Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Immersive '1917' captures chaos of war

Director Sam Mendes, with a mighty assist from cinematographer Roger Deakins, takes an audience on a harrowing World War I journey.

World War I has inspired any number of great movies: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Grand Illusion (1931), Paths of Glory (1957) and director Peter Jackson's recent documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) to name a few.

That long-ago war remains of particular interest to filmmakers because it provides directors with advantages. As a pre-Nazi war, battle depictions can be brutal without demonizing the enemy. In World War I, soldiers from both sides can be portrayed as ordinary men who happen to be wearing different uniforms, making the insanity of war seem even more pronounced.

On top of that, the war marked a kind of end of global innocence, a prelude to even worse depravities -- although it's difficult to think of any form of combat more grueling and awful than the trench warfare of the so-called War to End All Wars.

Now, director Sam Mendes, fresh off two recent Bond movies, has entered the World War I fray. I'm betting that every review you'll read will make note of the fact that Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created the illusion that their movie is unfolding in real-time. They skillfully create the impression that the movie consists of a single sustained shot, a gambit that isn’t without payoff. We can't escape the surreal horror that Mendes and Deakins create in their effort to portray the ferocity of battle.

1917 qualifies as one of those movies for which the script could have been written on the back of a napkin. The screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns focuses on two British soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) who are sent on a mission that takes them out of muddy trenches into the terrifying No Man's Land that separates them from another battalion of British soldiers.

The men are ordered to stop the nearby battalion from launching a massive attack because British intelligence has learned that the Germans lie in wait. The Germans plan to slaughter the advancing Brits.

Mendes makes just enough effort at character development to keep the movie from hollowing out. Chapman’s Blake is eager to execute the mission because his older brother serves in the battalion that's about to be decimated. MacKay's Schofield was selected to accompany Blake before either soldier knew what they were being asked to do.

The more reluctant of the two, MacKay's character senses that they've been given a mission they’ll be lucky to survive.

Once the men depart the relative safety of their unit, the movie becomes an episodic account of their travails -- which include a stop in a abandoned, rat-infested German bunker, an encounter with the pilot of a German plane that has been shot down and a brief visit to a ravaged town where Deakins creates images of fiery devastation that border on madness.

It's not the movie's single-shot illusion that proves most indelible; it’s the haunting imagery of 1917: mutilated bodies strewn across the devastated terrain, a solitary cow grazing outside an abandoned farmhouse; and an encounter that one of the men has with a French woman who's hiding with her infant as chaos rages around her.

Mendes wisely doesn't explain how the combat we're seeing fits into a larger picture. Neither of these two soldiers knows anything but the daily grind of attempting to survive.

And although Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch appear in cameo roles, reliance on faces that may be less familiar to big-screen audiences enhances the movie's authenticity. We plunge into the action without the distractions of star turns.

At times, 1917 threatens to become an edge-of-the-seat action movie, particularly in a sequence involving swirling rapids. Is Mendes trying a little too hard to sustain excitement?

Perhaps, but 1917 qualifies as an impressive piece of immersive cinema with plenty of white-knuckle moments and an undisguised appreciation of the courage of men who learned not to dwell on the horrors they were witnessing, at least not in the moment. We know, of course, that as time passes, harrowing sights will remain vivid in the memories of the men who saw them. Some of them will haunt us, as well.

Monday, December 23, 2019

A frenzied Adam Sandler in 'Uncut Gems'

The crazy world of a New York jewelry salesman -- and gambler.
Desperate and out-of-control, Howie Ratner -- the main character in Uncut Gems -- still manages to retain sparks of hope. He can't allow himself not to believe in the future. A long-shot basketball bet will pay off. The relationship with the woman he keeps in a Manhattan apartment won’t go haywire. At the same time, he’ll be able to maintain his Long Island family life.

Most of all, the raw opal Howie illegally purchased from Ethiopia will be the big one, the score that allows him to eliminate his gambling debts and find something resembling security.

But wait. I misspoke. Howie isn't interested in security. He's interested in wheeling and dealing. He wants to be a rainmaker and he tries to capitalize on anyone who holds promise, say an NBA star -- Kevin Garnett as himself -- who visits Howie’s Manhattan shop. Garnett falls in love with the opal, which Howie plans to sell at auction.

Suddenly, there’s another ball to juggle. How can Howie keep Garnett on the hook and also deliver the diamond to the auction house at a previously agreed upon time?

That's a plateful of story and the movie’s directors — the Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny) — needed the right actor to keep its wheels spinning. Turns out the right actor is Adam Sandler. Equipped with slightly protruding teeth and wearing a leather jacket, Sandler's Howie speeds through life like a man trying to skate across dangerously thin ice. He's loud and abrasive and it's not easy being around him. That's where Sandler's ability to transmit rays of hope proves useful.

We don't want to get too near to Howie, but we also can't look away. Maybe he's even dislikable enough for us to hope that he crashes. Is that the payoff we want from the movie or do we want to see Howie navigate dangerous waters and emerge whole?

The Safdies also introduce us to some of Howie’s unseemly associates, which include some very mean men to whom Howie owes a great deal of money. The movie could have been called Howie’s World.

Filming in free-wheeling style and making maximum use of New York City locations, the Safdies allow Howie's mix of anxiety and ambition to drive the story, offering some unexpected developments along the way. Far from being a bimbo, his mistress (Julia Fox) actually cares about Howie. Who’d have thought?

We also meet Howie's wife (Idina Menzel), a woman who long ago ran out of patience with her husband. Judd Hirsch portrays Howie's dad, offering a glimpse of the what could be read as the origin of Howie’s personality.

All of this takes place under the sharp eye of Darius Khondji's restless camera, which adds to the frenzy. The Sadies virtually dare us to keep pace.

Proceed at your own risk, but if you choose to stay home, you'll miss a movie about the latest in a long line of characters who dare to dream big -- even if they don't always have what it takes to make those dreams come true,.

A giddy (maybe too much so) ‘Little Women’

A great cast elevates Greta Gerwig's helping of Louisa May Alcott's oft-told story.

Greta Gerwig has directed the seventh version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to reach the big screen. First published in 1868, Alcott's novel has passed through so many generations that I remember my mother mentioning it to a female cousin of mine who's now in her 80s.

