Thursday, September 30, 2021

'Venom': Noise and a lot more noise

 The second Venom movie has arrived. I guess that means someone, perhaps many someones, must have been waiting for it. If you're not a Marvel enthusiast, it probably helps to know that Venom began in the Spider-Man comics as an alien creature with a penchant for invading a human host and emerging as an unleashed helping of id and aggression. Personally, I've never much cared about the complex inter-related genealogy of the Marvel universe and that undoubtedly colors my approach to Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a comic-book movie directed by Andy Serkis and starring Tom HardyHardy plays Eddie Brock, a San Francisco reporter whose body provides Venom with a host. Michelle Williams portrays the fiancee that kicked Eddie to the curb, and Woody Harrelson appears as Cletus Kasady, a criminal whose body becomes the host for a red "symbiotic'' beast called Carnage  -- or something like that. If you're a devotee, the movie may make more sense than it does to the uninitiated. Perhaps you won't even care whether it's coherent or not. There's mild amusement in watching Eddie argue with a creature that sprouts tentacles out of the poor man's back and occasionally emerges to stick its toothy alien face into Eddie's. Venom also does a pretty good job of wrecking Eddie's apartment, an act of colossal inconsideration in a city where rents tend to soar. Namoi Harris portrays Shriek, Kasady's love interest from a childhood in which they both were abused. Her weapon: the ability to scream so loud it can puncture eardrums. Serkis pours on the special effects and tries hard to live up tohe movie's subtitle, Let There Be Carnage. Effects dominate story: The real carnage, however, is inflicted on the screenplay. Yeah, there's noise, a few chuckles, dizzying action, and Hardy -- but one question: Where the hell is the movie to go with all that stuff?

Life before the Tony Soprano era began


   During the course of six seasons, The Sopranos established itself as one of the greatest series ever seen on American television. There are many reasons for this, including our endless fascination with gangster culture, if the word "culture" isn't too much of a stretch here.
    Steeped in violence, betrayal and duplicity, The Sopranos was a gangster story with a difference. It centered on Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a mob boss with an impressive suburban home, a wife and two kids. We got to know every member of the Soprano immediate and extended family -- and know them well. 
    The series also introduced a twist that, at first, seemed preposterous. Tony regularly consulted a shrink (Lorraine Bracco) but seldom faced up to his massive appetites. I never counted, but scenes of Tony eating were as abundant as his many infidelities. It seemed impossible for Tony to pass a refrigerator without opening it.
    Over time, The Sopranos acquired depth worthy of a Russian novel. We couldn't stop watching.  
   Now, David Chase -- the show's creator -- has made The Many Saints of Newark, a movie that functions as a kind of prequel to The Sopranos.  At 120 minutes in length, the movie can't offer the complicated flavors and personal intrigue of a series. 
    We get profanity, violence, infidelities and a look at the young Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini's son, Michael Gandolfini). But Many Saints is more period piece — the New Jersey mob circa 1967-1970something — than a probing character study.
    Young Tony doesn't occupy the movie's center. That job falls to Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the father of Christopher Moltisanti, who provides the movie's narration from behind the grave. If you're a series fan, you know that Christopher didn't make it to the end.
     Hot-headed and profane, Dickie is Tony’s uncle -- or at least that's how Tony thinks of him. Tony idolizes Dickie and the sequel (screenplay Chase and Lawrence Konner, direction by Alan Taylor) makes Dickie a pivotal figure in determining whether Tony, a bright kid with a penchant for trouble, will follow a mob path or make a different choice.
   I have no idea whether non-Soprano fans can relate to the movie because much of the time we're looking for hints of what's to come in the characters we meet. 
   Does Corey Stoll, for example, make a credible Corrado "Junior" Soprano? (Pretty much).
   Does Vera Farmiga, as Tony's mom Livia, seem as if she could develop into the character Nancy Marchand so brilliantly created in the series? (Definitely).
   References to the series abound, but The Many Saints of Newark is its own movie — albeit one that’s hampered by a running time that makes it seem as if an entire season of the Soprano's has been reduced to short hand. 
   Casualties accompany such condensation. Tony's father (Jon Bernthal) doesn't become a big enough figure. We learned almost as much about him in the series when Tony discussed his father with his therapist.
   Ray Liotta portrays Aldo "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti, Dickie's father.  Dickie is involved in a vivid and revolting bit of violence that would have made us gasp had it occurred in a series where we already had spent considerable time forming opinions about Dickie.
   Perhaps to add a social wrinkle to the movie, Chase begins the story in 1967; a.k.a., the Summer of Love and continues it in the 1970s. 
   In 67, racial tension are boiling in Newark, where much of the mob activity takes place. Dickie forms a relationship with a young black man (Leslie Odom Jr.), who eventually develops criminal aspirations of his own.  
   The Newark riots play a role in creating the movie's atmospherics, but the attempt to give the racial conflict thematic weight feel anemic -- doing little more than underscoring the idea that the world once ruled by these mobsters is changing.
   Liotta also plays Dickie's uncle, a man serving life imprisonment for a mob hit. What seem like attempts to turn him into the movie's conscience don't really go anywhere.
   Then there's Michael Gandolfini. Although Tony isn't the main character, everything in the movie insists on being weighed against the character we know Tony will become and the world he’ll create. Gandolfini incorporates Tony's mannerisms into his performance, but Michael’s performance can't help but live in the shadow of his late father’s work.
   At its best, Many Saints laces vivid brutality with humor and New Jersey color, but it's most stirring moment comes at the end when we finally hear Alabama 3's Woke Up This Morning, the song that played over the opening credits in every Sopranos' episodeMaybe that's where the movie should have begun. 
   And then there's this: When an artistic endeavor achieves greatness, it might be best to leave it alone. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A western that stays close to the sod


