Monday, March 30, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 1. No. 5

OK, I admit it, this is frightening.

I got a call from an old friend who advised me not to leave the house even to shop for food. Have stuff delivered, he said. This was on the evening that Dr. Fauchi, a man few of us had heard of three months ago, cautioned that deaths in the US could reach 100,000. Some put the number as high as 200,000.

Earlier in the day, another friend told me that she was terrified of the way people die from the coronavirus, alone and gasping for air. If you’ve ever seen someone in the last moments of life, you know that this kind of last-gasping isn’t unusual. The body fights a losing battle for oxygen in a race no one wins.

When I walk my dog, I’m now super-conscious about other people who may also be walking. If I see a group of people directly ahead, I alter my route. I feel bad about it, but I do it anyway. Besides, I think, if those people knew how misanthropic I can be, they wouldn’t want to get within six feet of me anyway.

Since all this started I’ve learned to Zoom, mostly with family. I watched a granddaughter change backgrounds on a Zoom call, alternately appearing in front of a vicious-looking dog or a fantasy cityscape while she made motions that caused parts of her body to disappear. I resisted thinking about this in metaphoric terms.

As someone who spent the better part of his life working in journalism, I usually can’t get enough of the day’s big story. But in this case, I’m starting to choke on the news. Doctors fearing for their safety. ICUs full of patients hooked up to ventilators. If you get ventilated — an odd expression, no? — chances are pretty good that when you get unventilated, you’ll be dead.

I saw a headline in the local paper saying that we shouldn’t blame anyone for the virus. For me, such an opinion misses the point. Expecting intelligent responses from the government isn’t the same as blaming. We deserve a government that actually cares whether 100,000 of its citizens might expire.

Then there’s the $1,200 or so that the government plans to give those who are eligible. But wait. That doesn’t cover a month’s rent in many Denver one-bedroom apartments. What’s it going to do for people in New York City?

If you have money in the stock market, you’ve no doubt been told that it’s best to weather the storm, that it’s impossible to time the market for re-entry, that when the inevitable rise comes, you’ll miss out if you sideline yourself and put your money in cash. Cash? What value does cash have? Give me a million bucks and I'll let you know.

You can be sure that if there’s a second wave of the virus, the market again will crater. And know this: The government isn't likely to have a bailout plan for you as it does for large corporations. Maybe you’ll get another $1,000 bucks out of it, but I wouldn’t count on it.

I keep hearing that we’re all in this together. But then someone tells me the trails in Jeffco are crowded during these days of shelter-in-place. You can’t buy toilet paper. Want an N95 mask? Good luck. Folks already gobbled them up.

I’ve washed my hands so much that the skin has become raw.

So, yes, this is frightening. And spare me the bromides. Don’t tell me the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. We have to fear the virus. We have to fear those who inevitably will exploit the situation. We have to fear the fact that we live in a country where, in a time of global crisis, the former host of The Apprentice wants governors to express appreciation for all he’s doing.

Please be wary. The sun may be shining, but the streets now belong to the virus. We’re living in its world. It knows neither compassion nor mercy. All it knows is how to occupy its host.

So to the former host of The Apprentice, I have only one thing to say: As I see the death toll rise, the markets plummet and spirits flag, I recall that, by now, I’m supposed to have won so much that I’d be tired of winning.

Do you feel like you’re winning? If so, please tell the rest of us what game you’re playing.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Life is no picnic for this gig worker

Director Ken Loach delivers a timely movie about a family under great economic duress.

It’s sad, disturbing and more than a little depressing.

So why am I suggesting that this is the perfect time to watch director Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, an unflinching look at the troubles that befall those who work in the gig economy? With much of the country sheltering in place, there couldn’t be a better time to examine the plight of those who make deliveries to our now-isolated homes.

I’m not suggesting that the story of Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) is representative of everyone who works for a service that delivers all manner of packages. But credit Loach with taking a potent look at the difficulties of families that live hand-to-mouth without ever getting ahead, a circumstance not confined to the gig world.

Typical of Loach, Sorry We Missed You — the title derives from notes left for those who aren’t home — the movie consists of an accumulation of incidents, in this case, a mounting series of economic and domestic problems faced by a beleaguered family.

Hoping to become a master of his fate, Ricky buys a van and signs up at a delivery company managed by a tyrant (Ross Brewster), a taskmaster who cares only about keeping up the delivery rate at his depot.

The “opportunity” is a bit of a sham. The company doesn’t have "employees;" it has “franchisees.” Delivery people work under the guise of being independent mini-entrepreneurs who control their own destiny. In reality, they’re exploited and abused by a rigged system that exhausts them without bringing the promised rewards.

Working from a screenplay by Paul Laverty, Loach carefully explores the various ways in which Ricky’s family is victimized by economic circumstances.

Mom (newcomer Debbie Honeywood) works for an outfit that offers in-home care; she tends to people who can’t fend for themselves. Some are appreciative; some are abusive, but she treats all of them with empathy and near-saintly amounts of patience.

To make Honeywood’s Abby’s situation even worse, she must take busses to the various folks she visits during her long workdays. She had a car, but it was sold to provide the down payment for Ricky’s van.

The family’s teenage son (Rhys Stone) skips school, fancies himself a graffiti artist and fights with his father. Younger sister Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) can’t hide the shaken feelings that follow increasingly volatile family arguments. Work demands keep both parents away from home. Parenting often reduces to quickly delivered instructions in phone calls.

None of this would matter if we didn’t feel for these people. Ricky and Abby are decent folks who want nothing more than to earn a living, buy a house and live without constant worry about how they'll make ends meet. They're willing to work hard for these modest goals. They want no handouts, just a fair shake.

So, yes, this is the time to think about those who must struggle to survive and the toll that such battles take on families, even when there is no coronavirus.

Now 83, Loach always has been a champion of the working class. His extensive filmography includes movies such as Riff-Raff (1991), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), My Name is Joe (1998) and I, Daniel Blake (2016). We’re lucky that Loach has been able to keep his career going for more than four decades, focusing on people who don't often find their way to the screen.

