Thursday, March 28, 2019

Who's wilder, the convicts or the horses?

Matthias Schoenaerts plays a prisoner who learns to train horses in The Mustang.

In the opening shot of The Mustang, a movie about a program in which wild horses help to help rehabilitate prisoners, takes us to the wilds of Nevada where a helicopter is rounding up free-roaming mustangs. Title cards tell us that 100,000 wild mustangs can be found in the U.S. Some are caught and euthanized; others are sent to prisons where inmates are given a chance to train them for sale at auction. The men and horses bond and both benefit from the arrangement.

Almost from the start, first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre makes the connection between an angry inmate (Matthias Schoenaerts) and an especially dangerous mustang.

Alienated and hostile, Schoenaerts' Roman Coleman is pushed by a counselor (Connie Britton) to become a part of a small horse-training program. He begins by shoveling manure, not the most attractive of jobs. But it's clear that Roman's ability to train horses depends on developing his capacity for self-control, which is minimal at the outset.

Initially resistant to any suggestion of reform, Roman accepts his role, although he's stripped of it after he violently attacks the horse with which he'll eventually bond. Enlisted to help during a horse-threatening emergency, Roman regains his spot among the horse-tending cons; he's readmitted to this small group by the grizzled old hand (Bruce Dern) who runs the program with tough love.

Before Roman can connect with the mustang -- he names it Marcus -- he must learn that he can't force contact with the animal; he must patiently wait for the horse to accept him.

Most of the action takes place in a remote prison where a corral has been built for the horses, and de Clermont-Tonnerre doesn't neglect the harsher side of convict life, introducing subplots about drugs, a nasty piece of inmate-on-inmate violence and the tenuous relationship between Roman and his pregnant daughter (Gideon Adlon). She wants Roman to sign forms that will allow her to sell his grandfather's California house so that she can get on with her life. He does his best keep her at an emotional distance, but the screenplay eventually gives him a monologue in which he tries to connect with his daughter and we finally learn why Roman has spent 11 years in custody.

If you're thematically inclined it won't be difficult to identify the movie's interest in masculinity, as well as in exploring the often lopsided equation between freedom and self-discipline. In a telling scene, Britton's character asks inmates to estimate the time it took for them to act on the impulse that led them to incarceration. Roman's answer: a split-second.

The Belgian-born Schoenaerts presents Roman as a case study in anger-mismanagement, a man whose eyes burn with fury and whose inner rage threatens to consume him. He's always on the verge of a physical outbreak and it can be frightening to watch him.

The movie clocks in at a fleet 96 minutes, but like a wild horse, The Mustang bucks from scene-to-scene, mostly skipping transitional sequences that might have let the story feel more fully developed.
That said, there's no shaking the unsettling tension of the situation: brutal terrain, the threat of physical violence and an eerie sense of men and animals confined in a prison that has been plopped into the most open of western spaces.

'Hotel Mumbai' simulates a terrorist assault

In November 2008, terrorists attacked the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel in Mumbai, leaving 30 people dead before the invaders were gunned down. Hotel Mumbai tells that story in a vivid, gut-wrenching style, turning into a 2019 version of a disaster movie -- albeit one based on a real event. As the violence erupts, we meet a variety of people who are trying to save themselves and others, and, as is the case with such movies, we’re left to wonder who’s going to make it out of the besieged hotel alive. Nazanin Boniadi and Armie Hammer play a couple who has left their infant child in their room with a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) after heading to the hotel's lounge for a drink. Dev Patel portrays a Sikh waiter who almost gets dismissed for the day for wearing sandals instead of regulation footwear. Anumpam Kher appears as the head chef, a martinet in the kitchen but a man whose concern for the welfare of the hotel's guests takes on a new dimension as the movie progresses. Perhaps to further enhance the movie's international flavor, Jason Isaacs does duty as a Russian who regards the hotel as a sexual playground. Directed by Anthony Maras, Hotel Mumbai creates plenty of tension. The situation alone is enough to infuse the movie with a pulse-pounding drive. I'm certainly not the first to say this, but the comment seems unavoidable: Even a deftly made movie about a terror attack can leave you wondering exactly why you're putting yourself through what becomes a cinematic ordeal. Killing innocent people proves revolting, but do we need another helping of body-count cinema to remind us of that?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An elephant flies but 'Dumbo' doesn't soar

Director Tim Burton takes a crack at a classic Disney story.

I first saw Dumbo as a child in one of its re-releases, but haven’t seen it since, although I did watch selected clips on YouTube as I readied myself for director Tim Burton's new live-action remake.