As a member of the generation that grew up watching black-and-white movies on TV, I’ve seen director George Cukor's 1933 version, which starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo March. As a reviewer, I admired the 1994 version in which Winona Ryder portrayed Jo under Gillian Armstrong's direction.

So much for my Little Women bona fides.

In Gerwig’s version, we meet the sisters of the title after they’ve already become adults. Putting chronological storytelling aside, Gerwig moves the narrative backward and forward in ways that struck me as initially confusing but probably will present less of a problem for Little Women devotees who don't need a scorecard to keep up with the characters.

Gerwig and editor Nick Houy proceed at the kind of frantic pace that you might expect from someone who was trying to stay one step ahead of a tax collector. This distractingly giddy tone is augmented by Alexander Desplat’s score, which — truth be told — sometimes seems intent on becoming as prominent as one of the characters.

Eventually, the story begins to cohere, thanks in no small part to the fine cast that Gerwig has assembled.

Saoirse Ronan lands the role of Jo and brings every bit of ambition and hurt to a character who has become a women’s lit staple.

Early on, Jo -- who aspires to be a writer -- brings a story to a publisher (Tracy Letts). Although Letts' character accepts the work, the movie's main point is made: Women should secure their future by marrying. The world doesn't have much use for strong, independent-minded women who want to forge their own way.

As Letts' character puts it, a woman's story either should end in marriage or death.

Ronan captures Jo’s growing determination — not to mention her resistance to the advances of the young man who loves her (Timothee Chalamet's Theodore Laurence). The movie includes one of the great scenes of rejection when Jo tells Theodore that they'd make a terrible match. This time, it's the guy who's crushed.

Florence Pugh, seen earlier this year in Midsommar, gives the movie’s most surprising performance as Amy, the sister who paints and connives and who, of course, ultimately loves Jo and all her sisters. Relationships strain but the bonds of sisterhood prevail.

Neither Ronan nor Pugh imprisons her performance in period trappings. Both seem as if they exist both and in the present and in the 19th Century; the story takes place during the Civil War and is set in motion by an absentee father. Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk in a piece of unexpected casting) has gone off to be a chaplain to the Union's troops, leaving the sisters and their mother (an excellent Laura Dern) to keep the home fires burning in Concord, MA.

Emma Watson plays Meg, the sister who seems to have totally adjusted to the idea of home and hearth. Jo pushes Meg to assert herself as an actress but Meg insists that she finds her fulfillment in domesticity.

Sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) plays piano and is assigned the thankless task of providing the movie's great tragedy when she contracts scarlet fever.

Early on, there's a suggestion that Jo might find happiness with Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), a French professor of languages, but she pushes him aside when he insults her writing.

Chris Cooper has a nice turn as Mr. Laurence, grandfather to Chalamet's Theodore, who everyone calls "Laurie." And Meryl Streep turns up as Aunt March, a woman who sometimes plays the role of family scold but who takes Amy to France for painting, culture, and grooming for marriage.

At times, Gerwig puts speeches about female assertion into the mouths of the characters, making points that already have been dramatized. It's a form of underling that the movie didn't need and which seems like an unnecessary bow to contemporary gender demands.

None of this is to say that the period isn't well-represented. Cinematographer Yorik Le Saux, production designer Jess Gonchar and costume designer Jacqueline Durran all should be credited for first-rate work.

Like so many before her, Gerwig clearly loves the material. Many will love the movie back. Forgive me for being someone who would have liked it more had Gerwig, especially in the early going, not seemed to be straining to keep the movie lively.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

It’s just not the cat’s meow

On screen Cats proves strange, monotonous and furry.

Although Cats became one of the longest running shows in Broadway history, I have to confess that the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber production remains unknown to me.

I understand that Memory, perhaps the musical’s best song, has attained stand-alone status. And for a show to have run that long, it must have struck a chord with those who shelled out to see it.

Now, Cats arrives on screen with a large cast of human actors who have been subjected to a digital process that coats them in fur and gives them tails that can sway as languidly as laundry in a gentle breeze.

I’m sure it’s not true, but something about the way the cats move made me think that the whole production had been filmed in slow motion.

So let me get to the point. Without a frame of reference — i.e., other performances of Cats —- I didn’t quite know what to make of director Tom Hooper’s big-screen version, aside from telling you that once I got past the movie’s major gimmick — singers, dancers and actors covered in fur — I was mostly indifferent.

I do know that Cats derives from a T.S. Eliot poetry collection entitled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It seems odd to me that Eliot, author of The Wasteland, would refer to himself as Old Possum, but I don’t believe Wikipedia would lie.

The movie’s high point: Jennifer Hudson’s version of Memory broke through the stuporous spell under which I had fallen. She practically cried the song. Spoiler alert: Hudson plays a cat who is selected to begin a new life that’s better than the one she has been living. She ascends into some sort of cat heaven — or something like that.

I could have lived for another 100 years and not regretted having missed Ian McKellen delivering a monologue as Gus, the Theater Cat. McKellen, of course, nails it, but seeing McKellen in mangy looking cat fur tended to diminish the scale of the theatrical accomplishment — at least fo me.

But the greatest cat transformation award goes to Judi Dench, who plays a character called Old Deuteronomy — or, for short, Old Deut, perhaps the worst nickname ever imagined by anyone for anyone.

With luxurious skeins of fur draping across her shoulders, Old Deut looks like a woman who hasn’t gotten the message. Fur is out, baby. Somehow, though, Dench projects an air of regal authority and dignity, proving that it’s impossible to make Dench look ridiculous no matter how hard one tries.

Other cast members include Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and James Corden. Elba plays the bad cat who believes he should be selected to ascend into cat heaven. I mention them for want of anything much else to report.

All this takes place in a society of Jellicle Cats. We meet the Jellicles when Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a kitten, is tossed from a car, lands in their company, and provides the movie with its beginning.

Hooper, who directed the screen version of Les Miserables, photographs the dancers stretching and preening with such great care, I wondered if each movement contained secrets that I was being invited to unpack. If so, I missed them.

Evidently, lack of plot is a Lloyd Webber signature. Maybe that’s why Cats doesn’t so much progress as it presents a musical number here, introduces a new character there or wanders about its set.

