Friday, February 26, 2021

Billie Eilish: up close and personal


So what do we know about Billie Eilish, the 19-year-old star who swept last year's Grammys, who began her career by recording in her parents' Los Angeles home with her song-writing brother Finneas and who catapulted to stardom? In my case, only that she's an award-winning phenom with a ton of fan appeal. Home-schooled and seldom walled off from her emotions, Eilish becomes the main attraction of the new documentary, Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry. Good title because director R.J. Cutler takes us behind the scenes of a whirlwind life. Cutler films Eilish's mom and dad (Maggie Baird and Patrick O'Connell) and presents us with a portrait of an immensely talented teenager who, during the film, emerges as a star, claims emotional turf as the basis for her songs, breaks up with a boyfriend (a guy named "Q"), encounters fans, feels the exhausting frazzle of touring (in the US and Europe), suffers an episode of Tourette syndrome, injures her ankle, and flings herself with abandon across any number of stages. Yes, that’s a run-on sentence, but Eilish seems to be living a run-on life. Dancing on the edge of lost control (no, she never falls over), Eilish emerges as a singular creature, a young woman who once worried that her crush on Justin Bieber would ruin her for love. Who could live up to her imaginary relationship with Bieber, who eventually shows up in the film? Cutler follows Eilish's work on her debut album, When We Fall Asleep Where Do We Go. I’ll leave it to others to talk about Eilish's music and her attraction to dark subjects in songs such as All the Good Girls Go to Hell. In reviewing Eilish's first album, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote, "She doesn't play innocent or ingratiating, or flirtations, or perky, or cute. Instead, she's sullen, depressive, death-haunted, sly, analytical and confrontational, all without raising her voice." That seems a pretty good description of a young woman navigating the tensions that can arise between music making and celebrity. The movie winds up at the Grammys where Billie puts an exclamation point on her meteoric rise. At more than two hours in length, the movie feels long and a bit exhausting, but fans probably won't care. After watching the documentary, all I could think was, "OK, now to return my mind to ordinary programming."

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Andra Day makes a memorable Billie Holiday


   Normally, I wouldn't say that a movie is worth seeing because of one dynamic performance. But The United States vs. Billie Holiday, provides an exception. Not only does Andra Day embody the defiant elements of the iconic singer, she also sings in ways that do justice to Holiday without becoming a self-conscious imitation.
    The drug-addicted, government-persecuted Holiday didn't have an easy life and Day finds Holiday's pain, talent, and pluck, which likely all were related. 
   Director Lee Daniels (Precious) doesn't try for the swooning romance that marked Lady Sings the Blues, which featured Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, a movie I love for scenes between Ross and Richard Pryor, as a jazz pianist. 
   Watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday I got the feeling  that Daniels was trying to give the material the turbulent feeling of a life that bounced off a variety of men, musical opportunities,  and trouble with the FBI. 
     The approach may strike you as bleary and scattered or one that's attuned to the dizzy rhythms of a life that ended when Holiday was only 44 years old. Perhaps a bit of both.
    The movie's core connects to Holiday's performance of the song Strange Fruit, a mournful tune about lynchings in the South. The movie tells us that the FBI feared that the song might rouse protests that threatened white supremacy. 
    Daniels breezes through biographical information as he follows Holiday through the 1930s and 1940s and offers a flashback to Holiday's youth. Her mother worked in a brothel and tried to force Holiday into the trade before she reached her teen years.
   Working from a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, Daniels sketches the many relationships that defined Holiday's love life.
   Trevante Rhodes portrays Jimmy Fletcher, an FBI agent who poses as an ardent fan and develops a complex, ambiguous (even mildly incomprehensible relationship) with Holiday. Rob Morgan portrays Billie's bully of a husband. Later she takes up with John Levy (Tone Bell), a club owner and manager who also takes advantage of her. 
   Garrett Hedlund appears as Harry Anslinger, the FBI Bureau of Narcotics agent who targeted Holiday.
   Some of the movie simply falters. A mostly useless framing device features an interviewer (Leslie Jordan) who's conducting an interview with Holiday that alternates between cloying empathy and trashy rants.
    Daniels showcases the famous Carnegie Hall concert that Holiday staged when she lost her Cabaret License and no longer could play New York's clubs.
    Sometimes the movie flings things at us and then races  forward. The screenplay briefly flirts with the idea that Holiday had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), for example.
     Through it all, Holiday continues to sing Strange Fruit, a song written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx who, along with his wife, adopted the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the couple was executed for espionage.
     Authorship aside, had Holiday never sung Strange Fruit, we might never have heard much about it. And that brings us back to Day, whose performance outlasts the movie's flaws, excesses and indulgences. It's something to see.


