Thursday, September 23, 2021

A much-admired musical sags on screen


     I’ve never seen the stage version of Dear Evan Hansen, so I can’t compare the award-winning play to the newly released movie of the same name. But taken purely as a movie, Dear Evan leaves a lot to be desired.
     The movie’s morbid fascinations — teen suicide being principal among them —aren't easily digested, even in a quasi-musical that seems born of good intentions.
     Evan Hansen has been classified as a musical and it requires its actors to sing at various points. The tunes  often have a soft, weepy quality that befits the material but on-screen Evan Hansen doesn't seem like a musical -- or a superior teen drama.
     The story centers on Evan Hansen, a high school senior portrayed by Ben Platt, who also played Evan on stage. Platt, I'm afraid, has grown out of the role. He’s now 27.
    But the real problem with Evan Hansen centers on an awkward mix of ingredients: A high-school drama (the alienated kid finds a place in a well-defined social scene) doesn’t always mesh with the tragedy of teen suicide.
    Working from Steven Levenson's screenplay, director Stephen Chbosky relies on single conceit. Evan’s therapist has asked his massively insecure patient to write encouraging letters to himself. 
   One of his letters winds up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), an aggressively troubled kid. When Connor commits suicide, he’s found with one of Evan's letters. Connor had lifted the letter from a printer and refused to return to its author.
    Everyone thinks, the letter — a confession of torment which begins with the words "Dear Evan Hansen" — was written by Connor and that Evan and Connor must, therefore, have been friends.
    Suffering from a host of ill-defined psychological difficulties, Evan isn’t exactly an endearing character. He beats back his conscience and opts to go along with the widespread assumption that he and Connor were buddies.
   He also has a crush on Connor's sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever).
   Before long, the school's students begin the Connor Project, an effort to raise money to create a memory garden at an orchard where Connor supposedly found solace. 
  If you can get past the distraction of Platt’s age, you’ll find a few performances that work, notably Amy Adams as Connor’s mother, a woman in denial, and Julianne Moore as Evan’s single mother, an overworked nurse who’s stretched too thin to give her son the attention he needs. Amandla Stenberg has a nice turn as Alana, a cheerleader and high-performing student with troubles of her own. 
    But none of the performances can save a strange hybrid of teen-movie tropes and hand-wringing drama -- all of it followed by the hope that's appended to the story when Evan faces up to his cruel deceit.
   As for the dead Connor: He remains more of a plot device than a character we’re asked to understand.  Maybe on stage it all made sense.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Is her husband a traitor or a hero?


    To fully appreciate the Japanese movie Wife of a Spy, it helps to know something about Japan just before World War II.  By 1940, the year the movie begins, Japan already had invaded Manchuria, imposing its brutal authority on the area's Chinese population.
  Japan already was embracing traditionalism and authoritarianism, but not all of its citizens welcomed an order that, among other things, thrived on anti-Western sentiment. 
   Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa sets his story in such a climate, deftly personalizing a politically charged drama. Kurosawa introduces us to a business man (Issey Takahashi) who opposes the current isolationist tilt and a wife (Yu Aoi) who gradually learns about her husband's clandestine activities.
    Although the historical trappings are essential, Wife of a Spy also can be viewed as a complex story about a woman who faces issues of trust and betrayal. 
    An internationalist by trade,  Takahashi's Yusaku runs an import-export-business. Under the guise of buying cheap supplies, he travels to Manchuria where he films some of the atrocities he discovers, the main one involving biological experimentation.
    Yusaku hopes the US will be drawn into the war once the country learns about Japanese transgressions.  Japan, he believes, will lose and the country’s place in a modern global future will be secured. 
   Once Aoi's Satoko begins to learn about her husband's extracurricular activities, she’s confronted with a challenging question: Is her husband a hero or a traitor? And how can this model Japanese wife possibly tell? 
   Satoko opts for heroism, helping her husband execute a plot he's devised to get information about Manchuria into American hands.
     The intrigue involves a mysterious woman who accompanies Yusaku to Kobe after his Manchurian trip. Is she a paramour or an accomplice? 
    As we watch, we begin to share Satoko’s apprehensions. We try to determine who’s tricking whom and for what reason? 
   Although the movie includes one dream sequence, Kurosawa clearly lays out a story that begins to introduce additional characters. Masahiro Higashide portrays a childhood friend of Yusaku and Satoko’s, a once-gentle young man who has become a soldier and a torturer. 
   Yusaku's nephew (Ryota Bando) works for his uncle and helps him with amateur filmmaking efforts, which play a role in bringing the story to its conclusion.
    Credit Kurosawa with making a drama in which the interpersonal and the political are so intertwined, it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other. His movie is ambiguous without being muddled.
     The threat of war and the war itself give Kurosawa's absorbing, puzzle of a movie an epic quality that adds to the feeling that we're watching a movie in which the stakes hardly could be higher.

Can a woman and a robot find bliss?


   At first blush, I’m Your Man seems like another gimmicky entertainment, a movie about the budding relationship between an anthropologist and a robot that looks so real, it can't be distinguished from a flesh-and-blood human. 
   If I’m Your Man had been an American movie that’s exactly how it might have played, with some cuteness thrown in for seasoning. Thankfully, this German import from director Maria Schrader unfolds in surprisingly convincing fashion. 
   While working at a museum, Alma (Maren Eggert) is asked by her boss to determine whether the ethical considerations normally extended to humans should apply to robots who appear to be sentient.  
    Alma reluctantly accepts the job and finds herself sharing her apartment with a robot named Tom (Dan Stevens). The two meet at a club run by the company that produces automatons designed to make people happy.
    Tom is polite without being cloying. A bit supercilious, he speaks German with a British accent because he's been programmed to know that Alma prefers men with an international cache. 
   Frequently amusing, I'm Your Man also plays with serious questions. If a robot can starve off loneliness, why not have one? Should the absence of the messier aspects of a relationship be a dealbreaker? And if the robot has been programmed to please its owner, doesn’t a relationship with one represent a form of emotional masturbation? 
   Schrader handles such weighty questions with a light  touch as Alma introduces Tom to her social and family circles. Most folks don't know that he’s a highly sophisticated machine. 
    Both principal actors are in fine form.  Eggert ably expresses Alma's initial disdain for the project but shows the gradually developing dependence on Tom and the concern she feels for him.
    Tom’s an idealized version of Alma's dream man, but he never seems entirely like an automaton. Stevens' performance is key to the movie's success: I'm Your Man can't work if we doubt that Tom easily passes as a human.
   Look, you can’t make a movie such as I’m Your Man without including a few inconsistencies, but credit Schrader and her fine cast for not taking her subject too seriously, even as she poses a question that’s likely to acquire increasing social relevance.
    Forget Seri and Alexa, when the machines in our lives become entirely lifelike how exactly will we relate to this new form of user-friendliness?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Catching up with 'Language Lessons'

