Thursday, February 27, 2020

When a woman's abuser can't be seen

Elisabeth Moss dominates a smart new version of The Invisible Man.
Her antagonist may be invisible, but the same can't be said for Elisabeth Moss. The actress dominates nearly every scene of The Invisible Man, a #MeToo-influenced take on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells.

The setup: Brilliant scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has been abusing his wife, Moss's Cecilia. After Cecilia leaves him in the movie's pulse-pounding prolog, Adrian feigns his death. The twist: He's able to make himself invisible so that he can torment Cecilia. He refuses to let her go.

As Adrian begins to make his invisible presence felt, director Leigh Whannell creates plenty of high tension, punctuated by a few nicely placed jumps scares.

There's no mystery about what's happening to Cecilia, but Whannell wrings suspense out of Cecilia's situation: She can't convince anyone else that her former husband isn't dead. We're left to wonder when and how Mr. Invisible will strike next.

The screenplay, also by Whannell, adds some tasty complications. Turns out that Adrian's lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman) is the executor of the scientist's estate. He tells Cecilia that she's been left $5 million by Adrian, money that will be doled out in $100,000 installments.

Although the focus remains on Cecilia, additional characters turn up. Harriet Dyer plays Cecilia's sister, a woman with whom Cecilia hasn't always gotten along. Aldis Hodge portrays James, a cop who takes Cecilia into his suburban home when she's fleeing her husband. James' teenage daughter (Storm Reid) bonds with Cecilia. Reid's character wants to study design. Cecilia is an architect by trade.

Strong atmospherics add to the gathering unease. Whannell turns his camera into a stalker, giving us the Invisible Man's point of view at times when it's most frightening. He skillfully deals with the standard elements of horror, a scene in which Cecilia enters an attic in hopes of confronting her nemesis.

Scenes in the mental institution where Cecilia eventually finds herself are chilling and give Moss an opportunity for some Grand Guignol theatrics.

Moreover, Adrain's house -- the place where he maintains his lab -- is a tour de force of icy modernism, full of sleek surfaces that give you the impression that in Adrian's house, nothing has ever been misplaced. Adrian hasn't allowed an ounce of warmth to penetrate his retreat.

Now, it would be misleading if I didn't tell you that the story falters here and there and the whole idea of building a movie around the notion that someone has mastered the art of becoming invisible remains ... well ... preposterous.

But Whannell, who acted in the Saw movies and who wrote and directed Upgrade, clearly has chops for this kind of movie. He also demonstrates that he's paid attention to Alfred Hitchcock's understanding of how to create a menacing mood.

Now, I said that the movie seems like a spawn of the #MeToo moment. That's true -- and also obvious. It's worth pointing out an irony, though. Many of those accused of sexually and psychologically abusing women hardly could be called invisible. They were protected by their visibility and power.

OK, so The Invisible Man doesn't plumb every inch of metaphoric depth contained in its principal conceit. But Moss and Whannell serve up enough chills to make the movie as effective as James Whale's 1933 version. and unlike many wise-ass forays into the pop-cultural closet, The Invisible man wastes no time winking at us. It's smart enough to take itself seriously, which makes it easy for us to follow suit.

When life becomes a very tall order

A Russian movie shows post-war devastation. That may not sound like fun, but Beanpole should be seen.

When Americans think of the end of World War II, we often see a country buoyed by victorious elation, a precursor moment to the boom years that followed.

The experience in Russia was quite different. Partly because much of the war was fought on Russian soil, the country's devastation was far greater than anything that America experienced.

We get a stark picture of just how bad things were in director Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole, a movie so steeped in the deprivations of post-war Leningrad that it carries nearly unbearable weight. I say that hoping that it won't deter you from seeing Balagov's artfully created story. Some movies should be hard to take.

Beanpole tells the story of two women who were warriors together during the war. Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a tall woman who was sent home after receiving a concussion during the fighting. When the movie opens, Beanpole works in a hospital that treats badly wounded soldiers. She lives in a communal apartment with her young son Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). Sometimes, perhaps as a result of wartime trauma, Beanpole freezes, immobilized in the middle of chaos. If that weren't enough, her height makes her stand out in any gathering.

Despite her afflictions, Beanpole carries on a cheerful relationship with a paralyzed soldier (Konstantin Balakirev) who has no hope of recovering his mobility. The hospital's administrator (Andrey Bykov) can't conceal his weariness. He's overwhelmed by daily suffering he can't escape, but he looks out for Beanpole, whose real name is Iya. He offers her food so that her young son can escape the ravages of malnutrition. He longs for the days when all he did was treat simple hernias.

At one point, Iya brings young Pashka to the hospital. The soldiers play a game with the boy, asking him to mimic animals. Bark like a dog they suggest when the boy hesitates. How can he bark like a dog, one man asks? He's never seen a dog. They've all been eaten.

What happens next not only proves shocking but so deeply tragic that you may find yourself refusing to believe it. Balagov doesn't dwell on this agonizing moment. But we've already learned a hard truth. Even after the guns have gone silent, there's enough death in Leningrad to turn the city into a kind of morgue. And those who have survived can seem like the walking dead, pinched souls who have seen so much horror they've numbed themselves.