Watching over the dead can be creepy


The distinguishing characteristic of The Vigil, a horror movie by  director Keith Thomas, involves its milieu. The movie takes place in the world of Hassidic Jewry, centering on a young man (Dave Davis) who has broken from his religious community. Davis’s Yakov gets drawn back to his roots when a rabbi (Menashe Lustig) offers him an unusual job. He must become a "shomer," one who keeps watch over a corpse to ward off evil spirits on the night before burial. Desperate for funds, Yakov accepts. In this case, the corpse belongs to Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), a Holocaust survivor who had isolated himself from the religious community in which he lived. Davis's Yakov spends a harrowing night in Borough Park trying to ignore the corpse that lies beneath a sheet on a platform in the living room. Everything about the movie feels creepy: Litvak's weird widow (Lynn Cohen), the noises that begin unnerving Yakov, and, of course, a demon. We later learn that the demon became part of Litvak's life after a horrific event at Buchenwald. With Litvak gone, the demon needs fresh meat. That would be Yakov, vulnerable because he blames himself for the death of his younger brother at the hands of anti-Semites. Thomas keeps the special effects to a minimum in a movie that's more creepy than scary. Eerie yes, but The Vigil also can feel dull and self-conscious in its attempts to both benefit from and avoid standard horror tropes. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A compelling journey inside an African prison

    In Night of the Kings, the inmates definitely have taken over the asylum.
    In this case, the asylum is a prison in Cote d'Ivoire (The Ivory Coast). It doesn't take long for director Philippe Lacote to let us know that La Maca is a place no one would want to land.
   Run by an ailing tyrant named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the prison environment resembles a corrupt kingdom in which the prisoners become servants of the iron-fisted Blackbeard.
    The story begins when a new prisoner (Bakary Kone) arrives. Needing to buy time for himself and his throne, Blackbeard immediately targets Kone's character as a storyteller. He gives him the name Roman and tells him that must entertain the prisoners throughout the night of the Red Moon. If he tires or falls short before sunrise, it's curtains.
   The story's structure riffs on Scheherazade in One Thousand One Nights but emerges as a movie with a voice all its own.
   Night of the Kings operates on two levels. First, it's a scary look at a prison where the guards pay little attention to anything. Life is cheap and an atmosphere of threat hovers over everything.  Because Blackbeard's illness is terminal, various factions vie to take over when he finally dies.
   Then there's the story that Kone's character tells, a tale of a young street thief named Zama King. The story takes the shape of a time-shattering folk tale. The early part of Zama's story visits an ancient kingdom and the story's second half lodges in an impoverished section of Abidjan. 
   Lacote films the storytelling with particular attention to the increasingly involved audience, which chants, acts out sections of the drama, and generally becomes part of the story. 
    The actors bring a level of theatrical energy to the storytelling that might have been too much were it not so effective. It's not difficult to imagine Night of the Kings as a compelling piece of theater.
    Like its actors, the movie has a distinctly powerful presence you won't soon forget.

A multi-pronged look at the opioid crisis

     Director Nicholas Jarecki must have realized that opioid addiction is a multi-level problem that invades many corners of society. Perhaps that's why Jarecki's Crisis revolves around three stories, each moored in the culture that created one of the US's most severe drug problems.
     Crisis encompasses DEA undercover work, dubious university connections to drug companies, and a mom's search for the cause of her teenage son's death.
     Taking this kind of multi-pronged approach isn't without risks and Jarecki (Arbitrage) can't overcome them all, notably the way his movie loses momentum as it shifts from one story to another.
    The relationship between universities and those who fund research (in this case a major drug company) might not be the most dynamic of the movie's various plot threads but it's the most intriguing and, by itself, could have made for a provocative movie.
    It's equally true that trying to mount several stories, even if they're interrelated,  reduces the movie to a complex but nonetheless unsatisfying procedural.
     Armie Hammer portrays Jake Kelly, a DEA agent who's trying to infiltrate and expose a Canadian/Armenian Fentanyl-smuggling ring. A recovered addict, Clare (Evangeline Lilly) tries to learn how her squeaky-clean son could have died from an overdose, and Gary Oldman portrays Doctor Tyrone Brower, a scientist whose work has been funded by Big Pharma. 
    Now, one of his major donors wants Brower to corroborate its claim that the company has discovered a pain-killing drug that doesn't have the addictive powers of Oxycontin. This part of the movie revolves around Brower's crisis of conscience. He knows the drug isn't as advertised and agonizes about whether to  become a whistleblower.
    Hammer's portion of the movie seems most familiar, a thriller set in the morally ambiguous world of cops and drugs. Lilly's quest feels underdeveloped as she becomes something a cliche, the untrained civilian who decides to play sleuth.
    Goldman does his best to bring Dr. Brower's torment to life, but Crisis doesn't fuel much by way of outrage about the willingness of universities to corrupt themselves for money.
    I  wouldn't call Crisis a bad movie, but it does feel like a scattered and only intermittently powerful attempt to make a comprehensive statement about the culture that spawned an opioid epidemic. 


