Thursday, October 31, 2019

A private detective with Tourette syndrome

Edward Norton directs and stars in Motherless Brooklyn, a movie that never attains the impact that seems to have been intended.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with long movies. Problems arise, though, when the content and momentum of a particular movie don't match its length. And that’s what happens with Edward Norton’s two-hour and 20-minute adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn.

In adapting Letham’s novel for the screen, Norton (who wrote the screenplay, directed and stars in the movie) uses Lethem’s story about a detective with Tourette syndrome as a launchpad for a conspiratorial tale about the ways in which a powerful figure built the bridges and highways that shaped New York City, destroying neighborhoods in the bargain.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand that the movie, set during the 1950s, can be taken as a riff on the career of New York power broker Robert Moses -- and perhaps on all wheeler/dealers who accumulate power without applying any ethical constraints.

A complicated story weaves through the various scenes that push Norton’s character deeper into the dens of power. He’s trying to negotiate his way through a labyrinth he doesn’t fully understand and which, frankly, may baffle audiences, as well — at least in the early going.

Moviegoers with memories probably won’t be able to resist comparisons to Chinatown (1974). But that movie became a classic of contemporary noir. Motherless Brooklyn, I’m afraid, is a wannabe by comparison. I’m talking about the movie's characters, its mood and the lack of chemistry between Norton and the movie’s female lead, portrayed by Gu Gu Mbatha Raw.

No point dwelling on the plot, but a word or two about the secondary characters. Bruce Willis appears briefly as the mentor and employer of Norton's Lionel Essrog. Willis' Frank Minna, a private eye with his own agency, rescued Lionel from an orphanage and schooled him in the ways of the street.

Bobby Cannavale portrays the slickest member of Frank's detective agency. Alec Baldwin appears as Moses Randolph, the movie's power broker, a man who doesn't care how many lives he wrecks. Baldwin is fine, although, in crucial moments, his dialogue is too on-the-nose. Willem Dafoe delivers an angry, agonized performance as a compromised idealist.

Safe to say that none of these characters is all that memorable. The same goes for a community organizer (Cherry Jones), a woman who’s fighting for New York’s neighborhoods. Raw’s character is part of that team, an activist lawyer intent on fighting the powers-that-be.

Michael Kenneth Williams portrays a jazz trumpet player who plies his trade at a Harlem nightclub that figures in the movie’s plot. Always commanding, Williams appears at a moment when Norton allows the narrative to stall; it almost seems as if he values listening to the music on the soundtrack more than moving the plot.

Norton gives Lionel the tics and outbursts that define his brand of Tourette syndrome. In displays of uncontrollable agitation, Lionel tries to put sometimes unrelated things together, which may be a metaphor for how he's trying to deal with a broken society. But Motherless Brooklyn isn't really about a man living with Tourette syndrome; it's a plunge into a corrupted world and the movie eventually staggers under the weight of what appear to be ultra-serious aspirations.

A fine cast keeps Motherless Brooklyn watchable, but something odd happened when Norton changed the time period of Lethem's novel from the 1990s to the 1950s. It lost much of its urgency. Motherless Brooklyn ca be so retro, it feels as tired as some of the clothes you might find in a thrift store, almost worn out -- and maybe a trifle passe.

Harriet Tubman reaches the screen

Cynthia Erivo gives one of the year's most compelling performances in director Kasi Lemmons' Harriet.
In Harriet, actress Cynthia Erivo comes across as a determined female warrior who battles the evils of slavery, freeing as many enslaved people as she can. With a face full of fury, Erivo creates a portrait of flinty resolve and unshakable faith. Tubman, who escaped slavery at the age of 27, became a "conductor" -- someone who guided the enslaved to freedom -- on the Underground Railroad. She already had won her freedom but wasn't satisfied, not when so many others were left behind to suffer.

As directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me), Harriet paints a portrait of a woman who came to realize she had only one choice: Be free or die. Once Tubman decided that she'd rather be dead than enslaved, everything else followed.

In Maryland, Tubman was known as Minty. She grew up on a plantation and watched a sister being sold away from the family, an event that permanently scarred her, as did the lashes from the whips of slave masters.

Determined to flee, Tubman made a journey of 100 miles -- from Maryland to Philadelphia. She traveled alone.

Erivo creates a portrait of a woman possessed. Tubman was struck in the head as a child, an event that some say accounted for the religious visions that she claimed to have. Erivo's fierce portrayal leaves little doubt that if Tubman said she talked to God, you'd best believe her. She's like an American Joan of Arc. Employing a different religious reference, frustrated plantation owners dubbed her "Moses."

Part action hero and part American icon, the Harriet that emerges on screen kicks butt and, yes, that's satisfying, given the people whose butt she's kicking. A born leader, she refuses to allow anyone (even the politically cautious abolitionists she meets in Philadelphia) to define her.

The evil white slavers find their fullest representation in a character named Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn),
a severe slave master who won't rest until he returns Tubman to his plantation. At one point, he hires black slave hunters to help him in his quest. Gideon's mother (Jennifer Nettles) can be even worse, a hysterical woman who sees her beloved plantation sinking deeper into debt.

The movie's Philadelphia setting produces the movie's strongest supporting characters. Janelle Monae plays a woman who owns a boarding house and Leslie Odom Jr. portrays an abolitionist who introduces Tubman to the Underground Railroad. At various points in the movie, Clarke Peters appears as Tubman's father.

Lemmons sticks pretty much to surface, and, at times, Harriet seems more of an action movie than it needs to be. Put another way, Harriet sometimes feels more attuned to the demands of contemporary moviegoing than to rhythms that would have been more reflective of the period in which Tubman lived.

With Harriet, what you see is what you get and the movie emerges as a kind of primer on Tubman's life that's built around a compelling performance. I agree with those who think it should have been more than that, but Lemmons' big-screen biography sets its own terms and lives within them.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The dark world of "The Lighthouse"

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play a harrowing duet in director Robert Eggers' weird and unnerving movie.

