Thursday, January 31, 2019

'Miss Bala' is one big miss

Miss Bala may have been intended to boost Gina Rodriguez's profile and shift the actress into an action gear. The star of TV's Jane the Virgin has appeared in other movies (Deepwater Horizon and Annihilation) but this time finds herself in the middle of a drug smuggling/gun-running/gangsta thriller that also happens to be a remake Spanish-language movie from 2011. This misguided outing must have lost something in translation, turning into a by-the-numbers thriller about a Los Angeles make-up artist (Rodriguez) who's drawn into the cross-border drug underworld. Hey, she's got good reason: She wants to save her Tijuana based friend Suzu (Christina Rodlo). In the process, Rodriguez's Gloria becomes entangled with the DEA and also begins to establish a relationship with Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a vicious, self-justifying and apparently aspiring cartel czar. Lino says he can help find Gloria's friend, who disappeared during an early picture shootout at a Tijuana nightclub. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) doesn't skimp on violence but much of it is more jittery than compelling. Anthony Mackie turns up in a too-small role as someone involved in the drug chain into which Gloria is coerced. The movie careens from betrayal to betrayal as Gloria tries to find her footing in this merciless world. Eventually, she must pick up an AR-17 and resolve matters in the way of such movies. Miss Bala, in which a beauty pageant plays a fringe role, can't replicate the corruption-heavy vibe of a movie such as Sicario. It's improbably plotted and predictable, yes. In sum, though, it's just Corruption Lite and, by the end, laughable.

A boy's struggle to survive the streets of Beirut

Nominated for an Academy Award, Capernaum makes a worthy addition to screen literature on impoverished kids.

It takes a fair measure of nerve for a kid, even one who has been badly neglected, to sue his parents for bringing him into the world. But Zain, the main character in Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's harrowing Capernaum, is more than equal to the task.

Getting great performances from kids can be tricky, but Zain Al Rafeea, who plays the endlessly enterprising 12-year-old at the movie's center, convinces us that he can fend for himself. Untrained as an actor, Al Rafeea holds Labaki's film together with foul-mouthed pluck and a determination that simply won’t quit.

Filmed in tangled streets of Beirut, Capernaum works on us because it's impossible not to fear for young Zain as he negotiates problems no kid should have to face. Zain attacks them with inspiring courage. He has so much heart that our hearts break just watching him.

Zain runs away from his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) after they marry off -- i.e., sell -- his 11-year-old sister Sahar to their landlord's son. Labaki takes us into a world so desperately depraved kids can be sold.

Amid the bustle of the city, Zain establishes a relationship with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee who puts Zain in charge of her one-year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) when she goes off to work -- all the while hoping that she won't be caught by the police and prosecuted as an illegal.

The trio creates an impromptu family in a Beirut shantytown. But when Rahil fails to return home one day, Zain is left on his own. Again, we're fearful for his future. Zain leaves the confines of the hovel where Rahil has settled by carting Yonas around in a tub attached to a skateboard. Zain's affection for his charge is obvious and it warms the movie.

Labaki tells the story in flashbacks that flow from the courtroom proceedings. Zane initiated the suit against his parents while being held as a prisoner for a stabbing -- albeit one in which the "victim" hardly can be seen as blameless.

Nearly everything in Capernaum unfolds against a backdrop of urban squalor, criminal activity, and street hustles. Zain's family supports itself, in part, by smuggling drugs into a prison where one of their incarcerated offspring sells them to his fellow inmates. To call what happens to the movie's children "neglect" insufficiently describes the cruelties and indifference they face.

Capernaum has been nominated for an Oscar in the best-foreign-language-film category. Whether it wins or not, it stands as an important entry into the film liturgy on kids who must fight for every scrap of life they can find.

A quiet life that needs some noise

There aren't many movies in which a pair of sunglasses can define the central issue facing a character. In the Paraguayan movie, The Heiresses, a woman named Chela (Ana Brun) can't decide whether to wear sunglasses or not. Her indecision becomes a telling reflection of a life in stasis. Well into her 40s, Chela is stuck in a relationship with her longtime lover Chiquita (Margarita Irun). She's also stuck in other ways, so much so that she has difficulty getting out of bed. Directed by Marcelo Martinessi, The Heiresses tells Chela's story or perhaps non-story would be a better description. But don't let that deter you, Martinessi has made a carefully considered movie about a woman who badly needs to jump-start her life. The opportunity arrives when Chiquita is jailed for debts that she hasn't paid. The couple is going broke and Chela has been selling off family heirlooms from the house in which she grew up. Most of the things the couple sells belong to Chela. Decisive and bold, Chiquita has been more or less running this lopsided relationship. When Chiquita goes to prison, it's Chela who faces the most difficulty. Things begin to change for Chela when a neighbor asks her for a lift to a gathering of friends. Chela warily starts the couple's aging Mercedes. Soon, she establishes a business driving -- sort of a one-person Uber for older women. During her work, Chela meets Angy (Ana Ivanova), the daughter of a passenger Chela drives to medical appointments. It's obvious that Chela is attracted to Angy, but the question looms: Is she too immobilized to act? Thanks to Brun's beautifully calibrated performance, it's stirring to watch Chela flirt with the prospect of rejoining the world. Will she?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A satire tries to give the art world its due

