Thursday, July 19, 2018

A doc about The King and his kingdom

If you are unable to see Elvis Presley as a symbol of everything that's both right and wrong with America, you may not get much out of The King, director Eugene Jarecki's far-reaching and often incisive documentary. Although Jarecki includes biographical information about Presley's rocket-ride of a life, he also uses Elvis as a launch point for larger observations about cultural appropriation, American bloat and other matters that, in sum, paint a portrait of American life on the downswing. Some of the interviews in The King take place in the back seat of Elvis's 1963 Rolls-Royce, a car that breaks down during Jarecki's travels, resulting in a bit of unplanned irony. Among the people Jarecki interviews, Ethan Hawke stands out as both knowledgeable and insightful. We also get music, including a show-stopping performance from EmiSunshine and the Rain. Jarecki bites off so much that he almost tears the film apart as we try — not always successfully — to digest its broad array of thematic elements. And, of course, it's all supported by the familiar arc of Elvis's story, a tale that follows him from dirt-poor beginnings in Tupelo, Miss. to the glitz and indulgence of Las Vegas. Rapper and producer Chuck D sounds one of the movie's strongest notes, noting that he’s not about to jump on the Elvis train. Elvis found his style by listening to black music, and many feel he never acknowledged the debt. These days, I'm up for some serious pessimism, so The King hooked me with its sweeping observations and culturual criticisms. Watching The King is a bit like sitting at the end of the bar while a slightly tipsy man rails about everything under the sun. The difference: Much of The King proves interesting and some it, even salient. That's because The King is as much about the kingdom as it is about Elvis’s pop-cultural royalty.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A highly absurd helping of action

In Skyscraper, Dwayne Johnson races to save his wife and children. At times, the movie proves preposterously amusing.
Say this, Dwayne Johnson doesn't need a special costume to be a superhero. It seems as if the guy's saving someone every other week at the movies. That's an exaggeration, of course, but Johnson has become one of Hollywood's heavy lifters, a prolific action star who has yet to wear out his welcome.

Credit Skyscraper with carrying Johnson to new heights of preposterousness with lots of digitally created action. The movie's cornucopia of set pieces includes a much-written-about scene in which Johnson's character leaps a reported 40 feet from a giant construction crane to The Pearl, the Hong Kong skyscraper in which much of the movie takes place. He’s supposed to be 100 stories in the air — or some such.

But, hey, who's looking for realism? With movies such as Skyscraper, we're not expected to believe that such a feat could be accomplished. We're supposed to enjoy it precisely because we know it's impossible.

Johnson's Will Sawyer makes many such daring leaps because he has taken a job evaluating security at the world's tallest skyscraper, a marvel of a building that's three times taller than the Empire State Building.

The Pearl makes for an inviting setting, the pride of its billionaire creator (Chin Han). The building features a design that includes lots of curved surfaces and an indoor garden with a waterfall that plunges from lofty heights. The building is topped by what looks like a giant tennis ball, but really houses a series of electronic projectors that, of course, figure in the movie's hall-of-mirrors finale.

The screenplay contrives to put Sawyer's family in harm's way. His wife (Neve Campbell) and twins (a boy and a girl) are trapped in the building after it has been set on fire by villains who are trying to bully Han's character into turning over a computer chip.

Why do they want it? Does it matter?


Director Rawson Marshall Thurber's main job has less to do with creating complex motivations for his characters than with churning out vertiginous set pieces and, then, moving the characters from one to the next.

Johnson doesn't have much dialogue, but he sweats and grunts impressively as his character engages in activities that might challenge Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible character.

To complicate matters, Will has a prosthetic leg as a result of injuries sustained in the movie's prologue, which takes place when he was still an FBI agent. And, yes, the leg will be put to use before the action concludes.

Thurber, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't create a consistent enough atmosphere to support the movie's ridiculously conceived action. He shifts tones, adds unnecessary gunplay and becomes repetitious as he races through a harebrained screenplay: Its signature distinction: an emphasis on the many uses of duct tape.

