Thursday, August 30, 2018

A haunted study of ambition and class

The Little Stranger proves absorbing yet the movie ultimately fails to satisfy.
In reviewing Sarah Walters' novel, The Little Stranger, the British newspaper The Guardian noted that the author "operates in the queasy borderlands between the supernatural and the psychological" and that Waters navigates this territory with "supreme ease." The same could be said of the big-screen adaptation of Waters' 2009 novel -- at least for a while.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) delivers a carefully constructed, meticulously acted and deliberately paced movie that ultimately fails to sharpen any of its potentially resonant themes. Both a ghost story and a view of a crumbling British class structure after World War II, Little Stranger creates significant interest but fails to build toward a totally rewarding payoff.

Domhnall Gleeson portrays Dr. Faraday, a physician who's summoned to a dilapidated country estate to look into the illness of 14-year-old Betty (Liv Hill), a teenager who serves the once wealthy Ayres family. Turns out Faraday had been to the estate as a boy in 1902; i.e. before its glory had begun to fade.

Slowly, Faraday's fascination with the decaying estate emerges; to him, the place, though rundown, still represents ascendance into a class that he has been forced to observe only from the outside and to which he very much aspires.

As the movie develops, Faraday immerses himself in the lives of the Ayres family. Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) has returned from the war, his body badly burned and his spirit scarred; Mrs. Ayes (Charlotte Rampling) does her best to maintain the appearances of the family's former stature; and Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) attempts to run the place.

Perhaps seeing her as a gateway to this aristocratic paradise, Dr. Faraday pursues Caroline in what surely qualifies as one of the screen's least romantic love stories.

All the while, paranormal occurrences (banging, clattering and strange scrawl on walls) appear, suggesting that the house is occupied by a malevolent presence that's intent on destroying the family. As the purported rationalist in the crowd, Gleeson portrays Faraday with an expressionless, steady hand that's a trifle boring. Wilson, who knows how to create interest and ambiguity, portrays a woman with an odd, lumbering walk and a fondness for corduroy pants.

Abrahamson presents the story in a quiet way that some viewers (myself included) may find absorbing. But roughly three-quarters of the way through The Little Stranger, it's difficult not to begin hoping that a narrative kick in the pants will provide something resembling satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the movie drifts away, creating anticipation that remains mostly unfulfilled.

It's not relative: 'Kin' is a misfire

I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to make a movie about a 14-year-old kid who acquires a super-charged weapon and then takes a road trip with his ex-con brother and a stripper. I guess the ignominy rests on the shoulders of the Baker Brothers (Jonathan and Josh), siblings who have expanded their short film Bag Man into a feature that's tainted by bad judgment. Likable young Myles Truitt may have a future as an actor, but even if he were an emerging Olivier, he couldn't turn this cinematic folly into something worthwhile. Truitt plays Eli, the adopted son of a gruff Detroit widower (Dennis Quaid). When Eli's ex-convict stepbrother (Jack Reyner) shows up, the family is sucked into the orbit of a vicious low-life criminal (James Franco in full over-drive mode). Zoe Kravitz's character enters the movie when Rayner's Jimmy takes his younger brother to a strip club as part of their road adventures. The brothers are trying to get away from Franco's character, a vengeful thug who killed their father during a robbery Jimmy arranged in order to pay off a $60,000 debt. Now about that super-weapon: Early on, Eli is scavenging in an abandoned factory when he discovers a weapon that's about the size of an AR-15. The "ray gun" (as Jimmy eventually refers to it) was left by armor-clad figures who fight a battle during the movie's prologue. Are these strange combatants aliens from another world? The movie, which flirts with sci-fi, answers this question during its finale by hammering an explanation onto the already overamped action. Carrie Coon shows up in the latter going as an FBI agent, adding to a viewer's sense of disorientation. (By viewer, I mean me.) What's a fine actress doing in this misbegotten misfire? Sometimes a movie goes wrong here and there, but you pretty much understand what the filmmakers were after. Kin goes wrong almost from the start. Trying to treat a 14-year-old's visit to a strip club as a fun adventure (at least for a while) and then allowing the same kid to blast away at various foes shatters any sense of propriety the movie might have had. Shameful.

