Thursday, October 29, 2020

A virtual Denver festival and its rewards

    For the past week, I've been attending The Denver Film Festival. You'll have to grant me an ample amount of license here because I'm using the word "attending" in the loosest possible sense. I haven't left home. 
    The 43rd Denver Film Festival, almost an all-virtual affair, has been offering a large selection of films that can be viewed online and I must say that there are appealing things about the arrangement. 
    There are time limits for viewing but even with such constraints (most quite generous), it's possible to view films on your own schedule. You don't have to be at a theater at 7 p.m. and drive home at 10 p.m. -- or later if you decide to catch a late-night show.
     The limitations of online viewing are obvious, so I won't belabor the loss of a sense of community, the inability to schmooze with colleagues, and deficiencies of scale associated with viewing on smaller screens.
     But let's be honest: In the past seven months, we've all become accustomed to streaming -- and, for some, the conveniences of home viewing probably will limit future theatergoing -- even when the pandemic no longer makes us wary about visiting a multiplex.
    I don't think the future of theatrical viewing is especially bright, but I'm not convinced that theaters have seen their last days, either. I doubt that we're done with overpriced popcorn, sodas sipped from containers the size of small wastebaskets or, heaven help us, movie nachos.
     And, yes, Hollywood needs its big event movies and audiences probably want them, too.
     But I digress.
     Initially, the idea of a virtual festival struck me as a wan substitute for the real thing. The word "festival" denotes community and gathering. Virtual events unfold in isolation.
     Really, though, home viewing isn't disastrous.
     On crowds:
     I may be in a minority, but I've never been averse to going to movies alone even before I became a critic. The absence of movie mates doesn't bother me. I don't mind company but I've never found it essential to moviegoing. 
    As for audiences ....  
   They can be a mixed blessing, as well. We're all familiar with the negatives: talking and texting among them. 
    I've also been privileged to be among film enthusiasts who were as moved as I was by a particular film. At a film festival some years ago, I turned to a stranger after the showing of a film I particularly admired. Without saying a word, we understood that we were on the same wavelength. We knew we had just experienced a rare moment of shared appreciation. 
     That’s not the only time I’ve had such experiences. I miss those connections. But that doesn't mean that I can't be moved by watching a film in the comfort of my own home.    

A festival sampler

    So what have I been watching?
    I'll mention a handful of films that are worth putting on your radar.
    Two Iranian-based films -- the documentary Nasrin and the feature There is No Evil -- reaffirmed my faith in the humanity  and courage of those in Iran who struggle against a repressive regime.
     Nasrin tells the story of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a woman who works as a human rights lawyer in Iran, not the most welcome of trades in a highly restrictive society. Sotoudeh has specialized in defending prisoners who have received death sentences and in advocating for women who are being abused by the Iranian legal system.
     Her reward:  She's currently serving 38 years for her work regarding women's rights. The sentence also includes 148 lashes. If you've never heard of Sotoudeh, you owe it to your conscience to see this film.
      There is No Evil also deals with the death penalty, which is often carried out by men who have been conscripted into Iran's armed forces. Director Mohammad Rasoulof tells four separate stories that revolve around Iran's death penalty. But Rasoulof takes an unexpected and morally expansive tact: He tells stories that center on the executioners, two of them who refuse to participate and two who follow orders. 
    Although each episode stands alone, There is No Evil delivers a cumulative impact that you won't soon forget. 
    Other noteworthy films include Apples from Greek director Christos Nikou, who imagines a society in which people are being struck down by a mysterious amnesia epidemic. 
    As an apparently ordinary resident of Athens deals with his amnesia, he becomes a clean slate on which various physicians and helpers try to prescribe an identity for him. 
    That may sound like sci-fi, but Apples has a broader, more humanistic agenda as it slowly morphs into a meditation on grief, loss, and isolation.
      Fair to say that Korean director Hang Sang-soo doesn't make movies for everyone. A study in sly minimalism, Hang's Woman on the Run follows a woman whose husband has taken a business trip as she visits several friends. 
      The dialogue can be stunningly banal and Hang likes to employ zooms that feel dated. But if you stick with the movie, it offers opportunities for reflection on the role men play in the lives of the women in the story, as well as a kind of commentary on the emptiness of ordinary life.
      Not all documentaries follow the typical formula: interviews spiced with footage -- historical and otherwise -- that add movement and scope.
      Frederick Wiseman's four-and-half-hour City Hall continues Wiseman's dedication to fly-on-the-wall thoroughness as he chronicles various aspects of life in Boston with a particular emphasis on Boston's mayor, Marty Walsh. 
      You'll see the city trying to cope with inequality, homelessness, addiction, race and a host of other difficult issues. 
       As is his wont, Wiseman offers no narration but allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about the complexities of keeping a large city operating and the people who devote their lives to the task.
       So,  yes, City  Hall is about the efficacy of local government as seen at meeting after meeting, but by the time it's done, you may conclude what others have long stated: The city is the people. 
       Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky also leaves viewers to their own devices when it comes to finding meaning in his films. Some critics were put off by Kossakovsky's Aquarela,  a film about the earth's waters that, for me, qualified as an astonishing visual achievement. 
      With Gunda, Kossakovsky reduces his scope and seems to have gained more acceptance as a result. He has made a film about farm animals, specifically a pig who has just given birth to piglets,  cows that spend their time grazing and swatting flies with their tails, and a one-legged chicken. 
      I know. That's not the most exciting of descriptions, but Kossakovsky brings his camera into the world of animals in ways that make them the sole occupants of his film.
     Shot in black-and-white, Gunda presents these animals without anthropomorphizing them, but that doesn't mean that the animals we see don't suggest emotional lives that will make you think twice about what the phrase "cruelty to animals" means.*
      These, after all, are farm animals that are being raised for human consumption.
*The above photos are from There is No Evil and Gunda.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Byrne and Bruce -- letters from rock elders

     Bruce Springsteen is 71; David Byrne is 68. I guess you could say they qualify as elders in the world of rock.
     I mention this because I happened to see Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You and David Byrne’s American Utopia in the same week. The two films couldn’t be more different but both put us in touch with musical personalities who speak to our current moment and, just as important, to their current moments.