Sorry We Missed You won’t elevate your spirits. It hasn’t been made so that you could feel better about the world. But it will broaden your understanding of what it means to barely survive, a condition far more Americans soon may be facing.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Great story, but the movie's only so-so

Jesse Eisenberg plays Marcel Marceau in a movie about a mime who became a hero in World War II.
I wish Resistance had been the movie it could have been. Not many of us know that the world’s most famous mime — Marcel Marceau — was a member of the French resistance during World War II and that he risked his life to save many Jewish children from Hitler’s gas chambers.

That’s the core of the story that director Jonathan Jakubowicz tells in Resistance, but the movie only fitfully seems like anything other than a dutiful attempt to add another movie to the Holocaust canon.

Some of the movie's problems have to do with Jesse Eisenberg’s somewhat unexpected appearance in the movie. To me, Eisenberg never seemed like anyone other than Jesse Eisenberg, and it's a bit shocking to read (as I did after seeing the movie) that Marceau was 15 when he joined the resistance and worked to save Jewish children. Eisenberg is 36.

Still, Eisenberg's wired energy always seems to be watchable and he handles the movie's mime duties with ease and elegance.

Too bad Jakubowicz can’t sustain a unifying tone for a movie that wants to celebrate the power of artistry in dark times while not shortchanging how very dark those times really were.

I suppose the movie's greatest virtue lies in its ability to let people know that Marceau was more than an entertainer. Marceau was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, where his father (Karl Markovics) worked as a Kosher butcher. Dad thought his son was wasting his time performing in the city’s cabarets. Marcel thought of himself as an artist.

The apolitical Marcel finds himself drawn into the fray when his cousin (Geza Rohrig) and brother (Felix Moati) ask him to help a group of Jewish orphans.

Marcel — who has yet to take the name Marceau — entertains the kids, helping to lift these Jewish kids out of their confusion and funk.

The movie’s darkest current emerges when the story shifts to Lyon. At that point, Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer) enters the story. The sadistic Barbie, a.k.a., The Butcher of Lyon, is portrayed as a man Of irreconcilable polarities, a cultured German who became a murderous anti-Semitic sadist.

Through his journey, Marceau is accompanied by Emma (Clemence Poesy), a young woman who had been involved with the orphans from the beginning.

The story is introduced in a post-war ceremony presided over by none other than General George S. Patton (Ed Harris). Patton tells his assembled troops that he wants to share a story about a person who qualifies as a great hero. Marceau served as a liaison officer with Paton's army, so this may have happened but it doesn't add much to the story.

A sequence in which Marceau, his charges and cohorts try to cross the Alps to Switzerland has moments of high tension, but overall the drama feels wooden, what an after-school special might be like if it also included elements of Nazi sadism -- i.e., cold-blooded murder and torture.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 1, No. 5 We're in a waiting room hoping for the best

I haven’t been writing much these days, despite an initial plan to keep a kind of daily diary during this period of isolation. For me, isolation tends to breed as much indolence as productivity and I’ve spent far too much time reading and watching the news, worrying about the fate of family and friends and allowing my distress at the utterances of certain of our leaders, particular the one with very bad hair, to spiral upward.

I’ve been trying to reach out to friends who live alone, but it also occurred to me that these same people are the best prepared to deal with long periods of isolation. They’re ahead of the curve when it comes to coronavirus adjustment.

As for viewing ... well ... I’ve watched a couple of movies in advance of their theatrical opening, but mostly, I haven’t viewed the current situation as an opportunity to revisit favorite movies or binge-watch a new series.

I feel like I'm in a hospital waiting room waiting for the surgeon to emerge with a report. Worrying that it won't be good news.

This is the first time in the last 40 years that I haven’t been connected to the ceaseless flow of new releases and I've been wondering whether that hasn't been a somewhat trivial way to mark time, a vague equivalent of J. Alfred Prufrock’s measuring out his life in coffee spoons?

As for missing the movies. Truth be told, I’ve been missing the movies for a long time. I miss cavernous theaters with voluptuous curtains in front of the screen. I miss the thrill of playing hookey from pre-reviewing jobs to watch a movie in the middle of the day. I miss the brief moment in the 1960s and 1970s when I —- and lots of people like me — believed that movies (or cinema, if you prefer) were the best route to transcendence in art. It was a time when discovering a new Truffaut or a new Bergman or a new Altman or a new Hal Ashby or a new (at least to us) Kurosawa was thrilling.

No point in going on, but that was the moment when we (enthusiasts of a similar bent) felt a special connection to movies. We read Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. We populated art houses and theaters that had yet to become multiplexes. For a fleeting moment, we felt as if the movies belonged to us. They were ours.

None of us ever talked about box-office results.

No need to recount the story of how massive box-office juggernauts changed the movies. That’s an old story. I’ve been transported by some comic-book movies and by some of the very movies that have been blamed for the demise of movie art. I still enjoy watching Jaws, one of the oft-cited culprits in the story of how movie art was quashed by blockbuster onslaughts.

I've learned how to appreciate certain Marvel movies while detesting the depth of minutia that consumes many of those who grew up reading Marvel comics the way we grew up reading Catcher in the Rye or Mad Magazine or any of the other age-specific pleasures that flavored our youth. I've enjoyed some of the Star Wars movies but have no tolerance for those who insist on Star Wars purity.

I’m not saying that there are no good or even great movies. I seldom have difficulty assembling a 10-best list at the end of the year. Often I can’t make room for all the year’s worthy releases, but I also know that movies have lost their cultural primacy — to television, to video games, to other diversions — and that this trend will continue.

I'm sure you've read stories about how the studios are trying to adjust to the closure of theaters during the period of sheltering at home. The window between theatrical release and home viewing has been diminished and in some cases, abandoned entirely.

Theaters I believe, will come back to life, but the problems facing theater chains started long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus and will continue after the virus retreats.

Could some of what I’m saying be part of the inevitable sorrow that comes with lost youth? Probably. But as I sit in isolation, I’m also thinking about the ways in which movies flood the market, allowing little time for the culture to absorb them. Here today; on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon tomorrow. It's difficult to create a culture out of movable parts. Movies are absorbed into the culture in waves of market penetration. They touch the lives of different groups at different times.

