Thursday, August 29, 2019

The supernatural can’t save ‘Don’t Let Go’

When Don’t Let Go premiered at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie had a different title. It was called Relive. I don’t think the title change did much to make the movie better or more comprehensible. A crime thriller with a bit of supernatural blood running through its veins, Don’t Let Go quickly becomes a muddle of a movie in which a Los Angeles detective (David Oyelowo) tries to undo the murder of a much-loved niece. How is this possible? We'll get to that. Early on, we learn that Oyelowo’s Jack has been functioning as a father figure for his teen-age niece (Storm Reid). He's filling in for his bipolar, drug-addicted brother (an underused Brian Tyree Henry). When Jack discovers that his niece has been brutally murdered along with her parents, he’s thrown into the steep canyons of grief. But wait. Oyelowo's Jack receives a mysterious phone call originating from his niece's cell phone. Disbelieving, he hunts down her phone and learns that his niece is still alive in a reality that's unfolding three days before his own reality. Jack attempts to use phone conversations with his niece to bridge the time gap, hoping that he can help save her life. Still with me? If not, it doesn't really matter. Director Jacob Aaron Estes doesn't clarify much as he shrouds his story in dreariness that he occasionally interrupts with bloody sprays of violence. Both Oyelowo and Reid often are seen talking on their phones, a choice that results in many confused looks as Oyelowo and Reid strain to reflect the confusion each of their characters experiences. Too violent to be heart-warming and more constricted than emboldened by its premise, Don’t Let Go seems destined to disappear into the miasmic vapors of movies that are streamed by those who'll give it a shot because they know Oyelowo (Selma) can be an interesting actor. Mykelti Williamson signs on as a fellow cop and Alfred Molina portrays Jack's detective boss.

A look at the life of Anton Yelchin

Even if you're not a fan of the late Anton Yelchin, who died in 2016, you may find something of interest in Love, Antosha, a documentary about the young actor's too-brief life. Yelchin was 27 when his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down his driveway, a freak occurrence that resulted in his suffocation when his car trapped him against a fence. Despite his youth, Yelchin boasted a heavy resume; he’d been acting since he was a kid — with relatively few breaks. He appeared in a staggering 69 films. Director Garret Price's documentary paints a portrait of a young man of varied interests and with acting chops that seemed universally admired by those who worked with him. There are no nay-sayers in Price’s look at Yelchin which includes interviews with his parents, with friends, and with fellow actors: Chris Pine, Kristen Stewart, and Zachary Quinto among them. Although he suffered from cystic fibrosis, Yelchin didn’t allow the illness to slow his roll. When he wasn’t acting, Yelchin thought about directing, took photos of Los Angeles’ seamier side, wrote, and worked as a musician. Some of Yelchin’s writings are read by Nicolas Cage. In sum, Love, Antosha explores the life of a serious young actor who may not have lived long, but who left colleagues and friends with indelible memories. He also left little doubt that any moment of his short life remained unlived.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

'Angel Has Fallen' so far, it touches bottom

Gerard Butler reprises his role as a Secret Service agent, this time one who falls under suspicion.
Looking heavier and a good deal more shopworn, Gerard Butler returns to the big screen as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, a character he has played two times before -- once in Olympus Has Fallen (2003) and again in London Has Fallen (2016). Mention Butler's name and something is bound to fall.

As his job description makes clear, Banning must protect the president of the United States, played initially by Aaron Eckhart and in this latest edition by Morgan Freeman, whose job descriptions have grown more exalted as the series progressed. Freeman began as speaker of the house, graduated to vice president, and this time emerges in the nation's top job.

Hold the congratulations. For Freeman's Allan Trumbull, the steady rise to power has not been entirely beneficial. In Angel Has Fallen, the president spends much of the movie in a comatose state after being severely wounded in a wild assassination attempt that takes place during a fishing trip.

Perhaps to freshen the proceedings, Butler's Banning has begun to suffer a crisis of confidence. He experiences the lingering effects of concussions and wonders whether it might not be time to abandon his action-packed life. I'd just have soon followed Banning's retirement than the ridiculous journey on which Angel Has Fallen takes him.

Blamed for the assassination attempt, Banning becomes a hunted man with an FBI agent (Jada Pinkett Smith) trying to bring him to justice. As a fugitive, Banning seeks refuge with the father (Nick Nolte) from whom he's long been estranged. Nolte arrives in the movie as a growling recluse who acts as if he's been politicized by survivalists: His character natters on about the way governments get their hooks into people and won't let go. His foul temperament evidently resulted from his service in Vietnam, where he also learned a lot about planting mines and blowing things up.

Freeman and Nolte are both wonderful actors and it pains me to watch them ply their skills in a meat-grinder affair with an idiotic plot in which the villains are easily spotted.

The rest of the cast doesn't add a lot. Danny Huston joins the proceedings as one of Banning's former military pals; Tim Blake Nelson appears as the nation's vice president, the man who must take over while an unconscious Trumball teeters on death's doorstep. Piper Perabo plays Butler's loyal wife; she sticks by him even when he falls under suspicion.

Director Ric Roman Waugh earns his action bones with a massive drone attack that occurs early in the movie, a kind of prologue to the more mundane grunts and groans of subsequent fights. A late-picture battle in Washington, D.C. makes you wonder how it escapes the prying eye of local TV stations.

