Friday, November 26, 2021

The Beatles up close and personal

    I know rock aficionados who approach the Beatles with the kind of parsing skills one expects from Talmudic scholars. These are folks who steep themselves in analysis of the music, the books, and the lore — all things Beatles. 
    And why not? The Beatles were a pop-cultural phenomenon like no other and their music grew and developed in complexity as they became more accomplished and famous. 
    I leave that kind of analysis to rock critics and I look forward to reading what some of them have to say about Peter Jackson's documentary, The Beatles: Get Back. 
   For me,  Jackson has made the perfect movie for anyone who has ever wondered how it would feel to hang out with The Beatles during a recording session. Watch the film and you'll know.
  The nearly eight-hour documentary has been assembled  from 60 hours of footage shot in January of 1969 by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the documentary Let It Be, which was 81 minutes long and evidently hasn't been available since 1980.
   Beatles mavens feel free to chime in with more details.
  Jackson's version hints at the dissolution to come, notably George Harrison's discontent with how Paul and John, to a lesser extent, dominate the group's musical decisions. 
    At one point, George says he's leaving the band. 
    When, someone asks. 
     Now, says George as he walks out. (He does return.)
    Yoko Ono almost always can be seen sitting at John's side, even while the group is working. She's either ignored by the others or, at times, becomes the subject of conversation, none of it memorably vicious.
   Mostly, Jackson reveals the stop-start quality the creation process for songs originally meant to be part of a TV concert. They eventually were used in a rooftop concert staged at Apple’s London building, The Beatles' last public performance.
   During their sessions, The Beatles seem most alive when they're playing classic rock tunes -- Blue Suede Shoes, for example. They can sound like the most fantastic bar band imaginable, musicians who share the same fondness for rock and revel in the fun of playing it.
  At times, the movie is ... well ... boring, even a bit infuriating. You want the band to get on with it, to find the focus for their work which Paul acknowledges is missing.
  I'm guessing Jackson knew that he might tax some viewers' patience but he’s taking pains to clarify the difference between creation and performance -- one arduous, repetitive, and frustrating; the other, exhilarating.   
   Beatles enthusiasts will find much to chew over in Jackson's lengthy, fascinating three-part documentary — and I might even return for a second look.
   Several times I thought I’d give up on it. I couldn’t. It was, after all, The Beatles.
   The film is available for viewing on Disney+. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

'Licorice Pizza' is sliced thin

   Mostly known as a serious filmmaker, director Paul Thomas Anderson received major early notice for Boogie Nights, his immersion in the porn life. His most recent movie, Phantom Threads, was bracingly astringent. And then, of course, there's There Will Be Blood, no one's idea of a feel-good time at the movies.
    In Licorice Pizza, Anderson eases up, focusing on two characters who don’t often find their way into movies populated by teens. One of these characters is 25, more an emotional adolescent than a literal one.
   Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, portrays Gary, a former child actor who's becoming an obsessive entrepreneur at the age of 15. Alana Haim, a rock musician in her non-screen life, appears as a young woman who’s adrift. 
    Haim's Alana catches Gray's eye at his high school. She's working as a photographer's assistant during a yearbook photoshoot. Alana knows Gary's too young for her but, as the movie develops, the duo forms a tie neither can set aside.
     Neither Hoffman nor Haim is endowed with movie-ready looks or the kind of gleaming smiles found in toothpaste ads. 
    Rail thin, Haim becomes a walking exclamation point, fitting for a young Encino woman who has more attitude than ambition. 
   Set on the fringes of Hollywood, the movie includes encounters with celebrities along the edges of Los Angeles'  celebrity culture. At one point, Alana meets Jack Holden (Sean Penn), a movie star whose ego apparently rides on a singular accomplishment, an action-oriented war movie.
   Holden puts Alana under his spell before trying a daring, alcohol-fueled stunt involving a motorcycle, a golf course, and a barn fire. He's goaded into this foolishness by a wild-eyed movie director (Tom Waits).
   Gary’s entrepreneurial bent finds him cashing in on a trend by opening a waterbed store which achieves a bit of success. During a delivery — one that takes place during a devastating fuel crisis — Gary encounters Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a hairdresser and producer.
   Looking like Warren Beatty’s understudy in the movie Shampoo, Cooper delivers the movie’s funniest performance. Peters stands as an angry, entitled slice of Hollywood ego.
    The visit to Peters' home also provides an opportunity for Anderson to stage a major set piece involving a delivery truck, reverse gear, and a diminishing supply of gasoline.
   Gary shows flair when it comes to sustaining a hustle. After waterbeds, he creates a pinball parlor. He’s like a Valley-bred Duddy Kravitz, the main character in director Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 adaptation of a Mordecai Richler novel, which I mention partly by way of reminding myself to rewatch that movie soon.
    Gary, by the way, lives with his mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), a low-level PR practitioner who plies her trade for Mikado, a Japanese restaurant run by a white businessman (John Michael Higgins) who speaks to his two successive Japanese wives in an offensively parodic accent. 
   The bit lands like a dropped dish in a quiet room.
    Like many movies about young people, Licorice Pizza's episodic approach can make it feel less than fully realized and only intermittently amusing.
     — Gary travels to New York to help promote a Lucille Ball-like movie called Under One Roof. He takes Alana as a chaperone because he’s underage and his mom is too busy to accompany him. Gary played one of 18 kids in the movie.
    — Alana takes a plunge into volunteerism as a worker for a local mayoral candidate and learns that idealism can disappoint.
    — Gary arranges a meeting between Alana and an agent (Harriet Sansom Harris),  an egregiously insensitive woman who evaluates prospective clients only in so far as they fit  stereotypes. 
   Licorice Pizza, by the way, derives from a chain of record stores popular in the area during the ‘70s. It's a fake-out of a title; no such stores appear in the movie. 
    I’m going on, I guess, so I might as well add an addendum to all of this: Anderson bends a well-worn genre in a movie notable for its idiosyncrasies and for giving Haim a showcase role she memorably inhabits.
    Take note: This is not a memory movie for Anderson, who was born in 1970. Gary reportedly is an avatar for Gary Goetzman, now a producer and co-founder of Tom Hanks's production company.
   Anderson remains an interesting director whose movies  usually merit attention. Licorice Pizza qualifies as a Paul Thomas Anderson movie that (thank goodness) doesn’t feel as if it's intended to be an artistic event.
    But as I watched, I couldn't develop much fondness for this portrait of life in the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s. 
   Maybe the movie is a bit of a waterbed itself; i.e., not as consequential as one might have hoped and, for all its eccentricities, still dedicated to the notion that youth remains endlessly worthy of exploration. 
   Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for more kid’s stuff.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Halle Berry's directorial debut is no knockout