 Language Lessons

I had no particular interest in a movie in which two people exchange weekly Zoom calls. I've had enough Zoom calls in the last year and a half to satisfy any need I ever had to connect virtually with people -- not that I've abandoned the practice. Screen fatigue partly explains why it took me so long to catch up with Language Lessons, a movie in which a wealthy Oakland resident (Mark Duplass) communicates with his Spanish teacher (Natalie Morales), an engaging young woman who lives in Costa Rica. The language lessons -- a gift from Duplass's character's husband -- aren't exactly met with enthusiasm by Duplass's Adam. Adam already speaks enough Spanish to converse but because he has a couple of years of lessons pending, he goes along with the program. Then, a shocker. Will dies in an accident, and Adam's relationship with Morales’s Carina takes on a different character. It comes as no surprise that the boundaries between student and teacher begin to crumble.   Language Lessons can be viewed as a rom-com in which friendship rather than romance becomes the goal. Duplass and Morales co-authored the screenplay, which Morales directed. She tries to add visual interest by giving Adam a house that invites us to make some guesses about just how well off he might be.  Language Lessons can't entirely overcome the thinness the stems from a two-handed drama conducted via Zoom. For me, the key to the movie's success involves its sincerity, a quality I usually find off-putting but which, in this case, reflects the commitment of two actors who remind us not to overlook something we've been missing: our persistent need for others.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

An aging cowboy makes a new friend


   If you've reached an age at which you've begun to think of yourself as old or at least as aging, you'll be watching Clint Eastwood's Cry Macho through a lens that measures Eastwood's every move against the passage of time.
    Eastwood is 91 and although the movie requires him to throw a punch and ride a horse, his walk has taken on a stiff-legged quality. His posture hints at a stoop. 
    Is that Eastwood or is it Eastwood's interpretation of the ruined cowboy he's playing? I don't know but Eastwood still commands the screen in ways that insist that you watch.
    Make no mistake. Eastwood, who also directed, still knows how to land a line even when he's not sneering his way through a movie that doesn't quite commit to the odd-couple pairing of an irascible old man and a rebellious teenager -- or much of anything else for that matter. 
    Based on a novel by N. Richard Nash,  Cry Macho tells the story of a washed-up rodeo star who survived alcoholism, pills, a horrible accident in the arena, as well as the grief of losing a wife and child in an auto accident. 
     That's at least two trunks worth of baggage and it would break a lesser man, but we know that Eastwood is made of sterner stuff.
    Eastwood's Mike Milo owes a debt to his rancher boss (Dwight Yoakam). Yoakam's Howard Polk wants Mike to travel from Texas to Mexico to retrieve Rafa (Eduardo Minett), the boss's 13-year-old son, a kid who's been living a wild life with his mother (Fernanda Urrejola.) 
   After some difficulties in Mexico City and an awkward scene in which Urrejola’s character trie- to seduce Mike, man and boy hit the road where they gradually develop a friendship. 
    Thanks to a broken-down car, the movie makes a lengthy stop in a small Mexican town where Mike and Rafa begin to draw closer. The two also are treated to the hospitality of Marta (Natalia Traven), an earth-mother type who runs a cantina and takes care of her cute grandchildren. 
    Some romantic sparks are lit between Mike and Marta, but Eastwood pretty much keeps them at simmer levels.
    Meanwhile, a thug (Horacio Garcia Rojas) who works for the boy's mother pursues the unlikely duo, both of whom need nurturing.
   Of course, there’s a speech in which Eastwood tells his young charge that the macho life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, a message Eastwood has delivered better in other movies.
    I wouldn't say that Cry Macho is boring. But the material has the musty aroma of second-rate fiction that's neither totally off-putting nor deeply engaging. 
    Cry Macho becomes a kind of casual meander that hits some false notes (we're expected to believe that Mike still can ride a bucking bronco) but otherwise passes without making much of  a mark -- other than to remind us that Eastwood can do what he chooses and let the chips fall where they may.
    As for the title, Macho is the name of a rooster that Rafa has trained to fight.

He’s at it again — Nicolas Cage, of course

 Prisoners of Ghostland is a difficult movie to evaluate. It's not entirely fresh. It's often ridiculous, and it’s marked by another oddball performance from Nicolas Cage. In his first English-language production, Japanese direcgtor Sion Sono serves up a wildly eclectic post-apocalyptic movie, brandishing tropes from westerns, samurai movies, and who knows what else. In Sono's film, story does little more than provide an excuse for one wild riff after another. Prisoners of Ghostland is a movie of weird accoutrements: a black leather suit wired with explosives that will eliminate the body parts of Cage's character if he fails to complete his mission. His job has something to do with capturing a runaway woman (Sofia Boutella) for a lascivious governor (Bill Moseley) of a place called Samurai Town.  Named only Hero, Cage's character has been imprisoned for a bank robbery gone wrong, which he committed with his partner (Nick Cassavetes). In another part of this dystopian world, the residents serve a giant clock,  literally trying to hold back the hands of time. Sono's take-no-prisoners approach isn't for everyone. The movie's virtues are to be found in its brazenly artificial production design and outre imagery.  Prisoners of Ghostland is a movie for those who may have missed the recent Met Gala, but like watching absurdly dressed people trying to act as insanely as possible. It's the movie that results when the inmates take over the asylum -- or at least that might be what Prisoners of Ghostland wants to be. In the midst of its preposterous derangement and pulp preoccupations,  you may find moments that amuse.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Learning about a Ciivl Rights pioneer

