Tuesday, June 30, 2020

'Hamilton' for the multitudes. No waiting.

Reviewing Hamilton at this stage of the game  —  nearly five years after the show premiered on Broadway — is a bit like debating the virtues of the candidates in the presidential election of 1904. The verdict already has been reached. Theodore Roosevelt clobbered his Democratic opponent, Alton B. Parker. What you don't remember Alton B.?

Unlike poor Parker, Hamilton has not wanted for media attention. It has been reviewed with its original cast, with performers who have taken over for the originators and with companies that have staged touring productions. Now, Disney has made a filmed version of the original cast available for streaming. 

As I said, the verdict on the show already has been reached: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop approach to American history brims with the exuberant energy of a story recast in a "revolutionary" way. Hamilton's mostly black and brown actors capture the cockiness, impudence, and energy of men seized by an intoxicating blend of ambition and vision; i.e., our so-called "Founding Fathers." 

The version that’s being brought to the screen by Disney offers immediate advantages. You don't need to take out a bank loan to see it. You needn't get up at the crack of dawn to score a ticket or enter a lottery in hopes of being lucky enough to gain access to Hamilton-world.

You also get to savor the work of the original cast as it brings rap rhythms to dialogue that's delivered with snapping, rapid-fire elan. A key theme appears in a recurring line. "I'm not throwing away my shot,"  Hamilton repeatedly insists. The line underscores Hamilton's piercing ambition, echoing almost from the moment Hamilton arrives in New York City from the Caribbean until he falls in a duel to Aaron Burr. 

The cast is fine: Leslie Odom Jr.’s Burr tries to elevate fence-straddling into a virtue.    Christopher Jackson’s George Washington projects the requisite authority, and a deviously entertaining Daveed Diggs makes Thomas Jefferson into a bit of a fop — if it’s possible to be foppish while rapping. 

The women, too, are well represented. Phillipa Soo portrays Hamilton’s wife, Eliza; Renee Elise Goldsberry commands the screen as Eliza's sister,  Maria Schuyler; and 
Jasmine Cephas Jones brings seductive allure to Maria Reynolds,  a married woman with whom Hamilton had an adulterous affair.

Don’t forget Jonathan Groff who turns King George III into some of the best comic relief ever to grace a musical stage, sometimes in close-ups that show the spittle that accompanies speech loud enough to resonate in the back rows of a theater.

And, of course, there’s Miranda’s audacious, energetic, and ever-striving Hamilton, who -- oddly, I think -- isn't always the most compelling presence on stage.

Directed by Thomas Kail, who also directed the Broadway production, Hamilton rightly can be seen as a gift to all of us for whom the Hamilton experience has been confined to reading the endless quantities of ink that have been spilled on the show’s behalf.

Now, having said all that, I need to tell you that Hamilton neither should be seen as a static filmed record of a play or a completely cinematic experience.

The decision to film before a live audience presented Kail and cinematographer Declan Quinn with serious challenges. Many cameras were used but keeping camera operators off the stage meant that Kail wasn’t always able to use the stage’s space in the most dyadic ways. 

On the other hand,  the presence of an audience helps overcome any distance viewers may feel as Hamilton unfolds. From the show's opening moments, audience excitement spills off the screen. The movie is two hours and 41 minutes long with a brief intermission. It should be watched straight through.

More apparent in the movie’s opening act, the film's limitations tend to fade as the stage becomes less crowded in the play’s post-revolutionary second half. In one of the show's best bits, Kail captures the biting energy of a rap duel between political foes Jefferson, champion of agrarian virtue, and Hamilton, lover of cities with their rude, bumptious energies.

Miranda was inspired to write Hamilton after reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton.  In Miranda's hands,  Hamilton provides an occasion to reflect on the importance of who’s telling a historical story and how a bold new choice in that area can expand and enrich the conversation. Moreover, the play contains enough references to the racial injustices of slavery to bring it into alignment with the current moment.

Still, I'd like to offer a small addendum. I hope that a gifted director someday totally reimagines  Hamilton for the screen, keeping Miranda’s book and music intact, of course. It might not work, but then again it might just be a glorious thing to behold.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

'Irresistible?' Try lukewarm satire instead

Just about everything that Jon Stewart wants to say in his new movie Irresistible shows up in the movie’s epilogue, which consists of real people talking about how big money has corrupted American democracy.

Prior to that, you’ll find a satire that dulls its edge with unexpected timidity and a big dose of conventional comedy.