Bruised, a movie about a down-and-out UFC fighter, marks Halle Berry's debut as a director. Not only did Berry direct but she also stars as Jackie Justice, a once-promising UFC fighter who has sworn never to participate in a cage fight again. Earning her keep as a maid, Jackie lives with her abusive boyfriend (Adan Canto), a jerk who wants to manage a ring comeback Jackie insists she doesn’t want to make.  A promoter named Immaculate (Shamier Anderson) and a big life change force Jackie to reconsider. Immaculate introduces Jackie to Buddhakan (Sheila Atim), a coach who meditates and helps get Jackie back on track. Jackie badly needs to find a better path because the son (Danny Boyd Jr.) she gave up at birth has re-entered her life. The emotionally damaged six-year-old doesn’t speak, a quality that doesn’t extend to Jackie’s bumptious mother (Adriane Lenox). Will Jackie salvage a career in the ring? Will she grow into her role as a mother even as she holds her own against Lady Killer, a character played by real-life UFC fighter Valentina Shevchenko?  Will the movie be floored by cliches? Despite a few unexpected twists, Bruised mostly works and overworks its way through formulaic elements. Berry’s convincing but the movie feels punched out before the second round. 

Diverse cast moves into 'House of Gucci'

  No swords, sandals or aliens can be found in director Ridley Scott's House of Gucci, a drama about the decline of the Gucci family and the murder of Maurizio Gucci, a crime engineered by his estranged wife. 
  The day after I saw the movie, the following headline appeared in Variety:"House of Gucci First Reactions Range From Absurdly Enjoyable to Bloated and Uneven Mess."
   Yes, I thought, that's it. Not one of those. All of them.
   The movie focuses more on internecine warfare among the Guccis than on Maurizio's murder. En route to the sensational 1995 crime -- for which the former Patrizia Reggiani was found guilty and served 18 years in an Italian prison -- the movie offers a sumptuous tour of the accouterments of Gucci wealth. 
   You'll also find an abundance of vividly incompatible performances given by a variety of actors speaking English in what amounts to a Babylon of variable Italian accents.  
    Sporting goggle-sized glasses, Adam Driver portrays the mild-mannered Maurizio Gucci, the man who was overwhelmed into marrying Patrizia, played in Scott's telling by Lady Gaga, who doesn’t shrink from the power of her considerable presence
   There's no universe in which I would have thought to cast Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons as brothers, but Scott pulls it off. 
    Irons portrays the thin-lipped, severely aristocratic Rodolfo Gucci, a man who rules over the company with his brother Aldo (Pacino), a portly exuberant man who looks as if he hasn’t denied himself many pleasures during his journey to great wealth.
   Scott brings lots of opera to the soundtrack. Why not? House of Gucci brims with oversized emotions, devious betrayals, and, finally, murder -- ingredients that fuel many operas.
   Gaga barges into the movie in much the same way as she barges into the Gucci family — willfully. She makes it clear that Patrizia easily could have overpowered the bookish Maurizio, rendered by Driver as an ineffectual young man who gradually accustoms himself to power and luxury.
    Of course, there's also Patrizia's swinging hips, generous cleavage, and pugnacious spirit.

And the rest of the cast .... 