   In Old Henry, Tim Blake Nelson plays a widowed farmer living with his son (Gavin Lewis) in the Oklahoma territory during the early days of the 20th Century. 
  Blake portrays Henry McCarty, a farmer whose few words are usually choice. Looking as if he hasn't bathed since the turn of the century, Henry is an odd duck, a man with a droopy right eye, stubble as thick as scrub brush, and a sour disposition.
   Despite Henry's dishevelment, there's something confident about the way he navigates his isolated world. On a ride around his property, Henry discovers a badly wounded man (Scott Haze) and a bag full of money. 
   Henry brings Haze's Curry to his rundown farm and tends to a bullet wound that has brought the unconscious Curry close to death. 
   When a saddle bag loaded with cash turns up, you can be sure that trouble won't be far behind. It arrives in the form of Ketchum (Stephen Dorff), a smooth talker who says that he's a lawman in search of Curry and some stolen money.
   Not a trusting soul by nature, Henry won't give Curry up and his interactions with Ketchum and his crew begin to surprise a son that sees his father as a mud-covered loser.
   Writer/director Potsy Ponciroli deftly builds the movie toward the confrontation we know is coming. 
   We've seen naturalistic westerns before, but Nelson gives Old Henry a convincingly raw feeling and the movie offers plenty of satisfying revisionism about the West and the characters who inhabited it. 
   There are surprises -- including a whopper at the end -- as the movie slowly reveals an old but reliable theme: The past has a way of catching up with folks and squaring off against them. 

A cop tries to save a woman and her kids


Jake Gyllenhaal
stars as a Los Angels cop in a remake of The Guilty, a 2018 Danish movie. The premise of the two movies is the same: A police officer who has been taken off street duty has been assigned to answering 911 calls. 
The story centers on a call that Gyllenhaal's Joe receives from a harried woman (Riley Keough) who says that she's been kidnapped by her disturbed former husband. The couple's two kids -- a six-year-old girl and an infant boy -- have been left home alone. The movie consists mostly of Joe's attempts to locate the white van in which he believes the woman is being held. He also  wants to ensure the safety of two kids too young to be without an adult presence. Because he's facing a court hearing the next day (we don't learn the reason for the hearing until near the movie's end), Joe receives intermittent calls from an aggressive Los Angeles Times reporter (Edi Patterson) who tries to convince him that she wants to hear his side of the story. Aside from a few colleagues at the LAPD call center, the other characters are unseen: They’re voices on the other end of Joe's calls. Perhaps to give the movie a topical boost, raging fires engulf LA and the police are so overwhelmed that they can't give Joe the instantaneous attention he feels his call deserves. Director Antoine Fuqua basically splits this narrowly defined movie into two related parts: The search for the purported hijacker and a character study of a tightly wound cop. Fuqua makes a movie out of what could have been a radio play and remaking The Guilty may have made sense in light of current US preoccupations with police behavior. But The Guilty suffers from lapses in credibility that didn't seem to plague the original. You may want to think of The Guilty as one big contrivance sparked by the simmering rage and regret Gyllenhaal brings to the screen.