Here's the story: Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a hotshot political operative whose attention perks up when an aide informs him that a rural town in Wisconsin can be flipped to the Democratic side of the ledger. Why? Because a straight-talking farmer and former Marine (Chris Cooper) addressed the town’s city council with a speech so sincere it might have made Gary Cooper blush. He's exactly the kind of person who might lure wary independents to the Dems.

The plan: Persuade Cooper’s character to run for mayor, upset the political balance, and prove that a Democrat can capture the hearts of middle-Americans.

Gary heads for the town of Deerlarken, Wisc., where he’s a fish-out-of-water, a sophisticate who finds himself at a remove from Washington’s “civilized” ways: high-speed internet connections, fancy restaurants, and room service.

Of course, things can’t go smoothly or there’s no movie. Enter Rose Byrne's Faith Brewster,  the GOP's answer to Gary. Savvy and ruthless, Faith represents powerful interests that don’t want to see the town turn Blue.

Carell and Byrne banter as they create some chemistry, the attraction of opposites who can’t resist trying to outdo each other when it comes to political maneuvering. The movie also hints at a possible relationship between Gary and Jack's grown daughter (Mackenzie Davis).

In one of the more predictable scenes, Gary takes Jack to New York City to meet a group of liberal elitists with whom he has nothing in common. He’s supposed to ask for money to finance a campaign they’ve been told might be the beginning of a national transformation. Of course, they can't get enough of Jack's homespun honesty.

All of this builds toward a twist that reveals Stewart’s real purpose, a kind of backhanded celebration of all-American wisdom that raises the question: If politics is a cynical game, why can’t more people play?

Look, I laughed some, I enjoyed watching the cast — particularly the comically gifted Byrne — and I never tuned the movie out. But in the end, I felt letdown.

In a moment of political volatility, I expected a comedy with a little more grit in its craw — not one that ends with a lecture, even one that's on-point about desperately need campaign-finance reform. Where’s the anger? Where’s the outrage? Where’s the feeling that things are so out-of-control that no fix may be possible? Where’s the recognition that even if we had campaign finance reform, there would still be voter suppression and a host of other seemingly intractable problems?

Enough. I don’t want to write a total slam, but it's difficult to see Irresistible as too much more than a movie of squandered promise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary 6/23/20: 'Babyteeth,' 'Wasp Network,' 'Daddy Issues'


Talk about a parental nightmare. Your 16-year-old daughter falls for a 23-year-old drug user without a home. He's tattooed, sports a mullet, and doesn't seem to give a damn about anything. His name is Moses. That's the set-up for director Shannon Murphy's Babyteeth. But wait. There's more. Milla (Eliza Scanlen), the teenager in question, is no ordinary kid. She's got terminal cancer. So Milla's parents (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn) face a problem. How do you say "no" to a kid who can't ruin her future because she doesn't have one?  Another teenage weepy about a kid with a terminal disease? Not exactly. Working from a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, Murphy adds whimsical stylistic flourishes and enough emotional realism to upset expectations. A pianist who abandoned her musical career, Mom is about to drown in deep emotional waters. A psychiatrist by trade, Dad is so overcome with trepidation about what looms that at one point he gives himself a shot of morphine. Parental performances are strong but the movie belongs to Scanlen and Toby Wallace.  Wallace gives Moses lots of rough appeal. You never doubt that a good kid lurks beneath Moses' bad-kid surface. Babyteeth is the kind of movie you might approach with dread, but one that turns out to be more creative than you initially might have imagined. None of the characters want to be boxed-in by cliche. If Scanlen's name rings a bell, it might be because she played Beth in Little Women, one of last year's best-received movies.

Wasp Network
If you're looking for a good movie by director Olivier Assayas, you might want to try 2005's Summer Hours. I wish the same could be said for Assay's latest, Wasp Network, now showing on Netflix. Having already teamed with Assayas in 2010's Carlos, Edgar Ramirez plays a Cuban who in the 1990s leaves his wife (Penelope Cruz) and daughter to defect to the US. As we later learn, Ramirez's Rene Gonzalez is part of a Castro-conceived program to infiltrate Miami Cuban circles that carry out oppositional activities against the regime. A muddled narrative brings the so-called Wasp Network program to light, introducing two additional characters. Gael Garcia Bernal portrays team leader Gerardo Hernandez and Wagner Moura portrays a slick operative who takes a Cuban-American wife (Ana de Armas). Assayas seems to be aiming for epic scope, but can't put the pieces of the movie together in a way that staves off confusion. Although she doesn't get as much screen time as the men, Cruz makes a strong impression as a woman wounded by her husband's defection and betrayed by the revolution she avidly supports. The same goes for de Armas, another woman whose life becomes collateral damage as the plot unfolds. The performances are all strong, some of its scenes connect and the movie looks great, but Wasp Network registers as a misfire from a fine director and an extremely good cast.

