Thursday, October 28, 2021

A wobbly mixture of horror and comedy

    If director Edgar Wright were a painter, his palette would be a riotous blur of colors, one bleeding into another.
     Just that kind of dizzying impact may have been what Wright was aiming for with Last Night in Soho, a mixture of horror and thriller tropes that alternates between contemporary Soho and the district during the 1960s.
   I called Last Night a horror film, but that’s not quite accurate. Although it spouts a fair share of blood, the movie also has a bouncy spirit that goes against the horror grain. It's upbeat horror.

   The story follows Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) from the country to London where she hopes to prepare herself for a career as a fashion designer.  Obsessed with the 1960s, Eloise enrolls in a school where the students seem to be moving at a faster social pace than the one to which she's accustomed.

   She should have known. Her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) already warned her about London's ability to swallow and destroy a naive young person.

   In an effort to escape the hard-partying atmosphere of her dormitory, Eloise rents a room in a house run by a landlady (Diana Rigg) who may be up to more than we expect. 

   Once ensconced in her new digs, Eloise begins to dream of life in Soho during the swinging Sixties. 

   If this is a dream, it vividly transports Eloise back to the time that long has fascinated her and gives the movie one more twist, this one involving time travel. 

   In its '60s segments, Eloise begins to follow the life of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman who hopes to establish herself as a singer in London's fabled West End.

   The line between Eloise and Sandie begins to blur and the movie then contrives to teach Eloise that there’s more to the ‘60s than music and fashion. The ‘60s devoured dreams and dreamers, even slashed them to death.

   To achieve its cautionary goals, the story introduces a slick Londoner (Matt Smith) who promises to help Sandie achieve stardom. Let's just say he's not true to his word.

  Meanwhile back in the present, a fellow student (Michael Ajao) sees that Eloise is troubled. He tries his best to help but has no real grasp of the fact that Eloise's life includes increasingly harrowing trips to the 1960s.

  Terence Stamp drifts through the proceedings, a brooding threatening presence.

  A slick stylist, Wright (Baby Driver) has made a movie that eventually fails to be either amusing or frightening enough to save itself from being a muddled mashup that doesn't always track.

   And exactly what's at the heart of Wright's metaphorical assault on the '60s? Most likely it's youthful naïveté, low-hanging fruit that's too ripe for the picking.

   If you lived through the ‘60s, you may want to push aside the horror and attempted social commentary and simply enjoy the memories evoked by the movie’s soundtrack.

  Although there’s another danger here, as well. You may find Peter and Gordon’s A World Without Love running uncontrollably through your head. 

   Peter and Gordon? If you don't already know, don't ask.

A movie about a movie that didn't happen

  Director Vanessa Lapa grabs hold of an unsettling subject in her documentary Speer Goes to Hollywood. Lapa tells the story of how the man known as Hitler's architect entered discussions with British screenwriter Andrew Birkin who was to write a screenplay about Speer's life. Interest in Speer was prompted by the fact that Speer had written a bestseller called Inside the Third Reich. 
  Much of Lapa's movie involves some 40 hours of interviews that Birkin conducted with Speer. These are delivered by voice actors, a fact that left me feeling bit letdown when I read in the end credits. Viewers may think they're listening to Birkin's tapes, which may have been too degraded to use. 
   Stanley Kubrick evidently considered Speer's story, but only if any resultant movie did nothing to lionize the high-ranking Nazi.
    British director Carol Reed communicates with Birkin through various stages of the screenplay's development, reminding him that he may be involved in a whitewash of a Nazi who was convicted at Nuremberg for using slave labor. Speer served 20 years.
   Almost all of Speer's comments are attenuated. He wanted to build. Hitler gave him his opportunity. He didn't know about genocidal plans involving Jews. He rose to the position of Minister of Armaments and War Production.
    What emerges is a portrait of a slippery man who put ambition before morality but the film's historical footage tells its own story. Scenes of the Nuremberg trials feature the defendants chatting with one another as if they might be at a reunion. Scenes of Nazi brutality feel freshly horrific. 
    Watching Speer Goes to Hollywood enables us to  understand why a serious filmmaker might consider a movie that explored the power of blind ambition -- and that seems to raise the key question about Speer. 
   Did he blind himself to Nazi horrors or did he ignore them? Regardless of the answer, Lapa's documentary puts Speer's vanity, his capacity for compartmentalizing, and his delusions on disturbing display.
  Lapa shows us a man whose inflated self-regard may have protected him from a story that would have submerged others in the deepest pools of remorse and despair.*

