Thursday, August 27, 2020

Dickens with buoyancy and bounce

     Be of good cheer. Director Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep, and The Death of Stalin) has taken a crack at Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. You say you've had your fill of Dickens. Not to worry. Iannucci and a first-rate cast very likely will change your mind.
     Lively and engaging, The Personal History of David Copperfield reflects Iannucci’s understanding that the enduring appeal of Dickens has as much to do with the humor that derives from sharply drawn characters as with the ripe melodrama that often punctuates his stories.
     Adopting an infectiously playful spirit, Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell insist that the Copperfield story can be fun, which may explain why Personal History  plays with the energy of a musical -- only without
anyone doing anything as silly as bursting into song.
     Perhaps inspired by Hamilton, Iannucci creates a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Copperfield. The casting works to give the story a universalist spin without becoming preachy or self-conscious. 
     Dickens, of course, was interested in the social issues of his time, many of which (class distinctions and maltreatment of the poor) show up in Copperfield and remain relevant in our moment of widespread distress.
     But Iannucci grabs hold of something to get us and his hero through his wrenching trials. David Copperfield remains a beacon of determination and, as played by Dev Patela hero who shows amusing flashes of self-awareness and pluck. 
     If the acting in Personal History were a meal, it would be a feast of tasty comic supporting performances.
     Peter Capaldi's    Mr. Micawber is a charming rogue of a fellow who shamelessly compiles debts. With a brood of a family to support, Micawber constantly courts the possibility of being thrown into debtor's prison. 
     Tilda Swinton, at her imperious best, plays Copperfield's aunt,  a woman who shares her estate with the addled Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), a man who has convinced himself that a beheaded king of yesteryear; i.e., Charles I, somehow has managed to transfer all of his thoughts into Mr. Dick's head. 
     A terrific Morfydd Clark tackles two roles. She appears as Copperfield's mother and later returns as Dora, the lovable but clueless beauty who captures Copperfield's heart.
     The movie begins with Copperfield on a stage, telling his story to an audience. In this theatrical setting, Iannucci launches Copperfield's journey down a road that leads to his exploitation, his strange schooling, and his associations with the always tipsy Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and his down-to-earth daughter (Rosalind Eleazar). 
     Darren Boyd portrays Murdstone, a villainous creep who -- at one point -- becomes Copperfield's stepfather and tormenter, banishing the boy to misery in a bottle factory.
     No Copperfield would be complete without a Uriah Heep and Ben Whishaw more than does him justice, creating a character of such transparent unctuousness that he practically oozes off the screen.
     At one hour and 59 minutes, Copperfield might be a trifle long but Iannucci moves briskly, often dispensing with such matters as exposition or transitions. 
     He creates the illusion of an episodic story told as if it is unfolding -- with embellishments, of course -- from Copperfield's memory: The result proves as generously entertaining as anything you might see in this strange and often dispiriting season.

'Get Duked!' mixes horror and satire

     In Get Duked!, three teen misfits and an otherwise friendless kid join forces for what's intended as a character-building task: They're left in the Scottish highlands with a map and told to find their way out. 
      Part comedy and part horror film, Get Duked! becomes an intermittently successful take on class divisions and the many genre movies in which teens face lethal threats. 
     Not surprisingly, the movie's hapless bros (Rian Gordon, Lewis Gribben, and Viraj Juneja) are unimpressed by the prospect of winning the Duke of Edinburgh Award for their efforts in the wild. 
      Earnest by nature, Ian (Samuel Bottomley) takes things more seriously; he's been sent on the trip by parents who hope to break through his introversion. 
     Perhaps the hallucinatory power of ingested rabbit droppings will help? (No, I didn't make that up.) 
     Jonathan Aris portrays the supervising adult, a man who quickly disappears, leaving the boys on their own. 
     Eddie Izzard plays the Duke, an aristocrat on the prowl.  The Duke and his wife (Georgie Glen) fashion themselves as champions of a twisted agenda: They hunt and kill boys as part of a "culling" exercise that's meant to keep what's left of society from going further to the dogs. 
    All of this takes place against a backdrop of ludicrous larceny: The local cops hunt for a bread thief who ... as the name connotes ... steals bread.
     Director Ninian Doff makes no attempt to disguise the shameless silliness of his movie, which falls short of scalding satire but offers a fair measure of chuckles.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/27/20 -- 'Unfit' and 'Robin's Wish'