Daddy Issues
Henrietta (Kimberley Datnow) moves from London to Los Angeles when she's summoned to join the board of her late father's firm. It seems that Henrietta -- who aspires to be a stand-up comic -- once lived with her dad and attended school in LA. That’s convenient because Henrietta has friends from back in the day, which means the movie has a supporting cast. Alice (Alice Carroll Johnson), one of Henrietta’s old pals, tries to convince a small group of reunited friends that she's a successful talent agent. In reality, she's a gay woman trying to make ends meet by providing non-sexual companionship for a benevolent Sugar Daddy who misses his late wife and only seems to want someone with whom he can watch TV. When Henrietta moves into her father's LA house, she learns that Nolan (Tanner Rittenhouse) also lives there. He works for dad's company and developed a relationship in which Dad became a kind of mentor. Henrietta's attempt to reunite with an old boyfriend goes nowhere. Director Laura Holliday never convinced me to care about any of this or to believe that Henrietta had real comedy chops. That would have been fine had Daddy Issues been a movie about the difference between wanting to do stand-up and actually pulling it off. Somewhere, there’s a movie here, but no one seems to have found it.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The woman Johnny Cash left behind

      My Darling Vivian tells the heartbreaking story of Johnny Cash's first wife, Vivian Liberto. You won't see much of Cash in director Matt Riddlehoover's documentary because the movie focuses the woman left behind as Cash's career began to soar.
      Riddlehoover weaves a sometimes mournful tale of celebrity, love, and neglect, making apt use of family photos, letters Cash wrote to Vivian in the early days of their relationship, and interviews with the couple's four daughters: Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, and Tara Cash.
       The movie also serves as an antidote to the popular 2005 film Walk the Line, which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. In that movie, Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin) played the role of ball-and-chain to the artistically adventurous Cash. June Carter (Witherspoon), Cash's second wife, helped pull the singer from a drug-ridden swamp of self-destruction.
       My Darling Vivian doesn't flatter Carter, showing her in a TV interview claiming credit for raising her  kids and Cash's four daughters, who -- in reality -- always lived with their mother.
       In many ways, My Darling Vivian adds another chapter to a long series of movies that chronicle the unraveling of isolated housewives. With Cash touring and indulging the perks of celebrity, Vivian was left to hold down the fort at a home Cash built north of Los Angeles.
       Cash moved the family to California to try his hand at movies but didn't get much further than a role in the audaciously titled and deservedly obscure Door-to-door Maniac. 
       Riddlehoover fleshes out the story with a reference to one of the stranger moments in a story that began when Cash met Vivian at a Roller Rink in San Antonio. The movie recalls a 1965 incident in which a white supremacist newspaper in Alabama speculated that Vivian might be black. (She was a dark-complected woman of Sicilian descent).
       Cash became a hate group target and Vivian received death threats, not exactly a development conducive to marital bliss. Vivian, by the way, eventually remarried but her daughters think she never fell out of love with Cash.
        Sustained love or not, what began as romance produced its share of collateral damage. But when you listen to some of the letters that Cash wrote to Vivian before they were married and while he was stationed in Germany during his time in the Air Force,  his ardor seems genuine and deep.
        Of course, young love -- like some wines -- doesn't always mature well, which -- come to think of it -- might be the basis for a song. Too bad Cash isn't around to sing it.
         On the other hand, maybe he did sing that song. Check out Cash's rendition of  Hurt, a tune written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, or just consider this lyric from the song:
         "And you could have it all
         My empire of dirt
         I will let  you down
         I will make you hurt."
Cash died in 2003. Vivian died two years later.


A journalist documents the crimes of Stalin

     In Mr. Jones, Polish director Agnieszka Holland turns her attention to a little known story about a Welsh journalist who worked to expose Joseph Stalin’s murderous crimes in Ukraine. 
      James Norton portrays Jones, a dedicated reporter who early on is dismissed from his job as secretary to prime minister Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), a man who tried to ignore Jones’s admonitions about the growing threat of Nazism. 
     After losing his job with George, Jones began working independently, turning his attention to the Soviet Union. He wanted to interview Stalin, an ambition that exceeded the reality of the young journalist's connections. 
     Upon arriving in Moscow, Jones sought help from New York Times journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter who showed no interest in exposing the truth about Stalin’s treatment of farmers in Ukraine. As depicted here, an imperious Durante seems too immersed in his dissolute life to challenge the official line.
        It's worth remembering that in the pre-war days in which the story unfolds, some western enthusiasts on the left were lauding the Soviet experiment as an estimable march toward progress. 
           Vanessa Kirby impresses as a writer who tries to warn Jones that he's treading on dangerous ground by insisting on traveling to Ukraine.
       Mired in a variety of intrigues and storylines, the movie often feels scattershot, further muddled by scenes involving George Orwell (Joseph Mawle),  who's working on the novella, Animal Farm.  
     Other plot threads flutter in the winds of a movie that doesn’t become memorable until Jones reaches Ukraine. There he discovers the horrific famine that Stalin inflicted on the populace as punishment for their resistance to collectivization.
     Stalin stole and sold their wheat to finance a five-year plan meant to catapult the Soviet Union into modernity.  Images of terrible suffering, brutal cold, and even famine-induced cannibalism are so hauntingly vivid they tend to put the rest of the movie to shame.

