Thursday, February 28, 2019

She's needy -- and she's a stalker

Isabelle Huppert goes over the top and so does director Neil Jordan's Greta.

If you were looking for someone to play a woman able to shift from maternal to menacing without missing a beat, someone who knows how to sell weird and creepy, you'd have to look no further than Isabelle Huppert, the French actress who -- no matter what roles she plays -- refuses to yield all her secrets.

In a performance that builds toward over-the-top madness, Huppert dominates director Neil Jordan's Greta, a thriller with horror movie flourishes that increasingly sacrifices sense for emphatically expressed shocks.

Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy) knows how to engineer a movie's jolts, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's always able to get beyond them. Put another way, Greta becomes increasingly insubstantial and incredible as it unfolds.

The story hinges on a promising conceit. Chloe Grace Moretz's portrays Frances, a young New Yorker who discovers an abandoned purse on the subway. A recent college grad who works as a waitress, Frances insists on returning the purse despite the objections of the well-heeled roommate (Maika Monroe) with whom she shares a SoHo apartment.

Frances' mission takes her to Brooklyn where Huppert's Greta lives in an apartment that's tucked behind an archway that isolates it from the rest of the street.

Jordan has no interest in making a movie about a good Samaritan so it's only a matter of time until the apparently grateful Greta turns into a stalker -- and worse. Greta claims to be like gum; i.e., she sticks to things -- or more accurately to people.

Having recently lost her mother, Frances proves vulnerable to Frances' initial proffer of friendship, but Greta already has gone off the rails and her runaway personality soon threatens to crush Frances. As Greta's stalks Frances, a nuisance morphs into a nightmare.

At times, Jordan suggests the movie might make interesting use of its New York surroundings, but he's more committed to narrowing his focus to concentrate on the ways in which Greta terrifies an increasingly rattled Frances.

I'm guessing that Jordan was trying for a movie in which cruel developments offer twisted fun; i.e., entertainment through scares, outlandishness and at least one bloody gross-out.

But the absence of deeper mystery pushes everything onto Greta's slick surface, where it slides into territory that's not only farfetched, but implausible and, in a few instances, laughable.

Poor Stephen Rae: He's stuck in the role of a private investigator hired to search for Frances. You needn't have seen Hitchcock's Psycho (although who hasn't?) to know that Rae's screen time will be limited. His character's fate is as obvious as just about everything else in an overamped thriller that not even the always-intriguing Huppert can save.

A moving story of a boy's ingenuity

The Boy Who Harnessed the wind marks Chiwetel Ejiofor's inspiring but never sappy directorial debut.

For his first move behind the camera, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor turns to the real-life story of William Kamkwamba, a teenager in Malawi who tries to save his village during a 2001 crisis bordering on famine.

As the story unfolds, 13-year-old William (Maxwell Simba) attempts to remain in school while his family struggles to pay the fees associated with his education. The ingenious William believes he has discovered a way to battle drought by pumping well water with an electrically powered windmill. I don't consider that a spoiler because the title not only suggests the story's outline but foretells its conclusion.

Initially, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind looks as if it's going to be a straightforward story about the way a young man of intelligence and determination overcomes tremendous obstacles, a near fairy tale set against a village backdrop.

But anyone familiar with Ejiofor's work knows that he's a gifted and subtle actor whose unlikely to take a fill-in-the-blanks approach to moviemaking. As William's father, Ejiofor deeply touching performance enriches the film. Ejiofor's Trywell Kamkwamba's pride in his son is tempered by the pain of what he sees as his own failure to flourish. His son's interest in science reinforces Trywell's recognition that he simply isn't educated enough to keep pace.

The story wisely encompasses a variety of additional social themes: the shift of land use from growing food to the cultivation of cash crops such as tobacco; governmental indifference to the country's rural population; and personal aspirations crushed by a lack of resources. William's sister (Lily Banda) has been an exemplary student. Unable to afford more education, Banda's Annie marries the town's science teacher (Lemogang Tsipsa). It's her way of escaping the uncertainties of agricultural life.

Trywell's wife (Aissa Maiga) yearns for her children to expand their horizons; at one point, she describes her own life as one of struggle and loss, full of the kind of pain that seldom has been remediated.

