Thursday, November 29, 2018

A family caught in a moment of crisis

Actor Paul Dano moves behind the camera to direct Wildlife, a big-screen adaptation of a Richard Ford novel set in Great Falls, Montana, a lonely outpost where a mother (Carey Mulligan) and her son (Ed Oxenbould) have been moved by Dad (Jake Gyllenhaal), a guy who can't seem to settle into anything. The town of Great Falls marks Dad's latest stop on what seems to have been a road to nowhere. Gyllenhaal's Jerry ignites the drama, which begins in 1960, when he's fired from his job tending the greens at a local golf club. The club offers him his job back, but Jerry -- stuck in a rut created by what seem to be obscure but irrevocable principles -- refuses. Instead, he's off to fight forest fires, putting his life in danger for very little money and leaving his wife to tend to their teenage son Joe. Joe, played with just the right degree of quiet confusion by Oxenbould, tries his best to cope, taking on the uneasy role of man of the house. With Jerry off fighting fires, Mulligan's Jeanette begins what seems a willed unravelment. She takes up a relationship with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), an unlikely love interest who owns the local car dealership and whose friendliness toward young Joe wavers between sincerity and calculation. Oddly, Jeanette drags her son into the whole business, taking him to dinner at Miller's house. Could anything be more uncomfortable for a kid? The fires raging away from the town suggest a looming conflagration but the fire that rages in Mulligan's performance pushes the movie toward its sad final shot. Not always easy to read, Wildlife nonetheless entangles us in the lives of characters who defy easy definition.

Friday, November 23, 2018

When ambiguity becomes the suject

If you have a taste for uncertainty, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's Burning may prove intriguing.
If you're the sort of person who likes movies in which every "i" is dotted and every "t," crossed, you'll probably want to avoid director Lee Chang-dong's Burning, a film that's loosely based on a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

If on the other hand, you're game to join Lee as he travels through a world marked by uncertainty, ambiguity, and behavior that often defies explanation, you may find yourself intrigued by Burning, a movie that leaves us with the kind of space that invites speculation.

Lee brings his own social concerns to the material, setting his story against a background in which too many of South Korea's young college-educated men are unemployed or under-employed and in which class gaps have widened. Within that environment, Lee builds an artfully slow look at relationships that he never entirely defines. Then again, Lee's characters are not so much defined as sketched with small, telling strokes.

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-lin) graduated from college and aspires to be a writer, but he's stuck tending to his decaying father's farm in rural Paju, a village so close to the border with North Korea that he often hears North Korean propaganda blasting on loudspeakers. Jong-su's father, who has anger management problems, has been arrested for attacking a local official.

Early on, Jong-su meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman from the same village. Jong-su doesn't remember her, but Hae-mi tries to reassure him by saying that she's had plastic surgery and, as a result, has become "pretty." Should we believe her? Questions about the veracity of what characters say ripple throughout Lee's movie.

Hae-mi pushes the relationship. Initially, Jong-su goes along without showing much enthusiasm. But after the two wind up in bed, Jong-su falls deeply in love with Hae-mi. He agrees to feed her cat while she travels to Africa in search of satisfaction of what she calls "the great hunger;" i.e., spiritual fulfillment.

It's not difficult to see why Jong-su is captivated by Hae-mi. She's beautiful, engaging and charming, a young woman who claims that people easily can be tricked into believing illusions. Perhaps she's an illusion.

Over drinks, Hae-mi does a convincing job of peeling and eating an invisible tangerine. It's her way of making her point about deception to Jong-Su.

When Hae-mi returns from Africa, the story takes another turn. It seems that Hae-mi made a new friend in the Nairobi airport, an affluent young man named Ben (Steve Yeun). To Jong-su's dismay, Ben is probably more than a friend.

Later, Hae-mi and Ben visit Jong-su in the country. The trio smokes pot and the free-spirited Hae-Mi dances topless. Ben also tells Jong-su about a strange hobby he has. Every couple of months, he burns down an abandoned greenhouse.

Not long after this country gathering, Hae-mi disappears and Jong-su spends the rest of Lee's two-and-a-half-hour movie searching for her.

OK, that's enough about what passes for a plot in Burning. The movie isn't about what happens; it's about whether the characters ever really can grasp the nature of reality. Do other people, by definition, remain impenetrable mysteries?

Burning invites us to question everything that we're seeing, a process that's aided by its cast of fine young actors. As Jong-su, Yoo Ah-in can seem obtuse, even a bit dull, but the camera sticks close to him. He's trying -- without much success -- to figure out a game for which he doesn't know the rules. Because he doesn’t always push to find the answer to questions that bother him, you may wonder whether he’s willfully keeping himself in a state of confusion.

Jeon couples the allure of a femme fatale with an adventurous spirit. Yeun conveys the sense of entitlement that has come easily to a young man who never in his life has struggled.

Lee provides strong hints about what may have happened to the vanished Dae-Mi, but nothing transpires with absolute certainty in a movie in which all the characters are, in one way or another, adrift in a society in which meaningful connections have become as difficult to latch onto as the smoke that arises from the joint that Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben pass from one to another.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Creed again climbs into the ring

Creed II isn't as good as the first installment, but it's no disgrace, either. Credit the cast for keeping familiar characters alive -- if a little bruised.

The characters in Creed II — at least some of them — talk to tombstones, take what appears to be life-threatening beatings, and somehow manage to get caught up in Russian intrigue.

Also, in Creed II, Michael B. Jordan returns as Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed and protege of Rocky Balboa, who now runs a Philadelphia restaurant named for his late wife Adrian. Rocky's restaurant seems sparsely attended, which may make you wonder how the former Italian Stallion keeps himself in porkpie hats.

