Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 11/24/20 -- 'Mosul' and 'Last Call'


Mosul, an Iraq-based story that charts the activities of a squad of renegade warriors, takes us into familiar war-time movie turf: Buildings demolished by explosions, civilian lives destroyed, and homeless children wandering bombed-out streets. I don't mean to be callous but it's important to note that director Matthew Michael Carnahan isn't exactly breaking new cinematic ground. Mosul is more of an addition to the canon of intense war movies in the spirit of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. At the same time, it should also be said that Mosul commands attention because of its fresh perspective; the movie tells its story from the viewpoint of Iraqis whose lives have been shattered by war. Set in 2017 and based on a New Yorker article, Mosel pits  a group of rogue fighters against the by-then staggering fighters of Isis. The group's leader (a convincingly tough Suhail Dabbach) has concocted a mission whose purpose doesn’t become clear until the final going. Early on, the team is joined by a young Kurd (Adam Bessa) who gradually blends into the squad, known as the Nineveh SWAT team. Shot entirely in Arabic, it's not always easy to tell who the SWAT team is fighting. But that may be the point: Order has so broken down that it's not always possible to discern who is a friend and who, foe. By the end, you'll know why the men have persisted in their self-defined mission, a touch that seems intended to justify their hardness.  An atmosphere of chaos precludes deep character development. Still, there's something to be said for a movie that tries to shed an American perspective. The fighters in Mosul aren't battling to preserve freedom or for any other abstraction: They're fighting in hopes that they can keep their loved ones alive.

Last Call
When I was young, I regarded Dylan Thomas as the greatest of all poets. But time marched on and took my taste in poetry along with it.  Thomas, though still a worthy poet, appealed to me because he lived hard and died young, a romantic notion to which only the young are naive enough to subscribe. Last Call, a movie from director Steven Bernstein, both feeds and debunks the Thomas myth. Shot in black-and-white with interludes of color, the movie centers on the performance of Rhys Ifans as Thomas, a dissolute artist who spends much of his time in the US in the White Horse bar in Greenwich Village. He also ventures onto college campuses,  reading his poetry (declaiming might be a better word) to adoring college girls. Bernstein adopts what might be called a "poetic" approach to the material. We see Thomas's hallucinations as he spends his day drinking 18 double scotches in the White Horse, giving each drink a name. Enthusiasm marks an early drink, for example. We also see various figures from Thomas's life, notably his severely neglected wife (Romola Garai), the man arranging his tour (Tony Hale), and the doctor (John Malkovich) who understands that Thomas has entered a death spiral. More significantly, Rodrigo Santoro plays the bartender who pours Thomas's scotch and occasionally jabs at the great man's leaky ego. Although the movie runs for about an hour and 48 minutes, it can feel longer because it's like spending a day in a bar. Inebriation proves a mixed drink flavored with charm, intellect, wit, and cruelty. Ifans sometimes seems to be mumbling — albeit quite intelligently. Malkovich adds a serving of wry cynicism, bringing his trademark enunciation to the proceedings. Still, hanging out with drinks -- even those who achieved legendary status -- seldom proves enlightening.  

Thursday, November 19, 2020

How a great movie was written


     In 1940, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz found himself sequestered in Victorville, California. He’d been sent to a remote ranch by Orson Welles to write the screenplay that turned out to be Citizen Kane
     Director David Fincher has taken on the task of telling Mankiewicz’s story, a look at a caustically cynical wit who could be amused by Hollywood's emptiness while still knowing how to navigate its treacheries.
     Beautifully filmed in black-and-white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Mank peers into the corrupted soul of  Hollywood of the early 1940s, a time when the movie industry tried to establish its right-wing bona fides in California even as Hitler rose to power across the Atlantic and the country had yet to recover from the Great Depression.

     Built around an intriguing performance by Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, the movie sometimes feels like a breezy collection of bold-faced names from yesteryear -- from Ben Hecht to George S. Kaufman to S.J. Perelman

    The story eventually draws its energy from tension resulting from Mankiewicz's real-life inspiration for the character of John Foster Kane, none other than media titan William Randolph Hearst, played with surprising subtlety by Charles Dance. 

    Mankiewicz knew Hearst and was a frequent guest at Hearst’s San Simeon retreat, a lavish pleasure palace where Hearst entertained friends and where he and his mistress, Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried), dwelled in isolated splendor. Hearst seldom found himself in agreement with Mankiewicz but thought him amusing.