If you've never heard of Pauli Murray, you're probably not alone. One of the least publicized figures of the Civil Rights movement, Murray's story emerges in My Name is Pauli Murray, a detailed and informative documentary from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen. It turns out that, as a Howard law student, Murray advanced one of the key arguments was used by attorneys -- including Thurgood Marshall -- to argue the landmark1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. A complex figure and a gay woman who lived with blurry gender boundaries, Murray followed multiple paths. She wrote poetry, attended Hunter College in New York City, and after law school at Howard became a teacher, activist, and, finally, a Methodist minister. Enriched by interviews with those who've studied Murray's life, by recordings Murray made herself, and by the sheer breadth of its story (Murray developed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt), the movie  points out that Murray pioneered thinking about connections between racism and women's issues. She was both a racial justice and feminist advocate. Murray fought tirelessly for beliefs founded on intellectual, moral, and deeply personal grounds. The gender portions of Murray's story are accompanied by contemporary gay and transgender commentary. So, if you're unfamiliar with Murray, who died at the age of 75 in 1985, here's an opportunity to learn.

This immigration story drowns in problems


    Topical subject matter isn't always enough to carry a movie.
    That's the case with Blue Bayou, an overloaded immigration drama from director Justin Chon, who also wrote and stars in the movie.
   Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, a Louisiana-bred man who arrived in the US at the age of three. Born in Korea, Antonio speaks with a southern accent and has never thought of himself as anything but  American. He has only dim memories of the Korean mother who gave him up for adoption.
   Antonio lives with Kathy (Alicia Vikander), a woman with a daughter (Sydney Kowalske) Antonio loves and who loves him back. The couple is expecting another child. 
   Sometimes, it seems as if Chon never met a problem he could resist; his screenplay staggers under the weight of too many difficulties.
   A tattoo artist by trade, Antonio wants to earn more money to support his growing family. An early brush with the law resulted in a criminal record, which means he has trouble landing jobs. 
   Many of the scenes (an early job interview, for example) have power, but Antonio's personal life proves overly complicated and fraught. 
   Vikander's Kathy was once married to a New Orleans cop (Mark O'Brien), a man who fears Antonio and Kathy will move to Korea and take his daughter with them. The former husband's policeman partner, an unabashed racist played by Emory Cohen, has it in for Antonio.
    Pushed into trouble with the law, Antonio comes to the attention of ICE. Turns out that his adoptive parents never filled out the proper forms, which means Antonio is classified as an illegal immigrant. 
  An immigration attorney (Vondie Curtis-Hall) knows Antonio faces an uphill struggle but tries to keep Antonio from being deported.
  To further complicate the story, Antonio must persuade his adoptive mother to testify on his behalf -- not an easy task as it turns out. He hasn't spoken to her for more than a decade.  The reasons for this  eventually are revealed.
   Antonio also makes the acquaintance of a Vietnamese woman (Lin-Dan Pham). Although she's dying of cancer, she shares her experience as a Vietnamese American, inviting Antonio and his family to a festive family lunch.
   Chon proves convincing as a desperate man but the screenplay piles obstacles so high they begin to lose credibility. In reality, such a story might be possible. On screen, a bit of honing would have helped.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A drama informed by dread and calculation

   A private Swiss banker. Wealthy sophisticates with fortunes to protect. An Argentine junta that’s "disappearing" people.
   You'd be right to think those ingredients are the touchstones of a pulse-pounding international thriller but you'd be wrong.
    Director Andreas Fontana's Azor takes a probing, quiet,  and beautifully nuanced look at a world in which morality, money and pragmatism are as well-dressed as the movie's characters.
     Fontana provides us with a surrogate to take us into an affluent world that until recently has been entirely comfortable with itself. We’re in Argentina in 1980.
     Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) arrives in Buenos Aires with his sophisticated wife Ines (Stephanie Cleau). As a man of discretion and financial acumen, de Wiel takes on the task of reassuring the bank's clients that their money is safe -- which also means that their way of life is sustainable.
     De Weil’s trip results from the unexplained disappearance of the bank's previous man in Argentina, a banker named Keys whose personality and contradictions are discussed as de Wiel makes his rounds.
     Azor isn't a portrait of a marriage, but Rongione and Cleau create a clear picture of a relationship in which de Wiel relies on a wife who advises him and who perfectly fits into the social milieus in which they travel. Cleau and her character never make a false move.
   At the time of de Wiel's visit, the Argentine rich are not without anxiety. The junta could at any moment seize their property or "disappear" a rebellious child who embraces resistance politics.
    For the most part, de Wiel's clients are polished, multi-lingual denizens of the world. They wear their privilege easily. 
    One man (Ignacio Vila) is more boorish. He's represented by a lawyer (Juan Pablo Gerreto) who makes little attempt to blunt the ruthlessness that can underly the acquisition of a great fortune.
     Fontana doesn’t dramatize the horrors created by a government that murders its opposition. He's interested in the ways a climate of menace impacts even those who are accustomed to living in a gated world of affluence. He reinforces an underplayed sense of menace with a judiciously applied musical score that sounds ominous notes. 
    Rongione wisely keeps de Wiel's personal sentiments and politics in check. But he's a skilled enough actor to let us know that de Wiel tries to read every situation he encounters and every person with whom he meets. 
    At one point, de Wiel talks with Monsignor Tatosky (Pablo Torre Nilson), a churchman who offers an icy rationale for the junta's behavior before getting down to the business of how to handle a sizable chunk of money.
      Almost until its final act, de Wiel never leaves the insulated world that money can buy. A last-act trip into the jungle exposes a shady operation and gives de Wiel a last chance to define himself.
     I can't think of a recent film that deals so subtly or so provocatively with ethical issues. Azor is one of the year's best films, a movie that doesn’t have to raise its voice to find its power while also alerting us to how much horror can unfold when people become overly skilled at biting their tongues.

