surfeit of action, a sequence in which Deadpool finds himself in prison with a mystery mutant kid (Julian Dennison) who can spew flames from his fists, and more -- much more. Like most comic-book movies, Deadpool 2 subscribes to the more is more school of filmmaking.

The movie also makes room for a bit of pathos in the form of shared feelings of guilt that touch both Deadpool and Cable (Josh Brolin), a cyborg with a bionic arm and a perpetual scowl.

The story includes the amusing addition of some wannabe superheroes who meet with tragic/comic fates and various X-Men who drop in at various points in the story. Why not? Everybody needs a team.

In the hands of director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde), Deadpool 2 devolves into a series of mini-movies that finally are hammered into a more or less unified whole that includes a fakeout about who the movie's real villain might be.

In addition to Reynolds, I enjoyed the work of Zazie Beetz (as Domino) and Stefan Kapicic (as the voice of the strait-laced Colossus). Plenty of other characters careen through the movie, cropping up like kernels of corn bouncing in a popper.

True to form, Deadpool 2 doesn't skimp on one-liners and visual gags, many of them referencing signature moments in other movies: Basic Instinct (yes, that movie again) comes to mind, but there are enough to suggest that viewers bring a scorecard.

The basic trick of the Deadpool movies remains the same: Reynolds delivers a running commentary on the movie's characters and various plot developments, a strategy that can amuse even as it attempts to insulate the movie from criticism. In a way, Deadpool 2 doesn't try to speak to the audience; it is the audience.

That's why Deadpool can be viewed as a big movie for a large but narrowly focused audience, one that's in on the joke, which includes non-stop tongue-in-cheek references that turn the movie into a perpetual wiseass machine. If you don't share the movie's attitudes -- at least for a couple of hours -- Deadpool may seem dumb and pointless: The movie’s smarts are rooted in pop culture and the abundant Marvel Universe.

So, a concluding comment: Leitch and Reynolds have delivered a movie that meets and occasionally exceeds expectations for a second helping but has little to offer those who aren't steeped in Marvel culture.

I chuckled enough to say that Deadpool 2 can be fun and that Reynolds hasn't worn out his welcome as the foul-mouthed superhero who's at his best when he doesn't give a damn about saving the world and who kicks butt while making fun of whatever passes for a story in these comic-book extravaganzas.

Deadpool 2 even tries to add some heart to all its carnage and clangor. Fair enough, but I doubt whether this edition will cause many lumps to form in many throats. But let's be real: No one goes to a Deadpool movie expecting to reach for a hankie.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A new entry into the revenge genre

A French director fills the screen with blood and tension.

First-time French director Coralie Fargeat has delivered one hell of a calling card, attacking the screen with Revenge, a debut movie that leaves a bloody, indelible impression. Some will see Fargeat's movie as a feminist act of turning the tables, a movie about a woman whose fight for survival pits her against three men, all of whom deserve whatever punishment they get.

But however you choose to view Revenge, it will be difficult to argue against the movie's kick-in-the-gut power.

Movies such as Revenge don't so much tell stories as they find the ingenuity required to keep the action heated, raw and, above all, moving.

A bare-bones plot kicks off when the super-hot Jen (Matilda Lutz) is raped by a hunting buddy (Vincent Colombe) of a man (Kevin Janssens) with whom she's having an extra-marital affair. Another thuggish hunter (Guillaume Bouchede) ignores the whole thing. Instead of aiding Jen, he turns up the volume on the TV.

None of this was supposed to happen. Janssen's Richard hoped to dispense with his boy-toy before his hunting companions turned up at his isolated, aggressively modern desert home. When they arrive a day early, the two men disrupt the sexual interlude that the square-jawed Richard hoped to conclude before setting out to find four-legged prey.

Initially, Jen seems as bubble-headed as she is beautiful, strutting about in a bikini and showing no self-consciousness about being ogled.

Don't be fooled. Fargeat has more in mind than pandering to male fantasies -- at least not those involving sex.

Instead, she serves up a stylishly slick helping of tension, violence, and action in a movie that's not (I repeat "not") for the squeamish.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in the parched expanses of the desert but I'll warn you that there are images that will tempt you to look away from the screen. In one such, Fargeat uses an excruciating close-up to show a man digging into an open wound to remove shards of glass from his foot.