*I recently (Nov 18) received this comment from Andrew Birkin and decided that it belonged with the review and not in the comments section. 
Birkin writes: 
   I only just read your very perceptive review for Vanessa Lapa's "Speer Goes to Hollywood", which nevertheless makes a number of false assumptions based on Lapa's film and her publicity pitch. The Hollywood Reporter has recently posted an addendum to their review for the same movie, as follows: Addendum: Birkin has gone on the record to point out that Lapa’s film takes liberties with the material he recorded, and the director has acknowledged to some journalists that the lines read by the actors are compressed from the conversation on Birkin’s tapes and incorporate material from other interviews. 
   I should be most grateful if you would consider doing the same, although of course using whatever words you see fit. 
   I can send you a time-coded list of Lapa’s main inaccuracies, as well as my response to a recent Q&A between Lapa and P J Grisar, with my own comments, from which you are free to quote or follow up as you wish. I would post them here but assume there isn't room. Glenn Kenny is currently writing a piece for the Roger Ebert website, where he recently reviewed the film, and Variety has invited me to write a first-person article about the whole wretched saga.  
   "Thank you for your consideration" as studios are wont to chirp come Oscar time. Andrew Birkin "gone on record" hyperlinks to my statement on the website over a year ago.

My reply:
I thought Birkin deserved to have his words used, not mine. I will say, though, that I received no exposure to any publicity pitch from the director or anyone else. I've never spoken to her and only watched the movie as it was provided to me. The Q&A to which Birkin refers appeared in The Forward on Oct. 26, 2021 under the headline, “How a notorious Nazi almost got a Hollywood biopic — and why Kubrick refused to direct.” 

Movie can't match its serious subject

 Amanda Seyfried stars as a children's book author trying to cope with severe depression in A Mouthful of Air, a movie based on a novel by Amy Koppelman. Koppelman also directed the movie and wrote its screenplay. As a look at depression that can lead to suicide, Mouthful of Air falls short on insight and dramatic heft. Seyfried portrays Julie Davis, a doting mother and children's book author who lives on Manhattan's Upper Westside with her devoted husband (Finn Wittrock). Julie's mother (Amy Irving) offers help after Julie attempts suicide, as does a concerned psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti). A scene in which Julie's sister-in-law (Jennifer Carpenter) accuses her of selfishness has some power, as does the occasional tension that develops between Julie and Wittrock's Ethan. Julie's second pregnancy and a move to the suburbs has everyone walking on eggshells around the fragile Julia. Although the movie has a tough ending, it seldom digs as deeply as its subject demands. Animated examples of Julia's work don't help either.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Wes Anderson's insular ‘Dispatch’