The documentary Unfit makes the case that Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist and, therefore, unfit to be president of the United States. The film argues that any person with this particular mental disorder should not be making decisions that impact the entire world. At its best, the movie calls attention to the role of psychiatry in public discourse. It's generally held that psychiatrists shouldn't try to diagnose people they haven't interviewed. The idea evolved after Barry Goldwater was publicly diagnosed by a large group of psychiatrists as being unfit to be president. Goldwater sued and won. Then there's the Tarasoff Rule. It says that psychotherapists should report instances in which a patient threatens serious harm to another.  Psychologist John Gartner defends a public diagnosis of trump, who hasn't been shy about putting his psyche on display. More significantly, according to some, Trump's observable behavior makes for a more reliable diagnostic gauge than an interview. Director Dan Partland branches out to include interviews with George Conway and Anthony Scaramucci and more. Their contributions will be music to anti-Trump ears, but a bit off the subject of whether Trump suffers from a mental illness that makes him unable to perform his required duties. The film makes no attempt to hide its position. Trump should be sent packing. What? You expected a movie called Unfit to reach a different conclusion or to change the minds of Trump loyalists? 

Robin's Wish
It's difficult to believe that Robin Williams has been dead for six years. But it's easy to remember the shock one felt upon hearing that Williams had committed suicide. Robin's Wish relies on Williams' widow, Susan Schneider, to set the record straight about what happened to Williams, whose death was greeted with speculation about depression, Parkinson's, and who knows what. As it turns out, an autopsy revealed that Williams suffered from Diffuse Lewy Body Dementia, a disease that was robbing him of his sense of self. Interviews with friends and with physicians make it clear that no one -- including many experts -- correctly diagnosed Williams' condition. Director Taylor Norwood mixes medical information with a tribute to Williams' talent, which nearly everyone recognized as a form of genius. Robin's Wish isn't easy to watch because we learn that the disease is degenerative, incurable, and often ends in suicide. Norwood's documentary presents a sad portrait of what happens when someone lands in a state where they feel as if they're vanishing. It wasn't pretty for Williams or for anyone else. Beyond that, Robin's Wish leaves us with a wish of our own: If only Williams were still around.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The story of an amazing art fraud

Driven to Abstraction
It's doubtful that anyone will see Driven to Abstraction -- the story of an amazing, 15-year art fraud -- as a groundbreaking documentary. Heavily reliant on talking heads, director Daria  Price's movie nonetheless opens a fascinating window into the story in which the masterminds of the fraud found a Chinese immigrant who lived in Queens, NY, who was able to create fraudulent paintings that were sold by New York's oldest gallery for a total of $80 million. As it turned out, the painter of the fakes was almost irrelevant in a scheme that mostly benefited those involved in selling works that too few questioned when they were brought to market by The Knoedler Gallery. Art journalists, lawyers, and denizens of the art world tell us how this massive deception occurred and why it succeeded for so many years. Wisely, the movie leaves enough questions about the motivation of the major players to make the story tantalizing. We also learn what happened to those impacted, notably Ann Freedman, who ran the prestigious Knoedler Gallery until it closed in 2011, and Glafira Rosales, the woman who acted as an intermediary for a mystery owner, selling fake work to Knoedler as if it had been made by such renowned artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, and Lee Krasner. We're left to wonder whether Pei-Shen Qian, the Chinese student who made all the convincing fakes, understood the scope of a scheme that led to his return to China. The details of the case are too intricate to recount here, but Price lays them out in a clear, fascinating way. And beyond the story’s legal complexities, there's a telling tale of greed and gullibility in a world accustomed to operating without much public scrutiny.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Russell Crowe rages in 'Unhinged'