A small but intriguing 'Bookshop'

It has taken some time, but Penelope Fitzgerald's 1978 novel, The Bookshop, finally has made it to the screen. Spanish director Isabel Coixet (Learning to Drive) casts Emily Mortimer as a widower who opens a bookstore in an English shore town in 1959. The town's establishment -- led by the smiling but arch-tempered Violet (Patricia Clarkson) -- opposes the shop. Violet wants to see the house where Mortimer's Florence opens her bookstore converted into a local arts center. A reclusive resident (Bill Nighy) emerges as Florence's principal customer. In a role that mixes humor with deep sadness, Nighy creates a memorable portrait of a man whose life is steeped in regret. Mortimer handles her role with pluck and intelligence. Honor Kneafsey appears as the opinionated schoolgirl who earns after-school money as Florence's helper. Florence's support for Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita further annoys Violet, reminding us how controversial that novel was when first published. The Bookshop pays the expected homage to writing, reading and literature, but avoids the trap of becoming a celebration of one woman's dream. Instead, Coixet enfolds the story in a series of betrayals and power moves, all presented without undue melodrama. It may be slightly pejorative to call The Bookshop a little movie, but the label fits; it's small like the seaside town in which its set, but it's far from idyllic in outlook -- and that's its saving grace.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

How Israeli agents captured Eichmann

Operation Finale proves a routine movie about a less-than-routine subject.
I was a teenager when the trial of Adolf Eichmann was televised in the US, I believe via videotape. I remember watching as the architect of Holocaust efficiency, looking as nondescript as a conventioneer at a gathering of insurance agents, sat inside a glass booth in a packed Israeli courtroom.

In his captivity, Eichmann no longer seemed like a fearsome member of Hitler's SS. He twisted his mouth in various directions. He took notes. He sometimes looked bored or indifferent. It was easy to see why Hanna Arendt, who wrote the landmark book Eichmann in Jerusalem, came to see Eichmann as a representative of the "banality of evil," an overused phrase that has been much disputed recently.

In his final days, the man who had arranged the deaths of millions looked like nothing more than a peculiar specimen, Nazism under glass.

Now comes Operation Finale, a movie that tells the story of how agents from the Mossad and Shin Bet discovered Eichmann in Argentina, apprehended him and brought him to Israel for a trial. Ben Kingsley portrays Eichmann and, no, I didn’t entirely buy him the role.

The gifted Kingsley is by no means terrible, but I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that I was watching him take on qualities of Eichmann that might have been glimpsed from watching YouTube videos of his trial and from reading. Kingsley shows flashes of anger and irritation, even an outburst of cruel arrogance. But it struck me that Kingsley, an actor of enormous technical precision, is interpreting Eichmann, not inhabiting him.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with Operation Finale. Director Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) gives Eichmann's capture a play-by-play treatment that’s mirrored in the surprisingly unsurprising performance of Oscar Isaac, who portrays Peter Malkin, one of the agents who brought Eichmann to Israel. The mission to capture Eichmann was bold and daring, qualities Weitz's dutifully rendered account seldom matches.

Eichmann’s presence in Argentina was discovered when a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) met Eichmann’s grown son (Joe Alwyn). Richardson's character was Jewish; her father was a Holocaust survivor. She knew what to do with information about Eichmann despite the fact she had genuine feelings for Eichmann’s son.

It turns out that Eichmann’s son, who claimed that his father was dead, was heavily involved with the numerous Nazis and their Argentine enablers who had taken refuge in Argentina after the war. Meetings of these unrepentant Nazis constitute one of the movie's more harrowing elements.

The members of the group that captures Eichmann, some of whom lost relatives during the Holocaust, must restrain their personal feelings and conquer any impulse toward vengeance. Most of them would have been happy to put a bullet in the Nazi’s head.

But the Israelis, particularly prime minister David Ben-Gurion, understood the value of putting Eichmann on trial: It would allow him to be judged by his Jewish accusers and would put Holocaust crimes on display for a world that wasn’t terribly well-informed about them.

In order to smuggle Eichmann out of Argentina, the Israelis planned to disguise him as an El Al crew member and slip him on an airplane. He’d be drugged and passed off as a crew member who had had too much to drink. For obscure reasons involving extradition law, the airline required a signature from Eichmann saying that he was willingly being brought to Israel for trial -- at least that's how the movie tells it.

