Thursday, May 30, 2019

'Rocketman': a blast of pop energy

Taron Egerton delivers a major performance in this Elton John biopic.

A simple description of Rocketman makes the movie sound like one more celebrity biopic. Here's how such a summation might go: A boy who feels unloved establishes himself in the world of music, attains international celebrity as a rock star, almost loses himself to sex and drugs, enters rehab in the nick of time and emerges whole.

All true, but of little help in understanding what director Dexter Fletcher achieves with Rocketman, a movie about Elton John, one of rock's most successful artists. Fletcher refreshes genre cliches with storytelling strategies that turn Rocketman into an infectiously energetic look at the life of a rock star.

To begin the story, John -- in a red costume with wings and devil's horns -- marches down a hallway. We suppose that this man in red plumage is about to burst onto a stage, which -- of course -- would be the cliched way to begin a rock 'n' roll biopic. The star emerges. The crowd goes wild. The music begins.

But when John pushes through a set of doors, he's not putting himself on display for adoring fans. He's entering a rehab therapy session where he confesses to a multitude of failings. Among them: alcohol, drug and sex addictions, anger-management problems and shopping issues.

Without wearing it out, Fletcher uses the therapy format to take us back to the childhood John spent in a London neighborhood of British council homes. His mom's mind seems to be elsewhere and his unloving martinet of a father shows no appreciation for the talent of a son who wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

Fletcher turns this "flashback'' into a beautifully staged musical number, thus tipping his hand. He's not going to allow his filmmaking to be shackled by convention. The movie will stake its claim as a quasi-musical.

I won't say more about Rocketman’s stylistic flourishes. Fletcher includes enough of them to turn the movie into a heady tribute to the pop-cultural energy that's embodied in Taron Egerton's terrific performance as Elton John.

Of course, when a movie runs on so much high energy, it can't help but create a few spaces where the pace lags. Overall, though, Rocketman should appeal to those who enjoy cinema with a creative kick, as well as those who count themselves as Elton John fans.

Key songs are included. They're sung by Egerton who so thoroughly inhabits his character that his performance proves exhaustive and exhausting. I mean that in a good way. Egerton rides the wave of energy that elevates John’s stage presence even as it smashes his off-stage life into walls of pain. What Egerton does qualifies both as an amazing feat of talent and will.

Fletcher doesn't flinch from John's gayness. As his career begins to take hold, the singer falls for John Reid, a music manager (Richard Madden). A self-possessed operator, Reid eventually makes it clear that his approach to John has a cruel business edge. And Elton himself isn't always likable. He flies into rages or submerges himself in drug-induced stupors.

At one point, John tells his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) that musical ideas pop into his head so quickly he hardly can keep up with them. And that, I suppose, is the key to understanding John's pre-rehab years. He's surfing the waves of his talent, never entirely safe from the big breaker he won't be able to ride. The movie charts John's ascendance quickly, almost a biography in shorthand.

Amid all this, Fletcher tells the story of an unloved child who seems to be appreciated only by his grandmother (Gemma Jones). Matthew Illsley and Kit Connor play John as a boy and an adolescent. The name -- Elton John -- is an invention. The movie shows how the young man born Reginald Dwight -- hit on the name he'd make famous.

Essentially, Rocketman consists of three acts. The first covers John's childhood. The second deals with his meteoric rise to success. In the third, John feeds his ravenous audience -- touring, performing and indulging his addictions. A fourth act -- John's recovery, marriage, and journey into fatherhood -- appears only in information and photos that accompany the end credits.

The supporting performances are all good. Bell creates a loyal friend in Bernie Taupin, a lyricist who eventually must step outside the tornadic spiral of John's success. Handsome and self-assured, Madden’s Reid wins John's heart before the relationship with his client/lover turns sour.

As John's mother, Dallas Bryce Howard paints a telling portrait of a woman whose refusal to be corralled by a stifling marriage leads her down a path that’s not likely to win any mother-of-the-year awards.

Elton John, who's now 72, served as one of the movie's executive producers, so it's fair to wonder what has been elided or omitted entirely. Still, it would be unfair to think of Rocketman as an act of cinematic hagiography. The movie is in love with John's music, but how could a biopic about Elton John be otherwise?

Rocketman includes an attempted suicide and plenty of despair. That's why it feels strange to say that the movie generates a feel-good vibe that follows you out of the theater. Maybe that's because even in the turbulence of John's rollercoaster life, the joy of music and performance can't be denied.

Godzilla stomps through a chaotic movie

A surfeit of creatures can't make King of the Monsters into something to care about..

Loud, chaotic and repetitive, Godzilla: King of the Monsters suffers from a script that puts three creatures into a monster traffic jam that jars any hope of coherent storytelling off its moorings.

The monsters, in no special order, are Mothra, Godan, and Godzilla. As it turns out, these titans (as they're referred to in the movie) offer the last hope for saving the Earth, which has been ravaged by humans. But before the monsters can launch their world-saving, environmentalist mission, another monster must be vanquished, a three-headed dragon called Ghidorah.

The humans in the movies take sides -- sort of. One side -- led by Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), a father who sank into dereliction after the death of his son in the previous installment, wants to kill the monsters. The other side is led by Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), Mark's ex-wife. She wants to employ the monsters to save a world in which humans teeter on the edge of extinction.

To achieve her goal, Emma has thrown in with Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), a military man who has become an eco-terrorist; he's willing to pay a large price to save the world.

Madison Russell (Mille Bobby Brown), daughter of Mark and Emma, vacillates between the two approaches, as the movie bounces off one destructive set piece after another, none of them benefiting from anything resembling a well-staged buildup.

Other actors include Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Thomas Middleditch and David Straitharn, all of whom are swallowed -- not by monsters -- but by a screenplay that seems to have been eaten by the monsters, spit out as indigestible and then reassembled in ways that allow for dialogue that might have been fun had anyone bothered to deliver it with anything resembling a campy spirit.

As a result, Godzilla: King of the Monsters amounts to a collection of entirely forgettable performances.

The movie's big brain lodges in Farmiga's character: Dr. Russell is working on ORCA, a tacky looking electronic gizmo that can be used to communicate with the monsters by employing sonar or some such. If she's able to find the correct frequency she can calm the monsters, soothing their fire-breathing spirits.

The movie's high points all involve the mammoth creatures. The birth of Mothra, for example, reveals her glowing, elegant wings. Say what you will about Rodan, he knows how to make an entrance: He blasts out of a volcano.

Impressive in size, Godzilla doesn't have a particularly expressive countenance, and Ghidorah's three heads might productively have spent time talking to one another. Maybe they could have brought some much-needed coherence to a project that loads up on action involving battling monsters. These fights, splayed across ravished urban landscapes, aren't especially distinguished, but they're really all this Michael Dougherty-directed movie has to offer.

