Wednesday, April 24, 2019

'Endgame' delivers what fans expect

It takes three hours for this Marvel Comics series to reach its conclusion, but the movie mostly succeeds..

Watching Avengers: Endgame —- the last chapter in what seemed an endless series of movies that kicked off in 2008 with Iron Man — another title kept running through my head, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It’s not that Chandler’s 1953 novel, made into a fine movie by director Robert Altman, resembles this Marvel Comics extravaganza in any way. It’s simply the title. At three hours in length, Marvel takes its time bringing this long-running series to a close. Judging by Endgame's sometimes melancholy tone, Marvel itself had a difficult time letting go.

Before we continue, I should tell you that this isn’t the end of Marvel comic movies or of every character who has graced the Avengers series. And, no, I’m not going to dwell on plot, partly because critics have been cautioned about including spoilers and partly because I’m not sure that the plot and its various twists make much difference. The general outline of the story already has been drawn; the last installment —- Infinity War —- pitted the Avengers against Thanos (James Brolin}, a super-villain. Even before the beginning of Endgame, Thanos had wiped out half of the universe's population.

This edition includes a robust cast of characters from the Marvel Universe, so many that all but the most avid Marvel fan would be wise to attend the movie with a scorecard. But if character development doesn’t entirely surpass action in Endgame, it at least stands on equal footing. There’s also a fair amount of humor in the work of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers who brought us 2018’s Infinity War.

About the movie's humor: Reviewers will mention it for good reason. Endgame doesn’t skimp on humor, much of it self-referential, some of it simply amusing. But this doesn’t mean you’ll be falling out of your seat; it does mean that the filmmakers understand that a three-hour journey can’t be made unless it provides a few laughs.

Endgame stands as a sequel to Infinity War although you probably needn’t have seen that movie to follow this one. Still, if you’re not plugged into the Marvel universe, I see no reason to start now. And, yes, I’m wary of movies that have helped turn popular entertainment into a comic-book-based smorgasbord. I’m also aware that there’s little point railing against an already-established victory. As far as the box office is concerned, these movies represent a Hollywood Olympus that most viewers are happy to revisit with a frequency that has enriched much of Marvel's empire.

As for Endgame, I’ll give you a few of the high points. First, Robert Downey Jr., whose work as Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, ignited the Avenger's flame. A distressed-looking Stark is seen early in Endgame; he’s on a space ship floating through the outer reaches of space or as he puts it, a thousand light years from the nearest 7-Eleven. Without offering any overly revealing explanations, suffice it to say that Downey gives a real performance; i.e., one in which Stark relates more to his human side than to his superhero self.

Joining Downey are a variety of other superheroes. These include Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, the anger-motivated muscle man who in this edition has found a way to blend his fury with the normal intelligence of his alter-ego Bruce Banner. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor makes a large impression, not only by wielding his mythic hammer but by displaying a new and expanded girth. Thor, we learn has become a beer-guzzling sloth complete with a potbelly. The newly debauched Thor adds welcome laughs.

We see more of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) than I expected. Same goes for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. As I've said, bring a scorecard and you'll be able to check off every superhero arrival in the movie's bulging roster.

The Russo brothers try to give each of the main characters his or her due by introducing a plot conceit that allows the movie’s structure to be divided into a variety of mini-movies that include moments of genuine poignancy.

Let’s talk about the movie’s ending. Yes, it’s protracted but it’s also marked by a reasonably surprising undertow: Victories seldom come without an underlying sense of what has been lost in the fight. That's not to say that you'll be weeping uncontrollably. The Russos deftly engineer the finale in ways that are bound to elicit cheers from the faithful; they nicely balance moments of loss with the obligatory rush derived from superhero achievements.

But wait; there’s more. The climactic action is followed by a series of epilogues that are meant to tug at the heartstrings and which probably will accomplish this goal for many of the faithful.

Avengers: Endgame goes to great lengths to deliver what its fanbase expects: big battles with cosmic stakes, a bit of self-deprecation and a plethora of superheroes that are happily and reverentially showcased.

More cinema diary: 4/24/19 -- Little Woods and Stockholm

Some weeks, the number of movies challenges even those of us who tend to review as much as possible. This is one of those weeks. As a result, I'm trying something a bit different; i.e., I'm going to write about as much as possible in the most efficient way. If it works, you may see this approach again. I'm calling it a "diary" even though it reflects nothing about my life -- other than the fact that much of it has been measured in movies. Make what you will of that.