Obtaining this signature becomes a central issue, shrinking the movie to play-on-film size. In a safe house in Buenos Aires, the Israelis try to persuade Eichmann to put pen to paper so that they can scurry him out of Argentina. Isaac's Malkin believes he knows how to obtain the signature and get on with the mission. Can he outfox a fox?

By the time the film reaches Israel, the screenplay suggests that Malkin, who lost a sister and her children to the Nazis, has achieved a bit of closure.

Eichmann was hanged in 1962, but his trial and punishment couldn't possibly measure up to the enormity of his crimes. Though essential, the punishment of individual perpetrators of genocide arrives without emotional release. It would take another film to bring us face-to-face with such confounding moral horror, one that didn't so often feel like a diligent re-enactment of real events.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A second helping of 'Papillon'

Gritty detail and grim realism may not be enough to justify another version of a familiar story.

The unavoidable question that haunts any viewing of the new movie Papillon falls squarely on the shoulders of the 1973 movie of the same name. That movie that told the gripping story of one man's attempts to escape the torment and terror of a penal colony located in French Guiana. Could anyone pull off a second helping?

The 1973 movie starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in what then seemed like odd-couple casting.

McQueen was a movie star with a well-defined big-screen persona; Hoffman was an actor with a capital “A.” We went to McQueen's movies to watch a cool, emotionally contained hero dominate the screen; we watched Hoffman's work to see an avid actor dig his way into the characters he played.

Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. and directed by Franklin Schaffner, the 1973 movie created a commercial splash.

The 2018 version of Papillon doesn’t generate the same kind of excitement and probably couldn’t. When the first movie arrived, the wave of new technologies — from VCRs to streaming — was still waiting in the wings. Movies seemed bigger, less disposable.

So why, in a time of movie abundance (at least in terms of numbers of releases), remake a movie that already did the job of introducing American audiences to Henri Charriere; a.k.a., Papillon, and Louis Dega, two French criminals who served time in a sweltering prison hell in South America?

Danish director Michael Noer answers the question by amping up the movie's grit and cruelty, probably to heighten its raw authenticity. His movie sweats and brutalizes.

Charriere, the McQueen character now played by Charlie Hunnam, gives the movie its sinew and drive. Wrongly convicted of murder in 1931, Charriere receives a life sentence. En route to the prison, he meets Dega, the Hoffman role now played by Rami Malek. A forger by trade, Dega has enough money to ease some of Guiana's pain. Prisoners could buy their way onto better work details, for example.

Understanding this, Charriere, bereft of financial resources, offers to protect the weaker Dega from the prison’s many predators. The two develop an uneasy relationship.

The authenticity of Charriere’s account has been questioned, but his story stands as a tribute to the unbreakable will of a man who refuses to be crushed. Charriere, who wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, never relinquishes his hope for escape, to free himself from the choking burdens of stupid authority.

Hunnam, last seen in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, and Malek, of TV’s Mr. Robot, may not generate the box-office heat once sparked by McQueen and Hoffman, but both are good. They fully embrace the movie's challenges: weight loss, punishing fights and sustained reaction to a fear-drenched climate.

The movie devotes much its time to depicting the sadism that prevailed in French Guiana, delivered at the hands of both prisoners and guards. Escapes were greeted with years in solitary. Those deemed murderers were executed by guillotine while the assembled prisoners were forced to watch.

Though more harrowingly detailed than the first installment, this new Papillon still tells the same basic story as the 1973 movie and, as a result, can’t help but surrender some of its power. Put another way: An inescapable aroma of redundancy limits this credible but exhausting edition.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Puppets, profanity and a shortage of movie