Velvet Buzzsaw aims at an easy target -- the commodification of art -- but the movie's cast produces enjoyable results.
If you think that the Los Angeles art world is ripe for satire, director Dan Gilroy's Velvet Buzzsaw won't disappoint. It's not that Velvet Buzzsaw lands a mortal hit. How could it? It's based on an obvious conceit about the obscene invasion of major money into a corrupted art world. It may not be a thematic powerhouse, but Velvet Buzzsaw makes some dead-on observations. Better yet, its cast of characters -- some bordering on art-world caricatures -- proves consistently amusing.

Reunited with his Nightcrawler star Jake Gyllenhaal, Gilroy introduces flashes of horror into a story in which the characters are precisely and wickedly drawn. Gyllenhaal's Morf, for example, is an art critic who regards his taste as nothing less than definitive. He's also in tip-top shape, a devotee of Peloton and Pilates. Sporting bangs and glasses, Morf evidently is one of those critics who can make or break a career. He's bisexual and so taste-conscious that he feels no compunction about expressing his displeasure with at the color of the coffin at a gallerist's funeral.

Rhodora Haze (Renee Russo) runs a top-drawer Los Angeles gallery. Rhodora has a keen eye for money and an attitude of superiority that flirts with bitchery. Oh well, forget flirts. Russo, who also worked in Gilroy's Nightcrawler, takes her character all the way. It's a pleasure to watch her.

Zawe Ashton works for Rhodora who claims to be grooming her charge for better things. Toni Collette has a sharply funny turn as a museum curator turned art consultant. Rhodora's main competition arrives in the form of another dealer Tom Sturridge's Jon Dondon.

The movie pushes us into the art world with style and wit before introducing its plot. The story gathers steam when Ashton's Josephina discovers a dead body in her apartment building. She enters the apartment of the deceased and discovers a collection of paintings done by the dead man, an unknown artist named Vetril Dease. Some of Dease's portraits evoke terror and torment. All his paintings, even those with wholesome subjects, have an eerie aura.

Josephina shows Dease's work to Morf. He immediately confirms her sense that she's stumbled onto a trove of original and highly marketable work. Eyes light up because Dease evidently is the next big thing. Even better, he's dead: His body of work never will expand.

No one seems particularly shaken by the fact that Dease wanted all of his paintings destroyed. As the movie unfolds, we discover why. People start getting murdered in horror-movie fashion.

But the resolution is less important than the way that Gilroy uses the plot to bring the characters into money-grubbing conflict.

John Malkovich sounds an almost sane note in a small role as an art star whose reputation has begun to fade.

Gilroy's satirical eye extends to the various high-fashion art uniforms worn by a chic-conscious cast of characters: Trends rather than trenchancy dominate.

The pretensions of the art world make for an easy target and Gilroy's overall insight -- greed motivates the sale and purchase of art -- can't be called fresh. But he invents a movie full of characters that provide a fair measure of entertainment. I'd say that the cast members were having one hell of a good time, even if some of their characters are brutally (and often creatively) knocked off.

A staggering look at trench warfare

Director Peter Jackson and a good deal of technical skill help bring World War I to life in They Shall Not Grow Old.
There's a sadness about World War I that's like no other sadness, perhaps because that war has been written about by many great writers as a conflict so impersonally brutal that it changed the world forever. To many, it seemed as if the world had sacrificed the last remnants of youth.

Working from footage supplied by the Imperial British War Museum, director Peter Jackson demonstrates that he understands the delusions and sorrow that have accumulated around the so-called War to End All Wars. And he does it in a novel way, not by looking back but by trying to make the past feel shockingly immediate.

Jackson, of Lord of the Rings Fame, has assembled an extraordinary documentary that brings us close to the soldiers who fought on the war’s bloody Western Front.

Before we go any further, it's necessary to talk about the technical achievements of Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old. Britain's Imperial War Museum asked Jackson to look at 100 hours of vintage footage and do something to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war's end. Jackson colorized some footage, added 3D, and altered the speed of footage that -- in its original form -- had a jerky Keystone Kops quality that resulted from cameras that were cranked by hand.

These may sound like gimmicks of a digital age, but Jackson achieves what he set out to do: He liberates the war from its historical prison and makes it feel contemporary. You definitely should stick around for the epilogue that follows the film so that you can hear Jackson explain how the movie was made.

