Thursday, June 23, 2022

A splashy 'Elvis' from director Baz Luhrmann

    It's entirely possible that Baz Luhrmann's Elvis is exactly the movie the director wanted to make. Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Australia, The Great Gatsby) tells stories in heaving rushes of narrative that rely on speed and visual flair as much as on content. 
     Luhrmann doesn't seem to know the word "enough." He specializes in excess. His movies aren't lifelike; they're supercharged and episodic -- and in the case of Elvis, a collection of conjoined themes careen off the screen.
    Luhrmann's distinctive style turns Elvis into a whirl of a movie that swivels and pivots in much the same way that Elvis did on stage.
     The movie’s style also mirrors Austin Butler's performance as Elvis, perhaps the first major rock icon, the all-American boy who dipped into Black culture and emerged a superstar. 
    Boosted by near-hallucinogenic close-ups of his face, Butler charms, sweats, and gyrates his way through a performance that he improbably pulls off without seeming like an Elvis impersonator. His work feels fresh and that's a hell of an achievement.
    Still, there’s risk in filling the screen with so much verve: To put it another way: There's a whole lot of shaking' goin' on (to quote a non-Elvis rock anthem) but you may find yourself wondering  what underlies Luhrmann's vigorously drawn sketch-book of a movie.
      Energy carries Elvis a long waybut the movie also can be viewed as a big splash into what ultimately may be the shallow end of the pool. Oh well, the splash can be fun.
      To some extent, Elvis is held together by a narration provided by the man who made Elvis into a phenom, the Dutch-born huckster who called himself Col. Tom Parker. 
    Tom Hanks plays Parker with a weird accent, added girth, and an ever-present cigar. The movie portrays Poker as a devil who tried to steal Elvis's soul in return for bringing his carnival  skills to the promotional effort that pushed Elvis to the American center stage.
    Scuzzy, ingratiating, and conniving, Parker emerges as a weird curiosity. This might be the first time I've been puzzled by Hanks's acting choices. His sleazy, parade-float approach to Parker threatens to capsize the movie, even as it underscores Luhrmann's point: Parker helped Elvis achieve fame while thwarting The King's artistic development 
    Parker led Elvis into sugar-coated Hollywood movies, and, in his later years, chained him to Las Vegas where he sometimes seemed a near parody of himself, Elvis as the ultimate Elvis impersonator.
     But let's go back to the beginning. Elvis starts on a fast track, offering scenes in which young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) revels in the Black music of Tupelo, Mississippi. As a kid, Elvis was inspired by gospel and when he moved to Memphis, he received advice from B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) 
     Luhrmann treats Elvis's forays into Black culture more as inspiration than appropriation. Young Elvis heard and felt the music and answered its call -- or some such.
     After hooking up with Parker, Elvis starts as a low-billed member of a country music review built around Hank Snow (David Wenham) and Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It doesn't take long for Elvis to light flames of desire among the teenage girls who screamed at his every move.
      Luhrmann spews exclamation points as the movie offers its rendition of  social commentary: Stodgy folks objected to Elvis's sexualized moves, perhaps because they stemmed from observing Black performers. 
     None of this is fully explored in Luhrmann's collage of a movie: References to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are grabbed at like rings on a merry-go-round. 
     Parker understood the resistance to Elvis and tried to sanitize him.  He even convinced Elvis to join the Army in 1958. (The movie doesn't point out that Elvis was drafted and never made a fuss about fulfilling his military obligation.)
      Of the supporting players, few stand out. Richard Roxburgh plays Elvis's father, the man who became his manager but who cow-towed to Parker. Helen Thomson makes a bigger impression as Elvis’s mother, a God-fearing woman whose death shattered Elvis. 
      While serving in Germany, Elvis met Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), the woman who became his wife. She, too, gets short shrift.
       A 1968 TV Christmas special receives much attention. A rebellious Elvis decides to defy Col. Parker and the show's sponsors who want him to don sweaters for what they hope will be a family-oriented holiday treat. 
      Despite Elvis's insistence on doing the show his way, he was lured to Las Vegas by Parker who used Elvis's contracts with hotel owners to negotiate his way out of gambling debts. 
       Elvis's fate was sealed. He wanted to tour the world. Instead he gained weight, popped pills, and worked hard to haul his star power from the wreckage Parker helped create.
       And, oh yes, the music. Luhrmann includes contributions from Stevie Nicks, Chris Isaak, Gary Clark Jr., Shonka Dukureh, Doja Cat, Les Greene, Ann Nesby, Kacey Musgraves, Elvis, Butler, and others. 
       Luhrmann's approach to the music tells you something about the movie, which can be viewed as a tribute to eclecticism orchestrated by Luhrmann as if he were wielding an electrified baton.
       Elvis rushes across the screen like a wave that refuses to break, carrying great chunks of bio-pic detail and pop-cultural riff in its foamy wake.
      But at two hours and 39 minutes, Elvis overstays its welcome and the movie can't entirely escape the downside of too much frenzy, which, alas, is too much frenzy.  
     Call my reaction "mixed." Elvis can't be called deep or definitive, but there's plenty to enjoy in the story of a star who couldn't stand still and a movie that follows suit.    

