Thursday, June 27, 2019

‘Yesterday’ almost goes the distance

A story about a world from which The Beatles have vanished mixes energetic highs with moments that show considerably less inspiration.

Director Danny Boyle takes a trip into Beatle world with Yesterday, a fantasy written by Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of such hits as Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Curtis' repertoire suggests that Yesterday will be a sweet love story with a bit of wit and plenty of amiable characters. The movie almost goes the distance.

The premise is outlandish. During a global blackout, an aspiring singer (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus. When Patel's Jack awakens, he learns that he's evidently the only person in the world who has ever heard of the Beatles or who knows any of their songs.

With his career going nowhere, Jack decides to appropriate tunes from the Beatles songbook. His friends think that he actually wrote them. Jack goes along with the ruse, and his astronomical rise begins.

Prior to Jack's ascent, he was being managed by his childhood pal (Lily James), a school teacher who might have been his only real fan. James’ Ellie also loves Jack, but he's unable to see her as anything but a friend. Tuck that away because you know that in this sometimes sugary fantasy, Ellie still will be around when the story concludes.

Joel Fry appears as Rocky, Jack's irresponsible but lovable pal, the guy who accompanies him on a journey that takes him to LA, where he prepares for the release of his first album, a recording that's supposedly going to revolutionize music as we know it.

Kate McKinnon, in a slightly overstated performance, signs on as Jack's money-grubbing, fame-hungry agent. She invites Jack to sip from what she calls "the poison chalice;" i.e., she wants him to imbibe money and fame. Jack goes along because ... well ... who wouldn't?

Ed Sheeran, a real musician, shows up to endorse Jack's talent, at one point proclaiming that Jack can out-write him when it comes to songs.

A predictable question looms: When will Jack ever fess up? Will his conscience drag him toward the moment when he must inform the world that he's not the greatest songwriter who ever lived, but a guy who's gained fame by capitalizing on someone else's work?

Some of the humor stems from the way that the business people try to package Jack. The suits turn down Jack's suggested album titles. Abbey Road, The White Album and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band make no sense, he's told. Hey, Jude will never sell, he's instructed. Try Hey, Dude instead.

The money people want to market Jack as a unique talent, an obvious irony considering that Jack is really a cover artist singing Beatles’ tunes.

The Beatles' songs that Boyle includes and which Patel performs can be energetic and touching, but they're still only cover versions -- and not the real deal.

When Boyle finds the right energy, Yesterday springs to life. James does a fine version of the sweet, decent girl next door, and Patel acquits himself well enough in the musical numbers, although he's stuck playing a character who doesn't always register high on the personality scale.

The best number: Jack’s frenzied, panicky version of Help, a song that perfectly fits his mood at that moment in the story.

Given Curtis' love-struck track record and the general lightness of the material, it should surprise you that All You Need is Love will be prominently featured.

No point carping about the movie's premise about a world that never has heard of The Beatles, but what audiences may remember is that the Beatles weren't only about their music. They were also four distinct personalities who captured the world’s imagination, first as mop-topped rockers, later as serious artists and always as larger than life pop-cultural emblems, icons of their time.

I never really believed that Jack could have become such a figure. He’s got the tunes: The Beatles were more.

A new take on an old character

It boasts a beautifully mounted production, but this telling of Hamlet's story from Ophelia's point-of-view falls short.

Say this: director Claire McCarthy has made a beautifully appointed and carefully staged Ophelia, a lush adaptation of a Lisa Klein novel that tells Hamlet's story from Ophelia's point of view.

In McCarthy's Shakespearean inside-outing, Star Wars star Daisy Ridley portrays Ophelia, who -- in this version -- emerges a strong figure from the classic story about a Danish prince who can't make up his mind whether to be or not to be. But is Ophelia anything more than a gimmicky costume drama? That's the question.

The answer: Not entirely.

Early on, Queen Gertrude (Namoi Watts) selects Ophelia as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Before Hamlet (George MacKay) prepares to leave Elsinore, he begins flirting with Ophelia; it's clear that he's smitten.

To arrive where she wants to go -- the emergence of Ophelia as an independent force -- MacKay must alter the original story. Among other things, we learn that Gertrude has a long-lost sister who's also a potion-dispensing witch (also played by Watts). The witch becomes instrumental in the plot -- albeit not in predictable ways.

Meanwhile, Gertrude fights the temptation to start an affair with the king's brother (Clive Owen). Owen's Claudius -- in the midst of what looks like a series of epic bad hair days -- has designs on the throne. Once the king has been dispatched, he takes Gertrude as his queen.

The character of Ophelia has been modernized in ways that can seem a bit too on-the-nose. She can read and knows how to stand up for herself. She cautions the brooding Hamlet not to toy with her affections. Ophelia represents the antithesis of courtly hypocrisy; a straightforward young woman, she refuses to play games.

Tom Felton, of the Harry Potter movies, portrays Laertes; Dominic Mafham plays Polonius; and Devon Terrell appears as Horatio. All are more or less relegated to secondary figures but are made more interesting by comparing their portrayals to what we might have seen in past productions of Hamlet.

Shot in the Czech Republic, Ophelia looks great but its beauty can't overcome the movie's two big problems. Half the time, you may find yourself trying to connect the events on screen to those you remember from Shakespeare's play.

The other problem: The story seems to have been engineered as much as written. I'd have preferred to have seen the chips (not to mention the story's numerous corpses) land where they might have fallen. Instead, I was distracted by the strain of the plot manipulations that bring Ophelia's story into focus and sometimes make the characters feel more contrived than real.

Guess what? Dad is a bigamist

Being Frank can't wring enough laughs from an outrageous situation.

