Wednesday, September 30, 2020

When absurdity becomes very serious


     The 1969 Trial of the Chicago 7 was an early piece of real-life political theater, a warped legal proceeding staged against a backdrop of roiling protest against the Vietnam War. 
      In The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer/director Aaron Sorkin mixes the account of an absurd courtroom drama with a slightly dimmed appreciation of the American spirit as embodied in the "radical" defendants and their rebellious lawyer.
     In addition to the seven white defendants, Bobby Seale, a member of the Black Panthers, was attached to the proceedings as a kind of sidecar on the countercultural rollercoaster. 
      And rollercoaster it was: Sorkin zips his way through scene-after-scene as he dramatizes portions of a trial that lasted five months. Flashbacks enable him to abandon the confines of the courtroom. The organizers seek permits for the demonstrations. The police fire tear gas. A female FBI agent tries to cozy up to Jerry Rubin.
     The period was chaotic and so, at times, is the movie, a series of sketches that bump up against one another, sometimes without great finesse. And for all its tumult, the movie offers little by way of game-changing overviews either of the period or of trial.
     Limitations aside, the greatest allure of Sorkin's entertaining effort involves the work of a strong cast, an ensemble of gifted actors who walk us down the movie's countercultural memory lane.
     Standouts include Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman and Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society. Hoffman and Hayden shared common goals but disagreed on how to attain their goals.
     Hoffman, who was very funny, relished theatrics; Hayden approached protest with high-stakes seriousness. Their disagreements and ultimate rapprochement underlies Sorkin's recreation of the trial. 
      The defendants weren't the only stars of the proceedings. A fine Mark Rylance portrays William Kunstler, the radical  attorney who defended the seven. 
     Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes a formidable Seal, the Black Panther who, along with the others, was charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot. But unlike his co-defendants, Seal wasn't involved in planning the event and had been in Chicago for only two days during the 1o68 convention.
    The so-called riot that's at the heart of the case took place in Chicago's Grant Park during the Democratic convention at which Hubert Humphrey was nominated to run against Richard Nixon. 
      In an introduction to the movie, Sorkin uses real footage in which the esteemed Walter Cronkite sets the stage: "The Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn't seem to be any other way to say it." 
     The defendants ran a gamut of personalities, but the size of the cast forces Sorkin into sketching rather than painting detailed portraits. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) serves as a conventional guy with deep political convictions and Jeremy Strong portrays Jerry Rubin, who plays a kind of goofy second fiddle to Hoffman.
     And, yes, Cohen gets pretty close to capturing Hoffman's Massachusetts accent and comedic instincts.
    Hoffman and Rubin were Yippies; i.e., members of the Youth International Party, a group that flew a sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll banner over its protests.
    Every trial needs a judge and this one had a particularly incapable one. Frank Langella's Julius Hoffman makes ridiculous decisions without ever really sensing the absurdity that threatens to overwhelm him.
    Perhaps Hoffman's greatest faux pas occurred when he had the disruptive Seal, who eventually asked to defend himself, bound and gagged in the courtroom. The judge made Seal an advertisement for the oppressive nature of the trial. Charges against Seal were dropped before the trial finished.
     Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the prosecutor, a decent enough fellow who, nonetheless, approaches his job seriously. John Mitchell (John Doman) -- Nixon's Attorney General -- personally assigned Gordon-Levitt's character to the trial for reasons that had more to do with what he thought the seven represented than with anything they did.
    Michael Keaton does effective cameo duty as Ramsey Clark, the attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, who became a witness for the defense in the trial.
    It may be difficult for those who weren't alive during the '60s to grasp just how incendiary the times were. The trial may have had a disembodied theatrical quality, but Americans and Vietnamese people were dying in a senseless war that awoke a generation of protest.
     When the chips are down, Sorkin turns earnest and I wondered how another director might have lit  the match that needed to be thrown onto this political gas can of a movie. 
     Still, the performances and byplay (a Sorkin specialty) give the movie plenty of burn. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A hit-and-miss portrait of Gloria Steinem