A night flight that doesn't go far enough

In these days of diminished air travel and airport avoidance, the movie 7500 seems a bit of an anomaly. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a pilot who must fend off Islamic terrorists during a routine flight from Berlin to Paris, the movie provides director Patrick Vollrath with an opportunity to make an efficient, if limited, thriller set almost entirely in the cockpit of a passenger jet. Credit Vollrath for nicely establishing the routine followed by pilots before blowing the story open. It's not enough. Despite a tightly controlled performance by Gordon-Levitt and Volllrath's ability to work within the confines of the plane's cockpit, this night flight of a movie lands in an unsatisfying middle ground between a no-nonsense thriller and a movie that's trying for more. Attempts are made to flesh out a minimal screenplay: Gordon-Levitt's German-Turkish girlfriend (Aylin Tezel) happens to be a stewardess working on the same flight and a frightened 18-year-old terrorist (Omid Memar) receives screen time in the movie's latter going. But to really take flight, 7500 needed more on its mind than generating high-altitude tension, most of it revolving around the question of whether Gordon-Levitt's character will accede to terrorist demands to unlock the cockpit door.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A summer dominated by homers

The Long Gone Summer
, an ESPN documentary from AJ Schnack, returns us to the summer of 1998, a season made vivid by the home-run battle that took place between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Not only did Sosa and McGwire square off against each other but they represented two warring franchises: the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, to be honest, I don't care about either of those clubs. My baseball rooting interests lie in New York (having grown up in the New York metropolitan area) and now in Denver, where I live. The great home run battle of '98, of course, was marred by later revelations and accusations involving steroid use. In 2010, McGwire confessed to using steroids, although he says (and I tend to believe him) that he could have challenged and broken Roger Maris's long-standing 61-run record without any help. Schnack's documentary acknowledges performance-enhancing drugs before it's done, but keeps the focus on the pressurized drama that defined the summer. Both McGwire and Sosa are interviewed along with such baseball luminaries as Tony La Russa, who managed the Cardinals that summer. If there's an argument to be had with the film it involves Schnack's decision to recreate the exuberance that arose that summer rather than spending more time dealing with the tarnish of the steroid era. Sportscaster Bob Costas refers to McGwire's record as "inauthentic," but this might be a case in which hindsight and more commentary would have been welcome. Still, with baseball unavailable at the moment, The Long Gone Summer serves as an emphatic reminder of what happens when something about a game captivates the nation. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Spike Lee sends four vets back to Vietnam

Da 5 Bloods doesn't entirely gel but it makes its message clear.

Spike Lee, like his movies, operates on many levels. He’s a social commentator, a director and a storyteller. He's one of the few filmmakers who can be credited for creating a one-person genre. When you hear the words “a Spike Lee Joint,” you know that you’re probably entering terrain that’s part drama, part provocation, part corrective of the US historical record and part entertainment.

These ingredients can become seamless when Lee is at his best and can sometimes trip over one another when he’s not hitting his stride.

But it’s important to remember that Lee has created an aesthetic approach that practically constitutes a brand. He can poke an angry finger in your chest or flood a moment with tenderness.

So now comes Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a movie about Vietnam, black contributions to the US military, black bitterness about the lack of recognition for those contributions and, if that weren't enough, a story about a search for buried treasure — in this case, gold bullion — that sometimes intentionally evokes memories of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Using news footage to set the tone, Lee opens with a montage that surveys the boiling racial landscape that defined America during the war. Among the clips: protests, Muhammad Ali’s resistance, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at Manhattan's Riverside Church in which he turned his full attention to the war.

All of this is framed by a story with a rather straightforward plot. Four former infantrymen reunite in Ho Chi Minh city. Initially, their reunion is full of bonhomie and joy. Gradually, it becomes clear that the men, known as “The Bloods,” have more in mind than renewing old friendships.

