Thursday, July 25, 2019

Tarantino: adrift at the end of the '60s

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt excel in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not everything about the movie clicks.
A preview screening of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was preceded by a contest. Members of the audience, many in costume, were asked to decide who had done the best job of representing their favorite character from director Quentin Tarantino's previous eight movies. I bring this up because the costumes (and the effort that some members of the audience put into them) suggest something particular about Tarantino, something that seldom applies to other filmmakers: Tarantino has a committed, devoted, and demonstrative fan base.

It's no small thing for a director to generate that kind of enthusiasm and it has been a long time since I've been at a screening where the pre-movie atmosphere was so contagiously upbeat. Normally, I disdain promotional efforts, but I have to admit that, after some initial dismay, I enjoyed all the anticipatory zeal.

So, in my view, did the movie meet expectations? I wish I could answer that question with an emphatic yes or no. But for me, the answer turns out to be blurrier. Put another way, parts of the movie are enjoyable and parts -- shocking considering who made the movie -- drift toward dullness.

Let me break it down:

Tarantino builds his movie around two major characters, a once-popular film and television actor (Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton) with a fading career. Dalton's stand-in and stuntman (Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth) functions as the actor's devoted aide. Cliff provides Dalton with friendship and support.

At the same time, the movie rubs shoulders with real-life events of 1969, the shadowy operations of the Manson family as it makes its way toward the now-famous Tate/LaBianca murders. The Manson family hovers like a putrid cloud over the counterculture, waiting to unleash a bloody, destructive rain on its purported sweetness.

These two parts of the movie eventually must intersect. As it turns out, Dalton lives on Cielo Drive next door to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

Among his many skills, Tarantino has been a master of creating movies with moving parts while, at the same time, energizing each narrative thread, wheels within wheels or something like it. This time, not all of the parts move, some stagnate, and I wouldn't say that Once Upon a Time offers Tarantino's sharpest dialogue.

The major performances in Once Upon a Time do, however, stand out. DiCaprio infuses his portrait of a narcissistic actor with deep pathos. Not only is Dalton trying to salvage a sagging career, but he's also desperate to prove to himself that hasn't totally lost his acting chops to alcohol, indulgence and the industry's increasing indifference to him.

Pitt's work as Cliff represents another triumph. Less ego-driven than his boss, Cliff has a loosey-goosey spirit that's underlined by toughness. When the screenplay raises questions about whether Cliff murdered his wife, we're not sure what to make of this guy. Pitt delivers a comic classic when his character smokes a joint that has been dipped in LSD. And a scene in which Cliff confronts Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a studio backlot comes close to justifying the price of admission.

Not surprisingly for a sprawling movie, Once Upon a Time has a large cast. The actors who register include Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, one of Manson's followers, a teenaged harpy who projects levels of bravado she couldn't possibly have earned. At the same time, her street-kid pluck catches Cliff's eye.

Robbie's Sharon Tate emerges as a blithe presence, a starlet floating wide-eyed through her life, either partying or reveling in the small parts she's played in movies. She seems a bit vacuous, a woman happy in her world.

Tarantino also dots the movie with references to the kind of '60s flotsam for which he presumably has some fondness. These are embedded in the movie when characters listen to the radio, watch TV or drive past movie marquees. They become tiresome, self-conscious in-jokes.

Although Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn't have much of a story, its atmosphere -- LA in the '60s -- surrounds the characters. It's the air they breathe.

Now, it's impossible to talk about the movie's ending without spoilers. I'll say nothing, except to say that it allows Tarantino to indulge his taste for comic violence, something at which he has few peers. One other aside: Tarantino knows movies, but I wouldn't turn to him for historical interpretation.

What to make of all this? I saw the movie as a grab bag of episodes, some well-constructed, others slack. And I wouldn't call the movie an endorsement of the counterculture. Both Dalton and Booth are contemptuous of hippies. They live in show-business isolation. If anything, the movie displays more affection for bygone TV (shows like Mannix than for other aspects of the '60s.