      Few would argue that Gloria Steinem -- one of the founders of Ms. magazine and a leading voice in the latter-day feminist movement -- helped transform American life. Fair to say, then, that Steinem deserves a biopic. 
    I'm not sure that The Glorias, which was directed by Julie Taymor, qualifies as that movie. The Glorias proves sweeping and general, often outlining the social and personal parameters that defined Steinem's life.
    Perhaps Taymor was trying for a biopic-plus, a movie about a woman and also about a movement from which her life proves inseparable. 
    But at two hours and 17 minutes, the resultant film often outsmarts itself by juggling time and by including embellishments such as scenes of Steinem in dialogue with herself: the older Steinem talking to the younger Steinem, for example.
     Four actresses play Steinem at different ages. Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays Gloria as a child. Lulu Wilson handles the teen-age years. Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore take over adulthood.
     The most developed relationship in the film involves Gloria and her father (Timothy Hutton). Hutton's Leo Steinem moved the family around as he drifted from one scheme to another. His instability and hucksterism may have helped drive Steinem's mother (Enid Graham) into extended bouts of depression and anxiety.
    At the same time, Steinem shows affection for her often-absentee father whose unbridled -- if unjustified -- optimism is not without charm. He's one of those men who insist on improvising their way through life.
     A post-college trip to India seems illustrative of what keeps The Glorias from soaring. Traveling alone in India, the adventurous Steinem mingles with the poor, honing her social conscience. 
      But the trip to India, like other of the movie's segments,  feels as if it were designed to display one of Steinem's many admirable traits, in this case, her concern for lower-caste women.
    Put another way, too much of what happens in The Glorias feels pre-programmed rather than discovered. We're making stops at key biographical points rather than leaping into an unfolding world of possibility.
    Maybe because the journalism in the late '50s and '60s was such a far cry from the journalism of the 21st century, I was most interested in Steinem's life as a young woman newly arrived in New York. 
     An aspiring writer and recent Smith graduate, Steinem -- played by Vikander at this point -- lands a series of jobs with various organizations, The New York Times among them. Editors persistently try to push her into the world of soft features. She wants her work to hit harder.
    One of her articles, a 1963 expose of what it's like to work as a bunny at a Playboy Club, attracts significant attention but threatens to typecast her. Her male editors want more of the same.
    By the time, Moore becomes Steinem in the movie's final going, The Glorias seems less a biopic than a look at a burgeoning movement with strong contributions from Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monae as Dorothy Pitman Luge, and Lorraine Toussaint as activist Flo Kennedy. 
    Taymor the keeps touching movement signposts,  perhaps because Steinem is wary about not turning herself into an icon. She wants the movement to get top billing.
    Steinem's transition from journalist to activist hardly coms as a surprise. Throughout Taymor's collage of a biography, Steinem remains a woman of courage and conviction.  She seems to have been born "woke." 
    Taymor has directed films (Titus, Frida, A Midsummer Night's Dream) and also is known for adventurous theater,  most prominently, The Lion King.  Here, she adds theatrical flourishes, self-conscious flights into surrealism that break the biopic mold but disrupt as much as they illuminate. 
     She also uses real news footage and shows the real Steinem at the 2017 Women's March in Washington, DC.  
    Steinem, who's now 86, has lived through many stages  of the women's movement. That means the movie serves as an important reminder of what life was like prior to the 1970s, prior to Roe v. Wade and prior to the arrival of women in important roles in business and public life.
    Many rightly will view The Glorias as call to take heed at a time when such gains are being threatened. Sexism and misogyny are still with us, of course, but that doesn't mean The Glorias couldn't have been better.
     The Glorias isn't a bad movie, but it teases us into wondering what might have been. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 9/25/20 -- "Kajillionaire" and "The Artist's Wife'


     Kajillionaire is like almost every other movie about con artists except for two things: the monetary stakes are pitifully low and the aspiring felons are strikingly weird. 
     How low? Well, these con artists steal from post-office boxes, dodge landlords, and try their best to avoid being caught on security cameras. If they had a motto, it might be, "The family that cons together has no choice but to stay together."
      And how weird are they?  The Dyne family consists of Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins), who are the parents of a daughter named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). Mom and dad basically exploit their daughter by having her carry out their larcenous schemes.
     Mom tends to be quiet but not entirely without menace. Dad makes claims at knowledgeability and the family's daughter is so obviously depressed and withdrawn that her long stringy hair looks as if it might be weeping. They’re all nervous wrecks.
     Now, I said the stakes were small -- but I was talking only about money. Emotionally, the stakes are plenty high, revolving around a daughter who never has gotten what she needs from her conniving parents.
     I don't know of actors other than Winger, Jenkins and Wood who could have pulled off director Miranda July's foray into the world of Los Angeles down-and-outers, people who live in an apartment adjoining a bubble factory.
     The movie takes a new direction when Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) shows up. Self-assured and as ethically dubious as the Dynes, Melanie is Old Dolio's polar opposite. (And, yes, the movie offers an explanation of how Old Dolio got her name. Let's just say the name alone speaks to unspeakably bad parenting.)
   Every movie about con artists needs a good final twist and Kajillionare has one, but July (Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future) infuses genuine pathos into the lives of characters who live in a world in which everything's slightly askew. 
     And weirdness aside, you may even find yourself feeling something for Old Dolio, a young woman who can’t con anyone out of what she really needs: Love and acceptance.

The Artist's Wife

     Lena Olin joins Bruce Dern in a story triggered by an aging artist's slide into dementia. 
      In part, The Artist's Wife paints a portrait of a cantankerous, egotistical painter who abuses his students and takes the long-standing devotions of his wife for granted. 
      An abstract painter of some repute, Dern's Richard Smythson lives comfortably in the Hamptons with Olin’s Claire. Richard may be long past the starving artist phase, but he's definitely losing his grip. 
     As the story unfolds, Claire increasingly takes over the movie’s center: Claire -- as Richard says -- creates everything about the couple's life, except the art. She’s the engine that keeps their lives running. 
      Claire, of course, paid a price for her marital choice: Living in Richard's shadow meant sacrificing her own career as painter. We're told she had promise.
     Fearing the moment when Richard entirely fades, Claire tries to reconcile Richard with his estranged adult daughter (Juliet Rylance) from an earlier marriage. Richard knows little about the life of his grown gay daughter who has a six-year-old son (Ravi Cabot-Conyers). 
     Although The Artist's Wife creates interest as a piece of adult-oriented entertainment, the movie doesn't click. Claire's brief interest in a younger man (Avan Jogia) seems forced, dementia has been handled better elsewhere and the arc that Claire's story follows proves dismayingly predictable.
     In sum: a quietly disappointing effort.