Thursday, February 18, 2021

A thriller about some really awful folks


    It must say something about us, but most of us take at least some delight in watching movies about aggressively unprincipled people who enrich themselves at the expense of others.
    In I Care a Lot, Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a woman who specializes in bilking the elderly by becoming a legal guardian for them. Marla's ideal candidate is a reasonably healthy older person who will live long enough for Marla to drain his or her assets in what amounts to a shockingly cruel helping of court-sanctioned elder abuse.
   As played by Pike, Marla not only excels at her job, she delights in working with corrupt nursing home folks to generate profits for her company. 
   Eiza Gonzalez plays Fran, Marla's live-in lover and devoted assistant, a woman who has learned the tricks of manipulation from a master. The banter between the two amounts to a crash course in insensitivity.
     Screenwriter/director J. Blakeson sets us up to root against Marla. Who, after all, favors stealing from the helpless? 
    Yes, Marla  preys on the defenseless, but there’s always energy to be found in a well-calibrated scheme and Marla prides herself on dotting every "i" and crossing every "t." 
    The story takes an important turn when a nursing home official identifies an easy mark for Marla -- for a cut, of course.
    Snatched from her home, Dianne Wiest's Jennifer soon finds herself in a facility where she's more prisoner than resident. To Marla, Jennifer is a human ATM, a source of wealth that can be tapped for years.
    Jennifer? She's fed drugs, deprived of her cell phone, and stuck in a nightmare.
   Adept at working the legal system, Marla knows how to convince judges that she's a savior to those who otherwise might perish in isolation. Her office is slick. She dresses to kill and all but licks her lips at the prospect of another scam.
   I won't tell you more, but after a while, we learn that Jennifer may not be quite as helpless as we've been led to believe. 
   Blakeson adds a sinister businessman to the mix. Peter Dinklage plays a gangster who wants to liberate Jennifer from the senior facility where she's being held.  No fair telling why. Know though, that Dinklage's character offers Marla $150,000 to give up her claim.
    No dice, says Marla. She wants more.
   At first, Dinklage sends his lawyer (Chris Messina) to "reason" with Marla. When that doesn't work, he resorts to other methods, allowing Blakeson to up the story’s ante and toy with our rooting interests. By the end, we're not sure that any of the movie's principal characters qualify for redemption.
    Blakeson written a tasty scam movie,  infusing it with the kind of sizzle that sets it apart from more perfunctory efforts and he locks Pike and Dinklage in an exhilarating cage match in which neither is shy about going for the jugular.
    Oh, by the way, the movie may make cost you some sleep when you begin to think about what might happen to elderly folks when age robs them of independence — and others are all-too-eager to take advantage of the situation.

A foray into crime on the dark web


   Silk Road, a movie about an entrepreneurial young man who enters the drug trade, is based on a Rolling Stone article by David Kushner. I hadn't read the article which appeared in 2014, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story about how Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) built a thriving drug market on the dark web. 
   Perhaps to salve his conscience, Ulbricht cloaked his felonious activity in fuzzy libertarian thinking, constructing rationales about the moral obligation to evade regulation, an argument that has a familiar ring thanks to some of today’s more strident anti-government voices.
    So, no, I didn't know much about Ulbricht's story, and wasn't familiar with his early forays into the mysteries of Bitcoin. But that doesn't mean that director Tiller Russell's high-tech procedural didn't feel familiar, another cynical foray into a badly corrupted world.
    Having said that, I can’t say that familiarity bred much by way of contempt, maybe because the movie hits enough genre marks to prove modestly engaging.
    Russell tempers the technical aspects of Ulbricht's story by setting up a stylistic conflict between Ulbricht and a grab-em-by-the-throat cop, played by Jason Clarke, whose performance holds the movie together. 
   Compromised and decidedly old-school in his approach to policing, Clarke's Rick Bowden, has been banished to a cyber-sleuthing unit of the DEA. He's just gotten out of rehab for his own drug abuse.
     Populated by hot-shots with advanced degrees, the cyber crimes unit instantly turns Bowden into the proverbial fish out of water. But he refuses to sit on his hands. 
     Desperate to catch up with his younger colleagues, he recruits a small-time criminal from his former life (Darrell Britt-Gibson) to teach him about computers and the dark web.
    Bowden attains enough mastery of the online world to create an artificial persona that puts him into close cyber association with the young man he's hunting.
    Amoral and ambitious, we know from the outset that Ulbricht's hubris eventually will lead his downfall and it hardly qualifies as a surprise when his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) begins sounding alarms about dangerous behavior.
    Tiller, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, does a reasonably good job of untangling the complexities of Ulbricht's scheme and there's enough upholstery (glimpses of Ulbricht's family and of Bowden's domestic life) to save the movie from one-note repetition.
    In keeping with the movie's cynicism, Bowden never emerges as a heroic figure. We're in a world where blurred lines prove pervasive, not exactly a groundbreaking slant for movies of this ilk but a genre requirement nonetheless.
  Who knows? Silk Road may turn out to be a pioneering effort as cybercrime begins to replace street crime in the pop-cultural vocabulary. Or, perhaps it's just another straight-on helping of big-screen crime. 
    That’s not a bad thing but it doesn’t make for the most memorable of movies.

