Friday, January 29, 2021

A great house and a battling couple


   There's something so arty and insular about Malcolm & Marie that I found it nearly impossible to forget that I was watching a movie. 
   Director Sam Levinson has made a two-hander about a battling couple played by John David Washington and Zendaya
   The movie may remind you of other battling couples, notably Edward Albee's George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a movie that also was shot in black-and-white.
    I'll get to the couple -- a filmmaker and his muse -- in a moment. 
     First, though, a word about architecture. If a movie is to take place almost entirely within one house, the house better be interesting and evocative. Levinson has chosen the Caterpillar House in Carmel, Ca. 
     Set mostly at night, we're keenly aware of the vast glass walls of the living room, the sense of West Coast openness and the self-conscious modernity of a house that seems as much a statement as a home.
   Of course, I digress. So let me say that inside the house we find an uneven mixture of battling, rants and emotional exposure -- or, just another day in the life of a young couple.
   Washington plays Malcolm, a filmmaker who's returning to a home that has been provided by his production company. His new film has just had its premiere.
    Zendaya's Marie is the lover and partner Malcolm forgot to acknowledge in his thank-you speech after the movie, a bit of neglect sets off the fireworks. 
     A former drug addict, Marie also believes that Malcolm appropriated events from her life without bothering either to credit her or cast her in his movie.
   Initially, Malcolm rides an adrenalin-fueled wave of triumph as he dances through the living room. It seems as if his movie will give him career-making credibility. He's like a person who has learned he's just won the lottery -- only, in this case, his triumph has been earned.
     While Malcolm enthuses about himself or rants on other matters, Marie makes a bowl of mac and cheese -- from a box no-less. If this is an act of ego deflation, what to make of the fact that Malcolm eats it?
    Marie slowly pulls the rug out from under the joyous Malcolm and, in the process, raises questions about creativity, ethics, and self-image.
    Even when they're interesting or amusing, battling couples can get on your nerves. If you'd have been in the presence of Malcolm and Marie during their long evening of ire, it wouldn't take long before you began looking for the exits.
    This is not to fault the acting. Zendaya punches well in the emotional clinches. Washington finds a groove, at one point delivering a rapid-fire monologue about being pigeon-holed as a black filmmaker by a critic. Ironically, the same critic also called his film a "master work."
    The lengthy soliloquy is impressive if only for Washington's ability to sustain the energy and powers of elocution required to deliver it.
    Levinson inches the characters toward sexual intimacy and then retreats; he primes us for deep revelation but none seems to be forthcoming. Sometimes rant substitutes for dialogue. 
    The total effect is oddly unsettling. By the time the movie ended, I felt as I'd been watching a skillful simulation of an art movie rather than the real thing.
     Put another way, Malcolm & Marie requires too much effort for too little reward.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

B-movie maneuvers with an A-list cast

    A thriller that evokes memories of other movies about cops and serial killers, The Little Things traffics in downbeat atmospherics with a thriller set in 1990s. 
   Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto star in a story that has been vamped on and recycled so many times, it's difficult to see the movie as more than another genre exercise.
    Looking paunchy, exhausted and gray, Denzel Washington plays Joe "Deke" Deacon, a Northern California deputy sent to LA to retrieve a piece of evidence.  As it turns out, Joe once worked in LA, a city he couldn't escape without tarnishing his reputation.
    Once in LA, Joe teams with Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), an LA detective with a starched personality and a talent for getting himself on the news. Jimmy asks Joe to join him in trying to solve a string of murders, prostitutes who have been mutilated.
   Enter Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), an LA refrigerator repairman who lives on the margins, walks with a waddle and has enough smarts to make for a tough interview when the cops haul him in for questioning. 
     With long hair that looks as if it hasn't been washed for weeks and a taste for strip clubs, Albert has prime suspect written all over him.
     Washington has an uncanny ability to make us believe that any character he plays knows more than anyone else. He and Malek make a decent enough team, mismatched at first but increasingly on the same page.
     The screenplay creates a predictable thematic link between Joe and Jimmy, building a connection around each's capacity for moral compromise. Joe was suspended from the LA force because he became obsessed with a case that shattered his marriage and put him in the hospital for triple bypass surgery.
     Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) turns out a police procedural that peeks into the darkest corners of cop and criminal behavior -- not so much because it's curious but because the atmospherics demand it. 
     Even worse, the story falls short during the final act which finds Jimmy behaving  in ways that defy credibility. 
     The Little Things fulfills many of the requirements of a gritty genre piece, moving its characters through a world from which no one escapes uncorrupted, sort of a B-movie with an A-list cast and noir shading.
       But with three Oscar winners in the principal roles, it's not unfair to have expected something more.