Muppet-like puppets go crude in Happytime Murders.
If you've ever had a desire to see Muppet-like puppets talk dirty, you may find a few laughs in The Happytime Murders, a production of Henson Alternative and director Brian Henson (son of the late Jim Henson). The Happytime Murders quickly reveals itself as a kind of crude Judd Apatow wannabe, a comic helping of noir that's trying way too hard to wring laughs from the incongruity between puppets and profanity. Set in a fantasy version of LA, where puppets and humans live in uneasy proximity, the story centers on former LAPD puppet detective Phil Philips (Bill Barretta). Early on, Phil, now working as a private investigator, takes a case brought to him by a ludicrously oversexed blonde puppet (Dorien Davies). The movie centers on Phil's efforts to discover who's bumping off the cast of a defunct puppet TV show -- The Happytime Gang. With the show about to go into syndication, there's money at stake. Oddly, the best work in the movie comes from the human cast. As an LAPD detective who once served as Phil's partner, Melissa McCarthy brings snap to the snide insults she trades with Phil. Maya Rudolph has an equally nice turn as Bubbles, Phil's secretary. Elizabeth Banks turns up as the only human member of the Happytime Gang cast. A major sight gag involves puppet sex and prolonged ejaculation, which should give you a clue about the level of humor. What's missing? A level of sophistication that might have turned Happytime into something more worthy. As it stands, watching the cotton innards blasted out of puppet murder victims doesn't exactly serve as wry commentary on movie violence. Look, there's nothing much to say about Happytime Murders other than to tell you that there are a couple of laughs and not much else to fill a 90-minute running time. If you go, stay for the end credits, which show how the movie's puppets were integrated into a human world.

These waitresses have spunk

Support the girls ably mixes comedy and desperation
Regina Hall of Girls Trip lands a welcome leading role in Support the Girls, a comedy set in a Texas restaurant called Double Whammies. I don’t know if the two Whammies are meant to suggest boobs and butts, but the movie makes no secret of the fact that the scantily clad waitresses of Double Whammies are as much of an attraction as the burgers and brews.

Playing Lisa, the restaurant's manager, Hall functions as an exasperated mother hen who cares about the young women who work for her. Early on, Lisa organizes a car wash to pay for the defense of one of her employees, a young woman who faces legal difficulties after running over her abusive boyfriend.

A bit of sad, self-awareness underlies Hall’s performance. Older than the women who work for her, Lisa knows that she no longer can compete when it comes to turning the heads of her leering customers, a group of men that she keeps in check with a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment.

Setting the story over a single day in Lisa’s hectic life, director Andrew Bujalksi gives us plenty of atmosphere and lots of colorful characters; the spunky Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and Danielle (Shayna McHayle) make the biggest impressions in an ensemble of cheeky (no pun intended) young actress who compose the movie's impromptu sisterhood.

If Bujalksi had been looking for an alternate title for his movie, he might have tried Lisa’s Very Bad Day. His screenplay follows Lisa through a series of catastrophes — small and large: an attempted burglary at the restaurant, an argument with her boss (James Le Gros) and an incident that suggests irreconcilable differences with her a husband (Lawrence Varnado), a guy who spends his most of his day staring at a computer screen.

Informal and sassy, Support the Girls might have looked like a pilot for a sitcom, but Bujalski obviously feels for these characters. He understands the indignities that lurk in their workplace, as well as the collegial support it takes to keep from surrendering to them.

Some of Double Whammies' customers may want to objectify the restaurant’s waitresses, but Bujalski never does. He keeps them funny without sacrificing their humanity.

Can 'gay' be prayed away?

Set in 1993, The Miseducation of Cameron Post features another solid performance by Chloe Grace Moretz, this time as a teenage lesbian who's sent to a program where she's supposed to pray away her gay. Moretz's Cameron finds herself in trouble when she's discovered in the backseat of a car with a girlfriend (Quinn Shephard). Director Desiree Akhavan adapts a young adult novel by Emily Danforth in realistic fashion, taking us inside an operation called "God's Promise." The adults who run God's Promise aren't total ogres. They seem to genuinely believe that it's possible to "cure" gayness; they believe that their work will result in better lives for their charges. Jennifer Ehle portrays the chilly Dr. Lydia Marsh, head of the program. John Gallagher Jr. plays her brother, a man who assists with the program. Gallacher's character says faith helped him overcome his own SSA; i.e., same-sex attraction. Cameron soon finds kindred spirits in this strange environment, making friends with Jane (Sasha Lane of American Honey) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck of The Revenant). The movie's trio of misfits has no interest in overcoming gayness or submitting to someone else's idea of religious piety. These kids simply want to be themselves, an aspiration the movie clearly endorses. Miseducation's young cast adds welcome authenticity to a story that doesn't feel quite as original or daring as we might have expected.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A boy and a wolf develop a strong bond

Alpha does a decent job as a prehistoric adventure with an emotional core.