Even with only a brief refresher, it’s clear that the Burton-directed Dumbo doesn’t match the great set pieces of the 1941 original, falling short in such crucial areas as humor, charm, and enchantment.

In telling the story, Burton has taken what Disney accomplished in 64 minutes and turned it into a 112-minute live-action feature with a CGI Dumbo. To expand on the original, the movie’s screenplay makes a deeper foray into the human world that the animated version wisely minimized.

The story begins when a World War I veteran (Colin Farrell) returns home. Newly widowed, Farrell’s Holt Farrier joins his two children (Nico Parker's Milly and Finley Hobbins' Joe) as he tries to resume his career as the star of a horse act in the Medici Circus, a rundown show that travels the US offering typical circus fare and what its mildly sleazy ringmaster (Danny DeVito) calls a "fake freak show."

Absent some of the musical numbers that enlivened the 1941 movie and including a less-than-impressive bow to the original’s famous Pink Elephant fantasy sequence, Dumbo occasionally yields to Burton’s darker instincts, though not entirely.

Dumbo also uses its story to illustrate what it seems to regard as the exploitative rise of the theme-park era, an interesting twist considering that Disney isn't exactly unfamiliar with theme parks.

Michael Keaton, who worked with Burton on Beetlejuice and a couple of Batman movies, plays a con man who wants the flying baby elephant to become the centerpiece of his new theme park, Dreamland. Keaton’s character doesn’t amount to much more than a weird hair cut and a faux accent. I wasn't sure what he was trying to do in giving the movie its hiss-boo villain.

As a veteran who lost an arm in the war, Farrell seems a bit lost. The kids are ... well ... Disney-style kids. They replace Timothy, the mouse of the original who encouraged Dumbo to fly on his own, putting aside the feather that the elephant believes enables him to flap his big ears and take flight. The feather helps explain how Dumbo discovers he can fly in the first place.

If you’ve forgotten, Dumbo's over-sized ears initially cause him to be scorned but eventually solidify his special place in the world.

Burton finds flashes of emotion in the story of a baby elephant separated from his mother -- Mrs. Jumbo -- tugging on the same heart-strings as the first movie, although I doubt whether you'll need to bring a full box of tissues to the new addition.

The CGI Dumbo isn’t as endearing as his predecessor, but Burton’s movie isn't particularly sweet nor does it allow the director fully to give himself over to his weirder impulses. An awful lot of energy seems to have gone into the film’s retro production design, and Danny Elfman's score strains to achieve a level of enchantment that the story doesn't always deliver.

Dumbo winds up taking us on a journey without the kind of surprises or stirring uplift that mark Disney at its best. I wouldn't say live-action versions of animated classics shouldn't be made, but this could be one case in which Disney might have done well to pass.

The original includes some dated material -- crows portrayed in racially stereotypical ways, for example -- but the bold creativity of Disney's animators still impresses. That makes the original feel fresher than much of what Burton and his team have created some 77 years later.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Jordan Peele follows 'Get Out' with 'Us'

There's lots of skill on display in this hunk of horror but the result isn't entirely satisfying.

Jordan Peele's eagerly awaited second feature, Us, stands as a sometimes intriguing, sometimes perplexing followup to his brilliant Get Out, a movie that blended horror and biting social observation in ways that shed light on America's long-standing inability to come to grips with issues of race.

Us simultaneously boasts both a broader and narrower focus, serving up an expansive metaphorical cocktail that mixes a variety of themes: the clash between an underclass and the prosperous, the illusion of safety provided by middle-class families and the all-too-human tendency to look for fault everywhere but in ourselves.

Peele tackles all this (and more) within the narrower framework of doppelganger horror in which soulless versions of the main characters attack their more prosperous "betters." This homicidal underclass -- or whatever constellation of possible interpretations Peele wants it to represent -- seeks vengeance.

It immediately should be said that Peele has mastered the techniques of horror, refining them so that he doesn't have to rely on our anticipation of jump scares. Teasingly, he marks his film with ominous signposts. In the film's eerie prologue, a vagrant at an amusement park holds a cardboard sign referring to the biblical verse Jeremiah 11/11.

I'll save you the trouble of looking it up. The quote reads: "Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I am going to bring calamity upon them, and they will not escape. Though they beg for mercy, I will not listen to their cries."

Obviously, Peele has more in mind than simple scares, although it's not always clear what that might be.