     Working from a script by his late father Jack Fincher, the director includes plenty of famous Mankiewicz bon mots.  After a display of drunken vomiting at a dinner party,  Mankiewicz supposedly excused himself by saying that at least the white wine had come up with the fish. Not quite enough for redemption, but bad, either.

      A quick Google search will show that Mankiewicz looked nothing like Oldman, which may distract aficionados or provide further proof of Oldman’s versatility. Credit Oldman with fashioning a character who tried to balance a need for success and money with an underlying desire to ridicule and dismiss the powerful barons who held the purse strings. 

      Mank will be of particular interest to those familiar with the controversy about who deserves credit for writing Citizen Kane. Officially, Welles and Mankiewicz shared credit, as well as an Academy Award for best screenplay. 

     But in 1971, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote  a provocative two-part story that awarded the lion’s share of credit to Mankiewicz. Kael’s conclusions have been disputed by others and I have no interest in stepping into waters that have been roiled by deep research and critical partisanship.

     If you care, the movie seems to favor the idea that joint credit for the Kane screenplay was undeserved.

     Notice needs to be taken of the many supporting roles that enliven Mank: Arliss Howard turns up as a doltish Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM; Toby Leonard Moore portrays David O. Selznick, and Ferdinand Kingsley offers his version of Irving Thalberg.

      If you don't know who any of these folks are, Mank may require you to spend some time with Google, which means it's a bit of a film buff's night out.

     What about Welles, you ask? He’s played by Tom Burke, but you won’t see much of him until near the movie’s end when Welles and Mankiewicz fight about who’ll receive credit for the Kane screenplay, which everyone acknowledges to be brilliant.

      Others in the cast deserve at least cursory mention.  Lily Collins portrays Rita Alexander, the British secretary  hired to type the pages Mankiewicz — bed-ridden with a broken leg — dictated. Tuppence Middleton plays Sara Mankiewicz, the writer’s wife, a woman who abided Mank's alcoholism, gambling, and womanizing. Tom Pelphrey appears as Herman’s bother, Joseph — who went on to write and direct any number of memorable movies himself, All About Eve among them.

     Sam Troughton takes a turn as producer John Houseman, who Welles occasionally dispatched to Victorville to check on Mankiewicz’s progress and to monitor his drinking. 

     Perhaps inspired by Kane’s complex structure, Fincher moves his story out of Mankiewicz’s Victorville retreat by flashing back to better and worse times. He highlights Mankiewicz’s relationship with Marion Davies, supposedly the model for the woman Charles Foster Kane embarrassingly attempted to turn into an opera diva in Citizen Kane.

     I’m not sure if Fincher was trying to give the movie topical zing but he spends a fair amount of time on the California 1934 gubernatorial race in which Hollywood's upper echelon rallied to defeat author Upton Sinclair,  the Democratic candidate who was smeared as anti-American and a communist. 

       The screenplay suggests that the race may have marked the  beginning of manufacturing news to seduce a gullible public.

      By making a movie about the making of a movie, Fincher has taken on a gargantuan task  — not to mention that he's dealing with what might be the greatest American movie of them all. Don’t fret. Kane is a far better movie than the movie about Kane and Fincher's effort occasionally goes slack. 

      Citizen Kane remains a great movie even if you know nothing about Hearst or any of the other so-called models for its  characters. Kane may have been of its moment, but it's too damn good to stay there.

       Still, don't sell  Mank short. Fincher takes us back to a time when smart, literary types invaded Hollywood, collected some big paydays, and, in some cases, wrote fine movies. I'm not sure whether to view it as a footnote to a masterwork or an entertainment in its own right, but Fincher's Mank proves a dense, gossipy pleasure.

Performances elevate 'Hillbilly Elegy'