There's also something disturbing about the fact that the movie draws most of its tension from what we know about the looming Manson crime. When Cliff visits the Spahn ranch where the Manson family resides, the movie becomes intensely creepy.

What I've most enjoyed about my favorite Tarantino movies (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies) is their audacious desire to entertain on their own terms. I guess that leads to my last word. I found Once Upon a Time a movie to be savored in pieces, sketches that never amount to a fully realized painting.

Tarantino may have wanted to flood a single movie with jaded savvy and affection for parts of the culture he once avidly consumed, all topped with fairy tale flourish. Does the approach work? Sometimes, but not for all of the movie's two-hour and 40-minute running time.

When a lie soothes the way

In The Farewell, a granddaughter confronts her grandmother's fatal illness.
The story of American immigrants can be twofold as pathways of opportunity bump against profound feelings of disconnection -- from old ways and especially from family members who stayed behind.

The Farewell, a movie from director Lulu Wang recognizes the split and finds it most vividly represented in the presence of Billi (Awkwafina), a dejected young woman who returns to China to visit her grandmother (Zhao Shuzen), a woman who has been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer.

The movie revolves around a secret. Shuzen's Nai Nai hasn't been told that she's dying. Her family decides to allow her to live out her days without knowing that she's been given a death sentence. The need to protect Nai Nai from medical truth pushes the other characters into uncomfortable territory.

Billi, in particular, wonders whether the lie doesn't mask an element of cruelty. Isn't Nai Nai entitled to know her fate?

Oops. I'm making The Farewell sound like a sad family drama that puts its characters through a series of emotionally wringing scenes.

This is not the case. Wang, who based her movie on her own experience, walks the fine line between comedy and drama, mostly navigating her way past any jagged cliffs that could have upset the movie's balance.

The movie opens in New York. Billi's parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) don't want their daughter to make the trip to China, a visit that's being organized around the impending wedding of a cousin (Han Chen) to a Japanese woman (Aoi Mizuhara) who seems totally lost amid her future Chinese relatives.

Billi's mother thinks her daughter is too much of a cynic -- not to mention a downer -- to travel to China for a mission that requires a high-degree of happy pretense. Everyone's attending a wedding, but everyone also knows the real reason for the visit: to say goodbye to grandma. After her parents depart for China, the strong-willed Billi follows.

Other members of the clan include Nai Nai's son (Yongbo Jiang) who works in Japan and who explains to Billi that the lie isn't selfish: It's told so that Nai Nai's relatives can carry the burden of grief and suffering for her, he says. Suddenly, the family's behavior makes sense.

For her part, Nai Nai is a good-spirited woman who practices Tai Chi and who freely dispenses advice to those who may or may not want it. She's concerned about Billi's marital status (single) and so genially intrusive that we're never put off by her.

Credit Zhao with a galvanizing performance that works well with Awkwafina's low-key brooding, a stunning contrast with her live-wire work in the more glamorous and overtly commercial Crazy Rich Asians.

Set mostly in the Chinese city of Changchun, Wang can't resist the opportunity for a bit of social commentary, offered without underscoring when she focuses her camera on the vast, faceless apartment dwellings that have replaced the city's cozier neighborhoods.

Nai Nai herself lives in a new building; the neighborhood of Billi's memory has vanished. Billi was taken to America at the age of six and in a touching scene, she talks about the help she needed to adjust, which her mother couldn't provide. Still, the relationship between Billi and her parents remains a trifle under-explored.

Much of the family interaction takes place around meals, which allows Wang to bring out the personalities of the family: She treats various customs (posing for wedding pictures, for example) with comic affection.

The Farewell focuses on a family fractured by emigration but still inescapably a family -- with all the tensions, love, accusations and regrets that go with it.