‘Figaro’ falls onto the plus side of the ledger

    Falling for Figaro runs on familiar fuel -- the most notable ingredient being a story about an aspiring singer who wants to win a major contest so that she can jump-start an opera career.
   A bit of eccentricity (the movie takes place mostly in Scotland) and a moderate helping of opera keeps the movie from singing an aria composed entirely of cliches. 
   A successful London financier, Danielle Macdonald's Millie has always wanted to be an opera singer. Early on, Millie walks away from a lucrative promotion at her firm. She heads for rural Scotland where she hopes to be accepted as a student by Megan Geoffrey-Bishop (Joanna Lumley), an irascible former diva in need of extra bucks.
   Millie not only sacrifices money, she also leaves her London-based boyfriend (Shazad Latif) and faces a torrent of abuse from Geoffrey-Bishop, who peppers the movie with acerbic one-liners.
   A sullen handyman (Hugh Skinner) does Geoffrey-Bishop's bidding but puts up with her because he, too, is a budding singer.
   The town has one inn, presided over by a flinty, kilt-wearing gentleman (Gary Lewis) who roots for Millie’s success.
    I don't know whether Macdonald (Patti Cakes, Dumplin,' and French Exit) and Skinner did their own singing, but their characters play off one another with ease. 
     Macdonald is determined enough to make the far-fetched credible, and Skinner has brooding Heathcliff-level charm. Lumley makes the most of an opportunity to play a venomous taskmaster who, of course, really cares about her students.
   The music -- from various operas including Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro -- elevates material that might otherwise have left director Ben Lewin (The Catcher Was a Spy and The Sessions) with nothing to do but trample his way across well trod ground.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

A much-admired musical sags on screen


     I’ve never seen the stage version of Dear Evan Hansen, so I can’t compare the award-winning play to the newly released movie of the same name. But taken purely as a movie, Dear Evan leaves a lot to be desired.
     The movie’s morbid fascinations — teen suicide being principal among them —aren't easily digested, even in a quasi-musical that seems born of good intentions.
     Evan Hansen has been classified as a musical and it requires its actors to sing at various points. The tunes  often have a soft, weepy quality that befits the material but on-screen Evan Hansen doesn't seem like a musical -- or a superior teen drama.
     The story centers on Evan Hansen, a high school senior portrayed by Ben Platt, who also played Evan on stage. Platt, I'm afraid, has grown out of the role. He’s now 27.
    But the real problem with Evan Hansen centers on an awkward mix of ingredients: A high-school drama (the alienated kid finds a place in a well-defined social scene) doesn’t always mesh with the tragedy of teen suicide.
    Working from Steven Levenson's screenplay, director Stephen Chbosky relies on single conceit. Evan’s therapist has asked his massively insecure patient to write encouraging letters to himself. 
   One of his letters winds up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), an aggressively troubled kid. When Connor commits suicide, he’s found with one of Evan's letters. Connor had lifted the letter from a printer and refused to return to its author.
    Everyone thinks, the letter — a confession of torment which begins with the words "Dear Evan Hansen" — was written by Connor and that Evan and Connor must, therefore, have been friends.
    Suffering from a host of ill-defined psychological difficulties, Evan isn’t exactly an endearing character. He beats back his conscience and opts to go along with the widespread assumption that he and Connor were buddies.
   He also has a crush on Connor's sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever).
   Before long, the school's students begin the Connor Project, an effort to raise money to create a memory garden at an orchard where Connor supposedly found solace. 
  If you can get past the distraction of Platt’s age, you’ll find a few performances that work, notably Amy Adams as Connor’s mother, a woman in denial, and Julianne Moore as Evan’s single mother, an overworked nurse who’s stretched too thin to give her son the attention he needs. Amandla Stenberg has a nice turn as Alana, a cheerleader and high-performing student with troubles of her own. 
    But none of the performances can save a strange hybrid of teen-movie tropes and hand-wringing drama -- all of it followed by the hope that's appended to the story when Evan faces up to his cruel deceit.
   As for the dead Connor: He remains more of a plot device than a character we’re asked to understand.  Maybe on stage it all made sense.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Is her husband a traitor or a hero?


    To fully appreciate the Japanese movie Wife of a Spy, it helps to know something about Japan just before World War II.  By 1940, the year the movie begins, Japan already had invaded Manchuria, imposing its brutal authority on the area's Chinese population.
  Japan already was embracing traditionalism and authoritarianism, but not all of its citizens welcomed an order that, among other things, thrived on anti-Western sentiment. 
   Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa sets his story in such a climate, deftly personalizing a politically charged drama. Kurosawa introduces us to a business man (Issey Takahashi) who opposes the current isolationist tilt and a wife (Yu Aoi) who gradually learns about her husband's clandestine activities.
    Although the historical trappings are essential, Wife of a Spy also can be viewed as a complex story about a woman who faces issues of trust and betrayal. 
    An internationalist by trade,  Takahashi's Yusaku runs an import-export-business. Under the guise of buying cheap supplies, he travels to Manchuria where he films some of the atrocities he discovers, the main one involving biological experimentation.
    Yusaku hopes the US will be drawn into the war once the country learns about Japanese transgressions.  Japan, he believes, will lose and the country’s place in a modern global future will be secured. 
   Once Aoi's Satoko begins to learn about her husband's extracurricular activities, she’s confronted with a challenging question: Is her husband a hero or a traitor? And how can this model Japanese wife possibly tell? 
   Satoko opts for heroism, helping her husband execute a plot he's devised to get information about Manchuria into American hands.
     The intrigue involves a mysterious woman who accompanies Yusaku to Kobe after his Manchurian trip. Is she a paramour or an accomplice? 
    As we watch, we begin to share Satoko’s apprehensions. We try to determine who’s tricking whom and for what reason? 
   Although the movie includes one dream sequence, Kurosawa clearly lays out a story that begins to introduce additional characters. Masahiro Higashide portrays a childhood friend of Yusaku and Satoko’s, a once-gentle young man who has become a soldier and a torturer. 
   Yusaku's nephew (Ryota Bando) works for his uncle and helps him with amateur filmmaking efforts, which play a role in bringing the story to its conclusion.
    Credit Kurosawa with making a drama in which the interpersonal and the political are so intertwined, it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other. His movie is ambiguous without being muddled.
     The threat of war and the war itself give Kurosawa's absorbing, puzzle of a movie an epic quality that adds to the feeling that we're watching a movie in which the stakes hardly could be higher.

