Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Bob's Cinema Diary: 6/25/21 -- 'Werewolves Within' and 'Kenny Shcarf: When Worlds Collide

 Werewolves Within
A spoof-like take on werewolf movies, Werewolves Within tips its hand with its title. While  delivering a few jolts, the movie takes satirical aim at the predatory instincts of a group of residents in a small town where an oil company dangles major money to secure land for a pipeline. Director Josh Ruben assembles a strong cast and follows a familiar strategy, isolating his characters in a sleepy inn in the fictional town of Beaverfield. Sam Richardson plays a nice-guy forest ranger who arrives in the town at the film's outset.  Richardson's Finn  forms an immediate alliance with the town's mail person (Milana Vayntrub). She clues him into the secrets of the small population, which includes a married couple, the corporate guy who wants to build the pipeline, and others. An ominous trapper (Glenn Fleshler) lives outside the town and serves as the story’s principal red herring. Could he be the werewolf that's gradually depleting the town's population? More amusing than fall-down funny, Werewolves Within introduces sprinklings of topicality. Richardson's wonderfully sincere performance goes a long way toward keeping the movie on track.



Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide
If you're looking for a movie that understands and revives the chaotic feeling of the 1980s art world, Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide has plenty to offer. Focusing on Scharf, a graffiti artist who also works in a variety of other media, the movie tells the story of an artist who became known but never acquired the rocket-fueled fame of figures such as Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Directors Max Basch and Malia Scharf (the artist's daughter), tell the story of an era and of an individual whose work is steeped in pop-culture. The movie includes plenty of images of Scharf's work, as well as interviews with critics and fellow artists who help define Scharf’s place in the ever-flowing art stream. The directors include a  touching account of Scharf's loss of close friend and former roommate Haring to AIDS . It wasn't easy for Scharf to watch his friend anointed by an art world that never did as much for him. What finally sticks is Scharf's amazing productivity and his devotion to making art -- on canvas, on billboards, on walls, and on ordinary household objects. He came of age in a world in which trend sometimes outweighed trenchancy. But no matter which way the art winds blew, Scharf kept working and following his own path. He's still at it and still committed to the notion that to be meaningful art needn't be stripped of either playfulness or (heaven forbid) fun.


Thursday, June 17, 2021

This football story fails to score


12 Mighty Orphans exemplifies what happens when a sports movie goes stale.  It’s almost as if someone found the movie in a vault and couldn’t quite shake the mold off it. Dreary by Depression-era trappings pervade this story of an underdog high-school Texas football team. The story focuses on a Fort Worth orphanage where many kids were abandoned by economically ravaged parents who no longer could care for them. Based on a true story, the movie shows how an innovative football coach, Luke Wilson's Rusty Russell brought a ragtag team to a high school championship game. The film tries to draw additional poignancy from the fact that Russell himself was an orphan. Every movie set in an orphanage needs an ogre. In this case, Wayne Knight fills the role as a tyrant who's embezzling funds and administering severe beatings to the young men of the Masonic Home for Orphans. The film also needs a kindly doctor, preferably one with a drinking habit: Enter Martin Sheen as Doc Hall. There's also the angry kid (Jake Austin Walker) who must learn to channel his fury onto the football field. Director Ty Roberts includes scenes in which Russell has PTSD-driven flashbacks to his combat days in World War I. The movie also bogs down in dealing with issues involving the orphanage's eligibility to compete at the highest high school level. Treat Williams shows up as a newspaper publisher who becomes a fan of the Mighty Mites. Blink and you'll miss a cameo by Robert Duvall. For all its trying, 12 Mighty Orphans feels as dusty and diminished as the Texas landscape. I'm no judge of Texas accents, so I'll assume the cast hit the right notes, but in the case of 12 Mighty Orphans, hitting the right notes results in a movie that's neither a devastating look at Depression-era suffering nor a rousing football yarn. The movie's not just old-fashioned; it’s just plain old.


Self-absorption as a way of life

 


Director Magnus van Horn tackles the emptiness of an Instagram-driven life in Sweat, the story of an ambitious young woman (Magdalena Kolesnik) who amasses 600,000 adoring followers as a love-spreading exercise guru. Kolesnik's Sylwia resides in the world of the selfie. She's all about appearances and the movie brings us into three days of a life that's both manically focused and weirdly unsettled. In its early going, Sweat functions as a near-blatant critique of a hyper but hollow existence, a condition emphasized by lots of hand-held camera work. Sylwia has an exercise pal (Julian Swiezewski), but she's mostly a solo act and her days seem to consist of striking a series of poses. Look, I'm making a shake now. In one of her endless videos, Sylwia admits to feelings of loneliness, which allows the movie to open the door to an underside that continues when Sylwia encounters a stalker who likes to watch her from his car while masturbating. A visit to her mother's birthday celebration shows how out-of-touch Sylwia  can be with anything resembling normal interaction. I'm not sure that Van Horn deepens the movie enough but Kolesnik's performance drives Sweat through the burn of endless exercise and the pain of a life measured by  online posts dealing with matters such as the virtues of climbing stairs rather than riding elevators. Sylwia's thousands of devotees can't alleviate her isolation or satisfy the glimmers of longing that even she can't suppress. But it's not clear that she'll ever be able choose moments of meaning if her 600,000 followers aren't watching.


Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Best not to fool with Mother Nature

 

The term Earth Mother takes on a frightening dimension in South African director Jaco Bouwer's Gaia, a movie that fits into a genre some critics have dubbed "eco-horror." Though mysterious and eerie and a trifle ambiguous, the movie's main point is relatively simple: We've been consuming the Earth for so long that it's time that the tables were turned. In this movie, the Earth consumes us -- or least some of the movie's characters. Be particularly wary of fungi. Two forest rangers (Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi) are doing their observational duties in a dense forest. When they’re separated, Rockman's Gabi encounters a father-and-son combo (Carel Nel and Alex van Dyk), a duo that has abandoned civilization to spend time trying to placate forest forces. Bouwer artfully sets us up to view this duo as a murderous threat but the story takes a less expected turn, developing a relationship between Gabi and the two men who have been made-up to look as if they've been eating forest cuisine far too long.  Bouwer knows his way around a haunting image, receiving considerable help from the movie's cinematographer, Jorrie van der Walt. There's gore and surreal images of folks whose bodies have been invaded by floating mushroom spores. The story thins out considerably upon reflection but mood and overview (nature is mad and refusing to take it anymore) make Gaia into something more than routine horror. In Afrikaans and English.