Aside from the technical challenges, Jackson had to find ways to narrow the film's focus. He decided to bring us close to trench warfare and tell the story through interviews recorded in the 1960s and 70s with British soldiers who had fought on many of the locations we see. Jackson used actors to recite dialogue that was obtained by employing skilled lip readers when soldiers in the restored footage speak.

To put it mildly, trench warfare was no picnic: Even some of the most vivid World War I films don't show the vast number of rats that scurried through the trenches nor do they explain how the soldiers improvised bathrooms. The soldier’s life was one of misery. They got lice. They smoked cigarettes and pipes. Many of them died. They wore the single uniform they had been issued until it was rendered threadbare.

Yet when the cameras rolled, soldiers did what people tend to do when cameras roll: They smiled. The put on a good face.

The emotional arc of the film should feel familiar. The buoyant optimism of going off to war quickly gives way to the tedium and terror of the trenches. Young and naive, enlistees thought they'd make quick work of a conflict they only dimly understood.

They Shall Not Grow Old pays tribute to those young men by showing us the fear and hardship they experienced, as well as the intense connections they developed with one another. When you're finished watching They Shall Not Grow Old, we feel as if we've seen an invaluable slice of history, a war story told by those who fought it.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Second-rate material sinks 'Serenity'

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway drown in a thriller set on a Caribbean island.
Serenity, a new movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, tells the kind of story that’s meant to be played back in viewers' heads once the movie concludes. That sort of exercise can fun, but in this case, the playback likely will lead to an unhappy conclusion: Not only do the pieces in the movie’s puzzle seem mismatched, but the whole enterprise is marked by silliness and over-reach.

Serenity begins as a noir thriller in which an abused wife (Hathaway) asks her ex-husband (McConaughey) to kill her current husband (Jason Clarke). Not only will the murder net McConaughey’s Baker Dill a cool $10 million, but it will also help his son escape a vile stepfather.

The movie takes place on a Caribbean island the movie calls Plymouth, a detail that has as little meaning as just about everything else in this misfire.

When we first meet Baker, he's a boat owner who takes beer-guzzling customers on day-long fishing expeditions. Early on, Baker gets crosswise with two customers by refusing to allow one of them to reel in The Big One, a giant tuna Baker evidently has been trying to catch for years and with which he's developed an Ahab-like obsession.

Baker is aided in his efforts by an assistant (Djimon Hounsou), a man who tries to help Baker control his temper. Baker thinks Hounsou's recently widowed character has brought him bad luck.

When he’s not at sea, Baker carries on an affair with a woman played by a wasted Diane Lane. Lane’s character gives Baker money when the fish aren’t running — if that’s what fish do.

The plot picks up when Hathaway, in overdone blonde femme-fatale makeup that borders on Halloween costume chic, shows up to enlist Baker in her plan: She wants Baker to take her current husband to sea and drop him into the drink.

Meanwhile, the movie dishes out colorful detail as if it were afraid it might run out of ways to add flavor.

An example: Baker, who lives in an abandoned shipping container, has a unique idea of what it means to take a shower. He sheds his clothes, runs naked toward a cliff and leaps into the ocean.

Speaking of showers, director Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises) also films a lot of scenes in the rain which — McConaughey’s character — doesn’t have sense enough to come out of.

Now and again, the story ambiguously cuts to images of Baker's son working at his computer. The screenplay lamely suggests a near-paranormal connection between Baker and his teenage son, who’s still back on the mainland.

To add to the sense of mystery, a man in a suit (Jeremy Strong) keeps following Baker but continually fails to connect with his quarry. When the two finally meet, the movie indulges in silly exposition about games, rules and the unknowable nature of reality.

The whole enterprise is marked by a thorough lack of credibility, a problem that mounts as McConaughey’s performance goes increasingly over-the-top.

McConaughey’s Baker wants to catch The Big One, but it’s not the fish that gets away: It’s this whole preposterous, self-serious movie.

Hot love during the 'Cold War'

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski follows Ida with a love story set against a political backdrop.

If there were no other reason to see Cold War, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's follow-up to his Academy Award-winning Ida, you could find a compelling one in the person of Joanna Kulig, an actress whose energy and sensuality seem nearly uncontainable on screen. In Cold War, Kulig portrays a singer who puts her talents to the service of the Soviet-occupied Polish bureaucracy during the 1950s.

Good as she is, Kulig is far from the only reason to see Cold War, a story of ill-fated love that subtly blends politics, history and personal drama into a powerful story about people who aren't entirely in control of their destinies.

Pawlikowski deftly charts the bumpy relationship between Kulig's Zula and Wiktor, an equally good Tomasz Kot. A pianist who defects to the West, Wiktor hopes that Zula will follow. She doesn't.

In this impossible situation, a powerful but stammering, 15-year love affair gives the movie its emotional weight. Pawlikowski, who says he modeled the movie after the tempestuous relationship between his mother and father, follows Wiktor and Zula whose lives diverge -- but never entirely separate.