I mention this by way of warning you that there's enough plasma spilled in Revenge to stock a blood bank.

Fargeat offers just enough characterization to create a bit of depth. Initially, Jen seems like a bimbo who knowingly has involved herself with a married man. Fargeat even slips in a Lolita-like shot of Jen with a lollipop.

Richard seems the perfect male mix of success and hypocrisy, a philanderer who calls his wife from his desert retreat, feigning marital loyalty and familial concern. Colombe's Stan -- the leering rapist who attacks Jen when Richard leaves the house for a couple of hours -- eventually has second thoughts about his brutality. Only Bouchede's character seems too dim-witted to care about what's happening.

Revenge is best seen without much advance knowledge about what transpires. I won't say too much about Jen's transformation into a warrior, although I will tell you that it begins with a whopping shock.

Shot in Morocco, Revenge makes great use of desert settings and cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert wields his camera with remarkable deftness.

Whipsmart when it comes to technique and visual wit, Fargeat has made a movie that's tense, lurid and exciting. Not everyone has a taste for this kind of movie, but if you do, Revenge definitely should satisfy.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A supreme court justice and an icon

Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West make little attempt to hide their affection and respect for Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG, a documentary about a jurist who has become an icon of feminism, intelligence, and independence. The directors' approach would be unbearable if Ginsburg weren’t worthy of veneration born of a keen intellect and natural personal charm. One of the movie’s strengths is that it highlights the relationship between RBG and her late husband, Marty Ginsburg. They met as students at Cornell and spent 56 years in a marriage in which two very different attorneys (he was a tax lawyer) managed to support one another, and in which Marty's wit often proved a saving grace. Ginsburg, of course, was a groundbreaker. She attended Harvard Law School when women didn't find much representation in the nation's law schools, a gender wall Ginsburg helped topple along with a variety of other impediments to equality for women. And if the film is right, no one — male or female — should expect to outwork Ginsburg, who still works out at age 85 and isn’t afraid to burn the midnight oil. Even Ginsburg's detractors, who get short shrift here, would have to admit that RBG is formidable, whether on the bench or away from the court. Spending time with her proves a real pleasure.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Melissa McCarthy parties on -- and on

A mother joins her daughter as a college student in Life of the Party.

It’s entirely possible that a woman who gave up her career ambitions when she committed to marriage and raising a daughter might return to college to complete her senior year, particularly after being dumped by her husband of 23 years. It’s also possible that enough time would have passed that the woman's daughter could have arrived at her senior year in college, as well. It's even possible that mother and daughter would find themselves enrolled at the same university.

Considering all this, it’s not too much of a stretch to view Melissa McCarthy’s new comedy, Life of the Party, as a plausible effort to show what might happen if such a mother/daughter situation developed in the hallowed halls of fictional Decatur University.

But that’s where credibility ends and comedy (or what passes for it) begins in Life of the Party, a movie that provides an answer to a question you probably haven’t spent much time considering -- at least I hope not. What could be less appealing than an R-rated McCarthy comedy directed by her real-life husband Ben Falcone (Tammy and The Boss)? Yep, it’s a PG-13 rated comedy from the same team.

The mostly wan Life of the Party follows McCarthy’s Deanna into the dorms of Decatur and turns her into an archeology student who doesn’t dig up enough laughs to earn Life of the Party a passing grade.

At first, Deanna’s daughter’s (Molly Gordon) expresses embarrassment at having her mom around campus. But without much by way of transition, mother and daughter find a new bond as gal pals.

Daughter helps Mom with a fashion makeover that takes her from prim and proper to a woman who appeals to a college kid (Luke Benward) with whom she has hot sex. As Deanna puts it, she rocks his world.

Of the supporting cast, Maya Rudolph, as Deanna's best friend, gives a ribald edge of an otherwise staid suburban woman. Matt Walsh is wasted as Deanna’s ex, a man who has taken up with a realtor (Julie Brown) who bosses him around and immediately sells the home in which he and Deanna lived. The house was in his name.

Deanna has a sullen, self-isolating roommate (Heidi Gardner), but the sisters in her daughter's sorority are a fairly generic group for whom Deanna morphs from a fish-out-of-water woman into an inspirational figure.