'Sword of Truth' delivers amiable comedy

Mark Maron heads a strong comic ensemble in a movie that builds its story around a preposterous idea.
I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the low-key comedy Sword of Truth proves enjoyable, even though it lacks a strong payoff. Maybe that's the point, director Lynn Shelton's easy-going comedy makes excellent use of an agreeable ensemble of actors led by Marc Maron, who starred in the Netflix series Glow, some of which Shelton directed.

Shelton introduces us to a variety of mismatched characters. Maron plays Mel, a former drug addict who moved from New York to Birmingham, Ala., to straighten out his life. He now operates a pawnshop with Nathanial (Jon Bass), an assistant who provides little by way of actual help. You get the feeling that Mel keeps the young man around to ward off loneliness and to give him something about which he can complain.

While Mel toils in his pawnshop, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) shows up in Birmingham with her partner Mary Michaela Watkins). The couple hopes to inherit a house from Cynthia's recently deceased grandfather.

The women quickly learn that the house now belongs to a bank. A Civil War sword accompanied by certificates of authenticity constitutes the sum total of Cynthia's inheritance.

The women take the sword to Mel to see what it's worth. Mel eventually learns that the sword has value to a small group of folks who are dedicated to collecting items that prove an audacious claim: These nut cases believe the South won the Civil War.

Cynthia and her partner go into partnership with Mel. All are hoping to enrich themselves.

That's pretty much the story; it's just enough to allow Shelton's cast to fill in many blanks, much of the time with what appear to be improvisational riffs.

Maron tempers Mel's conniving and cynicism with vulnerability. He isn't afraid to make Mel look lost at times -- and the choice works in Shelton's favor.

The movie builds to a meeting between this unlikely quartet and a character (Dan Bakkedahl) who apparently will pay major money for the sword. Toby Huss has a nice turn as Hog Jaws, the middleman who sets up the big meeting at which the sword will be sold.

Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister's Sister, and Laggies) knows her way around this kind of loose-limbed comedy. She's also good at allowing bits to crop up in unexpected ways. When Nathanial tries to convince Mary that the world is flat, his sincerity makes for an amusing detour, even as the movie gathers a bit of satirical steam.

Initially, I was disappointed that Sword of Truth didn't have a bigger payoff. But you know what? On second thought, I had to admit that I had a fine time going nowhere with these feckless but funny characters.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 7/19/19 -- The Art of Self Defense, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, and Three Peaks

Sometimes, you take what you can from movies. I didn't entirely buy into The Art of Self Defense, but at its best, the movie offers a revealing look at how a charismatic leader exploits a massively insecure person. Ostensibly, director Nick Broomfield's Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love deals with the relationship between Leonard Cohen and a woman many regard as his muse. The documentary emerges as a better portrait of the tumultuous '60s than as a study of a relationship. Finally, I found myself engrossed for most of Three Peaks, a drama about difficulties that occur when a single mom tries to establish a relationship with a new man. I like movies with suggestive moments and minimal plotting, but this one skimps on payoff.

Jesse Eisenberg puts on his full dweeb in The Art of Self Defense, a strange, often implausible movie about an alienated young man who, after nearly being beaten to death, emerges as a dedicated martial artist. Eisenberg's Casey Davies recovers from a mugging, flirts with buying a gun and then discovers a dojo where the sensei (Alessandro Nivola) gradually indoctrinates him into a peculiar form of karate: Certain of the sensei's students are encouraged to unleash maximum brutality. As a study of how a vulnerable person can fall under the sway of a powerful teacher, The Art of Self Defense excels. Eisenberg and Nivola create enough credibility to balance the screenplay's more outlandish elements. On the surface, the dojo ethos of obedience and self-control seems reasonable, but The Art of Self Defense is about more than the way a young man gains self-assurance through the discipline of martial arts. The movie also aims to plumb the worst depths of machismo and the bizarre behavior to which it can lead. Put another way: director Riley Stearns has more in mind than turning Eisenberg into an adult version of The Karate Kid. Stearns creates an austere environment in which dialogue is delivered without much inflection. He never makes it entirely clear when the movie is taking place. At one point, VHS tapes appear, a relic of another time. The movie eventually loses itself in a deluge of extreme behavior that might have been intended to show the brutality that lurks beneath the dojo's proclaimed rigor. The Art of Self-Defense proves absorbing enough, but -- in the end -- Stearns doesn't transcend the peculiar insularity he creates. The movie's most important moment emerges as the kind of joke that would have made a terrific ending for a short film — and, yes, you may see it coming. Fine performances and strangely self-contained world result in a satire more pinched than expansive. With Imogen Poots as a Blue Belt trainee who knows more than she initially lets on.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