 Unrecognizable after what must have been a gargantuan makeover, Jared Leto plays Aldo's son,
 a balding airhead of a man referred to by his father as "an idiot, but my idiot." Leto’s mumbled line readings are bizarre, amusing, and confounding. (Yes, that's Leto to the right, an actor who turns himself into a human special effect in  House of Gucci.)
   Salma Hayek signs on Pina, a psychic Patrizia discovers while watching TV and with whom she builds a relationship. Pina eventually helps Patrizia locate the assassins who will shoot Maurizio.
    Jack Huston appears as Domenico De Sole, a background figure who eventually moves forward to play a part in the financial drama in which the Guccis are expelled from their own empire.
   Truth be told, Scott -- working from a screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna -- doesn't do a great job with financial complications but the gist remains clear.
   At times, I wondered whether Scott was being serious or whether he was secretly gagging over high-fashion absurdity — its pretensions, its obsession with money, and its furious competitiveness.  
  At other times, I was sure that Scott was trying to be campy. 
  And at still other times, I thought he might be striving to create a great mercantile family drama.
  I settled on “all of the above.”  
 So here's my final word or two: From the start, House of Gucci, a lavish hunk of a movie, does its best not to succeed but manages to be entertaining anyway. Maybe someone should turn it into a real opera.
   And, then, there's Pacino's Aldo - vast of spirit, sloppily sentimental, and conniving. At times, I felt as if Pacino were about to swallow every scene that he's in -- and sometimes I wish he had.
    All I can say is set aside expectations and enjoy watching a director and his cast push, bully and insinuate themselves into a beautifully dressed world where trashy behavior and haute-couture pirouettes mingle and collide.

A little kid and some very big questions

    C'mon C'mon speaks its own language, a movie about questions that can't be answered and the man and boy who are stuck trying to deal with them.
    Director Mike Mills introduces us to Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a disheveled, preoccupied man who volunteers to help his sister (Gaby Hoffmann), a woman who's struggling to take care of her nine-year-old son (Woody Norman). Hoffmann's Viv also is trying to keep her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy) from totally derailing during one of his crises.
   Mills (20th Century Women, Beginners) seems less interested in  mental illness than in how adults and children communicate. How does one talk to a nine year old who raises the subject of abortion and who wants to know why his uncle isn't married?
   Given its focus on the adult/child relationship, C'mon C'mon easily could have been overwhelmed by sentiment. It's not. Credit Phoenix who may be constitutionally unable to do warm and cuddly. He makes it clear that Johnny might be as lost as his nephew. 
    Throughout the film, Johnny can be seen working on what appears to be a radio project. He asks a diverse variety of children what they think the future will be like and records their answers. He also records his reactions to their answers.
    Shooting in black and white, Mills punctuates his story with unexpected views of the cities in which Johnny finds himself, principally Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans. 
    Johnny, who hasn't seen his nephew Jesse in more than a year because of a conflict with his sister, first meets the boy in Los Angeles, where the boy's harried mother faces numerous challenges. 
    Mom leaves Jesse in Johnny’s care when she travels to San Francisco to seek help for her husband. When Johnny has to return to New York for work, he proposes taking Jesse with him. 
   Viv initially resists but she has little choice but to allow Johnny to travel to New York where Jesse helps him record the natural sounds of the city. He's opening the boy to the larger world, but also maintaining a distance from Jesse. Johnny doesn't try to shape everything that Jesse encounters.
    Not surprisingly, Johnny must convince Jesse that he's safe with an uncle he hardly knows. To complicate matters, Jesse has ways of getting on adult nerves, launching ceaseless barrages of questions and observations.
    Mills places Johnny’s interviews with kids throughout the movie. He dedicates to "D-Man" Bryant, a nine year old who Johnny interviews and who later was killed. The kids are real and give the movie a documentary flavor.
   With unruly hair and a bit of a gut, Phoenix conveys the confusion of a man who seems to be turning to children to find answers that have eluded him, and in the end, the story gets under your skin with its  collection of awkward conversations, adult anxiety, and testing behaviors from a kid whose world has been shaken.
    The film owes much of its success to cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who gets close to the film's children without intruding on them. He creates a world that feels both naturalistic and unfamiliar, just the right laboratory for this kind of cinematic experiment.
    Norman gives one of those kid performances that makes you wonder how Mills obtained it. Jesse seems entirely unaffected -- even when he's being self-consciously shrewd. And like most kids, he can be both endearing and, yes, annoying.  Jesse has yet to learn the art of self-censorship.
   The brief encounter between Johnny and Jesse captures the kind of intimate breakthrough that's possible when crisis strikes and a great gap of vulnerability opens, presenting itself as a possible moment of  grace -- at least when viewed in retrospect.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The man with a plan for his daughters