Russell Crowe always interests me, even when I’m unenthusiastic about the movies in which he appears. That’s certainly the case with Unhinged, which seems less a fully developed movie than a 90-minute expression of uncontainable rage.
     Having put on some pounds (who hasn’t?), Crowe portrays a nameless man who makes his first appearance on screen by smashing in the door of a Los Angeles home and beating at least one of the occupants to death with a hammer that looks as if came from lethal weapons aisle of the hardware store.
     Not content with such startling violence, 
The Man -- as he's referred to in the credits -- sets the whole place on fire.
    Aside from the fact that this is not a guy you’d want to invite over for drinks, you'll quickly understand that Unhinged plans to barrel through scenarios that build on quickly sketched urban aggravations: gridlocked traffic, single-mom frustrations (more on this as we go) and, the rage that ordinary people can develop when they find themselves behind the wheel of a car.
    Director Derek Borte arrives at the launching point of his drama when a young woman (Caren Pistorious) becomes irritated. Already late taking her son (Gabriel Bateman) to school, Pistorius's Rachel winds up at a red light behind the pick-up truck  The Man is driving.
    In movies, a big pick-up driven by a big, bearded man might as well have a personalized license plate that reads, "Ominous."
    When the pick-up doesn't move quickly enough to keep Rachel from fuming at having to sit through another red light, she leans on her horn instead of offering what The Man calls "a courtesy tap."
    The issue of “courtesy taps” sounds like something that might fuel an entire episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm but that doesn't mean a movie as single-minded as Unhinged brims with creative possibilities.
    As the movie proceeds, Borte creates wincingly effective car chases, putting the violent pedal to the brutal metal:  Crowe's character evidently likes to set things and people on fire and he believes it's his job to teach Rachel a lesson.
    Unlike Falling Down, a similar movie that starred Michael Douglas and which was directed by the late Joel Schumacher, Unhinged isn't about a character who seems to have been bred by the cumulative frustrations of a dysfunctional society.   
   He's not an everyman who has lost his moorings. He's a monster who's waiting to spill his anger on the first available target. I wondered, though, how Unhinged might have looked had Crowe's madman gotten into a road-rage conflict with man.   
     Too often we excuse Hollywood’s worst excesses by putting a B-movie stamp on a film. We argue that a movie such as Unhinged isn’t supposed to do much more than leaves us gasping at its sneering audacity. 
      Motivations, even suggestions that the demented firestorm at the center of Unhinged may be brooding over a divorce, are beside the point.
     But movies also connect to the moments in which they appear and a movie about rage might be the last thing we need at the moment, particularly one as streamlined and unremitting as Unhinged.

Bob's Cinema Diary 8/21/'20 -- 'Tesla' and 'African Violet'

     For most Americans, the name Tesla refers to an electric vehicle that was brought to the market by Elon Musk. It’s also true that Nikola Tesla was an inventor who did pioneering work in the field of electricity. In Tesla,  a distractingly artsy offering from director Michael Almereyda, Ethan Hawke plays the reticent genius who got crosswise with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Tesla's inventing life also intersected with both George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) provides narration for a film that includes bold theatrical strokes and touches on Tesla’s relationship with actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). Almereyda pushes the film's artifice to the forefront: Such cinematic sleight of hand can be entertaining but also can distance us from both the characters and the story. Hawke turns Tesla into an oddball genius while Almereyda adds anachronisms (Anne using a MacBook) and visual jests (Tesla and Edison shoving ice cream cones into each other’s faces). Not willing to settle for a standard biopic, Almereyda tries for ... well ... I'm not sure what he's trying for. The lighting is dim and so is the movie’s overall impact. Put another way, I'd rather have the car or maybe I'll take another look at The Current War (2017), a movie that deals with some of the same characters. Or maybe I'll just move on.