The fun of the movie hinges on watching Johnson carry out all this over-the-top action as if he really believed in its importance. At one point, Will uses his amazing strength to hold two severed parts of the building in place while his wife walks across a plank to save their asthmatic son.

Despite such super-human displays, Johnson isn't quite strong enough to hold the movie together, but if you're willing to check all of your critical faculties at the door, Skyscraper might qualify as one of the summer's guiltier pleasures.

A satirical comedy with lots of bite

Sorry to Bother You takes on the world of telemarketing -- and much more.
In the age of excess and toppling norms, it seems impossible for anyone to make a satire that could match reality, particularly as precedent crumbles with thundering regularity.

But in presenting an overstuffed but vibrant satire, Boots Riley — a Hip Hopper moved behind the camera — comes awfully close and if Riley tries to say too much, perhaps he should be forgiven. Better too much than nothing at all.

On its surface, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You seems like a comedy directed at one of the great contemporary nuisances, telemarketing. Anyone who has answered one of those pesky calls during dinner obviously should relate. But Riley has more in mind -- much more.

The story centers on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an unemployed young man who lands a job at a telemarketing company, having impressed his prospective employer by falsifying his resume. The point quickly becomes clear: In the telemarketing business, a commitment to honesty might be the least valuable asset an employee can possess.

Initially, Cassius -- a.k.a. Cash -- doesn’t meet with much success. Riley illustrates this by dropping the fumbling Cash into the lives of the people he calls, sight gags that enlarge an already colossal annoyance. Wham! There's Cash giving his spiel while a couple makes love.

It doesn’t take long for Cash to learn the secret of successful telemarketing. A sage old-timer (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” as a means of draining the swamp of desperation callers might hear if Cash talks normally. Cash begins talking "white" courtesy of a voice supplied by David Cross.

Lo, Cash works his way up the corporate ladder. He’s so good at his job that he’s promoted to the ranks of Power Caller, a coveted position that moves him to an upper floor accessed by a golden-doored elevator with the world’s most elaborate security code.

Cash soon learns that, as a Power Caller, he has one job: to sell the services of Worry Free, a company that supplies workers to other companies, a euphemistic way of saying that Worry Free employees become lifetime servants of their employer. Those who work for Worry Free are housed and fed (badly) by the company. In every way imaginable, they become subservient to a corporate juggernaut, which is led by a character named Steve Lift (a bearded Armie Hammer).

With help from a Power Caller supervisor (Omari Hardwick), Cash catches Lift's eye. Turns out that Lift, played by Hammer as a hotshot who hides his cruelty and greed beneath a banner of innovation, has a special proposition for Cash.

All this plunges Cash into an ethical crisis. While he’s advancing, his buddies from the lower floor — led by a firebrand played by Steven Yeun) —- are trying to unionize. They have the audacity to demand salaries and benefits rather than wages based solely on commission.

Stanfield, familiar to those who watch TV's Atlanta, has the ability to portray Cash as a half-formed man; he's clearly smart but we wonder if he could truly realize himself only by refusing to participate in the rigged economy out of which Riley's satire bubbles.

Cash's morally compromised success also puts him at odds with his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), an artist who eventually draws a line: Either Cash shapes up morally or she'll ship out.

When a director employs cartoonish visual jests that lead us toward a bizarre sci-fi fantasy, he’s bound to include a few misses among the hits. A piece of performance art by Thompson’s character may leave you scratching your head.

But Riley drops a persistent question about black male characters into a new context. Can Cash maintain any semblance of an authentic self while navigating a corporate world where his voice (literally and metaphorically) proves a crippling liability?

But Riley doesn’t stop there: He also takes on game shows, reality TV, corporate greed, race, and, perhaps most important, public indifference, the way we’ve all become too numb to feel any more outrage. In a climate that breeds indifference, it may be impossible for individual action to become socially transformative.

Sorry to Bother You stands as a comedy that strikes enough targets to make it a welcome attempt to say something about where we actually are — instead of trying to transport us, as many movies do, to places we’d rather be.