These are not novel thoughts, but they’ve come into sharper focus with the disruption of routine that the coronavirus has brought.

I’m wondering how a country that has reveled in bloodshed on-screen and fine-tuned the aesthetics of violence is going to react when body counts (possibility in the millions) aren’t attached to movies such as the John Wick killing machines or remote battle zones that barely the make the news anymore.

When it’s all said and done, most will go one. But for some, the credits won’t roll and the lights won’t come up.

I’m thinking that those close to them won’t be consoled by a rise in the Dow Jones Average or by news proclaiming that GDP has gone through the roof and they certainly won’t be cheered by the fact that some new movie has broken every box-office record.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 1. No. 4

I've been wondering where the time has gone during this period of social distancing. So, I decided to keep track of what I'm doing as I spend even more time than usual at home. Here's a typical morning with logs for the rest of the day to follow. Maybe. But I'm not sure I can break the spell of indolence that seems to have taken over during this time when I really have time. Strange. In the time I've spent watching TV news, I probably could have re-read War and Peace.

8:00 AM Get out of bed.
8:01 Enjoy the fog of awakening, the time before I remember that there's a COVID-19 epidemic.
8:02 Remember epidemic: Resume depression.
8:03 None of your business.
8:30 I know, many unaccounted for minutes, but as I said, those were none of your business. Eat breakfast.
8:40 Experience sudden anxiety re: possible food shortages: Will Rice Krispies eventually give way to rice? We're good on rice.
9:00 Read the papers.
9:10 Wash hands. Take temperature.
9:15 Wonder if reading the papers might be contributing to malaise. Stupid question.
9:20:Realize I'm starting to skim long NY Times articles on the virus to keep from being overwhelmed.
9:30 Wonder what's wrong with people who aren't on the verge of being overwhelmed.
9:35 Read alarming headline to my wife about virus forecast. She begs me to stop, says I'm driving myself and her crazy. I remind her that, for me, it's a short ride. She reminds me that there are knives in the kitchen and she's not afraid to use them.
9:45 Put jeans over pajama bottoms. Put on a coat. Walk dog. Wave at neighbors from a respectful distance of at least six feet. Hope I don't run into anyone who's tested positive for COVID-19. Oh, wait. It's unlikely. There don't seem to be enough tests. Why worry?
10:30 Get on-line. Read emails, many from organizations telling me how concerned they are about my welfare during this terrible pandemic. Does anyone feel reassured that their bank has adopted rigorous new cleaning methods? What the hell were they doing before?
10:45 Take temperature.
10:50 Congratulate myself for not yet having turned on the TV, which is a bit like the consolation heavy drinkers take in not having had an alcoholic beverage before 5 p.m.
11:00 Wonder why everyone feels compelled to tell me what they're watching during the pandemic. Want to know what I'm watching? My temperature.
11:15 Have brief conversation with a dog about whether the term "existential crisis" rapidly is losing all meaning. Dog gives me a quizzical look. I take that as a sign of agreement.
11:30 Think about people who are feeling isolated as news of the virus worsens. I dial my own number.
11:45 Chastise myself for being forgetful and touching my face.
12:00 Realize it's noon and I still haven't decided whether the "postponement" (yeah, right, "postponement") of the Cannes Film Festival will destroy the year in art cinema. Oh well, nothing I can about that. Wash hands. Take temperature. Debate what time, in these days of too much time, is the correct time to get out of pajamas. Certainly, before dinner, I think. Heaven forbid we abandon all decorum.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Maine town that's far from idyllic

A fishing town provides the setting for a nice helping of New England noir in Blow the Man Down.

No, the above photo does not show two people getting rid of infectious material gathered from a coronavirus hot spot.

It’s a photo from Blow the Man Down, a little helping of noir that will be available on Amazon starting Friday, March 20, and which could provide welcome diversion in these days of maniacal, single-minded focus on ... well ... you don't need me to tell you what has all our attention.

Set in Maine, Blow the Man Down marks the debut of directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage who join the ranks of those who have attempted to expose the myths about the idyllic nature of small-town life, in this case, a fishing village where something fishy (actually many things fishy) seem to be happening.

The directors use a small chorus of singing fisherman to punctuate a story that begins at a funeral. Two sisters Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor are bidding farewell to their mother. Lowe’s Priscilla has been devoted to helping her mom and dutifully wants to take over her mother’s fish market.

Saylor’s Mary Beth, the younger of the two siblings, simply wants to get out of town.

Irate when she learns that their mother left a pile of debt, Mary Beth storms off for a spitefully drunken evening. At a local bar, she meets a guy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who soon will wind up dead, a condition we're led to believe he richly deserves.

No fair revealing more because Krudy and Savage, who also wrote the screenplay, fill the story with surprising (if not entirely shocking) twists as they bring a variety of townsfolk into focus.

Margo Martindale portrays the sly and powerful Enid Nora Devlin, the woman who runs the town’s bead and breakfast, which happens to be a brothel. Gayle Rankin appears as one of the young women who works for Enid. Will Brittain has a nice turn as the local cop who’s trying to get to the bottom of the story's foul proceedings.

June Squibb, Annette O’Toole and Marceline Hugot play three women who know everyone’s history and who form a kind of court in this Irish-American community. These actresses instantly convince us that their characters have known each other forever and understand the social calculus that keeps the town afloat.

The performances are all spot-on, and Krudy and Savage add enough New England atmospherics to create the right amount of chill. Oddball noir easily can get off track. To its credit, Blow the Man Down never derails.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 1 No 3 -- Guns, toilet paper and dystopian fears

So I read this sentence in The Los Angeles Times:

"Gun sales are surging in many U.S. states, especially in those hit hardest by the coronavirus — California, New York, and Washington. But there’s also been an uptick in less-affected areas, with some first-time gun buyers fearing an unraveling of the social order and some gun owners worried that the government might use its emergency powers to restrict gun purchases."

Now, I don't want to get into arguments about the Second Amendment and there are (or should be) more pressing issues right now than gun ownership. I know many responsible gun owners. I'm not anti-gun but I am anti-crazy.