Also on board for this second helping of Creed, which follows director Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky spinoff, is a veteran of earlier Rocky movies. Enter granite-faced Dolph Lundgren, who appears as the vicious Ivan Drago, an outcast former boxer who now trains his equally vicious son Victor Drago (Romanian boxer Florian 'Big Nasty' Munteanu).

The elder Drago has several goals in mind: defeating Adonis, recapturing the heavy-weight title for Russia (a way for him to salvage the reputation he had prior to the Soviet collapse) and using his son to banish memories of the humiliation Ivan suffered at Rocky’s hands in Rocky IV (1985).

In this episode, which has been directed by Steven Cable Jr., we also witness Adonis’ engagement to hearing-impaired Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Clearly devoted to each other, Adonis and Bianca also welcome their first child, a daughter. If they need parental advice, they always can turn to Adonis’ warm and knowing mother (Phylicia Rashad).

Sometimes a bit lethargic, sometimes amusing, sometimes brutal, Creed II loads up on father/son themes: Adonis tries to avenge his father’s death in the ring at Ivan Drago's hands; Rocky’s burdened by continuing estrangement from his own son; Ivan Drago tries to reclaim his honor through his son; and, if all that isn't enough, Rocky plays father figure to Adonis.

Initially, Rocky opposes Adonis’ desire to fight the younger Drago, perhaps sensing that Adonis' style doesn’t match well with that of the physically imposing battler from Ukraine. Rocky sits out the first fight. Rocky, of course, will return to Adonis’ corner for the rematch, dragging his charge off to the desert for a punishing training regimen before traveling to Moscow for the championship bout.

In taking over the controls, Cable stages the big fights with as much hoopla as he can muster, even if they don't quite provide the rousing uplift one expects from such movies.

The last Creed movie felt surprising and fresh. It was fun to watch Jordan and director Ryan Coogler breathe new life into an old chestnut, and Stallone's return as a beloved screen character proved welcome. Who knew we missed Rocky so much?

Creed II drags here and there, but Stallone keeps Rocky endearing and Jordan has the kind of intensity and earnestness that makes us root for Adonis, even if the whole business wavers on the edge of a split decision: Not awful enough to take the 10-count but not quite exciting enough to be declared an untarnished winner.

One wonders about the franchise's future. Coogler moved on to direct Black Panther and Jordan, who also appeared in Black Panther, is slated to star in another Coogler movie, this one about an Atlanta teacher who alters test scores to increase his school's chance for funding. (See IMDb.)

Far be it from me to tell the filmmakers to hang up the gloves, but they could well be satisfied with having achieved great success with one movie and keeping Adonis and Rocky afloat for another, even if Creed II leaves them slightly staggered by an inevitable loss of punch.

An odd couple takes to the road

Viggo Mortensen and Merhershala Ali team up in the crowd-pleasing Green Book.
The temptation with movies such Green Book is to make too much of them. A movie about an unlikely friendship that develops between a cultured black man and an unenlightened white man too easily can be taken as a prescription for racial harmony. Better to view Green Book as an anecdotal tale which — no matter how amusing — doesn’t speak to complex racial issues that remain frustratingly unresolved in 2018.

Now that that’s off my chest, let me tell you about a crowd-pleasing odd-couple comedy directed by Peter Farrelly, who usually works with his brother Bobby on movies such as Shallow Hal, There's Something About Mary, and Dumb and Dumber To. Green Book stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in a story about a trip through the American South taken by Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley, an accomplished pianist, and Mortensen's Tony Vallelunga, a Bronx-based Italian-American with racial attitudes rooted in the 1950s.

The title derives from the book that black travelers used to learn locations of black-owned hotels, motels, and restaurants in the segregated world of Jim Crow or in other racially inhospitable parts of the country; i.e., most of the rest of the US. Oddly, the book gets short shrift as the movie unfolds.

As Vallelunga (a.k.a. Tony Lip) Mortensen gives his broadest performance yet, channeling his inner Joe Pesci to play a crude — albeit ultimately good-hearted — guy who loses his job as a bouncer at Manhattan's Copacabana nightclub and lands a gig driving for Shirley. The year: 1962.

The two men are polar opposites, which in movie language guarantees that they’ll eventually become friends.

Dr. Shirley is a decorous artist who, when he first meets Tony, appears in a flowing regal robe. Educated and cultured, Dr. Shirley initially is wary about Nick, but he knows that he needs a tough guy to guide him on his musical tour through a potentially hostile South.

Once Tony and Dr. Shirley hit the road, the movie becomes a two-hander in which an incredulous Nick reveals his stereotypical ideas about black people. What? A black man who's too fastidious to eat fried chicken or listen to R&B? Can Shirley be genuinely black if he doesn’t know the music of Aretha Franklin?

These bits typify the kind of odd-couple humor that Farrelly builds into the proceedings, playing them against Nick’s dawning realization that the Jim Crow South wasn’t a great place for a black man — much less a black man the movie shows as having gay inclinations.

Mortensen looks to have packed on the poundage for the role. A man of ravenous appetite, Nick eats -- while smoking, while driving, while anything. I half expected him to try to eat the '62 Cadillac in which this bickering pair travels. For Nick, a slice of pizza consists of an entire pie folded in half and jammed into his mouth.

Ali, who impressed as a drug-dealing father figure in Moonlight, creates a portrait of a lonely man whose talent and cultivation can’t insulate him from racism. At a recital at a country club, Shirley is fawned over as a performer but isn't permitted to eat in the dining room lest the club’s white members should be put off their feed.

The two main characters are meant to learn from each other: Tony tries to introduce Dr. Shirley to what he sees as the “real” world. Dr. Shirley gives Tony a few lessons in aesthetics and sensitivity, dictating the love letters Nick writes to his wife, nicely played by Linda Cardellini.

