Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Bob’s Cinema Diary: 6/28/21 — ‘Asia’ and ‘I Carry You With Me’


Alena Yiv and Shira Haas play mother and daughter in the Israeli drama, Asia. Asia, the mother and title character of the movie, is a Russian immigrant to Israel who works as a nurse, carries on an affair with a married doctor, and enjoys a taste of Tel Aviv's nightlife. Her 17-year-old daughter Vika (Haas) deals with major problems: Those related to adolescence (drugs, alcohol, and a burgeoning interest in sex) and a much graver issue: a terminal disease that's crippling her body. Director Ruthy Pribar skillfully handles the film's mother/daughter dynamics with observational poise and a brilliant bit of casting. Yiv and  Haas look enough alike that sometimes you have to remind yourself which character you're watching. This is a good thing because Mom, now 35, had her daughter when she was 18. She's in that precarious position where she has been both friend and parent to Vika. Both actresses give deeply immersive performances that, like the movie, are never showy or sentimental. A minimal plot introduces Gabi (Tamir Mula), a young man who begins work as Vika's home aide. In a misguided attempt at wish fulfillment, Asia encourages Gabi to seduce Vika who hopes not to die a virgin. At times, Pribar moves so slowly, it's as if time is standing still. But Asia puts us into the lives of two characters dealing with an irreversible fate that casts a deep shadow over a story that's not afraid to tackle complex issues and let them play out in ways that prove unsettling and emotionally powerful.

I Carry You With Me

Ivan (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vazquez) meet and fall in love in what might have been an ordinary gay romance. But director Heidi Ewing has more in mind than another love story. Using dramatized footage and documentary scenes involving the real Ivan and Gerardo, she creates a story that dramatizes the painful homophobic bigotry faced by the two men in the town of Puebla, Mexico, in the 1990s. Despite trying to pass as straight, Ivan has developed a strained relationship with the mother of his young son. Flashbacks show us how Gerardo's father brutalized his him, hoping to  terrify the gay out of his son. Eventually, Ivan moves to New York where he's able to pursue his dream of being a chef -- albeit as an illegal immigrant. Gerardo eventually follows. The men can't escape the pain of longing for what they've left behind while living in ways that don't separate them from their identities as gay men. Though not devoid of harsh characterizations, Ewing's portrayal of Mexico is enriched by color and palpable affection for life there. Espitia and Vazquez give fine performances with Espitia registering as the more ebullient of the two. Michelle Rodriguez portrays Sandra, a friend who accompanies Ivan on his trek to the US. Not all the pieces fit together seamlessly (the actors are more interesting than the real Ivan and Gerardo), but Ewing  illuminates a multiplicity of concerns that revolve around love, gender, and cultural dislocation.

A movie that began with Tweets


If you're skeptical about a movie developed from a series of furious tweets, you're not alone. I, too, wondered whether anyone could or even should make such a movie. Enter Zola, a slender movie developed from the tweets of A'Ziah King, a woman who  in 2015 found herself caught up in an adventure involving pole dancing, prostitution, and threatened violence.  Zola casts Taylour Paige as Zola, a woman who's talked into accompanying a new friend (Riley Keough) on a road trip. The pitch: They can make some quick money pole dancing by traveling from Detroit to Florida. Once in Florida, it becomes clear that Keough's Stefani has more than dancing in mind. Colman Domingo plays X, Stefani's pimp, a guy who's amiable until he isn't. Stefani is also accompanied by her boyfriend (Nicholas Braun), a clueless young man who seems to have no idea what's going on -- and might not even if someone told him. Tension arises when Zola decides that it's better to be on the marketing end of the sex trade. She has no interest in providing carnal services and doesn't. Director Janicza Bravo doesn't shortchange nudity, sex scenes, and the butt-jiggling wonders of pole dancing without making any of it seem less than tawdry. I've seen Zola referred to as a satire. Whatever it is, you may ask yourself (I did) why keep watching? One reason: Both actresses are totally committed to the movie's odd journey. If there were an Oscar for playing ditzy but conniving women, Keough would be an instant frontrunner. In the end, though, Zola seems little more than a curiosity that answers a question that probably didn't need to be raised: How little source material does it take to make an 82-minute movie?