    For the record, I’m not a music critic but I felt privileged to compare the two films — both worth seeing.

    At 71, Springsteen has become more reflective. Deprived of youth, Springsteen's face has grown stern. He’s keenly aware of his 45-year association with E Street Band and he talks freely and generously about what’s on his mind, what’s behind many of the songs on his newly released Letter to You album. 

    Shot in black-and-white, Letter takes place in Springsteen’s recording studio in New Jersey over the course of several snowy days, and is, in that sense, insular -- an in-gathering of rock veterans who Springsteen calls his friends.

    Byrne on the other hand can be seen in a stage production complete with choreography and brimming with Byrne’s devotion to polyrhythmic beats that are as complex as they are difficult to resists. 

    For the most part, director Spike Lee sticks to the stage production that played on Broadway before the COVID shutdown. A few glimpses of the audience and an end-of-picture sequence outside the theater seem irrelevant. Everything's already been said.

   The show includes music from Byrne’s Talking Heads career but is performed with a new band that perhaps signifies the passing of the Talking Heads torch to a new generation. 

   And in its way, the film is as good as Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense, although slightly less revelatory because at the time of Demme's movie (1984) nothing quite like it had been seen -- a concert film with an artist's sensibility.

   Springsteen’s movie, directed by Thom Zimny, marks the first full E Street Band recording session since Born in the USA (1984). In some ways, the film reminded me of Springsteen on Broadway, the  show in which Springsteen appeared mostly alone, singing and talking about his life. 

   Here he sings and talks, as well. Sometimes the revelations are personal (what it meant to attend funerals as a kid) and sometimes they’re about Springsteen’s rock evolution, beginning with his work the first band to which he belonged, The Castiles.

    It’s possible to listen to the songs from both American Utopia and Letter to You without watching either film, but in the case of Utopia, the stage performance seems inseparable from the music.

    Where Byrne can be a deadpan funny lyricist, wry observer,  and performance artist, Springsteen is more straightforward, more eager to plumb the emotional depths of his 71 years on the planet.

    I won’t list the songs in each movie but a few from Letters to YouThe Power of Prayer, One Minute You’re Here and Ghosts — suggest the poetry of Springsteen's  meditations. 

    In many ways, Letter stands as an homage to the past without being shackled to it. And at 71, Springsteen has his eye on the end of the road.

    Springsteen’s approach — specific and still loyal to its Jersey roots — contrasts with the exuberance of Byrne’s geographical reach. His musicians come from Brazil, Canada, the US, and the ensemble is joyously multi-racial.

    Utopia also has a contemporary urgency. With Janelle Monae's permission, Byrne offers his version of Hell You Talmbout, Monae's 2015 song acknowledging the many black folks who have died senselessly — from Eric Garner to Trayvon Martin to Emmitt Till.

    What stayed with me about Letter is Springsteen's commitment to the salvific potential of rock ’n’ roll and he leads the E Street Band in hard-driving tunes that barrel at you like a freight train that can't wait to pull into heaven.

    Byrne blends funk into a world he creates with  musicians working barefoot in grey suits. He explains how one tune — I Zimbra —uses lyrics by German Dada poet Hugo Ball. 

   Both films can be said to be about wokeness  -- in the best  sense of this invented word-- wokeness to the world (Bynre) or wokeness to interior life (Springsteen).

    Springsteen wants us to awaken to passing time but to not rush forward so fast that we forget to pay homage to those who have gone before and, equally important, to understand that at some point, we must join them.

    Byrne, who also talks about how some of the songs evolved, stands for a different kind of awakening, an enlivening of the spirit, an invitation to listen to voices from other worlds, beats that beckon us into unfamiliar terrain. 

    But make no mistake, both artists are deeply connected to their music and if you had to find a message to which both might subscribe, it could be a simpler one than anything I've suggested, something along the lines of “Get off your asses and dance.”*

Letter to You is playing on Apple TV+; David Byrne's American Utopia can be seen on HBO Max

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bobs Cinema Diary: 10/23/20 -- 'White Noise'

Director Daniel Lombroso's documentary, White Noise, offers an extended look at three major personalities who represent various aspects of the alt-right world. Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern approach white nationalism from somewhat different perspectives and not one of them look like what you'd expect if Central Casting were asked to send over some white supremacists. These alt-righters are well-groomed, young and not entirely divorced from the world in which we all live. Movies such as White Noise put reviewers — at least this one — in a strange position. On one hand, I feel queasy about drawing attention to people whose views deserve to be marginalized, scorned, and generally ignored. On the other hand, there's some utility in looking at these folks and knowing what toxins course through their minds. Spencer, who at one point talks about being obeyed, seems the least prone to introspection, an ideologue wrapped in a warped ideology. Cernovich struck me as a guy who's trying to find a niche and a money stream; and the Canadian born Southern seems alarmingly sincere and aware that she's attractive, the girl next door who also happens to want to preserve white folks of European descent from being swallowed by the brown hordes of the world. By the end of the film, we learn that Southern has married and become a mother and that her husband is not white. But there's no suggestion that her views have changed. Cernovich, by the way, is married to an Iranian-American woman who hopes that her children will learn Farsi. That's not to say that these folks aren't part of the dangerous spawn of a world that's diversifying in ways that threaten what alt-righters evidently consider to be their root identities, the European -- read white -- origins they venerate. Yet, some of them are willing to hide behind facades of projected normalcy so that they can reject the possibility that they might have some responsibility for racist violence. Charlottesville? Not my fault, says Spencer. Remind you of anyone else? 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Drugs, time travel and fatigued paramedics