Director Nick Broomfield tells the story of the long-running relationship between Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, both now deceased. Broomfield can't resist telling us that he knew Ihlen and even slept with her on the Greek Island of Hydra. That was back in the early '60s. I guess that counts as a necessary part of full disclosure before Broomfield tackles the story he wants to tell. Love aside, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love turns out to be as much about the unsettling fluidity of the '60s as it is about a relationship. Much of Marianne & Leonard deals with Cohen's career, which evolved from writing novels and poetry on Hydra to singing and performing on the world stage. Cohen got his start as a performer when he shared a song he'd written, Suzanne, for Judy Collins. She recorded the tune but also urged the reluctant Cohen -- he insisted he couldn't sing -- to make the leap to performing. Cohen's singing may not qualify as rock 'n' roll, but that doesn't mean he missed out on the sex and drugs part of the '60s. As Cohen's star rises, Ihlen seems to slip into the background. There are drugs and other women, a six-year-stay in a Buddhist monastery and a late-life battle to recover from financial losses that involved him in a lawsuit against his former manager. Cohen's letter to the dying Marianne proves touching and Broomfield creates a vivid impression of lives that often became unmoored. As for Marianne and Leonard? Even amidst the cultural frenzy of the '60s, their tie — though often strained and tenuous — somehow endured.

Three Peaks

German director Jan Zabeil tackles the problems faced by an emerging family in Three Peaks, a compact drama that takes a single mother (Berenice Bejo), her lover (Alexander Fehling) and her young son (Arian Montgomery) to an isolated cabin in Italy's Dolomite Mountains. Initially, these three seem to get along well, but as the minimal story of Three Peaks unfolds, an increasingly recalcitrant boy becomes more of a problem. He refuses to sleep in his own bed and does his best to undermine his mother's relationship with her new lover, sometimes subtly and sometimes directly. To the movie's credit, Aaron acknowledges that the boy can be a pain, but he’s also understanding about the difficulties the kid faces. Fehling presents all this in an atmosphere of deeply impacted tension and we can't help fearing for the boy when he and Aaron take an early morning hike to the top of one of the three peaks that give the movie its title. The cast handles the movie's conflicts well, although I wondered if Zabeil, in his eagerness to avoid the pitfalls of a movie that could have tipped into horror with a bad-seed aftertaste, didn't wind up with an overly attenuated drama. Three Peaks never quite reaches the dramatic peak that the movie's deliberate pacing and tense interplay seem to promise.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Real-looking lions, same old story

Disney's new version of The Lion King has its moments, but too often fails to thrill.

By now, The Lion King has gone far beyond being a much-loved 1994 animated movie from Disney. The celebrated King rules a brand-like realm of abundant profits -- in the form of a long-running Broadway musical, numerous touring productions and loads of international recognition.

Is there a person on the planet who hasn't uttered, either in seriousness or derision, the words "Hakuna Matata?” Who hasn't felt the manufactured awe that stems from hearing the lyrics to "The Circle of Life?"

Now comes Disney's eagerly awaited computer-animated version of The Lion King, which has been made to look as if real lions are living the story of Simba, the lion who wrestles with guilt over his father's death, flees the Pride Lands and eventually returns to assume his rightful place on the throne. (Spoilers, I suppose, but who doesn't already know the story.)

Directed by Jon Favreau, who also directed the "live-action" version of Disney's The Jungle Book (2016), Lion King 2019 seems bound for box-office glory no matter what nay-saying critics think.