The unstoppable Rita Moreno

 

     Fortunately for us and for director Mariem Perez Riera, Rita Moreno enjoys being in the spotlight. She's not one of those stars who feigns shyness when it comes to talking about her career or her personal life. 
    The documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, begins with Moreno's 87th birthday party before proceeding to tell the story of a Puerto Rican woman subjected to stereotyping early in her career when she played many complaint "native" girls. 
    But Moreno went on to win an Oscar for Westside Story, as well as Grammy, Emmy, and Tony honors. I don't know what it felt like for her, but viewed in retrospect, Moreno seems to have been unstoppable.
    I won't reprise Moreno's entire career, but Riera's documentary reminded me of how many bases Moreno has touched in a life that has included dancing, singing, drama, and nearly every other show business endeavor. 
    The movie's title comes from a T-shirt that Moreno wore to the Television Critics Association event at which she received a career achievement award in 2020. It aptly sums up the spirit of a woman who understood how to play the Hollywood game and still managed to turn herself into a ground-breaking winner.
    To say that Moreno has range would be to understate the case about an actress who has remained current with work in HBO's Oz and Netflix's One Day at a Timea show inspired by the 1975 sitcom. 
    Now 89, Moreno has had her share of personal heartbreak. She was romantically involved with Marlon Brando, a relationship that she says contributed to an attempted suicide. She also offers a frank appraisal of her marriage to Leonard Gordon, who served as her manager for a time.
    If you don't like candor, you probably don't want to hang out with Moreno. At one point, Riera films Moreno in her dressing room on the set of One Day at a Time. Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing plays on a nearby TV. Moreno freely lets us know what she's thinking. 
    That's true of just about every moment of this engaging and well-made documentary, which includes interviews with Morgan Freeman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefanand Hector Elizondo.  
    Make no mistake, though, Moreno's the star of this show. She and we wouldn't have it any other way.


They've lit many musical 'Sparks'

 

In the obscenely profuse world of pop culture, keeping up has become a virtual impossibility. So, it's without shame that I admit to never having heard of Sparks, an art rock-duo created  by two brothers, Ron and Russell Mael
   Sparks, it turns out is hardly a newcomer on the rock scene: The brothers have been making music since the 1960s, usually with the support of other musicians assembled for bands that have morphed through a variety of incarnations. 
    Lead singer Russell serves as frontman. But the most compelling figure is keyboardist Ron, who sports a razor-thin mustache and approaches his work with a deadpan gaze that deflects interpretation.
    Perhaps because he knows that many of his viewers won’t be familiar with Sparks, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) allows The Sparks Brothers to run for two hours and 15 minutes. The length should prove educational for tyros and satisfyingly abundant for aficionados. 
     Though it became big in Britain, Sparks never cracked the ceiling that leads to megastardom. The group more than makes up for its lack of mega-aura with durability. Sparks continually adapts and recreates itself -- not to keep pace with any trend, but to vent the group's considerable creativity. 
    The brothers' interests have taken them from serious but non-reverential interest in French New Wave cinema to albums with titles such as Kimono My House, Whomp that Sucker, and Lil' Beethoven
    Sparks manages a neat trick: The band delivers the rock goods while also keeping a tongue firmly planted in cheek, particularly when it comes to the businesses of rock.  When a producer suggested they do an album to which people could dance, the brothers wryly named their record Music That You Can Dance To
    Wright includes interviews (ranging from fan Patton Oswalt to Todd Rundgren to Flea to Mike Myers), all laudatory.
     It's probably a good idea to get ready for more Sparks to fly.
     Along with director Leos Carax, the brothers wrote the script for Annette, a Carax-directed movie starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard that will premiere at Cannes in July.  The story reportedly is told almost entirely through song and if The Sparks Brothers is any indication, the movie won't lack for invention, wit, and perhaps even a danceable beat.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The traps of gang life


 Set in Toronto and New York, Akilla's Escape takes a big leap, beginning with Jamaican politics before jumping to urban gang life in the US and Canada. The movie wants us to make a connection. Akilla’s Escape plays on two tracks. In one we meet, Akilla, a 15-year-old whose father (Ronnie Rowe, Jr.) runs a hard-boiled gang. He also  tries to school his son in what he regards as warrior values. This part of the movie is set against a similar story about Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a Toronto teenager who also finds himself caught up in gang life.  The grown Akilla (Saul Williams) -- now moved to Toronto -- becomes involved in Sheppard’s life when their paths cross in a drug transaction. Williams gives a quietly solid performance as a man who understands Sheppard's problems. He wants out of the marijuana business, which has wearied his soul. A strong Mpumlwana plays dual roles, appearing both as Sheppard and the young Akilla. This sometimes proves disorienting but it underscores the movie's point about the continuing cycle that envelops young black men who fall into the gang-controlled drug trade. Sheppard's aunt (Donisha Rita Claire Prendergast) asks Akilla to rescue her nephew from the drug barons who are trying to locate the boy as part of their attempt to retrieve looted cash.  In trying to save Sheppard, Akilla is also trying to finds his own salvation. It's a powerful theme, even if director Charles Officer sometimes loses its thread.  Still, credit Officer for bringing a sense of tragic realism to what could have been one more thriller with nothing to say.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

'In the Heights' hits lots of high notes

 