African Violet

        If you’re looking for a film that piles complication on complication, the Iranian import African Violet more than fills the bill. Director Mona Zandi Haghighi tells the story of a family in which conflict begins when Shokoo (Fatemeh Motamed-Aria) travels to a nursing home to retrieve her aging former husband (Reza Babak) and bring him to her home. The twist: Shokoo already has remarried and her current husband (Saeed Aghakhani) isn’t especially happy about having a house guest, particularly because he and Shokoo’s first husband once were best friends. Although African Violet flirts with both sitcom and soap opera, the movie manages to tell a convincing story that touches on issues of mortality, loyalty, obligation, and jealousy. To make a living, Shokoo dyes yarn, which allows Haghighi to add some color but African Violet hardly qualifies as a triumph of style. And because the movie takes place away from Tehran, it has a slightly remote feeling. No matter.  Haghighi's obvious respect and affection for her characters carry the day.  

Two teen movies: Coming of age again

A sometimes powerful 'Words on Bathroom Walls'
     If you’ve ever participated in or listened to conversations about movies, you’ve probably never heard anyone say, “Gee, I wish there more coming-of-age movies about teenagers.”
    Such movies haven't exactly been in short supply.
    Words on Bathroom Walls fits the standard profile but with a major exception. It’s about a teenager who suffers from schizophrenia. That means that Adam (Charlie Plummer), the movie’s main character, hallucinates, erupts in violent outbursts, and lives in a world in which he’s constantly accompanied by three imaginary companions.
     Director Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) does a good job depicting the fragmented world in which Adam spends his time. He shows us what's going on in Adam's mind, trying to make it as real for us as it is for him.
     Adam's trio of hallucinatory companions includes sweet young Rebecca (Anna Sophia Robb). A bro-type (Devon Bostick) represents Adam's party side. Adam's bat-wielding buddy (Lobo Sebastian) plays the role of enforcer.
      Freudenthal doesn't flinch from the issues that torment a young person whose dreams may be thwarted by mental illness. Adam aspires to be a chef.
    Tossed from a high school after a violent incident, Adam finds himself in a last-chance situation at a Catholic school where he meets a priest (Andy Garcia) who's religious but tolerant of Adam's lack of belief.
     Adam’s mom (Molly Parker) is hopeful but she's dealing with other major stresses. Adam deeply distrusts his divorced mom’s live-in lover (Walton Goggins ).
     The movie concentrates on the burgeoning relationship between Adam and a whip-smart student (Taylor Russell) who supplements her income by writing school essays for other students.
     Adam keeps his troubles secret as he vacillates between taking his meds (which have a debilitating side effect) and proceeding without chemical intervention.
     Plummer handles all of this without depriving the audience of the sympathy and engagement it needs to stick with Adam.
    The finale involving a prom and a graduation ceremony strains credibility and the screenplay, adapted by  Nick Neveda from a YA novel by Julia Walton,  isn’t difficult to outguess.
    At its best, though, Words on Bathroom Walls contains moments that are sensitively realized and deserves credit for refusing to suggest that every problem disappears at high school graduation.

Chemical Hearts, a tame teen offering
Chemical Hearts, another teen movie, will be available for streaming on Amazon.
     Directed by Richard TanneChemical Hearts focuses on Henry (Austin Abrams), a teenager who edits his high school newspaper and who fancies himself a writer.  A young woman (Lili Reinhart)  reluctantly functions as an assistant editor on the paper. 
    Entirely normal and decent, Henry struggles to break the walls of silence and reserve that surround Reinhart's Grace,  a teen who mangled her knee in an auto accident in which her football star boyfriend was killed.
    Guilt-ridden and wary, Grace gradually allows Henry to become part of her life.
    The title connotes the movie’s principal notion. Romantic love is a chemical reaction, Henry's older sister tells him. At its height, it feels great but when it's taken away from us, we're miserable.
    Tanne creates a high-school environment that allows for a bit of diversity and also includes some of the touchstones of teen life: a Halloween party, for example.
    The movie deserves credit for taking the hurts of adolescence super-seriously but,  at the same time, can seem too eager to turn adolescent angst into something more profound than it really is.
     Whatever the case, Chemical Hearts never breaks the medium-grade ranks of its well-populated genre.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Waves of confusion roil this 'Bay'