When I read the LA Times article, I wondered how bad things could get. Should we anticipate roving bands of armed desperados hijacking people on their way home from their already fraught shopping expeditions.

I hope never to read this headline: "Man shot in toilet paper hijacking."

OK, so some folks think shortages caused by pandemic panic buying will bring out the worst in people. I hope they're wrong, and I've seen evidence to the contrary.

One of my neighbors left notes for folks in the neighborhood saying he'd be happy to help bring supplies to the elderly. No one asked him. No one pressed him into duty. He took the initiative on his own, and I'm sure his offer reassured those who are worried that they might not be able to leave home to obtain food or prescriptions.

I hope that that's a more typical story than any involving those who anticipate wholesale corruption of the moral order.

Still, movies should have prepared me for the worst. When's the last time you saw a dystopian movie about how well everyone behaved during a devastating shortage of water, food or other essentials?

The apocalypse according to Mr. Rogers? Don't hold your breath.

Maybe this is a time to hope that staying at least six feet away from others will worsen the aim of any potential deviants or, better yet, to prove that we're better than some of our movies.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 1. No. 2 — Polis orders movie theater closures

As the uncertain march to an equally uncertain future continues, a few notes: Kudos to the Sie Film Center for closing until April 3 in response to the COVID-19 threat. Shutting a theater isn’t easy. It impacts audiences, release schedules and, of course, revenues. Revenues are particularly important to a non-profit film center. Closing couldn’t have been an easy decision for the staff and for the executives of the Denver Film Society. I know many of these people; they’re committed to advancing and protecting film culture. I know it hurts them not to be able to bring new movies to their audience. But public health is important and I hope that the commercial theater chains, which also would have to pay a heavy price to do the right thing, will follow suit. But, in this case, there seems to be a right thing to do.
Later in the day, after I posted my initial item, Gov. Jared Polis ordered that all theaters in Colorado (movies and otherwise) be closed for 30 days. As much as I believe that this is a good policy decision and will help in efforts to flatten the coronavirus curve, I'm still trying to digest the strangeness of the moment. Most of us never have lived through a time when we couldn't go to a movie, eat at a restaurant or gather at a bar for a drink after work. No more hanging out at restaurants and bars for a while, either. One consolation: The popcorn is a hell of a lot cheaper if you make it at home before looking for something to watch on your favorite streaming service.
I never thought I'd see the day. Universal Pictures Monday announced that it would release its movies on demand on the same day as those films are released theatrically. For more information, you can check out this story on Variety's Web site. Evidently, Universal hasn't decided how long this policy will be in force.
In the more-depressing-news department, you may want to try the New York Times story, Movie Crowds Stay Away. Theaters Hope It's Not for Good.
With theaters closed in New York City and Los Angeles, you have to wonder when we'll see the next major release. Those two cities constitute a big part of the moviegoing market. I can't imagine that the studios will want to give them up. Many studios would rather postpone than narrow the narrow or eliminate the window between theatrical and home release. Obviously, theater chains feel the same way.
Coronavirus news moves too fast for any of us to keep pace, but so far, I haven't seen anything that I'd call good news.
I wish that weren't the case because all of us could use a lift.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 1, No. 1

As the coronavirus winds up to deliver its haymaker blow, I’m probably going to limit the number of crowded preview screenings I attend.

Some of those advance screenings already have been postponed, others may proceed as scheduled, but I’ve decided that it might be advisable for me not to put myself in a position in which I might contract a potentially fatal disease to write about, say, the latest Vin Diesel movie, Mr. Diesel not being an actor whose earlier cultural contributions are deeply pressed into my book of movie memories.

Yeah, it’s a long sentence but what else do you have to do in these days of social distancing and dread.

Look, I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Diesel. I think you get the point; there’s a limit to what should be risked to see a movie — any movie, really.

Now, I should point out that I’m in what’s being referred to as “the high-risk group.” I’ll be turning 77 soon. Shocked? How do you think I feel about becoming part of the population that the media refers to as “elderly?” Seems like only yesterday I was applying for Medicare.

This designation applies even though I don’t live in a nursing home or an assisted living facility and, in times that are less contagious, do not restrict myself from ordinary activities such as driving and gingerly turning pages in whatever book I happen to be reading. Mostly, I walk without falling over.

My customary regimen, by the way, does not include rigorous exercise, foods labeled “organic,” gluten-free products or total avoidance of processed sugar.

I don’t know where or when a random encounter might occur, but if you happen to see me on the street, please wave from a respectful distance of six feet. It may annoy others but any conversation we have will have to be carried out at high volumes, but such is the nature of the moment in which we live.

Besides, there’s a bright side. Think of the water we’ll conserve. How bad do you have to smell before someone can pick up your scent at six feet? Why shower every morning?

As we work our way through this crisis, I’ll do some movie reviewing. I’ll expand my reach occasionally to write about television and I’ll continue to issue reports from the depressed zone, by which I mean my psyche.

What? You’re not depressed about all this?

This is weekend one of stimulation deprivation. How do you think you’ll feel when, after two months, you've been unable to watch an NBA or NHL game or drink overpriced coffee at whatever outlet you frequent or watch a baseball game or sit comfortably in a sold-out theater or jog headlong into some leisurely walker in your favorite park?

When will you start yearning for the days when you could wait on a line at a grocery store without wondering about the person in front and behind you? When will you stop kicking yourself for not being prescient enough to invest in companies that make hand sanitizer?

For those of us in the “elderly” population, an extra degree of fear has arisen, the grim specter of becoming the victim of a Sophie’s Choice moment.

I’ve read news stories about how doctors in Italy are being forced to make life and death decisions about who gets treatment and who doesn't and that such a situation could arise on our increasingly walled-off shores.

I imagine myself lying on a pallet (are those someone else's bloodstains?) in some vast field house that has been dedicated to housing the gravely ill. I’ve been deposited there by burly volunteers in hazmat suits.

A 34-year-old doctor, still in the middle of his medical residency, approaches. He quickly surveys what remains of my gasping body before scanning the person next to me.

“Background,” he says dryly, as one of the men in a hazmat suit shuffles papers.