A kid tires to outwit a serial killer

    A small point but ...
    The Black Phone takes place in North Denver in 1978. In an early scene, we see an abusive father reading a copy of The Rocky Mountain News, the now-defunct newspaper where I worked as a film critic for 27 years. 
     Nice touch, I thought. Setting the movie in 1978 allowed The Rocky, as those of us who worked at the paper fondly referred to it, to live again.
     But wait. In The Black Phone, the paper appears as a broadsheet. The Rocky was a tabloid. 
     Few will care or even notice but I wish the filmmakers had provided the full satisfaction of seeing the paper fully exhumed on screen.
    Now that I've gotten that out of my system, the rest of the  movie:
    Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil, and two Dr. Strange movies) tells the story of 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), a kid who's kidnapped by a serial killer (Ethan Hawke) who imprisons the boy in a dingy basement. 
   As it turns out Finney's fierce younger sister Gwen  (Madeleine McGraw) can dream things that are real. She ardently prays to Jesus, requesting that he grant her the dreams that will enable her to locate her brother.
    If you're a Hawke fan like me, you'll probably want to know that Hawke spends most of the movie behind a grotesque horned mask with interchangeable parts: A leering rictus of a smile can be replaced by a scowling frown.
    Hawke plays The Grabber, a fiend who has been abducting North Denver boys and killing them. Posing as a magician, Grabber cruises the neighborhood in a black van filled with black balloons. 
    Before he's abducted, Finney has trouble with bullies at school. We'll learn that the movie will teach Finney to stand up for himself. Excuse me, but there had to be an easier way. Maybe a karate class.
    The soundproof basement where Finney is kept has one defining feature, a black rotary phone that, according to The Grabber, doesn't work. When the wall phone starts ringing, Derrickson creates mystery about exactly who's calling poor Finney. And how can he be getting calls from a long disconnected phone?
     The situation breeds a fair amount of suspense. We never know when The Grabber will unlock the cellar door and confront his prisoner, even as Finney searches for a way to escape.
    No fair telling more but the movie, based on a story by Joe Hill, makes sketchy work of an alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) who beats Gwen with a belt because she's starting to act like her mother, a troubled woman with clairvoyant powers who killed herself.
   The mixture of the supernatural (Gwen's dreams and those callers on the phone) and old-fashioned serial killing don’t totally mesh and the movie sometimes squanders credibility.
   No slouch when it comes to horror, Derrickson knows how to create a tension-breeding mood of menace. But jump scares, a couple of attempts at humor, and intermittent helpings of Hawke can't quite push the movie over the top.
   The movie, by the way, was filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina.


Friday, June 17, 2022

He played some of the world's worst golf


If you look at the picture on the right, you might suspect that you're about to read about a movie set in the world of golf. You'd be half right. There's golf in The Phantom of the Open, a British movie comedy starring Mark Rylance, but most of the golf is bad enough to be laughable. Early on, we learn that Rylance's Maurice Flitcroft qualifies as a caring guy: He married his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) even though she was pregnant with another man's child. That child (Jake Davies) grows up to become become Maurice's boss at a shipyard in the port town of Barrow-in-Furness.  Maurice and Jean have children together, twins played by Christian and Jonah LeesThe twins dream of becoming famous disco dances. Why not?  It's the '70s. Maurice, who's 46, has his own dream. He wants to compete in the British Open, even though he knows nothing about golf and has never played the game. Based on a true story, Phantom of the Open follows the exploits of Maurice who in 1976 actually made his way into the British Open, where he chalked up a miserably high score of 121, the worst in the tournament's history. Rhys Ifans signs on as the official who wants to boot Flitcroft from the sport.  The golf establishment is dutifully alarmed but the bumbling and unflappable Maurice assembles a fan base. Don't look for a life-changing experience, but Rylance and the rest of the cast keep director Craig Roberts' Phantom of the Open close to par.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

A retired teacher hires a sex worker


I can't say that I totally bought into Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, director Sophie Hyde's two-hander about an older woman (Emma Thompson) who hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) in a desperate attempt to add spark to a life that has grown pot-bound. A retired teacher and widow, Thompson's Nancy Stokes arranges to meet McCormack's Leo but approaches the task with a major case of ambivalence. Set almost entirely in the hotel room where Nancy arranges several meetings with Leo, Good Luck to You Leo Grande relies on McCormack's ability to project easy charm and Thompson's willingness to play a woman with qualms about her life, her aging body, and her grown children. Thompson's serio/comic gift enables her to play characters who seem to be in constant conversation with themselves. The movie concludes with an act of daring by the 63-year-old Thompson. Both actors are asked to turn the movie into an endorsement of the pleasure that liberates Nancy from what had been a repressively conventional marriage (no orgasms). Katy Brand's screenplay eventually asks Leo and Nancy to face each other minus the trappings of illusion, which, in turn, means facing themselves. The story evolves in predictable ways but McCormack and Thompson  keep things real.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Cruz and Banderas in top comic form


 The movie Official Competition begins plausibly enough. A  successful businessman decides that money isn't enough: He needs to leave a cultural legacy. What better way to make a mark than by financing a movie? Argentine directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn start with that premise but quickly settle into a look at the competitive conflict between two actors (Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martinez) who have been cast in a project that's supposed to fulfill the businessman's dream. Jose Luis Gomez plays the tycoon, a naive fellow who buys the rights to a novel he hasn't bothered to read. Sporting an out-sized pile of frizzy red hair, Penelope Cruz portrays the film's director, a woman with novel ideas about how to obtain the performances she wants from her two stars. Much of the film focuses on rehearsals as the actors prepare for the shoot. Banderas's Felix, who has had some popular success, eschews method-oriented probing. Martinez's Ivan, who teaches acting, takes the opposite view, insisting on depth and authenticity. Duprat and Cohen have a gift for sight gags, one involving a boulder that has been hoisted into the air by a crane. Cruz and Banderas display finely honed comic chops and Martinez helps ground the movie with Ivan's seriousness. Official Competition may not expand your view of filmmaking. But the movie proves entertaining and funny and Cruz and her two compatriots work at levels that fill Official Competition with enjoyment.