Can a woman and a robot find bliss?


   At first blush, I’m Your Man seems like another gimmicky entertainment, a movie about the budding relationship between an anthropologist and a robot that looks so real, it can't be distinguished from a flesh-and-blood human. 
   If I’m Your Man had been an American movie that’s exactly how it might have played, with some cuteness thrown in for seasoning. Thankfully, this German import from director Maria Schrader unfolds in surprisingly convincing fashion. 
   While working at a museum, Alma (Maren Eggert) is asked by her boss to determine whether the ethical considerations normally extended to humans should apply to robots who appear to be sentient.  
    Alma reluctantly accepts the job and finds herself sharing her apartment with a robot named Tom (Dan Stevens). The two meet at a club run by the company that produces automatons designed to make people happy.
    Tom is polite without being cloying. A bit supercilious, he speaks German with a British accent because he's been programmed to know that Alma prefers men with an international cache. 
   Frequently amusing, I'm Your Man also plays with serious questions. If a robot can starve off loneliness, why not have one? Should the absence of the messier aspects of a relationship be a dealbreaker? And if the robot has been programmed to please its owner, doesn’t a relationship with one represent a form of emotional masturbation? 
   Schrader handles such weighty questions with a light  touch as Alma introduces Tom to her social and family circles. Most folks don't know that he’s a highly sophisticated machine. 
    Both principal actors are in fine form.  Eggert ably expresses Alma's initial disdain for the project but shows the gradually developing dependence on Tom and the concern she feels for him.
    Tom’s an idealized version of Alma's dream man, but he never seems entirely like an automaton. Stevens' performance is key to the movie's success: I'm Your Man can't work if we doubt that Tom easily passes as a human.
   Look, you can’t make a movie such as I’m Your Man without including a few inconsistencies, but credit Schrader and her fine cast for not taking her subject too seriously, even as she poses a question that’s likely to acquire increasing social relevance.
    Forget Seri and Alexa, when the machines in our lives become entirely lifelike how exactly will we relate to this new form of user-friendliness?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Catching up with 'Language Lessons'

 Language Lessons

I had no particular interest in a movie in which two people exchange weekly Zoom calls. I've had enough Zoom calls in the last year and a half to satisfy any need I ever had to connect virtually with people -- not that I've abandoned the practice. Screen fatigue partly explains why it took me so long to catch up with Language Lessons, a movie in which a wealthy Oakland resident (Mark Duplass) communicates with his Spanish teacher (Natalie Morales), an engaging young woman who lives in Costa Rica. The language lessons -- a gift from Duplass's character's husband -- aren't exactly met with enthusiasm by Duplass's Adam. Adam already speaks enough Spanish to converse but because he has a couple of years of lessons pending, he goes along with the program. Then, a shocker. Will dies in an accident, and Adam's relationship with Morales’s Carina takes on a different character. It comes as no surprise that the boundaries between student and teacher begin to crumble.   Language Lessons can be viewed as a rom-com in which friendship rather than romance becomes the goal. Duplass and Morales co-authored the screenplay, which Morales directed. She tries to add visual interest by giving Adam a house that invites us to make some guesses about just how well off he might be.  Language Lessons can't entirely overcome the thinness the stems from a two-handed drama conducted via Zoom. For me, the key to the movie's success involves its sincerity, a quality I usually find off-putting but which, in this case, reflects the commitment of two actors who remind us not to overlook something we've been missing: our persistent need for others.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