Little Woods

With Tessa Thompson in a starring role, Little Woods takes a grim but clear-eyed look at the difficulties of surviving in a small North Dakota town where the oil workers use opioids to stave off pain and just about everyone struggles to make ends meet. Thompson's Ollie is just finishing a stint on probation after being jailed for transporting drugs across the Canadian border. She's committed to building a new life and hopes to move to surroundings that are less conducive to the kind of dead-end living that trapped her in the first place. But Ollie's efforts are thwarted by her half-sister (Lily James), a young mother with a talent for trouble. Threated with losing the house where her late mother lived and worried about her sister's second pregnancy, Ollie does the one thing she pledged to avoid: Sell drugs. Little Woods hardly qualifies as a festival of joy: James's Deb barely scrapes by. She lives in a trailer in a parking lot; we know it's only a matter of time until that situation goes bad. The best reason to see Little Woods stems from Thompson's performance, which finds her branching out from previous work in movies such as Thor: Ragnarok and Sorry to Bother You. Little Woods adds tension to the proceedings by giving Ollie a week to raise enough money to save her mother's house from foreclosure. Some stretches of director Nia DaCosta's feature debut tend to drag. Still, Little Woods stands as a serious attempt to explore lives that seldom find their way to the screen, and Thompson's performance keeps the wheels turning.


Regular readers of my reviews know that I think Ethan Hawke was robbed of an Oscar. The injustice began when Hawke wasn't even nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for his performance as a guilt-ridden pastor in First Reformed. Awards or no, Hawke makes interesting choices about the movies in which he appears. In Stockholm, the story of a real-life bank heist that took place in Sweden in 1973, Hawke plays Lars Nystrom, a jacked-up criminal who invades a bank where he holds a couple of employees hostage. Lars wants $1 million and insists on obtaining the release of his bank-robbing pal Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong). The movie is meant to illustrate something about Stockholm syndrome, the way hostages can come to sympathize with their captors. To that end, Stockholm builds a relationship between Lars and Bianca (Noomi Repace), one of his hostages, a vulnerable but savvy bank employee. Director Robert Budreau, who worked with Hawke on Born to Be Blue, treats the robbery as an example of bumbling lunacy on the part of the thieves, Stockholm's stolid chief of police (Christopher Heyerdahl) and the Swedish prime minister (Shanti Roney) who refuses to let Lars leave with the hostages. The supporting cast acquits itself well, but Stockholm belongs to Hawke, who creates a portrait of a self-dramatizing felon with a limited capacity for planning and a tendency to panic. Lars even wears a costume to his criminal outing, entering the bank in a leather suit, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. If you've been reading this and thinking about 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, I don't blame you. It's difficult to watch Stockholm without remembering director Sidney Lumet's look at a bank hostage situation in New York. In that movie, Al Pacino played a thief with an agenda. Here, Hawke follows suit, capturing the chaotic pathos in Lars' misguided fever dream of a heist.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/24/19 -- Wild Nights with Emily, Peterloo and Sunset

Some weeks, the number of movies challenges even those of us who tend to review as much as possible. This is one of those weeks. As a result, I'm trying something a bit different; i.e., I'm going to write about as much as possible in the most efficient way. If it works, you may see this approach again. I'm calling it a "diary" even though it reflects nothing about my life -- other than the fact that much of it has been measured in movies. Make what you will of that.

Wild Nigh Nights with Emily

The movie, A Quiet Passion (2017), took us inside the isolated life of poet Emily Dickinson. Cynthia Nixon led director Terrence Davies' somber look at a poet who could be preoccupied with mortality. It's not easy, after all, to be upbeat about a poet who wrote this line: "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Those familiar with Dickinson's work may be a bit shocked to find that Wild Nights with Emily, which casts Molly Shannon as the poet, sheds the shroud of gloom that usually accompanies talk of Dickinson. Shannon portrays a poet who carried on an enduring lesbian relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler). Don't fret about Dickinson's brother Austin (Kevin Seal); he busies himself with an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), the woman whose lecture about Dickinson's life and poetry frames the story. The movie traces the relationship between Amy and Susan back through their teen years, and director Madeleine Olnek often takes a frolicking approach without dismissing the seriousness of Dickinson's work. The movie doesn't short change the difficulties Dickinson had finding acceptance as a woman poet in the 19th century but approaches much of the story with a sly understanding of the absurd propriety that keeps everyone from acknowledging the obvious. Shannon and Ziegler make what initially seems an unlikely approach (fiction based on reasonable speculation) into something that challenges Dickinson's image, cracking the ice of literary reverence to find a real person. At one point, Dickinson writes a poem on the back of a sheet of paper containing one of her recipes. She supplies some of the local Amherst kids with gingerbread that she lowers in a basket from her bedroom window and, thanks to Shannon, has an expression that punctures pretension. I have no idea how Dickinson purists will react to the movie, but it made me feel better about a poet who seemed to live with an eye on the grave. If it's wishful thinking, then consider it a good example of such license: In Wild Nights with Emily, we meet a Dickinson who seems to defy convention without guilt, particularly when it comes to tasting the pleasures of love, sex, and emotional intimacy.