It doesn't take long for Masha (an amazing Vasilisa Perelygina) to turn up. She served with Iya at the front and seems eager -- too eager perhaps -- to satisfy her sexual cravings. Balagov reveals the nature of the bond between Masha and Iya, another surprise that's best discovered in a theater.

But know that as the two women try to adjust to post-war life, they'll encounter more than a few problems. A young man pursues Masha, eventually bringing her home to meet his parents in an excruciating scene in which the parents treat her like a social outcast. Don't fret, Masha can give as good as she gets.

For her part, Iya agrees to a scheme to make up for a loss in Masha's life. I don't think it qualifies as a spoiler to tell you that the plan, which I won’t describe here, doesn't work.

Beanpole delivers a shattering blow that reminds us that the price of war doesn't stop just because peace has been declared. Gifted and clear-eyed, Balagov proves that an anti-war movie needn’t be set on the battlefield.

Another ‘Emma’ reaches the big screen

An aggressively well-appointed version of a Jane Austen novel gets the job done.
We hardly need an introduction to Emma, the title character of Jane Austen's 1816 novel. The young woman was the subject of a well-received 1996 Douglas McGrath movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Even greater numbers of viewers probably are familiar with Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which starred Alicia Silverstone in a smartly conceived, high-school updating of Austen’s story.

Other Emmas have come and gone and some adventurous souls may even have read Austen’s novel. But Austen never seems to lose her appeal, which may explain why we now get director Autumn de Wilde’s 21st Century addition to the Austen big-screen canon.

De Wilde's Emma stars Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Glass) as the smugly self-assured Emma, a young woman who has lived in happy isolation from life’s harder knocks.

For reasons that I couldn’t entirely discern, de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt decided to present the movie in a kind of strange way. Everything about the movie’s settings and costumes seems perfect, yet nothing seems entirely right. It may be pushing the point but it’s as if we’ve landed in a theme park devoted to the novelist’s work. Think Austenworld, where visitors are separated from the exhibits by velvet ropes.

If the approach was meant to heighten the cloistered rigidity of the world Austen observed, it becomes superfluous. Austen was no satirist, but she needed no help in pointing out the pretensions, social limitations, and hypocrisies of her characters.

Thankfully, Austen’s attempts to humble Emma -- making her aware that the world may not revolve around her -- remains. Better yet, the secondary roles are well-cast, from Bill Nighy as Emma’s constantly fretting father to Miranda Hart’s annoyingly loquacious but well-meaning Miss Bates to Mia Goth’s Harriet, a young woman who falls prey to Emma’s thoughtless manipulations.

Early on, Emma dissuades Harriet from marrying Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a farmer who makes an obviously perfect match for her. Not good enough, says Emma as she sets Harriet up for disappointment.

Such is Emma’s issue; her faith in her own judgment blinds her to the feelings of others.

The key role of Mr. Knightley goes to Johnny Flynn, who brings hunky appeal to the character and who has the distinction of being the only Knightley in the story’s long history to be given a rear-view nude scene.

Austen’s story revolves around misdirected romance and signals that are misread, some involving Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and the supposedly irresistible Frank Churchill (Callum Turner).

The key scenes — Miss Bates’ humiliation by Emma, for example — work well and Austen’s idea that love must be earned with expressions of good moral character survives. Besides, it's reassuring to see that, even with limited screen time, the ever-resourceful Nighy refuses to be held prisoner by a costume so constricting it made me uncomfortable just looking at it. (See photo above.)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

‘Call of the Wild’ goes digital

It may not be a dog but this adaptation of a Jack London novel stakes out a mediocre claim.
In The Call of the Wild, an adaptation of a classic Jack London story, the heroic dog at the center of the movie has become a digital creation. But it’s not only the dog that doesn’t seem real. The same goes for the Yukon town where the dog — Buck — winds up and for much of the movie’s romanticized sentiment. In Alaska, Buck learns to become a true part of nature, joining forces with wolves and creating a family.

Harrison Ford takes the starring human role; he’s John Thornton, a man who has fled to the Yukon after the death of his young son wrecked his marriage and his life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When we first meet Buck, he belongs to a judge in a small California town. Banished to the judge's porch, the unruly Buck is stolen and shipped to Alaska, the wilderness where a gold rush has created a growing need for sled dogs.

Initially, Buck is trained to pull sleds by a mailman played by Omar Sy. Sy's character travels with a woman (Cara Gee), who seems to around so that she can fall through thin ice and be rescued by the always heroic Buck.

Buck becomes a leader among the mail-service dogs but eventually loses his status when the government suspends mail delivery to remote towns that are hundreds of miles apart.

Harrison's Thornton immediately appreciates the dog's finer nature but only reluctantly forms a bond with Buck. Meanwhile, a wealthy man in search of even more wealth (Dan Stevens) tries to exploit Buck. Steven’s character becomes a classic boo-hiss villain.

The story goes exactly where you'd expect as Buck and Thornton begin life in the woods, but this version lacks the kind of grit we might expect from a story by London. It feels bloodless.

Heavyweight cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Post) does justice by the Alaskan scenery and it's no surprise that Ford holds the screen. But even Ford can’t elevate this one from the mediocrity to which its tethered — or should I say leashed.

The dog’s movements reportedly were created in motion-capture by Terry Notary, who's known for his creation of animal movements. He does good work but I seldom forgot that I was looking at a digital creation rather than a living, breathing slobbering animal.