Comedies sometimes pick a twisted premise and then play variations on the themes it suggests.

So goes Being Frank, a comedy about a son who discovers that his father is a bigamist. In comedy, almost everything is fair game, but in this case, the premise seems a little too twisted and the variations aren't funny enough to make up for any lapses of taste.

Jim Gaffigan portrays Frank, a father who mistreats his son, 17-year-old Philip (Logan Miller). An aspiring musician, Philip can't please his highly critical father.

Dad, who presides over the family ketchup factory, claims that he frequently must travel to Japan to take care of business. The catch: Dad never really visits Japan.

Instead, he spends time with his second family, another wife (Samantha Mathis), another son (Gage Polchlopek) and another daughter (Isabelle Phillips). Frank's first wife (Anna Gunn) suspects nothing. Same goes for Philip (at least initially) and his younger sister (an amusing Emerson Tate Alexander).

As it turns out, tyrannical Frank transforms into his polar opposite when he's with his second family; he becomes a fun father who can't heap enough praise on his football-playing son.

Working from a screenplay by Glen Lakin, director Miranda Bailey tries to wring laughs out the confusion that mounts when Philip discovers Frank's long-running ruse and begins hanging out with Dad's second family -- never, of course, disclosing his real identity.

Bailey, who sets the story in the 1990s, tries to make the movie more palatable by giving Frank an opportunity to explain how he got himself into this predicament in the first place. I guess we're supposed to think Frank's not the worst guy in the world. Some last-minute father/son bonding may also be part of the attempt to soften the movie's rough edges.

But bigamy and deceit don't have a ton of laugh potential, particularly when kids are involved and women are being exploited.

No faulting a game cast, but even talented actors can't make this creaky and marginally creepy farce hit enough of the right notes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary -- 6/28/19: Pavarotti, The Quiet One and Framing John DeLorean



It doesn't make a great deal of sense to compare Ron Howard's Pavarotti to other music documentaries or even to great opera films: Howard has made a movie for fans. It's difficult to imagine that those who revere Pavarotti won't get their money's worth. Larger than life, Luciano Pavarotti was a mega-celebrity with of international repute. The only other time, I got to mention Pavarotti in a movie was when I reviewed (or more accurately "torched) his only big-screen appearance, a 1982 musical drama/comedy called Yes, Giorgio. Howard's film stands as a celebration of a man who seemed to embody a spirit that matched his ample physical girth. Most audiences will thrill, as did audiences at the time, to the Three Tenors concerts that packed stadiums when Pavarotti joined with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Howard's documentary moves fluidly as it follows Pavarotti's ascent into the upper ranks of the history's great tenors. We get a taste for some of Pavorotti's excesses. He dumped his first wife for a much younger woman and perhaps overextended his reach by collaborating with Bono, whose laudatory remarks add to the generally positive atmosphere. Overall, Howard leaves us with the impression of a lusty man of great appetites. Pavarotti sometimes traveled with as many as 29 suitcases, one of them devoted to his favorite foods. But whatever you think of the man -- his personal life wasn't always exemplary -- it's impossible not to be stirred by Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma (from Turandot), his ear-splitting high "Cs" and the great ebullience with which he seemed to live. Was it all an illusion? Possibly but Howard's documentary reminds us that, at his peak, Pavarotti was an artist with, as he wanted us to believe, the soul of a peasant. If that was BS; it was BS of an irresistible variety.

The Quiet One

I don't suppose there could be two more different musical personalities than Luciano Pavarotti and Bill Wyman, the legendary bassist of The Rolling Stones. Ebullient and outgoing, Pavarotti seems a polar opposite of the reserved Wyman, a rock star who mostly eschewed the trappings of his very public life. Director Oliver Murray makes ample use of Wyman's collection of memorabilia to tell a story that deals with the musician's difficult childhood, with his approach to bass guitar and with his years with the Stones. Now 82, Wyman retired from the Stones to form his own band, Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings. Along with plenty of Stones' footage, you'll gain insight into how Wyman approached his work. He saw his role as a mixture of minimalism and close cooperation with Stones' drummer Charlie Watts. Murray overuses images of Wyman at his computer in a room the bassist devotes to his personal archives, collections of materials from his life -- musical and otherwise. The most revealing moments arrive at the end when Wyman becomes emotionally overwhelmed by recalling a meeting with one of his idols, Ray Charles. Even with its deficiencies -- length and occasional repetition -- The Quiet One probably qualifies as a must-see for Stones' fans and, perhaps, a less-compelling offering for casual enthusiasts.

Framing John Delorean

I could have done with re-enactments featuring Alec Baldwin as John DeLorean, but overall Framing John DeLorean -- directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce -- proves an intriguing look at an engineering genius turned entrepreneur, criminal and finally born-again Christian. Before setting out on his own, John DeLorean was a star at General Motors, having been responsible for the Pontiac division's hot-selling GTO, an early muscle car that GM's corporate sages initially derided. DeLorean overplayed his hand at GM, left the company and established his own car company. (The DeLorean, you'll recall, appeared in the movie Back to the Future and still crops up at gatherings of specialty car enthusiasts.) In 1973, DeLorean opened his plant in Northern Ireland even as the legendary "Troubles" raged. Despite government assistance, DeLorean couldn't make the company work, and the cars produced in Ireland didn't meet the high-quality standards DeLorean promised. In desperate need of funds, DeLorean was drawn into a cocaine sting operation but was acquitted after his attorneys mounted an entrapment defense. Shortly after, DeLorean became involved in a complex scheme that led to charges that he had embezzled funds from DMC (The DeLorean Motor Company). Although I found the re-enactments less than impressive, Baldwin's out-of-character observations about DeLorean can be interesting and it's equally intriguing to watch Baldwin being made-up to look like DeLorean. DeLorean's marriage (the third of four) to model Cristina Ferrare receives its share of attention and we also hear from DeLorean's two children. As is the case with many rogues, DeLorean fascinates as a risk-taker who, at times, really was the smartest guy in any room. But as is also the case with many such people, a mixture of hubris and an over-estimation of his ability to pull even dire situations out of the fire led to a sad end. DeLorean died in 2005.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Toys are us -- or at least pretty human

Toy Story 4 balances real issues, fun and undisguised sentiment.
What’s an aging toy to do?