Director Paula Van Der Oest brings as much confusion as intrigue to a big-screen adaptation of a 1986 novel by Lisa St. Aubin De Teran. The story kicks off in Liguria, Italy, where Will (Claes Bang) proposes to Rosalind (Olga Kurylenko). After a romantic prologue, the story leaps ahead 11 months. Will and Rosalind have settled into their London home with a new baby and with Rosalind’s twin daughters from a previous marriage. Things should be going well, but Rosalind is slipping off the deep end, peeling wallpaper off the walls and vibing more and more craziness. Suddenly,  Rosalind and the nanny (Shalisha James-Davis) disappear, along with the children. Will tracks them down in Normandy — only to learn that the baby has died. From that point on, little about the way the characters behave makes sense. We also have a strong idea that Rosalind’s former stepfather (Brian Cox) might have something to do with what’s gone wrong. It’s obvious that a mysterious fellow (Assaad Bouab) who lives in Normandy will figure into the dimly lit proceedings. Alice Krige turns up as Rosalind’s mother, but despite a game cast, the movie induces more head-scratching than suspense or mystery.

'Sputnik': Aliens during Soviet days

     I know we're living in a time in which borders between genres are collapsing and critics often take a meta approach in which every movie becomes a commentary on every similar movie that preceded it. But as limited as that approach can be, it's necessary to begin by a review of the Russian movie Sputnik by citing a precedent.  Sputnik feels like an Eastern European cousin of Alien.
     Unlike Ridley Scott, director Egor Abramenko doesn’t make a secret out of revealing the movie’s alien creature; he also modifies his idea by leaving space and settling his film in the confines of a laboratory on Earth. 
    Fortunately, what’s most interesting about Sputnik has less to do with its sci-fi story than with the fact that it takes place in 1983 prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Lots of heavy Soviet oppression can be felt as Abramenko makes references to bureaucratic in-fighting and ruthless military intrigue.
    The story begins in earnest when a Soviet space capsule crashes to Earth with only one surviving crew member (Pyotr Fyodorov) aboard. It doesn’t take long for the Soviets to realize that the body of Fyodorov’s Konstantin has been taken over by a slimy alien that emerges at night, leaving the otherwise normal Konstantin unconscious and unable to remember anything about his space travels.
    Enter doctor Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina), a woman who's enlisted to help the Soviets separate the alien from its human host. 
    Not surprisingly, the story includes a not-so-hidden agenda: The officer  (Fyodor Bondarchuk in charge of the secret installation where the cosmonaut is being held in isolation wants to weaponize (what else?) the alien.
     Liberal amounts of gore and a horrific twist involving convicts make the movie creepy, although at times the plot verges on parody and the alien can seem slightly pathetic as it hoists itself on its forearms and drags across the polished floors the laboratory where it's being studied.
    And Akinshina gives the movie a center that, at times, is more intelligent than the script. Sputnik proves a curiosity in a time when our biggest fears have less to do with space than with very earth-bound viruses.
     It almost makes you nostalgic for the simpler terrors of yesteryear.