No classic but 'Lightyear' proves likable

 The Pixar universe keeps expanding. Based on a character developed in 1995's Toy Story, Lightyear begins by telling us that young Andy (remember him?) received a Buzz Lightyear action figure after seeing the movie that we're about to watch. Andy loved the that movie.
  Me? I’d say it’s more “like” than “love.”
  I guess that suggests a touch of disappointment. The expectations for Pixar movies remains high and the Toy Story franchise has endeared itself to both parents and children. 
  But, hey, “like” isn’t nothing.
  The movie finds Buzz (voice by Chris Evans) as full of himself as ever. He and his fellow Space Rangers have traveled to a distant planet where a mistake by Buzz strands his fellow voyagers, some of whom were hibernating on Buzz's ship. 
  A chastened Buzz must then wrestle with an epic-sized helping of guilt. Buzz, after all, isn't supposed to fail.
  Buzz's hoped-for redemption involves being able to fly at hyper-speed, which -- should he accomplish the task-- will enable him to save those he stranded on a forbidding planet which hosts lethal insects and vines that latch onto human prey. 
   Buzz keeps trying but each time he returns to base, everyone else but him has aged. He's gone for four minutes but those who remained behind have aged four years.
   This includes Buzz's buddy Capt. Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), a Space Ranger who marries a woman and becomes the matriarch of a couple of generations of space dwellers. Lesbianism is handled simply: It exists. No big deal.
   Eventually, Hawthorne's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) will form a ragtag crew with Darby Steel (Dale Soules), a felon with experience in explosives, and Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), another in the movie's group of unlikely heroes.
    Evans, by the way, takes over for Tim Allen who did the Buzz voice work in previous Toy Story movies.
    Despite its sci-fi trappings, Lightyear isn't Pixar's most adventurous effort even though Buzz isn't a toy in this movie. He's a character in a futuristic adventure that gives him a robot companion, a cat named SOX (Peter Sohn). 
   Gifted with great computational powers, SOX proves a better problem solver than Buzz, who prides himself on finding solutions when the going gets tough.
   Eventually, Buzz learns to trust his new pals but not not before confronting Zurg (Josh Brolin), an emperor who  may remind you of evil imperial space characters from other movies.
   Director Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) may not have reached the stars with this one but Lightyear‘s animation upholds Pixar's standards of quality while telling a story that keeps us involved.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Adam Sandler's basketball drama


    I don’t know how realistic Adam Sandler’s NBA movie Hustle is, but I suspect blistering authenticity wasn’t really the point.
    A variety of real NBA players add credibility to a story about a frustrated international scout (Sandler) who believes he has discovered the next big basketball thing. 
   Appearances by Kyle Lowry, Dr. J,  Trae Young, and others crop up like bold-faced names in a gossip column but the core of the movie revolves around the relationship between the hot-tempered  Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) and Sandler’s Stanley Sugarman. 
   Before Stanley makes his big discovery, he's road-weary and frustrated. He thinks he's earned a spot as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, a franchise that has employed him for 30 years. Team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) gives Stanley a long-awaited promotions but dies soon after making his promise.
   The late owner's bull-headed son (Ben Foster) reneges on the deal, sending a dejected Stanley back on the road. 
   While watching a playground game in Spain, Stanley finds Bo and arranges to bring him to the US.
  Director Jeremiah Zagar spends a fair amount of time showing how Stanley prepares the talented but undisciplined Bo for organized basketball at the highest level. Bo runs Philadelphia's hills, refines his footwork, and submits to Stanley's rigorous training regimen, which involves getting up at 4 a.m.   
    The supporting cast rounds out the story. Queen Latifah signs on as Stanley's mostly supportive wife and Jordan Hull plays his teenager daughter, a kid whose birthdays he always manages to miss because he's traveling.
    The best small roles belong to Minnesota Timberwolves' star Anthony Edwards, who plays Bo’s major on-court antagonist, and Kenny Smith, a former player turned TV commentator. Smith portrays a sports agent with enough juice to secure Bo a spot at the NBA draft combine.
   A bearded Sandler doesn't equal his work in 2029's Uncut Gems but proves effective as he benches his broad comedy impulses to play a decent guy who's trying to fulfill one last dream.  Hernangomez, who plays for the Utah Jazz, may not have discovered a second career but he holds his own.
  A sprinkling of back story dribbles through. As the story develops, we learn about Stanley's derailed shot at pro ball and single dad Bo's devotion to the young daughter (Ainhoa Pillett) he left in Spain with his mother (Maria Botto). 
   You'll probably out-guess many of the movie's moves. I don't know how much that matters. Available on Netflix and in selected theaters, Hustle plays its game well enough to merit a look.

The dinosaurs roar; ‘Dominion’ doesn’t


   Giant genetically engineered locusts ravage midwestern crops, a greedy corporation poses as humanity’s techno savior — and, oh yeah, dinosaurs roam the earth. 
  Donning a threadbare ecological mantle, Jurassic World Dominion rambles for roughly two and half hours, alternating action sequences, exposition, and a trio of plot threads. 
    Despite the presence of Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum echoes of the original movie prove feeble, and an uninspired story leaves Jurassic World regulars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard with little do but gawk at the CGI creatures.
    Pratt and Howard play characters who spend the movie trying to rescue a kidnapped duo —a baby T-rex and a cloned 15-year-old girl (Isabelle Sermon).  Biosyn, an evil corporation that operates out of Italy's Dolomites, wants to exploit the pair for profit — or some such.
   Sermon’s Maisie was created by her late mother, a scientist who fashioned her from an altered version of her own DNA.
    Director Colin Trevorrow keeps the production from looking as meager as its ideas, providing some of the expected jolts, one from a creature billed as the world’s largest carnivore.
    Not surprisingly, many of the human characters stare directly into gaping, toothy dinosaur mouths and do what people in such situations are expected to do; i.e., scream at the top of their lungs.
    If you’ve seen all the Jurassic World movies, you know the environment that the movie inherits is one in which some of the dinosaurs are cute, at least in so much as large reptiles can be considered adorable.
    A few additions put a bit of spring in the movie's thudding steps. DeWanda Wise signs on as a freewheeling woman who winds up working to defeat the evil corporation. Mamoudou Athie plays Biosyn’s affable communications officer. Dichen Lachman portrays a woman involved in the illegal dinosaur trade, and Campbell Scott portrays the duplicitous head of Biosyn. 
    In these blockbuster-starved days (Top Gun Maverick being the exception), Dominion may do well at the box office — at least initially. Although not nearly as lame as it could have been, the movie drags its tattered carcass through several possible endings. 
   Only the dinosaurs, a bit minimized in importance here, give the movie any roar. I’m speaking literally. They're very loud.
   Otherwise, Dominion rehashes familiar themes about the dangers of tampering with nature and pushes its characters through situations that breathe little new life into an already depleted franchise.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The war-scarred life of a British poet