    Time travel movies may not have dime-a-dozen familiarity, but they're not exactly novel either. That means that directors who venture into this territory must do so with an awareness that they need to come up with something that feels fresh. 
    Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who directed the tantalizing Endless, take an unusual approach in Synchronic, a movie with a time-travel twist. They tell a story that doesn't appear to be about time travel at all -- at last initially.
   Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan portray two New Orleans paramedics, best friends who are bombarded by constant drug-overdose calls, so much so that Synchronic looks like another foray into the world of drugs and despair but it's not quite that either.
   Synchronic, by the way, is a powerful pill that opens those who swallow it to seven minutes of time travel that takes place from the exact spot where the drug has been taken. Travelers play a game of time-travel roulette: They can't control the period in which they land.
  Synchronic puts plenty on its plate: friendship, the vanished daughter on Dornan's character, a crumbling marriage, a terminal disease from which Mackie's character suffers and travel to various moments in history -- the Ice Age to the time of the Conquistadors among them.
   As the movie's principal time-traveler, Mackie's Steve faces all manner of danger in his seven-minute forays into alternate realities, the idea being that past, present and future actually are concurrent. References to Einstein and physics are made, but the movie hardly qualifies as an intellectual exercise.
   The directors can't entirely fuse the movie's diverse elements and not everything about Synchronic works. For me, though, Mackie's complex character keeps the movie on track. Dornan holds his own, as well, and Synchronic nudges its way onto the plus side of the sci-fi ledger.

Borat is back and as "bad" as ever


   Of course, it’s too much, too gross, too over-the-top, too indulgent in whatever excesses might cross your mind.
    The latest Borat movie — prosaically entitled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — brings Sacha Baron Cohen to the pop-cultural forefront at a time when many are nervous about the upcoming election, trying not to be overly confident that four years of Trump will have been sufficient to cure the country of its roguish impulses.
     It is in this climate that Borat, the preposterous journalist from Kazakhstan, returns after his initial introduction to the big screen in 2006. 
    The plot is as unashamedly ridiculous as you might expect. Rescued from disgrace by his government, Borat is sent to America with a mission. He must deliver a token of appreciation to vice president Pence, a gift in the form of Jimmy the Monkey. 
     No one will be surprised to discover that this idiotic endeavor doesn't  proceed smoothly. Borat’s daughter Tutar (Maria Bakolva ) stows away in the crate containing Jimmy and the unfortunate creature is consumed — either in an act of self-cannibalism or by a famished Tutar before the beast even can be unpacked.
    Ever ingenious, Borat decides that Tutar herself would make a fitting substitute for Jimmy. He’ll give her to Pence as a token of his government’s wish to be acknowledged by "McDonald" Trump, who thus far has not sufficiently recognized the glories of Kazakhstan, not the real nation, but a fictional one in which backwardness has become official policy.
     Available on Amazon Prime, screening links for Borat arrived with a request that critics do not disclose anything that might ruin the movie's eruptive spray of jokes.
    I’ll abide by the semi-injunction and proceed with the most general statement I can make: When I laughed at various bits in Borat, many involving Ali G-style encounters with real people, I laughed hard. But I also found some of Borat's interactions with the unsuspecting went too far or were too pitiless. 
    Moreover, some of the gags made me wonder whether some of the people brought into Borat’s sphere were in on the joke. 
    And in a moment when reality and fiction too often have become indistinguishable, I found myself fretting about the additional blurring of lines that already are far too wavy.
   OK, a few hints about what you’ll encounter in a second helping that can't help but feel less brazenly original than the first.
  En route to their encounter with Pence — long before a fly landed on the veep's streamlined head — Borat and Tutar meet with a pastor for a joke made at the expense of a strand of  opposition to abortion. The joke is so simple and absurdly conceived that it becomes hilarious in its unabashed silliness.
    As he travels around the US, Baron Cohen tends to focus on Trump enthusiasts, at one point encountering a couple of America-first believers who subscribe to various conspiracy theories, for example. 
    Baron Cohen’s intrusion into a southern debutante ball leads to a joke of such exaggerated grossness that it may make both fans and detractors cringe.  
    And of course, there’s Borat’s state-sanctioned misogyny and undisguised anti-Semitism — which leads to a bit with a clueless bakery clerk — that defies belief. 
    Baron Cohen is Jewish, so it’s safe to assume that he’s interested in exposing anti-Semitism at its most idiotic. It's also clear that Baron Cohen subscribes to a principle I once heard articulated by political commentator Michael Kinsley in an entirely different context. If you don’t go too far,  you may not go far enough.
     Put another way — and borrowing from another side of the political coin — extremism in the defense of comedy is no vice, particularly at a time when a parade of bizarre realities has crippled the ability of satire and parody to strike major blows.
     Baron Cohen doesn’t satirize. Rather, he meets the dragons of ignorance head-on, as if to say, "I’ll fight the fires of stupidity with more stupidity, so much so that you can’t help but see what ignorance looks like when it’s stripped to its naked core."
    Maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing. All I know is that I said at the outset: Borat made me laugh very hard, made me think that Baron Cohen sometimes veered out of bounds, and made me wonder which, if any, of his real-life subjects were playing along with him.
   Of course, Borat sometimes offends, but Baron Cohen’s bet is that there’s nothing that he can do that’s more offensive than some of the realities he's exposing as Borat once again springs to life from the glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 10/16/20 -- The Devil Has a Name and The Kid Detective