Juliette Binoche as a youth-obsessed woman

The French movie, Who You Think I Am, conflates a variety of issues, principal among them perilous games that can be played on social media and the way time impacts women who long for the days when they still could turn heads. It should come as no surprise that Juliette Binoche plays Claire Millaud,  a professor of literature who tries to determine why a younger lover abandoned her. In the process, Claire uses social media to create a fictional avatar, a sexy 24-year-old woman who captivates her former lover’s roommate (Francois Civil).  As the game — if that’s what it is — progresses, Binoche’s character and her new young admirer form a virtual bond that both begin to take seriously. For Claire, the ruse provides a way of recapturing the feelings of her youth, how she felt about herself before her husband left her for a younger woman. Claire, who tells her story to a psychiatrist (Nicole Garcia), has two sons but her obsession with turning back the clock takes precedence over everything else. Of course, reality and fiction eventually must collide and director Safy Nebbou finds ways to make the collision interesting. Who You Think I Am can be a little too self-consciously tricky, but the movie stands as an intriguing and disturbing character study. Binoche makes Claire real and never less than intriguing as a woman who might be delusional, devious, bitter, or sensual -- perhaps all of the above.

He climbed alone — and liked it that way


     I’m not a follower of climbers, so I’m unfamiliar with the highly focused athletes who might be household names to folks who immerse themselves in this high-risk world.
    Maybe my ignorance of all things alpine doesn't matter because The Alpinist tells the story of solo climber Marc-Andre Leclerc, a 22-year-old Canadian who never sought celebrity status.
     True to its name, The Alpinist offers dizzying views of a young man ascending cliff walls so forbidding you can't quite believe he's attempting to climb them.
     Directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen show Leclerc's exploits in ways that make you gasp as he works his way up cliffs that often require him to negotiate a trio of perilous surfaces: snow, ice, and rock. 
     If the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo left you wanting more, The Alpinist should fill the bill. Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, also shows up in The Alpinist, offering commentary, as do other climbers.
   A mostly solitary figure who once spent time living in a stairwell, Leclerc sometimes climbs with his professional climber girlfriend Brette Harrington. But usually, he works alone, pursuing adventures without excessive calculation.
   Moving from climb to climb, the movie eventually chronicles Leclerc's assault of Torre Egger in Patagonia, a treacherous climb that required him, at minimum, to check weather conditions.
     In addition to offering some incredible climbing footage, The Alpinist serves as a portrait of an independent-minded young man who marches to his own drummer. 
    I won't say anymore because if you don't already know Leclerc's story, it's best to discover it in a theater.
     I can’t pretend to understand why Leclerc put himself at so much risk. To feel free? To concentrate life into a singular task, determining the next move? 
     Whatever his motivations, it’s almost impossible to watch The Alpinist without uttering cries of amazement as Leclerc works his way through one harrowing challenge after another.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

A "Gateway' to nowhere

Despite a strong cast led by Shea Whigham, The Gateway never fuses into the gritty urban drama it seems to want to be. (The story is set in St. Louis but the movie actually was shot in Norfolk, Va.) Whigham's Parker —  another character with a single name -- works in a field that seems at odds with his behavior. Parker’s job as a social worker might well expose him to drug-world violence. But the movie amps things up by turning Parker into a pistol-packing former boxer. Parker wants to keep kids out of the foster-care system that nearly swallowed him as a child. Parker becomes increasingly involved in the lives of a woman (Olivia Munn) and her daughter (Taegen Burns) after a hot-tempered husband and father (Zach Avery) is released from prison. Avery's Mike quickly falls in with his old criminal clique led by the merciless Duke (Frank Grillo). When he gets crosswise with a drug cartel, Dahlia and Ashley are put at risk. Bruce Dern crops up as the jazz-trumpeter dad from whom Parker is estranged. Director Michele Civetta seems to be trying to say something about the complex corruptions that plague St. Louis and about one flawed man who tries to do some good. Noble aims remain unfulfilled because of lame dialogue and a plot that doesn’t fully engage the ambiguities and conflicts in Parker’s character. In sum, The Gateway's gritty stroll down mean streets leads to a dead end.

Determining the worth of a human life

   There's nothing terribly distinguished about the filmmaking in Worth, the real-life story of a battle for justice that ripped its way through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. 
   But director Sara Colangelo's issue-oriented focus makes Worth a movie that's likely to spur valuable discussions about morality, law, and bureaucracy.
   The movie also boasts a strong performance by Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg, an attorney who took on a case that required him to define criteria for compensating those who lost loved ones when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11.
    A man of actuarial temperament, Feinberg begins the movie by drawing the distinction between philosophy and law. He knows that in a legal setting, determining the value of lost life inevitably leads to a dollar amount.
    Ergo, the movie's key issue. Should compensation be guided, as Feinberg initially proposes, by factors that would lead to a CEO receiving more than a janitor, say? Should funds be equally distributed to everyone or, at minimum, should each case receive individual treatment? 
     Feinberg sought out a task that few attorneys wanted. In the emotionally volatile wake of 9/11, he lobbied then- Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak) for appointment as the fund's Special Master.
      He thought he could do good and convince 80 percent of the survivors to agree to the proposed settlement terms by a September 2003 deadline. 
    The objective: to avoid crippling individual suits against airlines, a flood of litigation that might have severely impacted the economy while tying up courts for years. 
   Stanley Tucci plays Charles Wolfe, a man who lost his wife on 9/11. He becomes an activist for more equitable distribution, organizing a FixTheFund movement. 
     Colangelo opts to keep the conflict at low-key levels, a wise decision because when any story involving 9/11 already has high enough stakes.
    She also presents scenes in which survivors tell their stories, including a back story about a New York City Fireman with a complicated history.
    The more personal side of the drama involves Feinberg's willingness to adopt a new approach, a part of the movie that may not be adequately dramatized. Still, Keaton's restrained performance helps to sell it -- at least partially.
    Worth may not reach the hoped-for heights but it suggests a harsh reality. No amount of money can make up for the loss of life -- but at some point, numbers rear their inescapable heads. Conflict seems the inevitable and sad result.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Strong kickoff for another Marvel character


    Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings leaps into Asian-American mythos in much in the way that Black Panther brought Afrocentric freshness to the indestructible Marvel universe.
    I don’t know if Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will have the same impact as Black Panther — either commercially or culturally. But this latest Marvel movie has enough positive elements (action, humor and a story with deep family roots) to constitute an entertaining addition to Marvel’s apparently endless stream of movies.
     Shang-Chi gets off to a lively start. Sean (Simu Liu) -- later to become Shang-Chi -- works as a valet in San Francisco along with pal Katy (Awkwafina). It doesn't take long for the two to take a dizzying ride in a borrowed car.
     Sean and Katy also encounter a group of thugs on a bus, a sequence in which clever martial-arts maneuvers are augmented by the excitement of watching a large vehicle careen through the streets of San Francisco.
    Sean, we learn, has a secret. He was raised in China by a father (Tony Leung) who schooled him in martial arts. Leung's Wenwu was no pipe-and-slippers dad. Centuries ago, he acquired the fabled 10 rings which gave him superhero powers and eternal life. He expected his son to take his place as head of a powerful secret force of warriors.
    Shang-Chi had other ideas. He fled China when he was 14. 
    Upon his return to Macau 10 years later, Shang reunites with his younger sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). She's still upset that Shang left her with a father who didn't treat his daughter the way he treated his son.
   The plot eventually takes Shang and Katy to the mythic land of Ta-Lo where they meet Shang's aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), a wise woman who makes positive use of her martial arts-skills.
    Like most Marvel movies, Shang-Chi gobbles up comic-book mythology as if were popcorn. Wuwen, who gave up his powers when he married Shang's mother (Fala Chen), believes that he can reunite with his late wife if he penetrates a seal that separates an evil soul-sucking dragon from humanity. 
    The meeting of Wuwen and Chen's Jiang Li produces some of the movie's more intriguing and well-choreographed action. Li's the only person who's able to subdue Wuwen's fighting spirit. 
     It makes more sense to see all this in a theater than to write about it in a review. Besides, the mythic elements of the story are supported by recognizable emotions: a husband's inability to accept his wife's death, a son's struggle to accept his true identity, and a sister who can't totally abandon her sibling resentments.
    The Ta-Lo sequences include an element of cuteness in the form of a furry faceless, winged creature that struck me as more Disney than Marvel, a little too precious perhaps. 
    But Shang-Chi never skimps on action. A fight that takes place on scaffolding attached to a high rise offers vertiginous fun.
    I've read that Liu wanted to model his fighting style on Jackie Chan. The fight sequences contain elements of Chan-like humor but, in my view, don’t rise to the level of Chan’s best work, which admittedly makes for a high bar.
   Director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team were smart to give Shang-Chi a sidekick and the movie suffers a bit when Awkwafina is off-screen. Liu masters the physical aspects of the role but sometimes  comes up short on personality. Oh well, that's probably a marginal criticism considering that Shang-Chi is an emerging character.
   The supporting cast -- particularly Yeoh, Leung, and Zhang -- offer more than window dressing. They really supports the movie, as does Benedict Wong, whose role is smaller but still strong. Ben Kingsley adds humor as Trevor Slattery, a fading TV actor whose presence is played for laughs. 
   The movie's ending -- involving dragons (good and evil), a father/son battle, and lots of fiery combat -- can't entirely avoid the bloat that seems obligatory in these efforts.
    Overall, though, Shang-Chi succeeds in introducing a new Marvel character to the screen and proves an invigorating addition to the Marvel universe. 
    Equally important in a world in which sequels seem mandatory, the movie leaves you wanting to see more of Shang-Chi and Katy, a comic-book duo with promising  potential.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Reimagining a 1992 horror movie


    Director Nia DaCosta's Candyman has been described as a "spiritual sequel" to its 1992 predecessor. I'd call it more of a "rethink" in which the original movie has been given an updated agenda. 
     While keeping her eye on horror-movie obligations, DaCosta infuses the proceedings with visual style and thematic ambition replacing the 1992's white academic with a black Chicago artist.
    Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portrays Anthony McCoy, an artist who lives with his curator girlfriend (Teyonah Parris) in an upscale condo built on the site of the mostly demolished Cabrini-Green Homes, a housing project where much of the original was set.
      McCoy becomes increasingly obsessed with the story of Candyman, a tale most of the other characters regard as an urban legend -- until they no longer can.
       The legend springs from a 19th-century tale about Daniel Robitaille (Tony Toddy) an aspiring black artist who was tortured, given a hook for a hand, and burned by racist thugs sent by the father of a white girl who had fallen in love with Robitaille. Robitaille became Candyman, the killer who haunted the Cabrini Green projects.
       The horror element stems from an additional conceit. Anyone who looks into a mirror and says the name Candyman five times will summon Candyman who'll proceed to rip them apart with his hook.
        Gory, sure. But DaCosta -- working from a screenplay by Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peel, the director of Get Out and Us, two equally ambitious horror movies -- tempers the bloodshed by suggesting a variety of broader themes. Among them: the hypocrisies of gentrification, the pretensions of the art world, and the history of racial violence and the rage it can breed.
        Abdul-Mateen's increasingly powerful performance anchors a movie that features Colman Domingo as the man who first alerts McCoy to the Candyman legend. 
         I wouldn't say that everything about Candyman works but DaCosta's visual approach (keeping the camera at a distance while showing one of the murders through an apartment window, for example) reflects a strong level of imagination.
       The use of shadow puppets to fill in the movie's backstory proves even more novel. These displays of puppetry -- scenes of racial violence and injustice -- remind us about what underlies the events we're watching.
        You can see DaCosta's inventiveness right from the start. She brilliantly opens the film by turning the world upside down, subverting cliche by shooting the streets of Chicago by pointing her camera at the sky rather than the relying on typical images in which we look down at the city from above. 
      Her choice disturbs and provokes and sets the stage for a movie that deserves credit for having more than exploitative thrills on its mind. 