A bit of background for those of us who aren't particularly well-versed in English history. In 1819, the British cavalry spent three hours stomping through a crowd of as many as 80,000 protesters in St Peter's Field, Manchester. The protesters were demanding that parliamentary representation that reflected a one-man-one-vote approach. (It would be nearly a century before women in Britain won the right to vote.) It pains me to say that director Mike Leigh, whose work I take seriously, has turned a potentially volatile story into a series of illustrated position papers that expose all sides of the disputes leading up what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Heavy on mise-en-scene, Peterloo devolves into a series of meetings that make it seem as if the movie's real subject is oratory. Suffice to say that none of the movie's various politicians could survive the age of Twitter. The movie clearly expresses its main conflict: The elite want to keep the discontented masses at bay, and those same masses want to be heard. The oppressed consist of those who work the mills of Manchester, eking out a living and trying to cling to their dignity. Leigh's approach requires him to introduce a large number of characters, many defined almost entirely by their political stances and by whatever flavor the actors are able to bring to the enterprise. Leigh clearly sides with the downtrodden, beginning his movie by following a young bugler (David Moorst) who returns to Manchester in a near daze after the Battle of Waterloo. The movie builds toward the fated demonstration at which the great orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) has been scheduled to address the crowd. At times, Leigh creates the illusion that events almost are unfolding in real time. But there's hardly a shot or scene that doesn't overstay its welcome, and Leigh winds up with a movie in which honorable intentions aren't quite enough to stave off the feeling that we're undergoing a bit of an endurance test.


I was not among those who found Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015) as stunning as many other critics. That film, Laszlo's first, won an Oscar for best foreign-language film. I suppose, then, that I shouldn't have been surprised that Laszlo's second outing -- Sunset -- proves even less successful. Over-using his signature camera move -- he follows characters into scenes in a way that disorients the viewer -- Nemes takes us to Budapest on the eve of World War I. The movie focuses on Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who arrives in Budapest from Trieste. She hopes to find employment at a renowned millinery shop. It doesn't take long to learn that Irisz is the daughter of the shop's former owners, a couple who were killed in a fire that ravaged the store. The meticulous Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov) has rebuilt the business. He has no wish to hire anyone from the family of its previous owners. Irisz, who was sent to an orphanage at the age of two, also learns that she had an apparently wayward brother who murdered the husband of a countess (Julia Jakubowska). A variety of characters keep warning Iresz to leave town; she keeps ignoring their advice. Pressing on as she tries to locate her brother, Irisz begins to learn dreadful secrets about the hidden agenda behind the hat business. Confusing and ultimately unsatisfying, Sunset adheres to the rules of slow disclosure as if they were holy writ; but, in this case, the gradual revelation of information not only keeps the audience from getting ahead of the story but creates considerable frustration. In Sunset, slow disclosure comes perilously close to no disclosure at all. Sunset constantly flirts with larger meanings, but no deluge of insight arrives to quench the thirst for a comprehensible resolution.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Elle Fanning receives a showcase

Sometimes, critical standards need to be twisted a bit. That's how I felt about Teen Spirit, a somewhat flimsy Max Minghella-directed variation on a Star is Born theme that places Elle Fanning in a starring role. No one is going to confuse Fanning's Violet with a character from Chekhov, but Teen Spirit bounces its way into theaters with a tailwind of energy behind it and a commanding performance from Fanning. A young woman living on the Isle of Wight, Fanning's Violet wants to sing. Her singing voice -- yes, it's really Fanning's -- proves stronger than anything Violet might say in normal conversation. Fanning makes it clear from the start that Violet isn't happy living with her Polish immigrant single mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). While singing to a sparse audience at a local bar, Violet meets an unlikely mentor, a disheveled Croatian (Zlatko Buric) who once was an opera star and now seems to be a drunk. Initially timid about the possibility, Violet quickly decides to enter a local talent contest. The winners will appear on a nationally televised talent show called Teen Spirit. Minghella fully embraces the absurdity of a story in which an opera star helps fashion a rock idol. He wisely refuses to wink at the brazen obviousness of any of the conceits in the screenplay, which he also wrote. Look, I'm not arguing that Teen Spirit ascends the ladder of greatness; I am saying that the highly energetic Teen Spirit gives Fanning a well-deserved showcase and that she takes full advantage of it. She creates a character who -- as her coach advises her -- sings from the heart.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