   Any movie about the rise of sports icons faces a multitude of problems — not the least of which is the temptation to yield to the demands of formula. You know the drill. Hardship and toil inevitably are followed by a hard-earned victory, preferably for an underdog.
 Thumbs are raised. Cheers abound. And then we all return to lives in which victories can be scarce.
 King Richard, the story of Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, can’t avoid every genre trap but the rise of the Williams’ sisters has plenty of appeal. We know from the outset that the sisters will hit it big, but we still root for them.
  In some ways, the movie becomes a showcase for Will Smith, who plays a father who drives his daughters hard. Williams authored a 78-page plan for them and insisted that they fulfill it in the world of tennis.
  Steeped in discipline and perseverance, Williams ignores obstacles and keeps pushing. His slightly stooped posture makes it seem as if he's leaning into his mission. 
   Venus and Serena are played by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, young actresses who give the movie its heart. Scenes of the Williams’ family of five daughters unfold with winning ease. The movie could have used more of them.
   Richard Williams may be obsessed with his plan, but Sidney and Singleton show that Venus and Sabrina never stopped being kids — albeit extremely talented kids. 
   Of all the adult actors, Aunjanue Ellis hits one of the strongest notes. In  a powerhouse scene, Ellis's Oracene confronts her husband, pushing back against his ego.
   When Venus' career begins to rise,  Mom takes over Sabrina's training. She's not going to allow Sabrina to be slighted.
   Early on, the girls practice on a local Compton tennis court, a site that’s plagued by gang activity. Williams presses on until the girls can play on better courts as they navigate the predominantly white world of tennis.
   Eventually, Venus finds a coach. Jon Bernthal’s Rick Macci has ideas about how to guide Venus’s career, which sparks conflict with  the obstinate Williams. It's sometimes difficult to distinguish between Williams' desire to protect his daughters and his desire to control their burgeoning careers.
   Director Reinaldo Marcus Green moves the story toward Venus's professional debut. She was 14 in 1994 when she faced off against established pro, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
   Venus and Serena are credited as producers, so it’s not surprising that the movie has an “authorized” air about it, and at 146 minutes, King Richard may have you checking your watch toward the end. An incident in which Richard, carrying a pistol from his job as a security guard, faces off against a neighborhood tough is shocking but under-explored.
    I'm no expert on the life of Richard Williams, but I've read that some folks think the movie goes too easy on him. That may be true but the movie focuses on Richard as a father to Venus and Serena. It's not trying to be a fully developed biography of Williams.
    Williams may have been King, but his daughters ended up as royalty. They not only conquered the tennis world, they transcended it.


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

How a musical was born -- almost


         When I was a much younger man living in Manhattan, I met lots of people. Some of them were actors. I won’t name names, but one became a major star. Only one.
          The majority of young people who head to New York seeking a niche in the arts find impoverishment, heartbreak, and crushed dreams. New York teaches painful lessons: The world owes you nothing. All you'll ever achieve is a bit of status on the fringes of the endeavor you love. Maybe you won’t even get that far.
          The risk: You become too old to be considered promising. You have no fallback, and you’re unemployable. Such is the gamble.
          Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut deals with someone who took the risk. Tick, Tick ... Boom! explores the life of playwright/composer Jonathan Larson before he hit the big time with his award-winning musical Rent.  
          It’s not surprising that Miranda chose Larson’s play for his directorial debut. He knows this milieu. He was part of it. 
          And like Larson, Miranda, still best known for Hamilton, helped remake the musical form. Here, he revels in the energy of a diverse group of performers bursting with a singular ambition: to have their voices heard.
      Those familiar with Larson’s story also know that it ended with an unexpected and shattering exclamation point. Larson died in 1996 of an aortic aneurism on the day of Rent's first Off-Broadway preview. He was 35.
       So Tick, Tick ... Boom! is a sad movie? Not really.
       It's an upbeat look at a struggling composer who's trying to establish himself in musical theater. Tick, Tick … Boom! focuses on Larson's efforts to put on a workshop performance of Superbia, a futuristic musical based on George Orwell's 1984
     As Larson, Andrew Garfield puts the movie on his shoulders and carries it a long way; he's the focal point in an aspirational world that swirls with talent, hope and energy.
    Miranda organizes the musical around a performance of Tick, Tick ... Boom!, a show Larson performs on a bare stage with a piano and back-up band. Numbers from the stage play mix with depictions of Larson's bohemian life in New York City. 
   The mood ranges from excitement to the desperation Larson experiences as he tries to write the song that will complete Superbia. The story also deals with the AIDS onslaught that has begun to thin the ranks of the creative class, striking close to home for Larson.
    Miranda brings a few additional characters into focus.
    Robin de Jesus portrays Michael, a gay singer who traveled to New York with Larson but who tires of rejection and poverty. Michael opts for a more stable life in advertising. 
   Larson's girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) remains committed to him until she realizes that Larson uses intimacy to discover emotion for his songs. He’s too involved with his work to make a relationship succeed.
    Judith Light has a late-picture turn as the agent who gives Larson a tough lesson about the vagaries of theatrical endeavor.
     Larson supports himself by working as a waiter at SoHo's  Moondance Diner, a job that pays for the crummy apartment where he lives with an Everest of dishes piled in the sink.
   There's not much suspense about the outcome. Roughly half way through, musical master Steven Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) shows up to ratify Larson's talent. It's clear that the young man eventually will find a vehicle to propel his career. 
   Garfield, who does his own singing, pours on the energy -- sometimes to the point of annoyance and the movie's desire to celebrate the exuberant diversity that hit New York during the 1990s doesn't feel quite as fresh as it once might have.  
    Mostly, though, the movie remains engaging. Miranda works in a quick-cut, pop-and-flash style that reminded me a bit of director Jon M. Chu's colorful approach to the movie version of Miranda’s play,  In the Heights.
    Tick, Tick can be taken as an updated version of the “Hey Kids, Let’s Put on a Show” school of entertainment -- only smarter, more articulate and more driven.
     Perhaps fondness for its characters explains why at two hours in length Tick, Tick hangs on longer than it should.  It’s not only Larson who’s being celebrated and remembered; it's the dreams of youth.