Death-row interviews with Theodore Bundy


    In January of 1989, 42-year-old serial killer Theodore Bundy was executed in a Florida prison, having confessed to committing 30 homicides during the 1970s. Bundy's gruesome crimes need no further description here, but as a well-spoken, clean-cut killer, Bundy secured his place in the hierarchy of monstrous American crime figures. 
    I'd read enough about Bundy to approach No Man of God, a drama based on death-row interviews conducted by FBI agent Bill Hagmaier, with some misgiving.  Did we really need a deep dive into the mind of a criminal who already has commanded a lot of attention?
     Director Amber Sealey builds her movie around the interviews in which a sly, calculating Bundy (Luke Kirby) talks with Hagmaier (Elijah Wood). 
    Sealey's approach puts us in roughly the same position as Hagmaier. We’re constantly trying to evaluate Bundy as we search for clues to the question that haunts every serial-killer movie. Why did this person commit such terrible crimes? 
    Sealey opens the movie up a bit with news footage and breaks the claustrophobic prison mood with the late-picture introduction of an anti-capital punishment lawyer (Aleksa Palladino) who tries to stave off Bundy's execution.
     According to the movie, Focus on the Family evangelist James Dobson (Christian Clemenson) took some of Hagmaier's valuable interview time to conduct a final interview with Bundy just before his execution. Bundy told Dobson that hard-core pornography played a major role in twisting his mind toward evil.
    Hagmaier -- a Christian -- had no objection to Bundy's execution. He wanted to understand a serial killer. It was part of an early FBI effort to develop profiles of killers, a process depicted in Netflix’s compelling Mind Hunter series.
     Kirby isn't a dead-ringer for Bundy but he captures the mercurial way Bundy shifted moods, his desire to control, and his imagined superiority over ordinary mortals. He also conveys the intelligence that Bundy brought to the job of creating the character he sometimes seems to be constructing for Hagmaier's benefit.
    A youthful-looking Wood -- he's 40 -- wisely doesn't try to compete with Kirby. He makes Hagmaier a committed listener, a resolute and religious man who Bundy came to regard as a "friend." 
     Toward the end, Bundy agrees to take Hagmaier into the depths of his psyche. It's a powerful scene in which Kirby reveals what it was like for Bundy to commit one of his murders.
    Zac Efron played Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, director Joe Berlinger's foray into Bundy's world. Unlike Berlinger, Sealey doesn't dramatize Bundy's life as a killer. 
   When I engage with movies such as No Man of God, I ask myself why I'm watching and why I've watched other films like it. Perhaps it's because we never seem to get a handle on serial killing and never will.
    Many years ago I read an article in Newsweek in which a psychiatrist outlined shared characteristics he identified in most serial killers. He listed some, but qualified his remarks: For every serial killer's awful background, he could find someone with a worse personal history who never committed any crimes.
    Bundy, of course, didn't have a horrible childhood. He insisted that he had grown up in "a fine, solid Christian home." 
    Maybe mystery explains the fascination. We look for answers -- and we should. None may be forthcoming but that doesn't mean we're able to turn away.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Maggie Q kicks butt; her movie -- less so


Maggie Q kicks a ton butt in The Protege, a thriller that can't quite decide whether it wants to leap into John Wick territory or play things straight. It winds up doing a bit of both -- albeit with uneven results. Q proves convincing as Anna, a woman plucked as a child from Vietnam in the late 90s and trained to be an assassin by Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson), a guy who knows the killer's trade all too well and who recognizes young Anna's talent for the job. Director Martin Campbell tries to light some May/December sparks (tempered by plenty of nasty battling) when Michael Keaton shows up as Rembrandt, a man with his own killer chops and a sense that he's smarter than every other character in the movie. Rembrandt works for a rich white guy who has devoted his life to exploitative capitalism in Vietnam. Campbell stages plenty of action with violence levels that become increasingly outlandish as the movie makes its way from London to the British countryside and, finally, back to Vietnam. There, Robert Patrick turns up as a motorcycle-riding rogue who leads a band of scruffy associates. The actors seem fully committed to the screenplay's silliness, even in a scene that strains for humor when Q's Anna and Rembrandt, reach under a table and point pistols at each other's genitals. In her non-lethal life, Anna operates a bookstore specializing in rare volumes. She also drinks martinis. Remind you of anyone else? Like many such movies, The Protege requires a more than generous suspension of disbelief and never rises to the top of its kick-and-kill class. But it moves quickly, boasts a watchable cast, and features a performance by Q that doesn’t miss a beat, even when the movie tries to claim a bit of ethical high ground by telling us that Anna never kills anyone who doesn't deserve elimination. Nice of her, no?   

Thursday, August 19, 2021

A less-than-memorable 'Reminiscence'

   Few genres have proven as consistently intriguing as film noir. At the same time, the lingering influences of noir have created movies that display their noir trappings in such blatant fashion that they border on parody. 
   Sadly, that's the case with Reminiscence, a sleekly mounted mix of sci-fi and noir tropes set in a climate ravaged Miami where the streets are perpetually flooded.
    Hugh Jackman stars in a story built around a gimmick. Jackman's Nick Bannister operates a business in which clients don a headset, climb into a tank, and take guided trips through their memories. 
    An intolerable present has created a need for escape into the past -- and clients are eager to pay for it. 
    Director Lisa Joy (a showrunner for HBO's Westworld) makes it seem as if Jackman is watching a movie. The memories of his clients experience are visible to him in hologram form, turning him into a voyeur who peers into other people's lives.
     Thandiwe Newton plays the savvy Watts, a woman who assists Nick in his business and plays the role of devoted sidekick when the going gets rough and violent -- as it must.
    This being the world of noir, a femme fatal must become part of the tale. One day, Nick is about to close up shop when a customer pounds on the door. Enter Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman who might as well be carrying a sign that says, "I'm beautiful and dangerous." 
    Nick is jolted.
     So are we -- by the flagrantly cliched feeling of the moment, followed by a later scene in which Mae sings a sultry version of Where or When, a song with lyrics that mirror the movie's time-warped themes. ("It seems we stood and talked like this before.")
     When Mae suddenly disappears, Nick sets out to find her, delving into her past in the bargain. His journey carries him into an underworld of drugs and shady characters and a plot that's too convoluted to engage.
      Grimly obsessive as Nick, Jackman may not wish to press this one into his book of indelible memories. Ferguson seems stuck playing a type rather than a character.
     Among the more colorful miscreants Nick encounters: Saint Joe (Daniel Wu),  a drug czar who hangs out in a New Orleans nightspot, and Cyrus Booth (Cliff Curtis), a corrupt cop who supplies most of the movie's menace and who participates in a big fight scene with an underwater finale.
    A powerful businessman (Brett Cullen), his wife (Marina de Tavira), and creepy son (Mojean Aria) also figure into the proceedings, slimy rich types who have enough money to avoid the worst of dystopian existence.
    Joy strains to create a Bladerunner vibe, but a generic quality and the lead characters to go with it prove too much to overcome.
    Nick narrates the story, delivering lots of second-rate dialogue that has the ring but not the sting of noir. 
   "Nothing is more addictive than the past," he says at one point.
   Not in this movie.