After his defection, Wiktor plays jazz piano and languishes in Paris. Zula pursues her career behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes visiting Wiktor to reignite the spark of a relationship that never really loses its charge.

Again working black-and-white, Pawlikowski begins the movie in 1949 when Wiktor and Zula first meet. Wiktor and an associate (Agata Kulesza) are touring rural Poland in search of authentic folk music. They audition locals and try to deal with the party boss (Borys Szyc) who has been assigned the task of ensuring that the troupe upholds the best Slavic virtues; i.e., a blond purity that excludes the country's various ethnicities.

As soon as Wiktor sees Zula, he's smitten. She may not be the most talented of the troupe's prospective members, but she has a quality that sets her apart from the rest. They begin an affair, which Zula hopes to sustain even though she's informing on Wiktor to the troupe's Communist boss. Business, after all, is business. Why should Wiktor be upset?

In 1951, when the company begins its tour, it becomes clear that Stalinesque priorities are going to dominate. Wiktor knows that he must move westward. By then, Zula has been caught up in an eastern version of stardom. She opts for career over love.

But that description sells her a bit short. Zula is one of those big-screen women who simply refuse to be tagged with a label.

For his part, Kot -- the corners of his mouth turned upward -- beautifully conveys the dilemma of a man who chooses the freedom of the West but can't really find his footing in a new world.

When Wiktor and Zula spend some sustained time with each other in Paris, things don't go well. It sounds like a cliche, but these truly are lovers who can't live with each other and can't live without each other.

A word about the movie's length. Pawlikowski keeps the story to 88 minutes, shooting scenes in the "Academy ratio," the aspect ratio that once defined all film and which suggests the classical outlines of Pawlikowski's story.

I mention the movie's economy of length only to suggest that it doesn't take two hours and 10 minutes, the running time of many American features, to tell a complicated, emotionally involving story. Hollywood take note.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Oscars: the good, the bad and the indifferent

Now that the Oscar nominations have been announced, the wheels of instant reaction have begun to turn.

Oh, the injustice. Bradley Cooper, nominated as best actor for A Star is Born, which also received a best-picture nod, was snubbed in the best director category. Should he have replaced Adam McKay, nominated for Vice, on the best-directors list? Maybe. Vice, a movie that didn't really work, may have made voters feel as if they had joined The Resistance. Or maybe they just liked watching Christian Bale, as vice president Dick Cheney, disappear.

So, on we go with some things about which to grumble:

For my money, the worst mistake Oscar made was omitting Ethan Hawke from best actor consideration. As a tormented pastor in First Reformed, Hawke created a portrait of a character mired in despair, guilt, and anger. Paul Schrader, the movie's director, received a nomination for best original screenplay, but the movie generally was overlooked. Too challenging?

Critical favorite Eighth Grade and fan favorite Crazy Rich Asians were shut out. Michelle Yeoh should have received a best-supporting-actress nomination for playing an imperious mother in Crazy Rich Asians. But do I care that an otherwise enjoyable bit of popular fluff was ignored? Not really.

Come on, Academy. Neither Chadwick Boseman (possible best actor) or Michael B. Jordan (possible supporting actor) received nominations for Black Panther. Same goes for the movie's director, Ryan Coogler. Yes, Black Panther received a best-picture nomination, but it might be the year's most miraculous nominee; i.e., if you go by the Academy's judgment, the movie made itself.

Good to see Spike Lee nominated for best director and his movie, BlacKkKlansman, which also was nominated for best picture. Lee's first nomination for best director falls into the better-late-than-never category.

A Quiet Place's omission from the best-picture list qualifies as a bona fide snub. It's better and more creative than either Vice or Bohemian Rhapsody, both of which earned best-picture nominations.

Note to Academy: If you're concerned that the show's ratings continue to falter, you might ask yourself why the widely seen documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor? didn't receive a nomination for best documentary feature?

And some things about which I'm happy:
Yalitza Aparicio received a best-actress nod for playing a maid and nanny in Roma, which had been widely predicted, but still feels right. Tell the truth, did you ever expect to see two best-actress nominees, Lady Gaga and Glenn Close, on the same list? Neither did I.

I'm glad that Marina de Tavira was nominated for best-supporting actress. Her nomination qualifies as a surprise, but her portrayal of a harried mother trying to cope with her children and a crumbling marriage in Roma was first rate.

Roma, surely one of the favorites for best picture and for best foreign film (it received nominations in both categories), is a Netflix film. Is Hollywood quaking?

Willem Dafoe was nominated for best actor for playing Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate. Van Gogh has been portrayed on screen any number of times, but Dafoe's portrayal was one of the best.

I could go on and probably will before the awards ceremony unfurls on Feb. 24, but I'm going to stop and offer a list of nominees in the major categories because, in truth, the Academy Awards never have been one of my major preoccupations.