"Well, this gentleman on the right (that’s the other guy) is a 46-year-old who works for a high-tech company, belongs to a volunteer fire department, regularly donates blood, and, by the way, is the father of 13-year-old high-achieving twins, one of whom just won a national science contest."

“And this one?” he asks, barely looking up from his phone.

“He spent most of his adult life writing about movies at a newspaper that no longer exists and now writes on-line. If he drinks, he’s partial to vodka, Polish preferably. He’s part of the cohort we call the elderly or, as we in the triage trade like to say, the "expendables."

He points at me and intones, “Non respirator.”

He uses Latin to send me to my doom because it fits his status as a newly empowered master of life and death, this aforementioned 34-year-old who’s still doing his residency.

So what’s the decisive factor here? Overall health prior to contracting the virus? An assessment of social utility? Friends in high places? Or is it age?

If it’s age, two of our presidential candidates and the current president seriously should start thinking about what happens if someone rules that they should shuffle off their mortal coils. So should Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman, names I only include because I usually write about movies.

Sorry, Mery Streep, you're a septuagenarian, too.

OK, so you’re not in your 70s. Your immune system runs like that Tesla you're thinking about buying. You go to the gym. You’re so damn healthy you don't even get a flu shot. But, listen, you’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that the age scale will become lower and lower as the demand for treatment exceeds the resources necessary to deliver it.

The virus could get you, too, my young friends.

So, yes, be depressed. Be forlorn. Be as bored as you want about not be able to leave the house.

Where to turn? If you’re looking for something that captures the current mood, you might want to watch that half mordant, half sincere moment in David Lynch’s Eraserhead when the Lady in the Radiator sings, “In heaven everything is fine.”

Too weird?

Well, tell these are not weird times.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The liberals in 'The Hunt' are lethal

After a delay, this violent bit of pseudo-satire arrives in theaters.

The Hunt originally was scheduled to be released last September but was delayed after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. Violent and armed-to-the-teeth, Hunt has arrived and it’s safe to say that the movie doesn’t live up to its volatile hype.

The Hunt has one of those “what-if” premises. What if a group of liberal elites decided to join forces to hunt down and kill selected members of the various groups it finds “deplorable:" i.e, all those who fall short of the rigid political correctness standards supposedly espoused by liberals or who support an unnamed president who all elitists disdain?

As you might already have guessed, the movie matches its violence with cliches about both those it deems as champagne-sipping liberals and those it deems as backward bigots. Although presented for laughs, the stereotypes are drawn in too broad a fashion to have any real bite.

The Hunt also employs a blood-splattering level of violence, the sort of mayhem you expect from movies in which the carnage occupies the uneasy terrain between humor and repulsion.

The Hunt provides actress Betty Gilpin with a showcase opportunity and she makes the most of the it. Gilpin plays a badass woman who’s captured and hunted by the elites along with 11 others. It's all part of a lethal game. Kidnap the so-called "deplorables." Arm them for the sake of feigned fairness and then hunt them down like dogs.

Unlike her fellow sufferers, Gilpin has near superpowers when it comes to survival. The movie never shows Gilpin’s character spewing racist comments but relies on her southern accent to suggest that she might hold all the "lower-class" prejudices the movie seems to expect her to have.

Oddly, the movie turns Gilpin's Crystal into the only character for whom it's possible to root, which forces the screenplay to engage in some end-of-picture wriggling.

Director Craig Zobel (Compliance) keeps the movie zipping along, but the mixture of violence and humor and humorously depicted violence struck me as skin deep.

When Gilpin’s character squares off against the mysterious woman who runs the hunt (the actress who plays her probably is intended a surprise), the movie pretty much loses all traces of satire in favor of a no-holds-barred knife-wielding battle.

In the end, The Hunt expends most of its creative energy cooking up violent encounters; the rest, not nearly isn't as well thought out. Had The Hunt realized Gilpin’s full potential it might have jettisoned its superficial culture-wars BS and given us a female action hero worthy of a franchise.

An unlikely pair of business partners

First Cow takes some patience but its rewards are worth it.

Cookie and King Lu are as unlikely a pair of felons as you'll find in movies.

Frontiersmen in the Oregon Territory during the 19th Century, Cookie and King Lu team up to bake biscuits which they sell to locals. Their business runs smoothly and the biscuits — Cookie’s recipe — are great. There’s a catch, though. To make the biscuits, Cookie and King Lu rely on the milk they steal nightly from the area’s only cow.

Working in a style defined by a leisurely, restrained naturalism, director Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy) establishes an environment in which bathing is infrequent and life can be brutal. I don't mean to deter anyone from seeing Reichardt's First Cow, but she creates a mud-caked world in which you practically can smell the characters.

When we meet Cookie, he's working as a cook for a group of trappers who berate him for not finding anything more than mushrooms to eat. On one of his food searches, Cookie encounters King Lu, who's hiding naked in the woods. Cookie helps King Lu, who says he's fleeing a vengeful group of Russians. King Lu later returns the favor, inviting Cookie to share his ramshackle cabin.

By the time, Cookie and King Lu start sharing digs, Reichardt has deposited them at Fort Tillicum, a settlement populated by Native Americans and grizzled-looking white men. The local boss (Toby Jones) owns the cow that tempts Cookie and King Lu into their life of crime.

Reichardt doesn't see this odd-ball duo as criminals and neither will audiences. Cookie and King Lu are budding entrepreneurs. Lacking capital, they must be extra-enterprising about how to begin collecting their share of the great American profit stream.

The movie deals with prejudice and class differences without italicizing a point of view. As a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee) isn’t exactly greeted with open arms. He dreams of owning a farm. Cookie (John Magaro) has his own cockeyed ambition: He’d like to own a hotel with an adjoining bakery.

In a land where fistfights are as common as handshakes, Cookie and King Lu form an alliance that blossoms into a genuine friendship. They make a good team. With Cookie handling the baking and King Lu, the marketing, a thriving business develops even as the threat of exposure looms. We already know from the movie’s opening — set in the present — that Cookie and King Lu are fated to run into some bad luck as the tale unfolds in one lengthy flashback.