For some, that may be enough. Warner Brothers has more of these monster mashes on the way. Maybe next time, they'll add some things that this one seems to lack, human characters about whom we might actually care and action that raises the pulse instead of drubbing us into indifference. Look, they're fighting again. Sigh.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 5/24/19 Photograph and The Perfection

In weeks when there are more movies than any one person should see, I often use this format to speak briefly about movies that deserve attention.


There's nothing extraordinary about the Indian movie Photograph and that's what makes the movie interesting. Director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) tells a conventional love story involving two protagonists who, according to the social order the film makes apparent, have no business being together. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a villager who's scuffling to get by as a street photographer in Mumbai. Meloni (Sanya Malhotra) is an accounting student from a family that seems solidly embedded in Mumbai's middle class. To make this kind of romance about a mismatched duo requires a fair measure of contrivance. Meloni encounters Rafi in the street. He takes her picture. She runs off, leaving him holding the photograph. Rafi puts the photograph to use when he attempts to persuade his no-nonsense grandmother (a scene-stealing Farrukh Jaffar) that he's finally found the woman who will give her grandchildren. When Grandma travels to Mumbai to meet Rafi's supposed fiancee, Rafi must locate Meloni and then persuade her to go along with the ruse. He does both. Plausibility isn't really the point here. In a quiet, unassuming way, Batra explores class, as well as religious and racial differences. You won't find explosive scenes or showy performances, but the Mumbai settings and the gap between Rafi and Meloni, neither entirely sure that it can be bridged, says a lot about two people whose chance meeting brings divergent worlds into contact.

The Perfection

This Netflix release begins promisingly. We meet a gifted cellist (Allison Williams) who has given up her career to tend to her sick mother, just deceased when the film begins. Williams' now-free Charlotte is invited by her former mentor Anton (Steven Weber) to attend a cello competition in Shanghai. There, she meets Elizabeth (Logan Browning), Anton's latest major discovery. We suspect jealousy will blossom, but the movie throws up a smoke screen when Charlotte and Elizabeth wind up in bed together and then agree to take an unescorted bus trip through the "real" China. A lesbian romance? A story about two talented and competitive women who have lived in a strangely insular environment where nothing mattered but the cello? Director Richard Shepard (The Matador) has something else in mind: The Perfection shifts gears, becoming a slick horror film with twisted undertones leading to torture and sexual abuse. There's talent on display here, but it's put to the service of a story that abandons its more subtle interests for in-your-face shocks. For me at least, the movie's high-impact jolts weren't compensated for by its sharp stylistic edges. For a minute, I thought about whether The Perfection was trying to show that the worst kind of rot can fester in a world ostensibly devoted to lovely music. Nah, I decided. The Perfection seems more interested in filling screens with wince-inducing moments than in establishing a plausible environment in which the pressures of ferocious competition and dictatorial instruction really could be explored.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

'Aladdin' -- neither detestable nor wonderful

Disney's live-action version of its 1998 animated smash climbs on a magic carpet but doesn't soar.
Will Smith has been assigned the unenviable task of trying to do what Robin Williams did for the 1992 animated version of Aladdin; i.e., turn Disney's latest live-action remake into a monster hit. I’m not sure that the live-action version of Disney's take on a fabled tale from the Arabian Nights will be a box-office smash, but credit Smith with not flinching at taking the role of the fabled genie. He's the life of what can be a tepid party.

As for the rest of Aladdin, call it a mixed bag of garish colors, cliched applications of anything that might be called “Arabian” and musical numbers that often sound as if we've heard them before, probably because we have. Most of the tunes were in the animated version and, for the most part, are presented here without scoring bullseyes.

The story remains generally unaltered, although Disney has adjusted the proceedings to add a bit of ethnic flavor, more or less in the way that blush is applied to a pale cheek. Aladdin, the market thief who aspires to be a prince so that he can win the hand of a princess, is played by Canadian actor Mena Massoud. Princess Jasmin is portrayed by Naomi Scott, who sells her songs with ease and who occasionally even looks as if she might be an animated character who has sprung to life. Marwan Kenzari portrays the villainous Jafar, the conniving vizier who wants to replace the kindly Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban).

Guy Ritchie, who made a splash in 1989 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, who directed Robert Downey in a couple of Sherlock Holmes movies and who directed the epically awful King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, takes the reins. Ritchie manages the movie's special effects, CGI creatures (notably a pet monkey named Abu) and makes the most of Smith’s genie, a blue muscleman whose lower half consists of puffs of swaying smoke.

The movie's best set piece involves the arrival of Aladdin and a large entourage at the court. Aladdin masquerades as Prince Ali so that he can conform to local law. The princess, we’re told, only can marry a prince.

The princess’s handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad) adds welcome conspiratorial girlfriend flare and eventually becomes a love interest for the genie, whose greatest desire is to escape his lamp and become an ordinary human.

At times, the movie has a garish Bollywood flavor, leaning heavily on splashy colors and costumes, outsized turbans and ornate interiors that look like more costly descendants of the kind of faux international settings Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used to traipse across in their road movies.

I found Massoud’s Aladdin to be a bit bland; Scotts’s Jasmine -- more assertive in this version -- proves better and, as stated, Smith’s Genie basically leads the way to the happily-ever-after conclusion the tale must have.

Ritchie's rendition of a Disney cash cow may not be the kind of magic carpet ride that transports you to entertainment's most magical realms, but if there must be live-action remakes of animated movies, I suppose this one suffices.

A teen comedy with smart twists

In Booksmart, two high school seniors challenge themselves to leave the library -- and party. It's not as dumb as you might think.

It’s easy to see why the teen comedy Booksmart took the recent SXSW film festival by storm, garnering big laughs from audiences and early raves from critics. The movie, which marks actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, fires a high energy rocket of comedy that proves infectious, even when the individual bits aren't working.

For those of us for whom high school no longer captivates, Booksmart may carry sociological weight. After a preview screening, a young woman -- much closer to high school than I -- said that Wilde had caught something true about today's high school experience. I'll take her word for it.

Though not the first of its kind, the movie gives teen comedy a feminist spin and a muted testosterone quotient. That doesn’t mean Booksmart isn’t raunchy; it just means that Wilde, working from a screenplay credited to a quartet of writers, gets the most out of her two stars (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) and the well-selected problems with which she confronts them.

A shade short on sensitivity, Booksmart makes smart use of an unusual twist. The two main female characters — both brainy and one gay —- have spent their school years conforming to every cliched standard they could find. Their goal: to march triumphantly through the world of high-scoring SAT elites who are destined someday to run the country — or so they think.