No point belaboring this one; Angel Has Fallen is a bit of late-summer B-movie junk; i.e., a movie of low-level smarts and high body counts. You won't need a high-level security clearance to figure this one out long before it crosses the finish line.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/25/19 -- Jay Myself and After the Wedding

Jay Myself
Jay Maisel, now 88, has earned his reputation as of the great photographers of his time. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Maisel refused to confine himself either to commercial projects or the art world. He made an impact on both. Maisel spent most of his career living and working in a former bank building in Manhattan's Bowery, an area that since has gone upscale. Maisel bought the building with a $25,000 downpayment he earned photographing for Life magazine. When the cost of keeping his building in a gentrifying neighborhood rose to unaffordable levels, Maisel was forced to sell. Don't feel too sorry for Maisel, though. The price he got for his building: $55 million. But moving meant paying other prices, as well. After 49 years, Maisel must have felt that he was not only moving out of his studio but out of his life. At the building others called "the bank,'' he kept ("hoarded") might be the better word, a vast array of collections, many of which he used in his work. Director Stephen Wilkes, himself a photographer and an admirer of Maisel's photographs, talks with Maisel, who proves to be unsurprisingly complex: funny, grumpy, irascible and, most important, terrifically astute when discussing imagery and color. Maisel had to discard much to move into smaller digs and part of the movie's power is the sheer wonder it generates at the amount of stuff Maisel accumulated. Wilkes includes ample examples of Maisel's work, which serve as powerful reminders of why we want to spend time watching and listening to a man who claims that he doesn't take photographs. Photographs take him, he says.

After the Wedding

Director Bart Freundlich remakes Danish director Susanne Bier's 2007 drama with a fine cast and gender swaps in key roles. Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore and Billy Crudup headline a production that, despite what appear to be serious intentions, winds up feeling contrived and sudsy. The story begins in earnest when Isabel (Williams) returns to the US from India. She needs to secure funding for a school for orphans that she helps run. As it turns out, the head of a large media company (Moore) has heard about the school and wants to make a major contribution. To complicate matters, Isabel arrives in the middle of the week when Moore's Theresa is distracted by the wedding she's planned for her daughter (Abby Quinn). Theresa stalls on the donation, insisting that Isabel attend the wedding. If you're familiar with the original -- and even if you aren't -- you'll have little trouble anticipating a few of the plot twists Freundlich engineers. Freundlich's straight-on approach to material that sometimes borders on farce doesn't work consistently, even though Williams' low-key performance plays well against the brisk insensitivity Moore brings to her character. Secrets are revealed and the characters react to them, but a drama that's trying for maturity squanders an opportunity to deal with things movies too often neglect: the weight of difficult pasts and how people choose to carry it.

A policy that wrought hardship

A powerful documentary examines China's one-child policy.
In 1982, China officially made a one-child policy part of its constitution. The thinking behind the one-child policy involved concern about what population growth could mean for China's future. China's leadership decided that the country's standard of living would double with the policy. Without it, China's population would swell to unsupportable levels.

Heavily propagandized and enforced at local levels, the one-child policy produced situations in which individual desires were trumped by the purported needs of China's vast collective. The policy was further skewed by a male-dominated culture in which boys were more highly regarded than girls. As a result, many baby girls were abandoned or sold to traffickers who, in turn, delivered them to orphanages where they became part of a profitable international adoption network.

Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, the documentary One Child Nation outlines the policy in broad strokes and then bores down to show its impact on women, on families and on those who served as enforcers.

Wang's own family was impacted. As a rural woman, Wang's mother was allowed to give birth to a second child five years after the first. As a result, Wang has a brother. Now grown, Wang's brother acknowledges that had he been born a girl, he'd have been abandoned. The Wangs -- like many rural Chinese families -- put a premium on boys who could carry on the family name.

Wang, who now resides in the U.S., returns to China with her own son to interview a variety of people impacted by a policy with a widely acknowledged cruelty factor. Still, some defend the policy as having been necessary for the survival of the nation. The policy since has been revised and is now a two-child policy.

Narrated by Wang, One Child Nation tells a powerful story about a policy that reached into the U.S. as Americans adopted Chinese babies. As this part of the story unfolds, Wang introduces us to a Utah couple who created a database that can be used to help Chinese families connect with U.S.-based adoptees. Not all the U.S. adoptees are interested.

Be forewarned: Wang doesn't skimp on the horrific details of what the policy sometimes wrought: midwives performed enforced sterilizations and abortions were given to women who didn't want them. Many still suffer the emotional trauma of having abandoned infants.

Those who've studied other historical outrages will note a marked similarity in the rationales of those who executed the policy. All say they had no choice. The policy was made at high levels. They just carried it out. One midwife, says that as an act of repentance, she now devotes her life to helping infertile couples.

The filmmakers cover their bases lest the film be mistaken for a pro-life diatribe. Says Wang: the issue in China -- as in the U.S. -- boils down one of women controlling their bodies and making decisions for themselves.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A family you might not want to join?

Ready or Not plays with the horror genre but it's an actress who gives the movie its drive..