A couple deals with the aftermath of rape


   Test Pattern sets its story Austin, TX, a city that apparently offers its young residents plenty of social and racial fluidity. Additionally, Test Pattern assumes the existence of an environment in which men and women casually navigate a hook-up culture. 
   Lines seem non-existent or maybe unacknowledged. Initially, the movie seems to be about a young black woman who works as a development director for a local animal shelter and who dates a white tattoo artist. 
   But Test Pattern has more in mind than interracial dating. The movie's story revolves around the use of a date-rape drug and sexual assault.
    Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill) meet in a bar. Despite an awkward first encounter, they become a couple.
   Director Shatara Michelle Ford shows us a mostly happy match, but stasis seldom makes for good drama. So we wait for Ford, who also wrote the screenplay, to upset the apple cart. 
    On a girls' night out,  Renesha and a friend (Gail Bean) head for a bar. Because Evan stayed home, the women look available to two white guys out for a night of partying. 
    One of them (Drew Fuller) slips drugs into Renesha's drink, takes her to his apartment and rapes her. 
    When Renesha awakens, he drives her home, drops her off, and goes on with his life. No big deal -- at least not for him.
     When Evan learns what happened, the movie becomes a story about the uneasy aftermath of Renesha's rape. Evan pushes Renesha to file charges, which requires finding medical personnel who will administer a rape test.
    Evan and Renesha confront obstacles, bureaucratic and otherwise as they drive around Austin looking trying to start legal proceedings. Exhausted and discouraged, Renesha wants to move on. Evan, however, persists, and -- in part -- the film becomes a chronicle of how difficult life can become when rape moves into the legal sphere.
     The movie also begins shining a light on Renesha and Evan's relationship. Will they talk about what happened? If they do, how will they approach the subject? Is Evan's insistence on holding someone accountable a dodge for his inability to explore the emotional dynamics of what happened? Does race fit into the equation?
   Renesha and Evan don't do the one thing that might be most important: Deal with the feelings generated by the attack.
   From the outset, it's clear that Ford is trying to make a movie in which me-too issues collide with the interpersonal dynamics of a relationship. As Renesha and Evan embark on their quest to find someone to administer a rape kit, we see flashbacks to earlier moments in the relationship. We wonder how  these scenes relate to later developments.
    Hall gives the movie's stand-out performance as a young woman whose buoyant optimism and good will is undermined by an awful experience and by Evan's dogged response to it. 
    For all that Ford sets in motion and despite the subtle ways  she allows the characters to evolve, Test Pattern never seems a fully realized exploration of a difficult subject. 
    An abrupt and ambiguous ending throws the movie's questions back on the audience in ways that can be both provocative and unsatisfying and there isn't always enough going on to justify the movie's slowness.
    Ford deserves credit for stepping into turbulent emotional waters even if she can't quite find a path to navigate her way out of them. 