     Wes Anderson is an artful filmmaker and master miniaturist, a director who knows how to situate his films in the rich stream of cinema history. He's idiosyncratic and hardly ever seems to make a film in which his main objective is to soothe an audience. These are admirable traits and also the reasons why I always scold myself when I can't fully get behind an Anderson film.
   That's the case with The French Dispatch, a movie  apparently intended as a tribute to great magazine journalism. 
   Bill Murray plays the editor of the French Dispatch. Headquartered in the city of Ennui along the Blasé river, the Dispatch has built its reputation on the power of the written word and the idiosyncratic journalistic eye.
    Murray articulates two rules for those who work for the Dispatch. Don't cry and write in a way that makes it seem as if you did it on purpose.
   The plan: When Murray's Arthur Howitzer Jr. dies, the paper dies with him -- perhaps Anderson's way of acknowledging the disappearance of Great Editors; i.e., editorial titans who knew how to work with "difficult" writers -- and had never heard of focus groups, much less consulted one.
    An anthology divided into three parts with a prologue, the movie focuses on the Dispatch, a New Yorker-like publication complete with a table of contents and drawings. The meat of the movie involves three Dispatch feature pieces presented in black-and-white, color, and mixtures of the two.
    First among them, The Concrete Masterpiece, a story in which an art maven (Tilda Swinton) talks about a brilliant rebel painter named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). 
   Imprisoned for murder, Rosenthaler uses a prison guard (Lea Seydoux) as a model. Adrien Brody enters the story as an art dealer who wants to exploit Moses's work -- and is, therefore, outraged when Rosenthaler produces frescos on the prison's walls. How the hell can those be sold?
   The best and most genuinely bizarre of the three pieces, The Concrete Masterpiece features Del Toro as a genius who seems to have separated himself from the constraints of ordinary morality. 
   Next up, Revisions to a Manifesto featuring Timothee Chalamet and Frances McDormand. McDormand plays a writer caught up in what looks like the student rebellion of 1968. She develops a relationship  -- as a kind of mentor and sexual partner -- for Chalamet's character, leader of a student revolt. She also crosses  an ethical line, helping Chalamet's character write a manifesto. 
   By the time of the second movie, I found myself asking just how much quirkiness and intricate detailing I could tolerate. 
   OK, part three, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner. Jeffrey Wright portrays a writer who's working on a profile of a chef. Listening to Wright's delivery of the segment’s abundant dialogue has its rewards. But Private Dining Room, which also makes room for animation and crime, seems crowded to the point of indulgence.
   Almost every Anderson movie has a finely etched quality as well as a whimsical sense of humor and French Dispatch is not without those qualities. Still ....
   I wouldn’t say that Anderson has chiseled the life out of his movie; it's more that the chiseling almost becomes the life of an intricate inward-looking movie that carves out a place for itself — but not always for an audience. 
   Is it possible for a movie to talk to itself?

A look at an artist obsessed with cats


  In the well-leafed pages of art history, you’d be hard-pressed to find references to an artist whose sole preoccupation was with cats. Louis Wain was such an artist, a man who drew anthropomorphic pictures of cats for newspapers. He became popular for adding humor and color to the day’s drab news.
  In The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Benedict Cumberbatch immerses in eccentricity as an oddball artist who became increasingly deranged as his life progressed. Wain’s art also became more interesting and adventurous as he aged and retreated into his own world. 
  If you like psychedelic cats, Wain's your man. He might have been first on the block. Look it up.
  Some believed Wain to be schizophrenic. Maybe he was simply demented. Or maybe he fell somewhere on the spectrum of personalities destined to inhabit worlds most of us are content  to visit only in biographical movies.
  Director Will Sharpe makes use of a deeply committed performance from Cumberbatch to bring the artist to life in ways that can be amusing, although the movie never quite makes a case for its existence.  
   Put another way, Electrical Life teeters on the edge of success without ever quite falling over. 
   The story’s key event involves Wain’s marriage to Emily (Claire Foy), a match that scandalized Wain’s five sisters, women who regarded Emily as beneath the family’s station.
   Class distinctions aside, the union enables Wain to separate from his sisters, establishing an independent residence with a woman who tapped into his heretofore neglected capacity for happiness.
   Emily had been working for the family as a tutor to the daughters of the Wain sisters, a group presided over by Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), the oldest and most severe of the sisters.
   Wain's obsession with cats begins when he and Emily save a stray. Life seems good, but as we know, Victorian stories seldom escape misery.
   Emily’s early death from cancer left Wain alone and bereft. Her departure also abandons the movie to Wain's eccentricities and hallucinations, some of which Sharpe brings to life with mixed results.
   The story also highlights Wain’s financial ineptitude; he didn’t seem to care whether publishers took advantage of him. He never bothered to copyright his work. He's the artist of cliche; i.e., one who couldn't be bothered with contracts or terms of compensation.
    Lest we get lost in all of this, a  narration is provided by Olivia Colman, who has been charged with contextualizing the Victorian England in which Wain labored. She also helps clarify the movie’s title: Wain became obsessed with the new science of electricity.
   Several images at the end of the film have hallucinatory beauty that may not exactly fit the rest of the movie but make a pleasurable appearance nonetheless.
   Overall, Electrical Life wavers as it seeks a tone that matches Wain’s eccentricities. The story wears out as it moves through Wain’s massively disheveled life.
    Who knows? I might have liked it better if I weren't a dog person.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Sand and sci-fi in other-worldly ‘Dune’