When the movie begins, Feldstein's Molly already has been accepted to Yale; Dever's Amy will head to Columbia after a year-long stint of resume-building, do-gooder work in Botswana.

But achievement hasn't made Molly feel secure enough to do without the self-affirmation tapes that begin her day. And Amy, upfront about her gayness, is clueless when it comes to any real sexual encounters. Molly, by the way, isn't much better at reading hetero cues.

These young women have more than met expectations. But here's the rub: While Molly and Amy were hanging out in libraries, their classmates were having fun. And guess what? Most of the classmates who these nose-in-the-air teens have been deriding are on success tracks, as well. They’re either headed to great colleges or have found other ways to make an impact.

Feeling cheated, Molly and Amy vow to make up for the lost time in one night. They’ll find the best party and hit it hard.

Of course, lots goes wrong as the young women try to earn their party credentials. To begin with, they don’t know the location of the school’s purported best party. Moreover, their search for the ultimate party leads to many mistakes, including one that involves them with the school's rich kid (Skyler Gisondo). Nobody likes Gisondo's Jared, partly because he pushes so hard to be everyone's friend. Gisondo's Jared hangs out with a free-spirited girl (Billie Lourd) who Amy and Molly can't figure out.

Molly and Amy also are steered toward a party hosted by the school’s ultra-pretentious drama club before winding up at the party they wanted to attend in the first place. Noah Galvin and Austin Crute play the school's drama nerds.

There aren't many adults in view. Jason Sudeikis appears as a teacher who finds himself in an unexpected encounter with the two girls and Jessica Williams portrays a teacher who encourages the girls in their party pursuits.

I don't want to oversell Booksmart, but it’s a cut above the usual teen junk and Feldstein and Dever give winning performances before the movie concludes with a ringing endorsement of friendship and delivers its message: All work and no play makes for two insufferably successful girls and, perhaps more importantly, not everyone is the person you think they might be -- even in high school.

Shakespeare finds no peace at home

Kenneth Branagh's All is True speculates about the life of The Bard.
After a fire destroyed the Globe Theater during a 1613 production of Henry VIII, William Shakespeare decided to leave London's glare, put down his quill and spend the rest of his days in the company of his family. Sounds good, no? Of course, not.

In the hands of director Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the aging Shakespeare, The Bard's years in retirement are anything but trouble-free. He's deeply aggrieved over the death of a son he mostly neglected. His wife (Judi Dench) is older than he and treats him with what might be called warm tolerance. His daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) misses no opportunity to express her anger at him and another daughter (Lydia Wilson) has married a doctor (Hadley Fraser) whose uptight Puritanism gets on Will's nerves.

In short, the Shakespeare home is anything but peaceful in this speculative bit of fiction about the waning days of the greatest writer ever to put pen to paper.

Under such unruly circumstances, what's a bard to do?

Well, he must ward off potential scandals, manage his finances and deal with a wife who knows that his highly regarded love sonnets probably were not written for her.

All of this sounds intriguing, but Branagh's All Is True winds up sounding as if Ben Elton's screenplay was heavily influenced by modern sensibilities that resulted in dialogue that might have made Shakespeare wince.

The film's title derives from a scene in which an impatient Shakespeare, evidently fed up with being asked the same questions again and again, tells a would-be writer that if he explores the depths of his imagination and produces a work that reflects such depth, it will be true -- and that, in the world of fiction, anything that emanates from such a place must be true.

Is this Shakespeare or self-help?

This is not the only instance of uncharacteristically blunt speech in which Shakespeare and his squabbling family engage. Some of Judith's verbal assaults on a father who cherished his son but gave his daughter short shrift also have a contemporary ring.

With a receding hairline and an artificially extended nose, Branagh gives us a beleaguered Shakespeare who is much criticized by his family for having spent his time in London, ignoring his kin and wrapping himself in his career as a poet and dramatist.

I would have thought that Branagh, no stranger to Shakespeare, might have done better, and I would normally say that All Is True proves marginal or at least that viewing might easily be delayed until the movie is available through one streaming service or another.

But there's one scene that burns itself into memory.

Shakespeare meets with Henry Wriothesley, a.k.a, the 3rd Earl of Southhampton. Wriothesley, thought by many to be the Fair Youth of Shakespeare's sonnets, tries to convince Shakespeare that, as the greatest writer who has ever lived, he might be a touch less concerned about what his neighbors think about him.

Ian McKellen portrays the aging Wriothesley, a man no longer fair or youthful. McKellen adds something that has been missing throughout, a sense of sorrow, grandeur and Olympian intelligence delivered by an aristocrat who can see the finish line and who knows precisely where he's been. The Earl's biography resides in every shaded corridor of McKellen's face and in every inflection of his voice.

This is not to fault Branagh or the other actors, but to note that despite the revelation of family secrets and the march toward a big scene in which Shakespeare must face a truth that undermines his reality, it's McKellen who gives the movie its moment of pure transcendence.

An abundance of images, a shortage of plot

Long Day's Journey Into Night is visually intriguing and also extremely frustrating.

The title may be the same, but there's nothing about director Bi Gan’s film that resembles Eugene O'Neill's famous play. I’ve read that the Mandarin title for Bi's Long Day's Journey Into Night translates as Last Evenings on Earth, which is altogether more fitting for a drifting, art-drenched spectacle that offers whispered hints of a plots — or perhaps several plots.

Long Day’s Journey spends much of its two hours and 18 minutes meditating on dreams, memory, and movies. When I say meditating, I don't mean that the movie delves deeply into these topics, but that it instead tries to find cinematic equivalents for two of them; i.e., dreams and memory.

Ostensibly, the movie is about a man (Huang Jue) who returns to his home city in an effort to locate a mysterious woman (Tang Wei). During his trip, we learn about the man's friendship with a childhood buddy (Li Hongqi) who went to prison, and about his separation from his mother as a boy.

But mostly -- at least in my view -- Bi’s movie is about showcasing its imagery (there's plenty on display) with bows to Wong Kar-wai, the late Andrei Tarkovsky and other directors who can seem more interested in cinematic expression than in conventional storytelling.

If you see, Long Day's Journey as an extended mood piece with a noir spirit, you won't be far off, although you also may be able to say that the movie qualifies as an exploration of what transpires before the character at its center (he also delivers the movie's somewhat cryptic narration) finds his fleeting moment of love.

Bi employs lots of dreamy images (the glow of red neon on wet pavement, for example) and even includes a lengthy (60 minute) second half sequence that unfolds in a single take that will make you wonder how some of it was accomplished. Oh, I forgot to mention, that long take is presented in 3D.

I didn't see the movie that way, but even without 3D glasses, it's clear that Bi is interested in spatial depth as much as he's interested in developing characters.