Call of the Wild did make me think about the advantages of digital dogs, though. They don't poop. They don't throw up on the rug. They don't need to be walked. Vet bills are negligible.

Unconvinced? Me too. Both on-screen and off, real dogs are better.

A portrait becomes a gateway to love

Portrait of a Lady on Fire immerses in a woman's point of view
There might be no greater difficulty in portrait painting — particularly in the days before photography — than a subject who refuses to sit, someone who doesn’t want to be pinned to canvas for as long as the painting lasts. Consider that when watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a romantic story about a love affair between two women, one a painter, the other the subject of her painting.

Having said that, I think it would be a mistake to look at director Celine Sciamma’s movie as a deep reflection on the painter’s art. Judging by the portraits we see in the movie, the story’s main artist hardly qualifies as an undiscovered master.

So if the movie isn’t about painting, what is it about?

I’d say that it’s about two women, each weighing the potential in the other before committing to a sexual relationship. Because the movie takes place on a remote island where there are no men, Sciamma achieves a kind of pristine isolation. For most of its 121-minute running time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire becomes a laboratory in which two actresses and the director try to see what happens when the currently out-of-vogue male gaze vanishes.

How could it be otherwise? Aside from a few intrusions, the cast consists entirely of women who have been directed by a woman.

The setup: Marianne (Noemie Merlant) has been hired by a French countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of the countess’ daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). An unseen male — an Italian nobleman who is considering marrying Heloise — has requested the portrait. Presumably, he wants to inspect the merchandise before consummating the purchase.

A reluctant Heloise has resisted her mother’s efforts to obtain such a painting, having totally frustrated the previous artist who tried to paint her portrait. To get the job done, Heloise’s mother concocts a ruse. Marianne will pose as a companion hired to take walks with Heloise. During these excursions, Marianne will observe Heloise. She'll then retreat to her room to paint.

At first, this observation must be done slyly. But it’s also clear that Heloise wants to take the measure of her companion. If you look at the movie as a courtship, it becomes clear that these women are feeling each other out. They’re making assessments. Both actresses handle this period of evaluation with exceptional precision.

Sciamma introduces a bit of a story. Marianne arrives on the island in a storm-tossed sea in which her canvases are thrown into the drink. She dives in after the canvases, which are crated in a large wooden box. Left on the beach, she must haul her canvases up a steep hill to the countesses’ home.

As the story unfolds, Sciamma introduces historical context. We’re in a time when it was difficult for women to establish themselves in the male-dominated art world. At one point, Marianne says that women artists have been kept away from the great subjects, a way of trivializing their work.

The fact that Heloise is a character of mystery and opinion becomes the movie’s saving grace. It soon becomes clear that she won’t cooperate with Marianne unless she feels the two are on an equal footing. She's quick to figure out what Marianne is doing and she rejects the painter's first effort as being too restricted by convention. She wants to participate in determining how she will be portrayed.

Marianne eventually follows this lead — and the two wind up on as much equal footing as can exist between an artist and her subject.

All of this takes place in a sparse environment. Sciamma uses little music and emphasizes natural sound, the creak of shoes on exposed wooden floors, for example. Cinematographer Clare Mathon lights the interiors in ways that fit a period when the best light existed before the sun went down.

It takes time for the sexual relationship between Marianne and Heloise to reach the screen. After an initial encounter (not depicted), we see the two of them in bed. Their nudity makes for the least strained scene in the movie. They share an intoxicating substance (presumably marijuana obtained from one of the women on the island). Freed from bodice-heavy clothing, they finally seem unbound by the constraints of their time.

Moments of female solidarity can be found. Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who works as a maid on the estate becomes pregnant. Marianne and Heloise help her to obtain an abortion from one of the women on the island, a strange scene in which both Marianne and Heloise are present and which takes place with Sophie lying on a bed with a toddler, a child of the abortionist or perhaps a child in her care.

Initially, Marianne looks away, but Heloise insists that she not avert her gaze, perhaps a way of showing what it means for a woman to take control of her body. I’m not sure.

Much of the movie unfolds after Golino’s character has left the island, leaving Marianne and Heloise to live in relative freedom. At one point, they join a group of women on the beach who are engaged in a strange ritual that’s mysterious — if a bit cryptic.

Now, I have to confess that all this gazing between Marianne and Heloise can become a bit dull, even repetitive. Moreover, the movie’s mixture of gothic elements, melodrama, and naturalism doesn't always work.

But the movie’s ending has emotional power. When Marianne returns to society, the appearance of men feels almost shocking. She’s back in a world that has little use for her work, although she now has an enriched inner life. Portrait of a Lady On Fire tells the story of a moment in two lives, a big moment.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A mobster turns agains the mob

Director Marco Bellocchio tells a detailed story about one of Italy’s great mafia trials.
We haven't exactly been suffering from a shortage of mafia movies but director Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor is a Cosa Nostra movie with a difference. Bellocchio centers his story on a real-life figure -- Tommaso Buscetta, the Sicilian gangster who in the 1980s made history when he testified against his former brothers in crime.