They want to retrieve gold they buried during a harrowing mission and they want to recover the body of a fallen brother known as Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The movie paints Norman as a kind of warrior saint who held the soldiers in his squad together and tired to direct them toward higher purposes, perhaps using the gold to help black folks at home.

Of the four Bloods, as the soldiers referred to themselves, two stand out: Clarke Peters’ Otis, a down-to-earth steadying influence who learns that he has a greater connection to Vietnam than the others. A wartime relationship resulted in a daughter, now grown, who Otis meets for the first time.

Delroy Lindo gives the movie’s most vivid, conflict-riddled performance. An anti-immigration guy who wears a MAGA hat, Lindo's Paul easily taps into his anger. He's joined by his son David (Jonathan Majors), a young man who followed his dad to Vietnam because he knows that his father occupies a PTSD-world of trouble.

Norm Lewis’ Eddie and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin fill out the foursome of veterans.

Working with three additional writers, Lee isn’t entirely successful at fusing all the issues that crop up and some of the dialogue carries the burden of exposition or of establishing -- or at least making reference to -- political dynamics embedded in the way the US fought the Vietnam War.

Flashback scenes to the war feature Boseman, who's powerful even in a small role. The other soldiers aren’t played by younger actors in these flashbacks but by the older cast. Lee does his best to keep the camera away from their faces, but the juxtaposition of a young Boseman and the older guys can be distracting.

The story also brings in a trio of NGO do-gooders (Melanie Theirry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen) who have taken up residence in Vietnam to defuse bombs and dig up landmines. Jean Reno turns up as a shady figure who’s supposed to help the men smuggle the gold out of the country.

As the men move deeper into the Vietnamese jungle, they begin to squabble about the size of their respective shares. Mistrust develops and before all is done, Lee gives Lindo a wild soliloquy in the jungle as he battles with thick growth, his own demons, a venomous snake, and the historical weight of 400 yeas of American racism. In a way, this single speech does more to embody the damage these men have suffered than anything else in the film. Amazingly, Lindo pulls it off.

Will the men escape with the gold? Will they be double-crossed? Will others try to kill them?

I’ll answer only one of these questions. Others will try to kill them, resulting in gunfights and explosions of violence that reprise the war-time violence the men once experienced.

Those who expect every Lee film to speak its mind won’t be disappointed and those who are put off by the same trait will find much with which to quibble. Lee even manages to work Black Lives Matter into the film’s closing moments, giving the movie an even more topical boost — as if it needed one in this moment of intensely focused discussions of race.

No matter what the subject, Lee’s voice will be heard — and that may be why Da 5 Bloods is least interesting when it’s telling its story and most compelling when Lee does what he does best — shake things up.

Hey wait, maybe it wasn't such a bad movie

When director Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls hit the screen in 1995, I was among the many critics who did their best to push it toward what seemed well-deserved obscurity. Now comes You Don't Nomi, a documentary aimed at telling the movie's detractors that we missed the point and to alert those who might not take the movie seriously to take another look. Verhoeven, a semi-serious director of such Dutch movies as Soldier of Orange and Spetters, made his bones on the festival circuit. Later, Verhoeven gave us such Hollywood movies as RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers. Because Verhoeven has a gift for violent, sexually-oriented cinema, you wonder what brought him to Showgirls, a movie about a young woman trying to make waves in Las Vegas. In the movie, a relatively unknown actress was supposed to catapult to stardom. Elizabeth Berkley portrayed Nomi Malone, the movie's main character. Even at the time of its release, some critics considered the movie a hoot, a kind of garish cult addition to the ranks boldly stated, luridly colored satire. Director Jeffrey McHale draws heavily on critic Adam Nayman to explain why Showgirls deserves another look. Other voices chime in, mostly in agreement that Verhoeven knew precisely what he was doing. Put another way,  Showgirls shouldn't be taken as an example of a talented director who simply missed the boat.  Look, I'm not going to belabor this review in the way that the movie belabors its message. But I'm not buying the idea that yesterday's crap deserves elevation as a misunderstood gem.  McHale's documentary didn't change my mind about Showgirls and I probably should point out that I've mostly admired Verhoeven's movies. OK, maybe I'll someday get around to another viewing of Showgirls but seeing clips from the movie didn't make me eager for a return visit.

