Friday, June 29, 2018

Mary Shelley: Life before Frankenstein

Elle Fanning does credible work as Mary Shelley, the 19th-century author of Frankenstein. But Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Monsour (Wadjda) loses out by attempting to walk a fine line between a well-adorned period piece and an emotionally turbulent tale populated by Mary Shelley and two poetic geniuses. Shelley's life changed when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Still a teenager, Mary defied her father (Stephen Dillane) to begin a relationship with Shelley, who already had a wife and daughter. Predictably, Mary's views about fidelity came into conflict with the Romantic poet's open attitudes toward sex and free-style living. Shelley's advocacy of counter-cultural values can seem a bit forced, although a rumpled Booth does his best to convey the poet's live-for-the-moment enthusiasms. The movie moves toward a gathering at the home of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), another Romantic poet, as well as an insufferable cad who comes across as someone who'd get himself into deep trouble in the age of #MeToo. Aside from being insensitive to anyone else's feelings, Byron exploits Mary's gullible half-sister Claire (a spirited Bell Powley). Mary Shelley clearly delineates the prejudices faced by 19th-century women with aspirations beyond landing a husband. Al-Mansour's movie also serves to introduce Shelley to those who only know her work, many through big-screen adaptations. But Al-Monsour doesn't solve the major problem faced by those who make movies about writers: their work -- Frankenstein doesn't emerge until the movie's almost over -- usually surpasses their lives, even when lived with the kind of stress, tumult, and suffering that supposedly helped Shelley create her masterpiece.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

'Soldado' bathes in cynicism

Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro reunite in Sicario: Day of the Soldado
The first few minutes of Sicario: Day of the Soldado conflate Mexican border crossings with acts of Islamic terror in the US. The picture wasn't five minutes old before I found myself wondering whether Stephen Miller, considered the hardest of the Trump administration’s immigration hardliners, hadn’t served as a script consultant.

But this sequel to 2015's Sicario eventually broadens its outlook to encompass a kind of inclusive nihilism in which the US government will advance its ambitions by fomenting war, in which CIA agents fight battles in which there are no rules and in which violence, cynicism, and wavering loyalties upset any semblance of international order.

This teeming doomy pile of hopelessness should have made Soldado feel like a keen-eyed movie of the moment, yet this edition of Sicario feels oddly out of touch, a movie in which events seem to be taking place in a world divorced from all other possible realities.

From the start, Soldado accepts its brand of amoral realism without question, perhaps establishing itself as another movie that expects us to admire the way it pushes violent efficiency to harsh extremes.

This time, the story centers on the way a hard-core CIA operative (Josh Brolin) enlists the help of a professional assassin (Benicio del Toro) in trying to start a war among Mexican drug cartels, groups of ruthless mobsters that have recognized a new economic reality: People -- namely immigrants who wish to be smuggled across the border between the US and Mexico -- have become the new cocaine, an abundant source of profit.

Emily Blunt, who appeared in the first movie as a novice who picked her way through thickets of moral corruption, has been replaced by Catherine Keener, a more credible hardass but one who has been given much less to do than Blunt.

Brolin reprises his role as a CIA agent who, for the most part, operates without principles. If there’s a dirty job, Brolin’s character does it with matter-of-fact efficiency. As the movie’s assassin, del Toro manages to do what he does best, bring unexpected flavor to his line readings, sort of Christopher Walker without the impish humor. I’m not criticizing del Toro for this; for me, his quietly off-kilter performance was the best thing about the movie.

The plot contrives to have del Toro’s Alejandro escort a teenage girl (Isabela Moner) out of Mexico. The daughter of a major drug lord, Isabella's kidnapping is part of a complicated scheme to pit rival gangs against each other. It's part of an ill-defined effort to stop Islamic terrorists from joining immigrants as they cross the border.

You probably needn’t have seen the first movie to follow this one, which tries up its ante of dread with Hildur Guonadottir's monotonously ominous score, which — I imagine — is what fog horns would sound like if they were able to mourn.