'The Chaperone,' a lukewarm period piece

In 1922, a wife from staid Wichita, Kansas, accompanies 15-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City where the young Louise continues studying dance. Played in The Chaperone by Elizabeth McGovern, the wife eventually returns to Wichita -- albeit in a somewhat revised version of her early-picture self. Brooks, portrayed by a vibrant Haley Lu Richardson, achieves movie stardom and a notorious reputation that turns her into an icon. Director Michael Engler sets up a familiar conflict in this fictionalized account of Brooks' teen years: Brooks' free-spirited volatility bumps against the strictures of middle-class life. Norma, who vainly tries to teach Louise propriety, has problems of her own: Her husband (Campbell Scott) has been unfaithful to her with another man. Richardson captures Brooks' unbridled energy and McGovern's character wrestles with her long-repressed impulses. Norma's desires are awakened by a handyman (Geza Rohrig) who works at the Catholic orphanage where Norma was raised and where she hopes to learn the identity of her biological mother. As the title suggests, the movie focuses mostly on the chaperone, a shame because Norma isn't interesting enough to compete with Richardsons' Brooks. Based on a novel by Laura Moriarty, Julian Fellowes' screenplay provides Norma with a dramatic arc of her own, but The Chaperone escorts us through a period piece that's often too lukewarm to simmer, much less to boil.

A musical set in a subway car

A group of strangers stuck between stations in a New York City subway car seems an unlikely premise for a musical on film. But that didn't stop writer/director Michael Berry from trying. The result is Stuck: A mixed bag of a musical that has its moments, thanks mostly to a game cast. Giancarlo Esposito anchors the show as a homeless man with a philosophical bent. Joining Esposito are Ashanti, as a young woman with a chip on her shoulder; Arden Cho, as a dancer who walls herself off from contact with the other passengers; and Amy Madigan, as a sad woman who can't find the right key for talking with her fellow riders. Omar Chapparo plays an angry construction worker who can't afford to miss a day's pay, and Gerard Canonico portrays a young artist who has created a comic book about a disabled superhero named Maggie. Each character is given a musical number -- with Canonico's song affording Berry an opportunity for the addition of special effects that fit the generally modest nature of the enterprise. Before the train restarts, each character offers a glimpse into his or her true self. It doesn't take a genius to know that this serviceable collection of musical numbers and dialogue will result in mutual understanding, a conclusion the movie reaches within a reasonable 90-minute running time.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Floating toward the void in a spaceship

Director Claire Denis suggests more than she may be saying in High Life.

A group of convicts floats through space in a vessel that looks more like a barge than something designed by anyone who'd ever seen a spaceship or a movie about one. These unfortunate souls evidently thought that traveling through the darkened void en route to a black hole would be better than submitting to the death penalty on Earth.

Earth, by the way, has become so distant for them that there's barely enough memory of it left to fuel a decent flashback. Later, we'll learn that the Earth is pretty much doomed and that these voyagers might be what's left of humanity. In the movies, humanity never has difficulty finding its way toward extinction. All connections to reality, we presume, are purely intentional.

French director Claire Denis begins her movie by showing us an onboard garden where vegetables are cultivated. A shoe, apparently detached from its owner, peeks out from beneath the soil. We'll also see a man in a space suit (Robert Pattinson) tightening bolts outside the craft. Inside, an infant girl happily makes infant-girl noises. We presume the man in the space suit is the girl's father.

Gradually, Denis -- working in English for the first time -- reveals her approach, which has less to do with sci-fi than with quietly subjecting her characters to the kinds of cruelty desperate people are prone to inflict on one another. She's also studying sexual gratification, which takes place on the ship in a device called "The Box."

In conjunction with the movie's approach to sex, we meet a crazed scientist (Juliette Binoche) who's obsessed with reproducing life in deep space. Many bodily fluids flow as Dibs, who seems to be in charge of the others, collects sperm samples from the men as part of her experiments.

The scene in which Binoche's character enters "The Box" for sexual stimulation requires the actress to abandon all inhibition. At the same time, it can feel more squirm-inducing than erotic. Dibs, after all, is getting it on with a machine, perhaps the most elaborate sex toy ever to spring from someone's imagination.

No, I haven't forgotten the infant, who showed up early in the movie but who represents a later development in the story's shuffled chronology. Baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) receives tender treatment from Pattinson's Monte. She also drives him crazy with her crying.

Denis gradually reveals what happens to the rest of the crew, pacing her movie so slowly you might wonder whether she regards anything resembling narrative drive as a cardinal sin.

Other passengers on this voyage include a black man (Andre Benjamin) who says he volunteered to bring glory to his family and a variety of women (Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, and Gloria Obianyo).