Based on a true story, Green Book was adapted from a book written by Vallelgona's son, Nick, and you're bound to hear the movie's many enthusiasts speak of it in glowing terms. Sure it’s encouraging to watch two men fight through their preconceptions about each other, and Farrelly's no slouch when it comes to comedy. But Green Book struck me as a movie more anxious to warm hearts than risk getting under anyone's skin.

A feverish movie about van Gogh

Yes, there have been many movies about Vincent Van Gogh, but At Eternity's Gate is one made by a painter, Julian Schnabel.
No artist seems to have inspired more filmmakers than Vincent van Gogh, not only because van Gogh survives as a painter of obvious art-historical importance but because his life helped to create the classic portrait of the suffering artist, the unrecognized genius who searches for spiritual exultation but also crashes back to earth. In van Gogh's case that meant cutting off his left ear and serving time in a mental asylum.

Julian Schnabel, a well-known contemporary artist and filmmaker, now joins the van Gogh fray with At Eternity's Gate, a movie focusing mostly on van Gogh's life in Arles, which serves as a kind of preface to his untimely and still somewhat mysterious death. He was shot in the stomach but there's disagreement about whether van Gogh was murdered or killed himself. He was 37 when he died in 1890.

Schnabel uses van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, invented dialogue and some of the actual locations where van Gogh painted to bolster what amounts to an interpretive plunge into van Gogh's alternately soaring, alternately troubled mind, conveyed with disturbing authenticity by actor Willem Dafoe.

Schnabel, who wrote the screenplay with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carriere, presents a view of the artist as a visionary who saw through to the essence of reality in nature but, ironically, began to lose touch with reality in his own life, often failing to remember important events.

The movie's most impressive support comes from Oscar Isaac as Paul Gaugin, a far more self-assured artist than van Gogh whose lack of prominence during his lifetime continually caused him to question his own ability.

Rupert Friend portrays Theo, van Gogh's tender, accepting brother and patron. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who's assigned the task of judging van Gogh's mental state before he's released from an asylum and turned back into the world.

Mathieu Amalric, who appeared in Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, portrays Dr. Gachet, the physician who cared for van Gogh and became the subject of one his most famous portraits. Emmanuelle Seigner plays Marie Ginoux, another subject of a van Gogh portrait and owner of a cafe in Arles, the town where van Gogh drank -- often too much. French actor Niels Arestrup has a brief but compelling turn as a fellow patient at the asylum where van Gogh commits himself.

Schnabel spends time showing van Gogh developing his relationship with nature -- at first simply observing, then sketching and finally painting.

Van Gogh heads to Arles for sunlight but arrives at a moment when the land remains under the grip of winter's chill. A desolate image of a field of lifeless sunflowers suggests that moribund nature awaits van Gogh's reviving eye.

At one point, Gaugin tells van Gogh that he paints too fast and overpaints; i.e., he uses so much paint his art tends to look like sculpture, presumably a conversation that Schnabel imagined van Gogh and Gaugin might have had.

I had a roughly similar feeling about cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's hand-held work. At best, Delhomme uses his camera to simulate the rapid strokes of a palette knife or the darting of the painter's eyes. But an unsteady camera also proves disorienting. And some of the visual tricks of focus and non-focus push too hard to give us a view of what van Gogh might have seen during episodes in which he's losing his grip.

Then, there's the question of age. Dafoe is 63 years old. Amazingly, casting him as van Gogh in his 30s doesn't prove distracting because we're witnessing an intensely subjective account of van Gogh's final years. Think of Dafoe as the embodiment of van Gogh's old soul.

For the most part, Schnabel tries to keep his work contemporaneous with van Gogh's exploratory intellect. In an early picture episode, van Gogh approaches a young woman who's herding sheep.

"Look at me," he implores, saying he wants to sketch her.

Van Gogh yearned to be seen -- not as an act of an unsatisfied ego but as the fulfillment of what he saw as a calling. Van Gogh's desire to share his vision underlies nearly everything that happens as Schnabel moves from one part of the story to the next, allowing the screen to sink into blackness between each of the movie's vignettes.

Not one for creative timidity, Schnabel even begins the movie daringly. We see a darkened screen and hear van Gogh talking about his very simple desire for acceptance and comfort. There aren't many directors who'd begin a movie about one of the world's most famous artist with words rather than with an image.

At Eternity's Gate marks the second film Schnabel has made about a painter. His first feature -- 1996's Basquiat -- looked at another painter whose life ended early. Jean-Michel Basquiat was 28 when a heroin overdose cut his life short.

If you're interested in understanding the mood Schnabel creates in his second movie about someone who can be viewed as an art-world casualty, you might want to take a look at the painting for which the movie is named. That painting was made by van Gogh in 1890, the year of his death. It shows a balding man sitting on a wooden chair in front of a sketchily drawn fire. The man's elbows rest on his thighs. His head is buried in his clenched fists. Presumably, he's thinking about his death, which may be imminent.

Can van Gogh's subject find something redeeming in this moment of sorrowful apprehension? You may want to think about that question as you watch Dafoe become van Gogh in Schnabel's boldly conceived, if somewhat jagged, interpretation.*

My favorite movie about artist Vincent van Gogh remains director Paul Cox's Vincent, a documentary that made its way into theaters in 1987. To make his movie, Cox used van Gogh's paintings, the locations in which the painter worked and excerpts from letters van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. The combination allowed Cox to capture van Gogh's search for transcendence, a spiritual journey anchored in the earthy realities of the landscapes that compelled him.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

An overstuffed 'Fantastic Beasts' movie

There are pleasures in the second Beasts movie, but it spends too much time running in place.
Back in the Pleistocene days of my youth, vendors at ballparks had a standard cry, "Get your scorecard here. Can't tell the players without a scorecard." We're talking about the days before mammoth scoreboards boasted screens the size of buildings. In my youth, the assumption was that if you arrived at the ballpark, you most likely came to watch the game.