The fine art of pastries

      The image of Versailles as a monument to ornamentation and excess long has been established in the western mind. The great palace with its manicured garden and gilded ... well ... almost everything ... has so often been taken as a symbol of royal indulgence that you probably couldn't be blamed for taking it as the animating cause of the French Revolution. 
     Having said that, it's my pleasure to report that Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles has less to do with history than with a memorably playful event.
    In 2018, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an exhibit called Visitors to Versailles, a show that drew on the Met's vast collection and from the Chateau de Versailles. The Met tried to give viewers a taste of life at Versailles from 1682 until 1789 when Louis XIV -- a.k.a., the Sun King -- worked his magic on the place.
     As part of the festivities for 2018, the Met asked renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi to assemble an event in which a variety of pastry chefs would create temptations based on their interpretations of Versailles. 
    To fulfill his charge, Ottolenghi invited five pastry chefs to indulge their royal instincts. The five were: Dinara Kasko from Ukraine, a chef whose architectural creations, inspire gasps; Ghaya Oliveira, who plies her trade at New York's Manhattan's Daniel and specializes in chocolates; Janice Wong, who hails from Singapore; Bompas & Parr, a duo from England that employs English jellies as their medium. 
    The seriousness of the chefs belies what might seem an entirely frivolous event, nearly as decadent as anything that transpired during Louis XIV's sugar-coated watch.
    Additional attempts at seriousness fall on the shoulders of Deborah Krohn, a Bard College historian who paints a picture of Versailles that has more to do with fact than fancy. 
    As it turns out, the French hoi polloi were allowed to wander the grounds, a gesture of openness with unintended consequences: The French learned that the very rich were not like the average Pierre or Paulette. 
    As amusing as it can be, Cakes doesn't always rise to perfection. I would have liked to know more about the guests who consumed those cakes at the Met and it struck me that some of the inventions we see when Ottolenghi introduces us to these masterful chefs are more stunning than what they created for the Met. 
    Moreover, attempts to introduce the subject of wealth equality in our own time seems intended to keep the movie from becoming an endorsement of opulence.
    Still, only a spoilsport would discourage someone  from slicing into director Laura Gabbert's  cinematic cake. The Israeli-born Ottolenghi makes a genial and informative host, sprinkling the documentary with biographical information about himself, and we all can indulge a moment of happy fantasy: The one time when dessert truly qualifies as the main course.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

She's young but she's still a Holmes


    Welcome to the world of young-adult fiction courtesy of the Holmes family.
     Yes, we're talking about that Holmes family, the one that produced the crime-solving genius named Sherlock. But this is Holmes with a difference. 
     As we quickly learn, Enola Holmes (a vibrant Millie Bobby Brown) is a 16-year-old with two older brothers: Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin).  
     Enola barely knows her brothers. She lives with her eccentric mother (Helena Bonham Carter) on an isolated, disheveled estate. Housekeeping aside, Mom has schooled Enola in everything from science to jujitsu.
     Enola couldn't be happier with her life until the fateful day when Mom disappears. Not to worry: It's obvious that Mom's disappearance eventually will be explained and chalked up to  noble motives. 
    In the meantime, the movie unfolds, a take on the Holmes’ stories that tries to open stuffy Victorian rooms filled with pipe smoke and blow a fresh breeze through air that can become as thick as clogging arteries.
    Mycroft, a Holmes of patrician instincts and sour disposition, takes over the care of Enola after Mom vanishes. He wants to send her to a finishing school run by a woman (Fiona Shaw) who believes it's her job to make young women into socially acceptable marriage fodder.
     If on-the-nose dialogue were outlawed, Enola Holmes would fall silent during some of its biggest moments. Director Harry Bradbeer, who has worked on Fleabag and Killing Eve, clearly defines the movie's conflict: Emerging feminism bumps heads with tradition-bound gender roles.  I don't think I need to tell you which side the movie takes.
    The movie's mystery revolves around an 1884 move to reform British law to expand the vote  -- although not to women. Where characters line up a vis-a-vis a reform measure, idling at the time in the House of Lords, clues us as to their motivations. 
    An Arthur Conan Doyle plot has been tweaked to give it a pop-cultural kick in the posterior and to ensure that Enola has something to do throughout the movie. 
    Her mission is twofold. First, she must find her mother. Second, she appoints herself as the unofficial protector of Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), a young man who's fleeing a hired assassin (Burn Gorman). To ensure that we recognize him, this assassin always appears in a trademark derby hat. 
     OK, enough about plot.  
     Although the movie, suffers a lag at the three-quarter mark, Bradbeer mostly keeps things moving and Brown's performance proves infectiously engaging, with frequent winks at convention when Enola breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. 
    Bradbeer eventually ties the movie's threads together and creates an ending which suggests that Enola's adventures will be on-going. 
    If you're a Sherlock Holmes fan, you may be a bit disappointed. As Sherlock, Cavill doesn't have much to do. Sherlock has a kinder view of his sister than does his older brother but neither sibling is around long enough to make major contributions. 
     Ultimately, the movie's interest is tied to the ways in which  Bradbeer adds oomph to a 19th century tale, giving it values more suited to the current moment than to those of the period in which the story unfolds.
     At its best, Enola Holmes -- adapted from author Nancy Springer's Enola series of books -- has plenty of verve. If brio were a stock, the filmmakers have invested heavily. 
     And if Netflix has a series in mind, they found the right actress to play Enola. Intelligent and sharp-witted, Brown gives the movie just the center it needs.
     Besides, the 16-year-old Brown — listed as one of the seven people with a producer credit for Enola Holmes — may have something to say about how any future movies are cast. Also listed as a producer, Brown’s 26-year-old sister, Paige.
     Evidently the Holmeses aren't the only relatives holding some sway here. Whatever the case, a well-assembled team has gotten the job done and seems poised to continue now that origin-story obligations have been met.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 9/17/20 -- 'Blackbird' and 'The Nest'