Filmed in black-and-white and locked in a claustrophobic square image that makes the frame seem like a prison cell, director Robert Eggers's The Lighthouse qualifies as one of the year’s weirdest movies.

The set-up is as spare as a picked over bone. Two men played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe arrive on a small rocky island off the mainland. They’re supposed to spend a month manning the island's lighthouse, but wind up stranded when a major storm hits.

This may make it sound as though the movie has a plot. It doesn’t, not really. It’s about a strained, sometimes collegial relationship between two men — with overtones of homoeroticism thrown into an atmosphere that resists definition. In a way, you could say that The Lighthouse isn’t about either of the two men; it’s about the forces that fill the space between them.

Dafoe plays the older and more experienced of Eggers’ duo; Dafoe’s character bosses Pattinson’s character around, assigning him the dirtiest jobs, tasks such as emptying waste, carting coal for fires and scrubbing floors.

Dafoe’s character fancies himself a sea captain and, the movie — set in the 1890s — treats him like one. His speech is archaic and, as you’ll learn from a note at the movie’s end, some of the dialogue derives from Melville and some from the diaries of various men who tended lighthouses.

Dafoe's character may be delusional, no more a captain than Pattinson’s character is a member of his crew. The men are playing roles and, in some sense, the movie wants to see who can break out of his role to attain dominance.

I’ve seen The Lighthouse classified as a horror movie. I'd say it's creepier than it is scary. Pattinson finds a small sculpture of a mermaid in the bedroom the men share. Is he dreaming when she seems to come to life and beckons to him? And what’s with the lamp in the lighthouse, which Dafoe’s character insists only he can tend? Why do we see Dafoe’s character standing naked in front of the light as if immersed in some kind of erotic transcendence? Does a demonic presence lurk nearby?

I leave it to you to ponder such questions but I'll suggest that answers may matter less than the way Eggers (The Witch) creates an atmosphere of desperation and dread. He makes us the island's haunted isolation.

The shabby interior of the building where the men reside almost makes you cringe at its meager possibilities. When the two men sit to down dinner, you know that the food probably tastes awful. The wooden floors and walls of the men's quarters are on the verge of rot — if they haven’t already crossed the line.

I don’t know whether The Lighthouse is too weird to garner awards attention for the actors, but Dafoe — one of the screen's most adventurous actors — hits stunning notes, mixing cruelty and the urge to dominate with a kind of manly cordiality. The more wary Pattinson keeps pace, and I would say that these are two of the most fearless performances I’ve seen in some time.

Eggers fuels the tension by having his two characters consume increasingly large amounts of alcohol. They get drunk. Dafoe’s character delivers salty, poetic orations and you can see rebellion brewing in Pattinson’s face, his mouth threatening a sneer. He seems to be hiding a dangerous intelligence. He has an unpleasant relationship with the island's seagulls and maybe with all of nature.

Wild and unhinged, The Lighthouse may not be entirely comprehensible, but it sends you out of the theater in a way that colors perception, making your surroundings look more alien, more forbidding. Years ago, I remember reading a quote by Abel Gance, who directed the great silent epic, Napoleon. Said Gance, a movie should make you see the world differently than before you sat down to watch it. By that measure, Eggers has accomplished his task.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

'JoJo Rabbit,' creative but scattered

Director Taiki Waititi uses Nazi Germany as a launchpad for satire that ultimately turns sentimental.

The first mistake you can make about JoJo Rabbit is to think that the movie has anything much to do with the Holocaust. Yes, it takes place in Germany during World War II and, yes, it involves a single mother who hides a Jewish teenager in her attic, and, yes, it shows that even a charming kid can fall prey to the toxins of anti-semitism.

But director Taika Waititi’s comedy takes place in a fantasy zone where anti-semitism has been divorced from mass murder. The movie mostly deals with Germans -- either decent or comical or a mixture of both. That makes JoJo tolerable while at the same time rendering it largely inoffensive, something no satire can afford to be.

This is not to say that Waititi doesn't know what he's doing. His track record (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok) is good and within JoJo Rabbit, you'll find plenty of cinematic invention.

By now, you probably know the set-up. JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old fledgling member of the Hitler Youth who has created a doozy of an imaginary best friend for himself, Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi. The boy’s free-spirited mother (Scarlett Johansson) clearly loves her son and evinces a blithe approach to life that’s a bit out-of-synch with her moment; i.e., the looming defeat of Germany in the end days of the war.

Moreover, Johansson's character's fashion flair stands in sharp contrast to the depleted German civic environment that accompanied the end of the war.

Waititi takes a fractured approach to what seems less an attempt to encompass comedy and horror than an attempt to build a fantasy world in which Nazis are comical and, in which, love ultimately conquers hate.

To that end, Sam Rockwell plays Captain Klenzendorf, a Hitler Youth leader with a blasé attitude toward Nazi imperatives. He has an uber-blonde assistant played by Rebel Wilson, who might as well be wearing a sign that reads, "Hateful Nazi."

Mel Brooks’ Nazi caricatures in The Producers became risible assaults on the very notion that anyone could take the staunch idiocy of Nazism seriously. Of course, millions did, so Brooks was also delivering an act of Jewish revenge that was far more effective than what Quentin Tarantino tried to accomplish at the end of Inglourious Basterds, a movie that boldly congratulated itself for presenting the face of “Jewish revenge.”

Waititi includes many comic bits, a disastrous weekend outing for JoJo when he joins the Hitler Youth, a sight gag involving German shepherds and a book JoJo is compiling on Jews. He calls it Yohoo Jew. JoJo has been propagandized for his whole life to think of Jews as non-human embodiments of evil and he decorates his room with Nazi paraphernalia much in the way kids of today put up posters of rap stars and sports figures.

Although his accent mingles his British origins with German inflection, Davis gives a sharp comic performance based on expressing attitudes that don’t always make sense for someone his age. Waititi's Hitler isn’t an act of mimicry; it’s a presentation of a fantasy figure who — true to the boy’s still-evolving imagination —- can’t settle into a solid form. As he relates to JoJo, he's a user-friendly Hitler.