Me? I had a mixed reaction to the new edition. To begin with, the movie qualifies as something of a techno-curiosity. Disney's team of specialists has created a world in which (save for being able to speak English) the lions attain a level of faux realism (yes, it's a contradiction) that's striking.

Watching the beasts of Lion King feels a bit like something you might experience at a theme park that has been designed to simulate the feeling of traveling across an African savanna. No passports or inoculations required.

But there's a downside to this approach. The animals move their mouths when they speak but their faces aren't as free to express emotion as they would have been had they been drawn.

And all of the movie's animal characters romp across landscapes that also are rendered with keen realism. It's all supposed to look like "live-action."

For the most part, Favreau and his team follow the original story, so much so that some have criticized the movie for lacking freshness. But Favreau was in a no-win situation when it came to the story: Had he provided wholesale changes, he probably would have been criticized for tampering with a classic.

In trying to contain the story within clearly recognizable boundaries, Favreau has subjected himself to the opposite charge: The movie, some say, is a grandiose act of mimicry.

Audiences, I suppose, will fall on either side of the fence or won’t care at all.

The vocal talent in this edition acquits itself well: Donald Glover, as Simba; Chiwetel Ejiofor as the evil Scar, James Earl Jones, as the fallen King, Mufasa.

Alfre Woodard provides the voice for Sarabi, Simba's mother, and Beyonce gives voice to Nala, the lioness who will become Simba's bride. John Oliver adds flavor as the voice of Zazu, King Mufasa's right-paw bird.

The film springs to its most vivid life when it’s being silly, especially when Billy Eichner (as Timon) and Seth Rogen (as Pumbaa) show up. The meerkat and warthog team provide laughs and an energy boost for a movie that can feel overly solemn, particularly when the story travels to a forbidden elephant graveyard.

Using realistic-looking animals for fights may shake smaller children, although these days I'm at a loss when it comes to understanding what level of mayhem little ones are able to tolerate. The many snarling hyenas that Scar recruits as henchmen in his plot to rule can be equally scary.

Speaking of Scar, the villain of the piece looks mangy and undernourished, a creature more in need of animal rescue than a throne that satisfies his greed, hunger, and ambition.

Some of the famous musical numbers survive but don't always make much of an impact. I guess the filmmakers thought that audiences are familiar enough with these songs immediately to grasp their significance.

And, yes, the cub Simba is cute enough to win over even the hardest of hearts.

This edition of Lion King should keep the turnstiles spinning, even if its sense of discovery stems mostly from the ways in which everything has been so sharply realized. If you wanted to push the point, you could say that the whimsy of animation has fallen prey to the sharpened incisors of technical achievement.

Still, I said my reaction was mixed and I’m not changing my mind: The story's appeal remains — even if this Lion King doesn’t always thrill.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

'Stuber' chokes on lame jokes, violence

Crummy jokes and a formulaic premise (a mismatched duo fights crime) don't do much to help Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani salvage something from Stuber, a summer wreck of a movie about an Uber driver (Nanjiani) who winds up racing around Los Angeles with a macho cop. The cop (Bautista) needs all the help he can get because he’s just had Lasik surgery and his vision has yet to snap back into focus. Among the things I didn’t care about: Will Bautista's Vic Manning drop his pursuit of a major drug dealer and attend an art show that features work by his daughter (Natalie Morales)? I also found no reason to transcend indifference to another question the movie raises: Will Nanjiani's Stu be able to open a business with a woman (Betty Gilpin) for whom he harbors a long-standing crush? The screenplay (if you insist on calling it that) makes fun of Uber's driver-rating system but it probably would have done better to spend some time considering film-rating systems. The movie’s violent action isn't exciting and the jokes aren't funny. Put those two together and you come up with a big fat whiff. Oh well, if you happen to see Stuber, there’s a hidden blessing. You probably won’t remember it by the time you reach the parking lot.