The Nest
Director Sean Durkin returns to the screen after a long hiatus. His last movie was  2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene. With The Nest, Durkin travels back to the 1980s for a look at a marriage struggling to survive the upheaval of a transatlantic move. Jude Law  (as Rory) and Carrie Coon (as Allison) star as a husband and wife who have fallen off the same page even before they move to London. She loves their suburban life in the US. He’s too ambitious to be content. She runs a riding school: He's a commodities trader. Rory and Allison have two kids: a daughter (Oona Roche) from Allison's previous marriage and a son (Charlie Shotwell) from the couple's current marriage. Not only does Rory drag his family across the ocean, he soon runs out of funds. He vastly overestimates his ability to persuade his London boss (Michael Culkin) to merge his company with an American firm, a development that ensures that Rory won't be able to  afford the Surrey estate he impulsively rented for the family. Late in the movie, a taxi driver asks Rory what he does for a living. "I pretend to be rich,'' says Rory, who by this time has entered a state of dejected realization: The rungs on the social ladder he's climbing have begun to collapse. As the horse-loving Allison, Coon embodies the emotional volatility of an '80s woman who doesn't always listen to her better judgment. Initially charming, Rory refuses to acknowledge his limitations and, in Law's hands, reaches a state of hollowed-out desperation. Durkin, who has no interest in feel-good sentiment, courageously brings his movie to a conclusion marked as much by exhaustion and defeat as by anything that might be called reconciliation. 

There are few more familiar dramatic conceits than this:  A family gathers for a special occasion only to have soul-wrenching secrets revealed. Blackbird follows such a traditional map but adds a disturbing twist. Mom (Susan Sarandon) is dying of ALS. In response, Sarandon's Lily has decided to end her life. She wants to see her family one more time before drinking the lethal concoction that will enable her to avoid a nightmarish end to an otherwise fulfilling life. As the story unfolds, director Roger Michell introduces us to Lily's family: daughters played by Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska and a husband portrayed by an underutilized Sam Neill. Winslet's Jennifer arrives at Lily’s seaside home with her husband (Rainn Wilson) and teenage son (Anson Boon). Lindsay Duncan turns up as Lily's best friend.  Christian Torpe's screenplay boasts finely wrought moments that are well-executed by a fine cast, tense encounters between the sisters, for example. But the screenplay adds a few reveals too many and even a cast this strong can't always compensate for a lack of dramatic crackle. At the same time, Michell eventually finds the emotional power and the deep sadness that accompanies Lily's decision; just because it's the right choice for her doesn't make its irrevocability any less harrowing.

An essential documentary about voter suppression

lAll In: The Fight for Democracy includes lots of information that every American already should know. But even if you're aware of the struggles surrounding the right to vote, the movie provides a valuable summary of the ways in which the post-Reconstruction South worked to keep black people from the ballot box. The documentary reviews Jim Crow and its legacy as a means of establishing its primary message; some Americans don't want every eligible voter to cast a ballot. It won’t surprise those who follow the news to learn that Stacey Abrams produced the movie, which also focuses on Abrams' recent unsuccessful race against  Republican Brian Kemp for the governorship of Georgia. On first blush, the involvement of Abrams, who also appears in the movie, might seem self-serving. It isn't. Her's is both an inspirational and cautionary tale. Besides, Abrams has committed much of her life to opening access to the ballot box. Directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes, All In has an obvious agenda: It wants everyone to register to vote, to refuse to be turned away. That may seem obvious and even a bit mundane, but after watching All In, you'll learn enough about voter suppression to think twice before rhapsodizing about the democracy in which we live.

A brutal look at slavery and beyond

     In the heat of our endlessly fractious moment, Antebellum — a movie about the lasting consequences of slavery  — should have scored a direct hit.
     Too bad directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz  squander some of their movie's power with a gimmicky Twilight Zone flourish that pushes the movie from its purposefully strange moorings into a lesser world, one in which contrivance smothers insight.
     Bush and Renz get off to a strong start with a beautifully orchestrated sequence that takes place on what appears to be a prototypical plantation. 
     An eerily bucolic mood prevails. Horses move slowly. Enslaved women, all uniformly dressed, hang the wash. Every trace of spontaneity seems to have been banished, something on the order of what Margaret Atwood accomplished in Handmaid's Tale.
    It doesn’t take long for the directors to reveal the horror that underlies the plantation's placid surface.  Antebellum understands that it's possible and perhaps even necessary to treat parts of American history as a horror story.
    The repellant brutalities of slavery are shown in painful detail, but even at that, this plantation seems slightly off-kilter.
     The enslaved aren't tormented by the genteel but twisted southerners typically associated with the Old South of movies. Instead, Confederate soldiers run the plantation. 
     They're  led by an officer (Eric Lange) whose quietly expressed sadism sets the tone. Not only is Lange's character a rapist, but he leads group chants of “blood and soil” that sound as if they've been borrowed from a Third Reich playbook.
     Imbuing her role with ferocity and conviction, Janelle Monae plays an enslaved woman named Eden. Eden's only objective: To escape her tormentors.
     A malicious white woman (Jena Malone) helps oversee the non-stop brutalization of those consigned to picking cotton and trying to avoid the smirking arrogance of Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), the officer who enforces the plantation's draconian rules.
    Because the enslaved workers aren’t allowed to speak to one another without permission, the encounters between Monae’s character and new arrival Julia (Kiersey Clemons) are fraught with tension. The normal made illicit by oppression.
    Those who haven’t read much about the movie deserve to approach Antebellum's plot without spoilers. 
    Know though that Gabourey Sidibe shows up in a small, lively role and that the directors take a leap that's obviously intended to throw an audience off guard as the movie tries to connect past and present.
      Unfortunately,  the story’s big reveal proves a letdown and some of the final images try so hard to become iconic that they play like quotations, poster-ready illustrations drawn from the cinematic language of revenge.
    Antebellum opens with a familiar high-minded quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
     The malodorous vapors of American's "original sin" are still with us, but too often, Antebellum fails to live up to the seriousness to which it evidently aspires.  
     As a result, the movie's boldness -- and it has some -- jars more than it illuminates. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Maybe the devil made them do it

     Judging by the characters in The Devil All the Time, some of the folks in West Virginia and parts of southern Ohio are mighty weird, screwed-up in ways once taken for common coin in Southern Gothic literary circles.