Alpha tells the story of a boy and his dog . . . er ...I mean a boy and his wolf . . . er ... make that a wolf that’s morphing into a dog.

Set in Europe 20,000 years ago, Alpha introduces us to a small tribe of hunters struggling to survive at the end of the Ice Age. The tribe has a leg up on other movie residents of pre-history: These tribesmen already know how to start fires. They wear clothing made from animal hides. They speak a language that seems reasonably well developed. (Promotional material for the movie says the language was created for Alpha.)

Food remains a problem. Each year, the men of the tribe set out on a hunt for steppe bison, beasts that will help them make it through the brutally cold winters.

The hunt also provides a testing ground for the tribe's young men. Do they measure up? Will they prove themselves able to close the deal when it came to killing for food?

Directed by Albert Hughes, who with his brother made the great 1990s film, Menace II Society, Alpha focuses on young Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man who must make the transition from boyhood to manhood. Keda’s mother (Natassia Malthe) worries that the Keda has more heart than killer instinct, but his father (Johannes Haukur Johanneson) pushes the boy, offering him some Darwinian advice: Life is for the strong. Dad wants Keda to emerge as a leader.

Full of raw imagery and gripping action, Alpha includes a heart-pounding scene in which the men of the tribe close in on a herd of bison. In the ensuing stampede, Keda is thrown off a cliff and left for dead on a ledge from which there appears to be no escape.

I won't say more, but Keda manages to revive himself and then tries to return home. The adventurer’s journey gives Alpha a tried-and-true storyline. The hero must battle long odds to return to the place where the story began.

Along the way, Keda develops a relationship with a wolf, a wounded animal that slowly makes the transition from foe to friend. Keda names the wolf “Alpha.” Alpha learns to help Keda hunt and also provides the boy with companionship. The young man and wolf develop mutually beneficial dependencies.

Ample use of CGI helps Hughes deliver the adventure goods in a movie that doesn’t skimp on sights that might put you off your popcorn, eating maggots, for example.

Quibbles? Many. The men look a bit too clean for their historical moment and their use of language seems overly advanced. Early on, Keda’s mom talks about how much she loves her son. I couldn't help but wonder what the word "love" might mean in the Ice Age anyway?

Young Keda also complains about the odor of some of the characters, something you'd think he'd have gotten used to in this pre-deodorized age.

For all that, Hughes works to create a convincing natural environment, creating a feeling for a time when darkness really was dark and the sky brimmed with twinkling stars. He captures some of the mystery of an encounter with nature that has been lost to progress.

I wouldn’t call Alpha a classic and I can’t keep myself from sometimes chuckling at prehistoric dramas featuring men who have been groomed to look as if they’ve never seen a mirror without totally persuading us that these same men haven’t just arrived fresh from a make-up trailer.

Still, Alpha succeeds in blending a simple and affecting story with lots of action. It's a reasonable exercise of imagination -- if not an entirely convincing one -- about the time when our enduring bonds with dogs began.

Jigsaw puzzles and skateboards

Kelly Macdonald gives Puzzle its center.
Kelly Macdonald, who made a major impression on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, scores in Puzzle as a housewife living a drab life with her garage-owning husband (David Denman) and her two teen-age sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams). As the only person in the house who's happy, Dad can't seem to understand why everyone else doesn't share his contentment. A movie such as Puzzle isn't exactly shrouded in mystery: We know that Macdonald's Agnes is due for some break-out moves. She begins to find her voice when she discovers that she's a whiz at assembling jigsaw puzzles. She sees patterns where others see chaos. When Agnes travels to New York City to buy puzzles, she notices a note on the bulletin board of a game store. Turns out a wealthy investor (Irrfan Khan) is searching for a partner to enter a doubles jigsaw contest. Not everything Agnes does to break a mold defined by her Catholicism and convention feels credible, but Macdonald's tentative, slowly emerging performance gives the film a strong center. Based on a 2010 Argentinian film Rompecabezas, Puzzle employs a fine cast that's a bit let down by a story that never quite peaks. Still, director Marc Turtletaub respects the performances, which are all first rate and Puzzle tallies a distinct — if minor — victory.

An authentic look at world of skateboarding. Is that enough?