Terror In a hotel without check-out


    The most frightening things often go unseen. Considering that, it always surprises me that most horror films focus on the visible impact of one form of mayhem or another.
   Night, a film about an Iranian couple living in Los Angeles, takes a different approach. Although we hear threatening sounds and see eerie sights, the movie relies heavily on the potent power of suggestion.
    Born and raised in Tehran and now living in Los Angeles, director Kourosh Ahari introduces us to several affluent Iranian couples living the good life in LA. 
     Initially, The Night looks as if it's going to be a well-observed movie in which the problems of these couples slowly emerge.
     But Ahari quickly switches gears. One couple (Shahab Hosseini and Niousha Noor) leave the party. He's had a bit too much to drink. She says they ought to return to the party and sleep at the host's house. He refuses but eventually agrees to suspend a wobbly drive so that they can spend the night at a hotel: husband, wife, and their infant daughter.
      It won't surprise you to learn that the hotel's receptionist (George Maguire) is creepy -- in a dry way that might not mean anything or might mean a lot. 
      The hotel seems to be empty of other guests. Strange noises begin to go ... you'll pardon the expression ... bump in the night.
     As it turns out, both Hosseini's Babak and Noor's Neda have kept secrets from each other. Gradually emerging secrets create a no-exit dynamic: The couple can't move on unless they accept truths about themselves. They can't leave the hotel.
    The Night is haunting, even if it  suffers a bit from a problem that's endemic to all such movies: The buildup isn't quite matched by the finale -- although, in this case, it's not for lack of trying.
     Still, Ahari proves himself a master of dread and threat and Night follows a Farsi-speaking couple into a night in which their  defenses begin to unravel.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A couple on a journey toward the end

    Recently, it seems as if I've been watching nothing but movies about death and dying. That impression probably isn't entirely true and may stem from reading daily news reports about the pandemic and its ghastly mortality rate.
   Supernova, which stars Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth as  long-time lovers is a death movie with a double whammy. Tucci's Tusker, a novelist by trade, has an increasingly encompassing case of dementia. 
   This means that he's destined to disappear before he actually dies. Firth's Sam decides that they should take one last trip before Tusker's memory completely disintegrates and he no longer even recognizes Sam.
   The two pile into a van and travel through the English north country with a stop at Sam's sister's home. 
    Tusker takes medication meant to slow his decline, but he leaves it at home, a clue that the journey has a different final destination than the one Sam, a pianist, anticipates.
    Tucci and Firth convincingly create a couple with behavior patterns, endearments, and gentle squabbles that have evolved  over many years. 
    I called them lovers earlier in this review. That may be the wrong term. They're lovers, of course, but they're also an old couple who have grown entirely accustomed to each other's ways.
   Sam says he's fully prepared to spend the rest of his life caring for Tusker -- even it means going beyond the point where Tusker knows who he is. Tusker has another idea: I won't say what it is, but you probably already know. 
   The performances aren't showy and director Harry Macqueen doesn't hurry toward the end of the road for a couple engulfed in deep sorrow while still clinging to many of the routine interactions that have defined their relationship.
   Macqueen tends to be more even-handed than gut-wrenching. Supernova isn't a tear-jerker. The chemistry between the actors and the filmmakers results in a movie that's admirably respectful of the intimacy and burden a couple faces when confronting the inevitable.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Inspiration with Naomi Watts and a magpie