 The Devil Has a Name

Edward James Olmos directs The Devil Has a Name, a story about a California farmer who takes on Big Oil. David Strathairn plays Fred Stern, a widower who's had enough of the California almond farm he and his late wife ran. Fred's not opposed to selling, but a Houston-based oil guy (Haley Joel Osment) offers an insultingly low price. Fred declines but he may be tempted by a bigger offer. It soon becomes clear that the oil company plays dirty, polluting Fred's land with chemicals as a way of lowering the price. Olmos plays Santiago, the manager of Fred's farm and Martin Sheen turns up as the attorney who'll lead Fred's charge against corporate villainy.  Strathairn, Olmos, and Sheen seem to be enjoying themselves as underdogs, but the story takes some disorienting turns. It's told in flashback by Gigi (Kate Bosworth),  an heir  to the oil company's fortune. The movie opens with Gigi telling the Big Boss (Alfred Molina) about Fred's journey to court. For reasons that never seem clear, Gigi talks like a femme fatale from a Neo Noir wannabe movie. The company's dirty work is handled by a thuggish sadist (Pablo Schreiber) whose hard-boiled tactics seem too far over the top for a movie that's striving to make a serious statement about the way big business can devastate the American dream. As a result, The Devil Has a Name, which is based on a real story, has its moment but lacks the expected bite.

The Kid Detective

The Kid Detective finds its groove early and mostly sticks to it -- at least until its latter going. Adam Brody plays Abe Applebaum, a small-town private detective who started sleuthing when he was a kid. As a teenager, Abe enjoyed success solving low-grade mysteries but hasn't been able to parley his triumphs into adult success.  Director Evan Morgan drops noir tropes into an unlikely small-town setting as Abe is drawn back into a teen world. Here's how it happens: One day Abe discovers a blonde (Sophie Nelisse) in his office. This time though, the blonde is a high school student who wants Abe to discover who stabbed her boyfriend to death and dumped him in the local creek. The movie follows through on its desire to mix heavy subjects (pedophilia among them) with deadpan humor that both hits and misses. His face covered with stubble, Brody is a familiar type, another guy who must shake off his immaturity. The idea that small towns can hide some very heavy perversity isn't exactly new, and the movie's ending takes a fairly serious turn, maybe too serious for what preceded it. Sarah Sutherland does nice work as Abe's couldn't-care-less assistant, but The Kid Detective doesn't quite click.

Liam Neeson plays a good-guy thief


   Predictable, preposterous, and typically dour, Honest Thief features Liam Neeson as a bank robber whose efforts at reform are thwarted by duplicitous FBI agents.
    These days, Neeson's presence often signals what's in store, and Honest Thief offers little by way of exception to the rule that casts Neeson as the individual who fights his own battles, sometimes to rescue a snatched loved one or, in this case, to save himself from evil FBI agents.
    Neeson plays Tom, a successful bank robber who, after eight years and 12 successful jobs, begins to crave normalcy. Tom's transformation begins when he meets this edition's stereotypical good woman. Annie (Kate Walsh) operates the storage facility in which Tom stashes his loot, some $9 million. 
    Tom, you see, is an unusual thief. He doesn't spend the money he steals. Moreover, he offers to give it all back in return for a light sentence, a couple of years in a Boston minimum security prison that’s close enough for Annie to visit.
    Of course, surrender isn't easy. A couple of devious FBI agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) learn that Tom really is the so-called "In and Out Bandit" and decide to keep the money he has stolen.
  Courtney portrays Agent Nivens, the mastermind of the scheme to steal Tom's stash. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Nivens will do anything to keep the money. He's more of an amoral nut job than his partner in crime. Married with a family, Ramos' Agent Hall suffers pangs of conscience.
    Director Mark Williams leaves few genre bases untouched. Tom not only knows how to crack safes; he also knows something about bombs, knowledge he picked up as a Marine and which allows Tom to fulfill another genre requirement, setting off at least one major explosion.
    "Wow," says Annie as she watches Tom blow a house to smithereens.
    You'd think the writers could have come up with a line that at least employed a word with two syllables. 
   Even Neeson can't sell some of the dialogue, stuff about how the robberies weren't about the money but served as a means to make Tom feel alive. 
   Tom ultimately has to settle matters his way. How else? "I'm coming for you,'' he tells agent Nivens, a line that sounds as if it has been said a thousand times before.
    The actors give it their best and, at 98 minutes, Honest Thief doesn't overstay its welcome but action, violence and the always serious Neeson can't rescue this unremarkable and sometimes ludicrously plotted thriller.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