When van living becomes a way of life

      In Nomadland, director Chloe Zhao mixes real wanderers  and actors in ways that illuminate the lives of people who’ve permanently hit the road. The stock market may be breaking records, but a variety of people have checked out of the economy, some because they have no options and some by choice.    
     Frances McDormand plays Fern, a Nevada widow who lived in a town that vanished when its only employer -- the gypsum mine -- closed.  Fern's van has become her home. She sometimes finds temporary employment at an Amazon facility or in a restaurant. 
     "I'm not homeless. I'm just houseless," she says. 
    During her travels, Fern meets people who also are committed to the wandering way of life. Some move in caravans; others are loners. Some live off the grid. 
    Bob Wells, a real nomad, explains the ethos by which these travelers live, never going much beyond minimal necessities.
     Fern also meets Dave (actor David Strathairn). Although he’s on the move, Dave looks to Fern for company, at one point inviting her to stay with him at his daughter's home. 
    But Shao is too committed to realism to create characters who will be redeemed by anything resembling romance. Zhao, who previously directed The Rider, is one of those rare filmmakers who places her films at ground level, close to the way real people live and survive.
     Basing Nomadland on a nonfiction work by Jessica Bruder, Zhao takes her camera to Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, and California. She doesn't shy from showing the difficulties of van living: looking for bathrooms, dealing with cold, finding a place to shower, and locating hassle-free places where a van can be parked. 
    McDormand creates a character of ferocious independence. Fern never asks for sympathy. At one point, Zhao photographs Fern floating naked in a river, a woman who may be alone but who also can be at home in nature. 
    At times, Nomadland feels like a documentary, particularly when actors are interacting with non-actors. Fern, like us, hears the stories these folks tell.  A woman with cancer talks about her life.
  Whispers of plot emerge: At one point, for example, Fern visits her sister (Melissa Smith) in search of a loan to finance an expensive van repair. Generally, though, she wants nothing from anyone.
   Together, Zhao and McDormand introduce us to a woman who has lost everything (home, family, employment) but refuses to bend. Tragedy doesn't defeat Fern: It offers her glimpses of freedom. 
     That's not to say that Zhao romanticizes Fern's traveling life. She presents it without flourish or hype. Like Fern, the film demands to be taken as it is.*
I had published a review of Nomadland on Dec. 4, after festival viewing. I republish the review here because the movie goes into wide release Feb. 19.

Friday, February 12, 2021

A hit-and-miss hunk of silliness

    Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo team in a movie that's vying for a dubious title: the most ridiculous movie ever made.
    Now, there's nothing wrong with ridiculousness and when a movie opts for so much unabashed silliness, we're obliged to give it a whirl, especially with the talented and often funny Wiig as one of the principals. Remember, too, Wiig and Mumolo wrote the screenplay for Bridesmaids.
    But as silly as Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar can be, it's only mildly amusing with one great gag involving culottes, women's pants that the movie considers to be a major fashion boo-boo.
    Wiig and Mumolo play a couple of Nebraska women who've lost their husbands, one to divorce, the other to death. After their jobs at a  furniture store vanish, this duo is expelled from the local Talking Club -- a preposterous small gathering of women with nothing to say. 
    What the hell? It's time for an adventure.
    So it's off to Florida, where Barb and Star become caught up in a plot that's being orchestrated by a woman with the whitest complexion in the western world. The chalky white Dr. Lady (also Wiig)-- wants to kill off the entire town of Vista Del Mar because of slights she suffered as a child.
  An Asian boy named YoYo (Reyn Doi) and a stooge who expects to marry Dr. Lady (Jamie Dornan) are part of  a plan to kill everyone in Vista Del Mar during the town's festive shrimp celebration.
   Once in Florida, Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) lose their buddy mojos and begin competing for the affections of Dornan's Edgar.
   Director Josh Greenbaum does his best to turn Vista Del Mar into a pastel paradise, a riot of blues and pinks punctuated by occasional musical numbers. 
    There are chuckles. The worst kind of tourists, Barb and Star are unable to resist shopping for the trashiest tchotchkes. Before an accommodations upgrade, Barb & Star check into a ramshackle motel where the desk clerk asks if they will require towels. Wiig, Mumolo, and Dornan are sandwiched into an off-color sight gag, and an occasional line reveals how bereft of awareness, the two can be.
    "A person's face says a lot about how they look,'' says Star, a supposed example of her uncanny wisdom.
     If a movie is going to be this outlandish, it better do it with abandon and without shame. A total commitment to silliness might be Barb & Star's saving grace. Full of raunch, the movie may not always work but it's far too preposterous to hate.
    Still, a step back suggests that Wiig and Mumolo came up with two cluelessly funny characters who may not be worth an entire movie, particularly one with a climax involving swarms of deadly mosquitos and a kid in a submarine.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

