Friday, September 30, 2022

‘Smile’ rolls out a horror welcome mat

 

  Smile marks the feature debut of Parker Finn. As many before him, Finn has chosen horror as his letter of introduction. 
   Expanded from a short film by Finn,  Smile doesn’t transcend genre but aims for more than jump scares, creep-outs, and gore — although it has a reasonable amount of all three. 
   Staring Sosie Bacon in a disturbingly agitated performance, the movie attempts to show what happens when a sane person tries to convince others of something that most normal people would regard as crazy. Good luck with that.
    Of course, there’s not much good luck on display in Smile. You might even say that the movie is about the bad fortune that may spring from a dark secret, something that Bacon’s character assiduously has tried to avoid.
      Bacon’s Rose is a psychiatrist who works with severely disturbed patients. She’s not one to listen while bored Gen Xers complain about lack of fulfillment. She’s up for the heavy lift.
     In an early scene,  Rose tries to assure a terrified young woman that she’s not going to die. The newly admitted patient claims that she’s a serious person, a Ph.D. candidate who’s not crazy. 
     Her story: A mysterious entity appears to this young woman in the form of different people. These appearances — seen only by her and  mistaken by others for hallucinations — have an evil smile plastered across their faces, devilish concierges welcoming guests to hell.
    A skeptical Rose begins to question her judgment when her patient commits suicide in front of her, slashing her throat with pieces of a broken vase.
   The movie plays with a notion that’s familiar to those who consider themselves “normal” — or at least capable of operating within the bounds of acceptability: What has been seen cannot be unseen.
    Written by Finn, the movie also weaves an ingenious thread through its story: Those who witness a suicide become the “entity’s” next victim, the next person doomed to be regarded as crazy until the demon (or whatever it is) forces suicide and migrates to its next witnessing host. The cycle of terror becomes perpetual.
       The movie rests on Bacon’s shoulders and she carries it with a bit of assistance from the supporting cast. Rose’s supportive finance (Jessie. T. Usher) believes his prospective wife may have gone ‘round sanity’s bend. Kyle Gallner plays Joel, a former lover and detective who’s drawn into Rose’s drama. Robin Weigert portrays Rose’s therapist. She thinks Rose’s condition might have something to do with her mother, who committed suicide when Rose was a girl.
     Kal Penn turns up as Rose’s boss at the mental institution where she works, and Gillian Zinser appears as Rose’s older sister, a woman who’s mortified and alarmed by Rose’s behavior at her nephew’s seventh birthday party, one of the movie’s horror high points.
      Finn probably relies too much on the movie’s score (alternately creepy or bludgeoning) and errs at the end, I think, when he shows the monster. It should have remained invisible, even if a bit of metaphoric intent is at play here. 
      We already see the story from Rose’s point-of-view. But what if we left the theater with more uncertainty?
      I’ve seen Smile described as better than the usual helping of horror and that seems right. I’ll leave it that, offering restrained appreciation for a movie that isn’t without intelligence but still too beholden to the more obvious demands of its genre.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

A gay romcom hits the mainstream

   

  Billed as the first gay romcom released by a major studio (Universal Pictures), Bros arrives in theaters with a stamp of approval from Judd Apatow’s production company and the benefit of having been shown at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. 
    Additionally, the movie was directed by Nicholas Stoller, who has targeted mainstream audiences with comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five Year Engagement.  Stoller co-wrote the screenplay with the movie’s star Billy Eichner, a gay comic and actor known for Billy on the Street, a comedy game show that aired on cable.
 I mention all this because the movie’s bona fides suggest big-time ambition. Bros apparently doesn't want to be assigned to some narrowly defined gay niche: It wants to bring everybody on board.
 How you react to the movie depends, at least in part, on how you react to Eichner, who’s playing Bobby, the host of a gay podcast and the movie's main character. 
   Early on, Bobby is appointed as director of the nation’s first LGBTQ+ museum.  Obsessed with gay history and with its purposeful exclusion from America’s story, Bobby presents a problem common to all obsessives: He can be annoying.
  Fortunately, as played by Eichner, Bobby also can be funny. He’s a walking compendium of edgy comments on pop culture, gay life, homophobia, and other subjects that make it clear that he's in the know —sometimes even about himself. 
  And, yes, some of the movie’s humor takes aim at gay culture. In a bar, Bobby and a friend talk about how straight people always think gay people are smart. Many actually are stupid, we're told.
   Later, major donor to the museum insists that it include an interactive gay trauma exhibit that resembles a fun house ride. Ridiculous, no?
   Evidently well-versed in varieties of gayness, Eichner also gets  comic mileage making fun of gay Bro culture with its commitment to weight lifting, fitness, and ripped bodies.
  Because he runs a museum, Bobby also serves as the movie’s mouthpiece for gay history, presented in breezy fashion but still saddling the story with explanatory chores that are a little too much like a lecture.
 And now for the romantic part of the movie. After meeting at a club, Bobby falls for Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), an estate planner and gym rat who often relates to the world as a jock. 
  The rest of the movie adheres to romcom formula as the romance faces obstacles on its way toward the obligatory happy conclusion. 
  The gay sex scenes are no more explicit than what you'd find in most heterosexual romances, even when Stoller (Remember him? He's the director.) tries for a bit of outrageousness. 
   Eichner and Stoller treat a foursome as an opportunity for physical comedy, later letting us know that Bobby learned from his participation. He's looking for a more committed relationship than he initially imagined.
   There's also a scene in which Bobby meets Aaron’s parents when they make a Christmas visit to Manhattan. They're upstate New Yorkers who accept their son’s gayness but remain conventional.
   A second grade teacher, Aaron’s mother, decked out in a notably untrendy Christmas sweater, receives a lecture from Bobby about why her pupils should be exposed to gender diversity. She thinks they're too young.
   The movie later draws mom into woke circles: She brings her young students to the museum for a tour.
    Mostly Bobby and Aaron dominate the movie. The rest of the gender spectrum finds representation in the museum's staff, a smorgasbord of gender identities that results in amusing intra-staff rivalries.
   I'm not the biggest fan of today's romcoms. I don't do my cinema worship at the altar of When Harry Met Sally. So you'll pardon me for not celebrating the genre as much as Bros might like.
   But will Bros spark a trend of movies that might be billed as identity comedies? Who knows.
    It will be interesting, though, to see how Bros fares at the box office. Movement at the turnstiles may convey a bigger message than the movie itself.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

"Blonde' tells Monroe's story -- or does it?