Besides, there are enough anachronisms of speech (Hitler using the expression such as "Correctamundo," for example) to let us know that JoJo isn't meant to be taken as a history lesson.

As the Jewish girl in hiding, Thomassin McKenzie doesn't make much sense. She’s confident, and a little too unruffled, and she exists mostly so that young JoJo can learn that Jews are people, too. Isn't this a version — albeit a more benign one — of what happens in movies when black characters seem to exist so that white characters can be morally transformed?

But three cheers for young Archie Yates, who plays Yorki, JoJo's indomitably cheerful best friend. And also for Stephen Merchant who has a terrific turn as a member of the Gestapo.

Waititi does, of course, include some difficult notes that I won’t reveal here because they would qualify as spoilers. He tries to accommodate both broad comedy and war-time horror, but the horror can seem contrived. It’s as if he’s saying (and we and almost hear him saying it), “Look, I know that the war was no joke and neither was Nazism.”

It may seem odd to say that the movie tries to send its audience out of the theater with buoyed spirits. But Waititi wants to testify on behalf of the battered human spirit as it emerges into the light after the darkness of war.

It’s a nice idea but a mildly trivial one when played against what the Nazis did in the world. For all its creative efforts, JoJo Rabbit can seem a bit trivial, as well.

Perhaps that's because the best satire reveals; JoJo Rabbit confirms what we already know or, at least would like to believe. Hatred, bad; love, good.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

A comedy that sharpens to a pointed edge

Director Bong Joon-ho’s streak of memorable movies continues with Parasite.
A good portion of Parasite — director Bong Joon-ho's biting look at South Korean’s class divide — plays like a comedy with farcical flourishes. But if you know the work of Bong (Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host, and Memories of Murder), you also know the movie will take some unsettling turns.

In outline, the story seems simple: One-by-one, a poor family insinuates itself into the life of a wealthy family.

The tale begins when poor young Kim Kai Woo (Choi Woo-sik) is asked by a wealthy pal to pose as an English tutor for an affluent college-bound girl. Kim quickly senses a larger opportunity. Not only will he find a job for himself, but he'll see that his whole family lands work with the same wealthy family. Full employment represents a marked step up for a group that dwells in a miserable basement apartment, earning what passes for a living folding pizza boxes.

As it turns out, Kim's family members are all good actors. They never tell their employers that they’re related to one another and they play their roles with incredible ease. During the course of the story, Dad (Song Kang-ho) becomes a chauffeur; Mom (Jang Hye-im, a housekeeper; and the family’s daughter (Park So-dam), an art-therapist for the affluent family’s young, unruly son, a kid who spends most of his time pretending he's in a western. He fires rubber arrows at any available target.

As the first person to penetrate the world of the wealthy, Kim is both a hustler and an insecure kid who eventually must come to grips with the fact that he’s playing a role. He’s giving a performance. But what’s underneath the role he’s playing? And will he be able to turn that role into something real?

Much of the story takes place in a beautifully modern home that stands as a fortress of contemporary design. It’s amusing to watch the poor family play at being servile. And it’s equally funny to see how the affluent family responds.

The aspiring college student begins to fall for her new English tutor. A study in bourgeois nervousness, Mom (Jo Yeo-jeong) seems oblivious to anything beyond her well-insulated world. Dad (Lee Sun-kyun) runs his tech business while insisting that a good servant knows how to be friendly without ever crossing the line that suggests he or she might be equal to his or her employer. We’ve seen the type before: Dad believes that his success makes him superior to those around him. We guess that he's new to money.

Of course, plenty of issues bubble beneath the film’s comic surface. But what are those issues and how will they finally play out?

I’m not going to provide spoilers here, which puts a real burden on any review because it’s natural to want to talk about the way that Bong brings his movie to its explosive boil.

Still, it seems fair to say that Parasite poses an intriguing question: What happens when those who’ve been pretending start cracking under the strain? And how do those with power, money, and status react when addressed not as employers but as human beings?

I won’t say more, but pay attention to the way Bong plays with the notion of how reality can be projected on screens. The poor family lives in a basement with a window that resembles a movie screen. Through it, they watch the life of their neighborhood unfold in miniature. A drunk insists on urinating against a wall. The family recoils in disgust. The family’s only guests are hordes of stink bugs.

And then there’s the wall-length window in the home of the wealthy family. It, too, resembles a movie screen and Bong shifts our view depending on who’s looking out of or into that window.

Gradually, what appears to be an amusing but relatively safe screwball comedy turns out to be anything but.

Parasite plumbs the depths of class divisions and personal delusion, as well as the fragility of a social order that seems secure.

At times, Parasite can feel like other movies, maybe even one beckoning for an American remake. But be wary. Bong’s not playing around — at least not all the time. When you revisit the movie in your mind, you may see more sadness and serious than you initially would have expected.

A director slips into depression

Antonio Banderas leads the way in director Pedro Almodovar's Pain & Glory.
In Pain & Glory, director Pedro Almodovar tells the story of an aging director who's creaking has ways toward the last good night. As Salvador Mallo, Antonio Banderas makes us feel his character's pain even when he's doing something ordinary, getting out of a taxi, for example. A master of eye-popping color, Almodovar almost makes it seem as the blood has been drained from Banderas's face. But more about Banderas later.

Working in a reflective mode, Almodovar has made a movie that begs to be taken autobiographically.

Scenes in Mallo's home were shot in Almodovar's Madrid apartment. Banderas wore Almodovar's clothes during the filming and styled his hair in the swept-back fashion Almodovar favors. Of course, Banderas has a long history with Almodovar, having starred in Almodovar's Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and later in movies such as Law of Desire, Matador, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and even later in films such as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Skin I live In.