I still have enough appreciation of B-movie pleasures to have enjoyed parts of Soldado, although it’s difficult to say which without spoilers.

Overall, though, Soldado takes us into dismal emotionally parched terrain where morals have been strip-mined, decency has been eroded and most values have been discarded. The movie follows characters who are accustomed to doing society’s dirty work for bureaucrats —- Matthew Modine portrays the US Secretary of Defense -- who are committed to covering their own asses no matter what their decisions may cost others.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the first movie and followed with Hell or High Water and Wind River, hasn't imagined the same movie twice but doesn't do much to expand the second helping's thematic reach. And in taking the reins from director Denis Villeneuve, Italian director Stefano Sollima has made a movie that, like many of its characters, seems to lack conviction about the corrupted world into which it pumps a fair measure of bullets.

Those who find Soldado realistic may want to consider the near-miraculous recovery made one of its characters after ... I'll say no more. Check it out for yourself and tell me if you bought it.

Life at Carlyle Hotel. It's pampered

Somewhere in my journalism past, I did interviews in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel, one of New York's most exclusive, upscale -- and unapologetically elitist -- hotels. Note: I never got any further than the lobby, certainly not on a journalist's paycheck. In the new documentary, Always at The Carlyle, it's amusing to listen to George Clooney talk about his love for the hotel or to hear how attentive the elevator operators are or to learn that a member of the hotel's staff is responsible for embroidering the names of guests on pillowcases. Director Matthew Miele has made what amounts to an enthusiastic ode to a hotel most of us never will check into. Anjelica Huston turns up for an interview. We also learn that Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge once stayed at the Carlyle. Jack Nicholson was nice to the help. The recently departed Anthony Bourdain talks about the hotel's Bemelmans Bar, which features murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, the illustrator who did the Madeline books. The movie also takes time to celebrate the indispensably sophisticated talents of pianist Bobby Short, a fixture at the hotel cafe until his death in 2005. The movie's point -- the Carlyle does a great job catering to the rich and famous -- is made early and repeated. Me? I got only limited pleasure from again and again hearing how those who can afford the Carlyle are pampered and protected.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The dinos return, but where's the fear?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom falls short as big helping of entertainment.

If there's any emotional heft in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it stems from the fate of the movie's genetically engineered dinosaurs. At this point in their big screen lives, these innocent creatures have come to represent a natural state that greedy humans have altered and abused. Some will get behind the wrath of the dinos, which is directed mostly at bad folks who want to profit from their revived existence (Gasp!) even turn them into the world's most deadly weapons. Had the picture been better, I might have joined them.

Director J.A. Bayona, known for his 2007 horror opus The Orphanage, limits his achievement by adhering to the required action formula. Here's a clue: The movie's dialogue relies heavily on the word "run." The fact that people need to tell one another to flee as massive thundering creatures approach at full speed stands as a greater indictment of human intelligence than anything else in this protracted stompfest.

Fallen Kingdom leans heavily on action while shortchanging build up, but I took the multiple instances in which Chris Pratt -- reprising his role as a kind of dino whisperer -- was slimed by various creatures as a welcome helping of self-mockery on the part of Bayona and his CGI crew. The movie could have used more such flippancy.

In the last Jurassic World film, Pratt teamed with Bryce Dallas Howard . The two reunite for an adventure in which a wealthy benefactor (James Cromwell) tries to save dinosaurs from imminent extinction by taking them off an island on which an active volcano is about to erupt.

Howard's Claire recruits a Pratt's Owen, who -- of course -- initially plays hard to get. He's busy building a cabin in the isolated woods and has had enough of dinosaurs. Still, he answers Claire's call.

Additions to the series include a nervous computer expert (Justice Smith) who provides some of the movie's many screams and a young woman (Daniella Pineda) who seems to function as a kind of punk veterinarian.