Ejiofor creates a realistic backdrop for the movie's central story about William's insistence on building a windmill -- for which he must assemble a generator made from scrap and other found materials. He also must persuade his father to allow him to dismantle a beloved bicycle. For Dad, the bike isn't about recreation; it's his only means of transportation.

To help in his quest, William accesses the school library after he's been expelled for non-payment of fees. Without an abundant harvest, Dad simply can't risk spending money on education.

In addition to obtaining a sturdy performance from Simba, Ejiofor infuses his movie with accumulating respect for village traditions -- from funerals to tribal meetings to situations that test long-standing ties between fathers and sons.

Ejiofor's directorial debut draws its power from two sources: William's somewhat pat but still worthy story and Ejiofor's insistence on adding the kind of observational colors that give his palette richness.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind bows on Netflix this week.

Adult animation about art theft

A psychiatrist named Ruben Brandt becomes a key figure in Ruben Brandt Collector, a stylish helping of adult animation from director Milorad Krstic. Presented in English, Krstic's rampantly creative Hungarian production brings its main character into contact with a group of larcenous patients who join him in a series of globe-hopping art thefts. After his father's death, Brandt begins having hallucinations in which he's threatened by the subjects of important masterworks. An example: Botticelli's renowned Birth of Venus drags him into the ocean. Krstic has said that Brandt isn’t motivated by anything as banal as financial gain; he wants to stop being haunted by works of inescapable power. Krstic employs lots of ingenuity in creating the other characters, the acrobatically agile Mimi or a two-dimensional figure whose thievery depends on his ability to slip through the space between the bottom of doorways and the floor. As the plot develops, the movie's larcenous crew plunders the Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre, MoMA and the Chicago Art Institute. Meanwhile (and there are a lot of 'meanwhiles' in Ruben Brandt Collector), a detective who collects movie memorabilia attempts to locate Brandt, who also interests mobsters who equate art with dollar signs. Making witty references to well-known paintings throughout, Krstic’s thriller eventually threatens to outsmart itself. Style, a mixture of the sensuous and surreal, goes a long way toward sustaining interest. But Ruben Brandt may be a case in which visual wit, clever distortions of reality and an abundance of creativity tend to produce an artful whirligig in which the various parts — you may want to think of them as the visual equivalent of small arias — never quite produce a whole that sings.

Monday, February 25, 2019

A quick look at the 91st Oscars

All I can say is, "I have an Oscar headache."

There simply is no universe in which Green Book, which won this year's Oscar for best picture, is a better movie than Roma. It's not even as good as Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman or The Favourite, other nominees which it beat for 2019's top honor.

Maybe the Academy flinched, refusing to go all the way with Roma, a Netflix picture that took home several Oscars, including best foreign-language film, best director (Alfonso Cuaron) and best cinematography (also Cuaron).

For me, Green Book's best-picture award made for a sour end to an evening that contained some genuinely nice moments:
-- Regina King's win as best supporting actress for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk
-- Olivia Colman's surprise win as best actress for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite
-- Spike Lee's undisguised joy at winning a piece of an Oscar for his work, along with three other writers, on the screenplay for BlacKkKlansman
-- the infectious exuberance of all the winners in the short-film categories
-- Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's show-stopping performance of Shallow, which went on to win best song
-- Ruth E. Carter's delight at winning best costume design for Black Panther and Hannah Beachler, also of Black Panther, taking the production design Oscar. Carter and Beachler are the first two African Americans to win in their respective categories.

I'm sure I'm omitting other high points, but I have an episode of True Detective to catch up with, and as I said I've got a headache.

Still, I'm never going to tire of thinking that Green Book now joins the ranks of dubious best picture winners such as Crash. I'm not even going to talk about the racial controversies pertaining to Green Book. Google away and you'll find plenty to read.

I'm talking about direction: Green Book's director -- Peter Farrelly -- wasn't even nominated for best director. And I was less than wowed by watching Viggo Mortensen, a best-actor nominee, channel his inner Joe Pesci.

For those who've managed to avoid Green Book, note that Mahershala Ali -- winner of this year's best-supporting-actor Oscar -- portrayed pianist Don Shirley, a man who traveled through the South during the 1960s with Mortensen's Tony Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. No matter, I guess, that Shirley's brother described the film as a "symphony of lies."