An aging cowboy makes a new friend


   If you've reached an age at which you've begun to think of yourself as old or at least as aging, you'll be watching Clint Eastwood's Cry Macho through a lens that measures Eastwood's every move against the passage of time.
    Eastwood is 91 and although the movie requires him to throw a punch and ride a horse, his walk has taken on a stiff-legged quality. His posture hints at a stoop. 
    Is that Eastwood or is it Eastwood's interpretation of the ruined cowboy he's playing? I don't know but Eastwood still commands the screen in ways that insist that you watch.
    Make no mistake. Eastwood, who also directed, still knows how to land a line even when he's not sneering his way through a movie that doesn't quite commit to the odd-couple pairing of an irascible old man and a rebellious teenager -- or much of anything else for that matter. 
    Based on a novel by N. Richard Nash,  Cry Macho tells the story of a washed-up rodeo star who survived alcoholism, pills, a horrible accident in the arena, as well as the grief of losing a wife and child in an auto accident. 
     That's at least two trunks worth of baggage and it would break a lesser man, but we know that Eastwood is made of sterner stuff.
    Eastwood's Mike Milo owes a debt to his rancher boss (Dwight Yoakam). Yoakam's Howard Polk wants Mike to travel from Texas to Mexico to retrieve Rafa (Eduardo Minett), the boss's 13-year-old son, a kid who's been living a wild life with his mother (Fernanda Urrejola.) 
   After some difficulties in Mexico City and an awkward scene in which Urrejola’s character trie- to seduce Mike, man and boy hit the road where they gradually develop a friendship. 
    Thanks to a broken-down car, the movie makes a lengthy stop in a small Mexican town where Mike and Rafa begin to draw closer. The two also are treated to the hospitality of Marta (Natalia Traven), an earth-mother type who runs a cantina and takes care of her cute grandchildren. 
    Some romantic sparks are lit between Mike and Marta, but Eastwood pretty much keeps them at simmer levels.
    Meanwhile, a thug (Horacio Garcia Rojas) who works for the boy's mother pursues the unlikely duo, both of whom need nurturing.
   Of course, there’s a speech in which Eastwood tells his young charge that the macho life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, a message Eastwood has delivered better in other movies.
    I wouldn't say that Cry Macho is boring. But the material has the musty aroma of second-rate fiction that's neither totally off-putting nor deeply engaging. 
    Cry Macho becomes a kind of casual meander that hits some false notes (we're expected to believe that Mike still can ride a bucking bronco) but otherwise passes without making much of  a mark -- other than to remind us that Eastwood can do what he chooses and let the chips fall where they may.
    As for the title, Macho is the name of a rooster that Rafa has trained to fight.

He’s at it again — Nicolas Cage, of course

 Prisoners of Ghostland is a difficult movie to evaluate. It's not entirely fresh. It's often ridiculous, and it’s marked by another oddball performance from Nicolas Cage. In his first English-language production, Japanese direcgtor Sion Sono serves up a wildly eclectic post-apocalyptic movie, brandishing tropes from westerns, samurai movies, and who knows what else. In Sono's film, story does little more than provide an excuse for one wild riff after another. Prisoners of Ghostland is a movie of weird accoutrements: a black leather suit wired with explosives that will eliminate the body parts of Cage's character if he fails to complete his mission. His job has something to do with capturing a runaway woman (Sofia Boutella) for a lascivious governor (Bill Moseley) of a place called Samurai Town.  Named only Hero, Cage's character has been imprisoned for a bank robbery gone wrong, which he committed with his partner (Nick Cassavetes). In another part of this dystopian world, the residents serve a giant clock,  literally trying to hold back the hands of time. Sono's take-no-prisoners approach isn't for everyone. The movie's virtues are to be found in its brazenly artificial production design and outre imagery.  Prisoners of Ghostland is a movie for those who may have missed the recent Met Gala, but like watching absurdly dressed people trying to act as insanely as possible. It's the movie that results when the inmates take over the asylum -- or at least that might be what Prisoners of Ghostland wants to be. In the midst of its preposterous derangement and pulp preoccupations,  you may find moments that amuse.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Learning about a Ciivl Rights pioneer

If you've never heard of Pauli Murray, you're probably not alone. One of the least publicized figures of the Civil Rights movement, Murray's story emerges in My Name is Pauli Murray, a detailed and informative documentary from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen. It turns out that, as a Howard law student, Murray advanced one of the key arguments was used by attorneys -- including Thurgood Marshall -- to argue the landmark1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. A complex figure and a gay woman who lived with blurry gender boundaries, Murray followed multiple paths. She wrote poetry, attended Hunter College in New York City, and after law school at Howard became a teacher, activist, and, finally, a Methodist minister. Enriched by interviews with those who've studied Murray's life, by recordings Murray made herself, and by the sheer breadth of its story (Murray developed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt), the movie  points out that Murray pioneered thinking about connections between racism and women's issues. She was both a racial justice and feminist advocate. Murray fought tirelessly for beliefs founded on intellectual, moral, and deeply personal grounds. The gender portions of Murray's story are accompanied by contemporary gay and transgender commentary. So, if you're unfamiliar with Murray, who died at the age of 75 in 1985, here's an opportunity to learn.