    Few filmmakers are as deeply versed in sorrow as Terence Davies, the British director of such films as Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and, more recently, A Quiet Passion
  A cinematic essayist and poet, Davies never entirely forsakes narrative but often transcends it, giving his work a reflective quality, the emotional weight of living as transients in a time-bound world. Davies knows the grief of understanding that time ultimately swallows us all. Davies’s films can be seen as invitations to mourn.
      On its surface, Benediction -- Davies's latest film -- might be called a bio-pic -- and in some respects it is. The movie tells the story of Siegfried Sassoon, a poet whose conscience and outrage was formed in the trenches of World War I. 
    Struck by the brutality and barbarism of war, Sassoon deemed himself a soldier whose duty included preserving the lives of other soldiers. To make his point, Sassoon issued what he called A Soldier's Declaration. He withdrew from the fight in1917.
     A decorated soldier, Sassoon wasn’t a pacifist. He argued that young men were being sacrificed to a policy that needlessly prolonged the bloodshed. The politicians had made dying on the battlefield pointless.
    Davies deals with Sassoon's life as a morally outraged soldier and, later, as a disaffected poet and gay man who suffered disappointment and rejection in his personal life. 
    Jack Lowden portrays Sassoon as a young man and Peter Capaldi portrays the aging, embittered Sassoon. 
    Moving between Sassoon's youth and his later life, Davies creates moody scenes, sometimes punctuating them with real war footage, each a small plaintive statement. So many gone and for what?
    Sassoon's rejection of combat was followed by an enforced stint in  mental hospital where he met and developed deep feelings for Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), another poet. Ordered back to the front, Owen had the misfortune of being killed on the battlefield a week before the war-ending armistice was signed. 
    Davies devotes considerable attention to the gay circle in which Sassoon traveled after the war. In addition to popular entertainer Ivor Novelllo (Jeremy Irvine), Sassoon had relationships with socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and actor/theater director Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth). 
    A gay man himself, Davies idealizes little about gay life in the 1920s and '30s. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain during most of Sassoon's life but the small gay community Davies depicts was no blissful haven. Cruelties were not uncommon and many of the characters unleash  them with lacerating wit.
    Sassoon eventually married. He found a woman who had no illusions about who he was -- Kate Phillips as a young bride and Gemma Jones as Sassoon's older wife. Perhaps Sassoon felt marriage would give him respite from the whiplash ferocities of life among the gay social elite or maybe he was looking for stability.
    Lowden has the easier task of portraying the young Sassoon. Capaldi must play a mean-spirited poet who battles with his son George (Richard Goulding). An aggressively skeptical George wondered about his father's late-life conversion to Catholicism; Sassoon evidently believed Catholicism might help him find  permanence in a world full of kaleidoscopic shifts.  
  It's always dangerous to look for the creator in the creation, but many have suggested that Davies, or at least part of himself, resides somewhere inside this story. I’m not sure it matters.
  I can't say that Davies brings Sassoon fully to life as a writer but as has been the case with much of Davies work, Benediction is at its best when it tries to hold the ever-vanishing past close, fixing it in art and memory. A futile pursuit perhaps but Davies imbues it with elevating sadness and beauty.

A celebration of a festival and a city


  When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, contrary voices emerged. Perhaps, some thought, this much-celebrated but increasingly vulnerable coastal city shouldn't exist at all. 
   Why rebuild when another Category 5 storm was sure to strike again, creating fatalities in the thousands and property damages in the billions? 
    The documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story uses food, music and cultural pride to answer that question. A noble presumption underlies this somewhat scattered and perhaps over-reaching film: The world needs a place where musical approaches mix, mingle, and inform one another. 
    That place must also be located in the spot that gave birth to the uniquely American art form of jazz.
      Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern combine to direct a history of Jazz Fest, a musical gathering which began in 1971 when George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, was asked to create a festival in New Orleans. 
     Musician Ellis Marsalis added his considerable wisdom to the effort, along with Quint Davis, a young man who Wein involved because of his enthusiasm for the music. Davis still serves as Jazz Fest’s producer.
     Ellis Marsalis, by the way, is the father of Winton and Bradford Marsalis, musicians who appear in the film along with two other Marsalis musical brothers.  
     Any understanding of Jazz Fest begins with the idea that jazz is the father of many children. The festival includes everything from rock to R&B to hip-hop to traditional jazz,  bounding from the infections rhythms of Pitbull to the country sway of Jimmy Buffett and onto a Bruce Springsteen appearance. Springsteen sang My City of Ruins at Jazz Fest after Katrina. The song works well even though it originally was written about Asbury Park, New Jersey.
     Not surprisingly, music becomes the film's best feature. The directors include snippets of performances from throughout Fest's history, highlighting numbers by Katy Perry, Al Green, Pitbull, the Revivalists, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Buffett, and many more.
     These days, some 7,000 musicians perform on 14 stages throughout Jazz Fest's eight-day run.
     If Jazz Fest has critics, you won't hear them in a film that's wholeheartedly committed to the idea that the festival and its host city are nothing less than essential. 
     Covid shut the festival down for two years but it resumed in 2021. It’s not difficult to imagine that if all of New Orleans were destroyed by the next violent storm, Jazz Fest would continue to rock the ruins.