Political ambition on display in 'Boys State'

     In 1935, The American Legion founded Boys State as a program designed to teach high schoolers about the glories of democracy. 
     Since then many youthful strivers have turned up in the program — notably Cory Booker, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton. All three are mentioned in the prologue to Boys State, a documentary from directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine.
    The directors also could have included Lou Dobbs, Tom Cotton, and, less obviously, the late James Gandolfini
     As I remember from high school, Boys State was an activity that some young men thought might enhance their profiles on college applications. If the movie has it right, Boys State has become a hotbed of partisanship, ambition, and staunch calculation.
     Moss and McBaine focus their documentary on the 2017 Texas edition, which took place in Austin and which focuses on a variety of young men who are attempting to stand-out from 1,000 other attendees at an event that arbitrarily divides boys into two parties: Nationalists and Federalists.
     The boys must then develop party platforms and elect a variety of officials. The whole raucous business culminates in the election of the governor of Boys State, a position fraught with irony: After the conclusion of a week-long event, there's nothing to govern.
     You may find yourself watching Boys States through shifting veils of cynicism and hope -- with cynicism, I'm afraid, gaining the upper hand.  I say this despite the fact that one of the young candidates for governor  — Steven Garza — seems sincere, idealistic, and reasonable. 
     Before the ultimate gubernatorial showdown, we meet a variety of other boys who become key characters in the Boys State story. Rene Otero moved to Texas from Chicago. He wins election as party chair of the Nationalists, who soon spawn a move to impeach him. 
     Ben Feinstein, who lost both his legs to bacterial meningitis, becomes party chair of the Federalists. A pragmatist, Feinstein focuses on winning as a justification for the use of campaign tactics that some view as ethically challenged.
     We also meet Robert McDougall, a kid who aspires to attend West Point and who seems to have absorbed a lesson many politicians learn. Pro-choice by conviction, McDougall finds himself bobbing in a sea of pro-life zealots. 
     What to do? He changes the views he expresses in public.
      Garza winds up running against Eddy Proietti Conti, a young man who’s decidedly more mainstream in his outlook.  Garza isn’t helped by the fact that school shootings have made him an advocate for reasonable gun controls.
     Most of the young men we meet are obvious candidates for Second Amendment sainthood. Some even cheer for Texas's secession from the Union.
      It’s difficult to watch Boys State without being appalled by the ways in which some of these young men have normalized what’s worst about American politics.
      I also wondered whether what I was watching was typical of Boys State or only of its most ambitious attendees. And there are suggestions that some of the boys can be different when they're not being subjected to the pressures of the teen herd.
     The great hope, I think, is that most of those in attendance aren't as avid as those on whom the directors focus.
      At least, I hope they're not. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

'Tax Collector' fires familiar bullets

     Shia LaBeouf channels his inner psycho-killer in The Tax Collector, director David Ayer's immersive plunge into a part of the Los Angeles drug world populated by the city's Latinos. Playing a character known as the Creeper, LaBeouf puts on a scary face.  
     Creeper earns his living as the strong arm for the title character, a "tax collector" (Bobby Soto) who works for a  cartel. Soto’s David collects a share of all drug dealings in South Central. David lives by a code that's as unoriginal as the rest of the movie, something about love, family, loyalty, and honor. 
     You get the idea. It's possible to view The Tax Collector as a movie with a screenplay based almost entirely on tattoos.
      To create the movie’s gangsters-are-people-too ethos, David lives with his wife (Cinthya Carmona) and takes a strictly business approach to his work.  When he's not overseeing beatings or putting on his tough-guy pose, he lives like a normal person. 
     Things go smoothly for the movie's criminals until an aspiring new crime czar arrives in Los Angeles. Conejo (Jose Martin) wants to put David and Creeper under his thumb, which, of course, leads to major trouble, which means lots of bullets will fly and many bodies will hit the ground.
     Perhaps in a bow to equal opportunity, Ayers makes Conejo's major hit person a woman (Cheyenne Rae Hernandez).
     Ayer, who wrote the screenplay for Training Day and who directed Suicide Squad, knows his way around gangster jargon and his movie -- all gangsters all the time -- paints a portrait of South Central as a world unto itself. Too bad it feels more like a B-movie world than one  that might be found in real life.
     Among a group of guys who are up to no good, David stands out as a man who sometimes allows his decent impulses emerge. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that David is a little guy among some big-time bad guys. He works for his uncle Louis (George Lopez). A mostly unseen mobster named Wizard presides over all of his. 
     Despite some religious references, Tax Collector makes its bones with action, violence and attitude.  Strong on performance and atmosphere, The Tax Collector takes us down a familiar blood-soaked road.
    Drugs. Money. Night clubs. Shoot-outs. Tragedy. Gang rivalries. Just another day at the movies.