     Here's the essence of what needs to be said about director Denis Villeneuve's long-awaited adaptation of Dune, the 1965 Frank Herbert novel that has acquired classic status among    many sci-fi enthusiasts.   
   Far more comprehensible than David Lynch's 1984 version, as well as more visually expansive and better acted, Villeneuve's Dune seems designed to please the novel's legion of fans. If it does, that's no small achievement.
    Beyond that, the movie shouldn't overly confound those who know nothing of the Dune universe. It also stands as a worthy testament to what the visual imagination can achieve when trying to bring a complex work of fiction to the screen.
   Herbert's lengthy novel may have made a better mini-series than a feature, but Villeneuve's version (actually only half of the story) benefits from being seen on the largest screen possible in a theater with a sound system geared to rattling brains inside pop-corn munching skulls.
   Villeneuve successfully creates a fantasy world in which vehicles resembling helicopters flutter multiple sets of wings and vast expanses of a desert planet stretch endlessly toward the  horizon. It's possible that Dune makes the most expressive use of sand in any movie since Lawrence of Arabia.
  Still a word of caution: There's something inherently frustrating about a two-hour and 35-minute movie that ends by telling us we've just witnessed "the beginning."
   The thing that separates Dune from other sci-fi ventures is it's pervasive strangeness, an otherworldly quality reflected in the movie’s costume design and in the names of its characters. 
   Young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) may be the longed-for Kwisatz Haderach. (Don’t ask).
   Paul's mother  Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is the concubine of Paul's father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and a member of the Bene Gesserit, women with special powers.
   Stellan Skarsgård appears as the obscenely bloated Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the story's villain.
   I'll torture you with no more of these names. I mention them because they suggest that Dune is more than a hunk of sci-fi with rich ecological and anti-mechanistic ambitions. A distinctive cult flavor evokes comparisons with works such as Lord of the Rings, at least in the impact Dune has had on devotees. 
  Two additional characters register in the movie's sea of eccentricity. Jason Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, an engagingly robust warrior on whom Paul has a man crush. Josh Brolin portrays Gurney Halleck, Paul's combat instructor. Each adds manly heft.
   The plot amounts to a mash-up of mythologies, the most notable involving expectations that a messiah figure will provide some form of salvation. 
    Early on, the House of Atreides — one of many — has been assigned custodianship of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis, we learn, is the source of the spice melange, essential to interplanetary travel, longevity and more.
  Previously, the planet was ruled by the Harkonnen, foul warriors who exploited Arrakis and its native population, the Fremens. A fierce desert-like people who know how to live with the planet's terrifyingly enormous sand worms, the Fremens add Middle Eastern flavor.
   Of course, it doesn’t take long for us to understand that the House of Atreides is under grave threat. Perhaps the woman Paul dreams of -- the Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) — will help save the day if Villeneuve gets to make the rest of the story. 
    Villeneuve's epic left me looking forward to more and eager to learn how much sway Dune still holds in the pop-cultural imagination. I know people, now quite grown, for whom Dune was a formative read of youth.
     That wouldn't be me. Perhaps that's why I watched Villeneuve's richly realized world with appreciation, even if I sometimes felt more like an impressed tourist than someone who had fully invested in this sci-fi saga.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