An amazing story about triplets

If the story told by the documentary Three Identical Strangers appeared in a newspaper or a magazine you'd most likely find yourself reading it compulsively. But, then, the story has been in many newspapers and magazines. Even so, director Tim Wardle has made one of the year's most intriguing movies, a journey that begins with an effervescent sense of joy before moving to much darker places. The early part of the movie focuses on the incredible tale of how three brothers separated at birth and adopted by different parents found each other as young men in 1980. As the brothers' association continued, they emphasized their similarities. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes, loved the same foods, finished each other's sentences and had similar tastes in women. Eventually, they opened a restaurant -- Triplets -- that for a time was an attraction in New York. Much of the audience won't know the rest of the story, so I'll not say much beyond the fact that all three brothers were adopted from Louise Wise Services, an agency that specializes in Jewish adoptions. Based on interviews with the brothers and their parents, as well as with journalist Lawrence Wright, who investigated matters concerning the triplets’ adoptions, the movie begins to grow in complexity. By the time we reach the movie's conclusion, the dark side has taken over, so much so that what initially seemed like a novelty item has turned into something far more unsettling. Wardle makes use of dramatizations, a technique I'm reflexively against in documentaries, but he knows how to keep an audience involved and he has hold of a story that ultimately leaves us with questions about the intentions of an adoption agency, as well as about a team of psychological researchers. Three Identical Strangers begins as a curiosity but evolves into a movie about brothers whose glee at finding one another is undermined by the escalating revelation of difficult truths.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A troubled father and his daughter

Leave No Trace avoids melodrama and discovers compassion.

We're not exactly sure why, but Will, one of the main characters in Leave No Trace, can't live with people.

Instead of giving us answers to the movie’s central question, director Debra Granik provides us with plenty of clues. Will was in the military. He sometimes jolts awake because of horrific dreams. He has withdrawn from society, living in the woods around Portland, Ore.

But what distinguishes Will from other walled-off loners with wart-time PTSD is that he has brought his teenage daughter on his journey of isolation. We imagine that this daughter -- her name is Tom -- was quite young when Will returned from whatever combat zone did so much damage to his spirit. Somewhere along the line, Tom's mother died -- or so we assume. Since then Will and Tom have been trying to live off the grid.

Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, delivers her first movie since 2010's Winter's Bone, a mournful yet deeply compassionate look at a father who loves his daughter but seems to have given up on any future for himself.

As the movie progresses, Will's daughter begins to encounter the outside world. When father and daughter are busted for living on public lands, they're turned over to social workers who try to do right by them. After some initial interrogation, father and daughter are placed in a home on the property of a Christmas tree farmer. The farmer doesn't ask much of them, although he seems to expect them to attend Sunday services.

At those services, we see a group of devotional dancers that struck me was one of the movie's only strained moments, but the dancers and the folks who run the service are so damn nice that the movie seems to be daring us to dismiss them as caricatures.

In this part of the film, Tom also meets a farm kid who's raising rabbits. Slowly and in the unforced way of the movie, she begins to see the benefits of interacting with others. The thing is, she likes people and perhaps even recognizes her need for them. Living in the woods may offer Will a measure of freedom, but will just as surely imprison Tom in a life of isolation.

And maybe even Will knows that; he's homeschooled Tom well enough for a social worker to tell her that she's way ahead of where she should be academically.

Normally, I'd have mentioned the actors earlier, but Leave No Trace is about its characters, and I spent more time thinking about them than I did about the actors who played them. And isn't that in itself a tribute to the movie's cast.

When I tell you that Ben Foster, an actor of scary intensity, plays Tom, you'll instantly realize that Granik isn't about to allow the material to get sentimental.

Foster's Will isn't a heroic champion of natural living. It's not that he chooses to reject society; it's that he's become constitutionally unable to be part of it. And we judge from the movie's title that whatever damage Will did during whatever war he fought, he has resolved not to destroy anything else. He doesn't so much crave the solitude of the forest as he hungers for invisibility.