Supposed high points protrude self-consciously from the mix. These include a scene in which Deanna and her college cohorts trash her ex-husband’s wedding, a scene at an 80s themed party at which Deanna dominates the dance floor, and a restaurant scene which Deanna confronts her former husband.

The restaurant scene lands some laughs, perhaps because it contains one of the movie's few surprises.

The only moment I found slightly amusing was a bit of physical comedy in which Deanna fumbles her way through an oral archaeology mid-term, engaging in battle with a recalcitrant lectern. Maybe I’m clutching at straws but the bit reminded me of Jerry Lewis. A little?

Otherwise, Life of the Party suggests that the filmmakers might do well to return to comedy school for a refresher in how to avoid the kind of formula traps that tend to neuter comic potential.

When ghosts have yet to die

Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in Ismael's Ghosts.
By most measures, French director Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts should be dismissed as hopelessly muddled, slightly pretentious and loaded with self-conscious time shifts that can confuse more than they clarify. But Desplechin’s movie, I think, deserves more nuanced consideration, particularly if you think of it as a rambling meditation about a filmmaker who’s battling ghosts of his past, one of which turns up in the form of a real person.

Desplechin begins his film as if it were a thriller about a spy named Ivan Dedalus, a film-within-a-film ploy that suggests Desplechin’s desire to turn Ismael's Ghosts into a kind of cinematic playground. Don’t become overly involved in this thriller because you’ll soon learn that you've entered the imagination of writer/director Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a director who's working on the screenplay for the movie we’ve been watching.

A second rank filmmaker, Vuillard never seems to have matched the work of his former father-in-law Henri Bloom (Laszlo Szabo), a director who’s not afraid to allow his ego to spill over into rudeness while insisting that his behavior constitutes an essential form of rebellion.

We also learn that Vuillard's former wife (Marion Cotillard) disappeared 21 years ago. She since has been declared dead but Vuillard can't abandon her memory.

The movie's set-up creates many boats for Desplechin to rock. Vuillard is the midst of a new relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) when a woman turns up claiming to be the long-lost Carlotta, the wife he can’t forget.

To add to the film’s already challenging density, we also learn that the spy in Vuillard’s movie is based on the life of his real brother, a man who has little respect for Vuillard.

All of this information slides into view without much concern for either chronological or even logical coherence.

But Desplechin isn’t attacking the formal conventions of cinema so much as he’s recreating Vuillard’s fevered world, rendered in rendered in alternating strokes of joy and desperation by Amalric, whose portrayal of Vuillard does little to glorify the role of the film director. In Amalric’s hands, Vuillard becomes a mess, a man who can annoy, amuse and even plunge — a little too willingly perhaps — into moments of existential despair.

As a woman who refuses to explain herself, Cotillard adds an aura of mystery and intrigue. Can Carlotta reinsert herself into Vuillard’s life? Will her sudden reappearance cause her father to die of shock? What to make of what Carlotta's claims that she was in a loveless marriage in India during the years in which she vanished from Paris?

Gainsbourg’s Sylvia, an astrophysicist by trade, might be the only character who isn’t overcome by waves of personal confusion.

Did I mention that the spy in Vuillard's movie (Louis Garrel) keeps turning up; snippets of thriller that Vuillard is making punctuate the blurry narrative.

I wouldn’t argue with those who find Ismael’s Ghosts stuffed to the point where it bursts any attempt at significance.

You also could tie yourself in knots trying to make something of Desplechin’s literary references, saddling characters with names that recall James Joyce — Bloom and Dedalus, for example. I took all this rarified name-dropping as little more than wry gamesmanship on Desplechin's part.

It helps not to take Ismael’s Ghosts too seriously. Desplechin may be poking fun at us, as well as at characters who get lost in the maze he creates. Of course, the movie frustrates but its confusions push Desplechin toward something vital, the way his characters respond to the disjointed absurdities with which he confronts them.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

When motherhood becomes a nightmare

Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis play an entertaining duet in Tully, a comedy about the staggering burden of motherhood.
For Marlo, three is definitely not the charm.