Reviewing the movie in The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that he found the two principals to be "good company," but was less than enthusiastic about the movie itself.

"There is virtually no milestone in this tale of interracial male friendship that you won't see coming from a long way off, including scenes that seem too corny or misguided for any movie in its right mind to contemplate," Scott wrote.

Or if you want another take, consider this Oscar-night Tweet from critic Claudia Puig: "GB was & always will be a mediocre story of men & Roma is an exceptional story of a woman (&family)."

People who love Green Book applaud the statement it makes: A bigoted white guy can change his stripes, assuming he shares a road trip with a black man. Oh well, Green Book enthusiasts never will be convinced to turn against the movie, and I'll never join the cheering chorus. As I mentioned in my predictions story, Green Book probably falls short of a total Oscar embarrassment, but still ...

Without a host, Oscar percolated along at a generally good clip offering a fair measure of highlights.

Among them: Spike Lee added political flavor by reminding everyone to do the right thing (yeah, he referenced his own movie) in the upcoming 2020 election. I'm thinking he didn't mean we should re-elect the current president.

In an opening bit involving Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph, Rudolph joked that Mexico was not paying for the wall. Which wall? Come on, you know.

I suppose the line of the night came from one of the directors of the documentary short, Period. End of Sentence, a look at The Pad Project, a program that supplies sanitary napkins to women in India, many of whom have been stigmatized for a natural bodily function.

"I can't believe a film on menstruation won an Oscar,'' said its director, Rayka Zehtabchi.

And, yes, I feel sorry for Glenn Close, widely regarded as the front runner for best actress. Close has been nominated seven times and never has won an Oscar. The Wife -- her 2018 movie -- didn't do the trick, either.

Bohemian Rhapsody nabbed Oscars for sound mixing, sound editing, editing and earned a best-actor Oscar for Rami Malek, who played the late Freddie Mercury. That film, too, has a tattered history. Although director Byan Singer was fired from the picture, he didn't lose his directing credit. None of the recipients of the Bohemian Rhapsody Oscars mentioned Singer in their acceptance speeches. Singer also has been accused of sexual misconduct.

Speaking of names that weren't mentioned, director Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) died Thursday at the age of 94. He was excluded from the section commemorating those who passed away since last year's Oscars. How difficult would it have been to insert another picture in the stream of photos of the departed?

Oh well, the Oscars are done for another year, and we now can return to our regular programming. Me? I'm taking two aspirin and ask you, please not to call me in the morning.*
*The above was written immediately following Sunday's Oscar ceremonies. As did you -- if you're reading this -- I awoke this a.m. ready to put Oscar in the rearview mirror. One of the great things about movies: We feel as though we have a personal relationship with our favorites. As several folks pointed out last night, the Oscars may seem like a big deal -- and they are to the industry and to those who receive them -- but they can't (or at least shouldn't) alter anyone's personal relationship with a movie. For most of us, movies aren't remembered because of the awards they win or lose, but for how they speak to us. And when they speak to us, they do so for a myriad of reasons that have little to do with gold statues.

Friday, February 22, 2019

It's time for 2019 Oscar predictions

The big question hovering over this year's Academy Awards involves Netflix. Yes, that's right, the online streaming service has engineered a major push to win a best-picture Oscar for Roma, director Alfonso Cuaron's memory movie about the maid who cared for him and his siblings during the early 1970s in Mexico City. If the Academy can bring itself to honor a Netflix production -- as opposed to a film from a traditional studio -- Roma will receive a well-deserved best-picture Oscar and Netflix will have reason to crow.

If the Academy flinches or is somehow put off by the massive PR campaign Netflix has mounted for the movie, the next best bet would be Green Book, a feel-good movie that doesn't even belong on the list of nominees, but which proved popular with audiences and had enough critical support to keep from being an Oscar embarrassment.

This year's telecast also will give us an opportunity to see how an Oscar broadcast unfolds without a host, the first time in 30 years that's happened. For all we know, it might make for a better evening.

If nothing else, the weeks leading up to the Oscar telecast have revealed tremors of insecurity at the Academy. Fretting about the show's length and declining viewership, the Academy decided (and then changed its mind) to award some of its highest honors during commercial breaks. Now, all 24 awards will be seen live.