I begin my review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of the Grindelwald this way because I wish someone had handed me a character roster before I saw the movie. Not only did I have to remember characters from the first movie in the series, but I had to track new additions.

All this by way of saying that this edition of Fantastic Beasts is a bit of a muddle that advances the series' overarching story only by a couple of inches -- and takes 134 minutes to do it. Obviously, a planned five-part series can't deliver its biggest bang in episode two, but a little more end-of-picture satisfaction would have been welcome. At the end of Beasts, I felt as if the story had worked up lots of sweat but mostly had been running in place.

Director David Yates, working from a screenplay by J.K Rowling -- she of the sacred word -- is asked to juggle a variety of plot points that revolve in a dizzying orbit around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the series' ostensible main character, a wizard devoted to studying magical zoology. Some of Scamander's creatures live in a magical suitcase that the diffident wizard carries with him at all times.

Grindelwald, you'll learn, is an evil wizard played by a Johnny Depp, whose normal complexion has been augmented with enough white make-up to create the impression that pallor and villainy have become synonymous. Grindelwald seems to be a fairy tale Hitler, a fascist who wants to save the world with wizard pure blood before muggles (humans) screw things up entirely. The movie is set in the 1920s.

The movie opens with Grindelwald escaping from prison and moving to Paris. Among other pursuits, Grindelwald is trying to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a baffled young man who's eager to find out who his parents were. Another returning figure from the first installment, Credence seems morbidly depressed.

Then there are our old friends Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudo). She reads minds. He doesn't mind. The couple provides much of the comedy you'll find in The Crimes of Grindelwald, aside from some of the better visual flourishes.

Redmayne, who seems to be wandering through the movie, eventually encounters a middle-aged Dumbledore (Jude Law) who asks him to confront Grindelwald, something Dumbledore himself can't do because he and Grindelmore once were more than brothers and friends -- or some such. Hmm.

Law, by the way, comes closest to calming the movie down to tolerable levels. His Dumbledore seems a welcome pillar of simplicity in a screenful of visual over-abundance.

Other participants in this pre-Potter farrago are Katherine Waterston as Tina, a former Auror; i.e., a wizard chosen to fight crime. Zoe Kravitz turns up as one of Newt's former classmate's at Hogwarts; the fabled school makes a rather brief but welcome appearance in what I'm choosing to call Beasts II, following on the heels of 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Crimes of Grindelwald probably qualifies as one of those critic-proof movies that fans will support, even if they quibble with some of its choices and there are pleasures to be had from Philippe Rousselot's cinematography, from the scale of some of the movie's more elaborate settings and from some of its visual invention.

Somewhere in all this Rowling bric-a-brac, a serious confrontation between good and evil lurks. If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it and order all concerned to please get on with it.

Too embattled to wallow in grief

Viola Davis leads a strong cast in Widows, a caper movie with plenty of cynical undertow.
In Widows, director Steve McQueen flirts with high-concept formula but never allows it to overwhelm the movie's gritty undertow.

Written by McQueen (Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Widows wraps pungent characterizations around a caper-film spine. If the plot strains at times, a fine cast and McQueen's scaldingly cynical view of life in Chicago keep the proceedings percolating.

Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlings, a woman whose criminal husband (Liam Neeson) dies in the film's barreling, violent prologue. Neeson's Harry and four colleagues are the in the midst of a robbery when they're killed.

Harry leaves Veronica with a pile of trouble. A local gangster (Brian Tyree Henry) claims that Harry owed him $2 million. He's holding Veronica responsible for the debt.

Henry's Jamal Manning also wants to shift to a new kind of crime. He's running for alderman because he believes it's time that he had the opportunity to dip his crust of bread into the municipal gravy that the Irish too long have sopped up. Manning's brother (Daniel Kaluuya) serves as his happily brutal enforcer.

In a related plot thread, Colin Farrell plays Jack Mulligan, the incumbent who's running against Manning. Mulligan is the son of a corrupt former Chicago alderman (Robert Duvall) with a sour disposition and a strong commitment to holding political turf his family has dominated for years.

So how is Veronica going to pay off Harry's debt? As it turns out, Harry left Veronica plans for a major heist that could yield as much as $5 million. Because all of Harry's henchmen were killed in the movie's explosive opening, it falls to Veronica to gather the surviving widows into an impromptu gang, pull off the heist, settle Harry's debt and divide the remaining spoils.

Everyone in Veronica's crew suffers from need. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) signs on because she's lost her store to rapacious creditors. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is one step away from becoming a full-time escort, saved only by the largess of a wealthy financier (Lukas Haas) who makes her his mistress. Amanda (Carrie Coon) has been left with an infant.

Jacki Weaver shows up as Alice's unapologetically sleazy mother, and Cynthia Erivo adds last-minute energy as a woman recruited to drive the getaway car.

A women's perspective gives the movie's crime and political theater a considerable boost. Think of Widows as feminism without speeches, a genre piece featuring female characters with real agency.

It's hardly surprising that Davis proves impressively steely as a woman who misses her husband's tender embraces but proves tough enough to lead her cronies through dangerous terrain. Displaying iron-willed resolve, Veronica takes charge of her gang of widows, no easy task with this group of independent-minded women.

Widows has enough on its mind to keep from becoming one more helping of multiplex fodder. McQueen wisely lets Davis lead the way as a widow who shouldn't be messed with -- even in a world in which felons and politicians often are indistinguishable.*

*I want to reiterate that I welcome comments, particularly those that expand our knowledge about particular films or films in general. But -- and this is the point of this footnote -- I don't publish anonymous comments. Over the years, I've found that many readers have worthwhile things to say and should in no way be reluctant to take credit for their comments. So, sign your name and chime in.