We’re talking about Marlo’s third pregnancy, an event that has added much weight to her otherwise well-proportioned frame. Tully -- the latest collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody -- introduces us to a very beleaguered mom, played by Charlize Theron. Theron reportedly gained 50 pounds for the role. I leave it to you to decide whether such body stress is justified in the pursuit of one’s art, but Theron never has been one for half measures.

As Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Theron obliterated her beauty to portray a serial killer, the most notable example of the actress's willingness to undergo a physical transformation at the expense of her movie-star looks.

Marlo, whose size and temperament separate her from those who surround her, struggles with issues that pit her sense of well-being against the kind of physical exhaustion and emotional depletion that are fueled by tending to an infant and two additional siblings.

Because her prepartum life isn't exactly wonderous, Marlo carries a weight that’s more than physical. Marlo's marriage has lost all traces of romance. Marlo's bystander of a husband (Ron Livingston) would rather play video games in bed than snuggle up to his wife. It's not that he doesn't care about his wife and kids; it's more that he's lost in his own world.

To further complicate matters, Marlo already has two children, one of whom (Asher Miles Fallica) taxes her patience because of extreme emotional problems that find him terrified by the sound of flushing toilets or relentlessly kicking the back of mom’s seat while she’s driving.

There’s a daughter (Maddie Dixon-Poirier), as well. The daughter seems to pose no out-sized problems, but still ... she's another kid with needs.

Every over-taxed movie mother needs a contrivance to move things along.

Tully's arrives in the form of a gift from Marlo’s affluent brother (Mark Duplass). He offers to pay for a night nanny, a young woman who'll take care of the newborn's overnight needs, thus allowing Marlo to get some much-needed sleep.

At first, Marlo resists, but she becomes so frustrated that she calls in a night nanny.

Enter Tully, the movie’s title character. As played by Mackenzie Davis, Tully is a dream-come-true. She has a great personality. She's in her 20s, but totally understands Marlo and encourages her to take advantage of the service in ways that Marlo hadn’t anticipated. She not only brings the baby to Marlo for night feedings but cleans up the house and ... well ... eventually even awakens Marlo's husband's slumbering libido.

Credit Davis with a showcase performance: She gives Tully such a major helping of verve and savvy that it begins filtering through the entire movie.

As he did in his best movies (Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air), Reitman wraps Tully's social and psychological interests in a glossy entertainment package. Cody, who previously worked with Reitman on Juno and Young Adult, has been known to produce snarky one-liners but here she leans toward the dark side of Marlo's anger and depression without quite toppling into either.

When Marlo visits her son’s school she initiates an ugly confrontation with the school’s principal over her son’s behavior; Marlo flips onto the dislikable side of the ledger. She’s belligerent with the principal, a woman who genuinely seems concerned about her son's ability to fit into the environment of this private school. Marlo isn't always a joy to be around.

Tully may speak loudly to women who can appreciate the overwhelming tsunami that has smashed on the beaches of Marlo's middle-aged life, a point at which the door has all but slammed shut on her youth.

To make that point, the movie eventually offers a throwback scene in which Marlo and Tully return to Marlo’s old stomping grounds in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn for a night on the town, a foray into the kind of nightlife for which Marlo has become decidedly too old.

It’s difficult to say more without introducing major spoilers, so I’ll simply say that the movie’s ending wraps things up a little too neatly — and, dare I say, with just a hint of a cop-out.

Tully can be seen as another look at a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a popular enough movie theme and one that still has plenty of life in it -- even if, in Tully, it doesn't produce a conclusion that's as convincing as Theron's performance.

Love and conflict in a Jewish community

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams play lesbian lovers battling major obstacles in Disobedience.
Sebastian Leilo, who directed the Oscar-winning foreign-language film, A Fantastic Woman, moves from his native Chile to Britain to tell the story of a love affair between two women, one of whom is married and living in a small Orthodox Jewish community in North London.

This description may sound as if Leilo's Disobedience wants to pose yet another argument for acceptance and tolerance while vilifying an Orthodox community for its myopic vision. Thankfully, the movie does neither of those things.

Instead, Disobedience spreads the lives of its characters across chasms of contradiction that aren't easily traversed: The movie seems less interested in taking sides than in bringing its principal characters to points at which they must make critical personal choices.