That question hovers over Toy Story 4, giving the movie a strange relevance that goes along with the comfort and amusement we associate with toys.

In this edition, Woody -- the familiar cowboy toy voiced by Tom Hanks -- faces a struggle between loyalty and personal fulfillment. Bo Peep (voice by Annie Pots) already has struck out on her own. She’s given up on the idea of belonging to a child. Long separated from the lamp they once called home, Bo and her sheep roam the country as free ... geez ... I almost said beings.

After a brief prologue, director Josh Cooley plunges into a story that takes some odd turns. Bonnie, Woody’s latest “owner,” has been ignoring the cowboy, but Woody continues in his loyalty, even sneaking into Bonnie’s backpack to help her deal with her terrifying first day at school.

During that fateful day, Bonnie makes a toy out of a spork and pipe cleaners. Named Forky and having been granted toy status by virtue of Bonnie’s affection, the newbie springs to life.

Initially, Forky has trouble giving up his previous identity as a disposable piece of trash. Left to his own devices, Forky instinctively leaps into the nearest wastebasket, forcing Woody to rescue him -- not because he cares that much about Forky but because he knows Bonnie will be distraught if she loses a toy she made.

When Bonnie’s family takes an RV trip, the story takes an even weirder turn. Woody and Forky wind up in an antique store where they’re terrorized by four ventriloquist dummies and their leader, a doll called Gaby Gaby (Christina Hendricks). An old-fashioned girl doll with eyelids that drop into a blink, Gabby wants to steal Woody’s voice box to enhance her desirability. If a kid can pull her string and hear Gaby talk — routine doll babble that has nothing to do with her "real" vocal skills — perhaps she’ll be able to fulfill her destiny and find her very own human.

And, no, I can’t believe I’m writing about the motivations of toys, but such is the life of movie critics and children.

The dummies give Toy Story 4 a weird horror-movie tilt — at least for a few minutes. I half wish Disney had gone all the way and really taken Toy Story 4 off the rails, but that, of course, would have been commercial suicide.

Instead, the Pixar team balances the sentimental, the slightly scary and the blatantly emotional in a package that marks a definite improvement of the last installment.

As with all sequels, this one has been accessorized with a few new features, notably two furry toys. Jordan Peele gives voice to Bunny and Keegan-Michael Key does voice work for Ducky. Even better, Keanu Reeves provides the voice for Duke Caboom, a failure-prone motorcycle-riding daredevil. It's one of Reeves’ best performances.

Old standby Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) tags along for the ride, taking a bit of back seat to the other characters. But even Buzz receives a showcase moment.

The always reliable Pixar animation can seem a bit creepy — plastic faces that never fully come to life. But what the heck, these are toys. Besides, humans have relatively little to do with this edition; they’re around to give the toys a sense of purpose.

If an adult friend (sans kids) asked me whether he or she should race out to see Toy Story 4, I’d probably shrug. If you must. But parents who see the movie with their kids won’t be bored and Disney always gives enough cartoonish bounce to its endeavors to keep youngsters happy — even if they’re not tuned into what some critics are calling an “existential” edition of Toy Story.

The end credits will help you decide whether Bo Peep and Woody have a future. This may not be as pressing a question as whether artificial intelligence will deprive you of employment or whether climate change will torment your progeny in ways you hardly can imagine, but for a couple of hours, Disney and its fine voice cast help you get caught up in it.

A footnote: I wonder whether kids will realize that they can make Forky at home and without jumping onto any merchandising bandwagon. This could start a massive new trend that cripples sales of movie-related toys: Kids actually making things themselves. What a concept.

Watching inhabitants of the publishing world

Non-Fiction examines life within a narrow yet revealing frame.
About a quarter of the way through director Olivier Assayas‘s Non-Fiction, my wife turned to me and whispered, "I can't stand these people." Her abhorrence seemed entirely justified.

Assayas's dive into the besieged world of book publishing -- complete with copious conversations about the digital onslaught that threatens the literary soul -- focuses on narcissistic intellectuals who have affairs as casually as the rest of us might have lunch and who seem to hide behind veils of self-assured posturing. Among this group, it's not easy to separate conviction from self-interest.

And yet...

There's an undeniable sense of life in Non-Fiction along with fine performances in a story that begins when the editor of a publishing house (Guillaume Canet) rejects the work of one of his authors (Vincent Macaigne).

Assayas then opens the world he wishes to explore, allowing his characters to become more stressed and more revealed.

Canet's Alain is married to an actress (Juliette Binoche) who has been working in a popular television crime series. Macaigne's Leonard's wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), has committed herself to politics, working for a left-leaning politician. She responds cruelly when Leonard sinks into depression.

She approaches life with staunch practicality that leaves little room for compassion toward those around her and also differentiates her from a crowd that's likely to spend hours talking about e-books, the impact of digital media, the way we perceive the world, and whether blogs are worthy of attention from literary-minded readers.

Leonard's so-called "auto-fiction" comes under fire. Does it exploit the lives of those with whom he associates, particularly the women with whom he's had affairs? And, yes, bed-hopping may have something to do with various decisions that are made. We begin to suspect pettiness lies beneath what sometimes are expressed as matters of principle.