So, Pain & Glory arrives on-screen weighted with a history that's reflected in the screenplay when Mallo reconnects, after 32 years, with the actor (Asier Etxeandia) who starred in what apparently was the director's best film.

Mallo's connection with his past comes at a time when depression keeps him from work. He reads. He sometimes writes. But mostly he's holed up in his apartment, where he remembers his life as a child.

Flashbacks to childhood, some induced when Mallo decides to try heroin, show us the relationship between young Mallo (Asier Flores) and his mother (Penelope Cruz).

An early-picture close-up of Cruz washing clothes in a river near the village where Mallo was born so intensely captures Cruz’s beauty that it feels as if the image should be lifted from the screen and framed. It's practically a love letter.

In another flashback, we glimpse the future. Young Mallo auditions for a church choir. The other boys can't carry a tune but Mallo can sing. He has a voice.

Mallo recalls the birth of his sexual desire in a scene in which the young Mallo watches Eduardo (Cesar Vicente), a workman who's putting up tiles on the wall of the family's home. When a nude Eduardo washes away the dirt of work, Mallo is overwhelmed. His mother arrives home and we sense that she's confirming what she already knows about her son.

Almodovar, as always, is in fine form, but Banderas's performance makes the movie. It almost feels as if his bearded face is being pulled down by the drag of Mallo's depression. Banderas doesn't so much portray depression as embody it. With graying hair and beard, the handsome Banderas has made his face drab.

If the movie is meant to be autobiographical, Almodovar isn't always kind to himself. Mallo cruelly sabotages his renewed friendship with Etxeandia's character. He indulges in heroin and seems to treat the devoted woman who assists him (Nora Navas) as nothing more than a sounding board for his laments.

At one point, Mallo -- perhaps as an act of contrition -- gives his estranged actor friend the rights to a story he has written. The story becomes a one-man showcase for the actor, a stage production that's highlighted by a confessional recounting of the days when the narrator was unable to save a youthful lover from the ravages of heroin.

But even that story becomes suspect when, after many years, the lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia) returns to Madrid from Argentina. After accidentally stumbling across the play, he meets with Mallo. Turns out that the former lover is content, stable and living a life that seems altogether more fulfilling than Mallo's.

There also are scenes that seem lifted from life, as when Mallo listens to his now-aging mother instruct him in how she wishes to be displayed in her coffin. This rosary, not that one. And please, no bound feet. That might constrict her freedom in the afterlife.

Although there's a play within the movie and other references to art -- both visual and verbal -- Pain and Glory isn't nearly as playful as much of Almodovar's work. Winds of sadness and defeat blow through much of the movie. Even when we learn that Mallo will resume his career, it doesn't feel like a triumph. We've already seen that he has nothing in his life but filmmaking. Is that enough? Shouldn’t life have more?

Almodovar, who’s 70, paints a portrait of a cinematic bad boy in his twilight years. In a way, that makes Pain and Glory a story about the kind of loneliness for which no antidote has yet been discovered.

Titans battle over who'll rule the electric grid

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse square off in The Current War, an oddity of a movie.

The Current War: Director's Cut is a difficult movie for me to review. Before it was described as "the director's cut," the movie premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It was slated to be released by the Weinstein Company, but Harvey Weinstein's #MeToo exposure intervened.

Two years later, the movie found a home with 101 Studios. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon reportedly did some re-editing, added scenes and reduced the film's running time. Is it better than the version that played Toronto? I didn't see the movie then, so I can’t say.

I wondered, though, whether Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) didn't insist on a director's cut so that the movie -- which received a lukewarm reception in Toronto -- could be seen with fresh eyes.

Whatever the case, the movie that now arrives on the nation’s screens is a bit of an oddity.

Gomez-Rejon has tried (boy, has he tried) to make a visionary movie about visionaries, a choice that puts the movie in an odd position: It’s competing with its characters.

The story centers on the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Geroge Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), two great names of American invention and commerce. A third revolutionary, Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) works his way into the story, first as an employee of Edison and later as an ally of Westinghouse.

The great competition concerns a question: Should direct or alternating current be adopted as the US standard. Edison champions direct current; Westinghouse hoists the banner for alternating current. You already know the outcome, so it's difficult to say The Current War generates a great deal of suspense. In the US, alternating current rules.

To the extent that there's more at stake than money and, of course, power, it's worth noting that Edison represents invention in its purest form. Westinghouse takes a more commercially oriented view. Because alternating current was cheaper and could carry over longer distances than direct current, Westinghouse deemed it the better bet.

This is not to say that Edison becomes the movie's hero. He's arrogant and not especially friendly. Instead of making him admirable, his commitment to principle makes him a pain in the butt. And Westinghouse -- though capable of underhanded behavior -- seems genuinely interested in making the world a better place.

It takes an actor as good as Shannon to convey the complexities of Westinghouse's personality and I half wished that the movie had been more about Westinghouse than Edison.

Safe to say that the 19th century battle about the future of electricity isn't easy to dramatize. But it’s Gomez-Rejon's unrelenting commitment to an arty style that makes the movie difficult to embrace: He uses endlessly shifting camera angles, dark lighting, and other self-conscious cinematic gestures in ways that sometimes wall off us off from the story he's trying to tell.

And yet ...

The Current War also creates an atmosphere that is intriguing and strange -- incredibly detailed and yet somehow weirdly unfamiliar.

There isn't much by way of memorable work from the movie's supporting cast.

Tom Holland portrays Samuel Insull, Edison's loyal assistant. Matthew Macfadyen plays J.P. Morgan, a titan of finance who Edison snubs. Tuppence Middleton portrays Edison's wife and Katherine Waterston appears as Marguerite Westinghouse, by far the more interesting of the two spouses.

Gomez-Rajon hints at the dark side of technological advance by introducing the invention of the electric chair, which was supposed to take the cruelty out of capital punishment but which might have made things worse. Both Edison and Westinghouse were compromised by their positions on the use of the chair.

All of this builds toward a competition over who will land the contract to light The Chicago Exposition of 1893, a major coup for whoever wins the day -- or, better put, the night.