Dream-like cinema always presents a challenge, and Bi’s is no exception. Watching Long Day's Journey sometimes feels as if you’re wandering through someone else's dream, floating through a world composed of memories and sensations that aren't your own. You sense the images have some kind of personal meaning, but it often proves elusive.

This can be frustrating and for the unsuspecting, Bi’s movie may prompt early searches for an exit. Talent and atmosphere are present in abundance, but I'd have to see at least one more movie before I'm willing to proclaim Bi a true visionary; i.e., not only a master of imagery but also a director with enough thematic reach to elevate his artistry into more meaningful realms.

It rains a lot during this long day's journey into night and many cigarettes are lit and smoked. If you insisted that I tell you what the movie is about I'd be tempted to say, water and chain smoking. So have it, your eyes will be rewarded even as your head is being scratched.

A father searches for his kidnapped son

If Liam Neeson hadn't already starred in movies about persistent, enraged fathers trying to rescue their kidnapped offspring, the French movie My Son might have had more kick. Writer/director Christian Carion tells the story of a dad (Guillaume Canet) who tries to find his kidnapped son (Lino Papa). To carry out his search, Canet's Julien, who mostly has been an absentee father to the boy, must return to the French countryside where his former wife Marie (Melanie Laurent) has taken up with a new man (Olivier de Benoist). The hot-headed Julien quickly gets crosswise with Benoist's Gregoire, whom he suspects of having kidnapped the troubled boy as a twisted way of ensuring a problem-free marriage to Marie. Carion cranks up the tension as Julien finds himself moving through a variety of situations that call upon him to put his violent impulses to use. In the most notable of these, Julien uses a blow torch to induce an accomplice in the kidnapping to talk. Carion creates suspense but discards various important characters without explanation and leaves us with a bunch of questions about what we've just witnessed. Also missing: the kind of probing that would have turned My Son into a real exploration of a guilt-ridden dad who knows little about the son for whom he's searching.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

John Wick's body count continues to rise

Keanu Reeves returns as the assassin who fights for his own survival in Chapter 3 of a series that's propelled by well-choreographed violence.

I'm not sure that John Wick has entered the highest ranks of iconic action characters, but he sure qualifies as one of the breed's most violent. If Keanu Reeves, who plays Wick, were paid by the number of dead bodies his character leaves in his wake, he'd be one of the richest men in Hollywood. In John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum, Wick's assailants fall like swatted flies.

Here's the Wick drill: Run. Pause. Put a gun to the head of an opponent. Fire once. Move gun. Fire again. Run some more. Repeat. And that's only the film's first half hour.

Directed by Chad Stahelski, Chapter 3 skillfully spreads two hours and 10 minutes of choreographed violence across the screen, continuing the series' bow at the altar of Hong Kong action where this kind of filmmaking first made its bones.

The screenplay for Chapter 3 isn't likely to wow anyone with either subtlety or plot. It provides a serviceable clothesline on which the film hangs its bloody accomplishments, all executed with obvious aplomb.

The point of movies such as this is to serve up the kind of massive violence that makes audiences laugh at the sheer audacity of the achievement -- and also wince on those occasions when things get particularly macabre: a sword through the gut, a knife slammed directly into a skull or a head cracked open with a blunt force blow applied to a library book that has been shoved into someone's mouth.

I mean all this as praise for the stab-kick-shoot-and-run brand of cinema that the John Wick movies have been selling since the original debuted in 2014. You have to give a bit of twisted credit to a movie that manages to work horses into the action while teaching an important lesson: Never stand behind a large animal that's capable of kicking you to next county.

All you need to know about the story is that Wick has gotten himself crosswise with the High Table, an organization that governs the world's assassins. He begins the movie with a $14-million bounty on his head. So, he runs, fights, gets bloodied and does his best to survive. The formula remains clear: Wick's survival requires the deaths of many others.

The movie sprinkles all this with a variety of characters designed either to help Wick or to kill him. Halle Berre shows up as Sofia, an assassin with two attack dogs that have been trained to latch onto an assailant's crotch. Anjelica Huston plays a ballet director who also runs a Russian mob operation. No judgment. Lots of people in the arts have to find ways to supplement their income. Mark Dacascos portrays Zero, a fighter who wants to bring Wick down even though he admires his prowess.

Some of the regulars show up, as well. These include Winston (Ian McShane), as the manager of the Continental Hotel and Lance Reddick, as the hotel's concierge. The Continental, you'll recall, is a safe zone where assassins can recharge their batteries without fear of being killed.< I doubt whether aspiring actors are going to be studying Reeve’s line readings and there’s no question that Chapter 3 overdoes its brutal thing. By the picture’s late going, I began to become — if not bored —- a bit indifferent to all the mayhem.

It's also worth noting that for all its action, Chapter 3 qualifies as something of a place holder, setting up the next movie which promises to be an even greater ass-kicker than this one. Maybe that movie will be called John Wick: Chapter 4 -- He Kills Everyone.

Can he be saved from death row

Strong performances but director Edward Zwick's anti-capital punishment movie is too on-the-nose.

Director Edward Zwick takes a direct hit at capital punishment with Trial By Fire, a drama based on the real-life story of a Texas man who was sentenced to die for a heinous crime. Todd Willingham was convicted of starting a fire in which his three children died.

Zwick serves up the drama in three acts. In the first, we meet a Texas couple, a low-down George and Martha -- Willingham and his wife (Emily Meade) -- who engage in no-holds-barred screaming matches, some of which turn physical.

Tragedy strikes early. Willingham wakes up one morning to discover that his house is on fire. When he can't save his children from the blaze, he winds up being charged with arson and murder.

At Willingham's trial, Zwick exposes gaps between the facts of the case and the testimony of police, witnesses, and experts. To make matters worse for Willingham, his alleged crime is viewed as horrible enough to deprive him of any public sympathy.

The movie's third act takes place in a Texas prison where Willingham awaits execution on death row. Still seething with anger, he fights with other inmates but insists on his innocence.

Late in his 12-year stay on death row, Willingham encounters Elizabeth (Laura Dern), a woman with whom he begins a correspondence. Initially wary, Elizabeth soon sets out to prove Willingham's innocence, a task that puts her in touch with key players who helped put Willingham on death row.

All of this plays out in ways that make the movie feel longer than its two hours, perhaps because Zwick digresses with flashbacks and because some parts of the story unfold independently of one another.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that Zwick ultimately takes a shot at Texas-style justice and the state's then Governor Rick Perry. He also designs the movie to show one of the major flaws in the argument for capital punishment. Death sentences can involve overzealous police work, shoddy defense counseling, and corrupted witnesses. Valid arguments, of course, but they give Trial By Fire a position-paper aura.