Thursday, May 26, 2022

Major violence, small rewards -- and no saints


There Are No Saints wrapped in 2013 and evidently has taken its time finding a release date. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, reportedly planned to direct the movie which wound up in the hands of director Alfonso Pineda Ulloa. Schrader's involvement creates hope and expectation. Sin, violence, and the search for redemption ripple through Schrader’s work. Remember he wrote Taxi Driver and other movies for Martin Scorsese. Some of Schrader's concerns turn up No Saints, an over-the-top, overly violent story about a newly released convict (Jose Maria Yazpik) with scores to settle. Yazpik's character is known as "the Jesuit." Why? Like Jesuits during the Inquisition, Yazpik's Neto Niente is adept at torture.  Niente is drawn back into the criminal world when his son (Keidrich Sellati) is kidnapped and hauled off to Mexico at the behest of a major mobster. The supporting cast includes Tim Roth, as Niente's attorney, Paz Vega as Niente's ex-wife, and Shannyn Sossamon as a woman who accompanies Niente when his search extends into Mexico. Stoic and scary, Yazpik gives a no-nonsense performance and the rest of the cast, notably Neal McDonough as a mid-level drug dealer, and Ron Perlman, as the character pulling the plot strings, hit the right notes. There Are No Saints pulls no punches but its ending includes a harrowing (sickening would be another word for it) twist. To summarize: There Are No Saints may be too eager to play the down-and-dirty game and too thematically slim to find cinematic redemption. If you're looking for something recent by Schrader, try last year's Card Counter.

Monday, May 23, 2022

'Top Gun' sequel hits the right marks


    Top Gun: Maverick should once and for all prove how easy it is to make a mega-hit. All you need is Tom Cruise, lots of sleek fighter jets, a gifted camera team, and an attractive supporting cast that knows how to trade macho barbs.
   OK, I'm kidding. 
   If Cruise is the last remaining movie star, as some would have it, it could be because he’s whip smart about managing his career. Besides, a movie as slick as Top Gun: Maverick requires more than a little behind-the-scenes talent.
  Since the release of the original in 1986, few viewers have been clamoring for a sequel. But now we have one, and it deserves credit for finding the right gear: The movie brims with exciting aerial action (not CGI), its own ideas about heroism, and plenty of Cruise charisma.  
    Although Cruise isn’t entirely immune from aging, he retains the pluck and dentist’s dream smile that upped the octane of the original — and many other Cruise hits. 
   Taking over for the late Tony Scott, director Joseph Kosinski infuses the movie with a welcome blast of youth. This time, a new generation of actors (Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, and Monica Barbaro among them) portray the best pilots in the world.
    The dramatic key to the new movie involves Maverick’s relationship with a younger pilot, Miles Teller's Bradley (Rooster) Bradshaw.
     In what amounts to a disregard for avian identity, Rooster, we learn, is the son of Goose, a Maverick pal who died in the original movie. Goose's death, referred to in a flashback, left Maverick wrestling with guilt.
   Maverick’s inner struggles aside, no one attends a Top Gun movie in search of psychological revelation. Kosinski and his team ably create the visceral excitement of watching jets in dog fights. Though preposterous, the movie’s major mission cranks up lots of tension.
   The supporting cast includes Ed Harris (briefly) as an admiral who tries to ground Maverick’s career. Jon Hamm portrays the commanding officer of the unit to which Maverick is reassigned after another run-in with Naval authority.
    Maverick has a protector in the Navy, Val Kilmer's Ice, his former rival from the first movie. Now an admiral, Ice makes sure that Maverick, an officer with a taste for improvisation, survives in a rule-bound military society.
   In a near-nostalgic moment, Kilmer and Cruise share a scene in which Ice types his part of the conversation onto a computer screen before forcing himself to speak.
   For most of the movie, Maverick trains younger pilots to trust their instincts so that they can perform seemingly impossible tasks without thinking.
    A bit of romance softens the proceedings -- or, at least, tries to do that. Jennifer Connelly plays an admiral’s daughter and potential love interest for Maverick. She owns a bar where the pilots gather. She also has a teenage daughter (Lyliana Wray). 
   The young cast — particularly Powell's  “Hangman” — blends perfectly into a movie that glorifies roguish individuality over the increasingly machine-like nature of combat. 
     Moreover, the tough-love conflict between Maverick and Rooster creates sparks, recalling the original without feeling as if it's repeating it, a feat the movie in general accomplishes.
         Early on, Harris’s character claims combat soon won’t involve human pilots. In a drone-dominated future, there’s no place for guys such as Maverick, men who insist that the pilot makes the crucial difference, not the plane.
       Guess who turns out to be wrong?
      Top Gun Maverick probably will roar at the box office. Why not? It’s so obviously scaled for the big screen that there's no reason to take it too seriously -- at least not as a portrait of military life or of global conflict.
      To put it another way, in the world of movies, Top Gun: Maverick hits the mark, maybe because neither the filmmakers nor the actors are flying on auto-pilot.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Another trip to 'Downton Abbey'