    Foremost, there’s religion: Faith has made some the characters in this episodic sprawl of a movie crazy to the point where a self-proclaimed preacher believes he can resurrect the wife he has just murdered and a father, believing that a sacrifice will save his cancer-riddled wife, kills the family dog.
     These are just a couple of the more lurid examples from director Antonio Campos’ cinematic take on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who narrates a taxing two-and-a-half hour Appalachian journey that sometimes feels like a near-parodic take on one of Flannery O’Connor’s novels.
      Campos doesn’t skimp on the number of characters who populate his movie, some arriving and disappearing before the story settles on Arvin (Tom Holland), a young man struggling to find his place in this strange, violent world.
      It's possible to regard everything before Holland's arrival as prologue. Arvin’s dad (Bill Skarsgard) returns from World War II emotionally bruised, his faith shaken. He recovers his belief when he marries a waitress (Haley Bennett) and they move into a ramshackle  house on the outskirts of Mead, West Virginia.
    The death of his mother and the resultant suicide of his father put young Arvin in the care of his grandmother (Kristin Griffin). As Arvin grows into manhood, the story also tracks the twisted progress of a serial killer (Jason Clarke) and his wife (Riley Keough). 
        Their MO: He takes photos of his victims having sex with his wife before slaughtering them. She goes along with his twisted plans, although she eventually tires of their murderous travels. 
         A frighteningly intense Harry Melling plays the preacher who believes the Lord will help him resurrect the dead. Mia Wasikowska portrays his hapless wife. 
      Arvin's grandmother adopts Leonora, the daughter of this less-than-happy couple. Eliza Scanlen plays Leonora as an adolescent.
      Sorry to bombard you with so much plot and so many characters, but that's a bit what it's like watching this twisted soap-opera.
      Anyway, it doesn't take long for the reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson)  to show up. Not surprisingly, Teagardin has pervert written all over him: His idea of doing the Lord’s work involves seducing and then abandoning teenagers.  
    Let's just say that The Devil All the Time, isn’t the best advertisement for church-going.
    There's no faulting the performances. Skarsgard proves unnerving as a father of steely, war-scarred temperament. Holland brings humanity to Arvin, who — despite some violent episodes — self-describes as “not a bad person.” We more or less believe him. 
     Clark and Keough make an appropriately appalling murderous duo. 
      To further complicate matters, Keough’s character is the sister of a corrupt local sheriff (Sebastian Stan).
     I haven’t read Pollock’s novel, but in his review in The New York Times, Josh Ritter wrote, “Pollock’s prose is as sickly beautiful as it is hard-boiled.”
     I can’t say the same for the filmmaking here; sans Pollock’s prose, the movie strips the characters to their bare-bones lunacy and becomes a bit of an endurance test, making us wonder just how much of this ruthlessly unpleasant crowd we can take.
     By the end, Campos ties the story’s many threads together,  but to what purpose? In this predator-or-prey environment, it struck me that all of these small-town characters should have reached one inescapable conclusion: Move elsewhere.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

A gallery for those who've lost in love

    If you don't mind a movie that contains more contrivance than heartbreak, The Broken Hearts Gallery might be just your cup of sugar. I should say that the sugar in this 20something, New York-based rom-com is laced with the kind of humor that might be produced by characters who've spent far too much time on Twitter, a heady mixture of snark. cleverness and complaint.
     Almost never at a loss for something to say, the characters in Broken Hearts take a predictable journey in which friendship eventually turns to love, a development that could surprise only  the two characters in question.
      Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan) has a strange habit. She keeps something from each of  her failed relationships, turning her bedroom into a kind of memorial to lost love.
     Lucy lives with two roommates: Phillipa Soo's Nadine and Molly Gordon's Amanda. The roommates serve as a kind of Greek chorus, presuming you view a Greek chorus as a device for conveying an endless stream of wisecracks, some funny, some not.
     The main story focuses on Lucy. After being dumped by Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar), Lucy meets Nick (Dacre Montgomery). Mistakenly taking Nick for an Uber driver, she climbs into his Prius and ... well ... the rest is pretty much preordained.
      As befits a contemporary young person in a romcom, Lucy is going through a bad patch.  Not only has she been dumped, but she just lost her job at a supposedly prestigious art gallery run by the acerbic Eva Woolf (Bernadette Peters). 
     As it turns out, Nick has a life of his own dream. He's trying to convert an abandoned YMCA into a boutique hotel called The Chloe. Lucy decides that a Broken Hearts Gallery would make a catchy addition to The Chloe. 
     She'll collect and display the mementos of other people's heartbreaks -- along with a word or two about their stories. Predictably, the idea goes viral.
      Really? Even Lucy's enthusiasm wasn't enough to convince me that anything in her gallery might be worth looking at and the stories that accompany all these breakups aren't especially interesting, either.
      As for the hotel ... does Manhattan really need another one?
      I don't need to say much more. Writer/director Natalie Krinsky (Gossip Girl), concocts a smooth glide across the movie's surfaces with Lucy taking over interior decorating chores at The Chloe.
      Charged with carrying the movie, Viswanathan boasts a winning smile, oodles of verve and enough of whatever passes for intelligence in this kind of film to keep the whole business afloat.
      But in this romcom, the romance proves as corny as it is predictable and the comedy clings to verbal banter rather than from anything having do with keen observation.
      Despite its title, Broken Hearts is selling undisguised optimism.  There's someone for everyone. Money problems readily are solved. Things eventually work out. 
     And all before anyone in the movie turns 30.