Of course, an evil military type also must crop up. Enter Ted Levine as Ken Wheatley, the brutally duplicitous organizer of the rescue mission. Keep your eye an assistant (Rafe Spall) to Cromwell's character, a guy who immediately becomes suspect by being too damn nice for his own good.

The movie divides its time between the island and the estate created by Cromwell's Benjamin Lockwood. Thanks to manipulations of plot that needn't be spelled out here, the dinos wind up on the estate, where they eventually race around, somewhat unexpectedly, indoors.

Lockwood's granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) joins in an effort to save the dinos from profiteers who eventually bring in an auctioneer (Toby Jones) to conduct the world's most malign rare species sale.

The dinosaurs have human allies, but the movie's heart belongs to Blue, a human-friendly velociraptor that was trained by Owen in the last movie. Unlike any of the human characters, Blue shows a degree of inner conflict: She must decide which humans to protect and which to turn into lunch.

The movie also includes a prologue and epilogue in which Jeff Goldblum, as a scientist testifying before a Senate Committee, condemns the hubris that was required to create these genetic marvels in the first place. He advises against rescuing the dinosaurs; for him, the pending volcanic eruption represents an opportunity for a reset.

Bayona can't entirely escape the trap of open-mouthed acting that often results from an extensive reliance on CGI: This involves asking actors to gawk at the special effects or scream with fear as the digitally created dinos bear their predatory teeth.

Braced by familiarity with this franchise, I seldom -- if ever -- shared the fear. We know the genre too well (and so does Bayona) to get beyond the rote deliverance of one action set piece after another as the movie stomps its way toward the ending that inevitably (and finally eerily) opens the door for the next chapter. I'm betting we'll see a lot more running, chomping and wholesale swallowing of those who trample ethical considerations in their relentless quest for profit.

What exactly these miscreants will do with all their money in a world they seem eager to destroy remains a mystery.

When grief haunts a girl's summer

As even the world's hermits must know by now, summer is a time for big, splashy action when it comes to movies. If you're looking for an antidote, you may want to try director Carla Simon's debut movie Summer 1993. Working in autobiographical mode, Simon tells the story of six-year-old Frieda (Laia Artigas), a girl who faces a crisis when her mother dies of AIDS-related pneumonia. After her mother's death, Frieda is sent to live with her uncle (David Verdauger) and aunt (Bruna Cusi), a couple with a four-year-old daughter of their own. It's refreshing to see adults trying to deal responsibly with a troubled, obstinate child who often taxes their patience. The adults can't always hide their exasperation but they clearly have young Frieda's best interests at heart. Simon obtains entirely credible performances from the movie's children. Understandably unable to adjust to what has happened to her, Frieda is capable of flashes of cruelty. Simon deserves applause for not turning her movie into a weepy. Instead, she tells a quietly realized story about people who suddenly face a difficult situation that none of them chose. What they can choose is how they'll adapt to these circumstances. They do so with a level of humanity that's too little seen on screen.