Why? Because they don't often speak to what I really care about in movies and because a lot of Oscar recognition depends on how a particular movie creates a profile for itself. For my money, Matthew McConaughey -- an Oscar winner for Dallas Buyers Club -- has never been better than he was a working-class father in White Boy Rick, but a supporting-actor nomination probably was out of the question because the movie went nowhere. I'm sure you can find examples of your own.

So, good luck if you have rooting interests and, as always, please add your comments.
Best Picture
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star is Born
Best Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity's Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Colman Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
Melissa Youarthy, Can you Ever Forgive Me?
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Director
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice
Best Original Screenplay
The Favourite
First Reformed
Green Book
Best Adapated Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star is Born
Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Father and Sons
Best Foreign Language Film
Cold War
Never Look Away

Thursday, January 17, 2019

'Glass' sounds a weak final chord

James McAvoy still stands out, but director M. Night Shyamalan brings his trilogy to a tepid close.
Director M. Night Shyamalan's superheroes arrived on screen without the cache of Marvel or DC Comics branding. No comic books made Shyamalan's characters familiar to legions of young people. In Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016) -- the first two parts of Shyamalan's trilogy of superhero films -- Shyamalan tried to stake out his own territory.

I have friends who admire Unbreakable, a movie that I was happy to forget. I was more inclined toward Split, which featured a bravura performance by James McAvoy as a disturbed young man with 23 personalities. A 24th loomed in the person of The Beast, a superhuman killer who terrorized young women.

Before Split, Unbreakable brought two main characters to the fore: Bruce Willis portrayed David Dunn, a former football player turned security guard who discovered that he had amazing survival powers because his bones couldn't be broken. Samuel L. Jackson played Mr. Glass, an evil genius who was Dunn's opposite: Glass -- a.k.a. Elijah Price -- was born with bones that shattered easily. Ergo, Mr. Glass.

Now comes Shyamalan's attempt to bring these three characters together for a finale. Before it reaches its dreary conclusion, Glass proves downbeat and lumbering with Shyamalan vainly and (misguidedly) trying for some last-minute inspiration. Glass stands as a big-screen fizzle rather than what it should have been: a resonant symphonic chord at the end of a pop-cultural symphony.

Willis's Dunn -- a.k.a. The Overseer -- returns to stalk Philadelphia's streets with the help of his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark). Dunn dons a hooded rain parka when he's serving as a vigilante for good. Early on, he finds himself battling with The Beast, the most horrific member of The Horde, the name given to McAvoy's character's collection of personalities.

As those who've seen Split already know, McAvoy's Keven Wendell Crumb captures young women and torments them, turning them into an audience for a dazzling display of his multitude of personalities. He also does what some entertainers might occasionally fantasize about doing to their audiences: He kills them.

In Glass, McAvoy remains the liveliest member of the trio. Jackson's Mr. Glass spends much of the movie in a state of drug-induced stupor and Willis presents a grizzled version of a character whose economy of expression suggests an abiding depression.

Putting the three characters together inevitably reduces McAvoy's screen time, which doesn't help dispel the movie's gloomy inertia.

Credit Jackson with delivering the movie's twisted philosophy with an eloquence that makes you wish he didn't have to spend half the movie slumping in a wheelchair and not speaking.

The screenplay more or less succumbs when it contrives to place the three characters in a mental institution that's being run by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who insists that she wants to save these misfits by convincing them that they're not superbeings but ordinary folks operating under grand delusions.

A couple of other actors reprise roles from earlier movies. In some very bad make-up, Charlayne Woodard plays Glass's mother. Anya Taylor-Joy reappears as the only young woman to have survived The Beast's murderous ways, although she seems to have forgotten that several of her friends didn't. Casey now believes she can speak to the real -- i.e., normal -- person behind all those Horde personalities, which include the conniving Patricia and fan-favorite, nine-year-old Hedwig.

You can get the general idea of what's going on without having seen either of the two previous movies, but the story will be clearer to those who understand its references and who recall prior plotting. Besides, I can't imagine why anyone who isn't a fan of the first two movies would want to see this one.

Glass can be faulted for many sins, some of them forgivable, dullness being the only one that really condemns it, a kind of torpor perhaps bred by all the gloomy atmosphere.

The movie doesn't end the way most superhero movies do. Even so, the odor of musty irrelevance settles over the whole enterprise. If you see Glass, I advise not thinking too much about what Shyamalan might be trying to say. I wonder if he knew.

Nicole Kidman as a ravaged LA cop

Grim and downbeat, Destroyer is gritty, but to what end?.

In Destroyer, a low-down crime thriller directed by Karyn Kusama, Nicole Kidman's ravaged face almost becomes the movie's subject. When I first saw photos of Kidman as she appears in Destroyer, I found it impossible not to wonder whether she wasn't intent on desecrating her own delicate beauty, something along the lines of what Charlize Theron did in movies such as Monster.