When the FBI invaded the Black Panthers


    If you approach Judas and the Black Messiah hoping to find a biopic about Fred Hampton -- a leader of the Chicago Black Panthers in the late 1960s — you'll be disappointed. In a way, director Shaka King gives us a biopic but not of the usual kind. 
    Judas and the Black Messiah stands as a portrait of a tense American period, one that encapsulates a particular '60s brand of activism, betrayal, idealism, organizing, and perhaps even delusion. It may be helpful to think of the movie as a biopic of a moment that once burned vividly in the nation’s consciousness.
    A charismatic speaker and determined organizer, Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was gunned down in a police raid in 1969. Invading Chicago police fired 90 shots; the Panthers who were gathered in Hampton's apartment fired none.
      The FBI had used an informer -- played here by LaKeith Stanfield — to infiltrate the Panthers and ultimately to help facilitate the raid that resulted in Hampton's death. Hampton was 21 when he died
     King builds his story around three characters. Kaluuya's Hampton, Stanfield's William O'Neal, and FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). At the risk of overstatement, I'd call that great casting. 
     All three are terrific. Kaluuya creates a fiery thoughtful Hampton. Stanfield does an exceptional job of portraying the conflicts faced by a man who came to care about Hampton and the cause and at the same time became the Judas of the title.  Plemons plays the kind of man who shields his ambitions behind a flat, down-to-earth manner.
     Once he established himself with the Panthers, O'Neal became the Panthers' chief of security, a position that gave him the access he needed to gather information on the Panthers.
      At first blush, it may be a bit much to think of Hampton as a black messiah, but the movie's religious connotations don't come from Hampton. They stem from then FBI director Herbert Hoover. 
     Hoover (Martin Sheen) thought the Black Panthers posed the greatest threat to the kind of American ideals he advocated. All that was needed to start a full-scale revolution was a black messiah. For Hoover, Hampton fit the bill.
      For those who don't remember, during the '60s, protestors of various stripes routinely branded the police as "pigs." There was no shortage of antipathy toward uniformed officers.  Still, it seems especially absurd now to hear Plemons' Mitchell equate the Panthers with the Klan.
      King makes it clear that the Panthers didn't stint on revolutionary rhetoric. They regarded themselves as revolutionaries in a Maoist mold. But King also shows that the Panthers organized schools, provided free breakfasts for kids, and tried to establish community health-care institutions.  And Hampton tried to cross racial and ethnic lines to form a Rainbow Coalition of activism.
     The movie also makes room for a tender but never overdone romance between Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a young Panther who was committed to the cause.
    King and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt present the story in taut, leaping segments that evoke the fever-dream atmosphere of a moment in which the country was awakening to ideas of Black Power.
    As such, Judas and the Black Messiah stands as a memorable, powerful movie that leaves you wondering how Hampton might have evolved had he not been killed.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 2/12/21-- 'Minari,' 'Land' and 'The World to Come'

     Like most reviewers, I'm being inundated with streaming opportunities. In a normal moment, it would be possible to give more space to the movies that you'll find in these cinema diaries. But I've decided that it's better to call attention to these movies than to ignore them and sometimes, a special movie -- in this case Minari -- finds its way into a diary post. 
 I've included Minari in this edition of the Cinema Diary because the movie was a hit on the festival circuit, has turned up on many 10-best lists, and already has received considerable attention. I gave it honorable mention status.

In Minari, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung tells the story of a Korean family trying to start a farm in Arkansas during the 1980s. In his warm but realistic endeavor, Chung focuses on family dynamics. Dad, a deservedly praised Steven Yeun, dreams of making a go of farming, which -- for him -- means taking a stab at being his own man. Mom (Yeri Han) goes along but is more skeptical about the chances for success. Grandma (a scene-stealing Yuh-jung Youn) arrives to help young David (Alan Kim as the couple's son) and Anne (Noel Cho as the family daughter). Chung astutely avoids rising-immigrant cliches. Mom earns money in a chicken processing plant and Dad receives help from a strange Pentecostal neighbor (Will Patton). Youn and Kim play a perfect and often unexpected grandma/grandson duet and Yeun delivers a performance that brims with both frustration and hope. Don't expect a Rocky-style aspirational pep talk. Fair to say, then, that Minari eschews nostalgia and, though set in the 1980s, feels very much alive in the present.

Watching Land, a movie marking the directorial debut of actress Robin Wright, I kept asking myself what might have motivated Wright to pick this story about a woman who withdraws into nature's harsh isolation. Edee (Wright) moves into a remote cabin in Wyoming with little experience in how to negotiate life in the wilderness. We'll eventually learn what prompted Edee's withdrawal from society, but it's not too difficult to guess where her motivation lies. Before heading for the hills, Edee tells her sister (Kim Dickens) that she no longer can bear life around people. Most of the movie involves watching Edee struggle to survive. She must learn to hunt, gather enough wood to keep from freezing, find ways to feed herself and adjust to taking care of bathroom needs in an outhouse. At one particularly low point, Edee is rescued by a native-American woman (Sarah Dawn Pledge) and another wilderness denizen (Demien Birchir). Watching Edee nearly freeze to death gives you the shivers, but Land never seems to gather the kind of thematic momentum that would have justified Edee's battle with unforgiving nature. It doesn't help that Edee has moved into the wild less for purposes of discovery than for what can seem like a punishment. 