Not surprisingly, Buscetta’s foes thought he was a rat. But Buscetta, played with commanding power by Pierfrancesco Favino, maintained that he had remained loyal to the governing ethos of Cosa Nostra. He believed that the mob's entry into the heroin trade had helped plunge it into levels of brutality that went beyond anything that might be justified by loyalty or business.

When the movie begins, two rival Sicilian families meet in Palermo to forge a truce. Buscetta’s group reaches an accord with the Corleone mob, a group named for the Sicilian town where its operation has its headquarters. After the truce, which no one seems to take seriously, Buscetta heads to Brazil, where he also conducts business. He hopes to escape whatever bloodbath will follow.

The "peace" negotiations involved Buscetta's family. One of Buscetta's sons from a previous marriage had become addicted to heroin. The addicted son and his brother weren't supposed to be harmed after Buscetta left the country. Fat chance.

Buscetta eventually was arrested in Rio. The police dangled his third wife (Christina Fernanda Candido) from a helicopter while he was made to watch from another chopper. The presumably cornered, Buscetta had a change of heart. He was extradited to Italy, where he decided to testify against the mafia.

As the story unfolds, Buscetta develops a respectful relationship with the prosecutor who was trying to bring down the mob. The prosecutorial team was led by Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), an attorney who later lost his life in a mob-engineered explosion.

After his initial testimony, Buscetta and his wife (safe after her helicopter torment) were sent to the US and placed in the witness protection program. But Buscetta's grudging respect for Falcone led to his return to Italy to help nail Salvatore Riina (Nicola Cali), the head of the Corleone faction.

Rina prides himself on propriety and family values but turns out to be one of the more vicious members of Cosa Nostra. Buscetta hates what he sees as Riina’s s hypocrisy.

But make no mistake. Buscetta is no angel. He's less interested in doing the right thing than in finding a path on which he can take vengeance against former cohorts and save his own skin. He's never less than unremittingly tough.

Bellocchio tells the story with flashbacks and courtroom scenes. In the courtroom, the mobsters who were about to be convicted based on Buscetta’s testimony were held in cells at the back of the room. They had no interest in decorum and frequently shouted profanities at their accuser.

Bellocchio isn’t interested in following a mob-movie blueprint. He’s telling a real story, which may have more meaning to Italian audiences than to the American art-house crowd. He covers a long period. Italy’s famed mafia trails lasted six years - from 1986 to 1992. That makes The Traitor a kind of procedural epic.

It may take a few scenes for audiences to settle into the movie, but Bellocchio has taken an unblinkered look at a man who helped make the mob and ultimately decided to bring it down.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 2/14/20 -- The Woman Who Loves Giraffes and Olympic Dreams

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes
Even as a child, Anne Innis Dagg loved giraffes. Dagg becomes the subject of director Alison Reid's The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, a documentary about Innis' life that conflates biography with the story of how giraffes are becoming an endangered animal. After college, Dagg traveled to South Africa where she was able to observe giraffes and keep detailed records of their behavior. She became an expert on giraffes and tried to parley her knowledge into a professorship at The University of Guelph in Canada. She was denied tenure. Reid couples the story of giraffes with Dagg's struggle to establish herself in a zoology world ruled by men. Without the benefit of a university attachment, she was left to fight a legal battle with the university and to write independently. Fortunately, Reid had access to 16 mm footage that Dagg shot in 1956, the year of her first trip to Africa. If you're interested in wildlife and would like to see it preserved, Reid's documentary has plenty to offer. It also works as the biography of a woman who followed her interests and refused to be deterred by misogyny. And, yes, the giraffes are fascinating to observe.

Olympic Dreams

This unsatisfying romantic comedy takes place against the backdrop of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Director Jeremy Teicher sets his story at the real games which make this a case in which the movie's background seems more interesting than its principal characters. Alexi Pappas, who competed in the 2016 Olympics as a long-distance runner, plays Penelope a cross-country skier from the US. Nick Kroll portrays Ezra, a dentist who has volunteered to work at the Olympics. The need for dentistry seems negligible, which means Ezra has a lot of free time. So does Penelope who loses early and is left to wander around the grounds with nothing much in mind. The two meet and talk (uninterestingly, I'm afraid) as Teicher's cameras wander through the Olympic village and later the city of Pyeongchang. Neither Penelope nor Ezra are particularly intriguing and the movie crosses the finish line without creating much by way of romantic charge. Nor does it really explore the alienation and need that can arise when people are adrift in unfamiliar surroundings.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

It’s all ‘Downhill’ from here

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star in an American remake of a much better Swedish movie.
What didn’t make sense in 2014’s Force Majeure, a film from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund, makes even less sense in Downhill, an American remake starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. Though still set in Europe, this American version suffers from one of the worst things that can happen to a film: indecision about what it wants to be.

Hovering in limbo between comedy and drama, Downhill won't be helped by audience expectations. Both Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are gifted comic actors and you can’t fault an audience for expecting some major laughs, particularly when the film’s trailer plays up moments that can be read as comedy.

At heart, though, Force Majeure was a film about a failing marriage. It explored issues of manhood and fatherhood and tried to understand the mentality of a middle-aged man who was drifting away from his wife and two children. That movie’s darkly comic elements have absorbed too much sunlight in this meager translation. Though brightened, the comic moments feel as slushy as melting snow.