This immigration story drowns in problems


    Topical subject matter isn't always enough to carry a movie.
    That's the case with Blue Bayou, an overloaded immigration drama from director Justin Chon, who also wrote and stars in the movie.
   Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, a Louisiana-bred man who arrived in the US at the age of three. Born in Korea, Antonio speaks with a southern accent and has never thought of himself as anything but  American. He has only dim memories of the Korean mother who gave him up for adoption.
   Antonio lives with Kathy (Alicia Vikander), a woman with a daughter (Sydney Kowalske) Antonio loves and who loves him back. The couple is expecting another child. 
   Sometimes, it seems as if Chon never met a problem he could resist; his screenplay staggers under the weight of too many difficulties.
   A tattoo artist by trade, Antonio wants to earn more money to support his growing family. An early brush with the law resulted in a criminal record, which means he has trouble landing jobs. 
   Many of the scenes (an early job interview, for example) have power, but Antonio's personal life proves overly complicated and fraught. 
   Vikander's Kathy was once married to a New Orleans cop (Mark O'Brien), a man who fears Antonio and Kathy will move to Korea and take his daughter with them. The former husband's policeman partner, an unabashed racist played by Emory Cohen, has it in for Antonio.
    Pushed into trouble with the law, Antonio comes to the attention of ICE. Turns out that his adoptive parents never filled out the proper forms, which means Antonio is classified as an illegal immigrant. 
  An immigration attorney (Vondie Curtis-Hall) knows Antonio faces an uphill struggle but tries to keep Antonio from being deported.
  To further complicate the story, Antonio must persuade his adoptive mother to testify on his behalf -- not an easy task as it turns out. He hasn't spoken to her for more than a decade.  The reasons for this  eventually are revealed.
   Antonio also makes the acquaintance of a Vietnamese woman (Lin-Dan Pham). Although she's dying of cancer, she shares her experience as a Vietnamese American, inviting Antonio and his family to a festive family lunch.
   Chon proves convincing as a desperate man but the screenplay piles obstacles so high they begin to lose credibility. In reality, such a story might be possible. On screen, a bit of honing would have helped.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A drama informed by dread and calculation

   A private Swiss banker. Wealthy sophisticates with fortunes to protect. An Argentine junta that’s "disappearing" people.
   You'd be right to think those ingredients are the touchstones of a pulse-pounding international thriller but you'd be wrong.
    Director Andreas Fontana's Azor takes a probing, quiet,  and beautifully nuanced look at a world in which morality, money and pragmatism are as well-dressed as the movie's characters.
     Fontana provides us with a surrogate to take us into an affluent world that until recently has been entirely comfortable with itself. We’re in Argentina in 1980.
     Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) arrives in Buenos Aires with his sophisticated wife Ines (Stephanie Cleau). As a man of discretion and financial acumen, de Wiel takes on the task of reassuring the bank's clients that their money is safe -- which also means that their way of life is sustainable.
     De Weil’s trip results from the unexplained disappearance of the bank's previous man in Argentina, a banker named Keys whose personality and contradictions are discussed as de Wiel makes his rounds.
     Azor isn't a portrait of a marriage, but Rongione and Cleau create a clear picture of a relationship in which de Wiel relies on a wife who advises him and who perfectly fits into the social milieus in which they travel. Cleau and her character never make a false move.
   At the time of de Wiel's visit, the Argentine rich are not without anxiety. The junta could at any moment seize their property or "disappear" a rebellious child who embraces resistance politics.
    For the most part, de Wiel's clients are polished, multi-lingual denizens of the world. They wear their privilege easily. 
    One man (Ignacio Vila) is more boorish. He's represented by a lawyer (Juan Pablo Gerreto) who makes little attempt to blunt the ruthlessness that can underly the acquisition of a great fortune.
     Fontana doesn’t dramatize the horrors created by a government that murders its opposition. He's interested in the ways a climate of menace impacts even those who are accustomed to living in a gated world of affluence. He reinforces an underplayed sense of menace with a judiciously applied musical score that sounds ominous notes. 
    Rongione wisely keeps de Wiel's personal sentiments and politics in check. But he's a skilled enough actor to let us know that de Wiel tries to read every situation he encounters and every person with whom he meets. 
    At one point, de Wiel talks with Monsignor Tatosky (Pablo Torre Nilson), a churchman who offers an icy rationale for the junta's behavior before getting down to the business of how to handle a sizable chunk of money.
      Almost until its final act, de Wiel never leaves the insulated world that money can buy. A last-act trip into the jungle exposes a shady operation and gives de Wiel a last chance to define himself.
     I can't think of a recent film that deals so subtly or so provocatively with ethical issues. Azor is one of the year's best films, a movie that doesn’t have to raise its voice to find its power while also alerting us to how much horror can unfold when people become overly skilled at biting their tongues.