Is it an assault on the selfish preoccupations of the obscenely rich? Is it a horror movie bathed in the requisite amount of blood-soaked revulsion? Is it an ironic commentary on an already overloaded genre?

Ready or Not qualifies as all of those things. A broad agenda works to the movie’s advantage -- at least until the moments it doesn’t. And for all its ambitions, Ready or Not is held together and elevated by something far less hip and much more traditional than genre play, the aggressive physicality and amusing reactions of lead actress Samara Weaving.

Weaving plays Grace, a young bride who’s marrying into the wealthy Le Domas family. But there's a condition and it’s not a prenup. Grace must play a game that will begin at the stroke of midnight after her wedding. Although Grace doesn't know it, the object of the game is her death. The Le Domas family believes that if the game isn't played to its lethal conclusion, they will die. Their belief has something to do with a curse handed down by the man who helped the family build its vast fortune -- or something like that.

Grace's husband knows that the game looms and he tries to help his new wife survive. Some of the family members, notably brother Daniel (Adam Brody), experience pangs of conscience about the family’s willingness to slaughter innocents to preserve its status and wealth.

As social satire, the movie hardly qualifies as original or deep, but the directors play many of the scenes for comic effect. Taste prevails in such matters. For me, the humor seemed hit-and-miss, although it's difficult not to be amused by what turns out to be history's worst honeymoon.

Ready or Not includes a cast of serviceable characters. Dad (Henry Czerny) is an autocratic tyrant and not much more. A frighteningly determined Mom (Andie MacDowell) puts family values — in this case, loyalty — above everything else. A man who married into the family (Kristian Bruun) is a bit of a dolt. A sister (Melanie Scrofano) proves incompetent. She's prone to shooting people by accident.

Aunt Helene (Nicky Gaudagni) sports a severe blonde haircut that makes her look like a mortician who specializes in burying punk rock musicians who over-dosed. She's so instantly creepy that you wonder why Grace doesn’t bolt at the sight of her, thereby avoiding the rest of the movie.

All of this proceeds in peppy fashion as directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett create a mood that's as wacky as it is frightening. The movie's wince-inducing moments have less to do with suspense or fear than with the physical beating that Grace takes and with the graphic displays of blood that this game of hide-and-seek produces.

Ready or Not certainly isn't for all tastes. But the movie scores enough to provide a fair measure of bloody fun with Weaver giving it plenty of drive.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

'Bernadette': flat where it should be sharp

Cate Blanchette plays a deeply depressed woman who's losing it in Seattle.
Bernadette lives in a large Seattle house that seems to be falling apart around her, although trace elements of a re-design can be seen. A sparsely furnished modern-looking bedroom, for example. Bernadette's husband works for Microsoft and has become a Ted-talking star in the world of high tech. Her whip-smart daughter is bound for Choate, a prep school that very likely will ensure her a place on the success track. Bernadette spends much of her time talking to Manjula, a Seri-like digital assistant in India.

Of course, she’s miserable.

Such is the life of Bernadette (Cate Blanchett), the title character of Where’d You Go Bernadette, director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of a well-received 2012 novel by Maria Semple.

Smart, judgmental and misanthropic, Bernadette can be a pain in the butt, and her contempt for what she calls “life’s banalities” doesn't seem to have led her toward anything resembling a cultural high ground. After years of ignoring her strange behavior, Bernadette's husband (Billy Crudup) has decided his wife needs help.

I can’t say I believed any of this because Linklater's movie can’t find a way successfully to blend satiric observation and character study while also giving his movie a bit emotional heft. As social satire, the movie takes hit-and-miss swipes at middle-class parents, over-achieving kids, annoyingly progressive schools and Seattle's tech-crazed world.

Even Kristen Wiig, as a neighbor and nemesis of Bernadette, isn't able to break through; she's playing a character who's so steeped in her "liberal" values that she's turned her life into a form of parody.

Bernadette's daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) narrates a story that gradually lets us know why Bernadette has lost her grip. She was once a star architect who won a MacArthur Grant for her genius. She designed houses that others envied, but after one of her vaunted projects met a tragic end, she vanished from the Los Angeles scene. She and her husband moved to Seattle, a city she says she hates.

Bee announces that she wants her parents to take her to Antarctica as a reward for something or other. Bernadette reluctantly agrees, even though the trip means she won't be able to avoid the horror of mingling with other passengers on a cruise ship.

Linklater's best movies are conversational gems that catch moods and moments, movies such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. He's also made observant comedies, as those of us who enjoyed Bernie and School of Rock can attest. Boyhood may have been Linklater's best and most deeply felt movie.

Here, Linklater's working in a commercial vein while trying to retain the sharp idiosyncrasies of Semple's novel. The movie's most outrageous moment arrives in the form of a mudslide that disrupts a fund-raising party at the home of Wiig's character. It lands with a thud.

There's one very nice scene in which Bernadette encounters a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne) from Los Angeles. She regales him with a dizzying monologue about what she's been doing for the last 20 years. It's one of the few times Blanchett's amped-up theatricality proves revealing.

By the end, Bernadette starts delivering on-the-nose dialogue, offering its message in a form that comes close to bromide. Someone as creative as Bernadette must create or she'll go nuts. She'll become a menace to others. She's not cut out for ordinary suburban life.