Skate Kitchen immerses us in the world of teenage girls who live in and help define skateboard culture. Director Crystal Moselle, who directed the fine documetary Wolfpack, gives her movie lots of authenticity, building her story around Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a skateboarder who's frequently at odds with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Mom thinks her daughter should find something better to do with her time than use Manhattan as a skateboard playground by latching on to the back of trucks or sliding down banisters, for example. Maybe Mom is right: Early on, Camille is "credit-carded," a phrase referring to what happens when an errant skateboard lands in a boarder's crotch. Moselle spends more time developing the skateboard scene than she does with a plot that ultimately finds Camille establishing a relationship with a boy (Jaden Smith) who once dated one of her skating buddies (Dede Lovelace). Frankly, I'm a little tired of movies steeped in teen culture, even when it's presented with a degree of realism that makes the movie feel as if it might have been derived from a documentary. I've read that the cast includes many non-actors, young women from something known as the Skate Kitchen Collective. A documentary about them might have been just as revealing as this meandering feature.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Obligation vs. love in 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel arrives on screen boasting a staggering level of glamor.
At one point in Crazy Rich Asians, the unashamedly lavish adaptation of author Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel, an affluent resident of Singapore encourages his son to eat his dinner by telling him that children are starving in America.

With a single joke -- casually delivered by Ken Jeong -- the movie signals a global reversal of fortune. Forget American prosperity. Asia is not only on the rise, it already has risen. Take that white people.

That's the closest we get to satire in Crazy Rich Asians, a movie so preposterously glamorous, it manages to go beyond fantasy into a material nirvana in which consumption is abundant, conspicuous and treated as an irrevocable birthright of the movie's rich second-generation Asians.

Rather than lampooning the capitalist devotions of the impossibly wealthy residents of Singapore -- a city that couldn't be any more invitingly displayed than it is by director Jon Chu -- Crazy Rich Asian turns into the year's most beautifully appointed rom-com: Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of an American economic professor (Constance Wu) who falls in love with the favored son (Henry Golding) of a wealthy Singapore-based family before she knows that Golding's Nick Young is rich enough to buy half of New York.

The story embarks on its journey when Nick invites Wu's Rachel Chu to travel with him from New York to Singapore for his best friend's wedding. She doesn't know that Nick not only has model-quality looks but belongs to one of Singapore's wealthiest families. He's not just another guy; he's a walking conglomerate.

Of course, Nick's best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) also is fashion-plate handsome, evidently a requirement for the movie's casting director who has populated Crazy Rich Asians with some of the best-looking people in the world.

After arriving in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians gets down to business: A down-to-earth young woman finds herself at sea amid Singapore's snobby, closed-minded rich. Her main adversary: Nick's mother, played with steely determination by Michelle Yeoh.

Yeoh's Eleanor Young disdains the American notion of personal fulfillment, preferring to hoist a banner of family sacrifice. She believes only fierce loyalty can elevate a family into the modern equivalent of royalty. She favors alliances, not love. In Eleanor's view, Rachel just doesn't bring enough to the table to deserve a marriage to Nick.

All that sounds serious, but the movie's issues emerge amid an ornate comic brocade that features a scene-stealing performance by rapper Awkwafina, who plays a young woman who attended college with Rachel and now lives in Singapore. Her family is well off but has yet to reach the imperial level of the Youngs. She's the sassy best friend who loves penetrating Singapore's wealthy circles but who also understands the absurdity that defines snobbery. Her character has bubble-bursting appeal.

The characters are a well-represented bunch of skin-deep socialites -- some of whom seem more interested in spending wealth than in protecting it. Nico Santos portrays a gay man with a keenly developed fashion sense. Jimmy O. Yang plays one of Nick's hard-partying pals, a guy rich enough to throw Nick's bachelor party by renting a container ship and turning it into a nightclub.

One of Nick's cousins -- Gemma Chan's Astrid -- has become successful in her own right; Astrid registers as an ambitious woman whose marriage has hit a rough patch. She and Yeoh give the movie a welcome bit of dramatic weight.

Wu makes a fine female lead and Golding, who never has acted before, looks the part. Expecting to find hard-core realism in a movie such as Crazy Rich Asians qualifies as a lost cause. Still, the movie already has been hailed as something of a landmark, the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since 1993's Joy Luck Club brought author Amy Tan's novel to the screen. It's too early to say what impact the movie will have on future Hollywood production. Keep your eye on box office receipts for a clue.