She taught Americans French cooking


If you're of a certain age, you already know that Julia Child was once America's most famous chef, a woman whose high-pitched bubble of a voice and ability to simplify  French cooking made her a star of the PBS world. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West have teamed for a look at the woman who preceded the rise of the celebrity chef and whose cookbook (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) has been a staple in many American kitchens ever since its publication in 1961. The directors tell the story of Child's suburban California upbringing, her service in the OSS during World War II, and her marriage to Paul Child, a foreign service worker whose posting in Paris opened the door to Julia's culinary career. Tall and ungainly in appearance, Child changed attitudes about cooking and for those of us who don't cherish moments at the stove,  eating. The directors of 2018's RPG, make good use of interviews with colleagues and footage from Child's vast TV repertoire. They also chronicle how Child, who died in 2004, shifted her views on homosexuality to become an advocate for those suffering from AIDS. She stood up for women in a field traditionally dominated by men. Health consciousness has evolved since Child's heyday, but the palate leaps with joy when listing to Julia's passionate defense of butter. Julia serves as a reminder that we eat for nourishment, but also (and equally important) for pleasure. And for late bloomers, Child's story serves as inspiration: Her masterpiece cookbook (written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) took 10 years to write. She was 50 when The French Chef made its TV debut in 1963. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

“Power of the Dog’: Lots of bark and bite, too


   Jane Campion hasn’t released a film in 12 years. The director's  fans have been waiting and Power of the Dog doesn’t disappoint. Set in the American west in 1929, the film seems like a Western but might more accurately be described as a vivid exploration of power and masculinity.
  Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, bases her movie on a 1967 novel by the late Thomas Savage. Savage's set-up is classical, nearly Biblical. 
  Two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) operate a thriving ranch. The brothers couldn’t be less alike. Cumberbatch’s Phil is a macho cowboy who was schooled in the ways of the West by his idol — the late Bronco Henry. 
   Never seen in the film, Bronco’s spirit continues to be felt. Think of  the myth around Bronco as Phil’s religion. Bronco saw things that other people didn’t, Phil tells us.  
   A man of the earth, Phil rides, ropes, castrates bulls, and runs the ranch. He’s less a character than a force. He's also intelligent, talented homophobic, and ... well ... you can guess the rest.
  Plemons’s George is another kind of man. He’s cultured (to a point) and kind and you don’t have to know much to draw archetypical comparisons between the brothers.
  Jonny Greenwood’s score enhances tension and adds an unsettling aura to the film, helping us understand that Campion has no interest in bowing to the demands of a well-weathered genre. 
   At the same time, Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner evoke images reminiscent of John Ford. Like the West of 1929, the movie's open landscapes brim with possibility. (The story is set in Montana but Campion shot the film in New Zealand.)
  The situation at the ranch takes a major turn when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs a cafe where the ranch hands gather for a celebratory chicken dinner after a cattle drive. As the cowboys eat, Phil taunts Rose's son Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee), a teenager who works in the cafe as a waiter and who makes paper flowers.
   We expect that Rose’s arrival on the ranch and the later arrival of Peter won't sit well with Phil, who makes no attempt to conceal his antagonism, hostility based on what he seems to view as the superiority of his self-sufficiency.
   Phil never misses an opportunity to display his contempt for Rose. He plays banjo and easily finishes a tune that Rose struggles to master on the grand piano George buys for her. George probably overestimates Rose’s gifts, perhaps because he’s relieved to break through the isolation in which he felt imprisoned.
   Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, stomping across wooden floors, and refusing to bathe, Phil serves as a scalding, intensified emblem of what underlies the facade of the cowboy icon. He’s all gristle.
  Gradually, the film abandons Plemons' character to focus on Phil and Peter, a medical student Phil regards as effeminate and weak and who may represent the feminine side of the forces that Campion brings into collision.
  Studious and determined, Peter may not be all that he seems. He has no trouble dissecting the rabbits that he catches. He's not afraid of blood.
   Oddly, Phil begins to take to the young man, trying to school him in the ways of the ranch while Rose buckles under the pressure of a struggle she can’t win. She starts to drink.
  At one point, the governor (Keith Carradine) arrives for dinner, an awkward affair which Phil refuses to attend. He won’t bathe for company, declaring that he likes to stink.
   Cumberbatch’s performance towers over the rest of the cast, which is more or less what the story demands. 
   But Campion (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady and more) isn’t out to lionize a ranch-bred homophobe. The story’s ominous simmer eventually reveals the acid that bubbles beneath its surface.
   Power of the Dog has plenty to say about manhood but it’s not an example of politically correct "wokeness." It is, above all, a Campion movie -- strange, engulfing, and defiant of the many tropes that defined the Hollywood Western, as well as a  substantial portion of American cultural mythology.
   If it's a Western at all, Power of the Dog is one that springs from primal urges that lurk and threaten. It's a film that insists on being felt as much as contemplated. And feel it, we do. 