     What could be more uplifting? A young man overcomes poverty and a host of family issues that include his mother’s self-destructive bouts with addiction. Despite what seem like insurmountable obstacles,  this young man manages to attend college and obtain a law degree from Yale. He ascends,  yes, but he never forgets his Kentucky and Ohio background. Warts and all, he honors his family.
     That's the gist of director Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of J.D. Vance's memoir about growing up among "hill" people who never quite shake their Appalachian roots.
      Howard's  "elegy" distinguishes itself with two strong performances. An unrecognizable Glenn Close plays the family's grandmother, Mamaw. Mamaw embodies the movie's survivalist virtues. Her husband was an alcoholic and her daughter Beth (Amy Adams) has destroyed her life with drugs while floating through bad relationships and lost jobs.  
     But Mamaw refuses to let Beth's son, J.D., throw his life away. She knows pain and suffering but she's as hard as an aging artery and Close turns her into an unapologetic battler.
     When everything else seems to be failing, Mamaw takes over. The wayward J.D. (played as a kid by Owen Asztalos), moves in with Mamaw. She lays down the law, a mighty act of will.
     For her part, Adams gives Beth the volatility that accompanies a life that's constantly spinning out of control. Beth's efforts at conducting something resembling normal life waver between comical and pathetic. 
      The movie shifts time periods, flashing back to the 1990s from the first decade of the 21st Century,  a stop-and-start again structure that can make the story feel longer than its one hour and 56 minutes.
     By the time J.D. heads to law school, he's being played by Gabriel Basso.  He also has an encouraging girlfriend, an East-Indian/American portrayed by Frieda Pinto
     On the verge of capitalizing on his law-school bona fides, J.D. is summoned home by his sister (Haley Bennett) because Mom has overdosed. Bennett's character, who married and remained in Middletown, Ohio, has exhausted her capacity to deal with a mother who seems irredeemable. 
     Far from perfect, Hillbilly Elegy, with a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor, calibrates Vance's story for multiplex audiences ready to devour a family tale that gives a full-throated endorsement to tough love, the kind that allows Mamaw to save young J.D.
    The storytelling can be uneven, but to ignore Hillbilly Elegy would mean missing a chance to watch Close build a character from the hard, gravelly soil of deprivation and to experience Adams as a mercurial woman who lights fires that threaten to torch everything her character touches.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 11/20/20 -- 'The Last Vermer' and 'The Sound of Metal'

The Last Vermeer

In The Last Vermeer, Guy Pearce plays Han van Meegeren, a notorious Dutch art forger who famously sold a fake Vermeer to Nazi bigwig Hermann Goring during World War II. Director Dan Friedkin centers his movie on a post-war accusation: Van Meegeren, Dutch authorities argued, betrayed his country by selling a national treasure to Goring. Van Meegeren concocted an unusual defense: He hadn't sold a Vermeer to a Nazi: He sold a forgery that he skillfully had painted. The story focuses on a Dutch Jew (Claes Bang) who, at the end of the war, serves in the Canadian army. His job: to root out those among the Dutch who collaborated with the Nazis. Initially convinced of van Meegeren's guilt, Bang's character comes to understand that the man was a gifted art mimic who had engineered a colossal fraud. Sincere and stalwart, Bang's Capt. Joseph Piller gets crosswise with a Dutch investigator (August Diehl) who's eager to put van Meegeren in front of a firing squad. The movie flirts with issues involving the complex behaviors that emerged as the Dutch tried to survive the Nazis. Piller fled into the underground: His wife (Marie Bach Hansen) made compromises to survive. Though it veers from the real story, The Last Vermeer remains fascinating for Pearce's portrayal of a man of enormous ego and moral flexibility, a character who contrasts mightily with the dour Piller. It's 
also sobering to know that a gifted forger can fool even those who are recognized as experts.

 Sound of Metal
In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays a punk-rock drummer who may have lost his hearing as a result of exposure to ear-splitting levels of noise. The movie isn't definitive about what caused Ahmed's Ruben to lose his hearing, but a musician who can't hear obviously finds himself at a great disadvantage. A recovering addict, Ruben is intent on regaining his hearing by way of cochlear implants, which are expensive and beyond his immediate financial reach. Ruben's girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) insists that he check into a facility run by a deaf Vietnam vet (Paul Raci) who trains people to live with their deafness. Raci's Joe doesn't view deafness as a disability but as a gateway to different forms of communication. Director Darius Marder creates a sound design that frequently mirrors Rubin's perspective. Ahmed creates a character whose nervous energies  and anxieties give the story a jittery edge. The movie ultimately leaves it to us to decide whether implants or adjustment to a life of deafness makes the most sense for Ruben. Marder reaches for    metaphor as Joe encourages Ruben to find the still, quiet place in himself, something that clearly has eluded a life marked by addiction, drumming and frantic movement. Whatever you think about Ruben's choice, you find yourself wondering how much of the noise that surrounds us really is worth hearing.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Fossils, sex and lots of bleak weather