Trying to hide from a difficult truth

If you know anything about Eastern Europe in the days following World War II, little about the mournful Hungarian movie 1945 will come as a shock. Shot in black-and-white, the movie charts what happens when a Jewish father and son (Ivan Angelusz and Marcell Nagy) show up in a Hungarian village where the property of pre-war Jews has been appropriated by members of the local populace. The theft of property and businesses -- in this case, the local pharmacy -- has been "legitimized" by paperwork and legalistic flimflam conducted at the behest of the town's opportunistic clerk (Peter Rudolf). Director Ferenc Torok's movie sometimes takes on the feel of a Western, as it focuses on a town that harbors dark secrets. The two Jewish men, who say little, become accusers simply by turning up. They're not really characters; they're stoic symbols of rebuke. These Jewish travelers claim to have brought a shipment of perfume for the town's pharmacy but clearly have something else in mind. The townsfolk -- particularly its clerk -- fear that the two strangers will try to reclaim what rightfully belonged to the town's Jewish population, wiped out during the Holocaust. Questions of complicity come into focus as the town prepares for a wedding. The clerk's son (Bence Tasnadi) is about to marry a woman who seems to be conspiring to grab some of the largess created by the sell-out of the town's Jews. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Gabor T. Szanto, Torok offers a somber primer on the complicitous betrayal of Jews in Hungry's rural villages, building toward the suicide of the town drunk (Jozsef Szarvas). Szarvas's character participated in the scheme to steal Jewish property and can't escape his feelings of guilt. Torok might have made room for a little more nuance as he observes the ways in which the town is rocked by exposure of the unacknowledged crimes that permeate all of its institutions, including the church. Driven by the agitation and anxiety of the town's populace, 1945 does, however, continue the exploration of an inexhaustible and inescapable subject: the human capacity for denial that threatens to devour historical truths that ultimately must be vomited up in painfully wrenching ways.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Looking for great comedy? 'Tag' isn't it

Grown men playing tag? They chase one another but have trouble catching laughs.

In 2013, The Wall Street Journal ran a diverting little article about a group of men from Spokane, Wash., who managed to stay in touch over decades by playing an annual, month-long game of tag.

Tag, a game that requires no equipment and which relies on speed and elusiveness, isn’t usually thought of as a competitive sport. But this group of long-time pals turned it into one — at least for four weeks a year. They drew up a contract specifying the rules of a game they played with stealth, subterfuge, cunning and an abiding commitment not to be the last man tagged, a status with which one of them had to live for an entire year before the game resumed.

Enter Hollywood and the idea that this amusing piffle of a story would make a good movie.

And it might have had director Jeff Tomsic displayed more interest in exploring the absurd side of male competitive drive, had he and his cohorts done a better job of getting the cast on the same page and had they not turned Tag into a movie that feels like a lukewarm bit of filler sandwiched between summer blockbusters.

The filmmakers seem to have made self-conscious attempts to alter the movie’s gender muscle flexing by having the wife (Isla Fisher) of one of the players (Ed Helms) accompany her husband as the game he plays the game. Moreover, the movie's Wall Street Journal reporter serves little purpose other than to make room for Annabelle Wallis, the actress who plays her.

Not that any of the male characters are particularly well-developed, either.

Helms portrays Hoagie, a man who suggests to another player -- a successful insurance company executive played by Jon Hamm -- that they team up to take down the reigning champion (Jeremy Renner). During the course of several decades, Renner's Jerry never has been tagged. As portrayed here, Jerry has ninja-like skills that are heightened by some quick editing, the sudden insertion of slo-mo trickery and an inexplicable ability to disappear.

Other players include a Denver-based stoner (Jake Johnson), a character who's introduced with a bong joke that would have seemed dated -- even had it turned up 50 years ago. Hannibal Buress signs on as a slightly nerdy gameplayer.

To keep the movie focused, the filmmakers assemble the players in Spokane, where Jerry is about to be married. Jerry hasn’t invited his buddies to the wedding because he knows they’ll show up anyway, using the nuptials as a long-awaited opportunity to bring down the champion.

Setting most of the movie in the players' hometown also gives the filmmakers an opportunity to throw in a bit of competition for an old high-school flame (Rashida Jones), a woman who attracts attention from both Hamm and Johnson’s characters.

All of this generates minimal chemistry. Granted the men are locked in fierce competition, but they seldom seem comfortable with one another, and Hamm, in particular, looks like a misfit addition to a misbegotten group that produces no stand-outs, except possibly for Fisher, who can be more underhanded than any of the male players. By rule, women are excluded from the game.

Renner does a convincing job as Jerry, but his intensely focused performance seems to belong in another movie.

Because the men are not playing in the confined space of a schoolyard but in the real world, they're forced to don lame disguises to sneak up one another or to engage in trickery, bribery and other forms of deceit that will allow them to approach their prey.