The relationship between Will and Tom could have turned ugly or melodramatic. It never does. There's no questioning the love that unites them.

But, as Tom -- played with reserve, devotion and an awakening sense of self by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie -- says to her father at one point, "The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me."

Granik has a strong feel for nature; she makes the forest a character, a place that can offer shelter and solace, but one where people don't necessarily belong.

She also likes to portray ordinary people, folks who are scraping by but still have a generous spirit. At one point, Will and Tom wind up in staying in a trailer at the home of a beekeeper (Dale Dickey) who seems to have found a convincing middle way; she can live with nature without turning her back on people.

At this point, the film relaxes enough for the locals to gather for guitar playing and singing, something that normally would have made my eyes roll but which Granik presents as an organically expressed part of the lives she observes.

Leave No Trace is a rarity, a movie that runs its finger over a deep vein of pain without offering palliatives or bromides. That feels unblinkered and right.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

‘Ant-Man’: An amusing second helping

Paul Rudd returns in one of the least serious Marvel entries.
Ant-Man and the Wasp, the latest movie to spring from the Marvel Universe, falls short in many ways: It has a jangled plot, a trip into a strange Quantum Realm in which characters and creatures float as if immersed in Jello and stretches of talk in which the dialogue isn't likely to evoke comparisons with Shakespeare.

Fortunately, that's not the whole story. This second, big-screen helping of Ant-Man also benefits from what might be deemed a thoroughgoing and entirely welcome lack of cosmic ambition.

Thanks go to Rudd's genial reprise of his role as Scott Land (a.k.a. Ant-Man), enough humor to carry us through the movie's doldrums and a collection of characters who must act as if there's much at stake -- even if there isn't.

Director Peyton Reed, who directed the first installment, also plays fun games with scale as Ant-Man makes the shift from tiny creature to parade-float size. Ant-Man can become as small as ... well ... an ant or as big as a zeppelin, opening the door for Reed and his cohorts to play lots of clever games involving mutable size.

Stretches devoted to exposition may keep the movie from soaring, but it's difficult to resist car chases in which full-sized cars suddenly shrink to Hot Wheels proportions or an action scene in which a PEZ dispenser enlarges to play a significant role.

So what happens? Well, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) believe they can rescue Hope's long-lost mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, the zone where she disappeared while executing a selfless act of heroism. 

Hope also is the Wasp, which means that she has been given wings to flutter and the responsibility of broadening the movie's gender appeal.

Additions to the series include the Ghost (Hanna John-Kamen), a woman who's on the verge of decomposing and who (understandably) would rather remain in one piece. Laurence Fishburne turns up as one of Pym's estranged colleagues, another researcher into the Quantum Realm. Walter Goggins plays a greedy businessman who also has his eye on the Quantum Realm.

Randall Park appears as an FBI agent whose interchanges with Scott provide the movie with a comic motif that it's not afraid to repeat, but which proves amusing enough not to wear out its welcome. Scott, by the way, is being monitored by the FBI because he's been under house arrest for two years. His time of confinement is almost up, but you can bet that he'll find a way to weasel out of his ankle bracelet and join the action before he's officially set free.

Michael Pena turns up as the fast-talking operator of a security company. A veteran of the first installment, Pena makes no attempt to do more than add laughs with his character's frenetic speech. Pena's Luis once shared a cell with Lang, a thief before his elevation to superhero status.

Look, there's little point rattling on about a movie such as Ant-Man and the Wasp. If you see it, you'll find enough humor to stave off a case of Marvel overdose -- and some of that humor has a visual kick, something rare in today's comedies and, therefore, something to savor.

(An aside: Gore Verbinski -- director of several Pirates of the Caribbean movies remains the undisputed master of visually inventive comedy.)