Well, I thought, who really is? And, as I said, I didn't feel as if Linklater made me believe in Bernadette or her vast array of problems.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/15/19 Two documentaries, one a masterpiece

I don't know how directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska captured the lives they open to us in Honeyland, but they've done something truly rare. They've created a documentary with a visual and narrative texture that qualifies as a true astonishment. The directors take us into the world of Hatidze, a woman who lives in a tiny village in the Republic of North Macedonia. Sometimes, Hatidze seems to be the village's only resident, aside from her bedridden mother. To support herself, Hatidze gathers bees, tends to them as they produce honey and then carries the honey to market. The filmmakers' focus on Hatidze Muratova may put you in mind of the beauty and simplicity we saw in the early wave of films from Iran. It may be unfair to call Honeyland a documentary; it's a film with a story to tell and with developments that illustrate a theme: The respect Hatidze has for the bees and for her natural surroundings is challenged when a large wandering family moves next door. Driven by economic pressure, these new neighbors approach beekeeping as an enterprise; they pit themselves against nature rather than cooperating with it in the ways that Hatidze tries to teach them. Hatidze only harvests half of a honeycomb, leaving the rest for the bees. She's never stung; her neighbors often are assailed by their bees. The neighbors also keep cows and chickens and constantly seem to be arguing with their children, unruly kids who don't hide their feelings of resentment toward a father who blames them when things go wrong. The father is a bit of a martinet, but not an especially effective one. The relationships between Hatidze and her bickering neighbors adds tension, although one boy seems to respect her wisdom. Beautifully photographed without glossing over the meager quality of life in these Macedonian hills, Honeyland -- in Turkish with subtitles -- stopped me in my tracks. It's a great and memorable piece of work.

Cold Case Hammarskjold

Director Mads Brugger's Cold Case Hammarskjold tells a complex, sometimes confusing story about the 1961 plane crash that resulted in the death of Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary-General of the United Nations. The central question: Was the crash an accident or the result of a conspiracy to murder Hammarskjold, an opponent of continued colonial exploitation in Africa? At times, Brugger sits in a hotel room dictating the story to one of two secretaries. In brief: Hammarskjold took his final journey as part of his efforts to settle discord in the Congo. Hammarskjold's plane crashed eight miles away from an airport in Zambia. According to the film, no one bothered to talk to the Africans who lived near the crash site. They raise suspicions. And why was Hammarskjold's body found with an Ace of Spades tucked neatly into his shirt collar? Brugger follows a circuitous route to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which discovered a mercenary group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research. Brugger's film then broadens its view to explore a new theory: that SAIMR was part of a conspiratorial effort to maintain white control in Africa by introducing the AIDS virus to unsuspecting Africans who thought they were being treated at charitable clinics. (You can read more about these claims in a New York Times article from Jan. 27, 2019.) Should we believe all or some of Brugger's film? Not being able to answer that question can be considered a major shortcoming, but there's no point denying that Brugger's film stirs up a fair amount of intrigue.

A love of Springsteen changes his life

Blinded by the Light takes an upbeat, energetic look at how a young Pakistani man awakens to life.

At its best, Blinded by the Light is the exuberant movie that Yesterday should have been. In director Gurinder Chadha's lively look at the influence of popular music on an impressionable young man, a Pakistani student (Viveik Kalra) finds his life transformed when he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen. Timid and dutiful, Kalra's Javed opens the door to what he regards as a richer life and begins to live in what you might call "The World According to Bruce."

Springsteen's music does what only music can do: It awakens Javed's dormant sensibilities and tells him that the world contains much more than he knew or imagined. He's not just listening; he's experiencing a revelation.

Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings a light touch to the movie's developments as she sketches in Javed's romance with a young woman (Nell Williams) he meets at school and his friendship with the young man (Aaron Phagura) who turned him onto Bruce in the first place.

Based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light uses Springsteen's music to help Javid fully understand the limitations of life in the bland town of Luton where he's sometimes bullied by neighborhood toughs and where his stern father (Kulvinder Ghir) has difficulty finding his footing after being laid off from the GM plant where he toiled for 16 years.

Ghir's Malik has no use for the poetry that Javed begins to write. He wants his son to arm himself against deeply ingrained British prejudices that he believes must break Javed's heart. But one of Javed's teachers (Haley Atwell) encourages the young man to keep searching for his voice. The year: 1987.

Kalra holds the screen with Javed's new-found avidity and his unshakable faith in the vision that Springsteen's music -- liberally used throughout -- opens for him. It's refreshing that Javid doesn't aspire to be a musician. He doesn't want to be Bruce; he wants to see like Bruce. He aspires to reach the level of feeling that he hears in songs such as Born to Run. Music empowers him, almost as if he's riding a wave created by Springsteen's liberating energies.

It's all very naive, of course, but this kind of naivete is precisely what the movie's remembering and, ultimately, celebrating.

Before Blinded by the Light ends, Chadha kneels too deeply at the altar of sentiment and she sometimes indulges a level of corniness the material doesn't require but Blinded by the Light survives those impulses and asks us to share its appreciation for Springsteen's music and, by inference, the magic music can work in the hearts of the young.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

This 'Nightingale' sings a brutal song

A 19th century story that packs a terrible wallop.