I suppose all the cat slinking and rubbing is meant to be sexy, but it also seems a bit kinky, like a Halloween party in which everyone wore similar costumes and, late in the evening, started thinking about behaving badly.

So, in conclusion, I say to Old Deut, you have not convinced me. I remain resistant to conversion. I am now and forever, a dog person. Hiss if you will, but to you I say, arf or maybe arf and one half.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

My 10 best movies of 2019

Overall, 2019 was a decent year for movies -- with some extremely high peaks. I wasn't a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (I know, I'm outnumbered) but I admired Brad Pitt's performance as a sidekick to a fading actor played by an equally good Leonardo DiCaprio. Although Diane didn't make my 10-best list, I'm hoping that Mary Kay Place's performance as the mother of a drug-addicted son won't be forgotten come Oscar time. A small turn by Estelle Parsons in that same movie also gave me great pleasure.

There were movies that didn't make either my list or receive honorable mention that shouldn't be overlooked: These include Honey Boy, and By the Grace of God.

And there are movies that might not have worked, but still offered something noteworthy. Cynthia Erivo brought fierce conviction to the role of Harriet Tubman in Harriet. Director Paolo Sorrentino's images created mystery and allure in the imperfect Loro, a look at the life of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. And cinematographer Jorg Widmer did inspired work in director Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. Director James Gray made the nearly visionary Ad Astra, a movie in which an astronaut (Brad Pitt) traveled deep into space to discover himself.

I loved watching a Pakistani student have his life transformed by Bruce Springsteen's music in Blinded by the Light. As a grandmother, Zhao Shuzen did memorable work in The Farewell, director Lulu Wang's look at a young woman (Awkwafina) who returned to China to connect with the family that stayed behind.

A fine cast did impressive ensemble work in Olivier Assayas's Non-Fiction, a scalding look at the cut-throat world of French publishing.

And then there’s Willem Dafoe, an actor of great skill and adventurous spirit. Dafoe impressed in three movies: Pasolini, The Lighthouse and Motherless in Brooklyn. Taron Egerton became Elton John in Rocketman, the movie that the overrated Bohemian Rhapsody could have been.

Director Zhang Yimou's Shadow gave us a screenful of warriors, palace intrigue and some stunning images. Alfre Woodard finally received a showcase role in the deeply troubling Clemency, a movie about the impact capital punishment on those who wait to receive it and those who will have to administer it. Dan Gilroy's Velvet Buzzsaw took an amusingly satirical look at Los Angeles' trendy art world. And Jamie Foxx created a memorable portrait of a man wrongly convicted of murder in Just Mercy.

And now, for my list of the 10 best movies of 2019.

1. Parasite.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s look at class divisions in South Korea (and maybe everywhere else) introduces us to a dirt poor family that insinuates itself into the lives of an affluent family. Masterfully shot, the film takes what might have been a classic comedy and twists it until it reaches a shocking conclusion that’s followed by a near-poetic epilogue. Parasite also poses intriguing questions about the line between pretense and reality -- all with a Bong's unfailing satiric eye.

2. The Irishman

Does the Irishman tell the definitive story of what happened to Teamster big shot Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975? I leave that for others to decide, but I'm entirely certain about one thing: Director Martin Scorsese has gotten terrific performances from Robert De Niro (as the Irishman of the title), from Joe Pesci (as mobster Russell Bufalino), and from Al Pacino (as Hoffa). The movie returns Scorsese to the fertile ground from which his best movies have grown and offers more than a little sadness about the way time leaves everything behind.

3. Nightingale

A revenge movie to end all revenge movies. Jennifer Kent directs a movie about a woman living in Tasmania at a time when British prisoners were abused and brutalized. Aisling Franciosi portrays a woman whose post-prison life is ruined by a sadistic British lieutenant (Sam Claflin). The violence in Nightingale bypasses the programmed satisfaction often found in male-dominated revenge sagas. Kent makes sure the violence appalls. In dealing with terror inflicted under colonialism, Kent has made a movie that packs a harsh wallop and makes no apologies for it.

4. The Last Blackman In San Francisco

Director Joe Talbot makes his feature debut with a story about Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), a young man who lives in San Francisco. Aided by his best friend Montogomery (Jonathan Majors), Jimmie tries to reclaim a house he believes his grandfather built. Working from a screenplay by Falls and Rob Richert , Talbot hits a notes that are bittersweet and moving in ways that bring us face-to-face with a question that pertains to those who build things: What does ownership mean? Do those who create value have a stake in their creations? It may sound naive, but Talbot's undeniable sincerity considerably raises the movie's bar.

5. Honeyland

Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov have made a masterpeice of a documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper. We meet Hatidze Muratova, a woman who tends bees and takes care of her aging mother. Hatidze's values and way of life are threatened when a man and his wandering family show up to graze cattle. The simplicity of this beautiful film never idealizes the meager quality of life in the Macedonian hills. A great and memorable piece of work.

6. Joker

I know. Many hated this take on a comic-book villain from director Todd Phillips. But to hate this movie is to disregard one of the most astonishing screen performances ever. As Arthur Fleck -- a.k.a. the Joker -- Joaquin Phoenix paints a staggering portrait of urban loneliness that elevates the movie above its flaws and becomes a towering piece of cinematic performance art.

7. Pain & Glory

Antonio Banderas headlines director Pedro Almodovar's look at a director who's experiencing the pain of aging and encroaching irrelevance. Less eye-popping than some of Almodovar's work, Pain & Glory nonetheless stands as an important movie from a master director. With a luminous Penelope Cruz as the director's mother in scenes in which the young director is played by Asier Flores. Almodovar's reflective mood allows him to consider how an artistically driven life can descend into the gathering mists of loneliness.

8. Marriage Story

Director Noah Baumbach deserves credit for making a movie that operates on a human scale. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver fine performances as a divorcing husband and wife who become enmeshed in the legal maneuvering that brings them to the brink of hatred. What begins with hope for an amicable parting turns bitter. With a fine supporting performance from Laura Dern as a go-for-the-jugular attorney who on occasion allows her humanity to peek through.

9. Birds of Passage

We thought we'd seen every movie that could be made about the Colombia drug trade. We were wrong. Colombian directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego tell the evolving story of an indigenous member of Colombia's Wayuu who becomes involved in the growth and sale of mega-quantities of marijuana. The directors bring us into an unfamiliar world where corpses and heartbreak begin to mount.