Maybe you remember the best-popular-picture fiasco? That was going to be a new category until the Academy was deluged with criticism and changed its mind. And, yes, the Academy seems to be nervous about the possibility of selecting another best-picture that played only to a limited audience.

Well, enough about an Academy that can't seem to stop stepping on its own toes no matter what it does.

I'm not going to belabor my predictions, and as always, I'm hoping for surprises, upsets and at least one or two memorable acceptance speeches:
My Oscar predictions for major categories:
Best Picture
Will Win: Roma
Should Win: Roma
Possible Upset: Either Green Book or BlacKkKlansman
Oscar voters may surprise everyone and give a Spike Lee movie its first Oscar. Lee's BlacKkKlansman, a movie about a black Colorado Springs cop who infiltrated the KKK, could take home Oscar gold, but I'm not ready to bet on it.
Best Actress
Will win: Glenn Close, The Wife
Should win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Look, Close was very good in The Wife, a small movie about a woman who ghostwrote her novelist husband's prize-winning books, but Olivia Colman shattered me in The Favourite, as a needy, imperious Queen Anne, a woman ultimately forced to face her soul-crushing inadequacies.
Best Actor
Will Win: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Should Win: Christian Bale, Vice
For me, this is a tainted category. Ethan Hawke should have been on the list of nominees for his gripping performance as a tormented pastor in director Paul Schrader's First Reformed. He was snubbed.
Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Should Win: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Could Win: Amy Adams
Too bad Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone will cancel each other out in this category. Both were fine in The Favourite. But King deserves recognition.
Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Should Win: Mahershala Ali
It will be Ali's second win in this category. He took home the best-supporting-actor Oscar for his performance in 2016's Moonlight. We're in an Ali moment. Too bad for Richard Grant who nailed his role as a dissolute gay man who helped an aspiring offer carry on a money-making ruse in Can You Ever Forgive Me? If anyone can upset Ali, I'd my money on Grant.
Best Director:
Will win: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Should win: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Could win: Spike Lee. Academy voters may feel that Cuaron, who will win best picture, best cinematographer and best foreign-language film will have earned enough honors for one night. Moreover, Lee is overdue.
Best Original Screenplay
Will win: The Favourite
Should win: First Reformed
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: BlacKkKlansman
Should win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Best Animated Feature
Will win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Should Win: Isle of Dogs
Best Documentary
Will win: Free Solo
Should win: Free Solo
Could win: RBG
Best Foreign Language Film
Will Win: Roma
Should Win: Roma
Could win: Capernaum
Check Monday for post-Oscar reaction, presuming I have any. I always look forward to the end of what has become a marathon awards season and a return to something approximating "normal" movie going.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Wrestling for family and fame

Fighting With My Family uses a regional British accent to freshen its formula.
All sports movies -- even those that have more to do with showmanship than competition -- follow a familiar template. An underdog beats long odds to wind up exulting in a triumphant moment, usually one involving a championship. Such movies serve a dual purpose. First, they're meant to entertain and second, they provide inspirational reassurance, something along the lines of, "Hey, if I can do it (whatever 'it' happens to be), so can you." Many of these movies bolster their credibility with early-picture declarations that they are based on true stories.

Fighting With My Family, the latest such endeavor, takes place in the world of professional wrestling, where "competitors" execute choreographed moves designed to keep each other from getting killed or maimed.

All such movies struggle to find an element that adds flavor to the formula and Fighting With My Family follows suit. In this case, the movie's idiosyncracies derive from its focus on a downscale wrestling family that lives in Norwich, England. The Knight family has pinned its hopes on a dream, that at least one of them will ascend to WWE ranks.

Toward this end, Saraya (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) travel from Norwich to London to audition for a Florida-based program that trains wrestlers for the WWE. To move on, they must impress Hutch, a talent scout played by Vince Vaughn in a role that allows him to crack the whip, both verbally and physically.

To borrow from another hoary genre (military training movies), Hutch becomes a kind of drill sergeant; the aspiring wrestlers, his raw recruits. Vaughn's Hutch doesn't believe in letting wash-outs down easily. He tells them their dreams have reached an unceremonious conclusion. End of story.

A basic tension emerges when Saraya -- who later takes the wrestling name Paige -- makes the cut and her hard-driving brother doesn't. The fates of brother and sister are determined less by physical ability than by what Hutch deems that "special something," the capacity to win over a crowd that enjoys vocal rejection as much as enthusiastic acceptance. Put another way, wrestling fans would just as soon jeer as cheer.