Juliette Binoche as a youth-obsessed woman

The French movie, Who You Think I Am, conflates a variety of issues, principal among them perilous games that can be played on social media and the way time impacts women who long for the days when they still could turn heads. It should come as no surprise that Juliette Binoche plays Claire Millaud,  a professor of literature who tries to determine why a younger lover abandoned her. In the process, Claire uses social media to create a fictional avatar, a sexy 24-year-old woman who captivates her former lover’s roommate (Francois Civil).  As the game — if that’s what it is — progresses, Binoche’s character and her new young admirer form a virtual bond that both begin to take seriously. For Claire, the ruse provides a way of recapturing the feelings of her youth, how she felt about herself before her husband left her for a younger woman. Claire, who tells her story to a psychiatrist (Nicole Garcia), has two sons but her obsession with turning back the clock takes precedence over everything else. Of course, reality and fiction eventually must collide and director Safy Nebbou finds ways to make the collision interesting. Who You Think I Am can be a little too self-consciously tricky, but the movie stands as an intriguing and disturbing character study. Binoche makes Claire real and never less than intriguing as a woman who might be delusional, devious, bitter, or sensual -- perhaps all of the above.

He climbed alone — and liked it that way


     I’m not a follower of climbers, so I’m unfamiliar with the highly focused athletes who might be household names to folks who immerse themselves in this high-risk world.
    Maybe my ignorance of all things alpine doesn't matter because The Alpinist tells the story of solo climber Marc-Andre Leclerc, a 22-year-old Canadian who never sought celebrity status.
     True to its name, The Alpinist offers dizzying views of a young man ascending cliff walls so forbidding you can't quite believe he's attempting to climb them.
     Directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen show Leclerc's exploits in ways that make you gasp as he works his way up cliffs that often require him to negotiate a trio of perilous surfaces: snow, ice, and rock. 
     If the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo left you wanting more, The Alpinist should fill the bill. Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, also shows up in The Alpinist, offering commentary, as do other climbers.
   A mostly solitary figure who once spent time living in a stairwell, Leclerc sometimes climbs with his professional climber girlfriend Brette Harrington. But usually, he works alone, pursuing adventures without excessive calculation.
   Moving from climb to climb, the movie eventually chronicles Leclerc's assault of Torre Egger in Patagonia, a treacherous climb that required him, at minimum, to check weather conditions.
     In addition to offering some incredible climbing footage, The Alpinist serves as a portrait of an independent-minded young man who marches to his own drummer. 
    I won't say anymore because if you don't already know Leclerc's story, it's best to discover it in a theater.
     I can’t pretend to understand why Leclerc put himself at so much risk. To feel free? To concentrate life into a singular task, determining the next move? 
     Whatever his motivations, it’s almost impossible to watch The Alpinist without uttering cries of amazement as Leclerc works his way through one harrowing challenge after another.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

A "Gateway' to nowhere

Despite a strong cast led by Shea Whigham, The Gateway never fuses into the gritty urban drama it seems to want to be. (The story is set in St. Louis but the movie actually was shot in Norfolk, Va.) Whigham's Parker —  another character with a single name -- works in a field that seems at odds with his behavior. Parker’s job as a social worker might well expose him to drug-world violence. But the movie amps things up by turning Parker into a pistol-packing former boxer. Parker wants to keep kids out of the foster-care system that nearly swallowed him as a child. Parker becomes increasingly involved in the lives of a woman (Olivia Munn) and her daughter (Taegen Burns) after a hot-tempered husband and father (Zach Avery) is released from prison. Avery's Mike quickly falls in with his old criminal clique led by the merciless Duke (Frank Grillo). When he gets crosswise with a drug cartel, Dahlia and Ashley are put at risk. Bruce Dern crops up as the jazz-trumpeter dad from whom Parker is estranged. Director Michele Civetta seems to be trying to say something about the complex corruptions that plague St. Louis and about one flawed man who tries to do some good. Noble aims remain unfulfilled because of lame dialogue and a plot that doesn’t fully engage the ambiguities and conflicts in Parker’s character. In sum, The Gateway's gritty stroll down mean streets leads to a dead end.