Every moment of brutality in The Nightingale, a follow-up feature from Babadook director Jennifer Kent, lands a hard blow. Set in 19th century Tasmania, Kent's story proves gripping from its horrific beginning to its violent end.

Kent visits a time when Tasmania served as a dumping ground for convicts from England and Ireland. The British soldiers who policed Tasmania viewed these convicts as subhumans who could be used, exploited and abused.

The story centers on Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a former Irish convict with a beautiful singing voice and a job at a small tavern.

Clare lives with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their new baby daughter in what should be the hopeful beginning of her post-prison life. But Clare isn't truly free. She's harassed by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an officer who believes that Clare owes him any sexual favor he might demand. He's the one who got her out of jail. He regards her marriage as a joke. His entire personality reflects a sense of British privilege and colonial cruelty.

The vicious act that ignites the rest of the movie occurs when Hawkins rapes Clare. Difficult to believe, but things get worse from there. I won't say exactly how an already horrible situation further deteriorates but Kent presents each of the movie's brutal turns in high-impact scenes that may cause some to avert their eyes.

Kent shifts the story into revenge territory when Clare hires an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track down Hawkins and his crew. After wrecking Clare's life, Hawkins heads north to claim a promotion that the local captain has denied him because of behavior unbecoming of an officer. True to form, Hawkins will not be denied.

A revenge saga, yes, but one that's not engineered to dish out the kind of programmed satisfaction we've come to expect in male-dominated revenge sagas. The violence in Kent's movie isn't intended to elicit cheers; it's appalling.

Racial dynamics also emerge. Clare initially lords it over Ganambarr's Billy. She calls him "boy," disrespects him and tries to bully him into submission. But she also knows, she can't navigate her way through the outback without him.

For his part, Billy understands that the whites treat his fellow tribesman with astonishing cruelty and have no appreciation of Aboriginal culture. They've stolen his home. To Billy, the whites are uncivilized barbarians, and -- at least initially -- Clare is one of them.

It takes time for Billy and Clare to form a bond based on their common acknowledgment that Hawkins (an emblem of British colonial rule) poses a twisted threat to each of them.

Kent adds tough encounters that lead the way to the movie's conclusion, a bit too drawn out, but still powerful enough to leave you wrung out.

The Nightingale reflects Kent's view of the deep terror caused by colonial injustice. Not an easy subject and not an easy movie. The Nightingale can be agonizing to watch. It should be.

'Luce': a complicated look at hope and race

Watching Luce, a big-screen adaptation of a play by JC Lee, I kept thinking about playwright David Mamet -- not because the movie deals with middle-class delusions about life in a racially charged context, but because director Julius Onah establishes a climate that creates Mamet-like doubt about the truth of what transpires. Onah might have had just that in mind because he sets up a variety of oppositional forces: a mother’s belief in her son, a father’s hard-nosed skepticism, a teacher’s doubts, a bright young man's ability to role play and nearly everyone’s desire to see an outcome that confirms their preconceptions. A strong cast carries the story’s burdens with powerful conviction. Luce (a terrific Kevin Harrison Jr.) is an adopted child from Eritrea, who’s excelling his way through a college-bound senior year. Naomi Watts portrays Luce’s devoted mother and Tim Roth, his father. Octavia Spencer appears as one of Luce’s teachers; she appreciates Luce's intelligence but suspects that there’s something volatile brewing beneath the exemplary surface of the young man’s life. Onah, who also wrote the screenplay, adds a variety of additional issues to the mix, including sexual abuse of a female student (Andrea Bang) and the justifiable bitterness of another black student (Omar Shariff Brunson Jr). Unlike Luce, Brunson's character never gets the benefit of the doubt. The school's principal (Norbert Leo Butz) seems invested in telling whatever story he believes will make his school look great. I think it would be a mistake to view Luce as a movie solely about interracial adoption; it's more about the way people reveal themselves by investing their hopes in a promising young man. Onah deftly handles the movie’s many conflicting themes right up until an ending that isn’t entirely satisfying. Still, the movie’s willingness to tackle complex issues makes for provocative viewing, primarily because Luce pushes an audience to weigh the various positions of characters increasingly caught in a pressurized situation none of them entirely can control.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

This dog tells the story of 'his' humans

Based on a best-selling novel 2008 novel by Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain qualifies as one of those less-than-stellar big-screen entertainments that still has some appeal, mostly because so many of us are dog lovers. Now, I have to say that I've never imagined that if any of the dogs I've known could have talked, they'd have sounded like Kevin Costner. But that's what happens in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Race car driver Milo Ventimiglia acquires a golden retriever puppy and names the dog Enzo (voice by Costner). The twist here involves telling the story from Enzo's perspective as Ventimiglia's character tries to make it big in racing circles, finds a wife (Amanda Seyfried) and adds a daughter to his family. Enzo narrates all of this, sometimes with humor, sometimes with feelings of dejection. It takes Enzo time to adjust to new arrivals in "his'' family because he regards his relationship with Ventimiglia's Denny as special and exclusive. Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn and The Woman in Gold), Racing in the Rain eventually moves from cuteness to tears -- at least that seems to be the intent. Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan show up as Denny's in-laws, a couple with whom he eventually finds himself in conflict. I was a bit surprised to learn that Enzo -- after watching a documentary on television about Mongolia -- starts to give his thoughts a New Age twist. He believes that really good dogs will be reincarnated as people in their next lives. You might have some fun trying to figure out who your dog might return as should he or she reincarnate through another lifetime. Your speculations probably will say more about you than your beloved pet. There's not much else to offer about this family-oriented, lump-in-the-throat story, aside from saying that I haven't read the book and the movie didn't make me feel as if I should. The movie was enough.