Dwayne Johnson -- a.k.a. The Rock -- once staked out his turf in the world of professional wrestling. Johnson served as one of the movie's producers and makes brief appearances that may have been intended to add some mega-wattage to a lesser known cast.

While Zak broods at home, Paige becomes an outsider in a group of trainees in which the women tend to be blondes who look good in bikinis and whose looks are expected to help them.

The movie would have us believe that Paige represents the freakish outsider and the rest of the women are the wrestling equivalent of stuck-up sorority girls. To its credit, the movie later tries to humanize its trio of hotties.

Pugh approaches her work with determination as her performance follows a typical arc through aspiration, self-doubt and final ascendancy.

As Paige's parents, Nick Frost and Lena Headey register well, portraying a couple that survives by staging wrestling matches in Norwich. The movie spells out the pressures put on Paige for her the sake of her family (her triumph also will be theirs) but too easily resolves them. So it goes with a story directed by Stephen Merchant who also wrote the screenplay and makes an appearance as Zac's father-in-law.

As is the case with many formulaic sports movies, too much thought can serve as a spoiler. Why we're supposed to celebrate Paige's triumph in a sport where matches are scripted proves a bit baffling. It probably has something to do with her finally becoming self-confident enough to claim her place in the wrestling world.

Enough. Fighting With My Family earns points for trying to freshen the formula and achieves some success as a crowd-pleasures, but its truest moments arrive during the end credits when Paige and her real family make their obligatory appearance in what has been, to cite yet another sport, a mostly minor-league effort.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

An artist's turbulent path toward realization

Never Look Away looks at an artist's life against several political backdrops.
Making a movie that tries to plumb the depths of an artist's soul constitutes a form of noble foolishness. Noble because the subject can be intriguing and elevating. Foolish because attaining the goal -- finding the key to an artist's work in the welter of an artist's life -- remains speculative and, perhaps beyond the knowledge of even the most self-aware of artists. Like some gifted actors, artists aren't always good at understanding their own obsessions, much less revealing them to others.

The point, I suppose, is that if you're making a movie about an artist, you probably need to turn the artist into a vehicle through which you explore another subject.

In the case of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Never Look Away, the subject becomes an artist's drive to discover the uniqueness of his vision while living under three very different social and political systems: Nazi Germany as a child, Soviet-dominated East Germany as a young student and West German liberal democracy as an artist on the road toward creative realization.

If you've read anything about Never Look Away, you already know that the movie is based on the life of German artist Gerard Richter, a highly regarded painter whose work has gone through radical shifts during a career spanning nearly five decades. The movie's artist is named Kurt and it's probably a mistake to look at Never Look Away as a precise representation of Richter's journey.

On the other hand, the general thrust of the story and the art that Kurt begins producing in the movie too closely resemble Richter’s life and work to brush all connections aside. The paintings in the movie were done by one of Richter's former studio assistants.

The movie begins when a young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) visits a 1937 exhibition the Nazis dedicated to "Degenerate Art," i.e., art that did not convey an Aryan grandiosity of a kind that matched the Nazi vision. Of course, the art that young Kurt sees with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) represents the best and most creative work of the day.

A guide denounces the art but it's clear that young Kurt and his aunt are impressed by work that's being held up as an example of degenerate impulses.

This section of the movie establishes von Donnersmarck's view of the primacy of individual vision, a trait embodied in Elisabeth, a woman who will be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. As part of their obsession with genetic purity, the Nazis eventually sterilize Elisabeth and, if that weren't enough to keep her from polluting the Aryan gene pool, they put her to death in a gas chamber.

The crushing of this unique, sensual and loving character becomes a signature event in young Kurt's life that reverberates throughout the movie. Elisabeth's spirit, more than Kurt's, informs nearly everything else that happens as von Donnersmarck mixes melodrama and artistic exploration.

Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) appears as the doctor who seals Elisabeth's fate, an arrogant, efficient opportunist with a big enough ego to embrace whatever political winds happen to blow through his life. A preening, self-impressed gynecologist, Seeband values status as much as he values his skills, which evidently are substantial enough to make the gynecologist for the wives of Goebbels and other Nazi bigwigs.