     With In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda established himself as a major figure in American musical theater. Miranda followed In the Heights with Hamilton, the production that took Broadway and then the nation by storm. 
    Now In the Heights has reached the big screen where it serves as a vibrant celebration of the Washington Heights neighborhood that has become a center of New York Dominican culture, broadened here to encompass a variety of Latino ethnicities living in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
    The message behind the energy that director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and a fine cast bring to the movie involves identity and assertiveness, insistence of characters on building lives in New York while keeping their culture close at hand.
   A large-scale ensemble piece, the movie nonetheless centers around Usnavi de la Vega played by Anthony Ramos in a commanding performance. Ramos narrates the story and also participates in the tale as a bodega owner who, in the movie's framing device, tells a group of youngsters how he wrestled with the idea of giving up his New York business and emigrating to the Dominican Republic to open a nightclub.
    Scenes in the bodega make good use of Gregory Diaz IV, who plays Sonny, Usnavi's teen assistant, a kid who wants to legalize his presence in the US, attend college, and make a life for himself.
    Chu introduces the movie in a way that makes it clear that he's telling the story of a neighborhood, showing us a block springing to life on a hot summer day. To underscore the challenges of big-city living, a crippling power outage looms.
    A large case keeps things lively, but a few of the performances must be highlighted.  Leslie Grace plays Nina, a young woman who has returned to the neighborhood after dropping out of Stanford, where she didn't feel accepted and where she felt she was betraying her roots. 
    Nina's father (Jimmy Smits) owns the cab company where Nina's boyfriend (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher.
    Most of the movie's themes revolve around the issue of flight, how to balance aspiration with faithfulness to heritage.
    -- Smits's character is ready to sell his business to finance Nina's tuition.
    -- Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) runs the local hair salon and is thinking about moving her business to the Grand Concourse, abandoning Manhattan for the Bronx.
    -- Melissa Barrera portrays Vanessa, a young woman who wants to abandon the Heights to establish herself in the downtown fashion world.  
     The beating heart of the neighborhood belongs to Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a Cuban-American woman who has no children but who has become a grandmother figure for the entire neighborhood.   
     Merediz sings one of the movie’s key songs, Paciencia y Fe  (Hope and Patience), which Chu stages in a New York subway station.
    Chu adds some nice graphics and effects flourishes, one involving a spinning manhole cover, another enabling Grace and Hawkins to scale the side of an apartment building as they sing a love duet. 
     Other highlights include a number at the local pool, where the characters wondering what they'd do if they had a winning lottery ticket that would pay $96,000.
    Miranda appears in the role of Piraguero, the guy who sells flavored ice from a pushcart.
    When I lived in New York, Washington Heights was known as an Irish neighborhood, a fact to which the screenplay makes glancing reference. Smits’s character bought his business from an Irish-American who was moving elsewhere.
    The movie's themes aren't exactly groundbreaking, but new voices give the entire enterprise an invigorating feeling of freshness.
     Chu and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the movie's screenplay, might have done a bit more to condense a two-hour and 23-minute run time, but In the Heights stands as a rich and spirited entertainment that brims with love for a neighborhood and the people who populate it. 
    Oh, and did I mention that it’s also a lot of fun?


Friday, June 4, 2021

A foray into a New York subculture


Manhattan can be a peculiar place, a teeming impersonal hunk of urban landscape that's conducive to the formation of what can seem like thousands of subcultures. That was true when I lived there in the '60s and '70s and it's evidently still true, at least judging by Port Authority.  Set partly in the Kiki ballroom scene, the movie features a notable performance from Lenya Bloom, a model and actress who became the first trans woman to star in a movie at a major festival when Port Authority had its debut at Cannes in 2019. Bloom portrays Wye, a trans woman who's part of the Kiki ballroom scene, which seems to consist primarily of  LGBTQ+ young people who create family structures for themselves. Paul (Fionn Whitehead) stumbles into this world after arriving in New York from Pittsburgh. He’s supposed to be met at the Port Authority Bus Terminal by his half-sister. When she doesn’t show, Paul falls in with Lee (McCaul Lombardi), who earns a meager living doing less-than-honorable work for landlords. Wye treats Paul with concern that he badly needs and romance looms. Director Danielle Lessovitz doesn't dot every "i" or cross every "t" but her story immerses us in a scene that most of us only know from documentaries about vogue dancing. The central relationship between Paul and Wye feels a bit undercooked and it takes an improbably long time for Paul to realize that Wye is transgender. But Lessovitz strikes a strong note by reminding us that people the larger society tends to marginalize often find one another, building sheltering worlds in the bargain -- in other words, Port Authority qualifies as a real New York story.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Myth and romance mingle in "Undine'


    It takes near foolhardy courage to make a contemporary romance that wraps present-day realities around a fairy-tale spine. Director Christian Petzold (Transit) takes the dare with Undine, the story of the relationship between an industrial diver (Franz Rogowski) and Undine (Paula Beer), a woman who delivers lectures about the history of Berlin.
    Oh, and by the way, Undine is a water nymph.
    Rogowski's meets Undine after she's been ditched by Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a jerk who we later learn is married and cheating on his wife. 
    Rogowski and Beer light sparks as their romance plays against a backdrop of daily life. If you know the Undine myth, you know that Undine is fated to kill any lover who's unfaithful to her. 
   Confident in his approach, Petzold makes no apologies for the movie's folkloric elements, allowing them to turn up in the midst of a story based in Berlin and the surrounding countryside. He presents the mythical without fanfare. 
   The movie’s appeal has less to do with its story or any mythology than with the charm of its two leads, with the poise Petzold brings to his filmmaking and the grace notes he sounds. 
    Watching Christoph welding underwater as he helps repair a turbine immerses us in a dark silent world of mystery. 
    Petzold's story includes elements of deceit and vengeance but also reaches for exalted levels of devotional love, the kind that you might expect to find on an opera stage.
   At its best, Undine flows and floats its way through an unconventional story that like the models of Berlin that Undine uses for her lectures knows that many layers lie beneath its contemporary surface.