At times, Crazy Rich Asians is so unashamedly shallow that you almost marvel at its chutzpah (not a Chinese word). Nowhere is this more evident than in a wedding scene in which the bride walks down a water-flooded aisle to reach the waiting bridegroom. I laughed; some of the audience at a preview screening sighed. Take your pick.

The screenplay -- credited to Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim -- includes the requisite number of bitchy lines delivered by the women who envy Rachel's success at snagging the story's prize male. Chu hasn't neglected the reliable tropes of the rom-com formula; he embraces them and uses them to give the movie a comfortable familiarity.

Crazy Rich Asians may not be a great movie (or even a particularly good one) but watching it feels like taking that luxury vacation that the starving people of America couldn't possibly afford. Think of it as a trip to a cinematic spa in the company of some of the world's best dressed and most attractive people.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A black cop infiltrates the KKK

In BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee tells an incredible true story about American racism.
As is the case with every state in America's often wobbly union, Colorado has no shortage of shameful racist history. In the 1920s and 1930s, Denver’s mayor — Ben Stapleton — was a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, as were other notable public figures in the state. The controversy over Stapleton's Klan affiliation continues: Some argue that Denver's Stapleton neighborhood, built on the site of the old Stapleton International Airport, should be renamed.

But Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman -- set in Colorado Springs -- doesn't derive its power exclusively from the state's shameful past. In telling the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black Colorado Springs detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, Lee turns a glaring spotlight on a moment that has relevance in the deeply troubled present. Post Charlottesville, it's no longer possible -- if it ever has been -- to give hate-group activities the security of historical shelter.

No stranger to controversy, Lee can be both a cinematic agitator and a gifted filmmaker. Often he’s both — and in the same movie. He's able to mix the stark strokes of agitprop with softer dramatic tones; he can allow for nuance and humor or he can ignore dramatic shading entirely. The approach makes sense when Lee works in areas in which clear racial lines are drawn, the most famous example being Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing, now 29 years old.

With BlacKkKlansman — co-written by Lee and three other writers -- Lee has hold of another story that allows him to address racial issues in a way that's volatile, telling and sharply attuned to the tragic absurdity of unleashed bigotry and ignorance.

As the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth (John David Washington) faced racism from some of his co-workers but found his niche as an undercover officer. His work in exposing the Klan began when he responded by phone to a newspaper ad seeking KKK recruits.

Eventually, Stallworth even spoke with white supremacist David Duke (Topher Grace), then Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Obviously, infiltrating the Klan required face-to-face contacts that Stallworth couldn’t make. Enter fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In meetings with Klan members, Zimmerman posed as Stallworth, another bit of deception because Zimmerman happened to be Jewish, not a favored group among Klansmen.

Early on, Lee connects Stallworth's story to period realities about race. Sent to a speech by Kwame Ture -- formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) -- Stallworth finds himself in the awkward position of being a "spy" who’s not necessarily at odds with Ture’s analysis of America's racial situation.

Stallworth's presence at Ture's speech in itself qualifies as racially suspect: The Colorado Springs police worried that Ture would inspire violent protests among the city’s black population.

Let me leap ahead: Perhaps because he's both a storyteller and commentator, Lee concludes his movie with footage of what happened in Charlottesville, Va., the white supremacist rally that Donald Trump tried to address evenhandedly with his good-people-on-both-sides comments.

Let's be honest, there aren’t two sides to a story of bluntly expressed racism that, in BlacKkKlansman, is directed at the African-American students of Colorado College. One of those students (Laura Harrier) also becomes a romantic interest for Stallworth, a man grappling with conflicting identities. He understands racism as well as anyone but is also reluctant to accept his comrades as “pigs," lest he is branded with the same label. Initially, he doesn't tell Harrier's character that he's a cop.

Washington, son of Denzel Washington, handles the movie’s double-identity requirements with simmering anger and wit. He and an excellent Driver don’t become immediate soul mates, which seems entirely realistic. They’re both doing their jobs. Driver plays a Jew without a strong Jewish identity. He hasn't given much previous thought to racism.