Thursday, June 24, 2021

'F9': A few new wrinkles, many explosions

     It's been a long time since anyone cared whether a Fast and Furious movie made sense.
     Good thing, too, because F9: The Fast Saga -- the latest in the series -- is so unashamedly preposterous that it hardly matters whether the glue holding various segments together has any sticking power.
    Director Justin Lin, a veteran of previous editions, has no compunction about bringing back characters thought dead or trying for an ending of gargantuan silliness. 
     There's so much action and different story lines that even the heavily muscled Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) feels like an afterthought.
     About that finale. It involves a rocket-launched Pontiac Fiero and makes good use of Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris, a duo that by this time deserves its own spinoff.
    They're the most enjoyable thing about F9 which makes room for Gibson's Roman to offer a bit of self-conscious but pointed humor. How exactly has the Fast and Furious crew emerged from so much violence with nary a scratch?
    We must not be normal, Roman opines. He's right. The crew -- the one that began in a small movie about street racing -- practically has ascended into superhero heaven. 
    Devotees probably won't mind. No one else need bother because only those who've been caught the Fast and Furious fever  have reason to add to what promises to be a large box-office haul.
   Summarizing the plot is useless. It has something to do with an evil cabal that wants to control the world's weaponry and requires Charlize Theron to return as Cipher. She spends most of the movie in glass enclosure.
    To get this part of the story rolling, F9 introduces Dom's  brother Jakob (John Cena). What? You didn't know Dom had a brother? 
   No matter. The film casts Jakob as the evil sibling. As kids, Dom and Jakob parted ways after their father died in a race-track crash in 1989. As an adult, Jakob has dedicated his life to emerging from Dom's shadow, motivation that seems entirely derived from Dom's exploits in the previous movies.
    F9 adopts a near-Bondian approach to globe hopping, turning up in London, Edinburgh, Tokyo, and a variety of other locations, thereby satisfying the growing global need for car crashes and wanton collateral damage. The car carnage relies on magnets that somehow ... er ... well ... who really cares?
   The movie's formula remains simple: Action set pieces are followed by exposition. If you sometimes feel lost, it hardly matters because, near as I could tell, the quieter scenes do little other than mark time until the next flurry of chases and explosions.
    Did I mention that Dom has a near-death experience after plunging into some deep water? That's the only thing that seems near death in this apparently endless series.
    If you like your explosions served with a side order of coherence, you may want to occupy yourself elsewhere. You also better have a high tolerance for ridiculousness that sometimes seems more nonsensical than amusing.
   Sure, some of the movie clicks, presuming you enjoy action that's more audacious than thrilling. And some will feel affection for the  mainstay characters, many of whom reunite as the story unfolds. 
    Me? I thought the movie's characters generally seemed happier to see one another than I was to see them. 

A gangster story that lights few sparks


   The movie is named Lansky and had it been a superior biopic about the Jewish gangster known as the "mob's accountant," it might have been something special.
   It's not. More on why later.
   Lansky led a rich and varied crime life. He befriended Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, helped found Murder Incorporated, formed various alliances with the Italian mob, and was a pal of Charles "Lucky" Luciano. 
   Lansky's gambling activities extended to pre-Castro Cuba. 
   Lansky wasn't exactly what you'd call a Jewish role model, but he used his gang to break up pro-Nazi German American Bund rallies. He also made a deal with the US government to allow some of his crew to help identify Germans who had infiltrated the New York waterfront.
    In short, an interesting guy and a major name in the annals of American crime. Hyman Roth, the gangster played by Lee Strasberg in The Godfather Part II supposedly was modeled on Lansky.
    Aside from the Hyman Roth part, much of what I've  described can be seen in Lansky, which was written and directed by Eytan Rockaway and stars Harvey Keitel as the aging Lansky, a retiree living in Miami after having been denied  Israeli citizenship.
   According the movie, the FBI believed that the aging Lansky hid $300 million from government scrutiny. They wanted to get their hands on it.
   Enough plot for a movie?
   Yes, but Rockaway employs a shopworn technique to tell his  story. Anxious to secure his legacy, Lansky wants someone to write a book about his life -- as seen by him, of course. 
   Enter a reporter (Sam Worthington) selected by Lansky to write what promises to be a best-selling book with an insider’s slant.
   Lansky's life mingles with the intrigues of a reporter whose marriage is on the rocks. Worthington's David Stone desperately needs money. While working on the book, he as an affair with a beautiful woman (Minka Kelly) he meets at the Miami motel where he's staying.
   David James Elliott portrays FBI agent Frank Rivers, the guy who wants to recover the supposedly hidden funds.
   Rockaway isn't always elegant in the way he mixes the movies' storylines:  Lansky and the reporter meet at a Miami diner, which gives Keitel an opportunity to play a sagacious mobster who knows everything about anyone with whom he does business.
   As Lansky talks, he opens the gate for lengthy flashbacks that highlight the major events in Lansky's life.
    John Magaro portrays Lansky in the flashback scenes which also introduced us to Siegel (David Cade) and Luciano (Shane McRae). 
    I'm no expert on Lansky, but the biographical parts of the story feel  well-researched and there's no faulting the cast. 
     Still, the movie bogs down with its a structure that alternates interviews with flashbacks. And the story about a writer's plight provides little by way of additional freshness or interest.
     Worse yet, Lansky lacks urgency and thematic reach. The Godfather movies might have been a loosely conceived take on the historical realities of mob life, but they had something that Lansky never achieves: characters we care deeply about and larger meanings that pushed beyond the confines of genre.

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.