After the passage of time, Jessie Ross portrays the teenage Willow. Ewan Mitchell appears as one of the more violent passengers on this trip toward the void.

Pattinson, who often whispers his character's thoughts, continues to be one of today's most adventurous actors. Same goes for Binoche. I didn't always know what Denis' purposes were, but these two actors seem to suit them perfectly.

Credit Denis with creating a pervasive sense of weirdness that gets under the skin, insinuating itself into consciousness, somewhat in the way that the steady flow of an IV drip invades the veins. You may leave the movie in a kind of art-induced daze.

But what does it all mean? Too much? Too little?

Denis operates light years away from thrill-a-minute Hollywood cinema; her style requires patience and perhaps a little caffeine. I wish I could say, High Life produced a more discernible reward. I'm not sure that the movie's images lend themselves to any resounding thematic statement. High Life just might be a movie that wants to say something profound but leaves us wondering exactly what that might be.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Laughs sporadic in 'Little' comedy

Here's a test you can apply: If you find Little consistently hilarious, you and I are on different comedy wavelengths. Executive produced by 13-year-old Marsai Martin (of TV's Blackish), Little reverses the Tom Hanks' comedy Big (1988). The twist: This time, an adult (Regina Hall) winds up in the body of her 13-year-old self (played by Martin).

The movie's single joke is tethered to the kind of feel-good message you might find in a self-help book: Adults shouldn't abandon the kid in themselves; they should respect the true self they learned to repress when they reached maturity.

Hall plays Jordan Sanders, the bitch-on-wheels owner of a company that invents apps -- at least it's supposed to invent them when Jordan isn't terrorizing or berating her employees.

After an encounter with a kid with a wand (yes, it's a flimsy conceit), Jordan wakes up as the 13-year-old she once was. Jordan has a teenager's body, but she retains her obnoxious adult personality. She also finds herself in the care of her astonished assistant (Issa Rae). Rae's April seems to have one job: allowing herself to be abused by her dictatorial boss. Now that the boss has shrunk to kid size, could the tables be turned?

It doesn't take long for an over-amped but mostly wasted Hall to take a back seat to Martin, who -- fairness dictates -- must be credited for turning herself into a convincing teen version of Jordan's older self, a kid who still carries the adult Jordan stylish purse wherever she goes.

A bit of psychology may have been intended to temper Jordan's meanness. She's overcompensating for childhood humiliations by becoming an adult ogre. When she was a kid, Jordan's dad told her that no one bullies a boss. Sick of being pushed around, she vowed that she would join the ranks of those who push others around.

It's nice to see a movie portray a black woman as successful, although Little takes the easy out to make the point: Jordan lives in a super-slick Atlanta apartment and drives a BMW that's a real head-turner.

The adult Jordan doesn't have much time for romance: Luke James signs on as a suitor but Jordan refuses to make an emotional connection with him.

A subplot about the pressing need for Jordan's imperiled company to invent a business-saving app doesn't add much. Neither does 13-year-old Jordan's relationship with a trio of nerds, the only kids who are willing to befriend her, and Little suffers an unpleasant taste lapse when Jordan -- in her 13-year-old body -- flirts with her hunky teacher (Justin Hartley).

Martin obviously has a future, but Little isn't the new Big. As far as broadly conceived comedies go, it's medium-sized at best.

A movie about ramen and reconciliation

If you don’t like your movies seasoned with sentiment, you don’t have much reason to see Ramen Shop, a sweetened concoction that tells the story of a half-Japanese/half Singaporean chef who wants to unite two cuisines and also re-connect with the family his mother left behind when she moved with his father to Japan. Directed by Eric Khoo (My Magic, Tatsumi), the movie may delight foodies because it contains ample shots of ramen preparation, particularly a concoction known as pork rib soup. It helps to know that Singapore still harbors resentments about brutal treatment by the Japanese during World War II. Takumi Saito plays the chef who returns to Singapore after his Japanese father dies. He wants to connect with his late mother’s family, an uncle (Mark Lee) who knew him as a boy and a grandmother (Beatrice Chien) he’s never met. Angered by the loss of her husband to the Japanese, Chien’s character refused to speak to her daughter once she decided to marry a Japanese man who had been working in Singapore. Khoo aims for reconciliation, always a good thing, but the movie’s sometimes disorienting use of flashbacks diminishes the story as does a treacly musical score. Watching the painstaking commitment of ramen chefs to their craft makes for its own reward, although you’d probably get at least as much out of an Anthony Bourdain episode.