Determining the worth of a human life

   There's nothing terribly distinguished about the filmmaking in Worth, the real-life story of a battle for justice that ripped its way through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. 
   But director Sara Colangelo's issue-oriented focus makes Worth a movie that's likely to spur valuable discussions about morality, law, and bureaucracy.
   The movie also boasts a strong performance by Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg, an attorney who took on a case that required him to define criteria for compensating those who lost loved ones when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11.
    A man of actuarial temperament, Feinberg begins the movie by drawing the distinction between philosophy and law. He knows that in a legal setting, determining the value of lost life inevitably leads to a dollar amount.
    Ergo, the movie's key issue. Should compensation be guided, as Feinberg initially proposes, by factors that would lead to a CEO receiving more than a janitor, say? Should funds be equally distributed to everyone or, at minimum, should each case receive individual treatment? 
     Feinberg sought out a task that few attorneys wanted. In the emotionally volatile wake of 9/11, he lobbied then- Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak) for appointment as the fund's Special Master.
      He thought he could do good and convince 80 percent of the survivors to agree to the proposed settlement terms by a September 2003 deadline. 
    The objective: to avoid crippling individual suits against airlines, a flood of litigation that might have severely impacted the economy while tying up courts for years. 
   Stanley Tucci plays Charles Wolfe, a man who lost his wife on 9/11. He becomes an activist for more equitable distribution, organizing a FixTheFund movement. 
     Colangelo opts to keep the conflict at low-key levels, a wise decision because when any story involving 9/11 already has high enough stakes.
    She also presents scenes in which survivors tell their stories, including a back story about a New York City Fireman with a complicated history.
    The more personal side of the drama involves Feinberg's willingness to adopt a new approach, a part of the movie that may not be adequately dramatized. Still, Keaton's restrained performance helps to sell it -- at least partially.
    Worth may not reach the hoped-for heights but it suggests a harsh reality. No amount of money can make up for the loss of life -- but at some point, numbers rear their inescapable heads. Conflict seems the inevitable and sad result.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Strong kickoff for another Marvel character


    Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings leaps into Asian-American mythos in much in the way that Black Panther brought Afrocentric freshness to the indestructible Marvel universe.
    I don’t know if Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will have the same impact as Black Panther — either commercially or culturally. But this latest Marvel movie has enough positive elements (action, humor and a story with deep family roots) to constitute an entertaining addition to Marvel’s apparently endless stream of movies.
     Shang-Chi gets off to a lively start. Sean (Simu Liu) -- later to become Shang-Chi -- works as a valet in San Francisco along with pal Katy (Awkwafina). It doesn't take long for the two to take a dizzying ride in a borrowed car.
     Sean and Katy also encounter a group of thugs on a bus, a sequence in which clever martial-arts maneuvers are augmented by the excitement of watching a large vehicle careen through the streets of San Francisco.
    Sean, we learn, has a secret. He was raised in China by a father (Tony Leung) who schooled him in martial arts. Leung's Wenwu was no pipe-and-slippers dad. Centuries ago, he acquired the fabled 10 rings which gave him superhero powers and eternal life. He expected his son to take his place as head of a powerful secret force of warriors.
    Shang-Chi had other ideas. He fled China when he was 14. 
    Upon his return to Macau 10 years later, Shang reunites with his younger sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). She's still upset that Shang left her with a father who didn't treat his daughter the way he treated his son.
   The plot eventually takes Shang and Katy to the mythic land of Ta-Lo where they meet Shang's aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), a wise woman who makes positive use of her martial arts-skills.
    Like most Marvel movies, Shang-Chi gobbles up comic-book mythology as if were popcorn. Wuwen, who gave up his powers when he married Shang's mother (Fala Chen), believes that he can reunite with his late wife if he penetrates a seal that separates an evil soul-sucking dragon from humanity. 
    The meeting of Wuwen and Chen's Jiang Li produces some of the movie's more intriguing and well-choreographed action. Li's the only person who's able to subdue Wuwen's fighting spirit. 
     It makes more sense to see all this in a theater than to write about it in a review. Besides, the mythic elements of the story are supported by recognizable emotions: a husband's inability to accept his wife's death, a son's struggle to accept his true identity, and a sister who can't totally abandon her sibling resentments.
    The Ta-Lo sequences include an element of cuteness in the form of a furry faceless, winged creature that struck me as more Disney than Marvel, a little too precious perhaps. 
    But Shang-Chi never skimps on action. A fight that takes place on scaffolding attached to a high rise offers vertiginous fun.
    I've read that Liu wanted to model his fighting style on Jackie Chan. The fight sequences contain elements of Chan-like humor but, in my view, don’t rise to the level of Chan’s best work, which admittedly makes for a high bar.
   Director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team were smart to give Shang-Chi a sidekick and the movie suffers a bit when Awkwafina is off-screen. Liu masters the physical aspects of the role but sometimes  comes up short on personality. Oh well, that's probably a marginal criticism considering that Shang-Chi is an emerging character.
   The supporting cast -- particularly Yeoh, Leung, and Zhang -- offer more than window dressing. They really supports the movie, as does Benedict Wong, whose role is smaller but still strong. Ben Kingsley adds humor as Trevor Slattery, a fading TV actor whose presence is played for laughs. 
   The movie's ending -- involving dragons (good and evil), a father/son battle, and lots of fiery combat -- can't entirely avoid the bloat that seems obligatory in these efforts.
    Overall, though, Shang-Chi succeeds in introducing a new Marvel character to the screen and proves an invigorating addition to the Marvel universe. 
    Equally important in a world in which sequels seem mandatory, the movie leaves you wanting to see more of Shang-Chi and Katy, a comic-book duo with promising  potential.