The dynamic of a troubled marriage remains in directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s version of the film, but it has lost the subtle flavors that helped elevate Force Majeure.

As with the original, the story revolves around a pivotal event. Louis-Dreyfus’ Billie and Ferrell’s Pete are the mother and father of an American family that has traveled to Europe to ski and regroup.

On a break from the slopes, Billie and Pete are having lunch with their two young sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford). An explosion is heard in the distance. A controlled avalanche has been set off, not an unusual occurrence at ski resorts.

Suddenly, though, a large cloud of snow descends on the restaurant. It doesn’t look as if it's going to stop. Those dining on the outdoor deck where the family is eating scream in panic. Ferrell’s Pete grabs his phone and runs, leaving his family behind.

As it turns out, everyone’s safe but major questions linger. Why did Pete run? What did his flight mean? Can his marriage survive this act of cowardice? Should it?

Initially, Pete tries to downplay his behavior. Everyone’s fine. What’s the big deal?

The growing tension between Billie and Pete proves as annoying as it is revealing with Louis-Dreyfus drawing sharper lines than Ferrell, whose character often seems a trifle pathetic. The fact that Ferrell is considerably taller than Louis-Dreyfuss creates a kind of jarring visual contrast that doesn’t help, either.

The story introduces a few supporting characters. Zach Woods and Zoe Chao play a touring couple. Pete knows Woods' character from the States. Eager to escape the routine of a family trip, Pete asks the couple to visit. The blind-sided Billie doesn't want company. She views the trip as an opportunity for the family to renew bonds that were fraying in the wake of Pete's grief over his father's recent death.

Miranda Otto shows up as a concierge, an out-sized bombshell of a character who espouses sexual freedom; Otto's Charlotte splashes through the movie like a tipped-over can of paint.

Individually, Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell do some interesting things, but both struggle to find the right rhythm for material that’s not sure whether to go for laughs or dive into the messy world of a foundering marriage. Not surprisingly, Downhill doesn't do much of either.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 2/14/20 -- A fallen Russian oligarch and a very eccentric woman

Citizen K
Convoluted and full of intrigue, director Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K opens a window into post-Soviet Russia. Not surprisingly, the air that blows in is tainted by corruption. Gibney focuses on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a dethroned oligarch who served 10 years in a Russian prison on charges of tax evasion. Khodorkovsky, who now lives in London, has become a vocal critic of the Putin regime. Khodorkovsky’s fortune was built on oil and, at one point, he was the richest man in Russia. He bought up Siberian oil fields at bargain prices as he built a fortune of $16 billion. The 56-year-old Khodorkovsky serves as our principal guide through a story that Gibney lays out in detail. Khodorkovsky, by the way, is a very rich dissident; he’s supposedly worth about $500-million, a demotion from the upper tiers of super wealth but enough to stave off worries about paying the rent. Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) isn’t about to let the wily Khodorkovsky rule the movie’s roost. The director's voice-over narration, along with additional interviews, gives the film an independent voice. Khodorkovsky now runs an organization called Open Russia, which tries to support opposition to Putin. I don’t know what to make of Khodorkovsky, but if you’re looking for insight into how Russia operates, Citizen K makes for a start, particularly at a time when Putin’s Russia figures so prominently in our news.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Eccentricity can be irresistible — so long as you don’t have to live with it. I thought about that as I watched Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. Stokes, who died in 2012 at the age of 83, was the ultimate tape-head. She used VCRs, as many as eight at a time running 24 hours a day, to record every television show that aired in Philadelphia, the city where she lived. She carried out this activity for 30 years as she made the transition from a Communist activist in the 1950s to a reclusive woman who began hoarding newspapers, books and various versions of Apple computers. Stokes needed eight apartments to store all of her stuff. No person is entirely comprehensible, but Stokes seems more inscrutable than most. Her second marriage to John Stokes -- a man with whom she once hosted a public access TV show -- created a cocoon in which she was able to pursue her interests, which had something to do with the way media informs (and perhaps controls) perception. A librarian by trade, Stokes created a catalog of the evolving nature of television news. Director Matt Wolf interviews Michael Metelits, Stokes' son from a first marriage, as well several people who worked for her in her later years. Whatever you make of Stokes, it’s impossible not to get caught up in her story, which means living in her world for the movie’s length. Clips from Stokes’ collection are seen throughout, turning this weird but rewarding movie into a kind of review of 30 years of history. And, yes, you'll learn what happened to all of Stokes' tapes.

When sexual abuse is normalized

The Assistant takes us inside a movie production company where the boss is a sexual predator.
If you’ve followed Harvey Weinstein’s New York trial, you’ve read about women who say they were sexually assaulted by the former movie mogul. You’ve also probably seen plenty of stories that deal with the #MeToo movement in other areas; sadly, we’ve grown accustomed to a steady stream of news about women who’ve suffered sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men.

With The Assistant, director Kitty Green dives into the MeToo pool, but with the kind precision that only can be bred by minute observation. Unlike the splashier star-driven Bombshell, which looked at the women who helped bring down Roger Ailes at Fox News, The Assistant marries its larger themes to the quotidian details of life on the job. Green sets her story in the modest offices of an independent but evidently successful movie company.