Buddies on the road -- and on the water

A country boy and a young man with Down syndrome team for a fairy tale of an adventure in The Peanut Butter Falcon.
We've all seen enough bromances to last several lifetimes. But that doesn't mean anyone plans to retire a genre that continues to connect with audiences.

The Peanut Butter Falcon arrives in theaters as a buddy movie -- but one with a difference. It teams Shia LaBeouf, as a red-neck renegade, with a young man with Down syndrome, played by Zack Gottsagen, an actor who really does have Down syndrome and for whom the movie was written.

LaBeouf's Tyler and Gottsagen's Zak make a typically unlikely duo. Tyler's on the run from a couple of guys (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) who want to kill him for messing up their crab-fishing business. He's also troubled by the death of his older brother (Jon Bernthal).

To hit the road, Zak must escape from the nursing home where he's being housed, no other placement being available. Zak's roommate (Bruce Dern) helps the young man engineer the breakout that leads to his hook-up with Tyler.

A nursing home volunteer (Dakota Johnson) follows. She's supposed to return Zak to the home. She also adds feminine energy to the generally masculine proceedings, which are heightened by Zak's burning ambition. He wants to be a professional wrestler and dreams of visiting a training school run by his idol, a wrestler who goes by the name of Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

Eventually, Johnson's Eleanor joins Tyler and Zak's brotherhood of two. Reluctantly, she agrees to help Zak pursue his dream.

Shot in the Florida Panhandle, the movie -- a passion project from first-time directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz -- relies heavily on the chemistry generated by a fully committed LaBeouf and by Gottsagen, a natural charmer with a robust sense of humor.

They're playing two characters who are thrown together for an adventure that includes a raft trip and an encounter with a backwoods preacher (Wayne DeHart) -- all spaced over sufficient time to allow LaBeouf and Gottsagen to develop a conspiratorial bond, two against the world.

Peanut Butter Falcon, which avoids gooey sentiment, takes its fanciful title from the name Zak chooses for his wrestling alter ego. The title proves suggestive; this is a movie that isn't afraid of its sometimes goofy appeal.

To fully enjoy Peanut Butter Falcon, it's probably best to set aside demands for total plausibility and accept the movie as a fairy tale about what it means to be young and feel free.

And -- at least to my knowledge -- The Peanut Butter Falcon is the only film in the long history of cinema that includes a scene in which the characters cook a fish, smear it with peanut butter and eat it. That moment, I should point out, marks the only time I felt sorry for anyone in the movie.

Bob' s Cinema Diary: 8/9/19 -- Luz and Piranhas

If you see Luz -- and I can't say there's any pressing reason that you should -- you will be exposed to German director Tilman Singer's evocative idea of a genre that has been dubbed art-house horror. That's another way of saying that the movie -- long on atmosphere, suggestion, and even blasphemy -- unfolds in ways that defy easy understanding, or maybe even more complex forms of comprehension. In brief: Luz (Luana Velis) is a Chilean taxi driver who spends most of the movie in a German police station. Earlier, Nora (Julia Riedler) meets a psychiatrist (Jan Bluthardt) in a bar. She tells him about Luz, who she met while attending a Catholic school in Chile and with whom she's had a recent chance meeting in Germany. Luz's story hinges on a long-ago, transformative event in Chile in which she supposedly convinced another student that she was pregnant. Much of the "story" is revealed during Luz's stay at the police station. Did I mention the devil? Well, the devil wends his way through the movie and its characters, but Singer hasn't made an Exorcist clone. Although various cinematic influences can be found, Luz exists largely in a world of its own and many will find that world impenetrable. I did, although from time-to-time I was caught by an eerie image or a weirdly committed performance. Still, filmmakers who create their own worlds risk a lot; i.e., they may wind up talking only to themselves.


As far as I could tell, the major distinguishing feature about Piranhas, another mob movie set in Naples, involves the age of the movie's protagonists. Director Claudio Giovannesi works from a screenplay based on a Roberto Saviano novel that may remind some of Gomorrah, a book Saviano wrote and on which a hard-boiled movie of the same name was based. The story centers on the criminal evolution of 15-year-old Nicola (Franceso di Napoli). Initially a genial teen-ager, Nicola becomes a coke-snorting big-wig who takes over mob chores in his neighborhood. Nicola and his young associates inevitably encounter trouble that threatens their spot as top-dogs in the gangster world. Much of what transpires in Giovannesi's mob-mashup feels a trifle old hat, even its unblinking rawness. Nicola's slide into a life of crime seems so matter of fact, we wonder why we should take it seriously. I suppose that could be the point. These kids are so warped by their surroundings that they plunge into the gangster life without giving it much thought. It's just what they do. In what may be a bow to Brian DePalma's Scarface, Nicol uses some of his ill-gotten gains to refurbish his mother's apartment, complete with a white cabinet that has been made to look like a bass fiddle. The kid has epic bad taste, choices determined by garishness and price. The older mobsters Nicola encounters seem more interesting than their youthful counterparts. But, hey, we've seen that movie before, too.