 As a beloved TV series, Downton Abbey sustained six seasons worth of interest by allowing characters to develop as they faced new challenges, a socially unacceptable romance or the waning of rigid class distinctions. 
  Then there were the costumes and luxurious trappings of Britain in the 1920s, not to mention the contrast between the servants and those who dwelled above them.
   As a movie franchise, Downton Abbey is another matter, often reducing its appeal to costumes, previously developed affection for some of the major characters, plush settings, and, most reliably, Maggie Smith’s bite as the indomitable Violet Crawley.
   Downton Abbey: A New Era arrives in theaters as another helping of British comfort food; the movie ties up more loose ends and introduces two new elements. A journey to France (Lady Crawley inherits a villa in Southern France from a long-ago admirer) and a film crew descends on hallowed Downton Abbey grounds.
   The film's director (Hugh Dancy) deems the estate a great location to make a silent film about a gambler and the woman who loves him. Actors at Downton Abbey? Scandalous. 
   As the actors playing the stars of the film within the film, Dominic West and Laura Haddock stake a claim for a movie of their own, even if a joke involving the difficulty of transferring  Haddock’s character's lower-class accent to talkies isn’t entirely fresh.
   The trip to France adds a question that torments Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) but struck me as a heavily underlined reminder of Robert’s intractable Englishness.
    By now, Mary (Michelle Dockery) has taken over the estate. She agrees to allow the film crew to trample through the great house because she needs money to repair the leaky roof, an obvious sign that the rudiments of the old order are falling prey to wear.
   It doesn’t help the film that Robert Crawley, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) the butler who defends the old ways, and others are shipped off to France, leaving the movie to seesaw between countries and making room for an appearance by Nathalie Baye as the irritated widow of the man who left Lady Crawley his villa.
    Predictable and committed to swaddling fans in Downton trappings, this helping of the series seems to have lost touch with the need for sharply honed conflict. Even Smith's barbs seem to have lost some of their sting.
   Any movie with legions of devotees presents a challenge for reviewers. For some, another encounter with familiar characters from the servant and upper-crust crowds will be sufficient. 
   Though frayed around the edges, the plush Downton environment still offers undeniable voyeuristic pleasures.
    And, of course, the actors know how to sell this material, even in the smaller roles. Kevin Doyle, for example, has a brief but sharp turn as Mr. Mosley a teacher who discovers his true calling as a screenwriter after the silent production loses its funding and must convert to a talkie. 
    The movie’s biggest development can’t be discussed without spoilers but it passes like a sigh, more a self-reflexive tribute to the heart of Downton than an emotional peak. 
     No point quibbling. If you're not a fan, you needn't bother. If you are, nothing I say likely will deter you.
     Writer Julian Fellowes, the creative force behind the Downton series, and director Simon Curtis give A New Era the feel of a well-upholstered chair into which even the less-than-enthusiastic among us (that would be me) gracefully can sink while being lulled into untroubled acceptance.

Transcending the ranks of campus comedy

    Emergency is a comedy made enjoyable by a trio of actors (Donald Elise Watkins, RJ Cyler, and Sebastian Chacon who bring zing to the byplay in what could have been another teen comedy — albeit one built around issues faced by black college students. A trio of housemates try to deal with a major problem: What to do about a drunken white girl who has wandered into their house and lies in a near-comatose state on their living room floor. Call the cops? Not a good idea says Cyler’s Sean who's wary about how the police might read the situation. Black guys. White girl. There goes any benefit of the doubt. The presence of this girl disrupts Sean's plan for two of the three housemates to visit every campus party on the eve of spring break. Director K.D. Davila guides this Sundance favorite through a couple of tonal shifts that deposit the story on a beachhead where she can deal with conflicting black approaches to manhood (studious and street-wise to put it in the  broadest terms) and the relationship of black students to the rest of fictional Buchanan College. Davila gets close enough to success to lift Emergency out of the crowded college gag-reel genre. Keep an eye on Cyler (Me Earl and the Dying Girl and The Harder They Fall. He’s a scene-stealer who tempers a comic performance with a knowing slice of bitterness.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A film that lingers on death's doorstep

     How’s this for an evening’s entertainment? Spend two-plus hours watching an aging couple (she has Alzheimer’s; he has heart trouble) teetering on death’s doorstep? With Vortex, director Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Climax, and Love) moves as far from feel-good escapism as possible to deliver a movie that refuses to blink while its two unnamed characters approach death. Presenting scenes in split screen, which Noe does, may sound gimmicky but the technique emphasizes the isolation of a husband and wife who have shared lots of history but who sometimes seem only to be occupying the same space. He’s an intellectual who writes about film; she was a psychiatrist. We know — without being told — that this couple lived a life of engagement with ideas and the people who espoused them. Their apartment has come to resemble a used book store with shelves and piles of books in every nook and cranny. Without employing flashbacks, Noe paints a picture of a marriage that produced a now-grown son (Alex Lutz) with drug problems and a kid of his own. Italian director Dario Argento portrays the writer, an Italian transplant to France, and Francoise Lebrun, perhaps best known for her work in  Jean Eustache’s 1973 The Mother and the Whore, plays the woman. Lebrun’s performance — a mixture of shifting attitudes and infirmity — merits special attention. It’s difficult to argue that Vortex isn’t a bit of an ordeal but Noe’s willingness to shift from bad-boy outrage (Love included what were described as real sex scenes) to a style based on the kind of unadorned observation that \ reminds us that the mortality we all share can have a merciless edge.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

It's set in 1963 but couldn't be more timely

Talk about timing. The French movie Happening reaches the US at a time when few topics feel more incendiary or relevant than abortion. Director Audrey Diwan tells the story of a 23-year-old student (Anamaria Vartolomei) who hopes to become a writer. A one-night stand has left Vartolomei's Anne pregnant. The year: 1963 and abortion is illegal in France. The rest of this spare and artfully focused movie involves the obstacles that Anne must surmount to obtain an abortion. Anne wants a chance to establish her life: She does not want to be a mother -- not now. A physician (Fabrizio Rongione) refuses to help, and as the story progresses, Anne becomes increasingly desperate. At one point, she tries to self abort with knitting needles. Nothing goes easily. Her friends don't all stick by her, classmates shun her as a woman of low morals, and the man with whom Anne had a brief fling seems clueless. Anne certainly doesn't want to marry and become a housewife. Eventually, Anne finds  a woman who does abortions, which leads to unflinchingly presented scenes that are difficult to watch. Adapting a memoir by Annie Ernaux, Diwan has made a movie that's bound to resonate with those who remember pre-Roe days and which may well serve as a warning for young women who don't understand what it's like to live in a society in which women can't control their bodies and thus, their destinies. Happening is both powerful and, in this fraught moment, necessary.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Dr. Strange vanishes in a blur of action


   Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness visits many parallel universes. Few are especially interesting but some are presented with visual extravagance bordering on the surreal.
    Too bad director Sam Raimi scurries through these alternate realities too quickly for us to savor the oddities he concocts. That might have taken the sting out of what can feel like an over-crowded assemblage of half-baked ideas.
   One of them involves something called the Darkhold. What's the Darkhold? Something that, I suppose, means something to Marvel fans and which the exposition-heavy Multiverse strains to explain.
    About these alternate realities: The multiverse concept already has become shopworn thanks partly to the recent success of Everything Everywhere All at Once. It's also been used in previous Marvel efforts.
   In Raimi's telling, Benedict Cumberbatch returns as Doctor  Strange, star of the 2016 solo effort that bore his name. Flourishing his red cape and sporting a goatee, the once-brilliant surgeon travels from one universe to another, I suppose to preserve the fundamental order of things.
    That order is threatened by the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).  The witch — a.k.a. Wanda Maximoff — wants to find the universe in which she can play mom to two boys, the generically named Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne). Poor witch. All she wants is the solace of normality.
     I’ve read that those who are familiar with WandaVision, available on Disney+ and also starring Olsen, will get more out of the movie. That wouldn’t be me.
     Raimi's appointment with Doctor Strange leans heavily on bloated displays of digital invention as Strange — with occasional help from the sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) — tries to stop the witch’s scheme.
    Oops. I forgot to mention America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who can leap from reality to reality. America doesn’t know how she accomplishes this astonishing bit of multiverse jumping.
     In Marvel language, that means America has yet to master her powers. Don't worry, she's sure to do so in another movie.
   Other characters pop up including Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo, a foe of Strange, and Rachel McAdams's Christine Palmer, the woman Strange loves. 
     There’s more. Tons more, but the movie has a repetitive feel, and watching characters hurl fiery swirls of light at one another quickly loses its charge. 
     At one point, an evil version of Strange turns up sporting a third eye, which might help him if he has to find a compelling through line in this hodgepodge of a movie.
      I hadn’t been in a theater in more than a month and I was primed for a “big” movie, particularly one from a director who did admirable work in several Spider-Man movies and who early in his career earned recognition as a bold horror maven with 1981’s The Evil Dead.
      My expectations will have to wait. Raimi offers a few amusing cameos and occasional captivating sights: a vision of New York City adorned with flowers, Strange's macabre late-movie encounters, and an imaginative bit involving animated musical notes. 
     Otherwise, this latest helping of Marvel Mania whirls, twirls, and dashes from one set piece to another, leaving little but comic-book detritus in its wake. 
     Out of such detritus, more Marvel movies likely will emerge. That's not magic; it's business-as-usual.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

A movie based on a real art theft

  A portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya disappears from the British National Gallery in London during the summer of 1961.
  Sounds like the set-up for a caper movie revolving around a carefully detailed scene in which cunning thieves find a way into the museum and a way out with the famous painting.
  But director Roger Michell has something different in mind in The Duke, the story of a real-life theft involving a 61-year-old man who never met a cause he wasn't willing to stand up for. 
 When we meet Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), he has focused considerable passion on what seems an exceedingly narrow crusade. Bunton doesn't want to pay for the TV license that allowed British TV watchers to access the BBC in the 1960s. He's disabled his set so that it can't receive the BBC and sees no reason why he should be required to have a license.
   Bunton claimed he had no interest in profiting from the Wellington  heist, insisting instead that he kidnapped the painting and planned to use it as a bargaining chip to persuade the government to fund access to the BBC for the poor and for elderly pensioners.
  He was less a robber than a quasi-imaginative Robin Hood who wrote plays that brought him little response other than a copious supply of rejection letters from the same BBC that he refused to pay for.
     Michell, who died in September of last year, is best known for movies such as Notting Hill and Venus. It's no surprise then that the director, working from a screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, has made a character comedy that places itself solidly in the British working class where we meet Bunton's family -- his long- suffering wife (Helen Mirren) and his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead)
     The Buntons reside in unfashionable Newcastle where Bunton, who ultimately returned the painting, loses jobs and conducts solitary protests. 
     Michell spends little time on the actual theft, opting to showcase Broadbent's performance as a good-hearted, obstinate fellow whose beliefs, at least as depicted in the movie, might have been authored for a Frank Capra screenplay. 
     We're meant to look out for one another. I am you. You are me, etc.
      Broadbent and Mirren play an admirable duet in a movie that has no trouble embracing an old-fashioned spirit as it ambles toward a courtroom scene in which Bunton's barrister (a fine Matthew Goode) offers a moving defense of his client.
      It's unlikely that The Duke will find a place in the pantheon of great movies. It can't quite shake its obvious sentiment and a story element about a daughter that the Buntons lost doesn't quite find the emotional resonance Michell may have wanted.
     But the movie qualifies as a solid — if small — entertainment that gives Broadbent a showcase role. Broadbent previously worked with Michell in Le Week-End, a 2013 movie about an aging couple facing up to some of life's disappointments during a trip to Paris.
     Sadly, Michell's untimely departure -- he was 65 when he died -- will prevent another collaboration. Consider it a loss.*

*If you’re a faithful reader of Denerstein Unleashed, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet of late. As a result of knee-replacement surgery, I have not seen some of the most recent high-profile movies nor have I been able to do much writing. I’m slowly working my way back and, although I’m probably going to be reviewing fewer movies for a while, will resume more regular publication in May.