Is her late husband haunting her?


   Director David Bruckner (The Ritual) returns to horror with The Night House, a film that shines a spotlight on Rebecca Hall as a newly widowed woman who fears she's being haunted by her late husband (Luke Piotrowski). 
    On screen for almost the entire movie, Hall creates a character whose grief hasn't dulled her sharp edges. Hall's performance drips with anger and resentment, some of it prompted by a  husband who committed suicide and who, as we slowly learn, may not have been the man she thought him to be.
    When it comes to ghosts, Beth's previous experiences fuel big-time skepticism, but events challenge her.
    Alone in her home on a lake, she encounters some of the standard frights that have come to define the genre: loud noises, a stereo that turns on by itself, or a shadowy figure glimpsed in the corner of a room. 
   Bruckner creates shivers, not an easy task when so many horror movies already have taken up residence in similar domains, homes that are presumed to be comforting and safe.
    Although the movie belongs to Hall, the supporting performances add flavor. Sarah Goldberg portrays Beth's best friend, a fellow teacher at the local high school. Vondie Curtis-Hall portrays one of Beth's concerned neighbors.
    Bruckner introduces a variety of themes: Beth's state of mind, the possibility of life after death, the blurry line between dreams and reality, and terrible secrets that are revealed when Beth discovers the unfinished house her husband was building in the woods. 
    Beth also finds books on the occult that her husband owned. Further complicating matters, she learns that he had a fascination with women who resembled her. Did she know him or was her 14-year-marriage a sham?
     Movies that raise tantalizing questions and gradually reveal themselves carry an extra burden. It's never easy to deliver the hoped-for payoff.
    The ending of Night House doesn't quite do the trick but for most of the movie, Bruckner keeps us hooked.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Ruminating about Hitler and culture


Directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker have taken on a gargantuan task with their documentary The Meaning of Hitler. The title derives from a 1978 book by journalist Raymond Pretzel who published under the name Sebastian Haffner. Epperlein and Tucker conduct a series of interviews as they explore the lure of Nazism in its heyday and in the present. Making visible use of a clapperboard, the directors obviously aren't trying to create a seamless illusion.  Interviews with writers such as Martin Amis, Yehuda Bauer, and Saul Friedlander mix with archival footage, location visits (Hitler's underground bunker), and cinematic references including Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall. Offering historical insight, small observations (Hitler never really had an occupation), and analysis, the documentary devotes too much time to Holocaust denier David Irving who filed a 1966 libel suit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. Irving lost, a story told in the 2016 film Denial in which Rachel Weisz portrayed Lipstadt. You could do a lot worse than to check out the many books written by those interviewed. Early in the film, Amis sounds what might be the movie's dominant note: The most interesting thing about Hitler, he says, is that he resists understanding. Epperlein and Tucker are most effective when they take apart Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, exposing the absurd pomposity of orchestrated mass rallies. You'll also find references to Trump and the current ascendance of right-wing groups globally and in the US, as well as a look at the fervid idolization of pop-cultural phenomena such as the Beatles. There's a risk in making an essay-like documentary. The movie can seem meandering and digressive. Epperlein and Tucker don't entirely succeed with a cards-on-the-table approach that isn't afraid of unanswered questions. Their movie tends to be a choppy, piecemeal effort in which details tend to be more intriguing than any attempted thesis. 

'Free Guy' plays a hollow game


    If your idea of fun is watching Ryan Reynolds play a character in a video game for an hour and 55 minutes, Free Guy may seem like an amusing look at a video game character who develops self-awareness. 
    A vaguely interesting question arises: What if said character starts to tire of the routine that makes him part of the scenery instead of a character with agency and clout?
    As for me, I found it difficult to connect with a movie which has been directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) with the ping and pizazz of a game world in which there are average Joes and characters who don glasses that put them into an action-oriented reality that’s visible only to them. Think of it as a form of privilege that allows participation in social mayhem.
    Reynolds plays Guy, an NPC (non-player character) * who follows the same routine every day: He awakens in his bland apartment, puts on the same clothes (blue shirt and slacks), stops for coffee, and heads for his job as a bank teller.
    As part of the game, thugs rob the bank multiple times in a day, forcing Guy and his security guard pal (Lil Rel Howery) to the ground. They nonchalantly react to what has become as routine for them as coffee breaks.
    But Guy feels something's missing from his life, notably a love interest. But what woman would want to fall for an NPC? 
    When Guy sees Molotov Girl (an action-oriented character and major player in the game) he’s love-struck. The script soon contrives to give him a pair of the transforming glasses and, bingo, Guy's in the game.
     He pursues the woman who has stirred his heart — or whatever organ an NPC might have, the one that makes him want to share bubblegum-flavored ice cream with his dream girl.
    Shades of movies such as The Truman Show and Ready Player One waft through Levy’s half-bright movie, which is presented as a kind of romp through weightier questions.
    Outside the game, we meet Keys (Joe Keery) who works for the company that controls the game (it’s called Free City). Taika Waititi plays Antoine, the entrepreneur who stole the game and believes in nothing but maximizing profit.
   Jodie Comer portrays Millie, the designer of the game Antoine stole. She participates in the game through an avatar, a character who happens to be Guy's heartthrob, Molotov Girl.
    If I hadn’t seen Comer’s brilliant work as an assassin in Killing Eve, I probably wouldn’t have given her much thought. Ryan easily handles a character who leaps from nebbish to hero in a movie that allows him to ditch his snide side.
    For non-gamers, the movie may prove mildly confusing, although, for some, simply watching the parade of effects may suffice.
    I  suppose there’s an audience for movies such as Free Guy.
    I found myself longing for the old pinball machines that could be jarred into a “tilt,” which would — of course — end the game in less than the hour and 55 minutes it takes for Free Guy to reach inside its virtual chest and put its artificial heart on its computer-generated sleeve.
*A reader helped educate me about the acronym NPC. I originally called it a non-participatory character. The correct designation is non-player character. The review has been amended to reflect the correction. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