I went back and read the original Wall Street Journal article and a couple of follow-ups, all of which were more interesting than the resultant movie which can’t find its rhythm as a robust comedy with outlandish flourishes, including a far-fetched (and not especially funny) bit of action set in a wooded area.

The tag catchphrase — “you’re it" — might have given the movie stinging sharpness, but after laying out its premise, this over-amped effort does little to catch us unaware — and that includes a last-minute revelation that may have been added to create a bit of emotion without having done anything to earn it.

They're at Cannes -- but not for the films

Claire's Camera reunites actress Isabelle Huppert and South Korean director Hong Sang-soo.

It’s arguable that South Korean director Hong Sang-soo could have written the outline for his deceptively slight new film, Claire’s Camera, on the back of a cocktail napkin. Watching the movie, which takes place during the Cannes Film Festival, you may wonder whether Hong isn’t improvising, dropping a quartet of characters onto the festival’s periphery and then sitting back to see what happens.

In one way or another, all the characters in Claire's Camera are related to the world of film. So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young) directs films and has one playing at the festival.
Kim Mi-hee's Jeon Manhee has been working for a film sales agent (Chang Mi-hee) who fires her at the beginning of the film, claiming that she no longer trusts Man-hee to be honest with her.

Claire (Isabelle Huppert) portrays the film civilian in the group; her character teaches music but wanders about Cannes with a Polaroid camera, asking if she might snap photos of the people she meets.

In the scene in which Manhee loses her job, Hong sends a clear signal that he’s going to take a few comic shots at the idea of capturing life on film. Chang’s character asks the woman she has just fired to join her in a selfie, an absurd commemoration of a moment both characters probably should want to forget.

Having Huppert walk through the film with a camera seems a little artificial, but Claire serves as a catalyst to bring out the back stories — not necessarily presented in chronological order — that drive Hong’s slender but emotionally piquant narrative.

The movie’s Cannes setting proves relevant but never dominating. This may be Cannes, but watching great films seems pretty far down on anyone's agenda. Hong seems interested in the way his characters respond to slowly revealed truths.

Unlike some directors, Hong seems to know that he has hold of a slender premise and at 68 minutes, he doesn’t overwork it.

As for the director portrayed in the film ... Jung’s character proves as disheveled as his rumpled haircut; he's an unsympathetic mess of a man.

The same can’t be said for Claire’s Camera, a film of elusive but insinuating charms. And, no, I don’t believe anything about the movie was improvised.

A relaxed, enjoyable father/daughter tale

Heart Beats Loud is one of those laid-back movies that isn't out to oversell you on anything. Set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, the movie tells the story of a father and daughter who make music together. The twist: The daughter (an appealing Kiersey Clemons) has ambitions that go beyond music. She's about to start college and wants to be a doctor. Dad (a relaxed but sometimes dour Nick Offerman) thinks the two should try to pursue a musical career together, particularly because Clemons' Sam has an obviously potent talent. But it’s Offerman's Frank who dreams of striking musical gold. A hit record could liberate him from the failing, vinyl-only record store over which he presides. He'd like to make music, not sell it. The songs -- pleasing enough -- are interrupted by whispers of a plot involving Offerman’s character’s mom (Blythe Danner); his landlady (Toni Collette) and his bartender friend (Ted Danson). A romance between Clemons' character and a young woman played by American Honey's Sasha Lane doesn't add much, but the movie is relaxed enough to accommodate a bit of meandering. Offerman has a sly way of commanding the screen, avoiding any of the ingratiating gestures that would have turned Frank into an off-beat role model. Director Brett Haley (I'll See You in My Dreams) may not dig deep, but his movie wanders into summer buoyed by the odd couple chemistry of a father who may have more growing up to do than his brightly ambitious daughter.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Where I’ve been lately -- and some sadness

Yes, I’ve fallen behind. As a result of recent travels, I've been unable to keep this running collection of movie reviews up-to-date.