The conversations between Cookie and King Lu aren’t exactly memorable, but they have their own amusing rhythm.

First Cow requires a taste for cinema that’s in no hurry. It’s as if Reichardt wants us to feel the earth under Cookie’s boots and to understand that these men inhabit a historical moment when the passing of time felt different than it does today.

Reichardt’s approach allows for brief detours, odd moments that help make the movie memorable. Through an open window, for example, a captivated Cookie sees a Native American doing what looks like a North Woods form of Tai Chi.

At other times, the movie discovers absurd contrasts, notably Jones’s character and one of his guests chatting about what’s happening in Paris. Their discussion includes references to the colors currently dominating the Parisian fashion scene.

For Cookie and King Lu, such talk has about as much significance as a weather forecast for Mars. They do, however, know enough to realize that in this harsh world, some are faring better than others. Cookie and King Lu take a bit of getting used to, but they make for a memorable duo.

A former convict poses as a priest

The Polish movie Corpus Christi deals with philosophical issues while telling a down-to-earth story.
What are the essential qualities of being the leader of a church -- not of a whole religion, but of a single parish in rural Poland? Is ordination essential? Could the empathy and common sense of the man who functions as the town's priest be equally important — even if the young man posing a priest sometimes learns about Catholic ritual from the internet?

In Poland, a nation that's predominantly Roman Catholic, a movie such as director Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi, which poses all of the above questions, might have a different resonance than it does in the US. It occurred to me that Komasa wants his audience to at least ponder whether the "official" church hasn't lost touch with something more essential than priestly bona rides.

The story revolves around Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia). When the movie begins Daniel is being released from a juvenile detention center where he recently watched another prisoner being severely beaten. He's told that, as a former convict, he has no chance of being accepted into a seminary.

A priest (Lukasz Simlat) tells Daniel before he's released that there are many ways to serve other than being a priest. Good deeds aren’t the sole province of those wearing clerical collars.

The first order of business for Daniel upon being released from jail hardly qualifies as spiritual. He gets high and indulges in carnal pleasures unavailable in prison.

He then travels to a small town where he's been instructed to work at a sawmill as part of his rehabilitation. It doesn't take long before Daniel, who believes he has a calling, begins posing as a priest. He takes over the small parish when its priest takes a leave of absence for health reasons.

As it turns out, the town is going through a period of collective grieving. Seven of its younger residents were killed in a recent car crash. The town hasn't come to grips with questions of loss, responsibility, and blame.

As the story progresses, Daniel develops a relationship with Marta (Eliza Rycembel). Komasa keeps us on edge about where this relationship might be heading. We're conflicted. We don't know whether to root for consummation or hope that Daniel keeps his vows. But wait. We must remind ourselves that Daniel hasn't taken any vows.

A provocative premise provides Komasa with a ton of underlying tension. We wonder if and when Daniel will be exposed and if he is exposed what will happen to him.

Komasa ably blends philosophical and practical concerns and obtains a powerful performance from Bielenia, whose closely cropped hair and intense gaze make him look like a penitent or perhaps a religious mystic. He's neither. Daniel doesn't pretend to be a priest to hide from the law or to pilfer money from the collection box. He genuinely wants to minister to his flock and he has his own ideas about how to serve.

As the story unfolded, I began to grapple with an insoluble contradiction. Can there be such a thing as an impostor who's genuinely authentic?

Never reductive or sentimental, Corpus Christi deals with complex issues in a down-to-earth way that can be humorous, intense, and, above all, deeply human.

The Peter Pan story re-imagined

Wendy feels tipsy and offkey right from the start

Director Benh Zeitlin follows his much-admired Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) with Wendy, a newly imagined version of the Peter Pan story that feels too disarrayed to captivate.

This time, I was put off by Zeitlin's approach. He pushes us into scenes with close-ups, eschewing anything as orienting as an establishing shot. And as the story -- stocked by a cast of children -- unfolded I couldn't help wonder for whom Zeitlin had made this woozy film. Wendy could be too confusing for kids and too literal for adults who may find the screenplay's on-the-nose dialogue and obvious didacticism more deflating than uplifting.

Wendy (Devin France) lives with her mom (Shay Walker) and her twin brothers (Gavin and Cage Naquin) in a small Louisiana town where mom runs a diner located next to the railroad tracks.

Yashua Mack portrays Zeitlin's waif-like Peter Pan.

But let's begin at the beginning. After a short introduction to the diner and Wendy's home life, she and her brothers hop a freight. On an earlier night, Wendy had spotted Peter running ghost-like across the top of a passing train, leaping from car-to-car. Wendy may only be 10, but she's already wondering whether small-town life might be uneventful and boring. Where's the adventure? She's heard Peter's call of the wild.

Fable trumps logic and Wendy and her brothers wind up on a volcanic island where Peter and his crew of Lost Boys are committed to remaining young forever.

A glowing sea creature that the youngsters call "Mother" lives off the island's coast and seems to be the source of the boys' eternal youth.

But wait. It turns out loss can begin the aging process. When one of the twins vanishes, his broken-hearted sibling begins to age. One of his hands takes on the withered look of old age. Duly alarmed, he invites Peter to stop the onslaught of deterioration by cutting off the offending appendage.

Adults inhabit the island, too. These withered folks look like aging hippies and evidently were unable to maintain their perpetual youth. Lest the proceedings endorse romanticized notions of the way wildness dies when children begin to grow up, Zeitlin makes sure that Wendy learns that growing up also qualifies as an adventure, too -- perhaps the greatest adventure of all.

Images float by like boats unmoored from a dock as Zeitlin makes references to some of the trademark characters (Captain Hook, for example) of J.M. Barrie's original. The kids make a lot of noise and so does the movie, which includes underwater sequences, steaming geysers, and a volcano that long-ago erupted and killed most of the island's residents.