A comic-of-age story set in Staten Island

Pete Davidson plays a guy who can't seem to get his life started -- and likes it that way.
Exactly what makes Pete Davidson worth watching isn't easy to pin down. For one thing, he's an SNL guy who now finds himself at the center of a movie with The King of Staten Island, a coming of age story set in (where else?) Staten Island. But so what? Davidson joins a long parade of SNL people who have made big leaps to the big screen —- or, in this case, to the big stream. In case you've forgotten, the coronavirus has closed down the nation's theaters.

Davidson is one of those rare people who seem to be able to stand in front of a camera and be himself — or at least some version of himself: a sometimes savvy, sometimes jerky New York kid who says what he thinks, reeks with attitude and (here’s the part that matters) isn't quite as together as he sometimes pretends to be.

At his best, Davidson projects a ragged authenticity and it’s that sense of authenticity that allows The King of Staten Island to get by, even when the movie begins to lose itself in its final going.

King of Staten Island teams Davidson with director Judd Apatow, who has helped the young comic shape a variety of scenes that slide toward something resembling a coming-of-age movie. And that’s the worst part about this semi-autobiographical effort, it pushes into the kind redemptive territory that has marked other Apatow work (both as a director and producer) and sometimes looks like an apology for any raunch that has proceeded the wrapup.

As its title makes clear, Davidson's movie tries to be inseparable from its much-abused setting, Staten Island being the one place low enough that New Jersey can look down on it, as Davidson's character says.

Like many characters in coming-of-age films, Davidson's Scott is stuck. He’s directionless, living with his mom (Marisa Tomei) and watching his younger sister (Maude Apatow) prepare to depart for college and a life beyond the narrow confines of Staten Island.

Scott insists that his life is fine, except, of course, it isn't.

Scott’s father, a NY City fireman, was killed fighting a fire. (Davidson’s fireman father was killed on 9/ll). Scott never really has gotten over his father's death. Loss and the bitterness it breeds underlies everything in a screenplay that Davidson wrote with Apatow and David Sirus.

Fear of loss might be why Scott doesn’t take his girlfriend (Bel Powley) seriously. They sleep together, but he’s unwilling to define their relationship.

Scott also has a crew, young men who, like Scott, spend their time hanging out, exchanging insults, and, at one point, getting involved in a burglary at a pharmacy.

Despite what looks like an apparently underdeveloped drawing style, Scott aspires to become a tattoo artist. Having tattooed all his friends, Scott has run out of skin on which to practice. At one point, he persuades a nine-year-old kid to sit for a tattoo, an incident that brings the kid's furious father (Bill Burr) to Scott's doorstep.

As it turns out Burr's Ray is a fireman, a job that triggers Scott's anger. He thinks people who risk their lives at work shouldn't have families. After a testy confrontation with Scott’s mother, Ray decides that it’s time for him to put his divorce behind him and start dating. Scott’s mom hasn’t dated since her husband died. It's a match made in screenwriter's heaven.

Like a train that’s headed in one direction, the script then pulls into a roundhouse and changes course in a way that you can see coming and which (if you’re me) makes the heart sink a little.

Although he’s initially threatened by the relationship between Ray and his mother, circumstances force Scott to start spending time at the firehouse where Ray works. The banter and camaraderie of the firehouse replace the banter and camaraderie of Scott’s peer group, pushing him into a world of new - albeit still undefined -- opportunity.

I didn’t really want to join Scott's dive into the pool of self-improvement, and the movie isn’t substantial enough to fill its two hour and 17-minute length, but Davidson's take on his Staten Island experiences is well-grounded enough to push the movie into the plus category.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Willem Dafoe portrays a film director

Director Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso frustrates as often as it illuminates.

With Tommaso, director Abel Ferrara has made a film that I've seen described as semi-autobiographical. I don't know how close to the reality of his life Ferrara has gotten. Judging by the ways in which its main character puts himself in the middle of an unraveling patchwork of a life, I hope not too close.

An independent-minded director, Ferrara has been charting his own course since the early 1970s. During his prolific career, Ferrara, who'll be 69 next month, has divided audiences and critics with movies such as The King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1994).

In Tommaso , Ferrara strikes notes that rely almost entirely on his main actor, Willem Dafoe, who has worked with the director on several other movies. Here, Dafoe plays Tommaso, a director who has been living in Rome for several years with a much younger Eastern European wife (Cristina Chiriac) and the couple's three-year-old daughter.

Tommaso is trying hard to put a turbulent past behind him; he has renounced the drugs and alcohol that wrecked his stateside life and he seems intent on constructing some kind of family life in Rome, perhaps as a form of contrition for too much previous bad behavior.

Dafoe moves Tommaso through a variety of scenes that suggest the cobbled-together life of an ex-patriot. He runs an acting school where the focus seems to be on uninhibited movement. He takes care of his daughter and cooks meals when his wife won't. He also attends meetings with fellow addicts and tries to overcome the increasing disdain of a wife who seems eager to spend as little time with him as possible.