After childhood, Kurt is played by Tom Schilling. Schooled in a Dresden art academy, Kurt learns and masters the requirements of Socialist Realism, helping to create bold propaganda that turned working folk into muscular heroes laboring to bring utopian Communism into a corrupted bourgeois world.

During this period, Kurt's father (Jorg Schulttauf), a reluctant member of the Nazi party is punished for his sins. Once an educator, he's relegated to scrubbing floors. Eventually, he commits suicide.

During his studies, Kurt meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a student of fashion. They begin an affair that's discovered by Ellie's mother (Ina Weisse). Know that Dr. Seeband will play a strange role in the life of Ellie and Kurt. To say more would amount to a spoiler. Although Kurt's life doesn't much benefit from contact with Seeband, the movie has the sense to keep Koch, a commanding figure, in its narrative.

Eventually, Ellie and Kurt decide to escape to the West. Initially, Kurt is advised to pursue a lucrative career in portraiture and, above all, to avoid the Dusseldorf Art Academy, where anti-classical, free-wheeling trends prevail. Of course, Kurt immediately opts for Dusseldorf, an art school run by Professor Van Vertin (Oliver Masucci), an artist who always wears a hat. Van Vertin insists that students attend his provocative lectures but that they never ask him to look at their work.

Von Donnersmark, who won an Oscar for 2006's The Lives of Others, wisely employed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to help him create Never Look Away's various looks. The decision paid off. Deschanel has been nominated for an Oscar. Never Look Away also netted an Oscar nomination in the best foreign-language film category.

Don't look to Schilling for histrionics: He creates a character who holds his emotions in check and who always seems to know more than he's revealing in this lengthy (three hours) and not entirely satisfying movie.

Von Donnersmark has assembled the right blocks for his story but can't quite convert them into a fluid, arresting whole. Kurt's life is so full of significant events that they tend to be placed in the story like library books being shelved.

It's possible to look at Never Look Away as a semi-success, a look at a life buffeted by political forces but one that also seems to deserve more than Donnersmark has been able to achieve.

Battling to survive in the frozen Arctic

There aren't many movies in which weather plays a role in deciding whether you might want to see them. But I'd think twice about seeing Joe Penna's Arctic if you're in the middle of a brutal winter cold spell. The story of a man struggling to survive the extreme temperatures of the Arctic after his small plane crashes offers the kind of bone-chilling realism that makes you feel every bit of hardship, even as you wonder whether the movie's main character (Mads Mikkelsen) will survive. Much of the movie involves watching Mikkelsen's Overgard improvise ways to keep himself alive; i.e., drill holes in the ice to catch fish, hand-cranking a radio to send out a distress signal and trying to stay as warm as possible inside the cabin of his downed aircraft. Eventually, Overgard discovers another crash and begins to care for its lone survivor (Maria Thelma Smaradottir,), a woman who never entirely regains consciousness and who battles sickness and fever. Eventually, Overgard realizes he can no longer stay put. He improvises a sled, bundles the woman in blankets and begins the long march toward what he hopes will be an outpost of civilization. Watching Mikkelsen lumber through snow or ascend hills proves both gripping and agonizing. One horrific challenge follows another until the movie reaches its conclusion. I'm a sucker for this kind of big-screen authenticity, and Arctic makes for a harrowing slice of life-or-death adventure.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A cyborg finds her true identity

Alita: Battle Angel boasts lots of CGI razzle-dazzle and a story that doesn't sustain.

Alita: Battle Angel revolves around an avalanche of CGI, production design, 3D and motion-capture acting, enough razzle-dazzle to satisfy those who want to be razzled and dazzled -- at least for a while. Director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron, neither strangers to the world of effects, have teamed for a massive display of technical prowess.

I'm wondering then why screenwriters Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis, working from a 1990 manga series by a Yukito Kishiro, couldn't come up with at least one scintillating line of dialogue.

To summarize my reaction to Alita: The visual environment created by Rodriquez and Cameron held my interest for three-quarters of the movie. After that? Not so much.

So who is Alita? She's a cyborg who has been tossed onto a scrap heap in Iron City, the lower-class part of a society that survived what every dystopian movie insists on, an apocalypse. Named by Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor who rebuilds cyborgs, Alita comes to life as a teenager with a bad case of amnesia. She remembers nothing about her origins.