He drank, smoked and wrote

Given the sheer rottenness of the current moment, what could be better than a movie about Charles Bukowski, the author whose novels and poetry set new standards for the literature of the down-and-out? You Never Had It  — An Evening with Bukowski consists mostly of footage supplied by journalist Silvia Bizio who spent an evening in 1981 drinking wine and smoking cigarettes with Bukowski and his then-girlfriend Linda Lee Beighle. (They later married.) The movie consists mostly of videotapes that Bizio excavated from her garage a couple of decades after Bukowski died in 1994. No lost cinematic treasure, the film nonetheless offers exposure to the candid, growling Bukowski whose poetry includes volumes with titles that tip you off to the life a man who did his best to avoid anything that might be considered a literary life: Love Is a Dog From Hell being one of the better known. Bukowski expresses his unwavering commitment to reality as he saw it and a low tolerance for flourishes that  wavered from hard truths. Fitting, I suppose, for a former postal worker who preferred bar stools to salons and who tells us that the world is a hate-filled place. Listening to Bukowski talk about writing, sex and life make You Never Had It must-viewing for the ever-growing legion of Bukowski devotees. Best seen through blood-shot eyes.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/7/20 -- 'Made in Italy' and 'The Secret: Dare to Dream'

Made in Italy
        The last thing I want from a film is to have my heart warmed. 
     So, I was put off by the generic description I read of
Made in Italy, a movie starring Liam Neeson and his son, Micheal Richardson. But then I thought, "Hey, give it a chance. Neeson never has been an actor whose work is driven by sentiment.”
     In Made in Italy, Neeson delivers a respectable performance but even he can’t save the film from becoming a predictable exercise in "feel-goodism" -- supposedly tempered by the emotional undertow of a man who lost his wife in an automobile accident and a grown son who’s estranged from his father.
       Director James D’Arcy, who also wrote the screenplay, makes his feature debut with a story that’s smart enough to leave London, where Richardson's Jake runs an art gallery and where Neeson’s Robert has been stewing for a couple of decades. Destination: Tuscany. 
        As it turns out, Robert owns a run-down house in the Tuscan hills. Jack wants to sell the house so that he can buy the gallery he loves from his estranged wife. Her family wants to sell it out from under her soon-to-be ex-husband.
        Once in Italy, the movie turns into a variant of Under the Tuscan Sun, a story of a renovation that’s fated to bring about a father-and-son reconciliation and which proceeds with considerably less difficulty than Diane Lane faced in the 2003 version of Frances Mayes' bestselling book,  more engaging than either movie.
         While in Tuscany, Robert must rediscover the talent he’s abandoned, although the artwork shown in the movie suggests he might have done well to stay away from an easel. 
          You don’t need to have seen many movies to know that Jack eventually will fall under Tuscany’s charms.
          Valeria Biello appears so that she can put an exclamation point on Jack’s transformation. She portrays Natalia, a beautiful woman who runs the restaurant in the small town near Robert’s property. A local realtor (Lindsay Duncan) helps look for buyers.
          D’Arcy tries to put weight into the proceedings in a scene in which Robert and Jack finally have the confrontation we've know is coming all along.
          Tuscan scenery can cover many sins when it comes to movies, but Made in Italy didn’t warm my heart. A couple of times, it made it sink, though.