On the road with Steve Bannon

Known for his right-wing nationalism, Stephen K. Bannon remains a controversial figure who enjoys his role as a provocateur for his ideas about what constitutes patriotism. Director Alison Klayman tags along with Brannon as he travels the US and Europe, either trying to create support for his movement or offering his support to those who already espouse his nationalist cause. In The Brink, Bannon wears his trademark two shirts, living up to his reputation for a slovenly appearance as Klayman charts some of the ups and downs of Bannon’s recent career. He may have lost his White House job and his traditional stomping ground, Breitbart News, but his zeal for his cause remains undiminished. Bannon hopes to save America from elites who think only of themselves. Bannon claims to champion ordinary people with his a neo-populist assault on the status quo. Bigotry? Not him, he suggests. Bannon's cause is open to anyone — regardless of race, religion or gender — so long as they are willing to join the America-first chorus. Tellingly, Bannon says that Trump taught him that there’s no such thing as bad media coverage. He clearly delights in the media glare and doesn’t seem to hold grudges against journalists who push him or who obviously disagree with him. Klayman spent a year filming Bannon and she seems to have gotten the exposure she wanted. But back to where I started: If you’re not a Bannon fan, you probably already have an opinion about his views and his personality. If you are a fan, you already know what Bannon thinks. I couldn't help wondering why a filmmaker would want to provide Bannon with something he really seems to prize: More attention.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Story can't match scenery in 'Storm Boy'

Based on Colin Thiele's children's book, Storm Boy, the movie of the same name, sinks under the weight of its obviousness. The movie is constructed around a story involving a retired corporate head (Geoffrey Rush) who arrives in Australia for a board meeting at which his son-in-law (Erik Thomson) wants to push through a deal with grave environmental consequences. As a result, Rush's Michael Kingsley faces the wrath of his environmentalist granddaughter (Morgana Davies). She wants him to vote "no." The story of corporate intrigue quickly gives way to the bulk of the tale: As he tries to explain himself to his granddaughter, Kingsley recounts his experiences as a boy who lived with his father (Jai Courtney) in a remote corner of Australia. Finn Little portrays Kingsley as a kid. Young Michael takes an interest in pelicans and, with encouragement from the movie’s wise indigenous man (Trevor Jamieson) decides to raise three baby pelicans whose mother has been shot by hunters. This small-scale environmental story -- conservationists vs. hunters -- sets the backdrop for a story in which Micheal raises the orphaned pelicans, developing a special relationship with the one that he names Mr. Percival. The beachfront scenery does more to advance the cause of nature than anything else. The movie obviously wants us to appreciate and respect natural life. But telling the story through the adult eyes of Rush's character creates a bogged-down structure in which the shifts from present to past and back again disrupt the movie's flow. And for a film that wants to celebrate nature, Storm Boy spends an awful lot of time showing the cute ways in which young Michael's pelicans begin behaving like pets.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

An unlikely alliance in Durham, N.C.

The Best of Enemies is a stranger-than-fiction story buoyed by a strong cast.

The essential part of the story told in the new movie The Best of Enemies is true. In 1971, during a fierce argument over the integration of the public schools in Durham, N.C., a black woman and a Ku Klux Klan leader co-chaired a charrette at which the future of the city's schools was to be decided. Rather than impose a solution, the idea was to allow Durham's residents to determine how to proceed.

A Raleigh-based community organizer named Bill Riddick came to Durham to run the two-week charrette, a big meeting at which issues were hashed out in hopes of presenting several resolutions that would be voted on by a committee of Durham's citizens, half white and half black.

The story of an uneasy relationship between a Ku Klux Klan leader and a no-nonsense black activist is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that can't help but intrigue. And you needn't be a genius to know that the resolution will involve a major transformation on someone's part.

The movie owes much of its success to casting. Taraji P. Henson plays Anne Atwater, a woman who has spent much of her life fighting with Durham's white power structure and upholding the rights of the city's black residents. Sporting outfits that add considerable enlargement to her body, Henson virtually disappears into the role of a woman whose determination and sense of righteousness speak of a drive that will not accept defeat.

Sam Rockwell, who already played a racist in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, portrays another in Best of Enemies. Rockwell's CP Ellis faces a challenge when he's asked to rub elbows with members of the city's black community.

The white power elite -- represented in part by a smooth-talking councilman (Bruce McGill) -- wants a reliably racist person to uphold support for segregated schools and to serve as its man on the inside of the charrette.

Rockwell's performance reflects the inner struggle of a man whose sense of belonging has been challenged. CP can seem a bit goofy, but we know there's something percolating inside this gas station owner. CP unexpectedly finds himself immersed in a major debate.

When CP tries to persuade the liberal owner of a local hardware store (John Gallagher Jr.) to vote with the white majority, a saddened CP is taken aback. CP learns that this man who employees blacks served in Vietnam. He fought for his country. CP didn't. For once, CP has no comeback. His world has begun to fall apart.