   The Australian movie Penguin Bloom has all the ingredients required to produce a predictable piece of inspirational fluff. 
    A young mother is paralyzed after a terrible fall during a vacation. She withdraws from her husband and kids and laments the fact that she'll never be able to surf again. Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) feels so useless she wonders whether she even exists anymore.
     I said the movie, based on a true story, is inspirational so you know from the outset that Sam will find a way to do more than simply carry on. She'll reclaim her life and thrive, and, yes, there will be pictures of the real people during the end credits.
    The title clues an audience into how Sam's life again will take flight.  One day on the beach, one of Sam's children discovers an abandoned magpie that has fallen from its nest. 
    The parallel between Sam and the magpie -- who the kids name Penguin -- is obvious. The bird fell from its nest, and Sam fell several stories when a rotted wooden railing gave way during a family trip to Thailand.
     The movie's two notable performances are given by Watt and the bird (or birds) who play Penguin.  Sam's husband (Andrew Lincoln) and her three sons (Griffin Murray-Johnston, Felix Cameron, and Abe Clifford-Barr) are around to provide upholstery for the main story. 
     Jackie Weaver plays Sam's mother, a woman who wants to help but doesn't really know how.
    At first resistant to Penguin, Sam eventually warms to the bird Watching the bird nestle in her arms is bound to elicit oohs and awws. The various birds that play Penguin also are charged with providing comic relief, stealing teabags from cups or hopping through the family's beach home with jaunty spring.
    A final push toward recovery arrives when a kayak instructor (Rachel House) gives Sam lessons that return her to the water. We're told in a postscript that Sam eventually competed successfully in water sports. For some reason, the movie never shows us that part of the story.
    Mostly, director Glendyn Ivin plays things straight, and with a movie such as Penguin Bloom predictability is unavoidable. 
     It hardly qualifies as a spoiler to tell you that Penguin learns to fly, that Sam rediscovers her humanity, and that the family perseveres. 
    If you're looking for emotional complexity, Penguin Bloom is not for you. Even Watts can't turn Penguin Bloom into anything more than a familiar tale made more disarming by the presence of a magpie.
      I did learn one thing, though. Who knew magpies were so damn smart?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

A looming death takes over many lives

      In the spring of 2015, Esquire published what would become a prize-winning article by journalist Matthew Teague. Teague took an unusual approach to the subject of dying, opting for vivid descriptions of the assaults on his wife's cancer-riddled body.
     "We don't tell each other the truth about dying, as a people. Not real dying. Real dying, regular and mundane dying, is so hard and so ugly that it becomes the worst thing of all: It's grotesque. It's undignified," Teague wrote.
     Teague's article wasn't long, but it included graphic details of what happened to Nicole Teague's body after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 
     Another aspect of the article involved Teague's friend Dane Faucheux, a man who helped Teague and his wife in what amounted to a heroic, perhaps unexplainable act of friendship. 
     Faucheux  abandoned his life in New Orleans, moved into the Teague's Alabama home, helped care for the couple's two young daughters, and even took the family pet to the vet to be put down. Matthew was too immersed in Nicole's travails to deal with another death.
     If you read the Esquire article, it's nothing short of astonishing to think that anyone would make a movie based on Teague's story. It's difficult to imagine that audiences would want to spend a couple of hours looking at the bodily dissolutions that Teague's article dutifully reports.
     I suppose it's no surprise then that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby have taken a softer approach to Teague's story in Our Friend. With Casey Affleck as Matthew, Dakota Johnson as Nicole, and Jason Segel as Dane, the movie is less about the indignities of dying than the  ways in which Nicole's dying impacts an entire family. 
    Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) has become a master of miserable, an actor who's able to incorporate gloom into his entire being. The skill obviously serves him well in Our Friend
     Johnson seems equally well-suited to portray a vibrant young woman with an interest in musical theater. 
     It falls to Segel to create the movie's most complicated and in some ways least understandable character, a lovable guy who's  capable of amazing generosity but incapable of sustaining romantic relationships.
     Dane first meets Nicole when the two are working in theater in New Orleans. He's smitten but learns that Nicole already is married. He stays in her life, though, becoming a good friend to Matthew and to Nicole, even as other of their friends find him weird, even a bit pathetic.
    Cowperthwaite tells the story in fragments that hopscotch through time, painting a portrait of relationships that are tested by Nicole's diagnosis, which becomes the anchoring event for a movie that flashes back and forward from that painful moment. 
    Playing with time has mixed results, pushing us into episodes in which Matthew works as a war correspondent while a frustrated Nicole holds down the home front, scenes in which Dane gives up on relationships of his own to be a helpful friend, and even a bout of marital infidelity that nearly topples the Teague marriage.
     We get just enough about the Teague daughters (Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai) to keep that aspect of the story from feeling neglected. 
    The impact of this time-scattered approach tends to rob the movie of its capacity to build, sometimes creates confusion, and  puts a heavier burden on incident than on allowing the characters to deepen. 
     Still, Cowperthwaite and her cast make you feel how inadequate we all are when it comes to facing a devastating loss -- and how improbably selfless people sometimes can be. Maybe that's enough to encourage us to overlook the movie's flaws. 
     By the way, you may well ask, is Our Friend a tearjerker? Hell, yes.