I couldn't begin to tell you whether Assayas cares a fig about the way the digital world seems to be gobbling up everything, changing long-standing practices and assumptions. And I'm not entirely sure these verbally dexterous characters are doing anything more than engaging in a rarefied form of shop talk about the business they happen to inhabit.

Even-keeled Alain has an affair with a young woman (Christa Theret) who has been hired to help shove his company into the digital age and who seems to be a model for some new kind of human being. She’s a pillar of technical pragmatism.

Binoche's character worries that her TV work amounts to a betrayal of her artistry. Leonard doesn't seem entirely convinced of his talent, admitting that he can't write without pillaging his own life and the lives of those who happened to wander into it.

Only Hamzawi's Valeria seems to have her feet on the ground, but you wouldn't want to take her as a role model either.

So what's the takeaway from all this? I'd say the movie has something to do with exposing the narrowness of preoccupied lives. It's not the digital world that threatens Assayas's characters; it's their insistence on using their considerable intellectual skills to create the illusion that they might actually know what they're doing.

So, like my wife, you may not like these folks, but also like her, you’ll probably stay interested in this astutely cut slice of Parisian life.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 6/20/90 -- Walking on Water and The Fall of the American Empire

Walking on Water
In the documentary Walking on Water, the artist Christo oversees creation one of his signature works, a floating walkway constructed on Lake Iseo in the Lombardy region of Italy. Set in 2015, the movie follows Christo and his team through a massive undertaking that was taken apart only 16 days after its debut. In his first project since the death of his wife Jeanne-Claude in 2009, Christo navigates bureaucracies and deals with an array of technical and weather problems —- not to mention the frustrations of having the project nearly ruined by inadequate crowd control measures. Christo doesn't pretend that the work has great significance; his "Floating Piers" -- made from more than 200,000 polyethylene cubes -- seems an irresistibly playful creation, a kind of impromptu bridge that Christo covered with orange, water-repellant material. The movie is interesting as far it goes, providing views of Christo as an irritated creator tormented by organizational problems or as a grandfatherly figure talking to New York City school kids. Director Andrey Paounov's documentary falls short, though. We don’t get much by way of explanation about how all this was done, how materials were selected -- and in some cases -- even what materials were used. You may feel a little sorry for Vladimir Yavachev, Christo's nephew, the man assigned the unenviable task of trying to manage the project. Absent narration and interviews, Paounov leaves it us to make what we will of what we've seen. My take: Drudgery and physical labor can dominate the making of something that’s intended to be awe-provoking and fun. And, hanging out with the sometimes irascible Christo isn't always a picnic, either.

The Fall of the American Empire

Yes, that’s an awfully pretentious title for a caper movie about a delivery man (Alexandre Landry) who finds himself in possession of a stolen fortune and then must struggle to keep his windfall. Director Denys Arcand’s Montreal-based movie (in French with English subtitles) offers a medium-grade plot and a fine performance from Remy Girard as a savvy ex-convict who knows his way around the world of finance. Arcand, who also wrote the screenplay, sometimes forces his characters into on-the-nose speeches denouncing the flaws of a system in which money has become the sole measure of success. Add additional discussions about ethics and you’ve got the idea, a caper comedy that wants to say something about the moral bankruptcy of contemporary society. Well and good, but Arcand doesn’t seem to realize that a crisply told story (which this isn’t) would have done the job just as well as one that underlines its intentions. Audiences (myself included) have an insatiable appetite for caper movies, but while trying to justify itself as a social critique, The Fall of the American Empire too often fizzles. With Maripier Morin as a high-priced, sophisticated hooker who helps Landry's character overcome his naiveté.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

A broken heart in a changing city

Race and gentrification provide the background for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a sweet and mournful story of loss.
Sometimes, dreams are rooted in a place —- a city, for example. Maybe even a neighborhood.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco deals with many issues, principal among them: race, gentrification and the ruthless onslaught of commercial imperatives. The movie tells a story of lost dreams by focusing on what once was an all-American symbol of stability, a house.

We'd like to think that houses once were repositories of family histories that would be passed from generation to generation. Grandpa's house always would be grandpa's house, if only in our imaginations.

In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, an African-American family's triumph involved buying a house that became a brick-and-mortar symbol of upward mobility and arrival, as well as of persistence and of sustained hope. Even if we never had seen that house, we understood its power.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco also preoccupies itself with a house -- albeit in unexpected and revealing ways. A young man and his best friend occupy a house in a once-black neighborhood that's undergoing displacement prompted by gentrification. The young man believes that his grandfather built the house in the 1940s, following the style of the grand Victorian homes of 18th century San Francisco.

Even before occupying the house, Jimmie Fails -- played by Jimmie Fails (more about that in a minute) -- and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) had been trying to spiff up the house. They've painted its trim and wondered how to salvage a garden that has gone to ruin.

The current white residents of the house aren’t happy to find the young men at work but express a reluctant tolerance about their efforts.

When those residents lose the house, the fierce winds of the real estate market gather force and we know that this project — a reclamation not only of a house but of a past —- will come to naught.

We bring a bit of real-world knowledge to the movie. When it comes to real estate, market forces can be impossible to resist. If necessary, the past will be bulldozed. We know that all too well.

Director Joe Talbot, a childhood friend of Fails, tells a story that we're tempted to see as at least autobiographical in spirit because Fails uses his real name.

The movie's events may not be literarily true but they have the ring of metaphoric truth concerning the fragmentation of family in an increasingly uprooted society.