A powerful portrayal of a working-class writer


    These days when we talk about big movies we're usually referring to comic-book extravaganzas stocked with superheroes and explosive special effects. It's unusual to find a "big" movie that allows its main character to unfold against a sweeping backdrop of politics, change and social upheaval.
    Perhaps that's why director Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden qualifies as a welcome throwback, a movie that's scaled to cover lots of ground and touch a variety of subjects -- all revolving around a writer (Luca Marinelli) who emerges from Italy's  working class.
    But scope isn't the only distinguishing characteristic Martin Eden brings to the screen. It's an Italian movie with an unexpected pedigree. Marcello's movie is a big-screen adaptation of a 1909 semi-autobiographical novel by Jack London.
   Yes, I know that sounds improbable, but Marcello and his leading man mostly succeed in creating a story that boils with incident and ideas, some a bit half-baked, but ideas nonetheless.
  Marcello does a surprisingly good job of shifting London's story to the area around Naples, adding plenty of color and grounding the story in a bit of  working-class romanticism. Occasionally, Marcello shows us the real faces of the residents of Naples, perhaps a bow to Italy's Neo-Realistic tradition.
    Marinelli gives a robust, physically dominating performance that holds the movie together. A sailor by trade, Martin's artistic aspirations are triggered when he becomes involved with a well-to-do family. 
     Martin falls for Elena (Jessica Cressy), the family's daughter, an educated woman who has been exposed to a genteel life of manners. She introduces Martin to Baudelaire and he's off and running on his own, reading everything he can get his hands on.
    He must be on his own because his brother-in-law (Marco Leonardi) throws him out after Martin refuses to join his brother-in-law's business. Martin won't spend his life consumed by work-a-day concerns. When he needs money, he heads out to sea.
    An enthusiastic autodidact, Martin eagerly consumes heady theories. He becomes enthralled with the work of Herbert Spencer, a 19th-century philosopher who concocted the theory of social Darwinism and became a champion of individualism.
    Marco refuses to allow class differences -- one of the movie's more obvious subjects -- to thwart his desire to improve himself through self-education. He has a near-boundless faith in the strength of his individuality, and he won't be dissuaded from writing stories that Elena finds too "raw" and uncompromising. 
    Martin's early work arouses little interest but the self-taught writer perseveres until the day a magazine editor decides to publish one of his stories. An authorial career is launched and, in its latter goings, the movie will see Martin shift to a bombastic narcissist whose belief in himself begins to verge on parody.
   All of this takes place against a backdrop of philosophical struggle. Eventually, Martin acquires a mentor. Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), a socialist and a poet, pushes Martin into the world of politics. 
    Martin, however, remains true to his belief that the individual supersedes the collective and the movie's politics (perhaps clearer to an Italian audience) become a bit muddy. The best that can be said is that Martin seems to scorn anything that might define him as a member of a group.
   The movie loses steam in the final act when Martin allows success to go to his head. The transition from authenticity to an insufferable commitment to his own rugged image never seems entirely convincing, even though Martin is aware of the ways in which his life has become preposterous.
   But that doesn't make the story and its cast, particularly the magnetic Marinelli, any less appealing. Flaws aside, Martin Eden has the one thing its title demands, a powerful main character and a director who knows how to get the most out the actor who's playing him.

A woman's fight to free her husband


    My introduction to Time, a documentary about the struggles of a Louisiana wife to free her imprisoned husband, began with the number 60.
    Watching the film, I learned that Rob Richardson had been sentenced to 60 years for a botched Louisiana bank robbery. I thought I must have misunderstood. Sixty years seemed like an extraordinarily long time for a robbery in which no one was hurt. Must have been 16. But no, I heard right. 
      Contrary to what you might expect, Time has less to do with doing time on the inside than with what happens to those outside prison walls. Director Garrett Bradley focuses on Rob's family, particularly his wife Sibil Fox Richardson, who shared her life Bradley over the two decades in which she worked to bring her husband home.
   Fox  herself had been sentenced to 12 years for driving the getaway car while her husband and a nephew entered the Shreveport Credit Union. She served two and a half years.
   Guilt is not the issue here. The injustice stems from the length of the sentence, the unavailability of parole, and its impact on a mother and her six sons. Bradley doesn't have to say it, but before the film's 81 minutes are done, you may find yourself questioning the whole idea of what punishment means.
    The courts turned Fox Richardson into a single mom who had to cope with raising her children and keeping her family afloat. She was pregnant with twins at the time of her husband's sentencing.
     The Richardsons veered into the bank robbery after a stop at  desperation.  They're not looking for exoneration. Fox understands the role she played a role in what happened to her. She has asked for forgiveness. The kids she's raising seem to be exemplary young people. It's impossible not to conclude that her debt to society has been paid in full -- and with interest.
    The same goes for her husband.
So what we get is something more than a cry for legal justice. Bradley gives us a poetic, heartfelt look at Fox's life, and Time makes it clear that punishment can do more harm than the crime. 
    Sometimes we see Richardson talking in videos she made for her imprisoned husband; sometimes we see home footage of her family. Sometimes we see footage Bradley shot. Together, these various threads create a feeling of intimacy that few documentaries are able to achieve.
    The film doesn't unfold chronologically but commits to a subjective view as Bradley offers us opportunities to contemplate the many meanings of time: how it changes Fox and those around her physically; how it seems to go on forever when a goal seems unattainable; and then there are the small, agonizing moments in which Bradley asks us to sit with time, to feel it expanding to the point where it threatens to swallow us.
     It's maddening, for example, to watch a very polite Fox on hold as she waits for a secretary to tell her whether a judge has reached a decision about her husband. It's an encapsulating moment that opens a window into Fox's soul: her patience, her anger, her determination, and her ability to control her emotions as she works her way though a situation in which she's dependent on the decisions of others.
    Anyone who has ever found themselves in trouble would be lucky to have a woman such as Fox Richardson behind them. She gives new meaning to what it means to have someone's back. She's also a living testament to what family ties can mean, having kept those ties alive during the 21 years of her husband's incarceration. 
    Bradley bravely avoids the bog of legal maneuvering. Instead, she shines light on one woman's awesome commitment. What sustained Fox through her tribulations can't simply be attributed to persistence. It's something more, a mission driven by love, devotion and an insistence that -- no matter what -- her family would not shatter. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Bob‘s Cinema Diary: 10/9/20 — My movie week beginning with ‘The War With Grandpa’