     There's very little dialogue in Ammonite, a deeply naturalistic movie about the relationship between two 19th Century women portrayed by Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet.
     Director Francis Lee places her characters in an environment marked by chill and bleakness, a British coastal town where Winslet's Mary Anning operates a small shop that sells shells, fossils, and curios. 
     That may sound like a frivolous occupation, but nothing about Anning (based on a real character ) can be considered flighty. An intensely focused paleontologist, Anning has walled herself off from any sort of emotional life. 
    Mary lives with her mother (Gemma Jones),  a crone who hovers over a mantle full of small canine figurines, sad substitutes for the children she's lost. 
     Ronan's Charlotte arrives in the movie with her husband (James McArdle), a fossil-collecting enthusiast who wants to study (if only briefly) with Anning. Mary reluctantly accepts the  husband as a student, mostly because he's willing to pay. Mary's mother, knowing they could use the money, insists.
      McArdle's character quickly departs, leaving his emotionally and physically depleted wife with Mary, who gradually accepts a role as Charlotte's caretaker and later sexual partner.
     Considering that Mary and Charlotte don't have a truly lively  conversation until the movie's third and final act, the work of both Ronan and Winslet must be richly suggestive. 
      Minimizing dialogue puts a heavy burden on actors; Winslet in particular conveys a raging, embittered inner life while maintaining a frosty exterior. She gets no help from costumes either, spending much of the movie in a tatty blue dress.
      Lee does everything possible to ground her movie in physical reality. I should say that I'm partial to movies that commit to showing us what it felt like to live in a specific place at a particular time, everything from food on the table to the crudeness of daily existence.
     Interior scenes in Anning's home are dominated by creaking wooden floorboards and the Dorset coast feels like a chastisement, a forbidding mass of mud and rock. 
      Lee could have done more to highlight Anning's intellect, which takes a back seat to the relationship between two women, both of whom desperately need revivifying.
     Charlotte's pallor and depression stem from the recent loss of a child. We don't need to be told that Mary has spent years living with her sexuality in a sternly repressive environment.
    Winslet and Ronan approach the movie's sex scenes with an initial tenderness that quickly reveals itself as hungry passion.
     It's difficult to watch Ammonite without thinking about last year's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which also dealt with women in love. 
      Both movies have a kind of hermetically sealed quality, which in the case of Ammonite, is broken by the welcome presence of Fiona Shaw, as a woman with whom Mary had a previous affair and who, alas, proves more lively than either of the two principal characters, a flower that somehow managed to grow in an environment defined by prehistoric rock.

Their friendship is ... well ... complicated

    Few things are worse than a movie that tries to be quirky, say a bromance that presents itself in discreetly titled chapters, I'm Sorry and Let Go, for example. And how about a movie that  occasionally stops the story in its tracks for odd musical interludes? 
    But damn if the approach doesn't work in The Climb, a movie that's loopy in all the best ways, which means that it travels its own peculiar path while examining the often subversive intricacies of male friendship.
      The Climb centers on two long-time pals, Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin). When the movie opens, the two are biking up a hill in France. They huff, puff, and have the conversation that will spin the movie's comic wheels.
     Mike tells Kyle that he's sleeping with Kyle's fiancee, a revelation that turns over the fertile psychological turf  from which the movie draws its depth.  Mike always seems intent on testing his friendship with Kyle in ways that can be cruel. He specializes in sabotaging Kyle's relationships with women.
    Long after his movie-opening engagement has gone kaput, Kyle is poised to marry Marissa (Gayle Rankin). That means we're waiting to see whether Mike again can ruin his friend's chance for happiness.
     Written by Covino and Martin, the script places Mike and Kyle in a variety of situations that bring the two men into sharp focus. Kyle's a nice guy who has difficulty saying "no" to anything.  Mike can't seem to restrain his deviousness
      Covino, who directs, even manages to pull off a holiday gathering without sinking the movie. And there aren't many comedies that successfully could pause to listen to a group of workers in a cemetery sing or stage a bachelor party that involves ice fishing or ... well ... that's enough of a sampler.
     Funny, perceptive, and unafraid to speak in its own voice, The Climb marks a true cinematic refreshment. It's not always easy to predict where it's headed and Covino employs a variety of inventive visual techniques, long single shots that require the actors to precisely hit their marks.
     The Climb builds its comedy around two unlikely guys who you may not always like but who play an engagingly oddball duet in which they're irrevocably linked -- friends to the end, but always with some kind of price to pay.