It starts creepy but goes off the rails

More waiting game than fully realized movie, Rent-a-Pal doesn't get enough out of its premise to kick it into the positive column. The story centers on David (Brian Landis Folkins), a character who feels awfully familiar. David lives in his demented mother's basement, has no social life and seems so accustomed to his role as Mom's caregiver that he no longer realizes how miserable he is. In an attempt to break through his loneliness, David has joined Video Rendezvous, a dating service that distributes VHS tapes. (Set in Denver, the film takes place during the '90s.) Not surprisingly, women aren't particularly  interested in a guy who takes care of a rancorous mother (Kathleen Brady), even if David displays a degree of sincerity that makes him less of movie cliche. On a visit to the offices of the dating service, David finds a videotape in a bin of remainders. The Rent-a-Pal video David buys features a guy named Andy (Wil Wheaton), an artificial bro who offers male companionship. As the relationship between David and his new "friend" develops, the movie leaves us doing a bit of thumb twiddling: We await what we're sure will be David's explosion. Tension grows when David finally meets someone. Amy Rutledge's Lisa, a professional caregiver, seems ideally suited for David. Lisa doesn't disparage David for tending to his Mom but appreciates his kindness and patience. Clearly, Andy won't be pleased about his pal's newfound companion. All of this leads to a predictably violent conclusion that shatters whatever credibility director Jon Stevenson has established as the movie's hand grows heavier and heavier.

A lovely movie about a father and son

    Technically, Our Time Machine qualifies as a documentary, but to call a movie with so much soul a documentary shortchanges its poetry, emotion, and, yes, wisdom. Chinese director Yang Sun and American director S. Leo Chiang tell the story of artist Ma Liang (better known by the single name of Maleonn) and his aging father, Ma Ke.
     The story revolves around Maleonn's attempts to deal with his father's dementia by staging Papa's Time Machine, a theatrical puppet show in which a young man tries to invent a time machine so that his father can be returned to his youth, thereby avoiding the ravages of aging.
     Ma Ke's deterioration seems extra tragic. Ma spent most of his adult life as a director of operas at the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater. As he loses memory of his accomplishments, he reduces them to numbers. Again and again, he tells us that he directed more than 80 productions, perhaps as a way to assure himself that his life had worth.
     In part, the movie chronicles the difficulties of assembling the show that Maleonn hopes will fulfill a long-held dream of collaborating with his father. Not surprisingly, dad's help has less to do with any tangible contribution than with Maleonn's desire to honor his father before the old man vanishes into the consuming mists of Alzheimer's.
     Some of the movie deals with the intricacies of putting on a show. Large-scale puppets are operated by performers who guide their movements. Technical challenges loom, notably finding a way to make hands truly expressive. 
     As is the case with many artistic endeavors, putting on the show becomes an ongoing confrontation between imagination and possibility.
     Not surprisingly, money issues arise. Funding eventually is exhausted.  The team might have to be disbanded. A trip to the US in search of funds proves futile, but the production eventually is mounted.
      As intriguing as the staging of a theatrical production can be, the heart of Our Time Machine derives  from the people we meet and their relationships.
     Inventive, engaging and devoted, Maleonn gives the film a vibrant center. His previous work consisted mostly of photography and collage, so producing a puppet show proves challenging. 
     Eventually, Maleonn is joined by a co-director with theatrical experience. Tianyi Huang begins playing a bigger role in Maleonn's life as the movie moves toward an ending that would feel shamelessly contrived if it weren't true.  
    Affection aside, Maleonn's relationship with his father  wasn't always ideal. Dad was exiled to the country during the Cultural Revolution. When he returned to Shanghai, he spent little time with his son. Believing that he had to make up for lost time, he threw himself into his work.
    And, as the movie unfolds, Maleonn's mother (Ma Duo) becomes more vocal about her inability to cope with her husband's decline.      
    Maleonn eventually arrives at a long view of his father's deterioration, acknowledging that a theater production -- no matter how fanciful -- is no match for the relentless passing of time.
    The directors may not dot every "i" and cross every "t,'' but they have created a lovely movie about artistic invention, love and, the acceptance of loss. When it ended, I was sorry to let it go.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