A 14th Century fight to the death


   Brutal and dedicated to depicting the harshest Medieval realities, The Last Duel drags its sword through the muck, igniting sparks here and there as it advances toward the climactic battle of the title.
  Based on a real incident in 14th Century France, Last Duel finds director Ridley Scott working from a screenplay by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener. Scott divides the story into three acts, first telling about rape from the vantage point of an aggrieved nobleman (Damon) whose wife (Jodie Comer) says she was raped by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). 
   Not surprisingly, Le Gris -- in his second act version --  claims to have been seduced. He also serves to highlight the archaic notion that the rape is an offense to de Carrouges, women of the time being regarded as little more than property.
    Finally, Comer's Marguerite gets an opportunity to give her rendition of events.
    Breaking the story into three sections sometimes functions as a burden on a movie that lacks the mind-bending impact of Akira Kurosawa's classic multi-vantage point story, Rashomon.
    The story begins in earnest when Comer's Marguerite de Carrouges tells her husband that she was raped by Le Gris, a knight and former best friend of Damon's Jean de Carrouges.
   A land dispute instigated by Count Pierre d'Alencon (Affleck) further complicates matters. Damon's Jean Carrouges believes he's been swindled out of land that he was promised as part of Marguerite's dowry.
   The performances tend to be a bit strange. Looking like a Medieval warthog, Damon begins the movie as a stalwart warrior but soon is revealed as a dolt. Driver's Le Gris excels in cunning and narcissism. Sporting blond hair and a goatee, Affleck portrays a nobleman who relishes debauchery and greed, viewing them as feudal entitlements.
    Of the main performances, Comer's lands hardest; her Marguerite burns with conviction and a sense of righteousness. 
   Because Marguerite's story arrives last it comes close to saving the movie from some of its more risible aspects: variable accents, mud- splattered battles, and near-ubiquitous grime.
   At two and half hours, the movie becomes a bit of a slog as we await the great duel, which Scott presents with merciless brutality. 
    The two combatants square off in a walled rectangular setting and fight to the death with lances as they ride toward each other at full speed. 
   The idea: The winner will be judged to have been telling the truth. The loser dies and, in the case of Marguerite, will be put to death for perjury.
    The screenplay sometimes seems too on the nose with its feminist leanings, but Scott also weaves welcome intrigue into the story of men who seem more interested in themselves than in anything else.
     Based on a book by Eric Jager, the movie follows the book's subtitle, dutifully unfolding a story of "crime, scandal and trial by combat." I guess that also describes an uneven, intermittently engrossing movie that seems to be trying too hard to trample any lingering romanticism about the period in which it's set.

Looking for light in Ingmar Bergman's shadow

      In Bergman Island, director Mia Hansen-Love travels to the Swedish island of Faro, the place where fabled director Ingmar Bergman lived and shot many of his films. Faro might be the last place filmmakers would want to work on scripts but Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) are both trying to finish screenplays.
     Bergman casts a big shadow which can't be avoided on Faro, where guides conduct Bergman safaris. On top of that, Tony and Chris are being hosted in the house where Bergman filmed Scenes from a Marriage. That film, a guide wryly tells them, was responsible for millions of divorces.
    Tony seems able to work and Chris stumbles, trying to write with a fountain pen that keeps running out of ink.
    In a way, Bergman Island serves as a portrait of a relationship, a creative one that has hit some shoals. Tony and Chris don't even agree on Bergman's work. He hates The Seventh Seal, for example.
    Hansen-Love also includes a film-within-the-film as Chris describes the movie she's working on to Tony. In that film, Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) try to rekindle or shed what’s left of their former love. She seems more interested in a reunion than he. The movie further complicates matters because both characters have arrived on Faro for a wedding.
   The story shortchanges Roth, focusing mainly on Chris and her screenplay. In a way, Chris’s creative life dominates.
    I've read that Hansen-Love based the film on her 15-year relationship with director Olivier Assayas. It’s impossible to know what sort of relationship to reality Hansen-Love intended but, in part, the movie explores the tensions between an apparently successful male filmmaker and a female counterpart who seems to be trying to establish her profile.
    The movie? Ambiguities and lack of sharp resolution work against satisfaction and neither character seems capable of making anything at Bergman's level -- not that it matters.
    These characters aren't Bergman -- and that's probably the point. 
    They may be on the director's island, but this casually expressed movie left me wondering whether they weren’t marooned elsewhere.