When he's stressed, Tommaso meditates or practices yoga. Occasionally, he can be seen working on a screenplay. He's taken up Buddhism.

Dafoe rarely disappoints. He gives Ferrara everything he can, never shying away from the fact that Tommaso can be a real pain in the butt.

It's unlikely anyone will confuse Tommaso with an exercise in rigorously disciplined filmmaking, and there are images (Tommaso meeting a naked woman at a coffee shop) that aren't easily explained. Scenes set in Tommaso's 12-step group feel repetitive and Ferrara can't resist adding an explosive bit of violence toward the end.

No faulting Dafoe, who's game for anything, even allowing Ferrara to refer to the actor's appearance in The Passion of the Christ. You’ll have to get to the film's end to find out how this happens.

Many flaws can be tolerated when a filmmaker works close to the bone, but for me, the movie’s indulgences, its insularity, its fantasies and confessions left little room for any characters other than Tommaso, which, in turn, made me wonder whether Ferrara hadn’t made a film that’s talking mostly to itself.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A trip inside Shirley Jackson’s world

Clearly the work of talented filmmakers, Shirley nonetheless is not fully satisfying.
Shirley Jackson, who authored such classic horror stories as The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, becomes the subject of Shirley, a movie that's less a play-by-play biography than an attempt to represent the horrifyingly claustrophobic environment in which Jackson lived. It's not a pleasant place.

Directed by Josephine Decker and starring Elisabeth Moss as Jackson, Shirley takes place at Bennington, a Vermont college where Jackson battles with herself and her husband (the always terrific Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor who teaches myth and folklore with a very strong minor in philandering.

Into an atmosphere redolent with Scotch, venom, and caustically expressed intelligence, walk two apparently naive acolytes: Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young). They're invited to stay with Jackson and her husband Stanley, an offer Fred sees as an opportunity to advance his fledgling academic career.

I have no idea how Moss approached the role, but she creates a woman for whom cigarettes and Scotch are as essential as the carapace of nastiness in which she encases herself. Amid the uproar and toxicity, Jackson struggles to finish the novella on which she's working, a story inspired by a young woman's mysterious disappearance.

Rest assured, if Jackson suffers, others also will be tormented.

Overflowing with faux generosity and intellectual verve, Stuhlbarg's Stanley pushes his wife to finish her book. As much a showman as an academic, Stanley proves as slyly manipulative as his talented spouse.

As the story unfolds, Sarah Gubbins' screenplay, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, evokes memories of Edward Albee's George and Martha with a dowdy-looking Moss devouring every ounce of Jackson's vitriol much like she attacks a bowl full of mashed potatoes at dinner.

Too good an actress to deliver a one-note performance, Moss also suggests the deeper terror, if only vaguely defined, with which Jackson grapples.

Decker sets the movie almost entirely in the house shared by Jackson and her husband; the cast has no trouble filling it, although the same can’t always be said of Decker.

Tamar-kali's pulsing, ominous score suggests a little more than the movie delivers and at times, Jackson seems less a writer than a mental case, perhaps pushing the movie into the kind of suspect terrain in which madness and hostility are seen as a birthright of the talented.

Weirdness accumulates, sometimes pushing the movie toward indulgent excesses, even as Rose and Jackson begin to bond and their relationship leans toward the erotic.

Significantly, the movie is set at an all-women's college during the 1950s, a time when young, educated women often were expected to finish college and then disappear into suffocating marriages, a theme that's stated a bit too obviously toward the movie's end.

So, a slightly mixed reaction from me: A collection of sharply honed performances and of shifting moods and tones, Shirley stands as a clear work of artistic ambition, but one that doesn’t seem fully to have mixed the ingredients of its odd brew: a great writer's struggles, marital minefields, academic treachery, and the mysteries of womanhood.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 6/5/20 -- 'Dreamland' and 'Becky'