Approaching almost everything with deadpan sincerity, Fails and Montgomery reminded me of a couple of characters from a Samuel Beckett play; they're made of flesh and blood but also, slightly abstracted.

A quasi-theatrical atmosphere is enhanced by a group of neighborhood street people that serves as a Greek chorus for the story. Fails and Montgomery interact with them —- neither entirely separated from them nor entirely part of the group, either.

Most of the movie involves the efforts of the two young men to establish a home in a property they don’t own —- at least not in the conventional sense. But as the story progresses, you may find yourself thinking about issues of ownership and territory. Could there be another meaning of ownership at work here?

Talbot populates the movie with San Francisco characters and eccentricities. Danny Glover appears as Montgomery's blind grandfather; Rob Morgan plays Jimmie's embittered father; and Tichina Arnold portrays his aunt. Though sometimes tenuous, these family connections aren't lost. Jimmie grew up in various squats and in group homes.

And, then, there's the naked man at a bus stop, but I leave that for you to discover.

Emile Mosseri's musical score perfectly fits a movie that’s poetic, mournful, scrappy and sweet.

Talbot has trouble bringing the movie to a close and some of his images don't qualify as perfect blends of the real and the metaphoric. But the feeling here is one of love: for a city, for a longed-for connection with the past, and for a sense of place. There's also the love of two friends for each other.

I want to say (and please don’t take this in a negative way) that Last Black Man made me feel as if I’d attended a memorial service that mixed both grief and a sense of release, of letting go.

Late in the movie, Jimmie listens to two young white women talk on a bus. He tells them that they have to right to hate the city unless they love it. The right to hatred must be earned. Hate upscale obliterations that have ravaged neighborhoods. Hate the stress and tensions of constant economic struggle. Hate the pollution that's choking the life out of what's left of nature.

But love the memory, even if it's romanticized, of what once was. And perhaps equally important, mourn the loss of what could have been.

The Shaft family adds another generation

The new version of Shaft can be funny and brash, but it's also scattered and its unashamed political incorrectness can be grating.

One of them is hopelessly old school. That means he’s homophobic and misogynistic. He has built a reputation on the streets with his fists, his guns and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

The other is a millennial, an MIT graduate who works in data analysis at the FBI. He’s brainy and culturally adept, comfortable with the social fluidity of a multicultural world.

The gimmick: Both are named Shaft. They're father and son.

John Shaft, you’ll recall is the iconic black detective who emerged in the 1970s as part of the Blaxploitation wave that kept turnstiles spinning. In director Tim Story's new version of Shaft, the youngest Shaft (Jessie Usher) hasn't seen his rogue father in years.

The twist: The son must turn to his street-wise dad for help in discovering who murdered his best friend, a Muslim veteran (Avan Jogia) who seemed to be getting his life together after going through a difficult time with drugs.

I’m not sure what Story had in mind with this new version of Shaft, which checks so many boxes you might call it with a multiple choice movie. It’s a buddy comedy (albeit between father and son), an action thriller with a plot that’s so disposable you don’t really need to follow it, a generational comedy in which a son continually taps the breaks on his father’s out-dated, politically incorrect views on women and gays, as well as a movie that features high-caliber weapons taking out what can seem like hordes of bad guys.

Samuel L. Jackson portrays Shaft, as he did in director John Singleton’s 2004 entry into the Shaft series. The role, of course, dates back to the 1971 original and a variety of sequels starring Richard Roundtree, who makes a movie-stealing appearance late in this edition.

To reiterate: Jackson's Shaft is the son of Roundtree's Shaft and the father of Usher's Shaft. Got it?

Here’s something to consider. Jackson is 70. Roundtree is 76. The movie tells us Jackson’s Shaft is 60. Even at that, the math doesn’t quite work. Oh well, looking for realism in this version of Shaft is about as useful as thinking you’re going to get through the movie without a substantial quotient of MF expletives. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have no business seeing the movie anyway.

Jackson has played variations of this character before; his performance not only reprises his previous work as Shaft but includes echoes of Jules, the hitman he played in Pulp Fiction.

All of this results in a hit-and-miss affair, a movie that's probably best seen with a large audience that’s willing to get raucous — roughly in the way the ‘70s movies were received.

Story tries to evoke ‘70s nostalgia with Shaft’s throwback attitudes, with a score that makes ample use of the Isaac Hayes' theme from the original and with an immersion in the mean streets of Harlem -- not to mention the suede dusters you see all three characters wearing in the movie's sequel-promising final shot.

Usher makes a fine foil for Jackson, slowly emerging as something less than the guy his father accuses him of being. Jokes about whether Usher's JJ can be called a "real" man embody the movie’s conflicted spirit. Yes, some of these jokes can be taken as insulting and even homophobic. I guess they're supposed to explain how an out-of-touch father tries to taunt a son who grew up with his mother and who's fluent in the language of the 21st century.

So can these two men find a single page on which both can thrive — and, oh yeah, solve the mystery at the movie’s core?

You already know the answer. Turns out that Shaft the Younger is skilled with guns and well-trained in a Brazilian form of martial arts and both men are capable of laying out their enemies without feeling an iota of compunction about taking human lives.

Women in Shaft basically serve the plot. Mom (Regina Hall) isn’t around for much of the movie; young shaft’s love interest (Alexandra Shipp) has a bit more to do. But when they do appear, these women have no trouble establishing their presence, claiming equal footing with the male characters.

Did I laugh at some of the comedy? Yes. Did I find the violence excessive and not stylish enough to turn into something that could be appreciated purely on cinematic terms, as we might in a John Wick movie? Yes to that, as well. Were the jokes about gays a bit repetitive? Yes, again. Did the movie get better when Roundtree finally makes his appearance? Another yes. Was there at least one piece of action that caught me by surprise. Well, there would have been had I not already seen it in the movie's trailer.