‘Mulan’ scores in a live-action version

     When asked in a Vanity Fair interview why she and not a Chinese director had been chosen to direct Mulan, Niki Caro pointed out that two cultures had to be considered.
     The first, of course, is Chinese culture, which spawned the enduring legend of Mulan. The second, according to Caro, is Disney culture. Any director of a live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animated musical would have to negotiate his or her way through both cultures. 
    I found the comment both interesting and instructive.
    When you see Mulan, you’ll be watching a Disney movie, which means that the Chinese settings are seldom less than picturesque and the movie’s desire to deliver an inspirational message about family loyalty, courage, and girl power couldn’t be more clearly stated.
    If none of that bothers you (and I doubt that it will annoy most of the Mulan audience), you’ll find a strong helping of live action from Caro and an all-Asian cast led by Yifei Liu who plays Mulan. 
     Yifei's Mulan is endowed with extraordinary amounts of Chi, which in this movie might be seen as the equivalent of the Force in the Star Wars universe. Mulan can maximize her use of Chi to defeat enemies in battle -- one-on-one or en masse.
    Sans the songs of the original, Caro tells a story about a  culture-bound young woman who is instructed to hide her Chi and stick to the traditional feminine role that has been proscribed for her; i.e., Mulan's supposed to marry.
      Mulan has other ideas. She rebels by disguising herself as a man, borrowing her warrior father’s sword, and joining the army that’s trying to protect the emperor from northern invaders led by the ruthless Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
    To help him in his quest, Bori Khan has enlisted the help of a witch (Gong Li) who has great powers and who, we’ll learn, has more in common with Mulan than we initially expect.
     Martial arts star Jet Li portrays the emperor. Tzi Ma appears as Mulan’s father. Both are warriors, although Tzi's character, disabled by a war wound, long has retired.
    In keeping with the spirit of the original, Caro (Whale Rider) takes a mostly comic approach to Mulan’s integration into the army, where she finds a friendly rival in Chen Hong (Yoson An). 
    The other soldiers serve as a comic chorus, often commenting on Mulan’s overly ripe body odor. She refuses to shower lest her womanhood is discovered. Should Mulan reveal herself to be a woman, the Commander (Donnie Yenwill expel her for dishonesty. 
      The delicacy of Liu’s features could make it difficult for us to accept her male-warrior pose: The movie says otherwise. The rules governing men and women are so ingrained, no one possibly could be expected to see them violated.
    Aside from the lack of musical numbers, Caro and her team have made other alterations. Some may miss Mushu, the motor-mouthed dragon who was voiced by Eddie Murphy.
    It’s probably the right choice. Caro downplays the story’s more cartoonish aspects, although she does employ special effects for a phoenix, a beautiful bird, and Gong Li’s character goes through many shape-shifting transformations. 
   Caro handles large-scale battle sequences well enough. Some of the combat sequences hinted at the work of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Shadow) although none display Zhang’s flair for devising at least one bit so outrageously original, it becomes a talking point. 
   Then again, Mulan's charge doesn't derive solely from combat; it stems from Mulan’s emergence as a fully realized woman warrior and from the way that she upholds the movie’s trio of virtues: Loyal, brave and true.
    Fans of Chinese spectacle rightly can argue that Caro hasn’t gone far enough in bringing either operatic grandeur or human frailty to the forefront.  Fair to say that Mulan stakes out a middle ground between PG-13 entertainment and the best of Chinese epic moviemaking.
     But back to where we began: This is a Disney movie that’s trying for the broadest possible appeal. 
    Mulan will be shown on Disney+, not in theaters. Still, it qualifies as a movie of impressive scale and clear visual command, an effort that, for my money, far surpasses its animated predecessor. *
*For the record: “My money” probably doesn't even qualify as chump change in the world of Disney resources.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Despair, comedy and Charlie Kaufman

     Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (2008) baffled many, but it had real pain, insight, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director obsessed with creating a masterpiece. Kaufman's new film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, displays some of the same existential fatigue that marked Synecdoche. Ditto for the director's 2015 animated feature, Anamolisa.  
    I mention the past to point out that Kaufman knows his way around misery and because he's at it again.
     Some movies never allow a theme to emerge from the slagheap of their narratives. That can't be said of I'm Thinking About Ending Things: This odd, sometimes haunting, sometimes funny, sometimes baffling movie allows many themes to marinate in its dreary brine.
     Among them: mortality, aging, relationships, and the malleability of time. 
     All of this unfolds in a deadpan style that mirrors the internal state of characters who, as the title suggests, are living lives in which happiness and contentment seem as inaccessible as far-off galaxies.
     The aroma of defeat wafts through nearly everything in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, much of which is staged in a car in which two people (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons) travel through a snowstorm. The car's windshield wipers become a kind of metronome, marking the passing of each gray minute.
     Although it's barely relevant, I'm Thinking of Ending Things does have a plot. Buckley's character -- sometimes called Lucia and sometimes called Lucy -- accompanies Plemons' Jake on a trip to meet Jake's parents, who live on an isolated farm. 
     Even before they arrive at their destination, Lucy wonders why she's wasting her time on a relationship she's sure has no future. Jake is nice. Jake is intelligent. But he's not The One.
     As played by Plemons,  we’re ready to agree with Lucy’s assessment. Jake seems to have accepted the monotony of life on an even keel.
     Both characters are smart, though, and they're not shy about telling each other what they know.
     When Lucy and Jake arrive at the farmhouse, the movie begins its full ascent into weirdness, becoming what might be considered a comedy of despair.   
     Watching Lucy encounter Jake's mother (Toni Collette) and her father (a very strange David Thewlis) leads to the kind of deadpan humor that won't appeal to everyone but which made me laugh.
    Even before this, signs of weirdness emerge: We're talking dead frozen sheep, a story about pigs that were eaten by maggots and, other suggestions that unspeakable horror lurks in the farm's rural isolation.
    At his point, the movie -- which is based on a novel by Iain Reid -- seems as if it might be springing from Lucy's mind as she imagines what life with David (and the inevitable association with his parents) might be like: Grimly comic images pervade a howling snowstorm as Lucy sees Jake’s parents in more youthful stages and in their decrepitude.
    Eventually, Jake and Lucy return to the road. Although the snow has worsened, Jake insists on stopping for ice cream at Tulsey Town, a stand that's inexplicably open in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a blizzard. 
     The ride also includes a discussion of  John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence with Lucy offering a strident takedown of the movie, which some will recognize as Pauline Kael's review of the movie with its particular concentration on the work of actress Gena Rowlands. 
     Is this parody? Is it a dig at reviewers? Is it a comment on the way opinion tends to be absorbed and regurgitated in ways that obliterate individual obligations to respond?
     The evening culminates when Jake decides that he wants to show Lucy his high school, a place where we've already seen images of a janitor mopping up the hallways, watching TV (a movie supposedly directed by Robert Zemeckis), and snippets from a student production of Oklahoma.
     Jake, by the way, is a fan of musicals and these final scenes include a lovely dance duet and a further blurring of identities. Is Jake the janitor at a different stage of his life?
       Throughout all of this, Kaufman insists on giving his movie a feeling in which strangeness has become ordinary; weirdness absent any shimmering sense of mystery.
        What to think? I found myself digesting the movie in pieces. Yes to this bit. No to that. Unsure about something else.  
       I'll get back to you on the way the movie seems to invite interpretation but does little to confirm whatever meaning (or meanings) we might wish to read into it.
       In its overall impact, I'm Thinking of Ending Things accumulates around us like steadily falling snow, leaving drifts of recollected moments from which we must dig ourselves out.
      Good luck and see you when the weather clears.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Great action in a muddled ‘Tenet’