Monday, March 28, 2022

For Oscar, it was the year of the slap

  Who could have predicted that the 94th Academy Awards  would produce a WTF moment even greater than the Moonlight/La La Land fiasco of 2017? 
  Perhaps because the Oscars honor the illusory power of movies, most folks (me included) couldn't tell whether the astonishing moment in which Will Smith slapped Chris Rock was staged or genuine. 
  When the camera (sans sound) showed Smith mouthing harsh words at Rock, the outburst suddenly seemed serious.
   Oh, and by the way, the Oscars honored CODA -- a small feel-good movie -- as the year's best picture, a coup for Apple TV+ and the world of streaming.
    Let's face it, though. In the end, all that anyone's going to talk about post-Oscar is the fact that Smith took offense at a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. 
     Rock said that he looked forward to seeing Pinkett Smith, whose head is shaved, in GI Jane 2, a surprisingly dated reference to GI Jane, a 1997 movie featuring a shorn Demi Moore in full warrior mode. 
     A duly aggrieved Smith strode to the stage and smacked Rock in the face. Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia and has said that's why she shaved her head, but still ... a roundhouse  in the middle of the Academy Awards?
      Not long after, Smith won the best actor Oscar for playing Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard. How would he address what had happened? 
    "Richard Williams was a fierce defender of family," Smith said after accepting the award. "In this time in my life, in this moment, I'm overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world."
     No comment needs to be made about whether this constitutes a statement of humility or grandiosity. You be the judge. Smith also said, "Art imitates life -- I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams ... But love will make you do crazy things."
     And I thought the dancing during a segment of remembrance for those who died during the past year might turn out to be the evening's strangest moment. 
     Or how about Wanda Sykes touring the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures while making lame jokes? 
       When it came to the awards, there were no real surprises.
       Oscars were given to those who were expected to win them. No single movie dominated, aside from Dune in the so-called technical categories.
    Some closing thoughts:
    Amy Schumer, who co-hosted with Sykes and Regina Hall, delivered what amounts to an opening monologue. Schumer put some bite in her jokes. An example: She mocked Being the Ricardos as a laughless movie about one the funniest women who has ever lived. 
       I'm happy for CODA. I'm glad that Hollywood (at least in its estimation) is the most diverse place on earth, and I'm amazed that so many films had landmark anniversaries.
     The Godfather at 50 and what seems like a zillion years of James Bond, OK. But the 28th anniversary of Pulp Fiction? Who knew that 28th anniversaries were a thing? 
    And is anyone really celebrating the 30th anniversary of White Men Can't Jump? I liked that movie but never felt compelled to keep track of its birthday.
        Oh, I almost forgot, Rock was on hand to present the Oscar for best documentary. A genuinely moved Questlove won for Summer of Soul.
        Before opening the envelope, a slightly nonplussed Rock referred to his unexpected encounter with Smith's right hand by noting,  "That was the greatest night in the history of television." 
         An overstatement perhaps, but who doubts that 2022 long will be remembered for the slap?
         By way of summation, I'll quote this headline from The New York Times website. Kudos to the Times for its deadpan embodiment of the entire wacky and indigestible evening.
        "Oscars: Will Smith Hits Chris Rock After Joke, Then Wins Best Actor."
        I guess it's true: There really is no business like show business.
If you're looking for a complete list of winners, try The Hollywood Reporter.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Another year, more Oscar predictions



    I don't know about you but I'm sick of looking back at 2021.   
    Maybe that’s why I’m not especially stoked about the upcoming Oscar ceremonies (Sunday, March. 27). Not only has public interest in the Academy Awards waned, but we're almost three months into 2022. We’ve already seen numerous award shows and scanned dozens of  critics' year-end lists. We've also witnessed any number of promotional pushes for various of last year’s movies.
    So I’m going to be as brief as possible with my Oscar predictions, which I offer with the hope that this year’s telecast will be reasonably entertaining, produce a few surprises, and help restore public confidence in movies.
    Here are my predictions in the major categories:

    Best Picture:
    CODA beats The Power of the Dog.
    I’m a fan of CODA but it’s difficult not to argue that Power of the Dog isn’t better directed, deeper, and more enriched by cinema artistry. But Power of the Dog also has detractors and this might be the year in which a feel-good movie that displays both intelligence and emotion prevails.
    Possible surprise: Belfast. Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical movie has a chance if neither CODA nor The Power of the Dog has enough votes to carry the day. More visually accomplished than CODA and devoted to a message of reconciliation, Belfast might represent a compromise choice for voters who were put off by Power of the Dog but still want a movie that leans toward art.
     Best Director
    Jane Campion will win for The Power of the Dog.  
    Sian Heder, who directed CODA, isn’t even nominated, so ….
    Best Actor
    Will Smith wins for King Richard.
    Would I vote for him? No. But I’m not an Academy voter. A more deserving candidate (Benedict Cumberbatch for Power of the Dog) doesn’t seem to have been gaining momentum during the interminable awards season.
    Best Actress
    Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
     If I had a vote, I’d cast it for Penelope Cruz for her work in Parallel Mothers.
    Best Supporting Actor
    Troy Kotsur, CODA
    Who can beat him? Probably no one.
    Best Supporting Actress
    Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
    Would I be disappointed if Aunjanue Ellis won for King Richard? Not at all.
    Best Foreign Film
    Drive My Car
    Best Original Screenplay
    Best adapted Screenplay
    Best Animated Movie
    Best Documentary 
   Summer of Soul
   Best possible evening: I’m wrong on all counts and have to spend most of Monday trying to figure out what happened.