10. Synonyms

Israeli director Nadav Lapid takes a disturbingly honest and visually vital look at issues of identity in a brave and daring Israeli movie that follows a former Israeli soldier to Paris, where he tries to recreate himself as a Frenchman. Tom Mercier gives the film a dynamic unsettled center. Not flawless, but Synonyms should be seen by anyone who beleives that he or she understands Israel with all its contradictions and striving.

Honorable mentions: American Factory, One Child Nation, Ash is the Purest White, Diane

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

'Skywalker' closes a long 'Star Wars' series

JJ Abrams' finale is sure to inspire pros, cons and middling reactions, but it gets the job done.

JJ Abrams moves quickly through his 2 1/2 hour wrap-up of the Skywalker series, making sure the pack the movies with ingredients designed to please the fan base while arriving at an entirely expected destination. That's not a spoiler. What? You expected evil to triumph?

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker -- the ninth movie in the series -- brims with the battles, familiar characters and the sentiment that we've come to expect from the Star Wars movies. Maybe that’s enough.

I looked at the one-line description of the movie on IMDb: It reads, "The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga." Do you need to know much more?

Some fans felt Rian Johnson veered too far from the revered Star Wars formula in the previous chapter, The Last Jedi. I enjoyed that movie's approach but also believe that Abrams had no choice but to reassert the franchise's familiar themes in bringing the Skywalker saga to its conclusion.

Almost from the movie’s start, Daisy Ridley's Rey leads the charge against the aforementioned First Order, an evil group that's trying to establish a new empire of Siths. As the story unfolds, various characters will find their true selves, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) again will rear his hideous head and a bit of nostalgic casting will make us remember when Star Wars had yet to reach industrial-strength levels.

Billy D. Williams revives Lando Calrissian; the late Carrie Fisher appears briefly as Princess Leia. (Abrams used footage shot but not used in the last episode). Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) gets a bit more screen time, as do C-3PO and R2-D2. Mark Hamill turns up.

Working from a screenplay he wrote with Chris Terrio, Abrams mixes droids, creatures and many of the characters who have taken over the series: John Boyega's Finn, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, and Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron.

En route to its conclusion, the story makes more stops than a local subway train. The crew of Poe's ship breathlessly hurries from one place to the next, servicing the plot as they push forward.

The finale, of course, delivers the expected mix of action and emotion. For me, the emotion is more understood than felt, but fans may buy into it. In some ways, the plot of a Star Wars movie hardly matters because all of them pit the forces of hearty rebels against imperial evil, just as all build toward genealogical revelations about who's related to whom.

Of the creatures, the most amusing arrives when Maz (Lupita Nyong'o) reappears to perform a technical operation that's needed to keep the story moving.

Did I mention that Naomi Ackie plays a new character; Her Jannah rides a kind of hybrid creature that most resembles a horse that has been outfitted for Mardi Gras.

Pile on the effects, rely on Isaacs to add a bit of swashbuckling swagger, challenge Daisy's identity and throw in a surprise or two about the other characters.

The Star Wars series has given Disney the proverbial license to print money. Parts of the fan base always find something to grumble about. Others will feel that they've been amply rewarded. I can't imagine anyone would want to walk into The Rise of Skywalker if they haven't seen the previous eight movies.

Why rattle on? I'm not enough of a fanboy to get staunch about Skywalker. It's enough to say that Abrams has finished the Skywalker series in ways that mostly satisfy, providing some epic sights as he goes.

Case closed. Box office open.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The women who toppled Roger Ailes

Bombshell tells a topical story about sexual harassment. A scattered movie has some impact.
Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie lead a #MeToo charge in Bombshell, a story about the ways in which the late Roger Ailes was toppled for abusing his power as the head of Fox News. Ailes not only gave the network its trademark rightward slant, but he also used his position to sexually harass some of the women who worked at Fox.

When Bombshell finally gets around to the serious business of watching Ailes dethroned, the movie makes an impact. Powerful men who use their positions as casting couches deserve to be scorned and Bombshell satisfyingly makes sure that Ailes gets his well-deserved comeuppance.

But Bombshell also is a mixed bag of a movie that swirls is way across the screen as if the ingredients have been put into a soda can and shaken. It’s part the story of Megyn Kelly (Theron) and her gradual disaffection with Aisles; it's part the story of an evangelical working girl (Robbie) who's sullied by the toxic Fox atmosphere and part the story of Gretchen Carlson (Kidman), the woman who sued Ailes for sexual harassment, beginning a series of disclosures that would finish Ailes’ career.

Theron makes Kelly a cool customer, highly capable and sensitive to political intrigue inside and outside the Fox empire. Having once been an Ailes target (she resisted), Kelly mixes control with ... well ... more control.

When we meet, Kidman's Carlson she's on the downside of ambition, on the verge of being banished to the afternoon TV dead zone. Carlson, however, was smart enough to know that if she planned to challenge Ailes, she better have evidence. She taped a year's worth of her conversations with him.

Make-up and impersonation combine to create plausibility as far as Kelly and Carlson are concerned, but there’s a double edge to this approach. So much work has gone into making the actresses look like the real-life characters they’re playing, it’s sometimes difficult not to confuse performance with mimicry. Theron’s acting is exceptional, but she has an unnatural look, something on the order of an anchor mannequin.

Robbie doesn’t have that problem because she’s playing a fictional character. Her Kayla Pospisil is taken underwing (and into the bed) by a lesbian producer (Kate McKinnon) on the Bill O'Reilly show.

The movie initially treats Kayla’s naivete (she's a fundamentalist Christian who seems comfortable in a same-sex dalliance) with straightforward amusement that's in keeping with the nutty spirit that director Jay Roach brings to the movie until he gets serious.

Bombshell begins with one of Kelly's career highlights, the night she asked then-candidate Donald Trump about his women problem at a debate of Republican candidates. After the debate, Trump famously responded by saying that Kelly had "blood coming out of her eyes, out of her wherever." The fight's on, and Kelly begins to feel the pressure.

Kelly eventually retreated, conducting what some saw as a conciliatory interview with Trump. Kelly's husband (Mark Duplass) criticizes his wife for going easy on Trump as she tried to negotiate the choppy waters of career and principle. She says she just wants to stop the flow of Tumper venom that has been directed her.