It's difficult to watch Dreamland, a wild movie from director Bruce McDonald, without acknowledging that McDonald has both visual chops and a finely tuned eye for absurdity. But McDonald's strange helping of film noir -- set mostly in Luxembourg -- never acquires enough coherence to take the spotlight off the movie's unashamed weirdness. In a dual role, Stephen McHattie plays a taciturn hitman who looks as if he's just awoken from a three-day bender. McHattie also plays a jazz trumpet player, who's addicted to heroin and who sounds a lot like Chet Baker when he finally gets around to playing. Although he has no trouble killing his targets, McHattie's hitman balks when he's roped into a scheme to sell underage girls to various lecherous customers. A gangster named Hercules (Henry Rollins) runs the sordid enterprise that our tarnished hero ultimately tries to topple. Meanwhile, a woman known only as the countess (Juliette Lewis at her most flamboyant) has arranged to buy one of Hercules's girls as a bride for a brother (Tomas Lemarquis), who happens to be a vampire. Calling your movie Dreamland only gets you so far off the hook when it comes to transcending the movie’s collection of bizarre arias and getting to something deeper. The sex trafficking at the film's core remains twisted and we're left to admire the various outre flourishes that emerge from McDonald's vivid imagination. These include a group of kiddie assassins, plenty of Eurotrash atmosphere, and a violent finale that looks as if it might have been inspired by a Hong Kong thriller made during the 1980s. McHattie has the kind of growling delivery that may remind you of the late Harry Dean Stanton; he's certainly game to lend his talents to whatever it is that McDonald is trying to accomplish. But McHattie, who also starred in McDonald's horror film, Pontypool, doesn't provide enough of a reason to dream along with McDonald in this intermittently amusing and self-consciously bizarre walk on the wild side.


The big attraction in Becky, a thriller built around a killer who invades the home of a widower who's introducing his embittered daughter to his new fiancee, involves casting. Kevin James -- yes, he of Mall Cop -- plays Dominick, a neo-Nazi prison escapee who has enlisted some of his prison cronies in a scheme to recover the ill-gotten fruits of some long-ago crime. James opts for understated sadism presented in the guise of a man who simply wants to recover his money and move on. Perhaps Dominick would have succeeded if it hadn't been for 14-year-old Becky (Lulu Wilson), a teenager who eventually matches wits and grit with him. Directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott devise many wincing ways for characters to be tormented as a predictable story unfolds. Early on, Becky threatens to deal with emotional difficulties faced by a teenager who lost her mother to cancer. Dad plans to remarry and Becky isn't happy when she meets her father's fiancee (Amanda Brugel), a woman who more or less becomes a bystander in the movie’s plot. Void of much by way of psychological subtext, Becky amounts to another big-screen gorefest, this one built around a teenager who musters up ridiculous amounts of kick-ass girl power.

Monday, June 1, 2020

A nicely-observed, small-scale drama

Miss Juneteenth knows the world in which its mother/daughter story unfolds.
In these amped-up times of intensity and outrage, Miss Juneteenth can seem like a balm. Rooted in a predominantly black town near Forth Worth, Texas, director Channing Godfrey Peoples's debut movie provides narrow-gauged pleasures while focusing on a mother-daughter relationship.

Nicole Beharie plays Turquoise Jones, a woman who once held the title of the town's Miss Juneteenth. Juneteenth, you'll recall, is the holiday that acknowledges Texas's belated recognition that slavery had been abolished in 1965. It took Texas an additional two years to get around to catching up with Lincoln's proclamation.

Beharie's character suffers from a familiar problem. Turquoise is one of those unfortunate people whose major life experience happened when she was a teenager. She won the town's Miss Juneteenth crown and the scholarship that went along with it. But life intervened and Turquoise failed to take full advantage of the opportunity. She now works in the town's bar-and-barbecue joint. She's also pushing her teenage daughter to enter the current Miss Juneteenth contest and having an on-and-off relationship with her former husband (Kendrick Sampson).

The key to film involves Turquoise's relationship with her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Kai has little interest in Miss Juneteenth and the culture that surrounds it. She prefers dancing to dramatic recitation and has no use for the primping that goes into a beauty pageant.

An obvious psychological dynamic presents itself: Turquoise wants her daughter to take advantage of the opportunity that she was unable to realize. But like most teenagers, Kai needs to stake out her own turf.

The men in Turquoise's life are her ex, a decent guy with a fondness for gambling, and Bacon (Akron Watson) the local funeral director who's carving out a secure economic future and who wants to share it with Turquoise, who's always facing economic pressures of one sort or another.

Turquoise, who tends to be an over-protective mother, also must deal with her church-going mother (Lori Hayes) who also happens to be an alcoholic.

Peoples' fondness for her characters becomes apparent as she allows the story to chart its generally predictable course.

That's not to say that the movie lacks substance: The movie's central mother/daughter relationship is well-drawn, as is Kai's relationship with her not entirely responsible father. And both Turquoise and Kai move toward hard-won moments of self-fulfillment with Beharie's performance as a woman who won't surrender all of her dreams leading the way.

Fair to call Miss Juneteenth a different kind of feel-good movie: one that knows the world it's depicting and the characters who live in it.