Wednesday, June 2, 2021

This "Spirit' need to be more untamed


 Middle-of-the-road live-action movies seldom delight. Same goes for middle-of-the-road animated features,  and that's the category in which the new movie Spirit Untamed landsA predecessor movie -- Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron -- debuted in 2002. Now comes another helping that tries to touch as many bases as possible, mixing a multicultural cast of characters with lots of action and a girl-power pep talk. A wild horse befriends Lucky Prescott, (voice by Isabela Merced), a 12-year-old girl who travels west with her aunt (Julianne Moore). Lucky is supposed-to visit her father (Jake Gyllenhaal), a decent but broken man who hasn't recovered from the loss of Lucky's mom,   a trick-rider who was killed in an accident. Lucky quickly makes friends with two girls (Mckenna Grace and Marsai Martin) in the small town where she lands. She also defies her dad, who warns her to avoid Spirit, a wild horse that winds up in the town corral. Lucky's mastery of riding goes from zero to highly skilled within an improbable few minutes. The plot takes an adventure turn when Lucky sets out to rescue Spirit from a rustler (Walton Goggins) and his dastardly gang.  Little about the animation feels particularly special. Even with some mild ecological concerns, Spirit Untamed feels like multiplex filler. In the absence of any other kid-fare, Spirit might suffice, but it's mostly a negligible hunk of family oriented entertainment.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

‘Cruella’ adds new flair to a Disney stalwart


    Watching Emma Stone and Emma Thompson clash provides sufficient reason to see Cruella, a lively, surprisingly mordant story about how the famed Disney villainess Cruella De Vil became such a narcissistic queen. 
   Set in London during the 1970s, Cruella may be one franchise-based Disney movie that leans decidedly toward adult appreciation with its sharply drawn characters, lavish production design, and costumes that have been created with irresistible flair.
   Normally, costumes shouldn't trump the actors but, in the case of Cruella, they assume the status of a character. You might even say that the movie is about two women and the clothes they wear.
    Designer Jenny Beavan does a terrific job creating the movie's fashions, which are shown at parties, balls, and in the daily flow of the Baroness's life. Inventive and almost plausible, the costumes become testimonials to sartorial wit and imagination.
    Director Craig Gillespie (I Tanya) fuses coming-of-age tropes with a story that evokes memories of The Devil Wears Prada, meaning that the movie has a kind of insiders kick you won't find in the 1961 animated original, 101 Dalmations. 
    In this case, the movie's giant-sized supply of narcissism resides in the ostentatiously attired person of The Baroness (Thompson). An imperious fashionista, The Baroness's iron-fisted rule over haute couture remains unchallenged, even as punk culture and thrift-store chic begin their ascendance.
    Looking as if her face has been cast in bronze and sporting a bee-hive-sized mound of hair, Thompson creates a character of sharp edges, venomous bite, and casually expressed sadism. Let's just say that she takes the idea of being dressed to kill a little too literally.
   Egotism aside, the Baroness has an eye for original talent, especially if she can exploit it. She's quick to spot the latent genius in Stone's Estella, the young woman who -- as the story unfolds -- morphs into Cruella.  
    Early on, Estella can be found working in a department store where she scrubs floors. During a drunken evening locked in the store, she creates a window display with enough originality to impress the Baroness. Estella's rise to stardom begins.
     But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Cruella's plot kicks off with a young Estrella defying school rules. After the death of her mother, the newly orphaned Estella finds a London-based support system built around two larcenous characters, Joel Fry's Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser's Horace. This comic duo eventually serves to tweak Estella's diminishing conscience.
   Once Estella becomes an employee at the Baroness's fashion house, we know that she'll eventually eclipse her mentor. Born with two-tone black and white hair, Estella dons a wig until her metaphorically divided mop-top emerges and she fully  transforms into Cruella.
     Stone handles the transformation well as Estella happily learns to focus her more vindictive impulses.
     This shift and a predictable plot reveal trigger the melodramatic revenge saga that dominates the movie's final act, which suffers from a bit of bloat. But kudos to Disney for not forcing Gillespie and a strong cast into Disney straitjackets. 
    Among other things, Cruella dedicates itself to the notion that there's something both ridiculous and amusing about clothing that eschews function in favor of ornamental arrogance. 
    I'm not saying that Cruella trashes Disney. The movie acknowledges its Disney past but mostly succeeds in taking it to entertaining new levels. 
     
       


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Expect jolts. Surprise? Not so much