Bob's cinema diary: 7/12/19 Maiden and The Third Wife

This gripping documentary tells the story of the first all-female crew to compete in the Whitbread Round The World Race, which covers more than 32,000 miles. The movie centers on the efforts of Tracy Edwards, who fell in love with sailing as an adolescent and who organized (perhaps "willed" is a better word) the women's team into existence. Director Alex Holmes makes fine use of contemporary interviews and footage shot before and during the voyage of the yacht that Edwards named Maiden and from which the movie derives its title. Joanna Gooding, who served as the Maiden's cook, did the filming during the race. The women who crewed with Edwards remember the voyage -- with its tensions, doubts, determination, and commitment. In 1989, the male-dominated sailing establishment didn't roll out the welcome mat for Edwards and her crew. But Maiden isn’t solely reliant a story with a women-vs.-men dynamic. Edwards' crew sometimes questioned her decisions and Edwards single-minded focus fueled a sharp temper. Beyond all that, there's the drama inherent in battling the sea, which has no interest in the outcome of races and often presents challenges that test the abilities of sailors who, at times, are entirely alone at sea. Should catastrophe strike, no help will save the day. Maiden works on all these levels: as a sports movie, as a telling look at gender assumptions and as the story of women who refused to take "no" for an answer. Credit Holmes with making a documentary that has both social relevance and edge-of-the-seat involvement.

The Third Wife

Director Ash Mayfair takes us to 19th-century Vietnam for The Third Wife, a story that begins when 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) arrives at the isolated home of a wealthy landowner (Long Le Vu). May is destined to become the latest in what will be a trio of wives. Mayfair adopts a slow-moving, evocative style in which a young woman begins to learn the patriarchal ways of her new life. Her teachers are two of the landowner's other wives (Nu Yen-Khe Tran and Mai Thu Huong Maya). It soon becomes clear to May that her life will improve if she gives birth to a son. The landowner's middle wife has had two girls and, as a result, has lost status. Maybe that’s why she’s carrying on an affair with the landowner's son, a doomed romance that inevitably leads to tragedy. Mayfair doesn't overplay the movie's conflicts, leaning instead on a languid style that sometimes makes the movie seem like an idyll. Mayfair’s view of female sensuality proves interesting -- eroticism of women as seen by another woman — and a slightly ambiguous ending adds to the intrigue. Mayfair has created a lush portrait of a time that wasn't without its pleasures, but in which women also led severely proscribed lives.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 7/5/19 -- Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and Wild Rose

A documentary about author Toni Morrison and a raucous feature about an aspiring country singer from Glasgow, Scotland, don't have much in common -- unless you want to see each (in its own way) as a story about a driven, powerful woman.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders offers a well-rounded picture of the life of author Toni Morrison in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Morrison, 88, provides the movie's star power. In a variety of interviews given over many years, Morrison emerges as a formidable presence -- and one who's not afraid to laugh at herself when she deems it necessary. Much of Morrison's early life was spent in Lorain, Ohio, which she describes as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic town with a low level of ethnic and racial tension. But her life seemed to open up when she arrived as an undergraduate at Howard University. What followed her college experience was a career in publishing (she was a successful editor) and, finally, her emergence as a novelist of recognized power. Interviews with author Fran Lebowitz, editor Robert Gottlieb, poet Sonia Sanchez , and activist Angela Davis provide a laudatory environment in which to consider Morrison’s accomplishment. The only references to negative criticism of Morrison's work are presented in brief (and probably over-stated) bits from negative reviews. The movie builds toward a movement by a group of writers who protest the lack of significant prizes (Pulitzers and Nobels) for Morrison's work, an oversight that later was remedied. Morrison won the Pulitzer for her novel, Beloved, in 1988. The Nobel Prize in Literature followed in 1993. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who has spent her life delighting in language and ensuring that she used it without the inhibiting limitations of what she calls "the white gaze." I could have done without Oprah Winfrey's effusions but little in The Pieces I Am detracts from the appeal of Morrison's expansive and profoundly compelling personality. Put another way, it's difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this well-assembled documentary and not want to hang out with the woman at its center.