Gary Hart's fall from political grace

The Front Runner doesn't quite make it as a relevant foray into the world of journalism and politics.
In 1987, Gary Hart fell from political grace. Hard.

A sure bet to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1988, Hart was undone by names that suddenly dominated the news, notably, a girl named Donna Rice and a yacht named Monkey Business.

Hart defended himself against charges of marital infidelity by insisting that his private life was no one’s business but his own. He was staunch in his resolve, but couldn't save himself.

Hart’s fall probably is destined to become a footnote in American political history, unless you’re convinced — as some are — that Hart’s story changed journalism and the fate of the US. That’s a heavy burden for one man to carry and it’s also a burden that the movie The Front Runner can’t carry, either.

Based on All the Truth is Out, a fine book by journalist Matt Bai, The Front Runner tries to take an encompassing approach to Hart’s story, leaning toward a view that blames the press — particularly a couple of Miami Herald reporters — for staking out Hart’s Washington, D.C. townhouse in hopes of confirming a dalliance with Rice.

As a result, the press and the national debate became focused on character (or lack of it) instead of the salient issues of the day -- or so the argument goes.

Director Jason Reitman had a hand in writing the screenplay, along with Bai and Jay Carson, a political operative who also works in the entertainment business, having done multiple duties on Netflix's House of Cards. The screenplay makes various points throughout but Front Runner remains frustratingly diffuse.

Hugh Jackman has been cast as Hart. Jackman does as well as possible in conveying Hart’s intelligence, his insistence on not answering certain kinds of questions and his refusal to listen to a staff that knew he was in more trouble than he realized.

The peripheral performances are a mixed bag. Steve Zissis and Bill Burr portray two Miami Herald reporters, narrowly focused guys who see only one side of the journalistic argument: Get the story, let the chips fall where they may.

Mamoudou Athie plays a Washington Post reporter (a composite figure) who agonizes about what his editors want him to ask Hart. Ann Devroy appears as an editor at the Washington Post who claims that the press isn't going too far: Powerful men shouldn’t abuse their power with impressionable young women.

Molly Ephraim has a nice turn as a Hart aide who understands how painful it is for Rice (Sara Paxton) to have been thrust into a maelstrom. Ephraim's character winds up selling Rice out anyway.

I’m an admirer of actor Alfred Molina, but even he can’t overcome the images of Ben Bradlee created by actors in previous movies (Jason Robards in All the President’s Men and Tom Hanks in The Post) — not to mention a couple of documentaries in which the real Bradlee can be seen.

J.K. Simmons, a Reitman regular, plays Hart's campaign manager, a role that could have used some expansion. Still, Simmons conveys the dejection that haunts a man who sees a cause in which he deeply believes going down the drain.

In dealing with Hart’s wife, Lee, who's played here by Vera Farmiga, the movie suggests that Lee and Gary Hart had reached some sort of agreement about how they’d conduct their marriage with Lee stipulating only that she didn’t want to be embarrassed by her husband. After the Rice debacle, Lee Hart found her home in Troublesome Gulch, Co., besieged by reporters. She became another victim.

Nearly everything about The Front Runner plays against unstated ironies. Bill Clinton survived Monica Lewinsky and the current resident of the White House has set a new bar for what we know about the sexual behavior of a president.

If you haven’t read Bai’s book, you should. But the real story of Gary Hart remains unknowable. Was he a hero who stood up for rights of privacy? Was he an arrogant man who believed he had a license to be reckless? Was he really brilliant enough to have altered the course of American history? Did he foresee every important problem we face today?

Reitman does a good job creating the chaotic swirl that surrounds a political campaign. He also inserts enough sardonic humor to make Front Runner entertaining but the movie can't sustain the kind of absurdist kick that Reitman brought to his best movies: Thank Your for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air.

If The Front Runner is meant to be taken as a cautionary tale, it arrives 30 years too late. In the current bold-faced clash between powerful politicians and journalists, the Hart story already has been consigned to small print.

The Coens sing a weird ballad

Six short films make for a mixed bag in the Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) tackle the West in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part anthology of short films in which breathtaking visual acuity couples with a morbid sense of humor and western mythology gives way to chilly existential horror. The six films -- united because they're presented as part of a book in which they're bound -- suggest crossbreeding between lurid western pulp and tales told around a campfire.

Not all of the episodes are successful and, sorry to say, stretches of the movie are duller than you might expect from the Coens. But this is a Coen brothers film and, as such, demands some attention from those who've been following the Coens since the days of Blood Simple, some 24 years ago.

In the first episode, Tim Blake Nelson plays the title character, a singing cowboy with an aggressively cheerful manner. Nelson's Buster Scruggs is also a killer who guns people down between songs. One of the movie's best episodes, this one also serves as an announcement that the Coens are hell-bent on replacing the Wild, Wild West with the Weird, Weird West.

Other chapters in the Ceon's rueful book include a story about hanging starring James Franco and a bizarre riff on wagon-train movies that focuses on a woman (Zoe Kazan) traveling west to start a new life but meeting with a sorry fate.

Then there's Meal Ticket, the story of a traveling showman (Liam Neeson) who goes from town to town with a legless, armless man called Hamilton, the Wingless Thrush (Harry Melling). Neeson's character sets Hamilton on the stage where he recites Shelley, Shakespeare and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to increasingly sparse audiences. Hamilton's career soon will be undermined by an unlikely new entertainer.

Tom Waits portrays a lone prospector who strikes gold but must fend off trouble.