Parents try to heal after a school shooting


     Two sets of parents meet in a plainly furnished room in an Episcopalian Church located in a small town. Because the talk is awkward and strained, we anticipate something uncomfortable will happen. 
     The movie eventually reveals that Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are meeting with the parents (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) of the teenager who killed their son in a school shooting that took place years before.
     The meeting has been arranged by a third party (Michelle N. Carter) to promote healing. It's apparent from the outset that the shooter's motivations never will be entirely clear. What’s not clear is what Jay and Gail hope to gain. What do they really want from Birney's Richard and Dowd's Linda?
     Richard and Linda seem to be fulfilling an obligation and none of the participants has a handle on how to behave. Who would?
    Extreme politeness masks angry feelings that gradually emerge and which, more than anything, demonstrate the impossibility of knowing the root causes of such violence: References to bullying, video games, guns, and ignored signals are made, but none seem satisfactory.
     Filmed in a church in Idaho, the movie locates its story in what might be considered a bedrock of American decency, a church where the choir rehearses and where a nervous church worker (Breeda Wool) sets out drinks and food, offering hospitality where none is needed.
    Although Mass could have been a play, director Fran Kranz wisely makes few attempts to open things up. He puts four people into a claustrophobic environment to which all of them are inexorably drawn. 
    Can the meeting result in any level of forgiveness? 
    The actors define four distinct characters. Isaacs's Jay tries to keep an even keel. Plimpton's Gail squirms and simmers. Birney plays a man who appears to be rational, perhaps overly so, and Dowd gives full expression to Linda's endless torment. 
   Of all the performances, Plimpton's hit me the hardest, but the entire cast does justice to four emotionally ruined parents whose pain never will abate but who, in deeply human fashion, try to understand the incomprehensible and free themselves from a bit of their agony.

Friday, October 8, 2021

He’s Ted Lasso. No wait, he’s an ex-con


   In South of Heaven, Jason Sudeikis sounds an awful lot like he does as Ted Lasso, but he’s playing an entirely different character, a man who’s worlds away from the amiable American football coach who finds himself coaching soccer in England. 
     This time out, Sudeikis portrays Jimmy Ray, a former convict who’s paroled from prison after serving 10 years for a bank robbery. Jimmy wants nothing more than to marry Ann (Evangeline Lilly), the woman he loves and who is dying of lung cancer. She has waited 10 years for him.
    Director Aharon Keshales (Big Bad Wolves) takes Jimmy’s story through too many mood swings to be effective. The movie alternates hard-boiled drama, tender exchanges, and, finally, a grotesquely out-of-place shootout that pits Jimmy against a small army of foes. 
     The story’s complications begin when Jimmy is tempted into more criminal behavior by a corrupt parole officer (Shea Whigham). 
   In the course of picking up some money, Jimmy has a car accident in which a motorcyclist dies. Turns out the cyclist was a courier for Whit Price (Mike Colter), a smooth-talking but brutal gangster who was waiting for the delivery of $500,000. Price wants his money and believes Jimmy stole it.
      Eventually, Price kidnaps Ann, forcing Jimmy to kidnap Price’s son (Thaddeus J. Mixson). The movie softens as the respective kidnappers get to know and, of course, like their victims.
      The relationship between Jimmy and Ann is well-drawn, but too much of the rest of the movie can’t accommodate the screenplay's wild variations. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A weird, unsettling tale — in a good way


   It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.
   If you lived through the ‘70s, you probably recognize this admonition as a line from an often-seen margarine commercial.
   A trivial beginning to a review, yes, but it helps to summarize the lesson that might be gleaned from Lamb, an Icelandic movie that hovers somewhere near the borders of a folk tale.
   Lamb probably should be approached without much foreknowledge, so I’ll try to limit any plot descriptions, which is in keeping with the film's spare approach.
   The success of Lamb has much to do with director Valdimar Johannsson's key stylistic choice, which involves rooting his incredible story in a setting so palpably earthy you almost feel the land's mud and moisture.
   Here’s the story in brief: Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Guonason) and his wife (Noomi Repace) operate a farm in an isolated rural setting. Eventually, we'll learn that the couple lost a child. When a strange lamb is born, Rapace's Maria takes the lamb in her arms and treats it as an infant, even naming it for the lost baby. 
   Johannsson shows us the development of this odd replacement “child,” sometimes giving it human features — a hand, an arm, a rear end, but always maintaining the head of a sheep.
   Initially, I hardly knew whether to laugh or cringe, but gradually, the strange occurrence becomes part of the movie’s world or maybe we just buy in because the film has a way of making us temporarily complicit in the delusions of its characters.
   Eventually,  Ingvar's wayward brother (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) turns up. He has eyes for Rapace’s character and tries to encourage his brother back toward sanity. But he, too, becomes enthralled with little  Ada, who walks upright and has been dressed like a little farm girl.
   And … well … that’s enough.
   At times, Lamb has the eerie strangeness of a horror film. At other times, it feels like a Biblical story about sibling rivalry, and at other times, it doesn’t feel like anything we've seen before.
   For some, these variations may be taken as indecision, but for me, they’re the source of the movie's strength; Johannsson's uneasiness with genre keeps viewers on edge as the story works its way toward a shocking conclusion.
   My opening line makes clear that I view Lamb as a weird cautionary tale, a film so firmly set in the harsh physicality of the Icelandic landscape that it creates an unsettling pull.
   Thanks to Johannsson and his cinematographer Eli Arenson, we’re also asked to examine our assumptions about animal behavior. Do we ever see animals or is nearly everything we think about them colored by anthropomorphism?
   Whatever the case, Johannsson has found ways to turn the gazes of sheep into near accusatory stares from a natural world that we always seem to be trying to control.
   Or maybe I’ve gone too far. Maybe it’s best to just let Lamb work on you and sort it all out later — or not at all. 