Who knew? Peter Pan and Alice were siblings


      We may not have reached a post-racial moment in reality, but the movies have found one in Come Away, the screen's latest storybook mashup. 
     Director Brenda Chapman assembles a strong cast as she builds her story around characters from two major tales: J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
     Chapman's multiracial cast centers on two children from the Littleton family: Peter (Jordan A. Nash) and Alice (Keira Chansa).  Chapman's storybook movie includes a fair share of dark moments, beginning with the drowning death of a third Littleton child, the whip-smart David (Reece Yates).
    Initially narrated by the grown Alice (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), we first meet the happy Littleton family with Mom (Angelina Jolie) and Dad (David Oyelowo) presiding over a joyful brood. 
   The arrival of Mom's sister (Anna Chancellor) signals oncoming trouble. Chancellor's Eleanor believes that Jolie’s character has married beneath her status. Rather than pursuing a conventional occupation, Oyelowo’s Jack builds models of sailing ships. 
     As the story progresses, we also learn that a long-standing gambling problem has saddled Dad with debt.

      To further complicate matters, young Peter blames himself for his brother’s death. On the eve of David's departure for an elite boarding school, Peter persuaded his older brother to join him in a game that leads to David's drowning.

     Chapman, who won an Oscar for directing Pixar’s 2012 Brave, does a fine job bringing the movie’s fantasy elements to life. An overturned rowboat becomes a sailing ship when the kids pretend to be pirates. Chapman wants us to see the world through the eyes of the movie's children.

      As is the case with many such fantasies, the theme involves assertions about the primacy of imagination, the suggestion being that the transition to adulthood involves a whole lot of pain.

      Packed with incident and plot, Come Away touches many bases and makes room for appearances from such veteran actors as Michael Caine, Derek Jacoby, and Clarke Peters, all of whom sound wildly different notes in Chapman’s sweeping tale, which turns out to be a prequel to more familiar stories involving both Peter and Alice.

      The screenplay tilts more heavily toward Peter, emphasizing his insistence on remaining a boy, an enchanted state that  enables him to avoid the tribulations of adulthood that afflict his parents.

       I’ve never understood the appeal of perpetual childhood, but Come Away suggests that an unbridled imagination remains the key to freedom. 

      Chapman can’t fuse all the movie’s varied ingredients and Dad’s encounter with the man to whom he owes money (an impressive David Gyasi) probably gives the movie one plot thread too many. 

    Still, at its best, Come Away stands as a nicely realized bit of fantasy filmmaking that, like all the best such movies, isn’t afraid to peer into forbidding corners.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 11/12/20 -- 'Fireball: Visitors From a Darker World,' 'Echo Boomers,' and 'Where She Lies'

Fireball: Visitors FromDarker Worlds

Director Werner Herzog, this time along with scientist Clive Oppenheimer, delves into the subject of meteors and the dangers they can pose to Earth. If you know anything about Herzog, you'll immediately understand that Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds will be poetic, idiosyncratic, and full of captivating eccentricities.  In pursuit of all things meteor, Herzog visits a variety of far-off places: from Mecca in Saudi Arabia to Castel Gandolfo (summer home to popes) to Antarctica. He also introduces us to a variety of voluble scientists who eagerly reveal their obsessions with these deep-space visitors, so much so that Herzog sometimes ends their disquisitions, noting that any more would be boring. Herzog offers commentary and Oppenheimer, who collaborated with Herzog on Into the Inferno (2016), does much of the interviewing.  We learn a lot about how meteors have shaped everything from evolution to the Mexican Day of the Dead.  Herzog not only conveys the immensity of a cosmos which may harbor objects that don't bode well for mankind, he also highlights fascinating human idiosyncrasies. Oh, and by the way, Fireball also offers insight into the origins of life on Earth. 