So where do I stand on Shaft?

The whole movie may be too preposterous to take offense; remember Story also directed two Ride Along movies. But know this as well, there’s no character here who’s likely to attain the iconic status of the original Shaft. That movie was tightly wedded to its time. This one is less of its time than it is a spawn of dozens of other movies. As I said at the outset, a box checker.

How much you enjoy it depends on how many of those boxes you're able to check.

Jim Jarmusch makes his zombie movie

Every now and again, I come across a movie that I watch without being able to form much of a connection. That certainly was the case with The Dead Don't Die, director Jim Jarmusch's belated entry into the world of zombie movies. Employing a cast led by Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny -- all of whom play small-town cops — Jarmusch deadpans his way through a dreary foray to a small town where the dead are popping up from their graves. There's little point making this kind of movie without taking aim at a decaying world. To that end, Steve Buscemi portrays a racist farmer who wears a "Keep America White Again" hat, a take on ... well ... you know. Strange things begin to happen in the tiny fictional town of Centerville and it doesn't take long for the dead to begin chewing on the living. Murray and Driver display little emotion as the movie progresses. Tilda Swinton adds to the weirdness quotient. She shows up as the town's mortician, a woman who also happens to wield a mean samurai sword. At one point, Jarmusch shatters convention. Driver's Ronnie justifies his gloomy outlook by telling Murray's character that he knows things will end badly because he’s read the script. Jim, he says, showed it to him. Oh, I forgot to mention that Tom Waits portrays a hermit who wanders through the woods outside of town and that Danny Glover appears as the owner of the town's hardware store. The idea of riffing on zombie movies, a deadened American culture, global warming, and small-town insularity isn't exactly new. Because The Dead Don't Die was selected as the opening offering of the Cannes Film Festival, I expected a more robust movie -- even if that movie kept faith with Jarmusch's low-key style. The Dead May Not Die, but this movie sometimes feels as if it's in need of life support. Oh well, maybe it’s me. I’ve admired some of Jarmusch’s movies and been unimpressed by others. For me, this one staggered its way onto the negative side of the ledger.

More from the Cinema Diary -- Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank
The photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank, now 93, occasionally makes for good company in the documentary Leaving home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank. I say "occasionally" because Frank can be cranky and also brutally honest. He doesn't sugarcoat, describing old age as a catastrophe of bodily degeneration. He's not a guy to look to if you're seeking consolation. Frank's career blossomed when he published a book of photographs called The Americans. Frank had traveled across the U.S., getting to know his adopted country. (He was born in Zurich.) He had an eye for desolation. That may be why Frank's collection of 83 photographs wasn't well-received by those critics who found his images overly harsh. Drawn to scenes of disconnection and loneliness, Frank also allied himself with the Beat movement. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were friends. He lived in New York City, married had children (a son and daughter preceded him in death) and spent much of his life looking at the world through a lens. Fox makes good use of some of Frank's photos and clips from a variety of his documentaries, most of them personal and disinterested in anything that might be deemed "slick" or "formalistic." We also meet Frank's second wife, Jean Leaf, herself a painter and sculptor. The film captures Frank's artistry and also makes clear the pain of a life devoted to seeing clearly. Directed by Gerald Fox, Leaving Home first appeared in 2004 on The South Bank Show, a British TV program.

Intermittent amusement in ‘Late Night’

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson team in a comedy about women in the world of late-night network TV.

In the new comedy Late Night, Emma Thompson portrays Katherine Newbury, the only woman host of a long-running late-night show that airs on network TV. Icy of temperament and cruel to her staff, Katherine is supposed to be a stand-up comic with a cutting delivery. Jokes aside, she tends to prefer serious guests to refugees from reality TV.

Katherine presides over a stable of male writers whom she believes may be letting her down. Her once-popular show is on its way to becoming an afterthought. The station's new head (Amy Ryan) already has made arrangements to replace Katherine with a comic (Ike Barinholtz) who happily wallows in the sort of crude material Katherine abhors.

What to do? The screenplay by Mindy Kaling (of TV's The Office and The Mindy Project) brings fresh blood to the rescue. Kaling portrays Molly Patel, a woman who works in a chemical plant but secretly dreams of becoming a comedy writer.

As part of a desperate attempt to diversify her staff, Katherine insists on hiring a female. Molly fills the bill and, even better, qualifies as a low-expectation hire. Molly's male counterparts believe the inexperienced wannabe will vanish quickly.

Of course, Molly won't be so easily dispatched. Turns out she has fresh ideas and isn't afraid to talk about them at writers' meetings over which Katherine presides without calling any of the contributors by name. She assigns them numbers.

Two strains of assertion drive the story. Can the old dog (Katherine) learn a few new tricks and can the newbie (Molly) become a legitimate presence in helping to engineer the transformation?

Underlying both of these questions is another imperative, the one that says, it's best to be yourself and allow the chips to fall where they may.

Katherine, who's supposed to be too smart for an era of dumbed-down TV, also qualifies as too unpleasant to win many off-camera fans. Her devoted and nearly invisible husband (John Lithgow) remains a loyal supporter. Thompson's performance doesn’t skimp on scorn for Katherine’s supposed inferiors while also suggesting that she knows her fastball has lost some of its zing.

Both likable and amusing, Kaling gives a performance that helps soften Katherine's sharp edges.

Among the writers, Reid Scott (Veep), Max Casella (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and Hugh Dancy (of TV's Hannibal) make some impact. Dennis O'Hare portrays the show's besieged producer, a fellow with the unenviable job of soothing Katherine's ego and keeping the staff from withering under the glare of her imperious gaze.