Swimming in a fat suit, Lithgow’s Ailes proves imposing but he doesn’t seem as in-the-know as we might expect. He comes across mostly as a right-wing pasha.

Ailes’ harassment MO emerges in a meeting between Kayla. Ailes insists that TV is a visual medium. It’s only fitting then that he asks Kayla to standup up and "give him a twirl" (a 360-degree spin) and then to hike her skirt until he’s satisfied that she’s air-worthy. It's obvious that Ailes is more interested in compliance than looks because the ambitious Kayla isn't what you'd call a modest dresser.

There's not much to the rest of the men at Fox. The actor who plays Chris Wallace (Marc Evan Jackson) doesn't look like him. And Richard Kind lands with a thud in a brief appearance as Rudi Giuliani. Look, I’ve seen Rudi Giuliani and ... well ... you know the rest of the statement.

Showing some much-needed gravitas, Malcolm McDowell makes a last-minute appearance as Rupert Murdoch, the ultimate owner of all things Fox.

Roach’s often breezy approach can work against the material. Big Short screenwriter Charles Randolph's screenplay can have a scattered, lightweight feel that takes the edge off what we're seeing.

I'm betting that the industry; i.e., Oscar voters, will find plenty to embrace about Bombshell. It may soothe consciences in a year when the rumbles of #MeToo haven’t settled. But it’s worth remembering that making a movie about sexual harassment isn’t the same as solving the problem. That’s a whole other story.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Terrence Malick's ode to a martyr

A Hidden Life devotes itself to spellbinding imagery as it tells the simple story of a man who refused to serve in Hitler's army.

It's not always easy to tell what director Terrence Malick is driving at in A Hidden Life, his three-hour opus about what can happen when deep religious faith intersects with conscience. Taking his movie from an Edenic valley in upper Austria to a grim prison in Berlin, Malick tells the real-life story of Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), a farmer who refused to serve in Hitler's army.

The Catholic Church already has honored Jagerstatter. In 2007, while still pope, Benedict XVI beatified Jagerstatter and declared him a martyr. Always ready to assert the mesmeric power of images, Malick treats Jagerstatter as if he already had been beatified. A Hidden Life isn't the story of an ordinary man who does something extraordinary; it's a reverie about a martyr. Jagerstatter's anti-Nazi stance led to his death by the guillotine in 1943.

Unlike in some of his movies, Malick (Tree of Life, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song) allows the movie to unfold in chronological order. But A Hidden Life remains an unmistakable Malick creation. At the outset, Malick bathes his characters in the hallowed light of pre-Anschluss rural Austria, creating a portrait of bucolic innocence.

Malick and cinematographer Jorg Widmer film the Austrian landscapes with reverence. The camera glides over rolling hills as if God were running a finger across the cheek of creation.

Malick, who wrote the screenplay, doesn't get too close to Jaegerstatter, presenting him as a man who embodies a way of life that's presented as if it were a nostalgia-tinged dream.

Early on, we get the idea of a world yet corrupted as Malick portrays life in the beautiful village of St. Radegund. Franz and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) pick flowers, play with their three daughters, swing scythes in flowing fields and live in what you might call blessed harmony with the natural world.

Trouble, of course, looms. Jagerstatter soon must leave his village to receive army training. He returns home (possibly with a farmer's exemption) but as the war wears on, he's again called up.

The sticking point for Jagerstatter: He refuses to swear a required loyalty oath to Hitler and finds himself imprisoned. He's told he can serve as a medical orderly, providing he takes the oath. Even when offered a way out, he won't compromise.

The German officials in the film (aside from the brutal prison guards) try to convince Jagerstatter that his sacrifice will mean nothing. No one knows about him. Nothing will change because of what he's doing. The oath is just a bunch of words anyway. They'd rather not put him to death.

As Jagerstatter's imprisonment continues, he's beaten and abused. He prays. He suffers but insists that others surely have it worse.

All of this comes into sharp focus in a private meeting with the judge at Jagerstatter's trial (the late Bruno Ganz).

Diehl isn't given much to say, but he summarizes Jagerstatter's stance in a conversation with a bishop whose advice he seeks before his fateful decision. If God gave man free will, then man is responsible for his choices, says Jagerstatter. The religious figures in the movie provide little help, suggesting that Jagerstatter give Caesar his due and make the best of a bad situation.

At times, we hear Jagerstatter's thoughts or those of his devoted wife, whose interactions with increasingly hostile village neighbors, play counterpoint to scenes of Jagerstatter's imprisonment.

Little of the dialogue can match Malick's imagery. With Malick, though, it's not the words but the music; i.e., the visual environment, that matters. It's not what anyone says; it's what we see.

The use of multiple languages in A Hidden Life can be puzzling. Diehl and his wife speak and think in English. The Nazis mostly speak German. Maybe Malick saw this as a way to remove Jagerstatter from his social milieu, to make him a lone figure who belongs to no one or nothing, except possibly the land.

There have been objections to A Hidden Life, many of them focused on the film's insistence on avoiding depictions of the ravages of war or to deal -- even in passing -- with the fate of the Jews. Jagerstatter objects to the conquering of countries that have done nothing to Germany: He views Hitler as evil without referencing Hitler's greatest evil, the Holocaust.

Moreover, representatives of the state gave Jagerstatter an opportunity to save himself, an option available to no Jew.

Those are fair criticisms. But it's a mistake, I think, to look to Malick for moral prescriptions. To fully appreciate A Hidden Life, you have to allow yourself to experience the elevation that comes from the way Widmer's camera embraces the light, allowing it to become a kind of literal embodiment of spirit. Malik moves slowly because he wants us to live in this light, much as Jagerstatter does.

Beyond that, A Hidden Life devotes itself to the belief -- though perhaps naive -- that the actions of one righteous man matter as much as anything else in history.

I watched a much more down-to-earth version of Jagerstatter's story on YouTube, a black-and-white feature that includes interviews with people who knew him. Titled The Refusal, the movie doesn't approach the cinematic eloquence of A Hidden Life, but it examines how those around Jagerstatter reacted to him in ways that Malick's film ignores. It also sees Jagerstatter as more of a staunch Catholic than Malick does, a man who thought that joining an evil cause would destroy his soul.