       For various reasons — not all related to the national news — the week of Oct. 5  began in depressing fashion. Yes, Trump treated a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans as an excuse for demonstrating image-stoking bravado. Yes, I finished the novel Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar and felt a touch of loneliness for the company of its narrator, a Muslim steeped in the contradictions of being an American whose family hailed from Pakistan. And, yes, the sustained ugliness of public life continues to be inescapable.
     There's more. The 2020 edition of the Denver Film Festival looms, but — unlike in previous years — I won’t be seeing old friends because most of the festival is taking place virtually, as it should. 
    And then there’s the chaos related to release-upon-release of movies that make me to wonder how much the barrage of streaming opportunities and limited theatrical possibilities matter to anyone. To keep up, The New York Times employs a battery of reviewers, many contributing short reviews. Last week, I reviewed  seven movies and couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a Prufrockian quality to it all, measuring life in tiny increments, movies that come and go.
And then there’s the movies themselves. So, a few words about what I watched this week.
War with Grandpa
opens this week; call it an intergenerational comedy starring Robert De Niro with featured appearances by Christopher Walken and Cheech Marin. De Niro, of course, is no stranger to low-grade comedies, having made all manner of them, many quite popular: the Meet the Parents series, Analyze This among those that have been successful at the box office.
   It's difficult for some of us who honed our movie taste in the 1970s not to see these cinematic cash registers as betrayals or maybe they should be taken as warnings. Perhaps we were wrong to invest so much hope in actors we thought were redefining performance and, in the process, changing movies themselves.
    You know the names: De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman, and more.
     So here’s War With Grandpa, a movie that has no particular reason for being other than to follow its formula. 
    De Niro plays Ed,  a widower who moves in with the family of his married daughter (Uma Thurman) because he’s no longer able to live independently — a move that never feels unconvincing because Ed hardly seems physically or mentally incompetent.
    To adjust to Ed's presence, the host family awards him the bedroom occupied by the family’s son Peter (Oakes Egley). Two sister siblings (Laura Morano and Poppy Gagnon) play less of a role. Besieged and displaced, Peter is forced to move into the attic, which is rundown in the way that you might expect an attic in a movie to be rundown. Birds fly in. A mouse roams freely. 
  I’m thinking Mom and Dad (Rob Riggle) might be candidates for abuse charges. Aren’t they supposed to make sure that the kid’s quarters amount to something more than a place to stow familial overflow?
    The movie’s title tells you most of what you need to know. Egged on by generic-looking middle-school classmates, young Peter declares war on grandpa for having invaded his territory. 
    When reason fails, grandpa decides to fight back.
    One of the major laugh scenes involves grandpa awkwardly trying to keep his balance as he slips on a stream of marbles that have been unleashed beneath him. His fall would decommission most grandpas, but we're supposed to excuse such assaults in the name of physical comedy.
     Did I mention the very large snake Peter puts in grandpa's bed?
    Director Tim Hill (The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie)  stocks the movie with more such shenanigans as he follows the blueprint that will lead to the ultimate battle, which takes place at the birthday celebration of the family’s youngest daughter, who happens to have been born on Christmas Eve. 
   At this point, the destruction rises to epic levels with Hill trying to wring new levels from what feels like spare parts from other movies.
    I would have enjoyed seeing more of Walken and Marin, particularly Walken, who plays Ed's friend Jerry, an aging man who fills his home with toys that, one supposes, are meant to divert him from the reality of any approaching infirmities: a One-Wheel board challenges Jerry’s balance and affords him an opportunity to fall on his ass, too.
    Enough of this. I’m sure you get the idea. I leave it to you to decide whether you wish to venture into the theatrical world during a pandemic to see The War With Grandpa

    So what else? Well, how about From the Vine?

   Director Sean Cisterna is so determined to charm us with scenery that From the Vine plays like the cinematic equivalent of a travel brochure. And that, for me, was the best part. The setting: Acerenza, a medieval hilltop town south of Naples.
    The story centers on the Italian-born Marco (Joe Pantoliano), a businessman who runs a small American automobile manufacturing company. Disgruntled by his board's refusal to acknowledge environmental concerns, Marco quits, moves to Italy against his wife's wishes, occupies his late grandfather's spacious house, and decides to enter the wine businesses. 
    Craftsmanship and hands-on labor will replace the brutalizing abstractions of corporate life -- or so the fantasy goes. No troublesome construction problems emerge, as they did in Under the Tuscan Sun. The residence that belonged to Marco's grandfather needs little by way of reclamation. It’s Marco's spirit that undergoes renovation.
     Adapted from a novel by Kenneth Canio Cancellara, the screenplay adds an array of dutifully colorful characters.
     These include the local policeman (Marco Leonardi) and a disheveled squatter (Tony Nappo) who has taken up residence on Marco's land. Conveniently, Nappo's Enzo used to work  for a company that produces special oak barrels in which fine wines can be aged. This will come in handy later. 
     The property's caretaker (Toni Nardi) fills out the roster of characters; he’s a  wine expert who eventually agrees to help Marco realize his dream.
    To make matters even better, Marco's dream neatly intersects with the town's revival. A restored vineyard will cure the town’s  unemployment and perhaps even stem the flight of the village's young people. 
    Eventually, Marco's wife (Wendy Crewson) and his grown daughter (Paula Brancati)  travel to Italy. They plan to drag Marco back to the US to resume the life he's sworn off. But Marco is too busy having flashbacks to his youth or listening to the leaves on the olive trees talk to him, an occurrence visualized with help of an animated effect.
    Only the most naive of viewers possibly could believe that the movie will have an ending that does anything but confirm the validity of its fantasies. 
    If you enjoy movies in which the major feature is mildly expressed niceness, From the Vine may prove pleasing and, yes, there’s all that scenery, idealized to the max, as is everything else in this Italo-escapist massage of a movie.