Daniel Craig's admirable departure from Bond

   Remember when we didn't take Bond movies seriously? Time was all we wanted from a Bond movie was nifty gadgets, charm, beautiful women, one-liners, and an out-sized villain, preferably working with Spectre.
  That's why the series could survive the switch from Sean Connery (still the best Bond) to Roger Moore to Pierce Brosnan to Timothy Dalton — and that's not even a complete list. The point: Fulfill the formula, add a few new wrinkles, and we were happy.
  Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, is about to pass the torch to another Bond, which greatly raises anticipation for No Time to Die, Craig's last swing at 007. We already know that Craig’s Bond has the power of a clenched fist. His is not a winking Bond, happy to let us in on the joke. 
   Craig has given us a Bond for our distraught, deracinated time, a bond minus joviality and bonhomie — but now with the capability of loving, and, thus, being hurt.
   Some of No Time To Die qualifies as old-style fun. Moreover, the movie's prologue and early scenes totally satisfy our craving for more Bond; i.e., they're full scenic glamor and incredible action.
    A quick summary of the set-up: An assassin's attempts to kill the wife and daughter of a man who slaughtered his family. The movie then leaps ahead to find Bond in love and vacationing in a rocky Italian village. His companion: the daughter (Lea Seydoux) who was spared by the killer in the movie's opening.
    The movie eventually begins unfolding a complicated plot involving a deadly biological weapon that can be tailored to target specific individuals -- or to wreak mass havoc.
   I don't mean to suggest that I didn't enjoy the rest of this overly long Bond, which clocks in at two hours and 43 minutes and ends with a sense of resignation that fits our moment of national and international fatigue.
   Director Cary Joji Fukunaga guides Craig's final bond to a noble end and provides enough of everything else that we want from a Bond movie to make the journey worth taking.
    No Bond movie is complete without seeing Bond in formal wear. He turns up in a tuxedo in Jamaica where he encounters a glamorous spy played by Ana de Armas
    Critics once argued that every Bond movie rises and falls with its villain. A good villain meant a good Bond -- no matter who donned  the 007 mantle.
   This time, Rami Malek upholds the banner of evil, opting to make Lyutsifer Safin a soft-spoken man with a bad complexion and an unquenchable taste for vengeance. Lyutsifer’s ambitions are big, but his personality seems small.
   Muscular and sometimes brutal, Craig receives able support from a large cast. Christoph Waltz makes a brief appearance as Blofeld. Jeffrey Wright portrays Felix Leiter,  CIA man, and friend of Bond.
    Ralph Fiennes continues to bring weight and gravity to the role of M. Naomi Harris again turns up as the ever-loyal Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw returns as Q, the inventor of the gadgetry that gives Bond his advantage and a tech whiz who monitors Bond's moves.
   The movie even adds another 007. Because Bond has retired, MI6 has awarded his 007 designation to Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a newcomer who may gain a foothold for future Bond movies.
   The movie ultimately heads toward a remote island (where else?) from which Lyutsifer plans to launch a world-threatening attack.
    With improvements in budget and special effects, the Bond movies have been able to increase their scale with each new addition, and let's face it, scale has much to do with why we keep going to Bond movies. 
   Fukunaga doesn't shortchange us on locations -- even if we feel that Craig's last turn as Bond has more to do with what the movie is about than any threat Lyutsifer poses.
   For the record, Billie Eilish sings No Time To Die, the song that plays over the opening credits.
  No Time to Die tends to lag a bit around the three-quarter mark and it sometimes feels driven by fumes of determination, but when it's done, No Time to Die has brought Craig's tenure to a strong and worthy conclusion.