Bob's Cinema Diary: 1/22/21 -- 'Derek DelGaudio's In & Of Itself' and 'No Man's Land'

Derek DelGaudio's In & Of Itself

It would be unfair to call Derek DelGaudio a magician, although he does specialize in card tricks and illusions. It  would be equally unfair to call DelGaudio a storyteller, although that's part of his repertoire, as well. In the absence of a better description, it's probably best to label DelGaudio a performance artist.  Taken from several versions of DelGaudio's off-Broadway show from a couple of years back, In & Of Itself captivates with a heady mix of the abstract and the concrete. DelGaudio was filmed by director Frank Oz working in a small theater in which the audience frequently is asked to participate. DelGaudio appears before a wooden wall into which several box-like squares have been cut and which become part of the stories that DelGaudio tells. At its heart, In & Out (available on Hulu) is an exploration of identity: DelGaudio's, the members of his audience, and those who will see the film version. The movie begins with DelGaudio telling a story he claims to have heard in a bar in Spain. He sketches a tale about a man who played increasingly dangerous games of Russian roulette and acquired the name "Roulettista." Later, he talks about learning that his mother is gay. Whatever direction he charts, DelGuadio manages to create an edge that suggests that both he and the audience might be at risk. Of what? I'm not sure, but DelGaudio's deadpan delivery helps keep us off guard and allows Oz to sustain a consistent level of tension. Home movies and animation are employed to varying effect but keep In & Of Itself from feeling stagebound as DelGaudio builds toward the film's emotional (really) finale. 

No Man's Land

The Texas/Mexico border is dotted with areas that are south of official border crossings and north of the actual border. No Man's Land begins on a ranch located in this ambiguous territory. As evident as a cowboy hat at a stock show, the movie's purpose quickly emerges: to challenge a young Texan's idea about the immigrants who cross his family's property en route to the US. What could have been a topical gut-punch of a movie becomes an unconvincing journey about one man's redemption as he meets Mexicans who are willing to help him. The key incident in director Conor Allyn's contemporary western involves the shooting of a Mexican boy who's trying to cross the border with his father (Jorge A. Jimenez). Jake Allyn, the director's brother, plays Jackson, the son of a rancher (Frank Grillo) who's used to chasing Mexicans off the land where he lives with his wife (Andie MacDowell) and another son (Alex MacNicoll). After shooting the boy in a chaotic encounter, a guilt-ridden Jackson flees to Mexico on his trustee horse Sundance. Jimenez's character pursues him. So does a Texas Ranger (George Lopez in a deadpan but compassionate performance). Most of the movie deals with Jackson's encounters with Mexicans who feed him, shelter him and teach him that they're people, too. The movie invites us to consider questions about forgiveness and accountability (fair enough) but a persistent haze of idealization undermines credibility and creates a feeling that most of what we're seeing has been pre-programmed to deliver a message.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