Gomez-Rejon whips up some excellent imagery and the story generates interest. And yet ... as I've said ... The Current War isn't so much a failure as a puzzlement, a movie that, in my view, creates too many impediments to its fullest appreciation.

Examining the climate for a war crime

The Kill Team takes its cue from a 2013 documentary of the same name. The story deals with a platoon in which the staff sergeant (Alexander Skarsgard) takes a view of combat that doesn’t distinguish between frightened civilians and dangerous foes. In the role of the soft-spoken but dangerous sergeant Deeks, Skarsgard shows us how his character ingratiates himself with his men. He creates a tight-knit atmosphere that fosters a climate of secrecy and allows the sergeant to function as a kind of free agent in an Afghanistan war zone. Building blocks of brotherhood create a fraternal environment that tests the conscience of one of Deek's soldiers, the dedicated Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff). Briggman is no softie when it comes to warfare, but his qualms about killing civilians put him at odds with the rest of the group. If you’ve seen the documentary, you pretty much know what’s going to happen, but a committed cast brings a level of tension to the proceedings. And the increasingly antagonistic duet played by Skarsgard and Wolff gives the movie a solid if troubling center. When bullets are flying and explosive devices are going off, figuring out how to behave isn’t easy but director Dan Krauss, who also directed the documentary, raises a deeply vexing question. What happens when killing in war becomes murder?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A look at the great financial shell game

Director Steven Soderbergh brings a comic touch to The Laundromat, a story based on the Panama Papers scandal.
Director Steven Soderbergh aims at the absurdities of a wealth-obsessed world in The Laundromat, a Netflix movie that feels like a collection of skits revolving around the Panama Papers scandal of 2016.

That financial mess involved a massive leak of files showing how the very rich (or at least some of them) could use shell corporations to shield themselves from a variety of troublesome intrusions, matters such as income tax or various liabilities.

The Laundromat, which begs for comparison with 2015's livelier The Big Short, uses a variety of techniques to create a farrago of sketches, many presented with the kind of gimmickry that defies cinematic convention, everything from breaking the fourth wall to chapter headings such as The Meek Are Screwed.

The movie is held together by two figures played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. They are, respectively, Oldman's Jurgen Mossack and Banderas's Ramon Fonesca, characters who might have popped out of a Pinter play. They often address the audience, acting as guides to the financial maneuvering at movie's core.

Speaking in a comic German accent, Oldman seems the more pragmatic of the duo. If there's romanticism in financial chicanery, Banderas finds it.

Ramon and Jurgen are lawyers who run a firm that specializes in creating shell companies. No questions asked. Secrecy respected. If these corporations lack substance ... well ... shouldn't wealthy people be allowed to park their cash somewhere without agents from the IRS crawling all over it?

Working from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh tries to show how the damage caused by all this subterfuge can impact those whose financial calculations extend no further than trying to balance a checkbook.

Meryl Streep portrays Ellen Martin, a woman who loses her husband (James Cromwell) in a boating accident on Lake George, NY. Ellen believes that she will collect an insurance settlement from the boating company.

Ellen soon learns that the company had been duped by someone who sold it insurance from a company that wended its way toward the portfolio of an outfit that existed only on paper. Ellen turns up at various points in the story to remind us that all this high-flying finagling can actually connect to ordinary folks.

This portion of the movie introduces us to a character played by Jeffrey Wright, an accountant who lives in Nevis, a West Indian island off the beaten tourist track. Ellen shows up there to track down the company that owns the insurance company that was supposed to compensate her for her loss.

None of this is to say that The Laundromat has a great deal of bite. It's mostly bark presented by Soderbergh with the winking buoyancy of a caper movie.

As Soderbergh works his way through the story, the movie makes a long stop at the palatial home of a wealthy man (Nonso Anozie) who's dallying with his daughter's college roommate. Anozie's Charles' approach to problem-solving: Award any aggrieved party with bearer shares that he claims are worth mega-millions.

Later, we meet a slick wheeler-dealer (Mathias Schoenaerts) who tries to exert his power over a Chinese woman (Rosalind Chao) who isn't going to fall so easily.

Put all this together and you have an airy concoction that amuses even if it doesn't pack the clout we might expect. By the end, I half wondered whether Soderbergh wasn't saying that any society that allows its economy to create financial instruments (i.e., paper) that have the appearance of worth without any reality to support them deserves what it gets — in the end, a handful of nothing.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil: a mixed and not entirely successful offering.

Let’s start at the end. Before it’s done, Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil indulges itself in a mega-helping of Disney cuteness that’s designed to please those who love their movies served with heavy doses of syrup, the kind that leave audiences with a corn-fed glow.

In this sequel to the commercially successful first edition, Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, the witch who detests humans -- aside from Aurora (Elle Fanning), the human daughter she raised. Maleficent has inviting ruby red lips, but you wouldn’t want to dance cheek-to-cheek with her lest you be impaled on cheekbones that jut outward like ski slopes.
In this edition, the creatures of the moors (fairies, mushrooms, and trees that spring to life) are threatened by the human kingdom where Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is scheduled to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickenson).

The early, amusing part of this second helping plays like a fairy tale version of Meet the Parents. Maleficent opposes the marriage but agrees to have dinner with the royal family: good King John (Robert Lindsey) and his not-so-good wife Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer).

With prodding from her faithful, shape-shifting companion Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent does her best to be civil. Jolie shines when Maleficent struggles to suppress her venomous impulses.

The original movie went big on revisionism. The sequel follows suit. Most of the time we find ourselves rooting against the humans, whose destructive ambitions reach full bloom in the person of Queen Ingrith. Pfeiffer delivers her lines with as much sarcasm as she can muster. But because the dialogue isn’t all that good, the impact of the Queen Ingrith's archness feels dulled.