The final chapter of this blood-stained book takes place on a stagecoach where Saul Rubinek (as a Frenchman), Tyne Daly (as a rigidly upright woman), Chelcie Ross (as the always-necessary bearded old trapper), and Brendan Gleeson (as a passenger who sings a sad song) take their weird ride toward ... well ... you'll have to see the movie to discover where they all wind up.

The Coens have fun with the movie's language, which is florid and overdone, the formal-sounding speech of characters aspiring to -- but not always attaining -- eloquence.

For all the Coens wit and wiliness, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sometimes feels caught in the pages of the book that serves as its framing device, a dusty volume that may be a sorrowful lament for a world that has been mortally wounded and has nothing left to do but stagger toward the grave.

Creative as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs can be, I'm looking forward to seeing the Coens turn the page.

Small-town life in the Midwest

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman travels to the Midwest for Monrovia, Indiana, a telling portrait of small-town life in Donald Trump's America. Wiseman doesn't focus on characters or politics but on activities that range from planning board meetings to conversations in local cafes. He pauses between scenes to give us views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Observing without commenting, Wiseman leaves it to the audience to reach its own conclusions, even during a visit to a local gun shop. We also see scenes of hog farmers at work, of a meeting in a Masonic lodge where one of the members is being feted for 50 years of service, and of men getting haircuts at the local barbershop. Everyone seems to be subjected to the same style, shaved sides with a bit of hair left on top as a kind of tonsorial exclamation point. Wiseman concludes with a eulogy delivered by a pastor at one of the town's churches and follows that with the burial of the woman the pastor just had been eulogizing. If you're familiar with Wiseman's work -- Ex Libris: The New York Public Library and In Jackson Heights -- you know that he specializes in revealing the quotidian rhythms that dominate whatever scene he happens to be observing. I wouldn't call Monrovia one of Wiseman's best efforts, but it exemplifies an approach in which he captures various places and institutions as if he were recording for future generations. A debate about growth involving one of the town's subdivisions emerges, but mostly we feel removed from the essential concerns of the day. Still, we get the feeling that we know how the town's residents go about filling the Midwestern emptiness that surrounds them.*

*I want to reiterate that I welcome comments, particularly those that expand our knowledge about particular films or films in general. But -- and this is the point of this footnote -- I don't publish anonymous comments. Over the years, I've found that many readers have worthwhile things to say and should in no way be reluctant to take credit for their comments. So, sign your name and chime in.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

She looked into the eye of war

Rosamund Pike portrays a journalist who couldn't say no to war.
A Private War tells the real-life story of Marie Colvin's life at work. Of course, a day’s work for Colvin, an award-winning war correspondent, upsets any notion of jobs as tedious, office-bound activities. Colvin made her living reporting from some of the world's worst war zones. She lost her left eye as the result of an explosion in Sri Lanka and ultimately died in Homs, Syria.

Colvin's great achievement in Homs was to put the world on notice that Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, was not only bombing military targets but also was obliterating the city’s civilian population. Telling that story cost Colvin her life.

Directed by Matthew Heineman, previously known for documentaries, Private War quickly lays out the rationale for Colvin’s willingness to put herself in harm’s way. She argues that the world must know about the suffering bred by war. It must hear the stories of those who suffer.

Private War will be hailed for Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Colvin, a skilled and confident reporter who couldn't escape war-born demons in the form of PTSD and alcoholism, two conditions she was unwilling to acknowledge.

Colvin wrote for the British Sunday Times but grew up in Long Island. Pike, who’s British, masters an American accent. More importantly, she captures Colvin’s no-nonsense approach to her job and her possibly self-destructive refusal to opt for safer forms of journalism even after she was forced to wear an eye patch from her Sri Lanka wounds.

At a party in London, a friend (Nikki Amuka-Bird) suggests that Colvin seek help. She can’t break through Colvin's addictive cycle: war reporting followed by troubled respites in London.

Colvin's editor (Tom Hollander) doesn't push her to take a desk job. She's too good at what she does. He jokes about her writing for the gardening section as if the only forms of journalism were those involving extreme danger and those relegated to the sleepy nether regions of feature sections.

Heineman structures the film as a series of harrowing war tours interrupted by glimpses of Pike’s life away from the battles she covered. He includes an underdeveloped relationship with Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci), a wealthy businessman who says he’s interested in sexual adventures rather than one-night stands.

Colvin maintains her strongest relationship with a freelance war photographer played by Jamie Dornan, bearded and close to unrecognizable after his work in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies. Photographer and reporter are bonded by the hardships they endure as a team.

Always eager to set her own path (she sneered at embedded journalists), Colvin knew how to stay a step ahead of other reporters as she worked in ravaged countries such as Iraq and Syria. In Libya, she interviewed Gaddafi just before his fall. She was a go-to journalist when it came to war.

Heineman and his team put a great deal of effort into making authentically vivid scenes of battle chaos, civilian suffering and the obscene destruction of war.

Like Colvin, Heineman must have wanted to drive home the brutality of wars, particularly its impact on hapless civilians. Scenes of mayhem are luridly convincing -- if a bit numbing after a while.

A Private War certainly has its virtues, but there’s something a little off about the movie: Heineman has a point to make but not much story to tell: Without people such as Colvin, however flawed she might have been as a person, blood would be shed without outside scrutiny.

That's a powerful statement, but I wondered whether it might have made a more fitting tribute to Colvin to take one of her strong stories and turn it into a movie. What made Colvin great, I think, was that she had more interest in the stories she so compulsively told than in her self. So much so that she died telling them.

A young gay man confronts conversion therapy

Lucas Hedges shines as a young man caught between his family and his sexual identity.

The skills of Lucas Hedges are on display in three highly anticipated fall movies: Mid-90s, Boy Erased and Ben is Back. In Boy Erased, the second of these movies to reach the nation's screens, Hedges plays Jared, a young gay man whose religious parents send him to conversion therapy. In Ben is Back, due in December, Hedges portrays a drug-addicted kid whose mother (Julia Roberts) desperately wants to get him off his self-destructive path.