'Outside the Wire' -- but not far enough

    Consider it a tribute to Anthony Mackie's command as an actor that he can play an android and still create one of the more intriguing characters in Outside the Wire.  A mildly futuristic action thriller,  Outside the Wire explores (if that's not too deep a word) issues revolving around collateral damage resulting from combat. 
    Mackie portrays Leo, an android who teams with a fully human soldier (Damson Idris) for an assignment in an eastern European combat zone. Set in 2036, the story follows Leo and Idris's Lt. Harp as they attempt to find a vicious warlord, locate some planet-threatening nukes and diffuse a global catastrophe.
     Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom adds a few decent sci-fi flourishes throughout: robot soldiers called gumps and occasional glimpses of Leo's innards, for example. Overall, though, the movie doesn't seem to be breaking new ground.
   The story's ethical dimension stems from Lt. Harp's behavior during the film's prologue. As a drone pilot who's far removed from the field of combat, he disobeys orders and fires on a missile launcher. His action results in the death of two marines. 
    Harp justifies his decision by insisting that he might have sacrificed two lives, but he saved 37 others. To teach him a lesson, his commanding officers send Harp into the field.
    An underused supporting cast includes Emily Beecham as a resistance fighter and Pilou Asbaek as a brutal warlord.
     Despite a few unexpected twists, Outside the Wire comes across as a near-generic helping of action that tries to serve up something more than standard action, but it's strictly a genre affair -- and not a superior one at that.

'MLK/FBI,' a powerful documentary


During the 1960s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover's aim: to undermine King as a moral leader by proving that he had had extra-marital affairs. None of the FBI's tapes of King's dalliances (the proof) can be found in director Sam Pollard's documentary, MLK/FBI. The tapes will not be made public until 2027. Instead, Pollard's documentary paints a clear and alarming portrait of Hoover's attempts to taint King with salacious disclosures and with allegations that he associated with Communists. Pollard elicits testimony from a wide range of observers: from King associates Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, as well as from historian Beverly Gage. Unlike Hoover, the movie isn't interested in whether King's Marital infidelities should have played a role in qualifying him a a leader of conscience and commitment. Pollard prefers to expose the intricacies of surveillance, pushing deep into details about the FBI's maneuvering while also charting the arc of the Civil Rights movement as seen through King's career. The film serves as an exhaustively researched reminder that the FBI's job isn't supposed to involve attempts to destroy those with whom its director happens to disagree. It has no business peddling destructive gossip to undermine those who righteously seek social change, a particular insult to King who remained an eloquent advocate for non-violent protest throughout his life. MLK/FBI stands as a movie that inspires us with King's commitment while appalling us with the lengths to which an American institution went not only to destroy him but to upend an entire movement.

A muted drama about excavating the past


   In The Dig, a British widow with an interest in archaeology wants to conduct an excavation on her land. To make her dream a reality, she hires an excavator known for his meticulous work.
   Director Simon Stone adapts a novel by John Preston to tell the story of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, the site of medieval burial mounds where an Anglo-Saxon ship was found. 
    The distant past becomes shockingly present when the ship is unearthed, a piece of history to be exhumed and then memorialized.
    The subject of excavation could have given the filmmakers an opportunity to connect us with the majestic erosions of time and forgotten people — if only for a moment or two.
    Instead, director Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini serve up a  period piece that neither is tense nor sorrowful enough to transcend the status of a dry — or at least “dryish” — footnote, a strange outcome considering how often the story is drenched in Suffolk downpours.
    Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the pallid careworn woman who owns the property on which the dig will take place. 
     Ralph Fiennes portrays Basil Brown, the man who conducts the dig at Edith's request. Edith also has a young son (Archie Barnes) who's interested in the dig and begins to bond with Brown.
     Stone seldom brings the material to a dramatic boil. There's not much tension, for example, in wondering whether Edith will give her find to a local Suffolk museum or to the more prestigious British Museum.
    The major issue involves attempts by the British museum -- under an esteemed archaeologist played by Ken Stott -- to take control of the project. Without formal credentials, Brown might be pushed aside.
    A digressive subplot finds Lily James's Peggy working at the site with her husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin). James and Chapin portray a couple on shaky ground.  Edith's cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) arrives to help Brown and to become a potential love interest for the sexually deprived Peggy. Her husband regards marriage as a bit of a formality to cover his real sexual interests.
   Mulligan gives a reserved performance compared to her work in A Promising Young Woman. Fiennes creates a man of the lower-classes who has developed and honed a specialty. Some of the people who've worked with Brown think he's "difficult," but for the most part he seems agreeable.
    Stone adds a sorrowful twist involving Edith's lingering illness --  that and her fear about the looming war. 
   Although this period piece may not be lacquered, it lacks the kind of animating energy that would have made it more interesting and too many of its various plot threads feel undernourished. As it stands, the dig might be more interesting than most of the characters. 
    Perhaps that why when I think of the movie in retrospect, I almost hear the sound of trowels digging quietly and determinedly in the Suffolk soil.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Four men hold an epic meeting