Aptly titled ‘Fever Dream’ mired in confusion


  There’s a lot going on in Fever Dream,  a movie that seems to be aiming for deep meaning but winds up a muddle.
   At the risk of reductionism, I’ll simplify.  Director Claudia Llosa tells the story of two mothers, one of whom (Delores Fonzi) believes that her once-adorable son (Emilio Vodanovich) has been transformed for the worse. I’ll elaborate later.
   The other mother (Maria Valverde) so fears losing her young daughter (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta) that she obsessively calculates how long it will take to reach her child should danger arise.
    Early on, Valverde's Amanda arrives at a beautiful spot in rural Argentina for a vacation, expecting that she'll soon be joined by her husband.
   Fonzi's Carola already lives in the area. The two women meet and make what appears to be a strong connection.
   Now, all that sounds clear enough, but Llosa employs a structure that complicates matters, opening the movie with an image of Amanda being dragged through a forest. 
   Llosa turns the story into a flashback from its opening, an arty mystery that constantly seems in search of clarification.
   Another flashback explains how Fonzi's Carola and her husband (German Palacios) fell into terrible debt and how her son David became so ill that she had to submit to soul migration at the hands of an aging local woman with healing powers.
    The woman tells Carola that she might be able to save the boy by migrating half of his soul to another being, but cautions that David never will be the same.
   The movie’s images have a haunting openness, thanks in part to the work of cinematographer Oscar Faura. Fever Dream brims with suggestion and promises of revelation, largely unfulfilled -- even with the addition of a trendy environmental twist. 
   In the end, it's not easy to know what to make of Llosa's effort. Fine performances from Valverde and Fonzi create mystery. Sometimes, the film speaks the language of horror, and the provocative behavior of Vodanovich's David can be unsettling.
    The poor kid. He seems to have lost his soul and gotten almost nothing in return in this murky, head-scratcher of a movie.  

Friday, October 1, 2021

Catching Up: 'Small Engine Repair' and 'Starling'

Two quick hits on movies I missed. Put these brief reviews under the heading “Better Late Than Never.” 

Small Engine Repair

Set in Manchester, New Hampshire, Small Engine Repair adapts a play by John Pollono for the screen. Pollono portrays Frank, a guy who runs the repair shop of the title. He has two pals (Shea Whigham and John Bernthal). For a while, it looks as if Small Engine Repair is going to be another evening with the bros, guys who often jockey to see who can be grosser. Pals for a long time, the men argue in a bar and stop talking. The story then leaps ahead to a night when Frank invites his estranged buddies to the repair shop for an evening of reconciliation. Another study in toxic masculinity, Small Engine Repair features performances by Jordana Spiro (as Frank's ex-wife) and Ciara Brava (as Frank's college-age daughter). The movie begins to shift gears when a college kid (Spencer House) shows up at Frank's shop and Pollono's screenplay begins to raise serious issues involving privacy, internet abuse, class conflict, and revenge. None of these themes are fleshed out enough to compensate for flashbacks of variable power and an ending that seems contrived to take some of the sting out of the meanness that precedes it. And in a movie focused largely on "the guys,'' Spiro has the movie's most commanding moment.


Starling, a movie about a husband and wife (Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd) attempting to cope with the loss of an infant daughter, casts Kevin Kline as a veterinarian who once was a prominent psychiatrist. The oddball combo of carers is indicative of something about the movie: Director Theodore Melfi mixes what seem like mismatched elements in a movie that makes a powerful subject seem almost banal. Burdened by sentiment, the movie derives its title from a bird that pesters McCarthy's character as she tries to garden. The screenplay by Matt Harris uses the bird -- a starling, of course -- as a metaphor for nest building and even, at one point, has McCarthy's Lily trying to nurse the pesky  bird back to health after she hits it with a stone. The movie mistakenly separates Lily and her husband Jack, who's in a mental institution after the loss of the child, which means we never really see them trying to work out their issues. No point in faulting the performances, but Starling is a wounded bird of a movie that just doesn't fly.