   I suppose it makes twisted sense that the first film I've seen with an audience since the start of the great Covid pandemic is a sequel, namely A Quiet Place Part II
   Sitting in a multiplex with a state-of-the-art auditorium, I felt an alarming sense of deja vu. Rather than feeling elated about returning to the theatrical experience, I felt as if nothing had changed in more than a year.
    I wanted renewal. I got more of the same — which makes a decent lead-in to the review of Part II.
   Director John Krasinski follows the unexpected success of the 2018 original with a movie in which the technical achievements -- the use of sound in a story about  ferocious  aliens with heightened hearing abilities  -- built unnerving levels of  suspense. 
    In case you've forgotten, another reminder: The Quiet Place aliens respond to noise. Make a sound and they'll hunt you down faster than you can switch from here to another Web site.
   And, no, I'm not suggesting you try that.
  In the first outing, Krasinski concocted a movie in which waiting -- the simple act of having to be silent -- crackled with suspense and we marveled at the ingenuity required for a mother and father (Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt) to save their family.
    Now,  the attacks and their attendant noise constitute the main event: Noises trigger the attacks which proceed with fury and lots of of flashing teeth and claws. In 2021, the aliens are more than ready for their close-ups.
    Fans of the first installment also remember that Krasinski's character died in that movie. Perhaps to serve as a refresher, Krasinski opens Part II with an action-filled prologue in which he appears.
    Fast and efficient, the prologue gets things off to an ominous start, introducing a couple of major characters whose issues echo throughout.
    As a kid whose Little League game is interrupted by an alien invasion, Noah Jupe's Marcus must overcome a quivering lack of confidence. Millicent Simmonds portrays Marcus's sister Regan, a teenager who can't hear but who has enough smarts and courage to see things through.
    Once the opening fades, Krasinski leaps ahead to the time when Blunt's character, her three children (one still an infant) are on the run without their late father to help. Most of the pre-invasion world has fallen into that most sacred of movie territories, wanton disrepair.
   This is not to say that Krasinski totally succumbs to second-movie fatigue. The set pieces -- Regan entering an empty (wanna bet?) train car and Blunt racing toward safety carrying oxygen tanks -- are effectively tense. If you like jump scares, you won't be short-changed.
   The story derives most of its momentum from a plotline in which Regan attempts to find a safe harbor for her family. 
   She's joined by a former neighbor. Emmett (a bearded Cillian Murphy) reluctantly offers the wandering Abbott family shelter before joining Regan in a search triggered by a clue: a perpetual broadcast of Bobby Darin's Beyond the Sea
    Could it be a message about a place the aliens have yet to reach?
    Putting the movie's characters into separate story arcs doesn't always pay off.  A cross-cutting series of sequences that shifts between Jupe and Simmonds has a pro-forma quality about it and the movie's ending feels as if someone simply decided it was time to go home.
     Part II probably will make some noise at the box office and may encourage conversation about the ways in which a movie about disruptions to normal life resonates during the time of Covid. 
     I was jolted. I felt some of the more suspenseful moments but I wish I could tell you that in its fleet 97 minutes, Part II approached the surprise level of the original.
     Like the aliens that attack suddenly and at warp speed, Part II moves quickly but leaves little in its wake. Adding nothing much by way of depth or discovery, Part II feels more like an encore than a great sequel. 
      
      
     

Friday, May 21, 2021

They recall their days in Nazi Germany


    As people in their 80s and 90s, they've had plenty of time to reflect on what it was like to be young in Hitler's Germany. They've also had time to consider whether their actions, particularly those who served in the Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS, made them a party to Nazi crimes, particularly the Holocaust. 
   In recalling their childhoods, many talk about how they enthusiastically joined Nazi organizations for kids, graduating at 14 to the uniformed ranks of the Hitler Youth. They liked the camaraderie, the sense that they were part of something larger than themselves.
   Some of the men who served in the military have become masters of moral compartmentalization. They were proud to serve the Fatherland but felt shame at what Germany did to Jews.
     Many of the interviewees in director Luke Holland's documentary Final Account say they felt  powerlessness to challenge Nazi rule, unable to do anything about the crimes that some of them admit to having seen or even to have helped perpetrate. 
   At least one former SS man refuses to dishonor the memory of Hitler, although he says that the Jews should have been deported en masse rather than killed. 
   Another insists that no more than a million Jews died in the Holocaust. Six million? Never happened, he says.
   Still another says that he allowed himself to be blinded to the brutal truths of the Third Reich.
   The film progresses from the 1930s to the height of the war years and into the first decade of the 21st Century, inviting us to ponder the expressions on the faces we see. Is that a half-smile? If so, what does it mean? How much are those who speak allowing themselves to see?
   Holland keeps his film on an even keel, punctuating interviews with images of the German countryside, historical footage (some of it in color), and views of various German concentration and death camps.
    Shot mostly in 2008, Final Account represents a somber distillation of the hundreds of interviews the director conducted. Holland died last year at the age of 71. During his teen years in England, he found out that his mother was a Jewish woman forced to flee Vienna to escape the Nazis.
    Final Account boasts two valuable achievements: It augments the historical record and challenges us to engage with essential questions about complicity, responsibility, and guilt.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

'Army of the Dead' has some bite

 

     Director Zack Snyder, whose recently released, re-cut four-hour version of Justice League excited his fan base, elevates Army of the Dead with visionary flourishes and gory zombie verve. 
   Hollywood's symphony of flesh-eating violence has become all-too-familiar but Snyder renews interest by enlarging the obvious and tossing a couple of genres (zombie and caper films) into a blood-splashed blender.
    After a nifty prologue, the story begins in earnest. Casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires Dave Bautista's Scott Ward to enter quarantined Las Vegas, a city that has been overrun by zombies. The job: to survive the undead predators and retrieve $200 million Tanaka left in a vault at one of his hotels.
    To accomplish his task, Ward assembles a hard-boiled crew consisting of Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), who previously worked as mercenaries with Ward. Also along for the ride are a wiseass helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro), a safecracker (Matthias Schweighofer), and a sniper (Raul Castillo).
    Lily (Nora Arnezeder) leads the group through the wreckage. She works as a coyote smuggling folks into the forbidden zone.
    Ward's daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) also joins the zombie-fighting entourage. She doesn't get along with her dad but wants to rescue her pal Geeta (Huma Qureshi), a woman who's stuck in Vegas and has no idea that a super-lethal clock is ticking. 
    To put a halt to the zombie apocalypse, the US has committed to nuking Vegas on the Fourth of July. When the deadline is moved up, the invaders are left with only hours to grab the money and run.
     Not all the zombies are staggering, mindless chompers. Zeus (Richard Crettonne), the roaring king of the zombies, is deeply offended when his queen (Athena Perample) loses her head, which one of Ward's crew keeps for reasons that I won't reveal here.
     Part caper movie, part dystopian nightmare, part spoof, and part barrage of automatic weapons fire, the movie delivers a satirical blow to an easy target, a Las Vegas complete with its own zombie Elvis impersonators and a ferocious zombie tiger named Valentine. 
    Snyder, who directed 2004's Dawn of the Dead, also served as  cinematographer for Army of the Dead, which allows him to take part credit for some of the movie's teeming canvas: Zombie hordes, ravaged casinos, and hotels reduced to rubble create an unruly backdrop of decay.
     Army of the Dead is designed to be part of a franchise. I don't know how I feel about the prospect of more of these movies but this one allows Snyder to assemble an overflow of genre ingredients and give them a swift, often amusing kick -- providing, of course, that you can consider anything about a movie that lasts for two hours and 28 minutes to be "swift."