Don't get me wrong, Kidman is a very good actress and, in Destroyer, she dares to take a harrowing journey through a noir hell, paving the road with heavy blocks of guilt, recrimination, and alcohol-induced decay.

Kusama scrambles the story's time sequence as she shows us how Kidman's Erin Bell, an LAPD detective, arrived at such a grim destination.

The approach allows Kusama to introduce a good deal of traditional thriller elements. We meet the cop (Sebastian Stan) with whom Erin goes undercover, setting up the event that drives the plot. We also meet some of the felons with whom the two cops associate, a gallery of thieves, sadists, and enablers led by Silas (Toby Kebbell), a long-haired, thick-lipped psychopath.

Another theme that ripples through the sleaze involves Erin's teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), a 16-year-old who has stopped attending school and who has taken up with a defiant older thug. Erin's ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) doesn't know how to handle the rebellious, obviously self-destructive teen.

The movie opens with the discovery of a body and proceeds as if Erin has opted to investigate a vicious killing. But for Erin, the murder is more than just another case. More can't be said without introducing spoilers.

Kusama (Girl Fight) stages some searingly violent scenes, one involving Erin's confrontation with a wealthy lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who's up to no good. Erin also tries to thwart a robbery, a scene that calls for her to pick up an AR-15 and fire away. When two policemen show up to help, they ask Erin whether they shouldn't ask for additional back-up. Erin can't wait.

"This is a gunfight," she says, demonstrating how Kidman delivers a line that could have sprung from the mouths of Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To bolster the movie's realism, Kusama shows the effects of the physical beatings Erin takes. Put another way, the film's make-up department must have worked overtime. Kidman rises (or sinks, if you prefer) to the occasion as Erin moves through a punishing series of encounters.

The key to the story involves both external and internal factors that chew at Erin's life. She's a wreck and, as has been the case with many big-screen male detectives, we're constantly wondering whether she might find a glimmer of redemption before the movie ends.

Kidman's performance -- Erin walks as if carrying a sack of butchered meat on her shoulders -- suggests defeat: We see it in Erin's bloodshot eyes and in her depleted emotions. Sporting a leather jacket and ill-fitting jeans, Erin has long given up worrying about her appearance. But (and I hate to say it), I never entirely could forget that this was Nicole Kidman made up to look terrible.

Kusama doesn't always handle the movie's various time shifts with aplomb and it sometimes feels as if she's after something more than genre kicks. But Destroyer leaves us adrift in a world so corrupted that it admits almost no ameliorating rays of light and, I'm afraid, no compelling reason (other than furious acting) why we should want to be there.

The last days of a great comic duo

Stan & Ollie reveals Laurel and Hardy in a moment of decline.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were great comic movie stars who established themselves as a team during the late 1920s and remained active for almost two decades. Laurel, an Englishman, and Hardy, an American, became famous for beautifully sustained slapstick routines that revolved around the key attributes of each of their comic characters. The addled Stan played against the always exasperated Ollie.

Fortunately for my generation, Laurel and Hardy films outlasted the duo’s prime, becoming staples of 1950s television, at least where I grew up, New Jersey within reach of New York TV.

I'm not sure how the accepted wisdom evolved, but Laurel came to be recognized as the reigning genius of the comic duo, an obsessive thinker when it came to inventing routines and working out their intricacies. Laurel may have been the brains of the outfit, but for most of us, it's impossible to imagine Laurel without Hardy.

The movie Stan & Ollie pays fitting tribute to the comic duo, focusing on them mostly at the end of their careers. With their film opportunities radically diminished, Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) travel to England. They hope to use stage appearances to polish their act while Stan seeks funding for a new movie.

The atmosphere surrounding the trip isn't exactly buoyant. Ollie's health is fragile and the two haven't worked together for a while.

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with any of the Trip movies starring Coogan and Rob Brydon that Coogan is an accomplished impressionist. He makes a fine Laurel, the muddled, incompetent on-screen comic whose calculations dominate his off-screen life. He always seems to be working on something.

Reilly delivers the movie's biggest surprise. Thanks to some prodigious make-up, Reilly has taken on Hardy's look and his overweight huffing. He also masters Hardy's signature moves: from fiddling with the ends of his tie to delivering some of Ollie's trademark lines about how the clueless Stan has landed him in "another fine mess."

Working from a screenplay by Jeff Pope, director John S. Baird sets most of the movie in various down-scale British theaters in 1953. It may not be the limelight, but the two carry on, and the actors make it clear that once the curtain rises, Stan and Ollie give even the smallest audiences their best.

Baird doesn't shrink from the sadness of the situation. Hardy feels the pain that he believes stems from not being loved by Stan. In this reading of the story, Stan loved the act more than he loved the man.