'Coda' sounds heart-tugging notes


Coda skillfully blends catchy musical numbers, a variety of nicely drawn characters, and a premise that brings the conflict between family obligation and individual dreams into poignant focus.  Emilia Jones portrays Ruby,  a high school senior who lives in Gloucester, Mass. Her mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant) are deaf. As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby frequently finds herself translating sign language for her parents and brother who operate a small fishing business. Ruby loves her family, but also craves independence. She begins to find it when she joins the school’s choir and encounters an inspiring teacher (a terrific Eugenio Derbez) whose idiosyncratic ways help her to develop her talent. With a potential music scholarship in Boston looming, Ruby must decide whether to proceed with her life or remain in a role on which her family has come to rely. Jones has a nice singing voice and the rest of the characters are well played with Kotsur giving Ruby’s father plenty of ebullient personality, Kotsur and Matlin also make us understand why the family approaches the hearing world with reserve. Basing her movie on La Famille Belier, a 2014 French film, writer/director Sian Heder adds enough touches (squabbles with wholesalers who underpay the fishermen) to give the movie extra heft. At times, Coda feels corny, but Heder and a fine cast overcome all resistance. Music. Meaning and likable characters. What more could you want?Much of the dialogue is delivered in American Sign Language and presented with subtitles.

He's on the run but doesn't know why

 Italian director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino directs John David Washington in a thriller that has its moments but ultimately fails to find a galvanizing gear. Washington plays the title character, a young man who's vacationing in Greece with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander). The couple leaves Athens because their hotel happens to be situated on the spot where an upcoming political protest has been scheduled. When two people seem as happy as Beckett and April, it hardly comes as a surprise when tragedy strikes. On a country road at night, Beckett falls asleep at the wheel. His car topples down a hill and crashes into a house. April doesn't survive the accident. Not only must Beckett deal with grief and guilt, but he also  finds himself running from a policeman (Panos Koronis) and the cop's female associate (Lena Kitsopoulou). Beckett, who speaks no Greek, has no idea why he's being pursued. The details are mostly irrelevant, but Beckett unwittingly finds himself in the middle of a plot against a leftist candidate that also involves a kidnapping. Beckett tries to outrun his pursuers as he makes his way to Athens and the American embassy. Along the way, Beckett meets two activists (Vicky Krieps and Maria Votti) who give him a ride. Boyd Holbrook, part of a cast of undercooked supporting characters, shows up as an American embassy official whose offers of help may conceal other motives. Beckett's final flight pushes him into violent action. This last-act eruption may have been intended to reflect the frustration Beckett has been building for the entire movie, but it can seem more like a last-minute attempt to up the action ante.  Beckett gets what it can from its Greek settings, but can't distinguish itself as either a straight-ahead thriller or a political drama. 

Monday, August 9, 2021

'Suicide Squad' is better than you'd expect

     I'm late to The Suicide Squad party, which means that I already know the movie, after receiving generally good reviews, failed to overwhelm at the box office. The Hollywood Reporter wondered whether moviegoers stayed home because of the spread of the delta variant.
    But staying home didn't mean missing the movie because it's streaming on HBO Max, which is how I caught up with it.
    Director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) has created what looks like a nihilistic free-for-all built around a group of outcasts recruited by the head (Viola Davis) of a black ops outfit called Task Force X.
    The selected team is supposed to destroy a creature called Starfish, an alien that might vanquish the entire Earth and which has fallen into the hands of an evil dictator (Peter Capaldi) of the small island nation of Corto Maltese (fictional) off the coast of South America. 
   In addition to Margo Robbie’s Harley Quinn, there's John Cena's Peacemaker, Daniela Melchior's Ratcatcher 2, Idris Elba's Bloodsport, and Sylvester Stallone's Nanaue/King Shark. Stallone provides the voice for a shorts-wearing shark-like creature with arms and legs.
   If the site of legions of rats doesn't appeal, you might want to think twice about joining The Suicide Squad. Ratcatcher 2 turns out to be a perverse Pied Piper who can muster up armies of rats.
    And while we're on the subject of strange creatures, consider David Dastmalchian's Polka-Dot Man, a human covered with polka dots which he can removed be removed and hurled at a foe. Did I mention that Polka-Dot only strikes when he sees his mother’s face in an opponent.  
   My advice: Don't give this too much thought.
   I wasn't counting but Idris seems to get the most attention as a sharpshooter who joins group leader Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) in an adventure that begins strong, can't always sustain excitement but recovers for a finale that's cleverly mounted and funny in the way of such movies.
    I supposed it's fair to say that Gunn has provided a worthy redo (sort of) of the much-scorned 2016 Suicide Squad which was directed by David Ayer.
    Robbie seems to enjoy indulging Harley's crazy ways and the rest of the cast is up to snuff as a group that, unlike other superheroes, doesn't seem to stand for anything as lofty as truth, justice, and the American way. 
     They just wanna be part of the abundant action set pieces that Gunn serves up with abandon.
      Now, having said all that, a cautionary note:
      The Suicide Squad may be the cinematic equivalent of someone who proudly claims to care about nothing — but you know it’s a pose.
      Still, the movie's saving grace lies in its willingness to embrace the ridiculous and, in the process,  poke fun at the kind of movie it easily could have been; i.e., one that took itself more more seriously.
      One look at the starfish monster -- Starro by name -- tells you Gunn has made goofiness a virtue.