It's clear from the start that the boss's authoritarian demands have been incorporated into the psyches of his employees. He expects his assistant (Julia Garner) to arrive early, turn on the lights and do menial chores designed to remind her of her lowly status. Green doesn't have to say it, but the message is clear: People will put up with a lot to feel as if they're part of the movie business.

Garner brings a sense of unease and palpable uncertainty to the role of a character who's trying to keep her head above water. When Garner's Jane finds an earring on the floor of the boss’s office, she can't ignore the fact that she’s working in a place where women may be expected to do more than recite lines when they audition for parts. Moreover, the boss’s lusts aren’t confined to actresses with aspirations.

When a young woman from Boise (Kristine Froseth) shows up to become another assistant, she’s taken to a fancy Manhattan hotel. Garner’s Jane knows that the newcomer is prey.

A pivotal scene finds Jane meeting with the company’s head of human resources (Matthew Macfayden) to express her fears about the safety of the newly arrived employee. Initially sympathetic, he twists Jane's perceptions and uses them against her. He’s supposed to help — but it’s the boss’s interests that he serves.

Green wisely keeps the boss offscreen. The choice makes sense because it’s clear that the other employees, including two men (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) who share space with Jane) are well-schooled in the company ways. The boss isn't really the movie's subject anyway; it's the impact of the warped office atmosphere on an impressionable young woman that matters.

There’s a downside to Green’s narrowly focused approach. By covering a single day in Jane's life, the story can feel constricted, but Green deserves credit for skillfully exposing the go-along, get-along atmosphere that the boss requires. The Assistant isn’t a story of great transformation; it’s a story about the ways in which a powerful man can create an environment in which everyone understands the unwritten rules.

You want to play, you'd best look the other way. Complicity becomes a job requirement.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

An Israeli movie exposes an assassin's world

Incitement unfolds with urgency and an increasing sense of dread.
The world of a committed assassin is not a pleasant place to be but it’s sometimes necessary to penetrate it, partly out of a desire to understand how an assassin sees the society that, in his view, has pushed him toward the act he deems to be necessary; i.e., murder. He may see killing as a duty that has fallen to him, a task only he has the courage and commitment to carry out.

In Nov. of 1995, one such true believer — a young man named Yigal Amir — assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a leader who had riled the Israeli right by entering a Clinton-brokered peace agreement with Yasser Arafat. There were Israelis who saw Rabin as a traitor. Amir was one of them but his beliefs went beyond the inflamed rhetoric of aggrieved dissent.

In his movie Incitement, director Yaron Zilberman shows us precisely how Amir evolved from being a law student with a future to an assassin who'd spend the rest of his life in prison. From the start, we know how the movie’s going to end. That means that Zilberman must be entirely convincing in creating the environment in which Amir’s murderous plan is hatched.

If we’re going to spend time with Amir, he can’t be an entirely repulsive figure. In a masterful performance, Yehuda Nahari Halevi shows us a sincere believer who aligned himself with radical extremists. At one point, Amir canvases a group of rabbis in hopes that one of them will agree that his plan is more than an example of demented politics. He argues that Rabin’s murder is mandated by Jewish law. The rabbis don't endorse his view, but they don't report him either.

Amir is the son of Yemeni parents who are looked down upon by some of the country’s Eastern European Jews. He's ripe for rejection.

At one point, Amir tries to start a relationship with a young woman (Daniella Kertesz) who lives in a West Bank settlement. He's ready to leap into marriage. Her parents don’t take it to him.

Amir's mother isn't shy about expressing her biases. She thinks her son should confine himself to the Orthodox Yemenite community. A more complex figure, his father thinks that the Oslo Accords may not be perfect but, at least, represent hope for peace. His father believes Amir lost his sensitivity while serving in the military. He became staunch.

But Amir is too far gone to listen to his father. He reveres Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli who in 1994 murdered 29 praying Muslims in Hebron. He hopes to establish a militia to act in instances where the Israeli Defense Force must exercise restraint. The fire in Halevi's eyes never lets us forget that Amir is a zealot; i.e., someone who lacks the ability to doubt his own beliefs.

Zilberman enhances the movie's urgency by skillfully using news clips from the period. And, of course, with an assassination looming, dread thickens as the story progresses.

Incitement delivers a strong cautionary warning about the perils of fanaticism and it shows what happens when an already motivated young man begins to create a world governed by his passions and reinforced by others who would never act violently but who share his beliefs. They’re the forest in which the tree of Amir's twisted conviction grows. Be wary.

Monday, February 10, 2020

'Parasite' scores a stunning Oscar victory

On the night that Parasite was shown to critics in Denver, only two of us attended the screening. As a fan of director Bong Joon Ho's work, I chose Parasite over another movie that was being screened on the same evening.

As much as I loved Bong's film, it never occurred to me that it would win four Oscars, including best director and best picture -- the first foreign-language film to take that coveted honor. A subtitled movie from South Korea, Parasite included enough accessible comedy to make me think it might expand Bong's audience, but best picture? It never crossed my mind. Beyond that, Parasite is a satirically charged film about class warfare, hardly an inspirational subject for an image-conscious industry.

Those who don't know Bong's work, at a minimum, should take a look at The Host (2006), Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). Snowpiercer, of course, was an English-language film with a cast that included Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris.