 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Two mysteries in an isolated town

 

  Throughout its one hour and 57-minute running time, the Australian thriller The Dry builds sustains quiet levels of tension as two mysteries rub against each other.
    Set on a parched Australian landscape during a 324-day drought, The Dry focuses on Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a Melbourne-based cop who returns to his hometown of Kiewarra after the murder/suicide of a childhood pal (Martin Dingle Wall), his wife, and young son.
    The parents of the recent victim insist that Falk attend the funeral. They also ask him to hang around and investigate. They can't believe that their son would murder his family before turning a rifle on himself. An infant daughter survived the shooting.
    Director Robert Connolly adapts a 2016 novel by Jane Harper, mixing present-day action with flashbacks to Falk's teen years, a time when the drowning death of 17-year-old Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) cast suspicion on Falk.
    Many of the townsfolk believe that young Falk (Joe Klocek) had something to do with Ellie's death.
    Connolly does a nice job adding flavorful supporting characters,  some of whom serve as red herrings. A local cop (Keir O'Donnell) is in way over his head. Ellie's father (William Zappa) and one of her cousins (Matt Nable) seethe with hatred for Falk. 
    John Polson plays the genial principal of the town's school and Genevieve O'Reilly portrays Gretchen, a single mom who was part of the group of teenagers with whom Falk grew up and who now seems to spark his interest in the possibility of an adult relationship.
     As if adapting to the movie's austere terrain, Bana plays an emotionally closed-in character who tries to maintain an even keel as guilt and regret roil beneath his composed surface.
     Connolly ably brings the movie’s  mysteries to their conclusions and The Dry stands as an exploration of life in a town where terrible secrets lie beneath dusty, dried-out surfaces. It has been almost a year since the town saw any rain and even longer since many of its residents faced some hard truths.



Thursday, May 13, 2021

Chris Rock tries to revive the “Saw” franchise

 

   Someday, Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson may again find themselves in the same movie. Spiral: From the Book of Saw hints at what that movie might be, a story full of cutting banter and shrewd observation. But hints is all we get from Spiral, the ninth movie in the proudly revolting Saw franchise. 
   Spiral has the look and feel of  typically gritty police drama. But the movie's bloody acorn doesn't fall far enough from the Saw tree to refresh a series that has become a genre unto itself.
    Rock portrays detective Zeke Banks, a cop scorned by other cops because he once turned in his dirty-cop partner. 
    Jackson portrays Marcus, Zeke's father and a highly regarded former police chief. 
    Early on, a reluctant Zeke is assigned to work with a rookie partner (Max Minghella). Zeke's annoyance with Minghella's character isn't personal. As a victim of abuse from his fellow officers, Zeke doesn't want to work with anyone.
    The movie introduces another sadistic villain (unseen for most of the movie), a psychopath who specializes in torturing and murdering cops who've indulged their baser impulses.
    True to its Saw heritage, the movie creates sequences that are difficult to watch without wincing or turning away entirely. The villain creates elaborate devices that inflict horrifying forms of pain.
    The murderer gives his targets a chance to save themselves. A cop who routinely lied can trigger a mechanism that will cut out his tongue. Should he decline, the terrified officer will be smashed to a bloody pulp by an oncoming subway train.
   Amazing how in Spiral, murderous devices always seem to work. No short circuits. No design failures --- and no  relation to the mechanical woes most of us occasionally encounter.
    As Capt. Angie Garza, a cop who still believes in Zeke, Marisol Nichols scores one of the few significant female roles.
    Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed three previous Saw movies, creates a convincing cop atmosphere -- at least as we know it from other amped-up movies. But at a time when police behavior has garnered more than the usual attention, Spiral  doesn't exactly further the conversation.
    Unapologetically committed to his portrayal and to genre demands,  Rock again shows that he doesn't need to be confined to comedy. In Spiral, though, he can’t escape the downward pull of two worn-out genres: pulpy police procedurals and gag-inducing horror.
     



Bob's Cinema Diary: 5/14/21 -- "Riders of Justice' and "Djinn'

 Riders of Justice 
The Danish film Riders of Justice qualifies as a bona fide curiosity, a film in which shocking violence plays against a comic backdrop in which an unlikely alliance tries to  deliver its own brand of justice. The alliance consists of a seasoned warrior (Mads Mikkelsen) and three nerdy companions (Nikolaj Lie Kass, Nicolas Bro, and Lars Brygmann). A soldier suffering from PTSD, Mikkelsen's Markus returns from the front when his wife (Anne Birgitte Lind) dies in a vividly presented train crash. Markus's teenaged daughter (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) survives and the two are left to cope (or not) with grief. Enter a statistician (Nikolaj Lie Kass) who was on the demolished train and who claims that it's statistically impossible for the crash to have been an accident.  Lie Kass's Otto  enlists Markus in a revenge plot that also draws in a computer expert (Bro) and an all-around geek (Brygman). The movie can't always balance seriousness and humor, but director Anders Thomas Jensen goes heavy on themes: from child sexual abuse to the over-reliance on science to the fraught relationship between Markus and Mathilde's preternaturally accommodating boyfriend (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt). As suspects in the train crash, The Riders of Justice gang becomes the focal point of an investigatory/revenge plot. To appreciate Riders of Justice, imagine a revenge movie in which the characters all have backstories that ultimately are revealed in serious conversations. These moments can be touching and Jensen never forgets that a terrible sense of loss underlies the entire enterprise. I can't say that Riders of Justice totally succeeds in seamlessly blending its many ingredients, but Mikkelsen's tough performance and the rest of the cast keep the movie from jumping its tracks -- or at least jumping them in weirdly provocative  ways.