The World to Come
In The World to Come, Vanessa Kirby portrays Tallie, a 19th- century farm woman who lives an emotionally Spartan existence with her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott). The movie focuses on a friendship between two women that quickly blossoms into love. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) plays another resident of this unforgiving environment. She's married to Dyer (Casey Affleck). They've lost a child and evidently whatever passed for love in their relationship. The men in director Mona Fastvold's movie are a sour lot. Finney is an unapologetic chauvinist who tries to guide his wife's behavior with Old Testament pronouncements. The morose Dyer seems lost and lugubrious. The women ultimately realize their passion for each other but it doesn't take much foresight to know that things won't proceed toward a sunny conclusion.  An atmosphere of hardship and deprivation serves as a backdrop that heightens the  longing both women experience. A surfeit of narration (mostly from Abigail) tends to substitute for drama and although the performances are fine (notably Waterston's), the movie left me wondering whether Tallie and Abigail were not only being constrained by their husbands but by Fastvold's stark conception of the movie. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Another foray into the punishing world of Gitmo


     The Mauritanian draws inspiration from a best-selling memoir by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man who spent 14 years imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. 
     Slahi was arrested in Mauritania in 2001. He had just returned from Germany, a country identified as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. Earlier, Slahi had visited Afghanistan.
     At the time of Slahi's Afghanistan foray,  mujahideen fighters -- with US support -- were battling a communist government. Slahi also had been involved in a financial transaction involving a cousin who was part of the al Qaeda web.
     The Mauritanian clearly stands on Slahi's side, taking a highly critical view of the interrogation methods adopted during the George W. Bush, post 9/11 administration. Slahi, by the way, never was charged with a crime.
      Although he's depicted as considering himself safe from prosecution at the movie's outset,  Slahi awakens in Gitmo where he endures a Kafkaesque 14 years that included good guy/bad guy interrogation and torture. 
     After  enduring numerous bouts of torture, Slahi confessed.
     Enter Albuquerque-based attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) who takes on Slahi's case as part of her pro bono work. She's assisted by Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), a younger attorney.
    Benedict Cumberbatch plays a Louisiana-born marine, the attorney who opposes Hollander's efforts but seems a decent enough fellow. 
    Religious and committed to his job, Cumberbatch's Lt. Col. Stuart Couch lost a pal on United Flight 175. He's enthusiastic about his work, but he's also portrayed as a man who believes in fair play. He doesn't want to be part of what might amount to a conspiratorial lynching.
     Foster opts for a performance consisting of tight, highly controlled gestures. An underutilized Woodley doesn't make much of an impression. 
     Not surprisingly, the movie's most vivid performance is given by Tahar Rahim, as Slahi, a man who doesn't immediately tell his lawyers about his confession for fear that he'll be tortured again.
     Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) plays the story straight, turning the film into a legal procedural with highly unsettling scenes of Slahi's torture.
    Thanks to Slahi's Guantanamo Diary, lots of news reports, and documentaries, the material in The Mauritanian, though predictably disturbing, hardly feels revelatory. 
    At this point, The Mauritanian feels less like a compelling expose than a dutiful reminder that Guantanamo has produced stories that the US won't want to paste in its book of proud memories. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Nominees for the 2021 Critics Choice Awards

The year 2020 may have been ...
Oh well, pick your own adjective.
Despite a larger than usual amount of election- and Covid-induced  craziness, the Critics Choice Association (CCA) -- a group to which I belong -- has revealed its nominations for this year's film awards. Winners will be announced on March 7 at on an awards show to be broadcast on the CW network beginning at 7 p.m.

, director David Fincher's look at the writing of the script for Citizen Kane, led the field with 12 nominations, including best director, best actor, best supporting actress, and best screenplay.

Minari, the story of a Korean family trying to establish a farm in Arkansas during the 1980s, came in second with 10 nominations.

For those prepping for the coming awards season, here's a complete list of this year's nominees:*
*Nominees for this year's Oscars, by the way,  will be announced on March 15. 


Da 5 Bloods 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 



News of the World 


One Night in Miami 

Promising Young Woman  

Sound of Metal 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 



Ben Affleck – The Way Back  

Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal 

Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 

Tom Hanks – News of the World 

Anthony Hopkins – The Father  

Delroy Lindo – Da 5 Bloods 

Gary Oldman – Mank

Steven Yeun – Minari 



Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 

Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday 

Sidney Flanigan – Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman 

Frances McDormand – Nomadland 

Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman

Zendaya – Malcolm & Marie 



Chadwick Boseman – Da 5 Bloods

Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago 7 

Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah  

Bill Murray – On the Rocks

Leslie Odom, Jr. – One Night in Miami 

Paul Raci – Sound of Metal  



Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 

Ellen Burstyn – Pieces of a Woman 

Glenn Close – Hillbilly Elegy 

Olivia Colman – The Father)  