In some ways, Us represents a more ambitious effort than its predecessor. Visually bold and beautifully scored by Michael Abels, Us proves as consistently creepy as any recent helping of horror.

The movie also contains a strikingly unsettling performance from Lupita Nyong'o who appears as the mother of an apparently successful American family. Nyong'o also plays her evil counterpart, a near-human creature who speaks with a raspy, growling voice as she helps stage a terrifying home invasion.

The mood of the vacation veers off-kilter from the start: Nyong'o's Adelaide can't help fretting. Her unease results from a childhood incident at a beachfront amusement park in Santa Cruz, the place where the family has begun its vacation.

I won't describe the trauma Adelaide experienced as a child but will tell you that it involves wandering into a fun-house-like attraction called Vision Quest where visitors are invited to find themselves. In this movie, finding oneself doesn't qualify as a cause for celebration.

Just prior to Adelaide going off on her own, her dad had won her a Michael Jackson Thriller T-shirt. Given the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, the T-shirt feels weird, a creepy souvenir.

Nyong'o receives able support from the actors who portray her family: Winston Duke plays Gabe, a husband who quickly proves a failure when it comes to macho posturing. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex work well as the brother and sister of the family. Obviously, all the actors do double duty as their doppelgangers.

Early on, Adelaide's family meets friends at the beach, another family in which Elizabeth Moss plays the mom and Tim Heidecker portrays the insensitive, materialistic father. Cali Sheldon and Noelle Sheldon appear as that family's clueless twin daughters.

Peele has proven himself a master of suggestion, but that doesn't mean Us eliminates gore, bloodshed, and violence. Let's put it this way: The doppelgangers aren't interested in philosophical discussions about what happens when the bestial part of human nature is denied. They wear red jumpsuits and carry golden scissors that aren't intended for sewing projects.

Us isn't devoid of humor but even it's biggest laugh line has arch meaning.

At one point, Gabe asks his evil twin a question: "What are you people?"

The answer -- "We're Americans" -- brims with chilly, satirical echoes.

It's possible -- perhaps even likely -- that Peele overcomplicates things by introducing all manner of allusions and specifically stated explanations. These include underground tunnels that have been constructed all across the US, a reference to a bygone Hands Across America project of 1986 and the introduction of many rabbits. Between Us and The Favourite, it's safe to say that no movie rabbit has faced unemployment within the last several months.

Us can be enjoyed as an effective creepfest, but when it comes to sorting through the movie's various meanings, consternation seems inevitable. The movie's broad themes and specific story developments don't always align, and as thought-provoking as Us can seem, it feels equally confused about what it's asking us to ponder. For me, Us winds up as an obviously skilled but not entirely satisfying endeavor.

Julianne Moore rings true in 'Gloria Bell'

This remake of a Chilean movie celebrates one woman's ability to stand alone.
By day, Gloria Bell works for an insurance company. At night, she likes to go dancing, maybe because crowded, throbbing dance clubs give her sense of being with others -- even though she's still alone. Gloria has two grown children and has been divorced for a dozen years. She's lonely but not enough to accept the company of a hairless cat that insists on finding its way into her apartment.

If all this sounds familiar, it's probably because you saw the 2013 Chilean movie Gloria, which was directed by Sebastian Lelio. Lelio has remade his movie with an American cast, substituting Julianne Moore for Paulina Garcia, the actress who played the title character in the original, which simply was called Gloria.

Lelio gives the title a surname and moves the story to Los Angeles, where Gloria Bell spends her time studying yoga, taking a shot at laugh therapy and trying to keep up the spirits of a work friend (Barbara Sukowa) who fears the pending loss of her job.

After Lelio introduces us to Gloria and gives a glimpse of her alienated life, he brings her together with a guy she meets at a club (John Turturro). Having been divorced for a year, Turturro’s Arnold seems like a great match for Gloria. He's considerate, has a fun job (he owns an amusement park where people play paintball) and makes a pleasing sexual partner.

Turturro gives a convincing performance as a man who wants to move forward but struggles to shed the heavy baggage of his former life, namely two needy adult daughters and an accident-prone ex-wife. Will Arnold wimp out or will he assert himself and develop a real relationship with Gloria?

The rest of the supporting cast doesn't get much attention. Michael Cera plays Gloria's son, a young man mired in a failing marriage, and Caren Pistorius portrays Gloria's daughter, a young woman who seems to have found true love with a big-wave surfer.

Lelio stages a painfully awkward scene when Gloria brings Arnold to a birthday dinner with her two kids, her former husband (Brad Garrett) and his new wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Things don't go well.

