Thursday, August 26, 2021

Reimagining a 1992 horror movie


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

Death-row interviews with Theodore Bundy


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

Friday, August 20, 2021

Maggie Q kicks butt; her movie -- less so


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

Thursday, August 19, 2021

A less-than-memorable 'Reminiscence'

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

Is her late husband haunting her?


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

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Ruminating about Hitler and culture


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

'Free Guy' plays a hollow game


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

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

'Coda' sounds heart-tugging notes


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

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

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

Monday, August 9, 2021

'Suicide Squad' is better than you'd expect

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

Saturday, August 7, 2021

When Hip-Hop met skateboarding


ll the Streets are Silent: The Convergence of Hip-Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) sounds more like an academically oriented  piece of pop-cultural history than a documentary about a New York scene that gave helped give birth to Hip-Hop and skateboarding. New York City became the unifying element for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic subculture. Director Jeremy Elkin uses footage from the period and interviews with some of the key players, providing a vivid portrait of preoccupations that were entirely consuming for those who participated in the scene. Elkin also highlights some of the places that became focal points for this cultural burst: a skate shop named Supreme and a nightspot named Mars, where some important rappers found a breakthrough platform. Although its interests are highly specific, the movie tends to meander through many currents, including the story of the young people who were cast in director Larry Clarke's Kids, itself a kind of breakthrough movie. I wish that Elkin had done a bit more to situate his story in a larger context and to explore what aging has meant to people who maximized their creative powers when they were young. Still, if you want to know just how compelling this movement was for so many and how influential some of its more notable members (Busta Rhymes and Jay-Z for two) became, All the Streets will let you know.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

His idea of funny many not be yours


     If you saw The Sparks Brothers, a documentary about the musical group created by Ron and Russell Mael, you may have been intrigued by the brothers’ art rock, cultish appeal -- not to mention their fascination with French cinema. The brothers wanted to make an art film and the documentary made you think they had the chops to do it -- albeit while adopting a witty sidelong perspective.
    Annette joins the Sparks Brothers (screenwriters and musical composers) with director Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Holy Motors) in what may amount to a wish-fulfilling project for the brothers.
     I wish I could say that Annette represents an unalloyed triumph but the film struck me as a curiosity full of memorably strange notes and a compelling performance by Adam Driver as Henry McHenry, an avant-garde comic who calls himself "The Ape of God."  
    Henry specializes in antagonizing audiences. Before a show, he dances in a hooded bathrobe in his dressing room, throwing punches at an imagery foe, evoking memories of Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull.
    I guess you'd call Annette a rock opera -- with nearly all of the dialogue sung to the driving rhythms of the Sparks Brothers, who appear briefly in the movie's opening scene. The beat, I'm afraid, proves more compelling than the lyrics.
   At its heart, Annette tells a story about lovers with clashing approaches to art and life. As is the case with many comics, McHenry talks about "killing" his audience. Ann (Marion Cotillard) talks about saving her audience. 
   An opera singer, Ann specializes in swooning death scenes and works with a loyal accompanist (Simon Helberg).
   We all know the cliche: Opposites attract: Henry and Ann soon find themselves in a relationship built around the musical number, We Love Each Other So Much, which takes an ironic turn as the story evolves.
    Henry, by far the dominant figure, and Ann begin their doomed marriage and Ann soon gives birth to baby Annette, represented by a wooden puppet with a strange, wide-eyed look that turns the child into an unsettling special effect.
    The careers of Henry and Ann begin to move in opposite directions. His starts to sink. Her's continues its rise. One night, she sees a newscast in six women accuse Henry of abusing them, never good news for any marriage.
    Baby Annette eventually takes over for her mother and begins a fabulous, if freakish singing career under her father's guidance.  She channels her mother's voice. 
      A story of love that kills and toxic ambition is supplemented by Carax's wildly creative approach to the movie's imagery, including a performance by baby Annette at the halftime of something the movie dubs the Hyper Bowl.
   Carax's first English-language movie, Annette takes 140 minutes to reach its conclusion -- too long, I think.   
   If you let it, though, this mix of creativity, morbidity, visual ranting, and anti-romance may make an impression, the kind that throws you off-kilter and leaves a sharp aftertaste.
    More than a movie, Annette is a wild eruption of creativity from voices (the Maels and Carax) so liberated they seem to have abandoned any form of self-censoring. 
    Annette is a difficult movie to leave behind after the end credits roll. But, hey, not every movie dealing with love needs to be sweet.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/6/21 -- 'Nine Days' and 'John and the Hole'

 Both Nine Days and John and the Hole demonstrate what can happen when filmmakers attempt to say a lot with what appear to be fairly limited resources. Each film has a sense of minimalism that creates a feeling concentrated sparsity. And, each relies heavily on the performances of relatively small casts. In my view, neither film can be considered entirely successful. Both, however, contain elements of interest with Nine Days emerging as the better film.

Nine Days

No one likely will fault Nine Days for lack of ambition. It may take a while to figure out what's happening, but it eventually becomes apparent that director Edson Oda has created a  world in which souls compete to decide which one will  be born. The souls, each represented by the movie’s characters, are evaluated by Will (Winston Duke), an even-tempered man who lives in a modest house in the middle of an arid landscape. Will, we learn, once was alive but has been consigned to the role of selector. Assigned by whom? The movie never says. The catch: The unselected souls return to the oblivion from which they emerged. Will doesn’t live in a high-tech world: He tracks his choices on banks of old-fashioned televisions equipped with VCRs. Generally unflappable, Will nonetheless is shaken when one of his choices --  a promising young violinist -- commits suicide. Does her death prove that Bill is fallible? Bill operates alone, but has a friend (Benedict Wong) who provides advice -- not all of it welcome. The story revolves around the souls that show up for evaluation. They include Alexander (Tony Hale), a guy for whom life would mean one long chill session, punctuated by beer and buddies.  Other souls display confidence (Bill Skarsgard), loneliness (Arianna Ortiz), and doubt (Mike Rysdahl). The main drama unfolds between Will and Emma (Zazie Beetz), a free-spirited woman who seems like Will's best option. Perhaps because of the early-picture suicide, Will worries that Emma may not be strong enough to survive the world’s brutalities. A late-picture monologue delivered by Duke nearly justifies a movie that doesn't dot every "i” or cross every "t." In other words, Nine Days doesn't always make sense. But if you stick with it, Oda eventually delivers  a poignant conclusion about the pain of loss and what it means to be alive.

John and the Hole

First time director Pascual Sisto seems to be trying to get at something deep with John and the Hole, although I'm not sure what. Sisto tells a simple story: Thirteen-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) drugs his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and his sister (Taissa Farmiga). He then drags them into an abandoned, half-finished underground bunker. Too steep for them to climb out, the hole isolates the family from neighbors or passersby. Mostly expressionless, John seems like a kid who's conducting an experiment. What would life be like if he took over the household, started draining Dad's money from an ATM, and invited a friend over to play video games. John and his pal also hold one another under water in the family pool, hoping for  visions as they get close to drowning. John only intermittently provides his imprisoned family with food? A separate but apparently related story involves a girl named Lily (Samantha LeBretton) whose mom (Georgia Lyman) reads her a story called John and the Hole before telling the kid that she's on her own. 
 No rebel without a cause, John simply exists, a teenager who does the unthinkable because ... well ... who knows? I stuck with the movie but never really connected to a story that seems to want to explore the disconnect between adolescents and adults, but does so without offering much by way of edification. There's no faulting the actors but the movie picks up John's hollowness and, in the end, feels far too abstracted to find any real life.