     A wave of sadness swept over me when I finished watching One Night in Miami. The movie isn’t particularly sad. In fact, it's lively, provocative, and engaging. 
    But I also realized that all but one of the movie's principal, real-life characters — football and movie star Jim Brown — are dead.   Brown is now 84. Had Muhammad Ali, another of the movie's characters lived, he’d be on the verge of turning 74. 
     So I guess the sadness has to do with the passing of a cultural guard, all of whose members were prominent figures during the tumultuous 1960s, a time when I was still young.
     Set in 1964, the movie introduces us to an Ali who was about to claim his boxing title and to announce his decision to join the Nation of Islam. Most Americans then knew him as Cassius Clay, a mouthy kid from Louisville.
    The other main characters in director Regina King’s movie are singer/songwriter Sam Cooke and activist Malcolm X.

    In the hands of King and screenwriter Kemp Powers, who adapted his 2013 play, the movie stands as an informed construction of what might have been discussed as the men gathered on the night Clay defeated Sonny Liston, an outcome that shocked nearly everyone in the boxing world except Clay.

     All the characters are going through major life changes. Tired of football, Brown ponders retiring from the NFL.  Clay’s victory came on the eve of his ascendance to global stardom. 

     Cooke, perhaps the most satisfied of the group, was plotting further commercial success, and a troubled Malcolm X was about to break with the Nation of Islam.

    A gifted actress, King moves behind the camera easily. She provides a fluid cinematic prologue and finds ways to escape the confines of Malcolm X’s suite in the Hampton House, a Miami hotel with a mostly black clientele.

    As the men solidify and test their friendships, the movie  becomes a complex mixture of brotherly love, mutual admiration, chiding banter, and sharply stated positions.

    As Clay, Eli Goree often plays the surprising role of peacemaker. Kingsley Ben-Adir creates a smart, ideologically devoted Malcolm who's more rigid than any of his companions, even as he fears for the safety of his family. As Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge creates a character of strength and conviction.

     None of the men treat the others as icons, even though each of them understands that none of them can be considered "ordinary." They're all too famous for that.

   One Night revolves around debates about the best way forward for black men in 1964. Economics? Political action? Learning to turn a racist system to one’s advantage? 

    Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke creates the sharpest conflict with Malcolm X.  At one point, Malcolm X chides Cooke for not having written a song as relevant as Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind

    Malcolm plays the role of provocateur, spoilsport, and conscience. Neither Brown nor Cooke is ready to renounce wine, women and song -- and they're not shy about letting Malcolm know where they stand.

     One Night becomes tribute to the characters depicted, to the actors who play them, and to the way it makes an event that took place almost 60 years ago feel intensely present.

     Malcolm was murdered in 1965. Later in 1964, Cooke was killed later in a shooting at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. He was 33. Ali, of course, died in 2016. 