Look, even those who haven't seen the Chilean version will have guessed by now that the point isn't to provide Gloria with a happily-ever-after with a great partner. The script brings her to a point of self-assertion at which she no longer needs a partner. She’s able to dance on her own -- to Laura Branigan's familiar song, Gloria -- of course.

That makes Moore the movie's main attraction, and she's more than up to the task; she gives Gloria Bell soul as she builds toward the inevitable realization that cracks through the wall of Gloria's conflicts.

Add some comedy, and you've got a movie that dances to a beat you've heard before, but won't mind hearing again.

The lawmen who caught Bonnie & Clyde

It takes a certain amount of daring to make a movie that’s bound to be compared to a movie that has acquired iconic status among moviegoers. We’re talking Bonnie & Clyde, the 1967 classic starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and directed by Arthur Penn. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), working from a screenplay by John Fusco, looks at the other side of the equation, the manhunt for two notorious gangsters during the economically depressed 1930s. The Highwaymen focuses on the Texas lawmen (Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) who tracked and ultimately slaughtered two of American’s most famous criminals. Overly deliberate and nearly suffocated by a heavy emphasis on period trappings, the movie has the self-conscious feeling of a drama that’s steeped in a hard-boiled Texas point-of-view. Of the two actors, Harrelson proves more interesting as the drunken, shattered Maney Gault, a retired Texas Ranger who seems motivated by the need not to deny the violent past he shares with his former partner. As Frank Hamer, Costner invests heavily in the grim-faced seriousness of a man who believes evil must be obliterated. The choice makes sense but eventually proves a bit dull. A Netflix production, The Highwaymen raises interesting questions about the nature of the men who hunt outlaws. Are they any better than those they hunt? The movie, which spends very little time showing Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, also refers to the clash between the old-style lawmen represented by Costner and Harrelson and their younger counterparts. Hancock also exposes the disconnect between the brutality of Bonnie & Clyde, who shot lawmen in the face at point-blank range, and the celebrity they attained. Semi-successful attempts to add dramatic heft -- Hamer's confrontation with Henry Barrow, Clyde’s father (William Sadler), for example -- can be found but the movie's dirge-like tones make it a bit of slog. With Kim Dickens as Hamer‘s wife; John Carroll Lynch as the state official who insisted on involving Gault and Hamer in the chase; and Kathy Bates as Ma Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas and a character who might be worth a movie of her own.

Racing the clock to build a data pipeline

The excitement of obsessive ambition leads us to a familiar place in The Hummingbird Project.

The Hummingbird Project takes aim at obsessive ambition, in this case, the drive to gain the upper hand when it comes to buying and selling stocks by using high-speed data transmission to win milliseconds of advantage over the competition. For a while, the movie barrels along with dizzying urgency.

In addition, the movie gives Alexander Skarsgard (familiar from HBO's True Blood and Big Little Lies) an opportunity to shave his head to play a bald computer geek who can code his way out of just about any problem. Skarsgard’s Anton isn’t much when it comes to socializing, though. His stooped slouch of a walk makes you wonder whether, all things considered, he wouldn't be happier if he could simply disappear.

He can't. Skarsgard's Anton Zaleski must find a way to shave minuscule amounts of time off high-speed fiber optic transmission from Kansas to New York. The idea originated with Anton's cousin Vincent, played by Jesse Eisenberg in another avid performance.

You don't need an advanced degree to know that the movie is going to find ways to critique the driven world of high finance, but along the way, you'll find nice work from Salma Hayek, her hair turned stylishly gray, and Michael Mando, familiar from Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. Mando portrays the manager of the construction firm charged with building the data-carrying pipeline.

Although we've seen it before (principally in The Social Network), it's fun watching Eisenberg play a wheeling, dealing character.

But acting and character development isn't the problem here; the excitement generated by Vincent's scurrying personality eventually wears itself out, and we know from the start that the movie wants us to understand that there's more to life than making money.

Director Kim Nguyen, who also wrote the screenplay, finds himself a little behind the curve when it comes to tackling hollow, soul-destroying ambition, a theme that's spelled out so clearly that one of Vincent's conflicts pits him against an Amish elder (Johan Heldenbergh) who doesn't want to sell drilling rights on his land because he doesn't give a damn about speed.

The scene emphasizes a point that doesn't need underining: Speed can kill.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

On the run from a fascist invasion

The German movie Transit takes a story from the 1940s and plunges it into an uncertain present.