Amanda Seyfried – Mank

Yuh-Jung Youn – Minari 



Ryder Allen – Palmer 

Ibrahima Gueye – The Life Ahead 

Alan Kim – Minari  

Talia Ryder – Never Rarely Sometimes Always 

Caoilinn Springall – The Midnight Sky  

Helena Zengel – News of the World 



Da 5 Bloods 

Judas and the Black Messiah 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 


One Night in Miami 

The Trial of the Chicago 7



Lee Isaac Chung – Minari 

Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman 

David Fincher – Mank  

Spike Lee – Da 5 Bloods 

Regina King – One Night in Miami   

Aaron Sorkin – The Trial of the Chicago 7

Chloé Zhao – Nomadland  



Lee Isaac Chung – Minari 

Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman 

Jack Fincher – Mank 

Eliza Hittman – Never Rarely Sometimes Always 

Darius Marder & Abraham Marder – Sound of Metal  

Aaron Sorkin – The Trial of the Chicago 7



Paul Greengrass & Luke Davies – News of the World

Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller – The Father 

Kemp Powers – One Night in Miami   

Jon Raymond & Kelly Reichardt – First Cow  

Ruben Santiago-Hudson – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom )  

Chloé Zhao – Nomadland



Christopher Blauvelt – First Cow  

Erik Messerschmidt – Mank 

Lachlan Milne – Minari

Joshua James Richards – Nomadland  

Newton Thomas Sigel – Da 5 Bloods   

Hoyte Van Hoytema – Tenet 

Dariusz Wolski – News of the World   



Cristina Casali, Charlotte Dirickx – The Personal History of David Copperfield 

David Crank, Elizabeth Keenan – News of the World 

Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas – Tenet   

Donald Graham Burt, Jan Pascale – Mank  

Kave Quinn, Stella Fox – Emma 

Mark Ricker, Karen O’Hara & Diana Stoughton – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 



Alan Baumgarten – The Trial of the Chicago 

Kirk Baxter – Mank   

Jennifer Lame – Tenet 

Yorgos Lamprinos – The Father 

Mikkel E. G. Nielsen – Sound of Metal   

Chloé Zhao – Nomadland 



Alexandra Byrne – Emma

Bina Daigeler – Mulan 

Suzie Harman & Robert Worley – The Personal History of David Copperfield

Ann Roth – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Nancy Steiner – Promising Young Woman  

Trish Summerville – Mank 




Hillbilly Elegy)  

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  


Promising Young Woman 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday   




The Invisible Man 


The Midnight Sky  



Wonder Woman 1984   



Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 

The Forty-Year-Old Version

The King of Staten Island

On the Rocks

Palm Spring

The Prom 



Another Round 


La Llorona 

The Life Ahead 


Two of Us 



Everybody Cries – The Outpost 

Fight for You – Judas and the Black Messiah  

Husavik (My Home Town) – Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga 

Io sì (Seen) – The Life Ahead 

Speak Now – One Night in Miami  

Tigress & Tweed – The United States vs. Billie Holiday



Alexandre Desplat – The Midnight Sky

Ludwig Göransson – Tenet  

James Newton Howard – News of the World 

Emile Mosseri – Minari 

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Mank 

Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste – Soul 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A pandemic of lost memory

 Little Fish is the second movie I've seen this year that deals with a pandemic in which memory loss becomes rampant. Apples, a Greek movie that traveled the fall festival circuit, took place in Athens where many people were being struck by amnesia. Director Christos Nikou took a more complex view of memory loss than Little Fish director Chad Hartigan, who works in a more familiar key. Hartigan builds his story around a romance between newlyweds played by Olivia Cooke and Jack O'Connell. What begins as a conventional romance takes a strange turn when O'Connell's Jude begins to lose his memory. He's not the only one. What the movie calls Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) has caused widespread memory loss. Much of the story involves efforts by Cooke's Emma to keep O'Connell's Jude from vanishing into a forgetful haze. A question arises: Is it possible to sustain a relationship when memory begins to vanish? The movie retreats from the question when it slips into romantic mode and a subplot involving a possible corrective program by a research outfit doesn't really go anywhere. Cooke and O'Connell make an appealing couple and we seldom feel deprived by the lack of an explanation for the disorder that's sweeping the globe. Obviously, the sense of disconnection from the familiar jibes well with the current Covid 19 environment. Although the movie can be a bit bland, I doubt whether many viewers will be disappointed that Little Fish plays more like romance than speculative sci-fi, flirting with larger questions as Emma and Jude try to hold onto each other and themselves.