Wild Rose

The irresistibly raucous Wild Rose begins when its main character is released from prison. Having completed her time in jail,, Rose-Lynn begins pursuing her major aspiration: She wants to be a country singer, an ambition that acquires an air of eccentricity because Rose-Lynn does not have what we might regard as a typical “country” profile. How could she? She lives in Glasgow, Scotland. And maybe that’s part of the movie’s point — at least in an inadvertent way. Musical talent sometimes shatters stereotypical expectations. Early on, few share Rose-Lynn's dream. Her skeptical mother (Julie Walters) wishes Rose-Lynn, who was busted on a drug charge, would settle down and take care of her two children. Rose-Lynn has other ideas. The story unfolds in a somewhat predictable fashion as Rose-Lynn (portrayed by a dynamic Jessie Buckley) marches through the rest of the movie in headstrong fashion, singing and living a rough-edged life. When Rose-Lynn obtains a job as a domestic, her affluent employer (Sophie Okonedo) offers to help propel her career by raising money to finance a dream trip to Nashville. Like many others, Rose-Lynn hopes to be discovered when she arrives in the world’s country music capital. Buckley's performance makes us believe that this is a reasonable ambition for a woman whose credo has been tattooed on her arm: "Three chords and the truth." Buckley's drive keeps the movie hurtling toward a conclusion in which director Tom Harper, working from a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, upsets (at least mildly) the genre cliches that we've come to expect from movies about raw talents on the make and voices that won’t be silenced.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Danger lurks in a Swedish commune

Director Ari Aster’s Midsommar:: a long (and sometimes repellent) journey toward ... well ... I’m not sure what.

Midsommar could be many things.

-- The movie might be a satire on the preposterous rituals of weird cults.

-- It could be a straight-ahead horror movie about a group of Americans who find themselves in mortal danger when they visit an isolated region of rural Sweden.

-- Or it could be a riff on the ways in which preoccupation with certain concerns (in this case cultural anthropology and careerism) might blind someone to dangerous realities.

-- Perhaps it's about what happens when someone in a dying relationship feels slighted.

I could go on, but let me get to the point: Whatever Midsommar wants to be, it’s also bloody, excessively graphic in its depiction of horror and more than a bit muddled about its intentions. That’s an unfortunate combination for a movie that follows what has been touted as a promising debut feature from director Ari Aster. Aster’s last film, Hereditary, won both audience and critical favor.

This time, Aster begins by establishing an atmosphere of dread in which he sketches the personal dynamics of his characters. A young woman (Florence Pugh) loses her parents and her mentally disturbed sister. She’s distraught. Already needy, her latest catastrophe pushes her toward even greater reliance on her boyfriend (Jack Reynor).

Pugh's Dani feels abandoned when she learns that Reynor's Christian plans to travel to Sweden with friends to visit the commune where another friend (Vilhelm Blomgren) was raised. Reluctantly (and to the dismay of his male buddies), a guilt-ridden Christian invites Dani to tag along.

When the group arrives at the commune, their initial impression seems favorable. The members of the Swedish group all dress in white, freely dispense hallucinogenic drugs and seem like harmless (if slightly out-of-touch) flower children.

Aster slowly follows through on what we expect from the outset. He undermines the promise of a tranquil environment with a ritual of alarming (though highly predictable) lethality. When the group gathers for one of its rituals or even for a meal, the atmosphere turns austere and serious, so much so that the movie often becomes laughable.

Tensions within the American group punctuate the proceedings. Josh (William Jackson Harper), one of Christian's fellow students, argues with Christian about who's going to use this bizarre mini-society as the basis for a thesis.

All of this builds toward a finale that only the most gullible of viewers won’t suspect will be weird, brutal — and perhaps even repulsive.