Some films demand a high degree of trust from an audience right from the start. That's certainly the case with German director Christian Petzold's Transit, a movie that tries to disorient us in almost every possible way. Petzold makes it unclear when his story is taking place and blurs the national identity of some of his protagonists. In movie terms, Petzold also stirs a pot thick with traces of other movies: Whiffs of Casablanaca and various Holocaust movies ripple through Transit like suddenly-remembered dreams.

Uncertainty serves the movie, which qualifies as an intriguing and perhaps necessary movie of the moment, a look at the dangers of fascism and how the arrival of a new Holocaust -- in this movie called "a cleansing" -- might impact the lives of individuals forced into dangerous games of deception.

The movie also asks a provocative question: How might love look in such a roiled political climate?

Petzold, who wrote the movie's screenplay, bases his story on a 1944 novel by the German/Jewish writer Anna Seghers, dropping the author's tale into what seems (and I emphasize the word "seems") like the present. Whatever the time period, various people are trying to outrun a fascist government that apparently has invaded France and plans to eliminate those parts of the population it deems unworthy.

Georg (Franz Rogowski), the movie's main character, travels from Paris to Marseilles where most of the movie takes place. Georg hopes to escape death by obtaining papers that will allow him to emigrate to Mexico. To do this, Georg assumes the identity of a writer who recently committed suicide in Paris.

In Marseilles, Georg meets the writer's wife (Paula Beer), a woman who doesn't yet know that she's a widow. Beer's Marie has taken up with a physician (Godehard Giese), a doctor who's deeply conflicted about escaping France. If he accepts a foreign post that he's been offered, he thinks he'll be betraying Marie, with whom he's fallen in love.

For her part, Marie can't obtain the necessary papers to leave France until her husband turns up, which we know isn't about to happen.

Georg also becomes entangled in the lives of a North African immigrant (Maryam Zaree) and her needy young son (Lilien Batman). Absent a father, the boy desperately wants a man in his life. Georg becomes increasingly torn. Should he head for the hills with the boy and his mother or pursue his own safety in Mexico?

Meanwhile, the fascist occupation moves inexorably toward Marseilles, a prospect that sustains a mood of danger and desperation.

As you might already have guessed, the experience of watching Transit -- beautifully filmed by cinematographer Hans Fromm -- can be confusing. Petzold creates an environment in which characters and audience become disoriented. Petzold asks us to go with the flow of his movie, believing that by the end, we'll know enough to make sense of what we're seeing. That's what I meant by my earlier mention of "trust."

It's worth noting some of the things Petzold doesn't do as he allows an unsettling vagueness to settle over everything. He never refers to Nazis, makes sure that the occupation of France feels murky enough to create doubt and never explains the movie's mixture of period and contemporary details.

Transit sometimes overdoes its lack of specificity, but Petzold's mix of plot and detail evoke both past and present while alerting us to the ways in which oppressive regimes ravage lives.

The gamble mostly pays off; Transit reminds us that no time is immune from disruptive dangers and that when things fall apart, finding a clear pathway to safety will be dauntingly difficult and morally challenging.

Another YA weepie hits the screen

I learned something about cystic fibrosis watching Five Feet Apart, a YA weepie that follows in the footsteps of The Fault in Our Stars. But aside from information gleaned about the disease and empathy generated for those who suffer from it, I was left with another yawn of a young adult romance, this one about a love that can't be consummated: Fear of infection keeps two hospitalized young lovers from being able to touch each other. Sparked by a bubbly performance by Haley Lu Richardson , the movie never really conquers the formula that dominates it. As the over-organized Stella, Richardson paints a portrait of a normal teen in every respect save one: She has a terrible disease. After the two principals -- the other is played by Cole Sprouse of TV's Riverdale -- pass through the obligatory irritation stage, they fall in love. This being YA fiction, bases must be touched: You probably won't be surprised to learn that Stella is given a wise-cracking gay pal (Moises Arias). Director James Baldoni occasionally delivers emotional realism but the screenplay builds toward a melodramatic finale that either will have you reaching for a handkerchief or recoiling at its undisguised manipulations -- or maybe both.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A helping of neo-noir set in India