Echo Boomers

Oh, the woe of millennials. They can't find the jobs they're sure they deserve and their path to the great American dream seems to have been blocked at every turn. Echo Boomers subscribes, at least partially, to this self-pitying view, becoming a thriller about disgruntled boomers who turn to crime and convince themselves that they're making bold political statements in the process. When these th
ieves invade the homes of the rich, they also destroy everything in sight, smearing the walls with half-baked slogans. The story begins with a journalist (Lesley Ann Warren) interviewing an imprisoned young man, Patrick Schwarzenegger's Lance. Warren's character wants to know how Lance became part of a larcenous ring that's connected to the older man (Michael Shannon) who serves as the group's fence. Lance, who's drawn into these criminal forays by his cousin Jack (Gilles Geary), quickly comes to enjoy the adrenaline rush of theft. Lance becomes valuable to the group because he's trained in art. Unable to find a job at a gallery, he can at least identify the best paintings to steal. 
Alex Pettyfer portrays the group's leader, a guy who seems to believe there's actually something politically relevant about ravaging the homes of the wealthy while walking away with their high-end art.  Director Seth Savoy tries to link a caper movie to some sort of fuzzy political statement. The result:  a movie that peddles a whole lot of hooey, so much so that it may make even hardened leftists feel sorry for the one-percenters whose homes are vandalized.

Where She Lies

Director Zach Marion's documentary, Where She Lies, tells the story of Peggy Phillips who, as a 19-year-old, gave birth to a child in Chattanooga, Tenn. The year: 1961. Phillips, we learn, slept with a man who misled her into thinking he was separated from his wife. 
Marion becomes personally involved in helping Phillips, who's in her 70s when the director meets her. He joins attempts to locate the daughter that was taken from her shortly after being delivered. The movie's mystery centers on the question of what actually happened to the child. Did she die, as Phillips was told? Did her highly judgmental father arrange to have the baby adopted? At one point,  a young woman claiming to be Phillips' daughter turns up. She has a  criminal record and her life has been marred by drug addiction. It struck me that Marion may have become too involved in Phillips' story but his movie sheds light on the sad and lingering impact of shame that once was heaped on women who became unwed mothers. 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

They're grandparents on a mission


     Let Him Go tells a Western story that might have gone down more easily had it taken place during the 1800s. Set in the 1960s, Let Him Go challenges credibility while setting up a battle between two iron-willed women, a mother played  by Diane Lane and an evil matriarch portrayed by Lesley Manville.
    Cut from the same mold as the nail-spitting mother Jacki Weaver portrayed in Australia's Animal Kingdom (2010), Manville's Blanche Weboy spits venom as the head of a clan of North Dakotan miscreants who terrorize the area in which they live.
    But before we get to the Weboys, we meet Lane's Margaret Blackledge and Kevin Costner's George Blackledge,  a salt-of-the-earth Montana couple who tend to their ranch and can be counted on to do the right thing.
    The story kicks off when the couple's son is killed by a bucking horse he's trying to break. Three years later, Lorna (Kayli Carter), the son's widow and mother of the Blackledge's grandson, remarries. Her new husband (Will Brittain) has the word jerk written all over him. 
      Brittain’s Donnie Weboy insists that Lorna move with him to  North Dakota. Donnie wants to rejoin the Weboy clan. He expects Lorna's son to be raised as a Weboy, which means the kid will grow up to be a mean-spirited bully with no respect for anything but brute force.
    Margaret and George understand that their grandson faces a rough time because Margaret saw Donnie slap the kid around and subject Lorna to the same treatment. On top of that, Donnie Weboy never allowed Lorna and her son even to say goodbye.
     Properly aggrieved, the grandparents set out to retrieve the boy and save him from the Weboys. 
    Lane's Margaret takes the lead with Costner's George reluctantly agreeing. A retired sheriff, George has mostl  quit  drinking. He approaches life as if emotions were treasures  meant to be hoarded not spent. 
    Director Thomas Bezucha, adapting a novel by Larry Watson, wisely keeps the lid on the melodramatic material, which employs flashbacks to show us a key moment when George had to put down Margaret's favorite horse, thus proving that the Blackledges could tough out just about anything.
    On the road, the Blackledges meet a Native American man (Booboo Stewart) who ran away from a school where he was abused and deprived of his cultural heritage and who later will be jammed into the plot.
    It's possible to abide just about everything about the movie -- its stern view of the West and its unrelenting starkness. And it's refreshing to see a drama in which Lane's determination plays against her husband's vacillations. 
   But Buezucha ultimately submits to big-screen dictates, turning his movie into a full-scale battle that's as vicious as Manville's character.
     Let Him Go plunges into violence as George seeks to rescue his grandson and daughter-in-law and avenge a monstrous act of cruelty the Weboys inflicted on him. Yes, I had to look away from the screen.
     It might have been easier to suspend disbelief had the movie been a totally committed act of dramatic minimalism. But a violent finale inevitably arrives, raising questions about whether  this helping of true grit wants to be taken more seriously than it deserves.