En route to its happily-ever-after, the movie sets off a war. Wounded as she flees that early-picture dinner, Maleficent is rescued by another winged creature with horns. Chiwetel Ejiofor's Connal presides over a cave-dwelling civilization of creatures who look like Maleficent but don’t have her super-powers.

Some of these creatures -- notably the war-mongering Borra (Ed Skrein) -- are fed up with living in exile from treacherous humans. They want to make war on the residents of the palace. The pragmatic Conall opposes such engagement, acknowledging that humans severely outnumber the non-humans.

If a fairy tale movie threatens a great battle, it surely must deliver one. Mistress of Evil whips up a CGI-fueled spectacle in which the fairy tale creatures are attacked with a concoction made from flowers that ...

Never mind. Nothing here makes a great deal of sense, but director Joachim Ronning mounts the final assault on a large scale as the humans threaten to pull off a fairy genocide.

So, to what does all this amount?

Another mash-up. Part cartoon, part action movie, part romance, and part fairy tale, Maleficent doesn't quite stake out enough turf in any of those categories totally to succeed. But it's been tailored to please its audience and probably will.

You either can view that as an accomplishment or a capitulation or (as I do) a mixture of both.

Still, when you get right down to it there’s this: Pfeiffer’s Ingrith is no match for Jolie’s Maleficent. That means every moment Jolie's off-screen (and there are too many of them) leaves us eager for her return.

Do we really care whether Aurora and Philip are able to marry or would we rather look at Maleficent with her majestic wings, flowing horns and towering cheekbones? You know how I’m voting.

A deja vous helping of zombie comedy

Zombieland: Double Tap breaks little new ground and that may be just what the movie's fans want.

If you've seen the first Zombieland, you've pretty much seen the second.

Zombieland: Double Tap arrives 10 years after the release of the first movie with the original zombie- fighting crew offering the same brand of humor that made the first movie a hit. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.

If you've been hankering to see Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin reprise their roles as destroyers of zombies, Double Tap delivers.

Of course, a few new faces have been added, notably a funny Zoey Deutch as the most cheerfully clueless blonde to hit the screen in a long time.

Those who care should know that the quartet of remaining humans from the first movie is still threatened by hordes of zombies, brain-eating creatures that began spreading after the world was struck by some sort of virus.

Early on, Eisenberg's Columbus, Harrelson's Tallahassee, Stone's Wichita, and Breslin's Little Rock take refuge in a devastated White House. After a bit of plot maneuvering, Little Rock hits the road with a guitar-playing hippie who appropriates Dylan songs. Little Rock evidently is headed for Graceland, the equally devastated home of the late Elvis Presley.

The trio of survivors (along with Deutch's Madison) follows, maybe for no other reason than to give the movie somewhere to go. The journey provides an opportunity for Rosario Dawson to enter the fray. Dawson's Nevada presides over the Hound Dog hotel, home of Elvis memorabilia and facsimiles of Graceland's garish rooms. At this point, Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch show up to play odd replicas of the characters portrayed by Harrelson and Eisenberg.

It's as if Columbus and Tallahassee meet themselves and, thus, are confronted by their own ridiculousness -- or something like that.

Ruben Fleischer, who also directed the first installment, keeps the proceedings zipping along, moving fast enough to fly over the bits that don't work.

Those who find the movie superfluous won't be wrong, but there are enough laughs to combat resistance, perhaps even among those who've already seen enough zombie-apocalypses to last a lifetime.

Besides, Double Tap passes in an acceptable 99 minutes, leaving many smashed zombie heads and a whole lot of silliness in its wake.

A single mom fights for her son's education

I can think of only one compelling reason to see Miss Virginia, a predictable advocacy movie that makes the case for supporting poor minority kids in private schools. That reason has nothing to do with the movie's political orientation. The reason: Uzo Aduba. Fans of Orange Is the New Black know Aduba as Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, one of the most disturbed but unforgettable residents of the series' fictional Litchfield Penitentiary. Miss Virginia affords Aduba a chance to break from her portrayal of Suzanne. Here, she plays Virginia Ford, a single mother who helped lobby for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offered scholarships that enabled low-income students to attend private schools. We meet Virginia in 2003 when she's trying to keep her 15-year-old son James (Niles Fitch) on track. James is being bullied at a public school where no one appreciates his artistic talent. Virginia bravely enrolls her son in an expensive private school, knowing full well that she'll have difficulty paying the tuition. She then lands a job working for a congresswoman (Aunjanue Ellis) who Virginia believes appreciates her problems. Turns out that Virginia's hope in her boss has been misplaced. Eventually, Virginia asks another member of congress (Matthew Modine) to help. The screenplay presents Virginia with any number of obstacles as she battles to save her talented son from the lure of the streets. Director R.J. Daniel Hanna has made a by-the-numbers drama that aims for inspiration. Aduba's performance reflects bone-deep, undeniable conviction, but I wouldn't look to Miss Virginia for a definitive solution to the always-troubling problem of failing schools.

Prime minister as party animal and top dog

Those familiar with the work of director Paolo Sorrentino (Great Beauty, Youth and HBO's The Young Pope) know that the director creates images of startling beauty and resonant suggestion. Sorrentino brings his full visual powers to Loro, a look at the life of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, played here by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Sorrentino begins the movie by focusing on a character named Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio), a low-level hustler who aspires to become a recognized Berlusconi sycophant. To achieve his goal, Sergio rents a villa in Sardinia, the island where Berlusconi has gone to regroup. Sergio stocks his villa with beautiful young women and prays that his sybaritic neighbor will take notice. Scenes at the villa, heavy on nudity and sensual choreography, are perhaps intended to show the pornography of power with an ample helping of La Dolce Vita-style emptiness. Just as Berlusconi eventually will do, Sorrentino pushes Sergio aside to bring the film's full focus onto Berlusconi, a man of amorality, charm, and flashes of ruthlessness. Elene Sofia Ricci portrays Berlusconi's wife, a woman accustomed to overlooking her husband's massive philandering -- but who may have reached the end of a very tolerant rope. Loro -- Italian for "them" -- immerses in the personality and aura of a man who seems to regard the world as his personal pleasure palace. References to the suffering of ordinary folks crop up at the movie's end but aren't enough to diminish the feeling of a film enamored with a rogue who built a TV empire and who specialized in humiliating his foes. Besides, we get the point long before the movie's two hours and 30-minutes wind to a halt. Still, Servillo delivers another masterful performance and Sorrentino paves the movie with the kind of images that seduce, reveal and create their own sense of mystery. How much of the story is true? Sorrentino hedges a bit with an opening title card, but his movie may have more to do with the atmospherics of rampant corruption than with a play-by-play look at Berlusconi's career.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A look at the life of Roy Cohn

One of Trump’s so-called mentors did the groundwork for a ruthless brand of politics.
Roy Cohn remains best known as the power-crazed New York attorney who teamed with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the feverish Red Scare days of the 1950s.