Director Michael Winterbottom keeps an audience in the dark for long stretches of The Wedding Guest, a thriller in which a mysterious Englishman (Dev Patel) is hired to spirit a woman (Radhika Apte) away from an arranged marriage in Pakistan. Apte's Samira definitely does not want to participate in such a marriage, but she's in for a surprise when she arrives in New Delhi. She's supposed to be delivered to her boyfriend Deepesh (Jim Sarbh), the guy who paid for her abduction. He has other ideas. I've already told you too much about the plot because there are two principal pleasures to be gained from Winterbottom's The Wedding Guest. The first involves discovering the noirish twists buried in a story that explores the limits of trust and the way men may underestimate women. The second involves the movie's inadvertent function as a travelogue with Patel and Apte providing an excuse to explore various corners of Pakistan and India -- from Lahore to Delhi, Jaipur, and Goa. Film-savvy audiences soon will catch onto Winterbottom's attempts to earn neo-noir credentials as Patel and Apte's characters go on the run. Patel overdoes his character's pragmatic stoicism, and I eventually tired of the waiting game that Winterbottom plays with us. We know there will be betrayals, but the characters and their stories never prove quite as rich as the backdrops against which Winterbottom watches their fates unfold.

Warriors on a larcenous mission

Triple Frontier doesn't exactly freshen an old formula, but skillfully repeats it.
The story probably sounds familiar. A disgruntled ex-member of the special forces gathers a trusted group of fellow warriors in hopes of pulling off a job that will repay them for the work they did while in uniform.

The target: a South American drug lord, who also happens to be a vicious killer. No one among the righteous will mourn the drug czar's demise. The obvious question: What could go wrong. The obvious answer: Plenty.

Triple Frontier boasts heavy credentials. The movie was directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year). Mark Boal (The Hurt Lucker and Zero Dark Thirty) earned co-writing credit, and high-tension maven Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) served as one of the movie's producers.

A couple of top-liners add additional appeal. Oscar Isaac and Ben Affleck head a cast that includes Garret Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, and Charlie Hunnam. <>
The movie signals its intentions in the names of its characters. Isaac plays Santiago 'Pope' Garcia, the mission's prime mover. Affleck portrays Tom 'Redfly' Davis, a logistical genious. My favorite: Hunnam's William 'Ironhead' Miller.

These hard-bitten but aging warriors know how to plan an operation, but -- as the saying goes -- the best-laid plans ... Well, you know the rest.

Chandor handles the action with aplomb, ensuring that it unfolds in coherent fashion. The big heist generates the requisite tension and the cast does as much as it can with material that won't evoke any comparisons with Chekov. Triple Frontier displays more interest in the ABCs of survival than in any deep exploration of character.

I'm a bit of sucker for this kind of material and Triple Frontier -- which wisely places its robbery about midway through -- earns passing grades with challenging locations (crossing the Andes on foot) and by emphasizing the sheer weight of the haul of cash the gang tries to bring back to the U.S.

I guess that's the point: Major money can weigh you down as much as it can open doors to liberation. Or maybe the point is something else: This kind of material remains irresistible for filmmakers.

With whom is this woman at war?

The Icelandic movie, Woman at War, leavens serious issues with a comedic touch.

She can bring down a flying drone with a bow and arrow. She's able to rig explosives in ways that topple power lines. She shows improvisational ingenuity when it comes to evading detection by helicopters. Not enough? Well, she also wants to save a Ukranian orphan from a life of deprivation. And, no, she's not Captain Marvel. She's Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), an Icelandic woman who commits highly motivated acts of eco-sabotage -- when she's not leading the local choir in her hometown, that is. As director Benedikt Erlingsson develops Woman at War, we learn that a variety of oppositional forces are slamming against one another: individual growth vs. social reform being primary among the clashes. To make the conflict even clearer, Erglingsson gives Halla a twin sister (also played by Geirharosdottir) who -- unlike her sibling -- has decided to pursue her inner journey with a guru in a distant ashram. Further complications arise when Halla receives notification that her nearly forgotten application to adopt a Ukranian child finally has been approved. Should Halla drop her plans to thwart the development of an aluminum smelter and become a parent? Woman at War tackles tough subject matter with a taste for cheerful idiosyncrasy. An example: two groups of musicians show up in unlikely places; an Icelandic oom-pah band and an ensemble of Ukranian folk singers appear from time-to-time. Can these oppositional forms of music be unified? Maybe not entirely. But Erlingsson has fun trying and Woman at War charts a course that's greatly aided by Geirharosdottir's bracingly committed performance and by Erlingsson's artful embrace of a story built around the difficulties of harmonizing apparently discordant elements.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A drug story told in a unique voice

Birds of Passage takes us deep into Colombia's Indigenous world.

Perhaps you think you've seen every possible permutation of every possible story revolving around the Colombian drug trade. If so, think again.