Snakes as a pathway to the divine

If you have an aversion to snakes, particularly poisonous snakes, you may not want to see Them That Follow, a backwoods drama about an isolated group of snake-handling Pentecostals. Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage employ a powerhouse cast as they examine the terrible impact of those whose beliefs not only are literal -- but weirdly dangerous. Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins) uses rattlesnakes to purify sin: Handle a rattler without getting bitten and you're clean. If you get bitten ... well ... the devil hasn't been banished from your tarnished soul. The drama centers on Mara (Alice Englert), the pastor's daughter. Englert's Mara finds herself caught in a love triangle between the devoted Garrett (Lewis Pullman) and the non-believing Augie (Thomas Mann), a young man whose only desire is to escape this stifling community. Matters are further complicated because Mara has become pregnant after a brief but guilt-inducing fling with Augie. Olivia Colman -- fine as ever -- and Jim Gaffigan, equally good, portray Augie's believing parents. The directors fill the movie with Appalachian flavor as the story works its way toward a conclusion that may shake you, even if you see it coming. The mood is somber and the movie flirts with back-country cliches, inducing a degree of skepticism: Doesn’t anyone who might be called “normal” live in these woods? Kaitlyn Dever appears as Mara's best friend, a young woman who's understandably confused by the tension between religious dictate and human impulses. Nice work all around, with Goggins giving a stand-out performance as a pastor who can seem level-headed around the dinner table but who exerts sinister control over his followers. There's nothing particularly profound to be realized -- or at least nothing you don't' already know about the dangers of fanatical belief -- but Them That Follow catches you up with its mood and performances. And, yes, scenes involving the snakes will give you the shivers.

You'll remember his name -- and his stories

I'm not sure I'd like to hang out with David Crosby for more than a couple of hours -- but you can watch the documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name and spend a fascinating hour and 35 minutes with an ornery musician and singer whose life embodies the high points, excesses, and eccentricities of a long career as a rock star. Beginning with The Byrds, Crosby went on to be part of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and then Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. He now records and performs with another group, but the most fascinating parts of the documentary -- directed by A.J. Eaton with interviewing chores going to Cameron Crowe -- involve a celebrity life which came to include drugs, so much so that Crosby wound up doing a stint in prison. Now clean and well into his 70s, Crosby doesn't seem interested in self-protection. If he's trying to make himself look good, I shudder to think how he'd appear if he were attempting to conceal something. He's burned bridges. He says no one from the musical circles in which he rose to prominence talks to him anymore. There are many other observations including Crosby's hatred of Jim Morrison, his admiration for Joni Mitchell and his recollections of Woodstock and other rock landmarks. Sad notes also abound, the most poignant of them stemming from the death of Christine Hinton, one of Crosby's lovers who died in a car crash. As he talks about his experiences, Crosby always seems to be telling the truth to Crowe, who began his career as a young rock journalist and evolved into a filmmaker. It's difficult not to believe that Crosby's life has exacted a toll. You can see an accumulation of hard years in a face that retains a hippy outline but also shows its droops and sags, like a coat that's been worn too much. Eaton begins the documentary with Crosby telling a story about a time when, as a young man he got smashed out his mind and went to hear John Coltrane play his saxophone in a Chicago club. Crosby delivers a riveting account of his encounter with Coltrane. I doubt you'll ever forget it, and like many of Crosby's stories, you're right there with him when he tells it.

He built a career asking questions

The late Mike Wallace -- once a TV actor and genial pitchman -- evolved into a hard-nosed TV reporter with an unrelenting style of interviewing. Wallace made his bones on Nightbeat, an interview program of the 1950s. On small black-and-white screens, Wallace and his guests were bathed in cigarette smoke and controversy. In Mike Wallace is Here, director Avi Belkin reviews Wallace's career with archival footage that works like a highlight reel of a TV newsman's work. Belkin opens with a Wallace interview with Bill O'Reilly, himself no stranger to antagonism. O'Reilly declares himself to be the spawn of Wallace's take-no-prisoners style. But unlike the contentious O'Reilly, Wallace's questions weren’t connected to a political point of view. His career brought him into contact with so many bold-faced names, it's difficult to keep track: from Barbra Streisand to Vladimir Putin to Ayatollah Khomeini. Belkin also touches on Wallace's personal life: notably his marriages, the loss of a son and a battle with depression. Wallace’s restless competitiveness helped give rise to 60 Minutes, a show on which he was an original participant and mainstay. It was the crowning achievement of a life that kept him working well into his 80s. Belkin also covers some of Wallace's professional struggles: a suit brought by General William Westmoreland over Vietnam coverage and CBS's refusal to air a Wallace interview with a tobacco whistleblower. I was never a particular fan of Wallace or of his style of journalism, but there's no dismissing the fact that he was an influential force on TV and perhaps in helping to form the public's idea of how journalists supposedly behave. To his credit, Wallace didn't flinch from trying to lift as many lids as he could. The mere mention of his name was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of people who had something to hide. The man knew his way around a story, and he sometimes raised, even if inadvertently, questions about a journalistic line that’s still not entirely drawn: the one that defines the difference between the personal and the public. Wallace died in 2012 at the age of 93.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

'Hobbs & Shaw': more preposterous action

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham star in an action spinoff that wears out its welcome.