Thursday, November 11, 2021

A boy's life during "The Troubles"


   In 1969, Protestants and Catholics were at one another's throats in the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Bombs ripped through urban neighborhoods, people were beaten, and an atmosphere of fear and rage prevailed. 
   Despite the turmoil, normal life never entirely disappeared. Kids played on their blocks, and not every Belfast Protestant spewed hatred for Catholics who wanted Northern Ireland to sever ties with Great Britain.
    Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed Belfast, a movie that captures a slice of life during the terrible times when Branagh was a kid. Branagh, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us Belfast through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), a boy whose dad (Jamie Dornan) commutes to construction jobs in England. Buddy's mom (Caitriona Balfe) holds things together in Belfast, the city the family regards as home.
   Grandma (Judi Dench) and Grandpa (Ciaran Hinds) are close at hand and Buddy movies easily between both households. His older brother (Lewis McAskie) isn't seen quite as much. 
    Branagh makes some interesting stylistic decisions, the most important being to film mostly in black-and-white, interrupting with color for scenes in which the family attends movies. 
    In the theater, a world of color opens for the family as they watch films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years BC, not exactly high art but welcome escapes from daily tensions. 
    High Noon plays on TV, a moral drama that mirrors some of the struggles faced by Dornan's Pa.
    Van Morrison, who hails from Northern Irelandprovides a score that fits the proceedings and, although the movie doesn't shrink from violence, it often adopts the dreamy tone of events seen through a filter of memory and longing. 
   Street violence juxtaposes with the tenderness of family life and Buddy’s youthful innocence. He has a crush on a fellow student, for example, presenting her with flowers, a touching gesture of unashamed love.
    It's not surprising that Buddy has no idea how to react to the events around him. When rioters crash into a local supermarket, he grabs a box of detergent and takes it home to his mother. 
    As someone who regards Protestants and Catholics as equals, Dornan's Pa faces pressure from local toughs who want him to join a neighborhood gang that's taking up arms against Catholics. Pa knows that it won't be long before the violent Protestant partisans take revenge on him for refusing to fight.
     He’s involved in a tug of war with his wife, who’s reluctant to leave the only home she has known. 
    The episodic nature of the movie wears a bit thin, but overall, Belfast paints a telling picture of a family forced to decide whether to endure devastating turmoil or pull up roots.
     In a better world, they never would have had to make such a choice.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A finely realized look at blurred racial lines


Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing takes a clear-eyed look at a delicate racial issue. Set in the 1920s, Passing focuses on two women who had been teenage friends but haven't seen each other for years. Tessa Thompson plays Irene, a Black woman living a middle-class life in Harlem with her physician husband (Andre Holland). Clare (Ruth Negga) is a light-completed woman who has been passing for white. She’s married to a racist banker (Alexander Skarsgard) who, of course, has no idea that his wife is Black. The two women reunite accidentally in cafe in a New York hotel where Irene is trying to escape the heat. After the meeting,  Clare begins to discover that she’s tired of posing. She wants to rekindle the spark of Black life that promises to release her from stultification. Filming in black-and-white and employing an old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with a carefully calibrated (but never lifeless) depiction of a world that’s vanished but still relevant.  The movie gains in complexity as Clare begins to spend more time with Irene and her family. The actors are asked to convey a host of subtleties and ironies and they more than rise to the occasion. Passing leaves us with much to unpack: the constraints of propriety on the Black bourgeoisie, the longing not only for equality but of freedom of cultural expression, questions about the images that people construct to insulate themselves from harsh truths. An ambiguous ending may frustrate some viewers, but Passing approaches a host of volatile subjects with nuance, delicacy, and some of the year's most beautifully realized performances. Available on Netflix and in some theaters.

Surviving a war and male domination


Some 3,000 men went missing during a 1999 massacre during the war in Kosovo. A missing husband ignites the story writer/director Blerta Basholli tells in Hive, a movie based on a true story. Left to her own devices, Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi) must overcome her grief and find a way to support her family. The task is made considerably more difficult by a patriarchal society in which women aren't supposed to act independently. A determined Fahriji first learns to drive and then begins a collective business in which she and other women sell Ajvar, a condiment made from peppers. She receives help from another woman (Kumrije Hoxha) and eventually convinces her teenage daughter (Kaona Sylejmani) not to be dissuaded by social pressures. The local men cause trouble but Fahrije persists in the face of resistance, including from a disabled father-in-law (Cun Lajci) who needs a high level of care. A simple story told without flourish, Hive reminds us that necessity not only can breed invention but also the courage required to keep from going under.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Tom Hanks stranded in a sci-fi desert