Colombian directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego have teamed for Birds of Passage, an entirely fresh movie that spans almost 20 years as it tells the story of how one member of the Indigenous Wayuu of Columbia becomes involved in the sale of large quantities of marijuana.

Beginning their compelling story in the 1960s, the directors introduce us to Rapayet (Jose Acosta), a young man whose sole ambition is to marry the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a young woman we meet after she's liberated from the year of isolation that precedes her entry into full womanhood.

As determined as he is, Rapayet has nothing to offer. He doesn't have enough wealth to assemble a dowry and he faces a future mother-in-law problem. Like many mothers, Zaida's authoritarian mom (Carmina Martinez) thinks her daughter can do better; i.e., someone she believes to be more steeped in Wayuu ways.

But Rapayet won't be deterred. He and a non-Wayuu pal (Jhon Narvaez) begin selling marijuana to American Peace Corps volunteers. Their business quickly expands and Rapayet emerges as a drug kingpin and a husband.

Rapayet's ascendance leads to an alliance with another relative. Juan Bautista Martinez's Anibal, a big shot who presides over another Wayuu family, and who grows marijuana. Rapayet supplies an outlet for Anibal's crop with an export business that relies on Americans who pilot small planes out of Colombia.

Birds of Passage feels wholly original because the upward and downward spirals it charts are set against a backdrop of Indigenous culture that's detailed with bracing authenticity by Guerra and Gallego. Moreover, the movie's haunting landscapes lend near-primal significance to the conflict between ancient ways and the unforgiving demands of modernity.

When Raphayet moves his family -- which now includes his mother-in-law and children -- away from its village surroundings, they take up residence in a new, sparsely modern home in the middle of nowhere. Images of the house with its blindingly white interiors underscore what's happened. In accumulating wealth, Rapayet has isolated himself and his family from the communal nourishment that has sustained the Wayuu for centuries.

At the same time, Gallego and Guerra touch many of the bases of standard drug dramas: the wayward associate whose rampant misbehavior must be dealt with by Rapayet; a spoiled son (Greider Meza) who grows into an alarmingly obnoxious young man; a mother-in-law who tries to maintain control over her son-in-law and who most vividly embodies the tension between corrupting new ways and time-tested tradition.

In the drug trade, violence always remains close at hand and plenty of it arises as the movie follows its cast of professional and non-professional actors. No one in the cast seems out-of-place and Acosta gives a performance that's convincingly reserved. There's nothing showy about him and that makes Birds of Passage all the more credible.

It should help to know that Guerra also directed Embrace of the Serpent, a 2015 movie of astonishing beauty and unforced exoticism. Once again, he -- this time with a co-director -- takes us into a world that we don't know. Their achievement qualifies as substantial. Birds of Passage tells us much about the tragic destruction wrought by a trade that threatens communities, leaving heartbreak and corpses scattered in its wake.

Wrestling with a multitude of problems

Twenty-eight-year-old Chris Scribner taught civics at J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville, Ala. More importantly, Scribner also coached the high school's wrestling team. Directors Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer latch onto the story of that team as it wends its way through the 2015-16 seasons, inching toward the state championship competition. But the value of Herbert and Belfer's documentary, Wrestle, has as much to do with wrestling with life's problems as it does with wrestling on any mat. The directors display an unflagging commitment to following the bumpy lives of teenagers who attend a "failing" high school with no previous history of competitive wrestling. Confining itself to straightforward moves, Wrestle immerses us in the lives of black students whose collective experiences illuminate issues of race, economic deprivation, and, of course, adolescence. Jamario, a moody but gifted wrestler, learns that he's going to be a father. Teague, the only white kid on the team, struggles with drugs. A traffic stop leads to a marijuana bust for Jaquan. Jallen, perhaps the most promising of the kids, has a run-in with a cop who accuses him of public urination. You get the picture. These young men are fighting long odds and their coach pulls no punches with them nor does he make any attempt to curb his language. Perhaps Scribner's commitment derives from what he describes as his own youthful experiences with substance abuse. The directors follow the story where it leads them and Wrestle leaves us with an overriding question. Will these young men conquer in life as they sometimes do on the mat? We're not entirely sure, but we grow to like these kids and wish them well. That's a reflection of the involvement created by a good documentary, which -- in this case -- happens to be about young people who wrestle and a coach who seems to invest every ounce of his being in them.