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw attempts to expand the reach of an amped-up series that began in 2001 with a Rob Cohen-directed movie about street racing. The original movie, modest by current standards, marked a surprising entry into that summer's big-screen sweepstakes, a refreshing blend of speed and grit.

The series, which long ago made the leap into franchise territory, now has spawned a slightly demented offspring, one that’s far enough afield from its cinematic parents that it feels obliged to proclaim its lineage. I’m cynical enough to view Hobbs & Shaw as a superfluous mutation, an attempt to squeeze more mileage out of a series that never seems to run out of road.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw teams Dwayne Johnson's genially muscular Hobbs with Jason Statham's sneering Shaw. The two characters have history, which is another way of saying they don't get along. Both, of course, have cropped up in previous Fast & Furious movies. This time, they’re the main event.

A largely irrelevant plot brings these bickering battlers together for a job that Hobbs immodestly refers to as "saving the world." In this case, saving the world involves preventing the spread of a bio-engineered virus that could wipe out most of humanity. The virus hardly matters because even the characters don't seem to take the plot all that seriously.

Idris Elba signs on as the movie's bad guy, which is how his character introduces himself. "I'm the bad guy," he says, cueing a laugh line by signaling the movie's wish to play a genre-mocking game -- some of the time, if it not entirely.

On the less jokey side of the ledger: An evil corporation has weaponized Elba's character, turning him into a human with robotic capabilities that approach super-heroism. He supposedly represents a new rung on the evolutionary ladder.

As it turns out, Shaw's character has a sister (Vanessa Kirby) who's also trying to save humanity, an occupation that's always in large demand in summer movies. In the movie's early scenes, Kirby's Hattie steals the virus by embedding the capsule that contains it in her palm.

The Fast and Furious franchise always has made room for bold women. Kirby's Hattie carries on the tradition; she's a genuine butt-kicker who needs little assistance from the affable Hobbs or the dyspeptic Shaw.

Remember the virus? We're told, it eventually will go ... well ... viral. The clock ticks away.

Director David Leitch and his team don't pay much attention to this or any other clock, allowing the movie to unfold over a distended two hours and 15 minutes.

Hobbs & Shaw works its way toward a finale on Samoa without making it seem as if anything vital is at stake, aside from the filmmakers' ability to engineer ridiculous chase sequences and other impossible feats. The action is outlandish but not all of it is thrilling.

If you're of a mind, you may want to view the movie's Samoan finale as a statement -- albeit one that's delivered with as much ham-fisted panache as the barbs traded by Hobbs & Shaw. Hobbs reunites with his estranged brother (Cliff Curtis). They use Samoan weapons to ward off high-tech baddies. Can simple humanity triumph?

The movie includes an appearance by Helen Mirren, as Shaw's imprisoned mother, superfluous aside from suggesting participation in future movies. There also are a couple of cameos from actors I won’t name lest I spoil the surprise.

Look, I have no need to believe anything that happens in this kind of entertainment, but I'd like, at a minimum, to feel a sense of sustained involvement. That's not easy when a movie’s action, though abundant, isn't necessarily about creating excitement but about impressing us with the filmmakers' ingenuity. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, and Hobbs & Shaw offers more than a little -- way too much, in fact.

Their affair crosses dangerous lines

A look at the complications that ensue from a tryst between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man.

Saleem and Sarah are having an affair. She owns a small cafe in Jerusalem. He delivers baked goods to the cafe. Both are married to other people and neither seems interested in abandoning his or her family. She’s the mother of a young daughter. He’s about to become a father.

So what’s this relationship about? Maybe nothing more than sex and novelty. Maybe Saleem and Sarah are turned on by risk. Palestinian director Muayad Alayna isn’t especially interested in what brought these two people together; rather, he dramatizes the dangers that arise when lines are crossed by people who live on opposite sides of an explosive cultural, religious and political divide.

Alayan bases the prosaically titled Reports on Sarah and Saleem on a real-life story that allows him to deal with the ramifications of an affair that exposes each of its participants to unexpected consequences.

Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) resides in East Jerusalem but also makes some deliveries in the West Bank for his brother-in-law (Mohammad Eid), a well-connected fellow who offers Saleem a chance to earn extra money. A trip to Bethlehem with Sarah (Sivane Kretchner) sparks a bar fight that produces a series of events that lead to the jealous Saleem's arrest by the Israelis.

Further complicating matters, Kretchner's Sarah is married to an Israeli colonel (Ishai Golan) who deals with security matters. What will happen if he learns that his wife has been sleeping with an Arab-Israeli who has fallen under suspicion of spying on the Israelis?

For her part, Saleem's pregnant wife (Maisa Abd Elhadi) must face difficult truths about her husband; her character grows in strength as the movie unfolds.

The movie's complications and coincidences sometimes feel far-fetched. But considering where Sarah and Saleem live, we're willing to go along with the story, and Alayan winds up with a movie that sometimes ties us and his characters in knots.