But as far as this edition of Ant-Man is concerned: It's nice to see a Marvel movie that seems intended to amuse us more than it's designed to beat us into submission.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

When hope has all but vanished

Andrea Riseborough plays the title character in Nancy, a movie set on a landscape in which love has all but died.
In Nancy, a debut feature from director Christina Choe, all the characters have been made miserable by loss or neglect. Nancy -- the movie's title character -- lives with her demanding mother (Ann Dowd) in a rundown house in a nameless town. Mom's dying of Parkinson's and relies on Nancy to tend to her every need -- small and big acts that Mom accepts without ever showing a trace of gratitude.

Given the roles that Dowd typically plays, her appearance instantly triggers an expectation of bad things to come. Dowd's portrayal of Aunt Lydia in Handmaid's Tale stands as a brutal study of tyrannical conformity. In the recent Hereditary, she played a seemingly compassionate, grief-stricken woman, but -- with Dowd -- we've learned not to trust the surface.

Dowd isn't the main character in Nancy, but she helps to set the movie's bleak mood.

Andrea Riseborough portrays Nancy, a character who makes no effort to be likable or even comprehensible. Nancy invents stories about herself. At one point, she feigns a pregnancy as a means of consoling a grieving man (John Leguizamo) whose infant daughter died a while back.

Leguizamo's character asked to meet Nancy after reading a blog post she wrote. He has no ulterior motives; he only wants to talk to someone who might give him hope, someone with enough faith in life to bring a newborn into it. Even if well-intended at first, Nancy's deception becomes an act of cruelty.

When her mother dies of a stroke, Nancy sees an opening. She attempts to insinuate herself into the lives of a couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steven Buscemi) who long ago lost a daughter to kidnappers. Having seen the couple discussing their lives in a recent TV interview, Nancy decides to contact them, claiming to be that long lost child.

What unfolds is an intimate exercise in acceptance and delusion, an exploration of grief and diminished hope conducted by a trio of highly skilled actors.

As a professor of literature, Smith-Cameron wants to believe in Nancy. Buscemi's Leo, a psychologist by trade, proves more skeptical, but never aggressively so. It's a pleasure to see Buscemi give a subdued performance as a man who has known pain but has struggled to keep his balance.

Leo orders a DNA test to determine whether Nancy's story is true. But the meat on this movie's bone has little to do with the results of that test. Choe's doesn't aim for pin-point specificity; she doesn't even bother to develop an entirely credible plot. We don't so much watch Nancy as we sink into the bleak lives of its severely damaged characters.

Choe doesn't spell things out; she gives us plenty of room to discover. As a result, Nancy turns out to be a small but troubling movie about the way hope can flicker in lives that have all but abandoned it. Is that flicker a saving grace or the cruelest of delusions? Could it possibly be both?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Christopher Plummer charms in a road movie

It's rare that a mediocre movie survives because the cast proves endearing. That may be the case with Boundaries, a story about an aging and very conniving father (Christopher Plummer) who tries to reconcile with his grown daughter (Vera Farmiga). Director Shana Feste quickly turns Boundaries into a road movie in which Plummer's Jack, a character who has been expelled from an assisted living facility for growing marijuana on the premises, rides from Oregon to California with his daughter. Farmiga's Laura wants her recently evicted father to move in with his other daughter (Kristen Schall), a ditzy woman who lives in California. Also along for the ride: Laura's son (Lewis MacDougall), a high-school kid who receives lessons in creative irresponsibility from his grandfather. Bobby Cannavale turns up briefly as Laura's ex-husband, a man who -- like his former father-in-law -- seems to be involved in the pot trade. Other stops include a meeting with old pals to whom Plummer previously sold pot or engaged in other dubious activity (Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda). Predictable and never totally convincing, Boundaries nonetheless features a fine performance by Plummer, who pours on the roguish charm. Little about the screenplay proves memorable, but Plummer, who's ably supported by the rest of the cast, makes this road trip tolerable.

The tragic fall of Whitney Houston

The late Whitney Houston's life followed an arc that bordered on cliche. The singer soared high and then plunged to earth in a downward spiral fueled by cocaine, possible abuse as a child and who knows precisely what else.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald and featuring formal and informal footage of the late star, Whitney follows Whitney Houston as she ascended from her days as a Newark, N.J. gospel singer to the upper reaches of the celebrity stratosphere, a place few have occupied and where even fewer have managed to take up permanent residence.