Once she's mobile and active, Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), another scavenger. A kid of the streets, Hugo has an interest in the futuristic sport of Motorball, which looks depressingly like the sport that director Norman Jewison and writer William Harrison cooked up in the 1975 thriller, Rollerball.

A super-charged version of Roller Derby wasn't especially interesting in 1975 and it's no more interesting 43 years later, even as Alita emerges as one of the game's stars. Guys and enhanced cyborgs are no match for her, especially when she gets a spiffy upgrade in the form of a sleek new body.

Villains, of course, are on call. They arrive in the form of Dr. Ido's former wife (Jennifer Connelly) and Vector (Marhershala Ali), the man who controls the game of Motorball. Vector promises that Motorball champions will ascend to a mysterious upper region to which all the downtrodden residents of Iron City aspire.

The arc of Alita's journey -- the discovery of her past and of her true destiny -- is, I think, meant to give the movie its emotional heft. But as a character, Alita (Rosa Salazar) has a juvenile quality that may not please those who prefer sci-fi served with an intellectual garnish.

It's not her character but her physical qualities that seem most interesting, providing you can overlook (and you probably can't) orb-like eyes that might have been inspired by a Keane painting.

A romance between Alita and Hugo skates along the surface, ignoring obvious questions such as how they're going to ... well... you know.

Cameron (Titanic and Avatar) reportedly has been interested in this story for 20 years. He enlisted Rodriguez to help execute his long-standing dream. Rodriguez (Spy Kids and Sin City) seems like a natural for a megaton cyberpunk fantasy. The whole thing should have resulted in a killer collaboration. Instead, we get a movie in which early promise eventually fades and the prospect of sequels -- yes, they're suggested -- fails to create much by way of anticipation. Scrappy at the outset, Alita eventually loses its kick.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

What men want? Maybe less contrivance?

Taraji P. Henson stars in What Men Want, a comedy about a sports agent who can hear men’s thoughts.

Taraji P. Henson finds a big-screen showcase in What Men Want, a gender-flipping version of 2000's What Women Want, a movie that featured Mel Gibson as a Chicago ad man who has an accident and suddenly is able to hear women's thoughts. Guess what? A macho man becomes more sensitive.

In the female version -- directed by Adam Shankman -- Henson portrays Ali Davis, an Atlanta-based sports agent who's constantly passed over for a partnership she’s more than earned. In the male-dominated world of sports agency, Ali works with a major handicap. Try as she may, she's just not one of the boys. How could she be? The boys are making all the rules.

Henson dominates the movie, but can't entirely rise above the movie's sitcom conceits. In this version, Henson's Ali hits her head and suddenly can hear what men are thinking. She's initially appalled but soon realizes that this unique skill might give her the edge she needs to win the partnership she's craving -- and which her performance record clearly justifies.

Formulaic and predictable, the movie does include one bit of oddball casting that clicks: Erykah Badu plays Sister, a long-haired psychic with fingernails that resemble talons. Sister is hired by one of Ali's girlfriends to work a bachelorette party for a soon-to-be-married gal pal.

The cast also includes Josh Brener, as Ali's gay assistant, Tracy Morgan as the father of a prime basketball prospect (Shane Paul McGhie) that Ali is determined to sign. Richard Roundtree plays Ali's dad, a widower who runs a boxing gym and has instilled his daughter with a spirit of toughness.

Aldis Hodge does love-interest duty as Will, a single dad who works as a bartender and who catches Ali's eye. Hodge's Will eventually gets caught in strained plot antics in which Ali decides to fake a marriage to impress Morgan's Joe "Dolla" Barry, a self-proclaimed family man. She thinks the ruse will help her to sign Joe's son.

A variety of athletes turn up for cameos. Among them: Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The movie tries to find the kind of raunchy spirit that enlivened last year's much funnier Girls Trip but the R-rated results are mixed.

Hollywood comedies have a tendency to get preachy, so it's no surprise that before the picture ends, Ali must realize that she doesn't have to play a man's game to succeed. She needn't concern herself with what men think: She can make it on her own.

It's almost as if the screenwriters are lecturing both the character and the audience, another instance of a movie that can make you feel as if you're reading a book someone else already has underlined.