Focusing the film on Wendy gives the tale a girl's spin. It's not enough, even with numerous sequences that exalt in the joy of childhood play. Opinions surely will vary, but I'd call Wendy a sophomore misfire and leave it at that.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 3/13/90 -- Swallow and St. Francis


If there’s a mental disorder to be found, the movies eventually will find it. Watching Swallow, a domestic nightmare of a movie, I learned about pica, the compulsion to swallow things that don’t belong in the human digestive system. As the story unfolds, an oppressed housewife (Haley Bennett) swallows objects as diverse as a marble, a double-A battery, a push pin, and a screwdriver. These objects pass through her system, often resulting in a bloody exit. As directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Swallow avoids disease of the week pieties; it's less a story about a woman with a mental disorder than a metaphoric look at a woman who’s being held prisoner by her marriage to a young businessman (Austin Stowell) whose life is run by his father and mother (David Rasche and Elisabeth Marvel). Sporting a Kewpie Doll hair cut and rosy cheeks, Bennett’s Hunter initially seems like a parody of a wife, a woman desperately trying to meet her husband's outmoded standards. Much of the movie takes place in the aggressively modern home Hunter shares with her affluent husband, the man who — at least in his view — rescued her from a retail job selling toiletries. The movie's pivotal event arrives when Hunter learns that she’s pregnant. If she has a child, her fate will be sealed. She’ll never escape her husband’s family’s clutches. Hunter’s in-laws try to obtain help for her disorder, but their objective has less to do with Hunter’s well-being than with maintaining the family’s pubic facade. Watching Hunter swallow the various objects that entice her proves difficult. Many will find themselves turning away from the screen. The screenplay puts a lot of weight (too much, perhaps) on a late-picture encounter between Hunter and a man (Denis O'Hare) who played an important role in the formation of her psyche. But Mirabella-Davis' ultra-composed images and Bennett's wide-eyed performance give Swallow an edge you won't soon forget.

Saint Frances

If you're squeamish about vaginal bleeding, you may not want to see Saint Frances, a movie about a nanny (Kelly O'Sullivan) who finds some confidence when she becomes involved with the two women who are parents to young Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), a charmingly assertive six-year-old girl. Then again, if you're a guy you might want to ask yourself why references to vaginal bleeding on screen should be any more unsettling than the copious amount of plasma spilled in the average action movie. As is the case with many current characters, O'Sullivan's 34-year-old Bridget is single and adrift. She meets a guy (Max Lipchitz) but doesn't want to formalize her relationship with him, even after she becomes pregnant. Frances parents,
a mixed-race lesbian couple played by Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), have problems of their own. Mojeku’s character works constantly and Alvarez’s character feels the strain of having a new baby in the home. Enter Bridget as the nanny who’s supposed to help relieve some of that stress so that Alvarez's character doesn't fall any deeper into postpartum depression. Bridget bonds with Frances and begins to feel a connection to her employers. Without over- or underplaying the moment, the movie takes a level-headed approach to Bridget's decision to have an abortion. Working from a screenplay by O'Sullivan, director Alex Thompson, ups the pressures on his characters until they reach a cathartic boiling point. I won't say that Saint Frances is a great movie but it succeeds in involving us with characters who are dealing with lots of problems — all at the same time. In the end, it’s probably best to view Saint Frances as a story about how women develop sustaining connections and what those connections can mean to each of them and to the group as a whole.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Can he coach his way to sobriety?

Ben Affleck plays an alcoholic basketball coach who takes over a failing team.
An abysmal high school basketball team finds its footing when the school's alcoholic former star takes over coaching duties. Ben Affleck portrays Jack Cunningham, a man who peaked as a basketball player at Bishop Hayes High School and whose refrigerator now is stocked with beer. Jack spends his days working construction and his evenings at the local bar. When he showers, he places a can of beer where others might put a bottle of shampoo.

Director Gavin O’Connor, who previously directed Affleck in The Accountant, quickly establishes Jack’s dissolute life. Bearded and grim of temperament, Jack can be loving with his nieces and nephews but he clearly rages inside -- when he's not reeling in a woozy alcohol-induced haze.

Working in mostly somber tones, Gavin draws on Affleck’s deeply realized performance to anchor a movie that tries, perhaps a little too hard, to avoid the obvious moves we expect from a story about an underdog team overcoming great odds.

Jack returns to basketball when a priest (John Aylward) asks him to take over the school’s coaching duties from a man who recently suffered a heart attack. The team’s assistant coach (Al Madrigal) teaches math. He's burdened by too family responsibilities to be the head coach.

An unruly bunch, the Bishop Hayes team must learn discipline. Melvin Gregg plays the team’s tallest member, a kid who displays more confidence than his talent has earned. Kenny (Will Ropp) spends too much time flirting with coeds. Brandon Wilson portrays the player with the most talent. Jack must convince the kid that he can lead the team to success.

But the players, many from tough backgrounds, play second fiddle to Jack’s alcoholism. O’Connor skimps on game footage, preferring to show the sidelines where a hot-tempered Jack spews profanity at the refs. We never really learn a lot about how Jack schools the team: O'Connor presents Jack's coaching in incendiary flashes.

We learn the reason for Jack’s bitterness when the movie expands to introduce us to Jack’s estranged wife and his immediate family, scenes that might easily have been sacrificed to give the kids on Jack's team more off-the-court presence.

The Way Back isn’t likely to join Hoosiers as one of the great high school basketball movies. The movie is too committed to the grim realities of Jack’s alcoholism to swell with feel-good notes.

But credit Affleck with making Jack’s torments feel real. Basketball rivalries aside, the inescapable battle here is between Jack and the bottle.

Two black men outsmart a racist system

Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson play men who learned how to play a rigged game and win -- at least for a while..

Toward the end of The Banker, Joe Morris — a streetwise nightclub owner played by Samuel L. Jackson — explains why he has joined forces with brainy Bernard Garrett, Jr. (Anthony Mackie) in a plan to circumvent race restrictions and get rich in real estate.

“The game is fun, even when it’s rigged,” says Joe.

When The Banker, which is based on a true story, sticks to Joe's idea, it’s both informative and entertaining. Both Jackson and Mackie are in fine form as very different men who become partners out of necessity. As a black man, Mackie’s Garrett can’t raise sufficient money to enter the real estate game in Los Angeles during the 1950s. Thwarted by the financial establishment, Garrett turns to Morris for financing.