The supporting cast helps. Anne Heche plays CP's wife and Babou Ceesay portrays Riddick, a man with the unenviable job of trying to get the blacks and whites of Durham to listen to one another.

To me, the Klan venom in Best of Enemies seemed a trifle toned down, but Wes Bentley does a convincing job as a Klansman who has no interest in examining his values.

Robin Bissell, who has spent most of his career producing movies, makes his directorial debut. He smartly relies on his actors to carry the day.

Look, no one likely will mistake Best of Enemies for a great movie and there's always a danger that a movie such as Best of Enemies encourages people to elevate the anecdotal to something more than it is. I wish Bissell had found ways to show more of the discussions that took place at the charrette, and the movie sometimes loses dramatic steam.

Still, you could do worse than Best of Enemies and Hollywood has, many would argue that the Oscar-winning Green Book is one such example.

A small aside: Three recent major movies -- The Best of Enemies, Green Book, and BlacKkKlansman -- have been set in the 1960s and 1970s. Whatever you think of these movies, another truth must be acknowledged: It's past time for Hollywood to catch up and give stories about racism some present-tense urgency.

A juvenile 'Shazam!' has its virtues

It's not perfect but this kid-oriented superhero movie can be fun.
If you're a fan of comic-book movies, you've probably been engaged in discussions about the meaning of the minutia that pertains to whatever universe about which you happen to find yourself obsessing. Participating in such conversations can be fun, but they do have at least one minimum requirement: Participants must take the genre seriously.

Should you happen to be sick of such seriousness, Shazam!, like the Deadpool movies, provides an antidote. A lesser DC Comics offering becomes an entertaining look at a teenager who's able to transform himself into an adult superhero -- but not in all ways. He remains a teenager in mind, humor, spirit, and outlook. He reverts to his teen body when he has no superhero business to transact.

This approach makes Shazam! a bit juvenile or, to put it more favorably, the movie takes undisguised aim at younger audiences and mostly connects.

We first meet Shazam as Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a kid who has spent his youth in foster homes but hasn't abandoned hope that he can locate his real mother, a woman from whom he was separated as a boy.

Zachary Levi portrays Shazam, the caped, adult semi-crusader who emerges when Billy transforms himself.

How you react to Shazam! depends in large part on how you react to Levi's performance, which can be unabashedly goofy. A superhero of greater stature probably wouldn't be caught dead in Shazam's red outfit. And the movie has fun watching Shazam try to adjust to his grown-up body.

Still, I must admit that I felt a bit of relief when Angel reclaimed the role and the movie returned to a point at which the characters no longer needed to shave.

Shazam! also introduces us to Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong), an abused child who becomes Shazam's adult nemesis.

The movie includes a multicultural kiddie crew of Billy's friends and the screenplay finds a way to integrate them into Shazam's superhero adventures. Moreover, Billy's best friend (Jack Dylan Grazer) becomes a kind of guide for Shazam as he goes through his changes.

Djimon Hounsou portrays the wizard who engineers Billy's transformation, suggesting that young Billy is the long-awaited "champion" that the world needs. Boy am I sick of long-awaited heroes who are supposed to fill a role destiny has set for them, but that's the comic-book world.

In this case, the champion's mission has something to do with being able to vanquish the Seven Deadly Sins, all presented as statues that lurk in the wizard's lair while waiting to spring to life.

Director David F. Sandberg keeps Henry Gayden's script moving until about three-quarters of the way through when we realize that Shazam! -- like so many other movies -- doesn't know when to quit. At 132 minutes in length, the movie would have needed a better story to sustain interest.

Enough. Shazam! launches a superhero franchise that has a quality that shouldn't be dismissed: It doesn't seem to matter much and, in the high-stakes world of other superheroes, that's a definite virtue.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Love and loyalty in a changing China

Ash Is Purest White sets the story of a strong woman against a backdrop of economic upheaval.

Chinese director Jia Zhangke sets his new movie -- Ash Is Purest White -- in a climate of economic change and moral collapse. In telling the story of a woman (Tao Zhao) who sacrifices five years of her life for her crime-boss lover (Fan Liao), Jia also manages to explore China's shifting economic climate, a move toward what appears to be unbridled entrepreneurship that began roughly in 2000.

To emphasize such seismic social upheaval, Jia begins his movie in a former coal-mining town before moving through some of China's newly developed cities; he immerses us in a world in which people feel increasingly unmoored.

Tao, who's married to the director, gives the movie its unshifting center. Her Qiao hitches her fate to that of Fan's Bin, a gangster who doesn't exactly wield Godfather-like authority.