Once again, time for Oscar shorts

Even if you're not a devotee of the Oscars, you should applaud the fact that each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences puts a spotlight on short films. Generally speaking, short films are long on creativity and on sustained willingness to tackle subjects that aren't often found in mainstream fare.

This year, for example, the French Canadian feature Marguerite offers a tender look at the regrets of an aging woman who never expressed her feelings to the love of her life, another woman. You'll also find a clear-eyed look at one of childhood's horrors (insane competitiveness) in the Canadian live-action short Fauve.

Overall, though, this year's nominees seem less impressive than what I remember from previous years. Still, you'll find docs that bring new light to the insidious impact of racism (Britain's Black Sheep) and Period. End of Sentence. takes us to rural India to alert us to an issue to which we've probably never given much thought.

In seven minutes, Night at the Garden — archival footage of a pro-Nazi rally that took place in Madison Square Garden in 1939 — reminds us that dark political currents aren’t new to the American experience.

One more thing: It's important to support the makers of short films whenever possible. If you see the whole package, you're bound to be moved by something and stimulated by something and you'll be casting a vote for open-borders cinema that isn't afraid to travel new turf.

List of short films nominated for 2019 Oscars
Live Action

Detainment. (Ireland) Directed by Vincent Lambe. A dramatization of the real-life story of a 1993 crime in which two Liverpool ten-year-olds were questioned about the kidnapping and murder of a two-year-old boy. The film’s re-enactments are based on police transcripts. 30 minutes. The film, by the way, has sparked controversy in Britain, particularly from the victim's mother. This New York Times story details the furor.
Fauve. (Canadian) Directed by Jeremy Comte. Two boys play a game that quickly and disastrously gets out of hand. 17 minutes.
Marguerite. (French Canadian). Directed by Marianne Farley. A lonely older woman feels the regrets of unexpressed love as she learns more about Rachel, the nurse who has become her caregiver. 19 minutes.
Mother. (Spain) Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen. An agitated thriller about a mother who receives a phone call from her six-year-old son telling her that he has been left alone on a beach. 19 minutes.
Skin (US). Directed by Guy Nattiv. The movie reveals the strange fate of a white-racist skinhead who indoctrinates his son in white supremacist ways. An unsettling look at a skinhead who seems to genuinely love his son. 20 minutes.

Documentary Shorts

A Night at the Garden. (US) Directed by Marshall Curry. A brief, disturbing look at footage from a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in February of 1939. Seven minutes.
Black Sheep. (UK) Directed by Ed Perkins. An interview with Cornelius Walker and re-enacted footage reveal the torment of a young black child whose Nigerian immigrant parents moved from dangerous London to the suburbs. There, the boy encounters brutal racism and adopts a soul-threatening attitude: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." 27 minutes.
End Game. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman examine the gut-wrenching issues that can torment family members when a close relative is put on palliative care. 40 minutes.
Lifeboat. (US). Director Skye Fitzgerald offers this year's entry on the horrors that accompany mass migration from North Africa to Europe. Refugees risk their lives on overcrowded boats, many drown and a few stalwart representatives of a non-profit try to save them. 34 Minutes.
Period. End of Sentence. (US) Rayka Zehtabchi's documentary exposes deep-rooted prejudice surrounding menstruation in an Indian village and efforts to help when the women create a business making sanitary napkins. 26 minutes.


Animal Behavior. (Canada) Directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine. A leech, a praying mantis, a cat, and a bird gather for group therapy in the office of a dog who happens to be a psychologist. The session is disrupted when an ape with anger-management problems arrives. 14 minutes.
Bao. (US) Director Domee Shi examines a mother's wishes when a Chinese-Canadian woman starts treating a dumpling as if it were her child. What's really going on? A metaphoric examination of mother's love in the face of increasingly independent offspring. Eight minutes.
Late Afternoon. (Ireland) Director Louise Bagnall's beautifully animated short examines the life and memories of an aging woman who seems to be suffering from dementia. 10 minutes.
One Small Step. (US/China) Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas direct a story about a Chinese American girl who aspires to be an astronaut and the single father who helps nurture her dreams. Eight minutes.
Weekends. (US) Writer/director Trevor Jimenez tells the story of a boy who shuttles between the homes of his divorced parents on weekends. 15 minutes.