Aster leaves signs of what's to come along the way: the weird shape of some of the wooden buildings and a pyramidal structure no one is allowed to enter. The visitors sleep in a dormitory-like hall where the sound of a baby's ceaseless crying can be heard at night. Did I mention the caged bear that resides in the middle of the settlement? Well, there is one. As you can tell, Aster points a large finger at his ominous target.

Lighting becomes one of Midsommar's distinguishing features. Most of the action takes place in the prolonged daylight of the Swedish summer. I’ve been in Sweden during the time when there’s little darkness and it can take some adjustment. In this case, the near-constant daylight creates a visual blandness that serves as an ironic counterpoint to the movie’s darker ambitions.

At two hours and 20 minutes in length, Midsommar takes too much time getting to the point, whatever the point might be. The movie's portentousness becomes oppressive.

For some, Midsommar’s violence, a bizarre sex scene, and a grotesquely punishing finale will be enough to turn thumbs downward. But for me, the most alarming thing about Midsommar is the distance it keeps from its characters. I didn’t fear for these characters but spent more time wondering just how Aster was going to wring a conclusion out of all the weirdness. Just how strange would things get?

The movie builds toward a May Day celebration that precedes a violent finale. Aster knows how to concoct bizarre images — the cult’s May Day Queen hauling herself around the village in a weighty cloak made of flowers, for example — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that all this weirdness was as hollow as the members of the cult that had produced it. Some of the images may linger in your head, but you also may find yourself asking what (if anything) can be derived from their presence?

Monday, July 1, 2019

Spider-Man takes a European vacation

Can Peter Parker grow beyond his Queens neighborhood? Far From Home answers the question in passable fashion.
Whatever emotional kick you’ll find in Spider-Man: Far From Home comes from Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Don't get me wrong. Downey’s character isn't present. But Iron Man’s absence adds poignancy to a story in which 16-year-old Peter Parker wonders whether he’s capable of filling Iron Man’s shoes.

Riding the emotional wave that Marvel set off in Avengers: End Game, Spider-Man: Far From Home turns out to be a serviceable entry into the Marvel repertoire: a collection of less-than-impressively realized action, a surfeit of good-natured humor, and an appealing young cast headed by stand-out Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

This edition takes Spider-Man abroad. Peter Parker (Holland) joins his high-school class on a trip to Europe. Stops include Venice, Prague, and London as the story hop-scotches across cities that are threatened with destruction by creatures called Elementals: i.e., earth, water, and fire monsters that wreak havoc. Can any Marvel movie be considered complete without reducing some part of a major city to rubble?

In this edition, Spider-Man's classmates graduate to slightly larger roles. Zendaya portrays MJ, the girl who has stolen Peter Parker’s heart. Jacob Batalon plays Ned, Peter's best friend, a nerdy kid who this times winds up with a girlfriend (Angourie Rice).

Marisa Tomei returns as Aunt May; Jon Favreau appears as Happy, Tony Stark's former bodyguard and chauffeur; and Samuel L. Jackson, looking less than enthusiastic, reprises his role as Nick Fury, the head of the outfit that runs the Avengers.

Added to the mix is Mysterio, a superhero portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal. Mysterio wears a helmet that looks like a some dropped a fishbowl on his head; he also has an alter ego. Out of uniform, he's Quentin Beck.

Super-sensitive about spoilers, Columbia Pictures has encouraged critics not to ruin the movie’s surprises. I won’t say more, except to note that not all of them have the hoped-for kick.

Holland works hard to be the energetic and conflicted, the not entirely mature Spider-Man that we’ve come to expect, and, yes, his naïveté and sincerity prove engaging.

All in all, this edition of Spider-Man is not only far from home, but it’s also far from being a disaster. Far From Home unfolds without giving offense or ascending into the upper ranks of Marvel's unending list of movies. Put another way: Far From Home passes muster.

But, know this, as well, Far From Home hardly lays a glove on the much more imaginative, Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2019’s Oscar winner for best-animated feature.