The Secret: Dare to Dream
When it comes to movies that want to make you feel better about the world, The Secret: Dare to Dream makes Made in Italy look like something Eugene O’Neill might have written.
          Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas star in a movie based on a self-help book, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Holmes plays a single mom who’s struggling to make ends meet. Lucas shows up as the kind of super dude who in most movies would turn out to be a serial killer.
          But in The Secret, Lucas’ Bray really is a nice guy and Holmes’ Miranda is more than ready to break down her emotional resistance after being widowed. 
        Predictable and seldom credible, you’d expect to be able to watch a movie such as The Secret without working up too much animosity, but director Andy Tenant (Sweet Home Alabama) lets the movie dribble on for a patience-taxing 107 minutes, sticking so close to the surface you wonder whether someone should have suggested looking up the word “subtext.”
      The inevitable romance between Bray and Miranda is punctuated by Bray’s tendency to offer bromides that amount to various restatements of one idea: even terrible things are fraught with opportunity. He talks about the law of attraction, meaning that we attract the world we live in with our thoughts: Think positive and the outcome will be positive.
    Set around New Orleans, The Secret centers on Bray’s attempts to help Katie recover when a storm sends a tree through the roof of her home. 
     Miranda has three children (Sarah Hoffmeister, Aidan Pierce Brennan, and Chloe Lee) and a mother-in-law (Celia Weston) with whom she seems to get along.
     Aside from the fact that the tree that falls into the house looks real, nothing about The Secret can overcome the fact that the movie aims to spark a romance that’s as tepid as nearly everything else that precedes it.


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Beyonce rules in 'Black is King'

     On Monday, Aug. 3, The New York Times devoted a page and a half to a six-critic discussion to Black is King, now showing on Disney+. That's a ton of space, considering that Black is King is a themed series of videos featuring songs from Beyonce’s album, The Lion King: The  Gift.
     Too much? Maybe but Beyonce is … well … Beyonce. 
     She doesn’t think small. Her fans expect to be wowed, and Black is King doesn't let them down.
     I’m probably not the best person to review Black is King. I haven’t seen all of Beyonce’s previous videos and I’m far from an expert on her music. 
     But Beyonce, who directed Black is King with help from a variety of directors, creates a spectacle-filled work that exists in a realm hovering between music video, performance art, dance, and costume extravaganza. 
     It’s also stuffed with themes. Among them: Black nobility and regard for ancestors, long gone kings who have become the stars that punctuate the African night sky. Then there's the oppositional pull of good and evil — not to mention the celebratory exuberance of the dancers who appear throughout.  
     Having said all that I’m sure I missed much. 
     A 90-minute sprint, Black is King doesn’t dwell on anything as Beyonce includes the work of artists from Nigeria and Ghana, among other countries.
     Beyonce creates an Africa of life rituals, dance, and affirming mythology that swings wide enough to incorporate the story of Moses in the bullrushes and a Busby Berkeley style pool number. She ties the whole visual extravaganza to the story frame of The Lion King.
      But Beyonce’s Afro-centric approach seems to have more in common with Black Panther than with Lion King which featured Beyonce as the voice of Nala in last year’s live-action remake. Both are pop-cultural odes to ideas about the underlying depths of Black culture.
      I'm sure Beyonce fans will find nuances and references that eluded me, particularly as the movie fires image after amazing image. 
     Blink and you’ll miss appearances by Pharrell Williams, Naomi Campbell, and Lupita Nyong'oYou’ll have an easier time spotting Jay-Z who makes an extended appearance during the lavishly overstated opulence of Mood for Eva. 
      It's possible, I think, to view Black is King as an affirming fantasy of inner nobility or you simply can marvel at the parade of costumes and images, many of which reflect unabashed wit.
      But Whatever Black is King says to you, once you begin watching, it's not easy to look away.