I’ll pick up again this week, but before I do, I want to say something about Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, author and TV star who committed suicide in France last week.

I was sitting on a bed in a hotel in Montevecchia, Italy — on the fringes of Italy’s insanely scenic Lake District — when a headline flashed across my tablet. Bourdain had died at the age of 61.

As an occasional watcher of Bourdain’s CNN show, Parts Unknown, I found myself in step with just about everyone else who thought that a Bourdain suicide was inconceivable. Not the robust, I’ll-eat-anything world traveler who drank and ate his way across the globe, sometimes visiting places few of us voluntarily would venture. On a recent show, Bourdain proclaimed Glasgow, by no means the most exotic of his many destinations, as one of his favorite cities. He didn’t convince me, but the guy earned points for going against the grain.

In a foodie culture in which restaurants have become exalted Meccas of culinary worship, Bourdain seemed like a guy with his feet firmly planted on the ground, someone who held little truck with places that serve meticulously assembled, nibble-sized portions on oversized plates, high-priced oases of pleasure on otherwise arid dinnerware deserts. There was more than a hint of the working man about him.

Better yet, Bourdain seemed as if he’d be fun to hang out with, something to which those who knew him attested in various startled post-death reflections on his life as America’s explorer-in-chief. My liking of Bourdain also may have had parochial roots; he grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, not far from the northern Jersey town where I was raised. Another Jersey boy. I knew the accent.

I have no idea what demons haunted Bourdain, but I wondered whether those demons were encouraged to flap their serrated wings by too much air travel, too many unfamiliar hotel beds, too many ports-of-call, and too much cultural bombardment. Bourdain said he liked to move, and he seemed to have turned his life into a form of cross-cultural aerobics.

Cliche has it that travel broadens one’s horizons, which — of course - is true. But it also can kick the shit out of you, challenging your body clock with time shifts that sometimes require merciful assistance from pharmaceutical sleeping aids.

Of course, Bourdain and his crew made it all look easy. There he was walking the streets of this or that city, tapping the wisdom of top local experts or long-standing friends, sharing drinks and meals. He so frequently pronounced these meals as “delicious” that I wondered whether the guy ever ate anything he didn’t enjoy.

He did. In interviews, Bourdain talked about being a guest in various cultures and how he learned to respect those cultures by sharing local cuisines, always without queasy judgment or moral censure. He once even ate — begin grimacing now — unwashed warthog anus.

I’m all for experiencing cultural diversity and I’d like to think of myself as fairly open to new experiences, but if someone offered me unwashed warthog anus I’d politely refuse and ask whether they might be able to dig up some chips instead.

I wondered, too, whether all the travel and adventurous eating had taken the place of the rush that Bourdain once got from heroin, part of a young man's foray into a world of drugs that he openly discussed.

But I’m no psychologist and I won't play one here.

All I’ll say is that Bourdain’s suicide serves as a powerful reminder that what we see on TV should be taken cum grano salis; i.e., with a large grain of salt that Bourdain probably would have encouraged us to enjoy without guilt.

In the end, Bourdain reminded us of an important truth: We do not know the people who turn up on screens in our living rooms any more than we should presume to know or understand those who turn up on bigger screens at the movies.

There’s only one way really to get to know someone; that’s eye-ball-to-eye-ball over time -- and even that isn't always enough.

I’m going to miss the Bourdain I saw on TV, but when I watch reruns of his program, I’ll know that I’m not seeing the whole person. We never do.

Like you, I’m not the same person at 2 p.m. on a sunny afternoon as I am on those occasions (fortunately infrequent) when I awaken at 4 a.m. abandoned by sleep as my mind restlessly stumbles through thickets of anxiety or regret, things unsaid or undone.

I’m saddened that Bourdain has so abruptly vanished from the public scene; I’m also saddened by the thought that Bourdain, a man who could accept all manner of challenge and diversity, might finally have faced one he couldn’t fully accommodate: himself.