O’Connell and Dern give fine performances, as does Meade, as Willingham's wife. Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai) has an eye for a good story. But heavy-handed didacticism makes parts of Trial By Fire feel rigged, costing the story some of its power. As a result, Trial By Fire's anti-capital punishment stance most likely will speak only to the already converted.

'Shadow,' a darkly hued stunner

Director Zhang Yimou's latest stands as a foray into intrigue, warfare, martial arts and cinema aesthetics.
It's arguable that Zhang Yimou, who made his reputation as part of China’s vaunted fifth generation of filmmakers, never has equaled the achievement of some of his early work: movies such as Red Sorghum (1987) Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991).

A series of smaller, less formally structured movies such as To Live followed Zhang's international breakthrough. Then, he shifted gears. In 2002, he released Hero, a martial arts spectacle. Now comes Shadow, Zhang's latest costume/martial arts drama, a darkly hued epic in which heightened moments of intrigue play against fight sequences that are vivid, memorable and inventive.

Some rightly have seen the movie as a return to form for Zhang after 2016's deeply miscalculated The Great Wall, which starred Matt Damon as a white warrior battling monsters on (what else?) The Great Wall.

Set during China's Three Kingdoms period, Shadow pits rival factions in a battle to control a city that will cement the unity of the Kingdom of Pei. An insufferably egotistical and apparently incompetent leader, the king of Pei (Zheng Kai) wants peace at any price. He refuses to engage the other side in combat, even after its leader insults the king’s sister (Xiaotong Guan) by proposing that she become a concubine for his son.

Such is the story’s framework, but the spine of the tale involves the king’s main warrior, Commander Yu (Chao Deng). Gravely wounded in a battle that precedes the movie, the Commander wants to fight the foe for possession of the city of Jing. But — and here’s the plot’s main twist — the Commander is a doppelganger, a peasant selected by the real Commander who has been too weakened by battle wounds to carry on. Chao plays both roles.

The ruse forces Yu to feign a relationship with the Commander's beautiful wife (Sun Li), a woman known for playing zither duets with her husband. Not surprisingly, the double begins to fall for the Commander's wife, a woman he tries to keep at a distance.

Seasoned with high-toned melodrama and a purposefully exaggerated performance style, The Shadow builds toward an incomparably presented siege of Jing featuring images that are unlike anything I’ve seen before, including the use of umbrellas that open into a whirl of lethal blades. Zhang also offers an ingenious take on warfare's fabled Trojan Horse.

But it’s not just the weapons that make victory possible, it’s a martial arts move discovered by the general’s wife, a sashaying maneuver that adds thematic heft. Based on distinctly feminine gestures, this signature martial arts move looks almost comical when executed by men. No matter: Defeat can be avoided only if the feminine and masculine are conjoined.

The Shadow lies somewhere between the grandeur of Shakespeare and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, but the movie emerges as a visually towering work, perhaps even a fertile middle ground between Zhang’s earlier and later efforts. Searing battles bolster an intimate drama about power grabbing at the royal court.

Now 69, Zhang fuses spectacle and drama in a work that brims with intrigue and visual invention and reminds us what can happen when a master makes a movie that's steeped in conflicts so grand they feel as if the world's entire order hangs in the balance.

Time travel with a difference

See You Yesterday has a great main character and a pleasing home-grown feel.
The movies have a new heroine. She’s Claudette, a science whiz portrayed by 19-year-old Eden Duncan-Smith. Claudette even has a sidekick. He’s Sebastian, played by Dante Crichlow. These two budding geniuses attend New York city’s vaunted Bronx High School of Science. They’re super-smart and college bound. They also reside in a Brooklyn neighborhood where encounters with the police sometimes turn fatal.

The new movie See You Yesterday mixes sci-fi (time travel) and social anxieties in ways that are fresh and ultimately telling. Director Stefon Bristol gives a down-home spin to an implausible premise when Claudette and Sebastian invent backpacks that will enable them to travel backward in time — albeit only for 10 minutes of the previous day.

Before Claudette and Sebastian embark on one of their brief journeys, Claudette's brother (Brian Bradley, a.k.a., Astro) is killed by an overeager cop. Claudette wants to return to the scene of the incident that cost her innocent brother his life. Can she save him and restore order to her disrupted world?

A simple premise is enriched by the screenplay's smart observations about kids, responsibility and the thorny issues involved in trying to come to grips with inconsolable pain.

These bright black kids (in itself a worthy addition to the screen) never are separated from the world in which they live. They may be book smart but they’re hardly naive about the neighborhood they inhabit, a part of the city where solid family life can be juxtaposed with street encounters that easily can go bad.

Produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday doesn’t try to overpower the audience with typical time-travel tropes and overblown special effects.

Wisely, it stays close to its two main characters and, in the end, has more to say about how young people deal with injustice than about what it means to crack open the space-time continuum.

Put another way, this helping of sci-fi is bathed in the persistent intelligence of its main character, a commanding teenager with more on her mind than finding the next big party.

Nicely assembled and fleet at 86 minutes in length, See You Yesterday avoids the pre-packaged feel of a high-concept product that has been rolled off a studio assembly line. It's a home-grown kick.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The long voyage to nowhere

In this Swedish movie, space is not the final frontier; it's a punishment.
Not known for sci-fi movies, Sweden enters the fray with Anaria, a movie with a space-travel premise and a depressive soul that could have been channeled from the movies of another Swede, Ingmar Bergman. The story takes place aboard a spacecraft that begins a 23-day voyage to Mars. The passengers plan to start anew, the Earth having been ravaged. But a collision with space debris throws the craft off course. So begins a journey toward nowhere. The story centers on a character called MR (Emelie Jonsson), a woman who works in the part of the ship where passengers experience hallucinatory trips through their own memories, many involving Earth before whatever apocalypse made it uninhabitable. Directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja nicely establish the onboard environment, a cross between a shopping mall and a theme park that seems to have been designed by someone for whom consumer friendliness had become a religion. When things go wrong, the story works its way through a variety of problems that hinge on the ability of the crew and its captain (Arvin Kananian) to maintain hope. But the vast emptiness of space makes a mockery of hope, particularly when course correction efforts must be measured in years. The directors do a good job presenting the slow unraveling of both the onboard environment and the ship's many passengers. Alliances come and go. A cult forms. MR establishes a relationship with a female crew member. Imagine an entire goalless lifetime in which you’re adrift in an unfathomably large cosmos. Sound familiar? If so, it’s because the movie clearly has deep philosophical ambitions. Anaria gets its ideas across but doesn’t make them as deeply felt as material such as this probably requires. The film’s final image comes close to being haunting, but the entire idea of a going nowhere generates a bit of inherent boredom that sometimes clouds the journey.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

They con their way to laughs

Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson play clashing con artists in The Hustle, a reasonably entertaining comedy.