Whitney's story isn't entirely unfamiliar to those who follow celebrity news, although Macdonald does point to an incident of child abuse that may have figured in shaping the singer’s fragile personality. Houston's assistant -- Mary Jones -- understood the singer as well as anyone and says that it was none other than the late Dee Dee Warwick, a singer and one of Houston's older cousins, who molested young Whitney as a child, perhaps building the groundwork for a life in which trust wasn't easily given.

Macdonald contextualizes Houston's showbusiness life by offering flashes of events that took place during Houston's career. He also takes us deep into Houston's ill-fated marriage to singer Bobby Brown. It's arguable that Brown served as an antidote to suggestions that Houston had sold out her blackness to achieve cross-cultural fame, a claim once advanced by Al Sharpton among others.

Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) knows how to keep a movie moving and he certainly appreciates the power of Houston's voice. Her version of I Will Always Love You became an anthem of sorts.

Speaking of anthems, Macdonald also shows Houston's performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, a goose-bump inducing version of the Star Spangled Banner that the singer hadn't rehearsed.

Whitney also introduces us to the Houston family, as well as to those who surrounded her. Eventually, Houston got crosswise with her father, John Houston, who served as her manager. We also learn about the singer's relationship with Robyn Crawford, a woman Houston's family distrusted but who is portrayed as someone who really cared about Houston. We wonder what might have happened had Houston felt freer to explore the fluidity of her sexuality without worrying about public condemnation.

Houston's mother, Cissy Houston, taught her daughter the discipline required to develop her talent but wasn't around much when Whitney was a child. Cissy Houston often took to the road, singing back-up for Elvis Presley, Dionne Warwick (also a cousin of Whitney's), Aretha Franklin and others.

You'd have to have been living under a rock not to know that Macdonald's movie is headed toward a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the place where Houston's dead body was found in February of 2012. The death of her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown several years later stands as an awful epilogue to Whitney's already sad tale.

Whitney tells a tragic story -- and blame for the tragedy accrues partly to Houston and those around her and partly to a society that put her in a double bind situation. She was a gifted young woman from the ghetto suddenly propelled onto a global stage where it wasn't always easy for her to be herself -- or perhaps even to remember who she was.

Whatever you thought about Whitney Houston, you'd have to be pretty callous not to let Whitney break your heart. Her funeral took place at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, the place where young Whitney sang in the choir. The Voice, as Houston sometimes was known, was silenced. She was 48.

A tough look at factory farming

Natalie Portman narrates Eating Animals, a documentary based on Jonathan Safran Foer's book about the horrors of factory farming. Take the word "horrors" seriously; I can't imagine anyone watching this documentary and not giving some thought to becoming a vegetarian. Now, that is not -- I stress -- the position of the documentary. In taking us to a variety of farms run in a humane fashion, the movie makes the case that we ought, at a minimum, not submit to the dictates of industrial-scale farming. To advance the case, we meet farmers who do not raise their animals under extreme conditions, which include horrible overcrowding and the introduction of antibiotics into animal diets. Frank R. Reese, the owner of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, sends his beloved turkeys to their deaths with regret but makes sure that they aren't tormented or force-fed while they're alive. The movie also points out the environmental impact of some kinds of mass-farming operations. Hog waste, for example, can be pumped into outdoor pools that can lead to contamination of local water supplies. In reviewing Safron's 2009 book in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote: "Mr. Foer's chief contribution to the subject seems to lie in the use of his literary gifts ... to give the reader some very visceral, very gruesome descriptions of factory farming and the slaughterhouse." The same might be said of the movie. Director Christopher Dillon Quinn's documentary seems intended to upset and provoke. Maybe it should. It raises an important question: If we're going to eat meat, don't we have some obligation to consider the welfare of the creatures that supply us with it? Or to put it another way. The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked why he was a vegetarian. Health, he replied. Yours, asked the interviewer? No, the chicken's, said Singer.