All of this might have worked well enough save for a couple of problems -- not the least of which is that Thompson, a brilliant comic actress, never seems like someone who'd find her place on a stand-up stage. It's a crucial distinction: Comic acting and stand-up don't draw on the same skills.

Laughs are a matter of taste, I suppose. For me, Late Night provided intermittent amusement until it reaches its predictably affirming conclusion. So, another movie in which promise exceeds fulfillment? For me, yes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 6/12/19 -- Amerian Woman and Halston

American Woman

Grating in the early going, Sienna Miller's performance as an abrasive single mom and grandmother trying to scrape by in a small Pennsylvania town eventually finds its rhythm. American Woman provides Miller with an opportunity to play a woman who faces a cascading series of problems. When we meet Miller's Deb Callahan, she's having an affair with a married man (Kentucker Audley and trying to be a mother to her daughter (Sky Ferreira), a 17-year-old who already has a child of her own. Constantly at odds with her family (an older sister played by Christina Hendricks and a disapproving mother Amy Madigan), Deb faces a life-changing tragedy. Her daughter vanishes. Fearing the worst, Deb blames Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), the irresponsible teen father of her daughter's child. The movie then leaps ahead -- eventually by at least a decade -- to find Deb trying to take care of her grandson (her daughter remains missing) and living with an abusive lout (Pat Healy) she must get out of her life. Deb eventually takes up with a younger man (Aaron Paul) who seems really to love her and who makes a fine surrogate father for her now-teenaged grandson. Director Jake Scott gives the cast plenty to work with, as the movie moves toward its inevitable conclusion: Deb's emergence as an independent woman. Miller's roller-coaster performance hits strong notes. Hendricks does well as a loving but sensible sister who's married to a man (Will Sasso) who provides the one thing that Deb's life always seems to lack: continuity. Nicely rendered moments of reconciliation have an impact, but overall American Woman suffers from an overload of woe. Moreover, its title suggests ambitions that never are quite fulfilled.


Director Frédéric Tcheng's documentary follows the career of a fabled fashion designer whose work dominated nearly three decades: from hot pants to evening dresses sculpted from a single piece of fabric. Halston benefits from the arc of the designer's high-profile life. Born Roy Halston Frowick, Halston turned himself into a single-named icon who made a remarkable ascent. He began as a hat designer at prestigious Bergdorf Goodman and eventually created a brand of his own. Making use of interviews and footage from the glam world Halston inhabited, Tcheng brings us into Halston's orbit, which includes models and celebrities such as Liza Minnelli. Every story of a remarkable ascendance needs a steep decline. Halston has a doozy. Late in his career, the designer decided to enter the world of mass-marketing, partnering with J.C. Penny to open the doors of fashion to ordinary women. Feeling abandoned, Halston's high-end followers began to desert him. A variety of corporate maneuvers followed and Halston's empire eventually crumbled. When he died of AIDS in 1990, he was 57. In the whirl of success, drugs, and achievement that Tcheng shows us, Halston remains something of a mystery, a galvanizing figure who never fully emerges. But if you're a sucker for a rise-and-fall story or you're interested in fashion, Halston won't disappoint.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

She wields power. The movie, not so much.

Dark Phoenix may be the final X-Men movie but it falls short of a grand finale.

Billed as the final chapter in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix doesn't exactly qualify as the fondest of farewells.

By no means awful, Dark Phoenix nonetheless fails to make a major splash with a concluding chapter that revolves around Jean Grey (Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones fame). Although Jean acquires great powers, she never totally dominates a story that becomes the wobbly foundation on which an uneven variety of set pieces and side trips are built.

A mind-reading mutant, the young Jean (Summer Fontana) falls under Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) protection after her parents are killed in an auto accident in which she was a passenger and also the cause.

The story then leaps ahead. Now-grown, Jean (Turner) is still learning how to navigate the X-world. An early-picture outer-space rescue mission brings Jean into contact with a force that super-charges her powers in ways she isn't prepared to handle. She leaves the X-Men estate to search for background about her pre-X-Men childhood. She also unleashes terrible destructive powers as she morphs into Phoenix.

With Jean on the verge of raging out of control, the movie begins to question Charles' motives. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) wonders whether Xavier isn't more interested in bolstering his ego than in maintaining the integrity of the X-Men force. Lawrence, whose superhero alter ego goes by the name Mystique, doesn't seem especially engaged, but she's given the movie's best line.

A rebellious Raven tells Charles that the women always seem to be saving the men in these stories. She wonders whether a name change isn't in order: How about X-Women? Good idea.

Nicholas Hoult's Beast also begins to wonder about Charles' motives. Is Charles putting X-Men in danger to maintain his growing status with humans who, at this moment, are happy to rely on X-Men to save them from whatever disaster happens to loom?

Meanwhile, aliens led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) try to control Jean whose powers are so great they can be life-giving -- or some such. She might help them revive their moribund civilization, hardly the freshest of ideas.

Tye Sheridan portrays Scott Summers/Cyclops, an X-er who's romantically involved with Jean and who can't accept the fact that she might have become a world-threatening menace.

Michael Fassbender turns up as Erik/Magneto, bringing gravitas to the proceedings, which are dotted with action and special effects, some of them well executed by director Simon Kinberg. CGI and physical combat blend nicely in an extended sequence on a speeding train.

Dark Phoenix doesn't come close to the best and most serious of all the X-Men movies, 2017's Logan. You can also throw in X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), if you're looking for more of Phoenix's betters.

In general, I've liked the X-Men movies with their devotion to talented outcasts. If Phoenix really marks the end of the series, I'll fondly remember the movies I enjoyed, forget the rest and move on to something else.