Religion emphasis aside, it's possible to conclude from watching A Hidden Life that righteousness sometimes begins with a single individual who's willing to say "no." Malick also invites us to ponder what expressions of individual conscience mean when they can't change the corrupted world in which we find ourselves. A Hidden Life is no scream of outrage at the world’s madness, only a hushed refusal to go along with it when there's no certainty about the outcome.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Hopkins and Pryce keep ‘Two Popes’ on track

This look at two very different men loses something when it departs from the Vatican.

A strange thing happens in Two Popes, a movie about the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI and Jorge Bergoglio, the man who would become Pope Francis. The more the movie opens up, the less intriguing it becomes. When the two men are together -- often in uneasy conversation -- the movie provides something rare, a look at intelligent men having intelligent conversations about the nature of the institution they both love.

Aided by superb recreations of the Vatican environment -- much in the same way The Crown benefits from the imperial splendor of its palaces -- the movie can't help but make us feel that the stakes are high.

More than a clash of values, Two Popes becomes an intriguing battle of personalities and of character and perhaps of the experiences that molded two very different men.

The movie takes place against a political backdrop. The Church is going through a bad patch: financial scandals, accusations about ignoring pedophile priests, and a general decline in European church attendance.

It's the kind of situation that can't help but breed antagonisms. During the conclave at which Benedict is elected, then-Cardinal Ratzinger snubs Bergoglio, who -- according to the movie -- was favored by a substantial number of liberal-leaning cardinals. But the first serious encounter between the two clerics occurs when Bergoglio travels to Italy and meets with the pontiff at Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence.

As they stroll through the papal estate, Benedict can't conceal his disdain for Bergoglio's views, telling him at one point that he doesn't agree with anything that Bergoglio says.

For his part, Bergoglio has traveled to Italy to ask the pope's permission to resign. For reasons that eventually will be made clear, the pope pushes aside Bergoglio's attempts to raise the subject.

The movie then relocates to Rome, where the two men continue their conversations in the Sistine Chapel.

Before I go further, let me say that watching Pryce and Hopkins provides its own form of pleasure. Speaking with an Argentine accent, Pryce finds the mixture of gentleness and backbone in a man deeply committed to a belief that the church must change with the times.

Hopkins, on the other hand, portrays a priest whose strong will is fueled by sharp intelligence and a conviction that eternal values aren't subject to revision. Benedict seems to view Bergoglio's softness as a kind of capitulation.

Watching Hopkins and Pryce proves irresistible, though the story occasionally abandons them for scenes in which a young Bergoglio (Juan Minujin) navigates politically treacherous waters as a Jesuit in Argentina.

According to the movie, Bergoglio emerged from the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s humbled and guilt-ridden. He thought he should have done more to save politically active priests from the ruling junta, the group responsible for the "disappearance" of as many as 30,000 Argentine dissidents. Bergoglio was perceived by some of his Jesuit brethren as a right-wing sellout.

Presented in black-and-white, these Argentine flashbacks to Bergoglio's background take us away from the movie's main event: The jousting between Bergoglio and Benedict. Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) is at his best when the story remains behind Vatican walls.

Meirelles goes to some lengths to ensure that his characters remain human amid the Vatican's overwhelming opulence. Bergoglio hums Abba's Dancing Queen while washing his hands. Benedict plays piano, switching from classical to more robust German folk tunes. They joke about the Beatles. Toward the end, they watch a soccer game together.

More seriously, as the movie moves toward its resolution, Benedict changes his view of Bergoglio and even credits him for helping him to hear God's voice, which had -- for him -- gone silent. He hadn't lost his faith, only his connection to the God in which he ardently believes, something on the order of a dropped call, I guess.

The movie further suggests that Benedict wanted Bergoglio to become pope. True? I have no idea, but I'm doubtful.

None of that should keep you from watching two of Britain's best actors create a drama of men and ideas. Hopkins and Pryce are in fine form.

I wouldn't have objected had they stayed on screen for the movie's entire two-hour and six-minute length. Recent history tells us that Benedict's view of the church prevails, but on-screen, these two characters deserve to argue forever.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Clint Eastwood defends a wronged man

Richard Jewell brings the story of a 1996 Olympic bombing to life.
Clint Eastwood tells the story of an innocent man who was convicted by public opinion in Richard Jewell, a movie that exposes the media frenzy that turned Jewell’s life into a nightmare. Jewell, you’ll recall, worked as a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, site of a bombing that killed one person and injured 111.

It didn’t take long for Jewell to make the transition from hero to goat when word leaked that he had become a prime suspect in the bombing. Evidently, investigators — in this case, the FBI — routinely consider anyone near the site of a bombing to be a potential suspect. After discovering the bomb in an abandoned backpack, Jewell guided people to safety. None of that got him off the hook.

Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) makes for an unlikely main character. He aspires to be a policeman, but can’t find his way into that world, even losing a job as a college security guard. He’s overweight and lives at home with his mother (Kathy Bates). Jewell’s "suspicious" profile — a loner who lives with his mom — makes matters worse for him.

Watching Hauser, you may wonder whether Eastwood has cast a real person in the role. I don't say that as criticism but as praise. An experienced actor, Hauser proves entirely convincing as a man who can’t find his niche. Eager to be part of law enforcement, Jewell constantly overplays his hand. He expects the police to treat him as a willing colleague.

Jewell finds an ally in Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), an attorney who believes in his client's innocence and works to clear his name. No stranger to colorful characters, Rockwell makes for an intriguing figure, an idiosyncratic lawyer who sometimes finds his client exasperating.

The two characters who represent the government and the media don’t fare nearly so well.

Jon Hamm portrays Tom Shaw, the FBI agent who leaks Jewell’s name to an aggressively seductive reporter (Olivia Wilde).

Wilde’s portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs has been criticized by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the paper at which Scruggs plied her trade. Scruggs is no longer alive, so it’s impossible to hear what she has to say but a scene in which Scruggs comes on to Shaw in a bar made me skeptical. It goes way beyond calculated flirtation, making it seem as if Scruggs is propositioning the agent.

As someone who worked in journalism for almost 40 years, I never knew or heard of any female reporter behaving in such an unprofessional fashion. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen but I didn't buy it.*p>
The FBI takes it on the chin, as well. Despite evidence that suggested that Jewell couldn’t have planted the bomb, the FBI persisted in keeping him a suspect. To the end, Hamm’s character insists on Jewell's guilt.