Sometimes movies are too idiosyncratic for the question I'm about to pose. It does, however, apply to Finch, the story of a robotics engineer (Tom Hanks) who lives alone in a post-apocalyptic world. Let’s revise that: Finch, the title character, isn't entirely alone. His companions include Goodyear, a dog he rescued, and a small robot named Dewey. So the question: Who precisely is this movie for? Finch knows he's dying from radiation poisoning. He must, therefore, create a robot to care for Goodyear once he's gone. He builds Jeff, a clunky-looking  robot that can learn to execute the requisite tasks. Finch, Jeff, Goodyear, and Dewey board an RV and head for San Francisco but never find a plausible and compelling groove for the story. Director Miguel Sapochnik treats Jeff as a source of juvenile comedy. He includes a bit of menace that may be too much for little ones. And he draws the movie's conclusion in maudlin strokes. To make matters worse, most sci-fi fans have been down this dystopian road many before -- and with better movies. Hanks can carry almost any movie but we're left wondering what brought such a gifted actor to a movie that feels  like a dim afterthought in the post-apocalyptic movie deluge.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Diana and deadening life among royals


   They eat the best foods but take no joy in dining. Surrounded by grandeur, they have become exemplars of stifling  insularity. A funereal solemnity embraces them, suggesting a form of social rigor mortis.
   These are the royals of director Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, a look at three days in the life of Princess Diana. Early on, the princess (Kristen Stewart) gets lost driving a small green sports car to Sandringham House, a mansion where the royal family plans to celebrate the Christmas holiday. With these royals, celebration plays more like commemoration.
   Larraín directed Jackie, a meditative 2016 movie about Jacqueline Kennedy. Larrain's fascination with the interior lives of iconic women pushes realism aside. Larrain introduces Spencer as “a fable from a true tragedy.”  
   No surprise, then, that Spencer becomes an increasingly  subjective chronicle of how Diana experiences the holiday with Stewart fully committing to the task of playing a woman desperate to reclaim her life.
   As Diana, Stewart talks in breathy gasps that, for me, evoked memories of Marlyn Monroe, another women locked in the gilded cage of expectation. Aside from her wardrobe and blonde  hair, little attempt has been made to make Stewart look like Diana, a move that wisely diverts attention from the external to the internal.  
   During three days at Sandringham, Diana is drawn to her old home, a now-deteriorating mansion not far from the royal estate. 
   The point, like many in Steven Knight's screenplay, becomes obvious: Diana longs to retrieve the self that she's supposed to  sacrifice on the altar of aristocratic duty.
   For Diana, everything is double-edged. Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) gives her a pearl necklace. The gift puts Diana in a suffocating chokehold that evokes comparisons to Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII who lost her head. Diana reads a book about Boleyn and even hallucinates conversations with Henry’s unfortunate second wife.
   The screenplay makes only one fleeting reference to Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’s true love, but the point is clear. 
   We wonder whether Diana might have endured the burden of scripted confinement had Charles been an emotional partner rather than someone who, at least in this movie, pushes  his wife to accept a divided self. 
   Diana's supposed to project the royal image while realizing that her public posture never will fully accommodate her  buoyant personality. She must train her body to do things she hates.
   The rest of the characters reinforce the instructions Charles delivers to Diana as the couple stands on opposite sides of a large billiard table, another expression of Diana's terrible isolation.
   Timothy Spall portrays Major Alistar Gregory, whose sole duty involves protecting royals from prying eyes. His face molded into an impressive scowl, Spall talks softly but makes no attempt to conceal Gregory's authority.
  Jonny Greenwood, cinema's most original composer, creates an unsettling jazz soundtrack that drapes over the movie like a shroud and, at times, makes Spencer feel like an exercise in horror. 
   The score also underlines the impression that Spencer is driven, at least in part, by Larrain’s affinity for disharmonious notes. It also mirrors what's going on inside Diana's head.
  The approach is not without costs, the primary one being a sense of airlessness. From the opening, the message already seems clear: Life's being drained from this young woman. In a sense, nothing remains but for Larraín to tighten the vice grip of propriety around Diana's delicate neck.
  Because Spencer has a gloomy undertow,  an aura of unreality pervades the movie. In works such as Netflix’s enormously popular The Crown, royals don’t always seem like figures borrowed from a wax museum. Not here.
   Only Maggie (Sally Hawkins), Diana’s dresser, sees the princess as a human being and Charles sends her away, depriving Diana of even momentary possibilities for intimacy.
   Diana suffered from bulimia and Larraín uses her malady metaphorically, a dubious choice, I think. She can’t stomach the royal food that nourishes so much rigid conformity. When her liberating break-out arrives at the film’s end, she  takes her sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Apparently, she’s willing to give up a seat at the royal table to consume the food of the people. 
   Larrain uses his considerable skills to create a change-resistant world in which, as someone puts it, there can be no past or future, only a ceremonial sameness. I guess that makes Spencer a sophisticated movie with a simple point: No one should be expected to endure the horrors of so much suffocating  isolation.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Too many ‘Eternals’ spoil this Marvel brew