A tribute to the imagination of a director

Director Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini takes an episodic approach to Pier Paola Pasolini’s final days.
I've read that Willem Dafoe wore director Pier Paolo Pasolini's clothes and eyeglasses while acting in director Abel Ferrara's simply titled, Pasolini, an ode to the fallen Italian filmmaker.

Pasolini's story can be as intriguing as his movies. The director was found dead on a beach in 1975. Seventeen-year-old Giuseppe Pelosi confessed to the brutal murder, which Ferrara depicts as an extreme act of homophobic rage. Pelosi eventually retracted his confession, and Pasolini's death remains a source of speculation. He had plenty of enemies -- from censorious haters of the sexuality in his films to detractors who abhorred his politics.

Ferrara uses the days leading up to Pasolini's death as a springboard for exploring the imagination of a director who also was a novelist and poet. There was Pasolini's work and then there was the man. Pasolini became a champion of independent-minded art that refused to bow at the altar of social convention.

Ferrara also explores Pasolini's view that every bit of humanity was being wrung out of people by corporate and industrial forces and by their own acquisitiveness. There are no more humans, Pasolini tells an interviewer at one point. The interviewer says that he finds piercing moments of light in Pasolini's work doesn't fully understand them. You may find yourself saying the same about Ferrara's movie.

In ways that unbalance us, the movie includes snippets from a film that Pasolini proposed to make. Ferrara begins with a reference to Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini's last film, a work that was excoriated by some for its graphic, humiliating depictions of sexual exploitation.

Pasolini thoughtfully watches a scene from the film, his demeanor suggesting that he's far more interested in its political implications than in its explicitness.

We also learn that Pasolini lived with his mother (Adriana Asti) and a cousin (Giada Colagrande). His home life appears to be calm, even reflective. He also liked to prowl Rome's streets at night looking for sex, a pursuit that may have led to his demise.

Pasolini's films (from The Gospel According to St. Matthew to The Decameron to Arabian Nights) won him admiration from critics, cineastes and perhaps even from his fellow countrymen. People never have been shy about expressing pride in the renown of certain artists -- even if they don't always understand or approve of them.

Pasolini includes sex and violence but Ferrara (best known for movies such as King of New York, Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction) seems in a reflective mood himself.

Is Pasolini about an important Italian filmmaker, about the Ferrara views of the role of artists or about Pasolini's belief that humanity was poised on the edge of an especially dangerous moment? Perhaps all of the above.

It would be impossible and also unforgivable not to say more about Dafoe's performance. Dafoe not only wears Pasolini's clothes but internalizes his spirit. He even holds our attention when Ferrara shows Pasolini sitting at his typewriter, pounding away at a screenplay.

Think what you will about Pasolini, but know that Dafoe, who speaks in English here and who last played Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, is a gift to every director who wants to push the medium's boundaries -- and cinema lovers, as well. Movies would be poorer, staider and less challenging without him.

Bob's Cinema Diary 6/7/19: Woodstock and The Spy Behind Home Plate

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation
While I was watching Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, it occurred to me that among my friends -- most of whom belong to the generation to which this documentary's subtitle refers -- haven't mentioned Woodstock in years. The fact that 400,000 people gathered on a farm in upstate New York for a massive rock concert can now seem more like a footnote in the history of the '60s than the main event. And while we're on the subject of the '60s, let me tell you, as someone who lived through that much misunderstood decade, it wasn’t all that great. Directors Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron’s look at the 1969 three-day event at the dairy farm of Max Yasgur -- a Republican who admired the independence of the concert’s youthful attendees -- reminds us that the event was orchestrated by enthusiasts who did their best to learn as they went. Nostalgia fans will see clips of Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and others, as well as members of The Hog Farm commune, which was run by the estimable Hugh Nanton Romney, a.k.a., Wavy Gravy. Hippies, by the way, do age; Wavy Gravy is now 83. The documentary acknowledges the importance of music in the counterculture but emphasizes Woodstock more as a signifying generational event than a concert. Goodman captures much of the free-form chaos of the '60s and reminds us that on the third day of Woodstock, the rains came, turning a great field on which attendees had assembled into a sea of mud. If you're of a mind, you can take that as a metaphor for what happened to the counterculture. Peace, love, and promise? You know the rest.

The Spy Behind Home Plate

Director Aviva Kempner takes a deep dive into the life of Moe Berg, a Jewish baseball player who became a spy during World War II. The best part of the documentary, The Spy Behind Home Plate, deals with Berg's pre-baseball life and with his time in the Major Leagues. He plied his trade as a catcher for a number of teams. Berg's immigrant father had little interest in baseball. He wanted Berg -- the youngest of three siblings -- to become a lawyer. Although he graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School, the scholarly Berg never was able to persuade his father to watch him play baseball. The director tells us how Berg became involved with the OSS, the government agency that preceded the CIA. To tell this part of the story, the filmmakers rely on interviews with those who knew what transpired, beginning with Berg's trip to Japan as a member of a Babe Ruth-led all-star tour. Berg's great wartime achievement involved helping to ensure that key Italian physicists didn't wind up working for the Germans. I've read that the film takes a different approach than the fictionalized feature The Catcher Was a Spy, which starred Paul Rudd as Berg. I haven't seen that movie but concluded from this one that although Berg's role in the war effort may have been more important and more interesting than his 15 years playing baseball, that part of the story can drag -- even with attempts to enliven the proceedings with the use Hollywood clips, notably from Alan Ladd's 1946 O.S.S. Still, many people know little about Berg and The Spy Behind Home Plate offers an opportunity to meet a highly idiosyncratic patriot who never lost his love for the national pastime.