While waiting for news of their pending movie, Laurel and Hardy also await the arrival of their wives, played with deft comic touches by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson.

Despite some tension between Laurel and Hardy, the movie never develops a hard edge, perhaps because Baird tempers the film's melancholy with appropriate affection for two screen legends.

I'm fearful that younger audiences will not seek out the modestly made Stan & Ollie. That would be a shame because if they did, they'd probably hasten to YouTube, where they could discover the joys of Stan & Ollie's comedy and learn something about the fleeting nature of fame, even for those who scale the highest of movie heights.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The haunting power of teen love

Sicilian Ghost Story makes poetry from a real-life tragedy.

At the end of Sicilian Ghost Story, we learn that the movie we've been watching is based on a true story about a 14-year-old boy who was held hostage by mobsters in an effort to persuade his gangster father from ratting them out. The movie derives from the real-life story of Giuseppe Di Matteo, a boy who was kidnapped by the mafia in 1993 and imprisoned for two years. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

I mention this early on as a way of telling you that the movie may feel more detached and spectral to American audiences than it would to Italian audiences who already know the case. (I learned about the story's origins from a review in the Hollywood Reporter.)

But until its sobering end, Sicilian Ghost Story hardly feels like a riveting thriller about a kidnapped teenager. Directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza approach the story mostly through the eyes of Luna, an imaginative 14-year-old girl beautifully played by Julia Jedlikowska.

The story begins when Luna pursues her crush on the movie's Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernadez), a kid who comes from a more affluent background than she does. Giuseppe seems attracted to Luna, inviting her to his house to watch as he puts his jumping horse through its paces. The invitation seems to signal something more, perhaps an entre into Giuseppe's life and even his dreams -- forbidden turf in any case.

Luna's Swiss mother (Sabine Timoteo) doesn't want her daughter associating with Giuseppe. Her father (Vincenzo Amato) is more sympathetic, but he's clearly the weaker of the two parents. Luna receives additional support from her friend Loredana (Corinne Musallari).

The story begins to shift into strange territory when Giuseppe suddenly stops attending school. Fearing Mafia reprisals, no one in the Sicilian village where the story takes place will speculate about what happened to the young man and Luna's visits to Giuseppe's home are met with icy rejection by Giuseppe's grandfather. His mother seems to have slipped into a madness born of desperation.

The movie then shows how Luna tries to project herself into the vanished Giuseppe's life. It also shows us how Giuseppe deteriorates in the hands of his captors, who keep him chained in a small room.

Luna's obsession consumes her: She begins to see herself as the savior who will rescue Giuseppe with whom she's had only the most casual of encounters. As most of us know -- either from experience or from movies -- teen love can be agonizingly powerful.

Fearful for Giuseppe, we want to believe in Luna's fantasies, which -- to her -- are so real that her mental health is called into question.

The movie sounds grim notes as it explores Luna's imaginative projections, which come across as a form of extreme magical thinking that’s reinforced by the directors’ eerily distorted images, striking compositions and atmospheric musical score.

This ghost story makes no attempt to scare us with cheap shocks. Instead, the movie insinuates itself with us, creating a tragic memory of an abused young man and the girl who believes her love is strong enough to save him.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

This year’s Critics’ Choice winners

The Broadcast Film Critics Association Sunday announced the winners of the 24th annual Critics’ Choice awards. Roma led the field with four awards. Black Panther and Vice followed, each winning three awards. As a member of the BFCA, I posted the Association’s nominees and now offer a list of the winners, including a surprise tie in the best-actress category (Glenn Close and Lady Gaga). This year's list also inlcudes a couple of anomalies: Roma won as both best foreign-language film and best picture and Christian Bale took double honors for playing Dick Cheney in Vice, winning in the best actor and best-actor-in-a-comedy categories.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), of which I’m a member, is the largest film critics organization in the US and Canada, representing more than 330 television, radio and online critics.

If you’re interested in Oscar prognostications, I think you’ll find that the BFCA is a better bellwether than most other year-end honors.

So here’s the list of BFCA winners:

Best Picture
Best Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Best Actress, a tie
Glenn Close, The Wife
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Best Supporting Actress
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Best Original Screenplay
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Best Adapted Screenplay
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Cinematography
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Best Production Design
Hanna Beachler, Jay Hart, Black Panther
Best Editing
Tom Cross, First Man
Best Costume Design
Ruth Carter, Black Panther
Best Hair and Makeup
Best Visual Effects
Black Panther
Best Animated Feature
Spider-Man: Into he Spider-Verse
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Young Actor/Actress
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Best Acting Ensemble
The Favourite
Best Action Movie
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Best Comedy
Crazy Rich Asians
Best Actor in a Comedy
Christian Bale, Vice
Best Actress in a Comedy
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Best Sci-fi or Horror movie
A Quiet Place
Best Song
Shallow, A Star is Born
Best Score
Justin Hurwitz, First Man

And while we're on the subject of year-end awards, let me give you the results of voting for the Denver Film Critics Society, a group to which I also belong. Some of the winners mirror those of the BFCA, some don't. Oscar nominations, due on Jan. 22, loom.
As always, feel free to join in with your choices.