At one point, Bin suffers a terrible beating at the hands of young rivals; Qiao saves him by firing a gun in the air and dispersing Bin's assailants. She winds up doing five years in prison for illegal possession of a firearm. The gun belonged to Bin.

After her release from prison, Qiao travels up the Yangtze River, thinking that she'll reunite with Bin and resume her life where it left off five years earlier. It doesn't take much foresight to know that by this time, Bin will have moved on.

Divided into three main sections, the movie charts Quai's life in the coal town of Datong, follows her to jail and then moves into China's rapidly developing cities, faceless towns that seem to have burst on the scene in the wake of the Chinese boom. A final chapter, almost an epilogue, takes place when Qiao returns to Datong and, more or less, takes charge of the gang Bin once led.

As it turns out, the mobsters -- who initially pledge themselves to loyalty, righteousness, and brotherhood -- can't abide by any of their values. Only Qiao adheres to them; she lives by a code that the much weaker men are all-too-willing to bend. In this brotherhood of crime, the only truly staunch person is a sister.

Jia supports the plot with plenty of intriguing incidental observations: frenzied dancing to the Village People's YMCA at a mob-run nightclub, the gloomy fate of coal miners who are being left behind by an evolving economy, the transition from old-fashioned crime to a white-collar era, and, in an incident on a train, the need for ordinary people to enlarge themselves in the eyes of others. A passenger Qiao meets while traveling claims to be running a business based on tracking UFOs.

There are other oddities, some of with a comic twist. A real estate magnate who seeks Bin's help claims to have two interests: animal documentaries and ballroom dancing. Two of his hand-picked favorite dancers strut their stuff at his funeral.

Not all of this works equally well, but Jia aims big: telling an old-fashioned story of betrayal and loyalty while showing how social change works to undermine any sense of communal cohesion.

Not that the director takes sides: At the end of this often-odd but never uninteresting movie, we're left wondering whether any of the characters have gotten anywhere or whether, as one of the movie's strangest moments suggests, they're all marching to beats made hollow by a cosmos that couldn't care less what any of them are striving toward.

Trying not to be crushed by time and loss

Mary Kay Place gives a terrific performance in Diane.

These women know each other -- not in some faux movie way that depends on winking wisecracks, but in the way of women who've grown old together in the same small Massachusetts town and who no longer have secrets from one another. When the women gather in someone's kitchen, the men understand that they’ve been relegated to the background. These women weave the threads that hold lives together, although they also understand that these same threads inevitably will wear thin and fray.

They may know they're fighting a losing battle, but they're smart enough to sneer at the odds.

Named for its central character, Diane focuses one of those women. Diane (Mary Kay Place) has hit a bad patch. Her cousin (Deirdre O'Connell) is in the hospital dying of cervical cancer; her addict son Brian (Jake Lacy) interrupts his drug-induced catatonia with bouts of fury; and her best friend (Andrea Martin) has heard Diane's lamentations so many times that she's running out of patience. But then, Diane has begun to lose patience with herself, too.

Director Kent Jones, whose previous work includes the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, makes his fiction feature debut with material he seems to know well. He's helped by a superb cast that also includes Estelle Parsons as the mother of the dying woman, a no-nonsense lady who can be both wise and forgiving.

Like almost everyone in the movie, Diane carries plenty of emotional weight, and it takes almost the entire movie to discover what gnaws at her soul. But that doesn't mean that the journey toward this revelation isn't effective in its own right. Place's terrific performance, the evocation of atmosphere and the authenticity of its setting make Diane a marvel of cinema calibrated to reflect the agonies of ordinary life.

A few quibbles: Jones' tendency to divide various scenes with images of what Diane sees as she drives through the countryside become redundant. The story also strains a bit when Diane's son immerses himself in an evangelical zeal that he shares with his born-again wife (Celia Keenan-Bolger). It’s part of his fight against addiction.

Even here, though, Jones manages to add complexity. As much as she's relieved to see her son sober, Diane can't tolerate his attempts to make her see the light. She's too smart and cynical to want salvation -- if this is the way it must be attained. She'll stick to her own path.

The driving, if overdone, may be intended to show us that Diane, who volunteers at a local soup kitchen, can't sit still. She seems to be fighting against some awful sense of guilt; she makes lists of things to do, ordinary tasks that might be taken as her way of putting one foot in front of another. She pushes on.

Diane sounds like a downer, and, in some ways, it is -- unless you find the prospect of characters living with a heightened awareness of mortality and squandered hopes bracingly real. But what elevates Jones' movie is something that's far too rare in movies: a belief that if one throws aside the desire to fudge, it's possible to say, "This is how some of us live."