The Djinn


A minimalist slice of contemporary horror, The Djinn offers an efficient blending of sound, image, and jolts. A slender story revolves around a boy (Ezra Dewey) whose DJ father (Rob Brownstein) has left him alone for the night. Dewey's Dylan can hear but he can't speak. While rummaging through a closet, as kids are wont to do, Dewey finds a thick, obviously strange book that tells him he'll be granted one wish, assuming that he survives a night with The Djinn.  The movie's monstrous demon appears in different forms and does its best to make Dylan's survival as difficult as possible. Routine horror ploys proliferate: A TV that shows nothing but static and a boombox that turns itself on and off. The boy also sees images of his mother (Tevy Poe), a woman who left Dewey and his dad before the movie begins. On screen by himself for most of the movie, Dewey delivers a convincing performance but directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell may be trapped by their movie’s minimalism. Sometimes, minimalism produces only minimal impact.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

She tries to expose an ISIS recruiter

 

     He's charming and good at creating the illusion of shared intimacy. He knows how to focus attention on the person to whom he's talking, typically a woman. He engages her, gradually working his way toward the subject of love. He rewards every expression of interest on her part with praise.
   In the new movie, ProfileShazad Latif plays Abu Bilel, an ISIS recruiter who wants to bring women to Syria, purportedly to become his bride. He portrays ISIS-controlled areas in Syria as a wholesome earthly paradise, so much better than bigoted London.
     Consisting entirely of online interactions, Profile becomes a digital two-hander that focuses entirely on the computer screen of Amy (Valene Kane), a British- broadcast journalist intent on exposing ISIS recruiting practices.
    It takes time to adjust to the movie's approach. As it unfolds on Amy's screen, the story brims with distracting intrusions. Amy's Skype relationship with Bilel plays out while Google Chrome runs in the background. (See photo above). This means there's always a chance for multi-tasking mixups and director Timur Bekmambetov milks the possibility for tension.
    What if Amy mistakenly sends Bilel a response to one of her boyfriend's texts? The boyfriend (Morgan Watkins) is looking for an apartment for the couple to share and constantly seeks Amy's input.
    The premise is credible but not everything about the story follows suit. A non-Muslin journalist in her 30s, Amy becomes involved in the life of her online companion. We're meant to wonder whether she's forgotten the purpose of her work.
       During her conversations with Bilel, Amy wears a hijab and calls herself Melody. She does her best to sustain the ruse while being hectored by her editor (Christine Adams) to supply recorded footage of her conversations. The editor wants to broadcast Amy's story.
     Amy balks, fretting about exposure and about Bilel's welfare. Amy's susceptibility to Bilel's charms and her concern for his safety in war-torn Syria reach levels that challenge plausibility.
    Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer) generates additional tension when Amy flies to Turkey where she's supposed to meet with Bilel who'll escort her to the Syrian bliss that awaits.
     It's an interesting enough idea, but Bekmambetov overtaxes the movie's digital artifice and missteps when it comes to sustaining plausibility for all of Profile's105-minute run time.
      
      

Friday, May 7, 2021

An FBI agent and his informant

 

     Drugs. Impoverished living. A rundown town where the coal mine has gone dead. FBI corruption. Infidelity. And, of course, murder.
     These days chances are good that we're talking about a movie set in the American South.
    Above Suspicion, from director Phillip Noyce, tells the real-life story of how, in 1989, a rising FBI star formed a relationship with the seductive informant who helped him build an ascending career. 
     A spoiler? Not entirely. The movie's ending is revealed in the opening scene, a nod to William Holden's narration in Sunset Boulevard. The narrator of the story, it seems, already is dead.
    "You know what's the worst thing about being dead?''the late  Susan Smith asks. "You get too much time to think."
     Starting the movie at the end leaves us with one major question: How did Susan wind up dead?
     Emilia Clarkefamiliar from Game of Thronesportrays the movie's narrator, Susan, a woman living in Pikeville, Ky. Susan has the profile you’d expect in a movie such as this. She lives with but is estranged from her drug-dealing husband (Johnny Knoxville). She's also in the midst of a welfare scam.
    Desperate for a change, Susan reads a lot into the sudden arrival in town of FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston). Susan spots the agent getting out of a car looking sharp and healthy. She's overpowered by a desire to connect, seeing Putnam as a way out of town.
    From the start, Susan knows that Putnam is married. Putnam's wife (Sophie Lowe) supports her husband and, for much of the movie, has no idea that he might have a dark side.
   Stuck in a town that's portrayed as dirtbag hell,  the ambitious Putnam thinks he might impress his superiors by solving a string of bank robberies. En route, he leads a drug bust at Susan's home, opening the door for him to enlist her as a snitch. 
   Susan has more on her mind than helping Putnam advance his career. She tries to seduce him. After some half-hearted  resistance, Putnam takes the bait.
   Clarke mostly brings Susan to life, allowing her looks to be defaced to depict Susan's slide into terrible drug abuse.
   Huston, who played a man who had half his face blown off in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, can't quite locate a core for a character who perhaps doesn't have one. Putnam is self-absorbed and ultimately dangerous.
   Thora Birch doesn't get a chance to do much as Susan's sister, a hairdresser. Among the supporting cast, Knoxville lands the hardest hit.
    Noyce's varied resume includes movies such as Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, and Rabbit Proof Fence. He's a good director but he’s working with a story that follows a downbeat arc based on a real-crime book written by Joe Sharkey.
    Sharkey’s observant, detailed prose did more to create involvement than Susan's forlorn narration. 
    On screen, Above Suspicion has its moments, but it never feels as if we're discovering anything revelatory as we follow these characters on their predictably doomed journeys.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Bullets and brawn: Guy Ritchie's latest

 

Take a look at the picture that accompanies this brief review. That's Jason Statham in another tough-guy movie from director Guy Ritchie. If you know the work that Statham and Ritchie have done together (1988's Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was their first movie), you pretty well know what you'll be getting with Wrath of Man, a remake of Cash Truck, a French thriller from 2004. Statham plays a character named "H." It doesn't take long for H to find himself in a position in which he must avenge the death of his son, a hapless bystander during an armored-truck robbery.  Wrath of Man goes easy on Ritchie's customary eye-popping flourishes. Here, the director pretty much relies on stony-faced characters and a revenge saga that contains few new twists but is told with darkly expressed competence and  a familiar disregard for chronological order. Not surprisingly, Ritchie pours on the violence, which becomes increasingly easier to tune out as the movie progresses. Ritchie and Statham have made four films together, although it's been 15 years since their last collaboration. This time, Statham and Ritchie deliver the expected goods, the worth of which depends on your tolerance for this kind of movie. Oh, by the way, other actors crop up from time-to-time. Among them: Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, and Scott Eastwood. You can place bets on who in the supporting cast will make it to the finish line.