The Hustle -- a comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson -- remakes 1964's Bedtime Story, a movie that itself was remade as 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a much-praised comedy that starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Clearly, the aim here was gender reversal with women taking the lead as dueling con artists locked in a competition meant to tax all their felonious skills.

The comedy derives from a classic oil-on-water clash of personalities that are embodied in Wilson's unashamedly crude Penny and Hathaway's ostentatiously sophisticated Josephine.

Though uneven and burdened by a coda that works against the movie's feminist tilt, the comedy benefits from three attributes: An inviting setting -- Beaumont Sur Mer (a fictional town on the French Riviera) -- and two all-in performances from Hathaway and Wilson.

Clad in costumes that amount to a one-woman fashion show, Hathaway employs a variety of accents, mostly to good comic effect. Wilson adds plenty of ribald energy.

The con jobs carried out by these women aren't especially convincing and a major gag (Wilson's character feigns blindness) flirts with questionable taste, but Hathaway and Wilson work well together and there are enough chuckles to satisfy amusement-hungry appetites.

The story revolves around a competition in which the two women, who are battling for possession of the same luxe turf, try to con a young app developer. Alex Sharp brings gee-golly innocence to his portrayal of a tech whiz with money.

The big gags sometimes feel like examples of sketch humor dropped into the story. At one point, the women wrangle high-priced engagement rings from various marks -- notably, a Texan played by Dean Norris. Penny poses as Josephine's crazy sister, a mad woman who purportedly accompanies any marriage to the lustrous Josephine. Once exposed to Penny, the enticed fiances can't flee quickly enough.

Director Chris Addison doesn't seem to be chasing cinematic history; the movie makes no attempt to conceal its escapist impulses, so even if The Hustle fails to enter the pantheon of great comedy, it proves reasonably entertaining. Moreover, its two stars manage to dispel the aroma of familiarity (what another con-job movie?) that could have put a choke-hold on their efforts.

A movie that can't match an extraordinary life

Ralph Fiennes directs The White Crow, a choppy bio-pic about ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Actor Ralph Fiennes again moves behind the camera to direct The White Crow, the story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. But rather than soaring, his movie slogs, perhaps because an extraordinary life deserves an extraordinary movie. Structurally choppy and unevenly acted, The White Crow seldom gets beyond adequate.

Aside from his dance career (or perhaps in conjunction with it), Nureyev became an international celebrity after defecting to the West in 1961. Regarded as one of the premier male dancers of his day, Nureyev turned his back on the Soviet Union while touring with the Kirov Ballet in Paris.

In the White Crow, Fiennes touches on various incidents in Nureyev's life. But he doesn't infuse his movie with any overriding point of view about artistry, politics or even the world of ballet.

Burdened by flashbacks to Nureyev's childhood, the movie features a Nureyev played by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko. Ivenko's Nureyev comes across as a vibrant, assertive young man with a killer stage presence that sometimes made up for a lack of technical polish, at least in the dancer's early years.

Working from a screenplay by playwright David Hare, Fiennes treats Nureyev as kind of "it" boy of the dance, a sexually fluid young man who begins to discover the world in Paris, making frequent trips to the Louvre. He also immerses in Parisian nightlife, usually in the company of the young woman (Adele Exarchopoulos) who eventually helps stage Nureyev's defection, which takes place at a Paris airport and constitutes the film's high point.

Fiennes himself makes an appearance as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev's Leningrad-based instructor who's something of a sad sack, a less-than-charismatic soul. Recovering from an injury, Nureyev moves in with Pushkin. The proximity leads to an affair between Nureyev and Pushkin's wife (Chulpan Khamatova), not exactly the best way for a young dancer to thank his mentor.

The movie gets close to a subject that needed more examination: the complex relationship between Nureyev and a Soviet minder (Aleksey Morozov) who has difficulty reconciling his duties (preventing defections) with Nureyev's free-spirited nature.

Fiennes includes dance sequences that reflect an appreciation of dance by doing what should have been done throughout the entire movie: Dances are mostly presented whole, not chopped into bits that disrupt the narrative flow.

The White Crow also touches on Nureyev's bisexuality. (He died of AIDS in 1993.) And as portrayed by Ivenko, it's clear that Nureyev may have thought that his talent justified his self-involvement. He didn't seem to think much about others.

The movie seems to assume that we already know that Nureyev was a major figure in dance. Lacking, however, is a feeling for the fascination that brought Fiennes to this project in the first place. Too much of the time, The White Crow is a movie without a sense of the imperative.

Bob's cinema diary: 4/8/'19 Dogman and Charlie Says


Marcello (Marcello Fonte) earns his living grooming dogs. But in the rundown Italian coastal town where Marcello lives, this simple occupation may not be enough to support an estranged wife and a young daughter. So Marcello occasionally sells cocaine. The great irony of director Matteo Garrone's Dogman centers on Marcello’s personality. Cocaine or no, he hardly seems a typical gangster. He's a simple, good-hearted fellow who tries to get along with everyone, including the town bully (Edoardo Pesce). Pesce's Simone becomes a kind of one-man scourge, attacking people, destroying property and generally terrorizing the town's residents. He's so much a nuisance that one of the town’s businessmen go so far as to propose that an assassin be hired. As the story unfolds, Garrone (Gomorrah) turns Marcello into an unfortunate sap whose innocence and rudimentary sense of honor only add to his troubles. Garrone’s narrative builds toward an explosive ending that leaves Marcello alone and abandoned against the decaying landscape of the town where he has tried so hard to fit in. Those familiar with Garrone's work will be tempted to read metaphorical meanings into a simple tale that takes place against a backdrop of ruined buildings. As we follow Marcello's story, hope gradually gives way to feelings of abandonment. Marcello displays sweet affection for dogs and for his daughter. Even so, Garrone refuses to see life in Italy (and perhaps beyond) through a lens tinted by optimism. In Dogman, Marcello’s love for others goes largely unrequited.

Charlie Says

Rather than try to explain Charles Manson, director Mary Harron's Charlie Says concentrates on Manson’s spell-binding relationship with the women who ultimately carried out or abetted him in the Tate/LaBianca murders, endlessly discussed crimes that left an indelible mark on American culture. The movie focuses on three women: Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon). After immersing in the cult-like atmosphere of the Manson family's California commune, Harron brings us to the murders. She follows the carnage with a lengthy section in which a teacher (Merritt Wever) tries to help each of the women -- by then imprisoned in maximum security -- achieve some degree of self-realization. Perhaps this is where the movie should have started. At it stands, Harron (American Psycho) doesn't provide a compelling enough reason for taking another drive through Manson country. And without more context, the free-floating atmosphere of the '60s -- manifested mostly through sex, drugs and the charisma Manson (Matt Smith) supposedly projected -- seems a trifle ridiculous. Last week, I wondered whether we needed another film about Ted Bundy (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile). I had my doubts, but in this case, it seemed clear that Charlie Says doesn't offer enough by way of insight to answer the question that inevitably seems to arise with movies about heinous crimes, particularly those that already have been the subject of enough books and movies to qualify as an industry: Exactly why am I watching?