    One Night takes us to a moment when the men were all young, vital and relevant. Because their conversations haven't lost much currency, One Night never becomes an exercise in nostalgia. It's got plenty of bite and although it's about a now-fading moment, it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The servant who learns all too well


   Is there a payoff for being loyal servant? The question that ripples through writer/director Ramin Bahrani's richly realized adaptation of the best-selling novel, The White Tiger
   If you're familiar with Bahrani's work, beginning with movies such as Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, you won't be surprised to learn that the director explores the question with the skepticism, rue and powers of observation that are necessary to portray a deeply jaundiced society.
   Initially, Bahrani invites us to immerse in an upbeat story about a young villager (Adarsh Gourav) who wants to become a chauffeur as a means of escaping the confinement and poverty of his home village.
   Gourav's Balram lands a job with a wealthy family, quickly learning that advancement can require betrayal of the servants positioned immediately above him.
    Both novelistic and cinematic, White Tiger is one of the strongest movies you'll find about the enormous wealth gap that defines contemporary India -- and perhaps many other places, as well. 
    In the early part of the story, Balram is tempted to think that he's a friend of his employer's son. Rich kid Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) behave as if they want to bridge the class gap that separates them from Balram. 
     Both have spent time in the US, but the hollow friendliness offered by Ashok and Pinky proves more than Balram can absorb as he distances himself from his former life, represented by a tyrannical grandmother (Kamlesh Gill) who's always willing to take him down a peg or two.
    Ashok and Pinky open Balram's eyes to the world of privilege. They tell him that the economic future belongs to the yellow and brown men of China and India. America? Not any more.
    We know that Balram will absorb the lesson because Bahrani uses a framing device that presents the story's main events in flashbacks that are narrated by Balram.  In a letter to potential Chinese investors,  he demonstrates that he's not only ambitious but astute. The naïveté of a clueless young driver has vanished.
    For much of the movie, Balram lives in a dingy parking garage beneath his employer's luxury Bangalore apartment. Still, he sees himself as a man on the rise. His ebullient optimism and adaptive skills help give the movie its drive. 
    White Tiger brims with social and psychological asides. Pinky tries to impose her American feminist views on a culture that has no interest in them. She and her husband are hard-partying reckless young people with money. You don't need to be a seer to know where their true loyalties lie.
   About midway through, Bahrani makes a daring shift in mood when Ashok, Pinky and Balram are involved in an automobile accident. 
    Suddenly, a young man who only recently learned to brush his teeth is thrust into the middle of a cover-up that threatens to ruin his life.
    The man who holds the purse strings -- Ashok's controlling  father (Mahesh Manjrekar) -- feigns no interest in those who serve him unless he wants to use them. 
   More socially oriented than political, the story's arc is one in which Balram learns that loyalty can be worthless in a society in which money trumps virtue. Wealth insulates the rich from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior.
   Author Aravind Adiga's novel gives Bahrani an opportunity to make a character-driven movie that seduces us with its infectious energies while painting an alarming portrait of a society composed entirely of those who have a lot and those who have nothing.
    Gourav gives an engaging performance, deeply embodying the conflict of a servant who understands that servility is the key to his success. At the same time, that servility keeps him from gaining a foothold in the life that hovers so alluringly above him -- at least until he learns the harsh lessons the system teaches.
     Bahrani wraps satire, humor and drama around a story in which Balram reaches a deeply pragmatic if morally dubious conclusion: Better to be fed than to be fed upon.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