Reservations aside, Richard Jewell clearly shows how eager reporting can ignite a storm capable of ruining a person’s life. But any journalist who investigates the Jewell case beyond what's seen on screen must ask him or herself what they would have done if they had credible information about a suspect in a crime that had captured international attention.

Watching the FBI invade Jewell’s home and remove evidence provides an abject lesson in what it means to be demeaned by an investigative process. It looks bad now that we know Jewell was innocent: Had it turned out that Jewell was guilty, however, would anyone have complained?

Jewell died a few years after the movie ends. He was 44. Eastwood’s movie leaves you wondering whether he ever recovered from his ordeal, and we feel for him. It’s possible to take issue with some of the ways Eastwood treats the story and still believe that Jewell was badly wronged, thanks in no small part to Hauser's performance as a guy who flounders as he loses control of his life.

Flaws and all, Richard Jewell serves as a reminder that when outrage reaches fever proportions, no one benefits.

*If you're interested in reading more about the Scruggs controversy try this Washington Post article.
No one disputes the fact that a ruinous media frenzy surrounded Jewell once a story naming him as a suspect had been published. That would have been no less true had the movie shown Scruggs writing a story for which she had received a credible tip and left it at that.

'63 Up' continues a fascinating journey

I'm not going to say a great deal about 63 Up, aside from stating the obvious: There's never been anything quite like it and we're lucky to have it.

The latest in director Michael Apted's long-running series continues to follow the lives of a variety of Brits, who we first encountered when they were seven. Appearing in seven-year intervals, the movies in the Up series remain essential viewing for anyone who has seen one or more of the films, which began in 1964. Apted's documentaries have become a touchstone for moviegoers; they mark milestones in the lives of the movie's subjects and also in the lives of those who faithfully have viewed them.

In 63, Apted includes enough references to the earlier films to refresh the memory of veterans or to allow newcomers easy entry.

As a study of class differences in Britain, Up has much to say. But as time wears on, the movie also allows for reflection on loss and the diminishing horizons that accompany aging.

If you're among the film's many fans, you'll approach 63 with many questions. You'll want to know, for example, how Tony, the kid with the Cockney accent, has been faring. Is he still driving a taxi? Is he as spunky as ever?

Does the well-spoken, well-educated John still ply his trade as a barrister? And where does he stand on Brexit?

And what of Lynn and her life as a wife, mother, and librarian?

A few hints: Mixed race Symon, who was raised in a group home, may finally have settled into a groove. In a constant battle with depression, Neil has loved and lost since we saw him seven years ago. Nick, who became a physics professor in the US, is dealing with throat cancer.

Sometimes heard off-camera, Apted can be chided by his subjects for asking questions they find irrelevant, but you can tell that both director and his subjects have grown accustomed to one another -- if not always entirely comfortable with a lifetime of cinematic intrusions.

Apted is 78. The next chapter of this irresistible and still evolving saga will be due when he's 85. I hope Apted is here to make it and that we're all here to see it. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The 2020 Critics' Choice nominees

And so it begins ...

The awards season is upon us. The Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I'm a voting member, Sunday announced its nominations for the 25th annual Critics' Choice Awards. Winners will be announced Sunday, Jan. 13 in a program to be aired on the CW network.

The Irishman led all films with 14 nominations. It was followed by Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood, which garnered 12 nominations. Little Women received nine nominations. 1917 and Marriage Story followed with eight nominations each. Jojo Rabbit, Joker and Parasite earned seven nominations apiece.

I provide this year's list, which I suggest makes a good start for you to begin thinking about your own favorites for year-end honors. Here goes:

Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Uncut Gems

Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Robert De Niro, The Irishman
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Awkwafina, The Farewell
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell
Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell

Julia Butters, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
Noah Jupe, Honey Boy
Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit
Shahadi Wright Joseph, Us
Archie Yates, Jojo Rabbit

The Irishman
Knives Out
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story
Greta Gerwig, Little Women
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
Sam Mendes, 1917
Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story
Rian Johnson, Knives Out
Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won, Parasite
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Lulu Wang, The Farewell

Greta Gerwig, Little Women
Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony McCarten, The Two Popes
Todd Phillips & Scott Silver, Joker
Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit
Steven Zaillian, The Irishman

Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse
Roger Deakins, 1917
Phedon Papamichael, Ford v Ferrari
Rodrigo Prieto, The Irishman
Robert Richardson, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Lawrence Sher, Joker

Mark Friedberg, Kris Moran, Joker
Dennis Gassner, Lee Sandales, 1917
Jess Gonchor, Claire Kaufman, Little Women
Lee Ha Jun, Parasite
Barbara Ling, Nancy Haigh, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Bob Shaw, Regina Graves, The Irishman
Donal Woods, Gina Cromwell, Downton Abbey

Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems
Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker, Ford v Ferrari
Yang Jinmo, Parasite
Fred Raskin, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Thelma Schoonmaker, The Irishman
Lee Smith, 1917

Ruth E. Carter, Dolemite Is My Name
Julian Day, Rocketman
Jacqueline Durran, Little Women
Arianne Phillips, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Sandy Powell, Christopher Peterson, The Irishman
Anna Robbins, Downton Abbey

Dolemite Is My Name
The Irishman
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Ad Astra
The Aeronauts
Avengers: Endgame
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
The Lion King

Frozen II
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Avengers: Endgame
Ford v Ferrari
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Spider-Man: Far From Home

Dolemite Is My Name
The Farewell
Jojo Rabbit
Knives Out

Ad Astra
Avengers: Endgame

Les Misérables
Pain and Glory
Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Glasgow (No Place Like Home), Wild Rose
(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again, Rocketman
I’m Standing With You, Breakthrough
Into the Unknown, Frozen II
Speechless, Aladdin
Spirit, The Lion King
Stand Up, Harriet

Michael Abels, Us
Alexandre Desplat, Little Women
Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Randy Newman, Marriage Story
Thomas Newman, 1917
Robbie Robertson, The Irishman

Friday, December 6, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 12/6 -- In Fabric, Little Joe and Knives and Skin

I guess it's just one of those weeks. Three movies -- definitely on the fringe -- all involve weirdness of some sort or another. If you saw all three movies, you'd witness, among other things, a high-school girl who sells worn women's underwear to her school's principal, a female mannequin that's masturbated by a vampiric looking woman who may be a witch and a plant that emits pollen that subtly alters personalities and very likely will conquer the world. And you thought movie reviewing was nothing but fun. Oh well, I put these three movies together, although they have nothing in common but their willingness to be varying degrees of offbeat.