A mother prepares for space travel


    Most movies about space involve a perilous mission: trips to Mars or voyages to even more distant planets. And if sci-fi imperatives prevail, battles with alien creatures are bound to erupt. 
    Credit French director Alice Winocour for taking a different tack. As emotional as it is calibrated for realism, Proxima tells the story of an astronaut (Eva Green) who prepares for a year-long voyage to Mars while dealing with issues involving separation from her young daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle). 
    Green gives a remarkably balanced performance as a woman on the cusp of realizing a life-long dream but also grappling with the emotions generated by the prospect of becoming an absentee mother. 
     Added to the mission at the last minute, single mom Sarah  must arrange to leave her daughter with her estranged husband (Lars Eidinger),  an  astrophysicist with a career of his own.  She also faces a variety of familiar problems, making sure that dad will take care of the family cat , for example.
    Green  captures Sarah's agonizing doubts, guilt and sadness. When the prospect of leaving her daughter seems overwhelming, she finds a quiet place and breaks down in tears. At the same time, she perseveres.
     Although Proxima places Sarah in a male-dominated environment, nothing about the movie feels heavy-handed. The mission's captain (a fine Matt Dillon) is a man of tempered machismo. A sympathetic Russian astronaut (Aleksey Fateev) rounds out the crew. 
    In a nicely realized scene, the three astronauts camp out under the stars and recite their favorite poems to one another.
    Winocour takes an observational approach to the material, seldom succumbing to melodrama. Sarah's husband has a big career of his own, but he's happy for Sarah. He understands that she's been given an amazing opportunity.
     As for Sarah, she's hardly a Wonder Woman. She struggles  with some of the demands of training, which Winocour depicts with exacting detail -- including an underwater exercise that simulates a space rescue.
       I've read that Winocour filmed in real training facilities in Europe, Russia, and Kazakhstan, a decision that pays off heavily in terms of credibility.
      Authenticity of the movie's many training sequences aside, Proxima stands as mother/daughter story that's beautifully played by Green and an amazingly adept Boulant-Lemesle. 
      A key incident in the movie's final act left me wondering whether Winocour had made the right choice. I won't reveal it here, but as I watched the movie, it was one of the few times that I had difficulty buying what was happening.
     Overall, though, Winocour's movie deftly accommodates its two main strands; it's both a story about a woman who wants to be part of great human adventure and a story about a mother who agonizes over what it means to leave her daughter for a year.
      Of course, Eva is one woman -- complex, bold, and keenly aware of her own conflicts. The result: An astronaut movie with plenty of the emotional right stuff.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A small but creepy slice of horror


A creepy sense of terror has invaded the movies and it manifests itself in Koko-Di Koko-Da, a modest helping of psychologically-based horror from Swedish director Johannes Nyholm. The title derives from a Swedish nursery rhyme that, in the movie, plays on a music box adorned with a dog, a bearish man, a crazy-looking young woman, and a man in a suit and straw hat. These characters are introduced early on, a strange trio that walks through thick woods. One of them carries a dead dog. They also are accompanied by a vicious dog, who of course is still living. The movie then shifts to a vacationing couple. Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) seem to be having a good enough time. But Elin experiences a life-threatening allergic reaction after eating a pizza topped with mussels.  She recovers but the couple's eight-year-old daughter (Katarina Jakobson), who also ate the pizza, dies. The movie then leaps ahead several years and Tobias and Elin are seen embarking on another vacation. He prefers off-road camping; she wants to check into a B&B. Tobias prevails and from that point on, Koko-Di Koko-Da becomes a nightmarish foray into a situation in which the same scene keeps replaying, each time in slightly different fashion. Know, though, that the bizarre characters mentioned earlier show up with some very violent intentions. It's not clear whether we're watching terrible recurring dreams and if so, whose dreaming them. Nyholm raises interesting questions about Tobias' inability to act in ways that might spare his wife and -- real or imagined -- the movie's sinister invaders are plenty scary. After several repetitions, the movie’s repeated scenario becomes a bit tiresome, but by the end we understand that Nyholm wants to tell a kind of allegorical tale about repressed emotion.  Koko-Di Koko-Da isn't entirely satisfying but it keeps us off guard and may make viewers think twice about pitching tents in isolated forests.