Under the sway of intense anti-communism, Cohn managed to work his way into power circles that went well beyond what you might expect from a young lawyer. When FBI director J. Edgar Hoover recommended him to McCarthy, Cohn was only 24 but already had made a name for himself helping to prosecute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union. Cohn’s role in that trial is a subject for books, so I’ll move on by noting that the passage of time hasn't made him look any better.

A closeted gay man, Cohn died of AIDs in 1986. He denied having the disease. Several years after his death, Cohn appeared as a venomous character in Tony Kushner’s landmark work, Angeles in America.

For all the damage he left in his wake, Cohn probably would be slipping into obscurity were it not for one thing: his relationship with Donald J. Trump, a name with which you're probably familiar.

Thorough and essential, the documentary Where's My Roy Cohn? takes its title from an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2018. At the time, Trump reportedly was fuming about then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” asked a frustrated Trump, suggesting that he needed a high-caliber fixer to navigate Washington's choppier waters. Cohn knew how to set aside niceties and pretense, he went for the jugular.

The Cohn/Trump connection dates to the 1970s when the Justice Department accused Trump's company of housing discrimination. Handled by Cohn, the case was settled without an admission of guilt, an outcome that was considered a triumph of sorts for the Trump organization.

Don't get the wrong impression. Where's My Roy Cohn isn't entirely focused -- or even primarily focused -- on the Trump/Cohn relationship. Director Matt Tyrnauer tells the story of a young man from the Bronx who matured into a ruthless proponent of an approach that eschewed debates about the intricacies of legal opinion. Cohn knew how and to whom pressure should be applied.

If Cohn was Trump's mentor, his student seems to have mastered many of the teacher's rules of public conduct: Attack those who criticize and never apologize, among them.

Bold as he was, Cohn never admitted his homosexuality. In public, he had no qualms about expressing homophobic opinions. But rumors about his sexuality were already afloat in the 1950s, thanks to a story that emerged about Cohn and his friend G. David Schine, a young man who worked as an unpaid assistant to McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

At the time, Cohn tried to obtain an instant commission in the Army for Schine, a handsome fellow for whom Cohn purportedly had more than a friendly interest.

The documentary makes use of interviews with journalists who covered Cohn, among them Ken Auletta of The New Yorker and Mike Wallace, an interviewer who knew how to go on the attack. You’ll also hear from Roger Stone, a political operative who specializes in opposition research and who learned from Cohn.

Stone, you'll recall, was arrested In January of 2019 in connection with the Mueller investigation. If you're interested in Stone, you may want to watch Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary that will school you in Stone's approach to political maneuvering. Warning: A double-bill of Where's My Roy Cohn and Get Me Roger Stone might produce a near-toxic dose of cynicism in even the most hard-bitten viewers.

Like many before and after him, Cohn beat the loyalty drum when it served him and he found his way into social circles that ranged from tycoons (Aristotle Onassis to name one) to crime figures such as Carmine Galante and John Gotti. He counted Barbara Walters as a pal.

No review can do justice to all the details of Cohn’s 59 years. The son of a doting Jewish mother, Cohn was super-bright and well-educated; yet, his behavior seemed to run counter to anything that might be called an "intellectual" approach.

Where’s My Roy Cohn shows us a man who made no apologies, but should have spent nearly most of his adult years choking on remorse generated by actions that seemed to spring from unprincipled ambition. What Cohn helped unleash has yet to disappear from American life -- and we're all worse off for it.*

*Interest in Roy Cohn seems to be gaining momentum. Bully, Coward, Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn, a documentary by Ivy Meerepol, granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, recently played The New York Film Festival. The HBO documentary is scheduled to air next year.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Phoenix gets behind the make-up in 'Joker'

Dark, violent and brooding. Is this a comic-book movie or a shrieking cry for help?

Set in a decaying, rot-infested Gotham City, the Joker attempts to show what happens when society’s “invisibles” are pushed to the breaking point. Kicking fanboy comic-book nostalgia to the curb, Joker brings us face-to-face with the madness that festers beneath the surface of a corrupted society. If Joker were to have a subtitle, it might be: Joker: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

But wait. Am I talking about Joker, the villain who Batman has been fighting for years and who previously has been played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and who now falls into the hands of Joaquin Phoenix? I am.

Joker, which marches to one of the year's most ominous drumbeats, was directed by Todd Phillips, whose resume includes such raucous comedies as Old School and the Hangover movies. Who knew that Phillips had this kind of haunting, violent and grime-encrusted effort in him?

But then Phillips never worked with Phoenix before and Phoenix, in many ways, is the movie — with everything else working to support the insanity, insecurity, and terror of an incomparable and frightening performance. I don't think it's stretching the point to say that Phoenix and Phillips have used comic book characters to create an anti-comic-book movie.

Having lost considerable weight to play the Joker — a.k.a., Arthur Fleck — Phoenix borders on the skeletal; he’s portraying a man who’s virtually disappearing. His occupation (clown for hire) puts him behind a mask that, at least initially, doesn’t liberate him but pushes him further into anonymity while also subjecting him to any number of cruel derisions.