Billy Crystal tackles aging, dementia


    In Here Today, Billy Crystal plays a comedy writer who’s beginning to suffer the effects of dementia. To compensate, Crystal’s Charlie Burnz follows the same route to his office every day, reminding himself what to do at every turn. If he diverges, he's lost.
   He’s increasingly forgetful and some of his colleagues on a cable show that resembles Saturday Night Live think he's lost his edge.
  Crystal, who also directs and who co-wrote the script with Alan Zweibel, gets to the heart of the story when Charlie meets Emma Payge. (Tiffany Haddish).
   Emma's former boyfriend won a lunch with Charlie, one of his idols,  at a charity auction. An angry Emma shows up instead. Before the lunch, she never even heard of Charlie.
   During lunch,  Emma has an alarming and not especially funny allergic reaction to a seafood salad and must be rushed to a nearby hospital. Charlie generously pays her medical bills. 
     No charity case, Emma pays Charlie back in installments, providing an opportunity for the two to become real friends.
     Later -- to demonstrate the closeness of their bond -- Charlie and Emma even spoon (their word) a little. Of course, they don't push toward anything more serious than a comforting cuddle. And, no, I can't think of the last time I heard the word "spooning" used by anyone.
    It's difficult to imagine that a movie such as Here Today won't step  into puddles of sentiment. It does.
    Recurrent flashbacks show Charlie's relationship with his beloved wife (Louisa Krause), who's seen mostly in the prime of her youth.
    Like many who face their final days, Charlie wants to make things right with his grown children: a resentful daughter (Laura Benanti) and a son (Penn Badgley) who thinks Dad doesn't value his work as a budding architect. 
     Broad comedy sometimes swamps sentiment. The movie puts a lot of energy into a scene in which Emma accompanies Charlie to his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. She commandeers the mic, delivers her version of Janis Joplin's Piece of My Heart, and gets everybody moving on the dance floor.
     Scenes at the show where Charlie works made me wonder whether the entire movie shouldn't have taken place in that environment. He may be an ancient in a world full of young comics but Charlie knows that many of them greatly overestimate their talents.
     It's nearly impossible to watch Crystal without smiling, which makes the movie’s obvious contrivances feel less brittle. In Haddish, he's found a gutsy actress willing to dive into the movie's more improbable moments without blinking.
     Odd-couple sparks aside, Here Today carries the weight of genre  shtick that's older than Crystal and Haddish put together: You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry. That sort of thing.
     I did laugh a few times. And I felt Charlie’s pain when he couldn't remember the names of celebrities at a Lincoln Center panel honoring one the films he'd written. Did I cry? Not even close.
     In short, my heart was not warmed as surely was intended. Still, I'm happy to report that my fondness for both performers remains undiminished.

When a queen becomes a diplomat


    It's cheap and probably lazy for a reviewer to call attention to a movie's title, but ...
    A movie titled Queen Marie of Romania doesn't automatically suggest a compelling hour and 50 minutes at the movies. Unfortunately, this Queen can be as prosaic as its title.
    Odd, too, because the story take place at a pivotal moment during the days following World War I. The leaders of the Western World have gathered in Paris for a peace conference at which many borders will be determined. They were, in effect, carving up the world.
    Director Alexis Sweet Cahill focuses on Romania's battle for recognition. The Romanians wanted approval to establish a unified country with borders that would include Transylvania and more. They wanted to rid themselves of what they viewed as the Hungarian occupation of part of their country.
    These are not topics with immediate urgency for most American audiences and Queen Marie is too mired in period-piece trappings to make them feel vivid. 
     Mixing stilted English, Romanian, and smatterings of German, the movie becomes a tribute to the determination of a single woman, Queen Marie of Romania, played here by Roxana Lupu.
     English-bred and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Marie was no pushover. When Romanian diplomats failed to persuade the assembled delegates to recognize a unified Romania, she traveled to Paris where she wowed the Parisian press with a mixture of charm, grit and guile.
    The Romanian royals provide a bit of family drama. The king (Daniel Pier) seems responsible but wimpy. Prince Carol II (Anghel Damian) angers his parents because he's dallying with a commoner. The lead Romanian diplomat (Adrian Titieni) fumes with frustration because no one at the Paris conference takes him seriously.
     Several historical figures round out the history lesson. Sporting a massive walrus mustache, Ronald Chenery portrays George Clemenceau, France's prime minister. Richard Elfyn plays Lloyd George, Britain's PM, and Patrick Drury appears as Woodrow Wilson. 
    The movie trots out these big-name historical characters mostly so that Queen Marie can stand up to them. By the end, she has put all of them in their places as she goes about serving her people, as she refers to her mission.
    Narrow and aristocratic, the movie lacks the sweep of history. At the time of the conference, large numbers of Romanians were starving and Hungarian forces were ravaging Bucharest. 
     Though referenced, the suffering of the Romanian people takes a backseat to Marie's proto-feminism and to the lavishly displayed Parisian and Romanian settings -- hotels and castles fit for ... well ... a queen.
     Oh well, a missed opportunity. As rudimentary as it is decorous. Queen Marie over-explains, under-dramatizes and generally fails to catch fire.