Anything else?

Well, yes, My Name is Pedro, a documentary that plunges headlong into many fractious issues. Director Lillian LaSalle tells the story of Pedro Santana, a dedicated educator who has worked as a teacher, a principal, and an assistant school superintendent. The heart of the story takes place after Santana moves from the Bronx to the East Ramapo school district outside New York City. The community Santana inherits is beset by problems. Hasidic Jews, who don't send their kids to public schools, compose three-quarters of the district's population.
    To further complicate matters, the Hasidic Jews also constitute the majority of the school board and, according to the movie, are  intent on reducing funding for the community’s multi-racial educational institutions, channeling the funds into the religious schools they favor.
   Santana turns out to be one of those people with a personality so large, it can’t be contained by institutional boundaries, an innovative teacher whose concern for kids seems undeniable.   
    He wants them to succeed. He’s imaginative when it comes to designing curriculum. He sports a wild crop of hair that must be taken as a statement, something he wants people to notice. Wherever he goes, he's an undeniable presence.  
     Santana’s personal story intrigues, but the community he serves reflects the tensions that often arise when various ethnicities try to navigate the same choppy waters.
    If you’re unfamiliar with Santana’s life, I won’t tell you more. I will, however, say that a generally inspirational story isn't without complications and setbacks, including a certification scandal that ostensibly wound up costing Santana his job. 
     LaSalle left me with a few questions that I thought she might have answered, but in its overall parameters, My Name Is Pedro, qualifies as an important cinematic document with plenty of live-wire urgency.
   As that’s my movie week.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll return to my state of low-level depression, a curtain that closes shortly after I stop writing. I’ll be peeking out again soon.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 10/2/20 -- A Call to Spy, The Keeper, and Once Upon a River

A Call to Spy

 Few things remind us of what might have been than a fascinating story told without the pulsing urgency it deserves. That's the case with A Call to Spy, the story of a secret British intelligence organization that sent women into unoccupied territory in France to report on German activities during the early days of World War II. Composed largely of amateurs, the force put many women at risk as they tried to gather intelligence on the invading Nazis. The story begins in 1941. A Jewish refugee from Romania, Vera Atkins (Stana Katnic) takes charge of recruiting efforts while she attempts to obtain papers that will allow her to remain in London. The movie focuses mostly on one of Atkins' recruits.  Sarah Megan Thomas portrays Virginia Hall, an American woman who unsuccessfully tried to join the US diplomatic core. She's also disabled. Having lost  a leg in an accident, she now has one wooden leg. Radhika Apte plays Noor Inayat Khan, a wireless operator who also becomes part of the force. The spies face a variety of difficulties: encounters with complicit residents of France and with German soldiers who were poised to complete the occupation. Director Lydia Dean Pilcher has hold of a strong story that isn't widely known. Moreover, Thomas' escape from occupied France, which required crossing the Pyrenees on foot, generates something close to amazement. Still, A Call to Spy fails to take full advantage of the thriller elements that might have elevated it from a movie of interest to a movie of riveting power.

The Keeper

Bert Trautmann became a sports icon in Britain, having played goal keeper for Manchester City from 1949 to 1964. Trautmann's ascendance as a national football hero took off in 1956 when he guided Manchester to a championship in a game he finished despite having broken his neck. But Trautmann was not a typical British sports figure. Born in Bremen, he fought for the Germans during World War II before landing in Britain as a prisoner of war. He stayed and met with plenty of resistance, particularly early on when memories of the war were still vivid. The Keeper, a movie directed by Marcus H. Rosenmuller, takes a by-the-numbers approach to Trautmann's story. David Kross stars as the goalkeeper who wins
 over his future wife's  cantankerous father (John Henshaw).  Trautmann and his  British wife (Freya Mavor) later lost a young son in an accident. Harry Melling appears as the British sergeant who works extra hard to make life miserable for the German prisoners he supervises in England. As can be the case with movies that want to make clear points (in this case, one about forgiveness), The Keeper isn't strong on nuance. The movie mostly accepts Trautmann's assertion that he was a young soldier with no alternative but to fight in the Wehrmacht. An appealing cast sells the story, but questions of choice and complicity don't always fit neatly into a sports story that features a likable main character whose “guilt” is concentrated in a single war-time incident.

Once Upon a River
Adapting a coming-of-age novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, director Haroula Rose drains her movie of everything that might be deemed inessential. Her sparse rendering of a story about 15-year-old Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna) feels like the kind of effort that once defined indie cinema -- minimal and striving for authenticity. Margo lives with her Native American father (Tatanka Means) in rural Michigan. A sexual episode with a predatory uncle (Coburn Goss) sparks a story that puts Margo in flight. She commandeers a rowboat and takes to the river that flows past the small town where she lives. Her goal: to find the mother (Lindsay Pulsipher) she hasn't seen for years. En route, Margot meets a young man (Ajuawak Kapashesit) who sleeps with her but urges her to go back to school lest her life drift into as series of hopeless dead-end jobs. Later, she finds temporary refuge with a dying old man (John Ashton),  still chain-smoking despite his emphysema. Rose works hard at capturing her characters in real and unvarnished fashion. Moreover, Margo's ultimate reunion with her mother brims with obvious realizations about the yawning gap between them. Well and good, but Once Upon a River -- set during the '70s -- doesn't always work on an affective level. Emotionally well-defended and somewhat stoic, Margo isn't the easiest character to approach. Too often, the movie leaves on the outside looking in.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