Everything about Arthur screams misfit, including a disorder that causes him to burst into choking, maniacal fits of laughter that can appear indistinguishable from crying jags and which have no relation to anything that's happening to Arthur at the moment.

Mugged and severely beaten early on, Arthur is prey awaiting rebirth as predator. It’s not an easy transition for Arthur, who previously was institutionalized and who now lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a shabby Gotham apartment building, which he reaches by ascending a steep flight of punishing stairs.

Imprisoned in a child-like state, Arthur only escapes his loneliness when he’s violent. Arthur cares for his diminished mother, even washing her hair as he sits tubside over her nakedness. Hardly good preparation for developing mature relations with women.

I have no idea whether Phillips and Phoenix set out to make this kind of movie or whether it evolved as they began to work together. If the latter, they trusted their instincts and built everything around Phoenix's performance from Mark Friedberg's dystopian production design to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s musical score, which emerges from the screen like a moan, the sound of a soul being crushed.

Set in dingy apartments, dirty subway cars, and littered streets, Joker becomes a vivid, night-crawler of a movie in which its comic-book roots are only half-heartedly acknowledged, and perhaps didn't need to be there at all.

The movie introduces us to young Bruce Wayne, who, of course, will grow up to be Batman. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is an imperious tycoon with contempt for the masses he proposes to save by becoming the city's mayor. He calls them "clowns."

All of this produces a movie that’s compelling in ways that challenge convention while also drawing on the movie past, most notably Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Not only has Robert De Niro, the star of King of Comedy, been cast as a talk-show host, but Arthur aspires to be a standup comedian, a pursuit for which he has no aptitude. He scrawls his idea of jokes into a notebook full of incoherent scribblings, hardly a manifesto.

Yet, when Arthur turns to violence — he shoots three drunken Wall Street types in a subway melee — his actions give rise to a social movement in which protesters don clown masks and shout down those who are rich enough to immunize themselves against the city’s rot.

The irony flows easily because Arthur has no interest in politics. He doesn’t want to change the social order; he wants to be seen, to bask in the limelight of an existence that's finally acknowledged and even celebrated. And, yes, Phoenix's performance also generates pity for this misbegotten figure.

Joker harbors one glaring false note. Arthur tries to form a relationship with a single mother (Zazie Beetz) whose attraction to Arthur challenges credibility. Arthur is too weird for this or any other relationship. Is Beetz's character's attraction to Arthur akin to the concern one might feel for an abused child? Whatever it is, it doesn’t ring true.

You probably know that Joker already has generated controversy. It won the top prize at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival but has been criticized for being too violent, for having the potential to cause violence and for encouraging facile enmity toward achievement and wealth.

On violence: Yes, the movie’s violent and, yes, it contains hints of brutal aggression toward its audience. It’s as if Phillips and Phoenix, with no small amount of defiance, want to challenge audiences to examine their love of villains and their taste for blood. They’re asking what happens if we strip away comic-book protections and show the real thing?

As a result, Joker brings its violence closer to us than most horror movies. Unlike in It Chapter Two, for example, evil isn’t something that recurs in 10-year intervals with supernatural assists; it’s lodged in the twisted psyche of the guy in the apartment next door. It's Taxi Driver's Travis Bickel reborn into a normless world.

Are the movie’s jabs at elitism and wealth justified or simplistic? Simplistic, of course, but don’t misunderstand. Joker isn’t a movie that's likely to inspire profound thoughts or discussions about its deeper meanings; it seems to want what its main character wants for himself, an inescapable and independent existence.

When Arthur fully emerges as Joker, he dances down those same steps that he climbed every day as he headed for his lonesome retreat. It’s a wild, uninhibited release of energy played against Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll, Part 2 -- and it's coming from a figure in clown make-up with a blood-red rictus drawn on his gaunt face.

That moment and others like it -- particularly when Phoenix incorporates dance into Joker's repertoire -- stand as unnerving bits of performance art: frightening, dangerous and eerie. It’s mad anarchy unleashed: terrifying and, in one harrowing moment, in charge. If that doesn't rattle you, I don't know what would.

Eddie Murphy's 'Dolemite is My Name'

There's nothing particularly novel about Dolemite is My Name, Eddie Murphy's unabashed tribute to Rudy Ray Moore, a real-life comedian in the 1970s tried to make a splash with his own version of a Blaxploitation film.

Before his foray into the film world, Moore invented a character called Dolemite, a fast-talker who dressed like a pimp, sported a globe-sized Afro wig, and used a cane as a prop.

In Moore, Murphy finds a character whose "crazy" ambition (Moore financed Dolemite with borrowed money) can't mask the fact that he’s basically a good guy. And Murphy gets laughs in ways that incorporate his fondness for the bygone era that produced such movies as Shaft and Super Fly.

Early on, Moore — who gets the idea for his act by talking to a homeless man with a gift for turning a phrase — works the Chitlin Circuit. He connects with audiences through what might be considered an early version of rap. He's finds his niche.

Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) directs as Murphy generously allows his supporting cast to share the limelight. Da'Vine Joy Randolph plays Lady Reed, a woman who Moore helps discover her own comic chops. Wesley Snipes seems to be having a great time as a marginally successful Hollywood type who finds himself directing Moore’s no-budget film.

Keegan Michael-Key portrays the movie's writer, a guy who thinks he has written a socially significant screenplay. Craig Robinson and Mike Epps sign on as part of Moore's crew.

Snoop Dogg does cameo duty as Murphy walks down the pop-cultural memory lane of his youth and also reminds us that there was a time when nothing could validate a show-business career like a movie. Murphy, who hasn't made a movie in a while but whose career needs no validation, holds the screen with ease, even though Dolemite operates mostly at B-movie levels.

Dolemite opens in limited markets Oct. 4 and will be available on Netflix starting Oct. 25. I’m sorry that the movie won't be playing in theaters everywhere because Murphy has made a film that only can benefit from being seen with an audience that's looking for a good time.