Although he claims to trust no one, Morris becomes involved. He believes in Garrett’s confidence and in his demonstrated ability to master the mathematics required to succeed in real estate.

The movie acquires additional social meaning when Garrett devises a plan to break the color barrier. He’ll school a white laborer (Nicholas Hoult) in how to play the part of a wealthy entrepreneur. Hoult’s Matt Steiner becomes a student with two teachers. Garrett tries to bring him up to speed in math; Morris teaches him how to play golf so that he can associate with the country-club crowd.

Steiner will play a role similar to a ventriloquist's dummy while an unseen Garrett pulls the strings. Garrett and Morris will own everything; Steiner will be an employee.

As the story develops, Garrett also uses his success to engage his social conscience. He rents and sells homes to black buyers in formerly white neighborhoods. He knows that a burgeoning black market can make his plans work.

All goes well until Garrett decides to buy a bank in the highly segregated Texas town where he grew up. Again using Steiner as a front, Garrett purchases the Mainland Bank and begins loaning money to aspiring black businessmen — on the QT, of course. A wary Morris reluctantly goes along.

Every story needs an arc, so we’re pretty sure that Garrett and Morris will hit some major snags, most relating to Texas-style racism. The town's white population would be appalled if they learned that two black men owned the town's bank. How long can Garrett and Morris remain invisible?

Morris proves himself a master of wily pragmatism, posing as Steiner’s chauffeur so that he can keep on eye on his charge. At one point, Garrett’s devoted wife (Nia Long) poses as a cleaning woman so she can observe Steiner, who eventually begins to confuse his faux prowess with the real thing.

Without Garrett's genius, Steiner's bound to mess things up.

Strongest as a commentary on how entrenched racism kept blacks from accumulating wealth, The Banker, director George Nolfi eventually allows the story to bog down in the details of deals that led to Garrett and Morris's undermining. They eventually did jail time.

But Mackie and Jackson never are anything less than convincing as a savvy odd-couple that wouldn't take "no" for an answer. The key: If the front door is locked, look for another way in.

Of course, the overall point trumps the movie's slyer observations: The doors to success never should have been locked in the first place. Or as Joe might have put it: The game shouldn't have been rigged in ways that worked against the smart, well-prepared Garrett from achieving his goals.

A KKK zealot finds a measure of redemption

In Burden, a member of the Ku Klux Klan finds redemption when he encounters a black preacher for whom the Klansman poses an extreme test of love and forgiveness. That sounds interesting and, at times, Burden fulfills its promise. Overall, though, the movie — set in a small South Carolina town in 1996 and based on a true story — takes obvious aim at white supremacy and makes us wonder whether the redemption of a Klansman is worth more attention than the stories of those victimized by the organization's hate. Garrett Hedlund gives the year’s twitchiest performance as Mike Burden, a Klansman who earns his living repossessing TVs. Mike is part of a Klan faction that has decided that what his town needs is a KKK museum. A local black clergyman (Forest Whitaker) leads protests against the museum. The museum's founder, a Klan honcho played by Tom Wilkinson, raised the orphaned Mike on a diet of supremacist ideology and white rancor. Director Andrew Heckler doesn’t explain Mike’s distracting shuffle and bobblehead movements until late in the movie, too late to keep them from driving us crazy. Mike’s reformation begins when he meets Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a young mother who has no use for the Klan. Her son plays with black children, just as Mike did when he was a kid. Heckler’s unsteady direction works against involvement in a story that spends too much time in KlanWorld. Tensions between Whitaker’s Reverend David Kelly and his son deserved more attention and I left unconvinced by the movie's suggestion that love conquers hate. How about fair laws, rigorous enforcement, and public condemnation? Just sayin'. Though intermittently effective, Burden stands as an anecdote straining to carry a larger message.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 2/6/20 -- Extra Ordinary and Greed

Extra Ordinary
I can’t tell you how little I wanted to see another movie that deals with demons and ghosts — that is until I saw Extra Ordinary, an Irish movie with the good sense not to take itself (or its subject) seriously. Irish comedienne Maeve Higgins plays Rose Dooley, a woman who hides her paranormal gifts by working as a driving instructor. Rose comes by her powers naturally; her late father (Risteard Cooper) made his mark as a man who could commune with ghosts. Enter Martin (Barry Ward), a widower who can’t get rid of his late wife’s ghost. Martin’s daughter (Emma Coleman) gives her father an ultimatum: Either find an exorcist or she’s going to split. Rose initially resists Martin's request for help, but signs on after Coleman’s character falls prey to a once-popular musician (Will Forte) who’s trying to make a Faustian bargain to restore his popularity. The musician's foul plan involves the sacrifice of a virgin. In their debut outing, directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman give Extra Ordinary the right twisted spin. An adept cast makes the ridiculous amusing as Extra Ordinary takes supernatural flight. Alfred Hitchcock often found amusement in the way his characters were forced to deal with corpses. Ahern and Loughman do the same — only with the body of Martin’s levitated daughter. Enjoy.


Director Michael Winterbottom and actor Steve Coogan, collaborators on the Trip series of comic travelogues, again team for Greed, a satirical look at a wealthy man who uses the fashion business to finance a series of businesses that keep him in cash even when they fail. Sporting a set of gleaming predatory choppers, Coogan plays Sir Richard McCreadie, an entrepreneur who also happens to be an unredeemable jerk. Winterbottom sets the story against the backdrop of Mykonos, an island paradise where McCreadie is preparing for his massive 60th birthday party, complete with the creation of a mini-coliseum -- lion included. The guests will wear (what else?) togas. The story skips around in time to show us how McCreadie evolved from a conniving kid to a greedy adult. It’s impossible to watch Greed without thinking about movies such as The Big Short and Laundromat, both of which took better aim at corporate avarice and wealth disparity. A group of Syrian refugees camped on the beach in front of McCreadie’s island digs presumably is meant to expand the movie's social reach. No faulting the cast, but this is well-worn material, presented by Winterbottom with comic buoyancy that also feels familiar. Oddly, the end credits — which detail the vast gap between underpaid garment workers and the companies that profit from their labor — proves the affecting part of the movie.