    Tenet involves an ingenious conceit: the idea that time can be manipulated to flow forward and backward simultaneously. This means that a car chase could be proceeding at breakneck speeds while the same cars move in opposite directions — or something like that.
    Graspable more in outline than in detail, Tenet creates an often frustrating mixture of consternation and thrills. 
    Director Christopher Nolan brings Inception-like complexity to a story that probably will have fans filling chat rooms and Zoom calls with speculation, insights, and connections to whatever they perceive as the movie’s meaning.
    Then there’s me.
    First off, I saw Tenet at a screening in which a handful of critics were spatially distanced in a large IMAX theater. 
    I’m not sure what awaits moviegoers when they venture into newly re-opened theaters but I admit to feeling a bit of guilt at having seen Tenet under what surely must be the safest possible conditions. I hope you’ll be able to do the same.
     The movie tosses four principal characters into a mind-bending Cuisinart built around the concept of inversion, a state in which effect can precede cause.
     John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) plays a character described in the credits only as The Protagonist, a secret agent who must save the world from dreams of annihilation by Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), a crazed Russian oligarch.        
     Andrei's art appraiser wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) develops a flirtatious relationship with The Protagonist, but her main concern involves rescuing her young son from the clutches of his evil and monumentally abusive father.
     As his mission unfolds, Washington’s character acquires a sidekick, the devilishly stylish Neil (Robert Pattinson).
    Not much else needs to be known about the cast. Michael Caine makes a brief appearance as a British spy and Indian actress Dimple Kapadia plays a sophisticated woman who traffics in arms.
     For all its theories, talk of algorithms and such, Tenet plays like almost every other summer movie, by which I mean it alternates exposition (a lot of it) with imaginatively conceived action set pieces.
      I half wondered whether Tenet might be a movie that’s best enjoyed by throwing out the bathwater (the story) and keeping the baby (the action).
      A chase involving speeding trucks is particularly exciting and Nolan excels at making the movie's theoretical conceits visible: bullets fly backward into guns and demolished buildings reassemble, for example. 
    Did I mention that birds can be seen flying backward?
    Because the characters need to wear oxygen masks when they are "inverting," some of the burdens of performance have been lifted. But these days, not seeing everyone's face all the time seems depressingly familiar.
    Of the performances, Debicki stands out. Her Kat is sexy, calculating, and possessed of worldly intelligence.  Pattinson brings casual charm to his portrayal and Washington gives a forceful, straight-ahead performance that provides the movie with its continuity.
    Speaking with a Russian accent, Branagh alternates understatement and outbursts, giving the movie a full quota of human menace.
    I presume that Nolan and company collected major frequent flyer miles as they location-hopped to places as far-flung as Italy's Amalfi Coast, Mumbai, Estonia, Denmark, Norway, and London.
    All this is accompanied by a score (credit Swiss composer Ludwig Goransson) that pulses and pulses -- and then pulses some more.
    After a well-staged opening which seems to have been inspired by a real-life 2002 terrorist attack on a Moscow theater, the movie quickly leaps from what many will see as Bondian terrain to one involving alternate realities. 
    With Nolan, the reality in which we all reside never seems complex and baffling enough. His worst enemy: the chronological order that marks the way most of us experience the passing of time.
      I leave it to you to determine whether it's important to catch every line of dialogue. I know I missed a lot.
     And that seems to sum up the Tenet conundrum; you’re often left wondering whether you’ve lost your place or whether the story simply has gone on without you. The result, at least for me: Increasing indifference.
    It’s obviously up to you to decide whether you want to see Tenet, which only can be viewed in theaters. Exhibitors, studios, and other representatives of what might be described as the motion-picture industrial complex certainly hope you do.
    I  have mixed feelings about the reopening of theaters and I’m eager to hear from those who go. I’m less interested in what you think of Tenet than in whether you felt safe in a theater where masks could be lowered to consume snacks.
    In the end, how safely theaters can operate during a pandemic (it may take time to tell) strikes me as a far more important question than any I could raise about Nolan's latest spectacle.