Still, Bong hadn't made the kind of films that typically find their way to Oscar's center stage. Idiosyncratic and immensely talented, Bong's work has been something of an acquired taste.

The victory of Parasite only reinforces my belief that the Oscars ought to go global and shed the newly named "best international feature" category.

Although it got no Oscar love beyond a nomination in the best-international-feature category, the Polish film Copus Christi strikes me as far more interesting than, say, Ford v Ferrari, which did receive a best-picture nod. Ford v Ferrari is an entertaining movie, but I wouldn't call it "exceptional."

Like many others, I thought 1917, the presumed frontrunner for best picture, would have a great Oscar night. Ditto for its director Sam Mendes. Although the movie won three Oscars, including a best-cinematography Oscar for Roger Deakins, 1917 missed out on the biggest prizes.

Upsets aside, I'm reluctant to draw any major conclusions: Oscar is a fickle beast and there's no point thinking that this year will set any precedents. The leap from last year's best picture -- Green Book -- to this year's winner demonstrates that every Oscar year creates its own moment.

So what about the night?

Overall it was a decent -- if somewhat pulseless -- Oscar show, the only real thrill arriving at the end.

Still, there were a few surprises.

I didn't expect Taika Waititi to win best original screenplay for Jo Jo Rabbit. I thought that category would provide the Academy with an opportunity to honor Greta Gerwig for writing the screenplay for Little Women. I also didn't think Parasite would win best original screenplay, another of its triumphs.

The shock of watching Parasite ascend almost obliterated the memory of Joaquin Phoenix's acceptance speech when he won a best-actor Oscar for Joker. Phoenix delivered a hushed defense of the natural world along with a plea that we stop molesting it. He also described himself as a "scoundrel," a difficult and selfish guy who was grateful for receiving a second chance to do the work he loves. Messages aside, there was a pained sincerity in Phoenix's speech I found touching, a sense that the world was in too much trouble for him to manage a smile about a victory.

You might wonder why Eminem was at the Oscars. He performed Lose Yourself from the film 8 Mile. The song won an Oscar in 2002. Eminem didn't show up. His appearance on this year's show was a closely guarded secret.

Janelle Monae got the show off to a rousing start. Her version of Mister Rogers' A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood morphed into a robust number that made reference to the biggest criticism Oscar has taken this year: its lack of women and people of color in so many categories. Monae also said that she was proud to be a "black queer artist telling stories."

Still, diversity seemed a kind of ornament at an Oscar ceremony in a year in which only one black person -- Cynthia Erivo of Harriet -- was nominated in any of the Academy's many acting slots.

There were smatterings of politics. Brad Pitt won an Oscar as best supporting actor for his work in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and took the opportunity to say that his allotted 45 seconds for an acceptance speech were more than the Senate allowed for John Bolton to testify during the recently concluded trial of ... well ... you know who.

In all, though, the evening seemed to flow along smoothly with comedy coming from Steve Martin and Chris Rock, who were teamed during the show's opening, almost as if they were meant to evoke memories of the days when Oscar did have hosts. Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, both brilliant, showed up later. Rebel Wilson and James Cordon, both of whom were in the much-maligned big-screen version of Cats, made fun of the movie but I'm sick of Cats humor. The movie stunk. Let's move on.

For me, though, nothing about the evening surpassed its conclusion. I can't remember a time when the film that won the Oscar for best picture was the same film that found itself on the top of my 10-best list of movies, a further indication that the world continues to move beyond comprehension. Maybe we should all join Bong Joon Ho who said that the remainder of his evening included some serious partying. On the other hand, I think I'll just call it a night.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Say this: 'Birds of Prey' flies fast

Margot Robbie portrays Harley Quinn in a kick-ass display of ... well ... kickass.
Gotham used to be denominated by Batman and his implacable foes, fiends such as The Joker, The Penguin and The Riddler. If you go to the movies, you know that times have changed.

Joker, to cite one example, has become a full-fledged mental case, the living embodiment of urban loneliness and crushed dreams. Joaquin Phoenix, who's about to win an Oscar for his unnerving portrayal, took the Joker out of the comic-book realm and created a figure as disturbing as the one Michael Rooker created in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Now comes Birds of Prey, which tries to put Gotham back in a comic-book box, turning the movie over to Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a character who made her big-screen debut in the woeful Suicide Squad. Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hudson give Robbie a platform on which to display her version of crazy. Call it a mixture of girl-power and rage.

The set-up: Having just broken up with the Joker, Harley’s emotional pigtails are drooping. She’s also very angry and when Harley gets angry, explosions likely will follow. So will fights in which Harley will display her phenomenal skills. Her brutal capacities play against her little-girl looks. Make that deranged little girl looks.

Fast-moving and devoted to the idea that action can’t be too excessive, Robbie and her cohorts seldom slow the movie’s roll as it romps across Gotham, a city that has given Harley an accent that’s pure New York.

Say, this: No one will accuse Robbie of not having a good time as she fights the movie's principal villain, Ewan McGregoe’s Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask. As is appropriate for the genre, McGregor does some scenery-chewing -- with relish, of course.

As the movie develops, Harley encounters several women who have the potential to becoming sidekicks. These include a Gotham detective (Rosie Perez), a singer (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who plies her trade at Roman's night club and goes by the name of Black Canary. A revenge-seeking woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has made the crossbow her weapon of choice. She's The Huntress. Harley also meets a teen-age thief (Ella Jay Basco), an expert pickpocket who’s able to keep pace with Harley in the profanity department.