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A comedy about a 50th birthday

Amy Poehler makes her directorial debut with Wine Country, a comedy about six friends who gather at a home in the Napa Valley to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of their number. When you watch Wine Country, it will be difficult not to see that the women on the screen -- a group that includes Maya Rudolph, Paula Pell, Rachel Dratch, and Ana Gasteyer, as well as Poehler and Emily Spivey -- are having a good time. That impression may result from the fact that some of these women evidently made a similar trip together in real life, which is where Poehler got the idea for the movie. She even makes room for old pal Tina Fey, who appears in a drop-in role as the owner the house the women have rented for their weekend celebration. Poehler makes sure that each of these women has a highlight moment with the best delivered by Pell, as the group's gay pal, and the always enjoyable Rudolph, as a woman who's secretly worrying about a possible health issue. Dratch portrays the self-effacing woman whose birthday the group is celebrating. The movie also includes a visit from a tarot card reader (Cherry Jones) and a cameo from TED Talks star Brene Brown. Jason Schwartzman signs on as Devon, the chef and chauffeur who comes with the rented house and who spends hours making paella for the group. The women are characterized in ways that reflect someone's idea -- actually screenwriters Spivey and Liz Cackowski -- about what might be on the minds of 50-year-old women: aging, careers, marriages, and relationships (or the lack of them). You won't hear anything resembling the kind of discussions that rely on high-flying bouts of imagination. More amusing than uproarious, Wine Country's cast sells this slender movie, which includes the usual "serious" counterpoint that seems to have become part of every comedy. The story resolves predictably, but the actresses who gather in wine country give the movie its kick -- not a major kick, but a kick nonetheless.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

She's beautiful; he's a schlub

Long Shot goes for laughs by teaming Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron. It probably will be a hit -- but not with me.
The Long Shot, an improbable romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron (beautiful) and Seth Rogen (schlubby) likely will score with audiences, more for its comedy than its romance. Directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50), the movie plays to the expectation that someone who looks like Theron -- and who does a better job of looking like Theron than Theron herself? -- possibly could fall for someone who looks like Rogen, who, as far as we know, never has been mistaken for Bradley Cooper.

To make the movie even more ludicrous, Theron portrays a Secretary of State with presidential ambitions and Rogen has been hired to play a rogue journalist who has little respect for anything that might be described as the "official" world. It's reasonable to wonder how Rogen's Fred Flarsky would even know someone such as Theron's Charlotte Field.

We quickly learn that the relationship traces back to Fred's teens. The slightly older Charlotte babysat for Fred, who expressed his fondness for her with an erection that caused his pants to bulge. Evidently, the moment was so important that Fred never forgot it.

When Fred and Charlotte meet as adults -- if that's what the character played by Rogen can be called -- they strike up a relationship. They meet, by the way, at a party at which Boyz II Men makes an appearance. Turns out they're both Boyz II Men fans. What are the odds?

Charlotte is impressed with Fred's candor as a supposedly fearless and funny journalist who works for a Brooklyn newspaper. As luck would have it, Fred is newly unemployed having quit his job when his paper was taken over by a right-wing tycoon.

Field hires Fred as a speechwriter and ... well ... I don't have to tell you that one thing leads to another and an unlikely romance blossoms between the Secretary of State and this slovenly Secretary of Sate. (I know, "sate" isn't a noun, but I couldn't resist.)

The movie plays a bad-taste card early. In his effort to infiltrate a meeting of neo-Nazis, Fred agrees to have a swastika tattooed on his arm. That way, the skinheads will believe he's one of their Jew-hating brethren. Sure.

I suppose all of this could have worked had the screenplay, credited to Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, found a comic tone that could accommodate both meathead humor and something slightly more sophisticated.

If Long Shot scores with audiences, it may be because Levine's understands that all successful comedies require a couple of major moments that have been engineered to elicit the always desirable Big Laugh.

At one point, Field's advisors (June Diane Raphael), tries to embarrass Fred, who has been told that he should shed his neo-hippie attire and find a suit he can wear to one of Field's appearances at an international conference. They find him a suit that would look out-of-place at a Scandinavian folk festival, but the joke is undermined by a question: Would Fred really be stupid enough to wear this ridiculous outfit?

If you're going to hire Rogen, it's probably fitting to work masturbation into the story and if you can find a way to include a masturbation joke with ejaculate, you've struck gold. Levine does both. I'll say no more.

If you've seen any Rogen performance, you already know that he'll punctuate the proceedings with wisecracks, some of them clever. Theron gives a reasonably adept comic performance as her character is put in the position of having to defend Fred against those who believe that he's too much the irredeemable slob to qualify as a romantic partner for someone who aspires to the nation's highest office, currently held by a self-involved fool played by Bob Odenkirk.

The supporting cast includes Alexander Skarsgard as the Canadian Prime Minister, a suave, good-looking fellow who's supposed to make an ideal companion for Charlotte, aside from his creepy pretensions and a fingernails-on-blackboard laugh. O'Shea Jackson Jr. shows up as one of Fred's buddies, a guy who's successful in business. Andy Serkis, looking strange as ever, plays the media mogul who's trying to gobble up the entire media world.

I know from the reaction of a preview audience that enough folks will find Long Shot hilarious to make it into a small hit. To wit: There's even a scene in which the Secretary of State, uncharacteristically high on drugs, must deal with a national security crisis.

But I'm not casting my vote for a comedy that, like a long-winded political speech, goes on for two hours, and which too often seems more interested in packaging gags than in taking on political hypocrisy or, heaven forbid, something audiences truly hold sacred: the romantic comedy. Rather than challenging the form, the movie can't resist capitulating to it.

It was his home and he won't let go

The Intruder squanders any promise with a hopeless descent into horror cliches.

Indecision is a bad quality in a genre movie. If you take a look at IMDb, you'll find that The Intruder has been assigned multiple genre labels. This movie about a successful young black couple that buys a beautiful Napa Valley house only to be tormented by the home's previous owner carries a quartet of genre headings: drama, horror, mystery, and thriller.

Had the movie opted for mystery and drama, it might have proved less laughable. But thriller and horror elements wind up dominating. That leaves The Intruder with only one notable quality: an over-the-top performance from Dennis Quaid as an apparently helpful widower who refuses to abandon the house that he says he associates with his grown daughter and late wife.