Although his role in the skateboard movie Mid90s is a small one, Hedges -- nominated in 2016 for a best-supporting actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea -- clearly is having a moment. He deserves it: He should be contributing to movies for a long time.

Boy Erased casts Hedges as the intriguingly conflicted Jared Eamons, a character who can't reconcile his desire to be a normal kid with this sexual inclinations. Sensitive and vulnerable, Hedges never loses touch with the essence of Jared's character: He's a kid who wants to please by doing the right thing.

Jared has been brought up in a fundamentalist Christian environment by his homemaking mother (Nicole Kidman) and his pastor father (Russell Crowe). Unrebellious by nature, Jared takes his faith background seriously.

Boy Erased focuses on what happens when Jared's parents learn that he might be gay and send him to Christian conversion therapy, something he initially approaches with the hope that it will work. Jared wants to be "cured" and he harbors no apparent ill will toward his parents.

Based on a memoir by Gerard Conley -- the model for Jared -- Boy Erased spends much of its time following Jared through conversion therapy where he's guided by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). Part cheerleader and part disciplinarian, Sykes bases his actions on the notion that gayness is a choice that can be unchosen with hard work and rigorous applications of faith.

Sykes is assisted by Brandon (Flea), a guy who approaches his job as if he's a drill sergeant charged with yelling the gay out of the young people who find themselves in this program.

During Jared's conversion therapy, he stays in a motel with his mother, who offers support and who watches the impact the "therapy" has on Jared.

The movie, which marks Edgerton's second directorial effort after 2015's The Gift, doesn't spend a lot of time on the other young people who have been sent to Love in Action, the program in which Jared has been enrolled. Troye Sivan plays a curly headed blonde who tells Jared that he should fake his conversion, get out of Love in Action in one piece and then decide how he wants to live. Britton Sear appears as Cameron, a kid with no ability to articulate what he's going through.

For all of its sincerity in trying to deal with the devastating impact such therapy can have on young people, the movie's most interesting and vividly drawn characters are pushed to the periphery: As Jared's mother, Kidman backs her husband in his faith decisions; she's spent her life as a supporting player in her husband's drama. Gradually, she begins to understand that her heart has room in it for two loves: God and her son.

Crowe receives less screen time but wastes none of it. A Baptist pastor who also owns a Ford dealership, Crowe's Marshall Eamons can't break through the boundaries that have defined his life. When he tells his son that he can't live in his house as a gay man, he's not threatening, he's simply stating what he sees as a bedrock fact of his existence.

Crowe has a strong final scene with Hedges that wisely refuses to resolve this difficult father/son relationship.

Boy Erased isn't the first movie this year to deal with conversion therapy. This summer saw the release of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which starred Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman pushed into a program like the one in which Jared finds himself. That movie focused on the way Moretz's rebellious character found kindred spirits to help her survive brainwashing by people who present a friendlier front than those in Boy Erased.

Though quite different in their style and tone, both movies are credible -- if unexceptional -- dramas. The path through conversion therapy offers few surprises. Still, a high-powered cast adds distinction to Boy Erased. Kidman and Crowe do memorable work and Lucas adds another strong performance to his already impressive resume.

A reminder of Buster Keaton's greatness

Director Peter Bogdanovich expresses his love for Buster Keaton in a new documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration. There are many reasons you might want to see Bogdanovich's fond look at a great star of the silent cinema whose career peaked in the 1920s but continued pretty much until his death in 1966. To begin with, Bogdanovich provides an outline of Keaton's showbusiness life, which began when his mother and father put him into their vaudeville act in the early 1900s. Young Joseph Frank Keaton -- reportedly named Buster by the great Harry Houdini -- quickly became a star vaudeville attraction. In a reedy voice, Bogdanovich narrates this tour through Keaton's work. He also includes interviews with Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, Richard Lewis, Johnny Knoxville, and Werner Herzog. But the movie's real delights arrive in the form of clips from the two-reelers that Keaton made in the early days of Hollywood and from the 10 features in which he starred and directed during the 1920s. These well-chosen clips make for a glowing tribute to Keaton's talents and serve as a reminder of just how inventive Hollywood could be during its earliest days. Visual comedy (now a truly neglected art) was a Keaton specialty which he approached with creativity, physical daring (his stunts are truly breathtaking), and unbridled individual expression. If highlights from films such as Our Hospitality, Go West, Steambath Bill, Jr., and, of course, The General don't improve your mood, nothing will.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Literary forgery for fun and profit

Can You Ever Forgive Me? features strong performances from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.
She drinks enough to qualify as an alcoholic. She once enjoyed success writing biographies but recently has fallen on hard times. She's so foul-mouthed that she can't hold a regular job. She's months behind in her rent and can't afford a visit to a veterinarian for her beloved cat. No one cares that she's interested in writing a biography of Fanny Brice, the comedienne played by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

You'd be right to think that such a character makes a perfect fit for Melissa McCarthy, an actress who has worked mostly in profane, big-screen comedies that kicked off with 2011’s Bridesmaids. Sporting a bowl-shaped haircut, minimal makeup, and a wardrobe that barely exceeds thrift-store levels, McCarthy adds a serious twist to her big-screen resume in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Playing a real-life character -- the late Lee Israel -- McCarthy makes ample use of her gift for invective but transfers it to a character mired in economic desperation and personal isolation. At a preview screening, it took a few moments for some members of the audience to realize that Can You Ever Forgive Me? intends to go for more than laughs.

Israel, who became a forger of highly collectible literary letters, lived the kind of fringe existence in Manhattan of the mid-90s that required mastery of many improvisational life skills.