In Fabric

Director Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy) has a following among those who like his brand of cinema, which -- honesty compels me to say -- defies easy description. Know, though, that logic takes a back seat to bizarre imagery, strange ideas and a near thorough disregard for credibility. Consider: The elements in In Fabric are unified by a dress that brings those who own it or are associated with it to unhappy ends. In Fabric is such that you may find yourself blanching and laughing as you puzzle your way through Strickland's catalog of bizarre images. The movie divides into halves. In one, a bank clerk named Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) acquires the dress. A single mother living with her grown son (Jaygann Ayeh), Sheila buys the dress from a vampiric-looking salesperson (Fatma Mohamed) at Dentley & Soper, a department store that's having a sale. Sheila's bosses at the bank where she works are two gay men (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) who rip her performance to shreds, all the while taking care to be ever so solicitous. In the second half of the movie, a washing-machine repairman (Leo Bill) winds up giving the dress to his bride-to-be (Hayley Squires). It may be impossible to watch In Fabric without simultaneously scratching your head. It's also necessary, if grudgingly, to appreciate a masturbation scene involving a mannequin. I'd be lying if I told you I knew exactly what Strickland was getting at (something about rampant, greedy consumerism, I suppose), but say this: It's unlikely that you'll see anything like In Fabric this year. Some will consider that a good thing. Others will play along because Strickland paves the pathway to horror with chuckles. The movie, by the way, also includes what may rank as the worst first date in cinema history.

Little Joe

It's possible to argue that director Jessica Hausner's Little Joe is too quiet for its own good, but it's equally possible to be grateful that her movie won't clobber you over the head. Hausner's movie focuses on Alice (Emily Beecham), a single mother who names a breed of plant she has created after her son Joe (Kit Connor). The plant -- a single red flower perched atop long stem -- is supposed to elicit feelings of happiness from those who own one. The plant was developed at Alice's place of employment, a blandly futuristic company at which bio-engineers grow and market flowers. Chris (Ben Whishaw) works with Alice and also tries to begin a romance with her. Everything looks rosy (pardon the pun) until it becomes apparent that Alice's creation has the power to alter personalities. Given a plant by his mother, Alice's son, for example, suddenly decides that he wishes to live with his father, an option he had previously rejected. It takes time for Alice to accept that a plant significantly could alter someone's outlook, in part because the changes are almost imperceptible. The quietly creepy Little Joe may not be profound, but it deftly sustains a mood of discomfort as it delivers (quietly, of course) its message: One interferes with natural processes at one's peril. Put another way, you might want to see Little Joe as an example of what can be achieved on screen with lab coats, a serviceable premise, and a director who allows her movie to sneak up on you. Or you can think of Little Joe as a horror movie that refuses to raise its voice, something I welcomed.

Knives and Skin

In Knives and Skin, director Jennifer Reeder creates a world-apart feeling as she examines small-town hypocrisies from a female point of view. The best thing about Reeder's movie -- at least for me -- are songs periodically delivered by an all-girls choir. Very haunting. A story that revolves around a teenage girl who goes missing often seems to be operating in a dream world. Since we know from the outset what happened to the girl (Raven Whitley), there's no real mystery. Rather, the disappearance provides a way for Reeder to lift the lid on small-town probity. The characters include a self-impressed high school football player (Ty Olwin), a father (Tim Hopper) who conceals the loss of his job from his wife and a steadfast sheriff (James Vincent Meredith) with domestic troubles of his own. His wife (Kate Arrington) cheats on him. We also meet classmates of the missing girl and the girl's mother (Marika Engelhardt), a woman who loses her grip. Lest we miss the point that perversity lurks beneath the surface, a girl at the town's high school sells worn women's underwear to her perverted high school principal. Reeder may be aiming to expose the weirdness sometimes and sexism that's rampant in this small town. But, for me, mood trumped meaning and Knives and Skin wore thin.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Up, up and away -- some of the time

Aeronauts reunites Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones for an adventure that's fine so long as it doesn't touch the ground.
After their joint appearance in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite for a story about a scientist who enlists the help of a balloonist with a flair for show business.

Based on a real character, Redmayne's James Glaisher hopes to convince Britain's rigid scientific establishment that meteorology should be accepted as a legitimate scientific pursuit. In the 19th Century, predicting the weather evidently was not considered possible.

Director Tom Harper's movie begins when Jones' Amelia Wren arrives late for the balloon launch that's aiming to break the height record for balloon ascendance.

Harper immediately sketches personality details for each member of his adventurous duo. Amelia is the daring one; Redmayne's James takes a more cerebral approach to balloon flight. He's less interested in thrilling the gathered crowd than in collecting atmospheric data.

Amelia understands the importance of grand gestures. To make sure that the onlookers are adequately thrilled, she throws her cute little dog off the rising balloon. The crowd gasps. Not to worry. The dog is attached to a parachute.

Amelia, by the way, is a fictional stand-in for Glashier's real partner, Henry Coxwell. Perhaps to give the movie some feminist charge, Amelia disregards the advice of Antonia (Phoebe Fox), the sister who thinks Amelia should stay home and tend to domestic matters.

Amelia's backstory also involves the guilt she feels about her late husband's demise. Vincent Perez plays Amelia's husband, also a balloonist, in one of the movie's many awkward flashbacks.

None of this provides viewers with much reason to see The Aeronauts. But audiences may wish to seek out this adventure because of its aerial sequences, one of which -- a true stunner -- arrives when Amelia must climb to the top of the balloon to deal with a failure that needs to be righted before the balloon can descend.

At a height of 35,000 feet, both Amelia and James are in danger of freezing to death.

There isn't much else to say about the Aeronauts. One might summarize this way: Balloon footage (good); the rest (meh).

One note: If you haven't seen Harper's Wild Rose, the story of an aspiring country singer from Scotland, you ought to give it a look. It was released earlier this year.