If you'd never seen another movie, you might think that The Intruder is going to touch on psychological and perhaps racial issues. But you, as someone in possession of a reasonable amount of movie sentience, already know that the Quaid's Charlie Peck will go from annoying to menacing almost before you have a chance to take that first bite of popcorn.

And that's part of the movie's problem. Had director Deon Taylor and screenwriter David Loughery taken more time making us wonder about Quaid's character, the movie might have made its attractive young couple (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good) seem more credible. Good's character, in particular, suffers from a bad case of failure to see the obvious.

Allowing the audience to know more than the characters may be part of Taylor's strategy. It sets up the kind of obvious jump scares that mark standard horror, including a tired old standby that elicits audience groans and laughter. At one point, Good's character descends into a creepy basement with a flashlight. A vocal audience at a preview screening had no difficulty letting her know that she'd just made a really dumb move.

This kind of manipulation can be fun, but in the case of The Intruder, it drags the movie into a junk heap of silliness.

There isn't much help by way of a supporting cast, aside from Joseph Sikora, who plays Mike, a business partner of Ealy's Scott. They run a trendy San Francisco ad agency that has made them both a ton of money.

Feeble attempts are made to add psychological depth. Good's Annie can be jealous of her husband, who -- we learn -- has a good reason for not wanting guns around the house. But Quaid's Charlie Peck emerges as a monster who requires no other explanation than the fact that we're watching a movie that can't resist horror movie cliches. Oh well, Quaid takes on this duty with apparent glee.

Sledgehammer jolts of music and a tendency to telegraph its moves trample any suggestion of subtlety on the part of The Intruder. The result: The only thing that's intruded upon here is any desire the movie might have had to be taken seriously.

A dramatized look at Ted Bundy

Zac Efron makes a convincing Bundy, but it's not always easy to figure out what director Joe Berlinger has in mind.

I can't say that I recommend Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile -- a dramatized version of the murderous years of serial killer Ted Bundy's life. To be honest: I'm still grappling with my own reaction to this Netflix movie.

As someone who worked on a Denver newspaper's city desk back when Bundy was being held in an Aspen jail (he escaped), I'm not sure that I know much more about Bundy than I did before I saw Extremely Wicked. Directed by Joe Berlinger, who also created the Netflix series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the movie builds around Zac Efron's terrific performance as the charming, intelligent killer.

On the surface, Bundy was a young law student, who, as the judge at his trial stated, could have led an admirable life but who went a different way. Talk about understatement.

At the same time as I say that I can't recommend Extremely Wicked, I have to admit that I watched it with interest, mostly because Berlinger -- an Oscar winner for his documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory -- makes two interesting choices: First, he doesn't show us Bundy committing his most brutal crimes and second he allows Efron to stay within a range of normality that's challenged by everything we already know about Bundy.

When Bundy gently caresses the neck of girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), we fear for her, even though she seems to be part of the "ordinary" existence that Bundy tries to maintain. This may make it sound as if Berlinger, who based the story on Kendall's book, The Phantom Prince; My Life With Ted Bundy, suggests that Bundy had a split personality. He doesn't.

If the movie has a point: It's this: This apparently normal guy -- good-looking and with plausible political aspirations -- is exactly the same fellow who mercilessly kills young women.

Efron gives a compelling performance but Berlinger doesn't dig deeply enough into Liz's love for Ted. As a single mom, she trusted Bundy with her young daughter. She couldn't deny her feelings for him. As Bundy moves through his various legal tribulations, Liz drinks too much. She struggles to fend off the truth about the man she once intended to marry. Perhaps Liz alone should have been the movie's main concern.

Like many true crime movies, Extremely wicked ends up in a courtroom. There, Bundy proves adept at defending himself. John Malkovich portrays the judge who presides over Bundy's trial, but Malkovich's innate eloquence can’t quite accommodate the homespun remarks of a judge who speaks the words that give the movie its lengthy title.

At 110 minutes, the movie feels long because, in the end, it has only one point to make: Bundy, whose ease and charm fooled many women into becoming victims, may have been able to fool himself, as well.

So don't ask me if you should see this movie. The answer depends on whether you want to see a sometimes intriguing movie that may leave you unsure about its merits. All I'll say is that Efron seldom has been better and that fascination with a 1970s story that once gripped the nation hasn't entirely faded.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/2/19 -- Ask Dr. Ruth and Red Joan

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. 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.

Ask Dr. Ruth

At 90, Dr. Ruth Westheimer remains a kick. The intrepid sex therapist and giver of advice possesses enough spunk and spirit to fill two documentaries. Fair to say that director Ryan White lucked out by getting Westheimer to participate in his bio-doc. Amusing and lively, Westheimer fills Ryan's Ask Dr. Ruth with the charm, candor, and personality that made her a natural for radio, television and offbeat celebrity. Hearing Dr. Ruth talk about subjects as varied as masturbation, orgasm, and anal and oral sex is a bit like listening to candid sex talk from the Jewish grandmother you wish you had had. Those unfamiliar with Dr. Ruth's story will learn much about a woman who left Germany for a Swiss orphanage as a child; her parents were murdered in the Holocaust. We learn how she became educated and how she made her unabashed way into a world that easily could have crushed her. I wish that Ryan hadn't relied on animated sequences to tell the story of Westheimer's war years as a child, but that may be a quibble. Westheimer, who has lived in the same Washington Heights apartment for 50 years, has the kind of star power that belies her diminutive stature. Her intriguing story and her commitment to speaking frankly about sex make the film irresistible. The thing about asking Dr. Ruth a question is that -- like it or not -- you're going to get an answer.
Red Joan

Red Joan, a movie that explores the motives behind a treasonous act in which a young woman provides the Soviets with secrets that lead to their development of an atomic bomb, might have been better had Judi Dench -- as the Joan of the title -- been used as a little more than a framing device. Arrested years after her crime, Dench's Joan has flashbacks in which she recalls the bulk of the story, which centers on her love life and gradual emergence as an idealistic physicist. Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan. Cookson is fine as a bright young woman who, while at Cambridge, falls for a Jewish Communist (a cliche) portrayed by Tom Hughes. The movie doesn't establish sufficient context to explain why many bright young people became enamored with Russia during the 1930s. Another leftist (Tereza Srbova) introduces Joan to Hughes' Leo, who appears throughout the story as he tries to persuade Joan about the rectitude of his cause while raising suspicions that he’s simply using her. Stephen Campbell Moore plays the head of the British research team that's trying to develop the bomb in an information-sharing effort with Canada. The movie's geopolitics produce little by way of sizzle, and director Trevor Nunn's effort to turn Joan into a peace-seeking heroine seem, at best, naive. In sum, fine cast; tepid result.