This being a Lee movie — Jordan Peele of Get Out fame produced — you won't find many subtly expressed ideas; the defense for the movie’s lack of nuance becomes obvious: When dealing with Klansmen, nuance would not only be superfluous but a notably stupid form of moral temporizing.

And, yes, Lee uses the absurdity of Stallworth’s situation to give the movie a variety of humorous scenes. When Duke visits Colorado Springs, Stallworth is assigned the task of guarding him. He even convinces Duke to pose for a picture with him, the city's only black policeman.

Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen plays the scariest of the racist Klansmen, who — at one point — confronts Driver’s Flip Zimmerman with suspicions that he might be Jewish, a tensely comic scene that hinges on whether Zimmerman has been circumcised. These Klansmen are in no danger of being confused with MENSA members.

Lee also adds references that link his movie to the American movie past, strategically inserting footage from Birth of a Nation, the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie that lionized the Klan, as well as from Gone with the Wind.

Lee has taken dramatic liberties to be sure -- Harrier's character is an invention and Driver's character wasn't Jewish. Overall, though, Lee does justice to a story that would be impossible to believe if it weren’t true. Lee again puts the pedal to the metal in trying to acknowledge an ugly part of American life that shouldn’t be swept under any red, white and blue rug -- then or now.

Wild children and kids who are 'different'

A sensitive boy in a brutal world
You'll find moments of astonishing tenderness in director Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, an adaptation of a 2011 debut novel by Justin Torres. Employing a dream-like style, Zagar introduces us to a poor family in upstate New York. Alternately charming and brutal, Dad (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican. Emotionally unstable, Mom (Sheila Vand) is white. The couple has three sons -- Many, Joel and Jonah. The movie slowly brings its focus to Jonah, played with unselfconscious sensitivity by young Evan Rosado. The movie is at its best while observing the way three brothers behave in a world where adult supervision is sporadic. With the boys left to their own devices, Zagar penetrates the world of childhood in ways that capture its pain, joys, and cruelties. A key incident occurs when Dad tries to teach Jonah how to swim by gently leading him into the water and then abandoning him, an experience that Zagar takes as a touchstone for the rest of the movie. We the Animals has an appropriately aimless quality as it charts the ebb and flow of the boys' lives. The young actors (Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel play Jonah's brothers) are all convincing, as are Vand and Castillo. Eventually, though, Zagar's emphasis on style -- dreamy images, the occasional use of animation and fantasy elements — tends to distance us from the boys; the movie seems to unfold in a universe that is at once natural and otherworldly. Still, Zagar's movie marks a notable debut, a first work that proves memorable without quite scoring a bullseye.

Families cope with children who are 'different'

A documentary derived from psychologist Andrew Solomon's bestselling 2012 book, Far From the Tree looks at how families have adjusted to children who don't fit into standard molds: a boy with Down Syndrome, an autistic boy, several Little People and, perhaps unwisely, a 16-year-old who murdered an eight-year-old. If there's an overriding theme here, it's one of acceptance; i.e., disability doesn't necessarily equate with tragedy. This is not an easily arrived at conclusion for the film's parents who talk about the difficulties they faced in trying to adjust to children who are "different.” They also talk about the challenges of trying to give their offspring the greatest chance for meaningful lives. To its credit, the film ultimately approaches the larger question: Exactly what constitutes a meaningful life? Jack, the movie's autistic boy, provides one of the movie's more emotional moments. Unable to speak, he's coaxed into using a keyboard to reveal his heretofore undisclosed thoughts. He types, "I'm trying and I'm really smart," a statement that strikes his parents and us as nearly miraculous. Jack, we learn, is more than a collection of symptoms; he's conscious and alert inside a world that previously seemed walled off. Director Rachel Dretzin introduces each character and situation and finally loops back to update each story and give the film its emotional conclusion. She uses Solomon's story -- his adjustment to being gay -- as the point from which the other stories radiate. As a young man initially rejected by his parents, Solomon wanted to learn something about the nature of family. You can't help but empathize with the people you'll meet in Far From the Tree, but Dretzin, whose multi-subject approach sometimes feels sketchy, doesn't devote much time to the financial burdens these families face. Moreover, the inclusion of a murderer -- even one still loved by his tormented family -- seems a stretch. In sum, though, these stories create an emotional arc that moves from heartbreak to inspiration. Many will want to bring a handkerchief.