Hiding from Nazis in the heart of Berlin

Imagine being Jewish in Berlin during World War II and trying not to be discovered, no simple task in the goose-stepping heart of Nazi Germany. Blending documentary interviews, archival footage and re-enactments, The Invisibles tells just such a story — or, more accurately, four such stories. The movie’s four interviewees — Cioma Schonhaus, Hanni Levy, Eugen Friede, and Ruth Arndt — provide accounts of their experiences evading detection: constant change of locations, reliance on the beneficence of Germans who were willing to help and the exercise of a fair amount of improvisational skill. There’s obvious interest in knowing that such people even existed, but — as is the case with many Holocaust stories — this one qualifies more as a footnote than as a major addition to the canon. Mixing interview footage with re-created drama doesn’t always succeed, sometimes making it difficult to keep the story of each character in mind. A blended approach might have worked better had director Claus Rafle focused on one of the four stories because all of them contain intriguing details, particularly the story of a young woman who works as a maid for a Nazi officer who knows that she’s Jewish. The Invisibles tackles an intriguing subject but doesn't dig as deeply as it might have. For the record, the movie tells us that 1,700 Jews who never left Berlin survived the war.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A less-than-marvelous ‘Captain Marvel’

Marvel's female superhero tries to work her way out of a frenzied movie.
Brie Larson is up to the task of playing Captain Marvel, a welcome female entry into Marvel Comics’ galaxy of superheroes. But -- and this is a major "but" -- the rest of Captain Marvel is a scattered, frenetic effort that jams action and backstory together without a great deal of finesse.

Even the movie's attempts at humor -- which arrive in the form of retro flashes from the 1990s -- tally only mixed results when it comes to brightening the proceedings.

One never entirely knows the reasons a movie goes wrong, but judging from a preview screening of Captain Marvel, I'd speculate that this effects-laden helping of Marvel mania was co-directed by a couple of filmmakers (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) whose indie cred from movies such as Half Nelson and Sugar didn't easily transfer to a major studio production.

Summarizing the plot poses a challenge for reviewers because any such attempt must be extracted from the bric-a-brac that sometimes feels tossed at the screen. Larson portrays a former US fighter pilot who will -- over the course of this origins story -- emerge as Captain Marvel, a hybrid of human and Kree (i.e., alien) biochemistry.

Jude Law portrays Yon-Rogg, a Kree who tries to teach Larson's character how to harness energy that she fires in undisciplined bursts from her fists.

There's conflict, of course. The Kree, it seems, are battling the Skrull, a rubber-faced collection of aliens who travel to Earth under the guidance of Talos, a heavily disguised Ben Mendelsohn who brings a bit of winking humor and happily jaded line readings to his role. I say "winking," although I'm not sure the heavy make-up allows much by way of facial movement.

As the plot leaps from battle-to-battle, Larson's character also lands in the U.S. where she picks up an ally, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, a familiar figure from the Avengers movies. Larson's Carol Danvers also reunites with her former best friend, another fighter pilot played by Lashana Lynch. A single mom, Lynch's Maria Rambeau has a daughter (Akira Akbar) who, at a crucial point in the plot, cheers Carol on.

Carol, who reaches Earth during the mid-90s, has lost any memory of having spent time on beleaguered earthly soil before awakening on the planet where the Kree hang out. Eventually, we'll learn how she got from to the good old USA to the home of the Kree, but the question doesn't exactly compel intrigue.

Minor pleasures arise. It’s of some interest to discover more about Jackson's Nick Fury, who in this edition displays a tight cap of hair. Annette Bening turns up as a character called Supreme Intelligence. I'll pass on any attempt at a joke. Too easy.

One of the movie's problems involves the abrupt way it handles its back story, introducing Carol's past in intermittent flashbacks that can prove as disorienting as they are revealing.

As is the case with many comic book extravaganzas, the movie leans heavily on effects -- albeit, in this instance, with the approximate elegance of a drunk seeking support from a lamp post. Many of the effects seem to involve flashing bolts of energy. At various times, the characters chase a device known as the "energy core,'' which is hidden in a lunchbox boasting a picture of the Fonz from the Happy Days era.

This energy core emits great power; perhaps it's responsible for discombobulating the story and keeping the movie's action sequences from cohering in any way that might be called thrilling.

Captain Marvel tries to zip and zap its way into the pop-cultural canon dropping jokey references to such bygone stalwarts as Blockbuster stores along the way. Some, I suppose, will enjoy the frenzy, but for me, the point turns out to be inadvertent: Incessant movement doesn't necessarily get you anywhere.