An assassin with a strange MO

     Visually arresting and steeped in bloody chills, Possessor does something that many horror movies fail to accomplish. From the start, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg presents us with a strange, forbidding world. There's hardly a moment of Possessor that doesn't sustain its weird, unsettling  mood. Don't look for guideposts.
       (In case you haven’t already guessed, Brandon's father is David Cronenberg, no slouch when it comes to brainy horror.)
       Although Possessor deals with recognizable themes -- identity, privacy, and the link between sex and violence -- it  seldom feels anything less than an expression of high artifice. 
      Take that as a tribute to Cronenberg's skill: Steeped in disorientation, his movie surrounds us like a creepy embrace -- albeit one that's often followed by a piercing knife to the jugular.
     Of course, there's a story. Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, a woman with a difficult job. Tasya works for Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), proprietor of an odd business. Girder projects Tasya into other people's bodies so that she can carry out assassinations.
     To return from an assignment, Tasya must shoot herself. Once her host body dies, she'll wake up gasping in the room where Girder launches all this body invading.
      I know it sounds crazy, but Cronenberg plays things straight, employing arty effects to show us how these transformations look.
      The main part of the story begins when Tasya is ordered to enter the body of  Colin (Christopher Abbott), a man with an unsavory occupation. Colin spies on others, using a virtual-reality device that relies on cameras planted in places where cameras shouldn't be. 
     The company for which Colin works is run by an arrogant businessman (Sean Bean): Colin is engaged to the man's daughter (Tuppence Middleton). 
     Tasya has three days to use Colin's body to kill both father and daughter, off himself, and return home.
     Thankfully, Cronenberg doesn't overdo the gender confusion that becomes available to him when Tasya occupies a man's body. He wisely leaves it to us to wonder what she's feeling.
      Not surprisingly, things go wrong. Tasya already has shown signs of cracking under the strain of her work. She's separated from her husband (Rossif Sutherland) who has taken over custody of their young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot).
     No fair telling more about a plot that takes time revealing itself, sometimes opts for atmosphere over clarity. Know, too, that Cronenberg spills plenty of plasma in the movie's highly stylized displays of violence. 
     Among other things, Cronenberg seems interested in the mind-warping powers inherent in Tasya's job. Tasya must learn to act out the various roles she plays and we're always aware that when we're looking at Colin, Tasya is pulling the strings.
     That's where I'll leave it, except to say that the movie raises  an intriguing question about the perils of performance. If a self becomes too lost, can it ever be recovered?

A charming father/daughter comedy


    Sophia Coppola brings a light but knowing touch to On the Rocks, a comedy that teams Bill Murray and Rashida Jones and is bound to evoke memories of Murray's terrific turn in 2003's Lost in Translation, another movie in which he teamed with Coppola. 
    But this is a different Murray, at once more familiar but also cracking open new terrain as a father who believes that he must  help his daughter (Jones) determine whether her husband is cheating.
     Murray's performance is so engaging, it's easy to forget that Jones keeps pace. She portrays Laura, a Manhattan novelist who's juggling motherhood (two young children) and a stalled attempt at writing a new mystery. She also suspects that her husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair. 
     It's not difficult to understand why Laura has become  suspicious. Frustrated and harried, she's pretty much on her own. Wayans' Dean constantly travels for work, some sort of tech business that seems to be booming. 
     And what's that woman's cosmetic bag doing in Dean's  suitcase anyway?
    Coppola captures a level of Manhattan living in which no one spends much time worrying about money and in which busy lives are the norm. The movie's surfaces are warm and inviting, but On the Rocks boasts just enough depth to kick superficiality to the curb. 
     The story opens with Murray's Felix speaking to his then young daughter. "Remember, don't give your heart to any boys. You're mine until you're married. Then you're still mine."
     This kind of statement could have opened a door to psychological waters in which another movie might have drowned. 
      But as the story unfolds, we learn that Felix views his daughter as a companion and playmate. And despite frequent expressions of exasperation, Laura enjoys meeting her father's expectations. 
     Murray makes it easy to see just how persuasive Felix can be as a man of relaxed charm and good humor. He's rich, well-traveled, appealing and obviously smart enough to have made a small fortune in the art business, wealth that entitles him to move about the city in a chauffeur-driven limousine. 
     He also owns a classic sports car, the centerpiece of a very funny scene. Watching Felix talk a New York cop out of giving him a speeding ticket makes for a richly humorous pleasure. 
      When it comes to male and female behavior, though , Felix remains happily "unwoke." As an experienced philanderer, he  knows enough about men to be confident in his judgment.
      Although he fudges a bit here and there, we suspect he's certain that Dean is cheating. Of course, the male behavior Felix knows best is his own.
     The movie's plot finds Felix suggesting a variety of measures to track Dean's movements. 
      By the time Felix and Laura follow Dean to a Mexico, traces of sitcom thinking have begun to peek through. Still, the Mexican setting allows Murray to sing a surprisingly sweet version of Mexicali Rose.     
        From the start, it's clear that Coppola plans to travel first class, putting us into luxe Manhattan settings, swank restaurants, and upper-crust parties. She's selling a New York fantasy that's difficult to resist. 
    And in these COVID times, not only does resistance seem pointless, it would be downright foolish.  Obviously, Coppola had no idea that her movie would hit during a pandemic. But On the Rocks qualifies as a smart piece of escapism and a perfect antidote to the desperation of the moment. Enjoy.