Best Picture: Roma
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Best Actor: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Best Sci-Fi/Horror, a tie: A Quiet Place and Annihilation
Best Animated Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Comedy: The Death of Stalin
Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War
Best Original Screenplay: A Quiet Place
Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Best Documentary: Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Best Original Song: Swallow
Best Original Score: Black Panther
Best Foreign Language Film: Roma

Thursday, January 10, 2019

This bromance breaks little new ground

Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in The Upside, a mediocre Americanized version of a popular French movie.
If you haven't seen the 2011 French movie The Intouchables, The Upside might pass muster -- or maybe not.

The French original told a humorous, uplifting story that boasted trace elements of topicality. In that movie, a young Senegalese man (Omar Sy) found himself working for a wealthy French traditionalist (Francois Cluzet) who had been paralyzed from the neck down.

Transported to New York City, The Upside, an Americanized version of the same basic story, features Bryan Cranston as Phil, a wealthy author and a defiant quadriplegic who hires a completely unqualified parolee (Kevin Hart) to be his caretaker. It should come as no surprise that these two mismatched urbanites eventually will bond.

As directed by Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent), The Upside does little to distinguish itself from its predecessor, aside from using Cranston and Hart to boost box-office appeal.

To keep from violating his parole, Dell desperately needs proof that he's looking for work. When he lands a job taking care of Phil, he gets more than he bargained for. Among his duties: He must master the delicate art of catheter insertion.

Hart, who has taken fire recently for homophobic remarks that cost him a gig hosting this year's Oscar telecast, hits some deep notes, expanding on but not forsaking his comic talents. Some of his more convincing moments emerge as Dell tries to placate his former wife (Aja Naomi King) and re-establish a relationship with his young son (Jahi Di'Allo Winston).

We've all become accustomed to American remakes of foreign-language movies, but The Upside follows an overly predictable blueprint as the two men start to influence each other. Dell listens to opera: Phil discovers Aretha Franklin. You get the idea.

The biggest mystery about the movie involves Nicole Kidman, who plays a devoted assistant to Cranston's Phil. A denizen of the business world, Kidman's character oversees Phil's affairs. The question: What is Kidman doing in this movie?

Despite a few stabs at realism, Upside becomes another movie in which a black character helps a white character fight long odds. Not only is Phil disabled, but he's mired in grief over the recent death of his wife and unable to vanquish memories of the hang-gliding accident that robbed him of the ability to fend for himself.

Cranston’s easy command of the screen works to give his character a bit of an edge. Eventually, Phil risks crushing disappointment by agreeing to meet a female pen pal (Juliana Margulies) who might be a suitable candidate for romance.

Hey, it’s January and expectations for new movies isn’t exactly at peak levels, but aside from giving Hart an opportunity to stretch, The Upside seldom turns its formula into a winning one.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

No mean streets in his New York

What's not to like? The World Before Your Feet is one of those documentaries that audiences tend to love -- and not without reason. The movie introduces us to Matt Green, a guy who decided to make it his life's mission to walk every block in New York City. That's a lot of walking, a lot of neighborhoods, and a lot of interesting minutia about the places visited during Green's 8,000-mile journey. Director Jeremy Workman wisely grabbed a camera and followed Green on some of his daily travels through the city's five boroughs. These include wooded areas on Staten Island, crowded streets in the South Bronx and history-steeped lower Manhattan, as well as a variety of New York City cemeteries. If you’ve been longing to know exactly where the city’s oldest tree can be found, Green will show you. (A hint: it resides in Queens.) A civil engineer by trade, Green quit his job and survives with help from friends and others, who allow him to stay in their apartments, sometimes in exchange for taking care of their cats. He says he spends $15 a day on transportation and food. That’s it. Green has turned himself into a set of eyes, photographing as he walks and blogging about the blocks that he traverses. Green walks freely and without problems; most folks he encounters appear to be curious and welcoming. Green's attitude contrasts with that of another city walker, Garnette Cadogan, who happens to be black. Unlike Green, Cadogan has to pay attention to how he's perceived lest he encounters hostility. The movie doesn't seem to follow any particular pattern as Workman tags along with Green, who seems undaunted in his efforts by weather. The idea of urban exploration remains fascinating but the real value of Green's project has less to do with what he learns about New York City than with its capacity to provide an inspirational boost to folks looking to surrender — if in less extreme ways — to ideas that interest them, quite apart from whether those ideas might interest anyone else or result in any monetary gain. Not a bad thought if you’re looking for New Year's resolutions that don’t require weight loss, additional exercise or, perhaps, the abandonment of favored vices. Happy New Year.