Misanthropic and miserable, Lee has only one friend, a high-spirited gay man (Richard E. Grant). Grant's Jack Hock has no visible means of support but seems to survive with guile, charm and who knows what else.

Grant infuses his performance with a buoyancy that plays well against McCarthy's earth-bound qualities as a writer for whom crime becomes a means of self-expression.

Israel forged letters by Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Lillian Hellman, mastering the art of stylistic mimicry and enlivening letters that often lacked enough spice to pique collector interest. The movie's title derives from one of Israel’s first forays into the world of crime, a postscript she attached to a letter written by Brice.

When exposure and FBI interest looms, Israel takes to stealing real letters from various archives and replacing them with her carefully crafted forgeries. With no one able to question the authenticity of the stolen letters, Israel's business continued.

Working from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) does a good job of showing how Israel's scheme was born: She chanced upon letters by Brice and began doctoring them. Eventually, she sustained her fraud with a room full of antique typewriters.

Israel also learned to navigate the rarified world of memorabilia collecting. When she fell under suspicion, she recruited Hock to peddle her fake letters. Hock proved himself a worthy accomplice -- if a less-than-reliable apartment sitter.

Movies about con jobs long have had appeal, but Heller introduces us to a highly specialized form of fraud, one that required knowledge, skill and a genuine respect for literature. Israel took pride in being able to write like a variety of great writers. As she puts it, she was able to be more Parker than Parker herself.

Several strong supporting performances round out the movie's pleasures. Jane Curtin appears as Israel's literary agent, a woman who can't (and who won't) push Israel's Brice biography and who knows that no one wants to work with such an ill-tempered woman. Dolly Wells does a nice job as Anna, a bookstore owner who also sells memorabilia and who is awestruck to meet Israel, whose biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead and columnist Dorothy Kilgallen she has read.

Anna Deavere Smith impresses in a brief appearance as Lee's former lover, a woman who ultimately couldn't tolerate Israel's demanding, demeaning personality. The various booksellers Israel meets during the course of her felonious activities are rendered with credibility and concision.

A straightforward treatment by Heller allows story and performance to dominate the movie. I'm not sure that there's any great moral to be drawn from all this, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? entertains right up until an end that suggests that Israel’s reformation retained trace elements of defiance. Refreshing.

A lost Orson Welles' movie sees the light

It has taken 48 years for Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind to reach the screen. Still unfinished when Welles died in 1985, the movie will show on Netflix beginning Nov. 2, also the date of its limited theatrical release.

The team that brought the film to fruition sifted through more than 100 hours of footage and consulted Welles' notes to make this cinematic mash-up. Why mash-up? Parts of the movie are in color, parts in black and white. To add to the sense of discombobulation, Welles filmed in 35 and 16 mm, as well as in Super 8.

I wish I could say that The Other Side of the Wind stands as a work of genius on a par with Welles' great work. Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil obviously come to mind, but this bit of Hollywood navel gazing has more in common with Welles’ docudrama, F is for Fake. Rather than a hidden masterpiece, The Other Side of the Wind opens a window into Welles’ mordantly disaffected consciousness. The movie seems to exist entirely in its own world.

The best I can say is that The Other Side of the Wind includes flashes of genius, images that rival the ambiguity, allure, and pretensions of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni and splashes of humor that should appeal to those familiar with the films of the 1970s. A must-see for film buffs (whether they admire it or not), the movie may be of only marginal interest to the general public.

A brief synopsis: John Huston plays Hannaford, a director who's trying to finish a movie and who has been widely taken as a stand-in for Welles. Peter Bogdanovich, one of Welles' most ardent supporters, appears in the film as an up-and-coming director whose relationship with Hannaford becomes increasingly ambiguous. We see snippets of the film that's being made by Hannaford; it stars an often nude Oja Kodar, Welles' partner at the time.

Much of The Other Side of the Wind takes place at a party designed to raise money for Hannaford to finish his film, a task that won't be easy because his male star (Bob Random) has left the production.

Among the film's pleasures: Huston's ability to deliver a line with piercing authority. Brief appearances by Edmond O'Brien and Lilli Palmer also prove welcome.

The Other Side of the Wind can be confusing, insightful and, alas, a bit glib. Still, the opportunity to see a lost bit of film history doesn't come along every day. If you care about such things, you may exult in the parts of the film that reflect Welles' out-sized genius and suffer through the rest. I wouldn't be surprised if film enthusiasts disagree about which parts astonish and which leave one in a state of bemused indifference.

She tries to rescue her son from a war zone

Susan Sarandon stars in Viper Club, a story about the distraught mother of an independent journalist who has been captured and held for ransom in war-torn Syria. Sarandon plays Helen Sterling, an emergency room nurse who has been fighting to rescue her son Andy (Julian Morris) from kidnappers who have demanded a $20 million ransom, a sum Helen has no way of raising. At work, Helen tries to mentor a new doctor (Amir Malaklou) in the ways of the ER. Adepero Oduye adds credibility as Helen's supervisor. In her free time, Helen gets the bureaucratic runaround from both the State Department and the FBI. Hope seems to be fading when Helen learns about Viper Club, a network that draws attention to the plight of kidnapped journalists and also raises money to pay ransoms. Enter Charlotte (Edie Falco), a rich woman who rescued her son in a similar situation. Charlotte urges Helen to go public. Sarandon and Falco are superb, with Falco getting an opportunity to play an upper-class woman whose life is foreign to Helen's middle-class existence. These scenes and Sarandon's performance throughout elevate the English-language debut of Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz(Circumstance). Viper Club doesn't build enough high-voltage tension around political questions connected to a journalist's disappearance, but Sarandon gives the movie plenty of ground-level humanity.