If all else fails, try building a home

    An abused Dublin woman with two daughters decides that it's time to take matters into her own hands in Herself, a narrow-gauged drama about women for whom an over-burdened social system can't provide stability. 
    Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia), Herself strives to be inspirational without sacrificing itself on a feel-good altar -- more or less.
     Clare Dunne portrays Sandra, a mother who desperately wants to establish her independence.  Once Sandra leaves her physically abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson), she finds herself and her two daughters assigned to a single  hotel room. Sorry, a social services worker tells her. No other housing options are available.
     To add an element of humiliation to an already desperate situation, the hotel management insists that Sandra and her children (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O'Hara) enter through the backdoor. The sight of state-sponsored guests might disturb the paying customers.
    Inspiration comes from an unexpected quarter. Sandra sees a video about building one's own home. An idea is implanted. Of course, obstacles abound. Sandra can't afford land or the materials required to erect even a modest DIY structure. 
     Enter contrivance: Sandra works as a household helper for Peggy (Harriet Walter), a physician who has been hobbled by a broken hip. Although Peggy doesn't seem like the most generous of spirits, she offers Sandra land on which to build and also agrees to loan her the money to finance the home.
     Ever resourceful, Sandra, who also works clearing tables at a local bar, assembles a ragtag building team led by a real builder (Conleth Hill). Hill's Aldo reluctantly volunteers to oversee a crew with little construction experience.
   Dunne's performance revolves around Sandra's heavily taxed cooking skills: She must handle a major project, earn her living, tend to two daughters, and fend off a husband who claims he'll reform in order to reunite with her. 
    The husband eventually takes the matter to court, which gives Sandra an opportunity to make a heartfelt speech about how the legal system has treated her -- and, by extension, a lot of other struggling women.
    When the house is complete, we feel a sense of unease; the presence of Sandra's former husband promises that a totally happy ending may not be possible.
     As is the case with many women like Sandra, it's difficult to draw a line marking the point where woe fades and a promising future blossoms. That understanding gives Herself its bite.

Powerful acting in an uneven movie

    Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's White God stands as one of the most riveting movies of 2014, a political allegory that made you gasp and left you wondering how its many scenes with dogs had been filmed
    A drama of shocking immediacy, Mundruczo's Pieces of a Woman marks the director's English-language debut and provides an opportunity for Vanessa Kirby to give one of the year's most emotionally naked performances.
     Familiar for having played Princess Margaret in The Crown, Kirby portrays Martha, a young woman who loses her baby during a home birth. The 23-minute scene in which Martha goes into labor was recorded by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb in a single agonizing shot. 
     Kirby's character, the baby's father (Shia LaBeouf), and a midwife (Molly Parker) are all caught up in a fraught, anxious moment. Taking place before the opening credits, the scene sets a high bar of intensity that the movie will have trouble topping. 
     Before the birth sequence, Mundruczo sketches the relationship between Martha and LaBeouf's Sean. He works in construction; she works in an office. He's a brusk jokey guy who knows that Martha's mother (Ellen Burstyn) thinks her daughter can do better.
    Clearly psyched about becoming a father, Sean's bustling energies and his sympathetic behavior during the protracted labor sequence keep us from dismissing him as entirely "boorish," a term he later uses sardonically in describing himself to Martha's mother.
     Martha, however, turns out to be the movie's driving force. Sean spins like a helpless wheel around Martha's increasingly distant behavior. At one point, he forces himself on her sexually, another scene that has generated much discussion.
    On one level, Pieces of a Woman deals with relationships, family, and grief. On another level, it's about acting, the way actors navigate heavy emotional waters, leaving themselves exposed as they deep dive into what feels like unprotected waters.
     But that doesn't mean that Pieces of a Woman succeeds as a drama. An uncompleted bridge becomes one of Mundruczo's several visual symbols, along with apple seeds. Whatever Mundruczo intended to convey with these visual metaphors feel labored. The movie's at its best when it's being literal and physical rather than symbolic.
    Another current animates the story. Burstyn's character wants her daughter to press charges against the midwife. Martha resists, opening the door for Burstyn to deliver a short monologue about having been a Holocaust baby. She follows by making an offer to Sean, which I didn't buy -- not on either side of the transaction.
         Anyone who ever has experienced or knows someone who has experienced the death of an infant during childbirth probably should think twice before seeing a movie that may strike them as too realistic, too evocative of a terribly painful experience.
    Those who approach the movie on a more neutral footing will find  a performance in which Kirby establishes herself as a master of mood and self-containment. It's as if she's in one movie and everyone else in another, which makes sense because Martha travels through the story in a state of extreme alienation. She's separated from everyone by an experience that can't be rationalized or even explained.
    Pieces of a Woman stands as a collection of scenes -- some quite powerful -- that demand a lot from its cast without ever totally cohering for us.