Whatever you make of Disobedience, it’s difficult not to recognize the fine work of Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as women who find themselves trying to come to terms with their pasts in what appears to be an impossibly conflicted present.

Weisz's Ronit had an affair with Esti when the two were much younger. Ronit then fled the community in which she grew up to pursue a career in photography. She now lives in New York. McAdams's Esti remained in London and has since married.

Ronit's return to North London for her father's funeral lights a fuse of love and desire between the two women that burns throughout the movie.

To further complicate matters, Ronit's father -- known in the movie as The Rav -- led the community in which much of the drama takes place. Esti's husband Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) is in line to take over the late rabbi's position.

Weisz makes it clear that Ronit loved her father, even though he denied her existence once she left home and Orthodoxy, an act he would have seen as a betrayal of everything he valued, perhaps even an affront to God.

Working from a script that he wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, Leila carefully uncovers the agonies the women endure. Although he receives less attention Esti's husband Dovid has conflicts of his own. The rabbi took young Dovid under wing and made him his chief disciple, which means that, in their youths, Dovid and Ronit shared a kind of brother/sister relationship. Dovid doesn’t know how to embrace the rebellious Ronit yet he can’t bring himself to reject her, either.

Esti can't (and ultimately doesn't) deny her sexual desires. En route to its conclusion, Lelio includes a scene in which Ronit and Estie renew their sexual relationship. The scene leans toward the explicit, but the movie would have been meaningless without it. The desire and love these women feel for each other had to be made tangible.

But to McAdam's credit, she also understands that Esti is not fundamentally at odds with the beliefs of her community. She's nourished by them.

The Jewish life Leilo presents can seem a bit austere and I've never been to a synagogue in which prayers were sung in perfect harmony, as they are here, but Leilo makes us eager to find a resolution for his characters, each of whom earns some sympathy.

Disobedience remains true to its basic concerns about the relationship between choice and responsibility. I'm not entirely sure that the material is always up to the task, but Weisz, McAdams, and Nivola make the inner lives of these characters vivid, real and affecting.

A big fight over a tiny house

Catherine Keener stars in a story about a Connecticut woman's battle to save her home.
The issue of eminent domain receives a modest work-out in Little Pink House, a real-life drama in which Catherine Keener portrays a paramedic who takes on powerful economic interests in order to retain ownership of her Connecticut home.

Keener plays Susette Kelo, a woman who works long and hard to buy a house overlooking the water at a spot where the Thames River meets the Long Island Sound. Kelo renovates the house, paints it pink and settles in for her own version of happily-ever-after.

For Susette, the Little Pink House is more than a place to live; it represents a dream fulfilled.

But the town of New London has other plans for Kelo's property. Spurred on by the state's governor, a non-profit development corporation led by a character named Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) wants to develop the property in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood where Kelo and others have lived — some for most of their lives.

Tripplehorn’s Charlotte believes that development ultimately will help the town’s poorer residents. She mixes social and corporate concerns in hope that Pfizer — the drug company then on the verge of its Viagra boom — will select Kelo's neighborhood as a site for expansion. In Wells' version, the city wins. Pfizer wins. Everybody’s happy — except, of course, the homeowners who don’t want to move.

Eventually, a lawyer (Giacomo Baessato) who’s part of a non-profit group takes Susette’s case, pushing it all the way to the US Supreme Court. Kelo and cohorts lost the case. In a 2005 ruling, the court established that the city's plans did not violate public use clauses of either Connecticut or US law. Put another way, the court decided that economic interests can, in some cases, serve to benefit the public.

Keener makes Susette believably life-sized, although the movie diverges a bit to chronicle Susette’s romantic relationship with the local owner of a small business (Callum Keith Rennie).

I wondered if director Courtney Moorehead Balaker could have infused the movie with a little more outrage, fury springing from the clash of values that animates her film.

The point may not come as a shock but it's worth restating: New London's battle over real estate demonstrates that individuals face an uphill battle when it comes to fighting interests with big bucks behind them.

*A footnote: The land at the heart of this battle reportedly still remains vacant. Pfizer went in another direction. In the end, it's appropriate to ask, did any of the movie's characters win anything?