      I saw Eternals a couple of weeks ago and instantly was struck by the inappropriateness of the title. Eternals? By the time I reached the parking lot, much about this overstocked comic book of a movie had faded into the hazy vault of dispensable memory.
    About those Eternals. Each of them is endowed with a power that can be employed to save humans from monstrous, water-dwelling creates known as Deviants. In a reasonably engaging prologue, we learn that the Deviants were defeated centuries ago by the Eternals but now have returned to make the world Deviant again. 
   Er, no, they don’t really have a slogan.
    The major news about Eternals takes us behind the camera. The movie marks the superhero debut of director Chloe Zhao, best known for the Oscar-winning and, in my view, somewhat over-rated Nomadland
   Watching a director with respected indie bona fides take the helm of a giant cinematic cruise liner breeds its own level of fascination — not to mention questions about whether two oppositional movie streams can co-exist.
   I’m not sure Eternals answers the question, but it left me with two thoughts: Congrats to Zhao for securing what I hope was a major payday and for orchestrating a complex narrative.
   Unfortunately, that narrative too often challenges coherence.
   Zhao works with a diverse cast of characters in pursuit of big-screen thrills. Brian Tyree Henry plays a gay Eternal with a husband and a son; Kumail Ali Nanjiani, Don Lee, and Gemma Chan add to the mix. Salma Hayek portrays an Eternal with authority over the other Eternals.
    Zhao shows that she can muster up impressive visuals. Some scenes look as if they might have been inspired by a John Ford Western, and there are references to Kubrick’s 2001. Other pulpy sights accompany this skewed mashup of mythological references.
    Although there are ten Eternals, Chan’s Sersi comes closest to being a central character. Sersi tries to organize the unruly Eternals into defeating the Deviants, which also means saving humanity.
    As the temperamental Thena, Angelina Jolie crops up from time to time, perhaps to remind us that she’s in the movie.
   Nanjiani brings sparks of life to the proceedings as Kingo, an Eternal who has become a Bollywood star. 
   Lia McHugh appears as Sprite, a character of perky annoyance.
   A love affair between Chan’s Sersi and Icarus (Richard Madden) adds a melancholic note while showing us that not all the Eternals are committed to truth, justice and the American way. 
   Oops. Wrong franchise.
   Eternals is another product of the Marvel universe, which seems to be striving to be infinite, a never-ending galaxy of movies and characters. 
   Eternals may be the first superhero movie in which two men kiss and scenes in which dialogue dominates can be found. But Externals also wobbles under an expository burden that operates like tow ropes on a fractured narrative. 
  Moreover, a two-hour and 37-minute length can feel as if it might be an acknowledgment of the ages of the Eternal characters. Zhao has made a long movie that feels long.
   I know I’ve omitted some of the Eternals and I should say that the movie might have been fun had the Eternals done nothing but show up at key points in human history, which is what early scenes promise.
   If we’re lucky, Eternals will be a one-off. But don’t count on it. When Marvel makes a mess of a movie, it also drops seeds that seemed destined to sprout in some future multiplex harvest. 
   Besides, critics have little choice when it comes to the ongoing Marvel parade, so it pays to keep an open mind.

A Western with contemporary kick


    The history of the Hollywood western has been a massively white affair, hardly a revelation to anyone who has spent more than a few years watching movies. Director Jeymes Samuel may have had that in mind while directing The Harder They Fall an almost entirely Black helping of genre tropes set in the Old West -- or Samuel's version of it.
   Samuel, who's British, has assembled a first-rate cast that includes Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, and LaKeith Stanfield.
  A revenge saga at heart, the movie wastes no time putting its brutal cards on the table. When he was only eight, Love watched Buck murder his mother and father. Buck then carved a small cross on Love's forehead.
   The movie takes place with the now-grown Love leading a gang of thieves who rob from other thieves. Nat also wants to avenge  the death of his parents. He's out for blood.
   Samuel embellishes the movie's genre ploys with rap music, jazz, and, most unusually, a modern dance interlude set in a saloon. Jay-Z and Kid Cudi's My Guns Go Bang turns up, not a tune you'd expect to find in a western -- and some of the more profane language obliterates the line between historical and contemporary talk.
    The melding of approaches is part of the point: The Harder They Fall is no throwback; it's intentionally styled to be of the moment; i.e., it’s fluent in the language of 21st Century cinema. 
    So, no, John Wayne couldn't ride into this movie and find a comfort zone.
   Although Majors's Love  is the main character, the movie has an ensemble feel and Samuel makes sure not to shortchange the female cast members. King portrays Trudy, a tough-talking, no-nonsense assistant to the soft-spoken but no less menacing Buck. 
   Beetz appears as Stagecoach Mary, an independent woman who provides Nat with a love interest -- but never plays second fiddle to him.
   Not only is the music anachronistic but so are some of the movie's gender variations. Danielle Deadwyler plays Cuffy, an outlaw of ambiguous gender identity. 
   The  story advances toward the all-Black town of Redwood City where Buck, newly sprung from prison by Trudy and cohorts, plans to establish his empire. The revenge-hungry Love has other plans.
   Samuel's over-reliance on looming close-ups can be annoying and the plot tends to trip over itself here and there. But the movie has a quality of the unexpected that fends off dullness and the actors all work at peak form, many operating in both comic and serious veins.
   The movie makes one brilliant satirical joke when Nat and his crew head to an all-white town to rob the local bank. The town  has been drained of color by a production team with a cutting sense of humor. 
   I don't know the history of the movie's characters who are based on real people, but it's clear that Samuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin, has taken great liberties in order to produce a no-holds-barred western that blazes across the screen, sometimes falling off its horse, but always creating a strong vibe -- presuming there was such thing as a "vibe" in the Old West.