Not all of the action can be classified as comic-book harmless. Early on, Harley jumps from a stage onto the legs of a seated man. Bones break. Roman's henchman (an effective Chris Messina) inflicts punishment on his boss's enemies by peeling the skin off their faces.

To her credit, Yan gives each of the women personality and independence. Although Robbie produced the movie, she doesn’t hog it. The basic formula finds women overcoming differences to fight a common enemy.

Yan plays with the movie’s structure, manipulating time to allow for the introduction of backstories but generally keeps pedal to the metal. After a while, the glut of action loses some of its excitement and the movie never pretends to explore any thematic depths.

No, the point here is ass-kicking sisterhood with comic flourishes that land with varying degrees of success. Still, it’s not easy to dismiss a movie in which Haley acquires a pet hyena and names the animal Bruce. A reference to the Gotham of tradition as in, say, Bruce Wayne?

Birds of Prey arrives with a subtitle that can’t be said without taking a breath: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. You get the idea. Freed from the Joker's influence, a liberated Harley emerges. But what's with the word "emancipation?" Did Joker free her? If so is that really liberation?

But wait. I'm reading too much into a movie that isn't out to test anyone's interpretive powers.

Birds of Prey doesn't allow for much by way of reflection. At an economical 109-minutes in length, the movie plays a steady game of hurry-up, which may be a good thing because it doesn’t exactly have a lot on its mind. Part costume party, part girl-power explosion and part grunt-and-stunt festival, Birds of Prey passes in a blur.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Looking forward to the end of Awards season

What to say about the Oscars?

To me, the best thing one can say about the upcoming Oscars is that, like clouds over a picnic, they will pass. When the awards are handed out next Sunday, we finally can put a lid on the 2019 cinema year. A change of the calendar doesn't automatically signal improvement of cinema culture, but, at least, we'll be able to focus on the ephemera of the day. And, truth be told, most movies are part of a non-stop barrage of disposable amusements, baubles hauled out to be perused, praised or rejected — and, in most cases, forgotten.

Even awards aren’t immune from the cruelties that result from the perpetual motion of the entertainment assembly line.

How long, for example, will you be eager to meet with friends for a glass of wine so that you can discuss cinematographer Roger Deakins’ career after he wins this year’s best cinematography award? Deakins, you'll recall, helped to create the nearly surreal images that made the World War I movie, 1917, so haunting.

Or do you imagine yourself in heated conversations about the best original screenplay? Who writes a better screenplay, Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) or Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)? And what the hell is a great screenplay anyway?

Think how different Marriage Story would have been had the LA LA Land duo — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — played the self-absorbed husband and the blossoming wife. Can we believe, as actors sometimes say, that “it’s all in the text?”

If I were going to have any posts-Oscar discussions, they would have something to do with the way Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci seem to have aged out of Oscar consideration. In many ways, The Irishman was more than a story of corruption, mobsters and the murder of Teamster czar Jimmy Hoffa; it was also a goodbye to youth from actors and a director who probably will be overlooked Sunday night.

Poor Antonio Banderas likely will suffer the same fate after his deeply felt work in director Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory. As an aging movie director who has begun to slip into the mists of invisibility, Banderas gave what might be the performance of his life. He carried the soul-crushing weight of loss, depression, and delusion for the entire movie. No self-pity. Only honesty.

Sam Mendes, who directed 1917, probably will cap his awards season with another win but does anyone really believe that Mendes is as original or notable a talent as Bong Joon Ho, who directed Parasite, which probably will have to content itself with winning best foreign-language film, a category that should be eliminated.

Yes, I said it. In this global moment, the distinction between English-language and foreign-language films seems particularly useless. Movies are movies. Get over it.

Let’s talk best actress. Renee Zellweger will take home an Oscar for playing Judy Garland in Judy. No problem, but I can’t imagine wanting to revisit that movie again. Do you remember who directed Judy? It was British theater director Rupert Goold, whose only previous feature was True Story. Remember what that was about? Oh hell, look it up.

By the way, I’m not a 1917 detractor, although I wouldn’t rank it among the great World War I movies. For me, few movies ever will surpass Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, but that’s a high bar and if 1917 wins the best picture — which it probably will — I won’t be tempted to renounce the Academy for another bone-headed decision. After last year’s embarrassing best picture award for Green Book, there’s nowhere to go but up.

So am I ambling my way toward predictions? I suppose.

Complain as much as you want but Oscars remain an unavoidable part of cinema culture. They’ve been around longer than most film festivals and have proven more enduring than the work of most critics.

Here are my predictions in major categories. I’m presenting them without annotation as a way of avoiding adding even more blather to the pre-Oscar tumult -- if there really is any.

Best Picture
Best Actor
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Best Actress
Renee Zellweger, Judy
Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Best Director
Sam Mendes, 1917
Best Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Best Adapted Screenplay
Greta Gerwig, Little Women
Best Cinematography
Roger Deakins, 1917
Best Editing
Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland, Ford v. Ferrari
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Documentary
*I pick Honeyland because it’s a masterwork. My gut, however, tells me that American Factory stands a strong chance of winning.