 It doesn’t take long to realize that two voices speak in Blonde, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about the life of Marilyn Monroe: One voice belongs to the dramatic creation of an iconic movie star. We’ll get to the second voice later. 
 Monroe died in 1961 of a drug overdose. She was 36 and her death spawned theories of foul play that some believe penetrated the upper reaches of American power.
 In Blonde, Ana de Armas plays Monroe with so much wrung-out emotion you may find yourself hoping that the actress was able to leave the work behind at the end of a day’s shooting. 
  De Armas captures Monroe's whispery, girlish voice and her naiveté, as well as the angry eruptions that developed late in her career when she thought she was being dissed by the studios and by directors who treated her as a joke.
  It's one hell of a performance.
   A quick digression: For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Blonde has been given an NC-17 rating, the first Netflix film to be categorized as unsuitable for viewers under the age of 17. It has nudity and sex scenes, but ....
    I don’t want to get into an argument about ratings here.  Blonde has an NC-17 rating. Let's accept it and move on.
    The second major voice speaking in Blonde belongs to director Andrew Dominik, who works in an overly stylized fashion, sometimes offering surreal strokes. An example of the surreal: A doll-like representation of the fetus the studios force Monroe to abort serves as an eerie emblem of irreparable loss.
    It's more jarring than telling, too self-consciously literal.
    A series of flashpoint episodes make it clear that Dominik, who hasn’t made a movie in 10 years, seriously tried to meet the challenge of what surely will be a much-scrutinized effort, given Monroe's prevalence as a persistent figure in both art and culture.
  But is Dominik telling the story from Monroe’s disorienting perspective — or is it his disorienting perspective? In either case, Monroe’s inner life can seem so tormented it may drive viewers crazy just as it supposedly did Monroe.
    The movie opens with a sustained depiction of child abuse by Marilyn’s whacko mother (Julianne Nicholson in a frighteningly vivid performance). Harrowing scenes of mommy abuse pave the way for one of the movie's amplified themes. Monroe, who never met her father, had big-time Daddy issues. 
   Thus prepped, we watch as Dominik mixes black-and-white footage with color and Monroe’s life unfolds in a series of purportedly telling vignettes.
    Movies such as Niagara, Seven Year Itch, and Some Like It Hot are highlighted when they allow Dominik to make points about the Hollywood-created fictional character Monroe purportedly became. Mired in frustrated need, she becomes untethered from her "real" self.
    The men in Monroe's life exemplify abusive or failed love. Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) appears as a character named the Ex-Athlete. Playwright Arthur Miller is called The Playwright and is brought to life by Adrien Brody in a canny piece of work that captures Miller’s intellect, curiosity, tenderness, and betrayal. The Playwright used Monroe's life to feed his writing.
    Both marriages end badly. 
    The oddest of Monroe's relationships is depicted as an early threesome involving Monroe, Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). Dominik treats this trio as an emblem of isolated innocence with hints of darkness. The three supposedly thought of themselves as bound by fate.
    Sound look hooey? Well that’s how I took it, too.
    Other notable characters crop up in the movie's cavalcade of bad men. Actor Caspar Phillipson appears in what might be the most morally degenerate depiction of JFK (called only The President) to date. 
    Not only does The President exploit Monroe sexually, he does it during a phone call while a Secret Service agent sits at an open bedroom door. To reach the president's bedroom, Monroe is guided past a humiliating gauntlet of POTUS's staff. 
    Revelations about Monroe and the Kennedys are hardly new but Dominik seems to want us to feel the full measure of Monroe’s degradation at the hands of powerful men.
    This exploitative world gives us a Monroe of limited personal agency. It’s as if she landed in LaLa Land for no other reason than to be exploited, a pawn in a cruel image-making game. 
     Dominik puts Monroe’s pain on display and at two hours and 46 minutes, the movie increasingly feels like a chore, its length encouraging a numbed tune-out.
      Perhaps Blonde will rekindle interest and re-evaluation of Monroe’s work or maybe her life will be further pushed into a mold in which the carnal aspirations of a ravenous Hollywood  power culture prove perpetually ruinous.
     Whatever the movie’s fate, Blonde — in the immediacy of its moment — can be an ordeal; flashes of filmmaking brilliance and committed acting notwithstanding, I can’t think of a recent movie that I was more eager to see end.

    

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Natascha McElhone in a movie set in Malta

 


Forget the opera. Carmen, a movie from director Valerie Buhagiar, casts Natascha McElhone as a middle-aged woman who has spent much of her life as a kind of servant to her brother (Henry Zammit), a priest in a Maltese village. When the brother dies, McElhone's Carmen finds herself at loose ends. Following tradition, a new priest -- not yet arrived --wants his sister (Michela Farrugia) to tend to the church's chores. Sans money, prospects and shelter, Carmen proves more resourceful than we expect. She also receives help from a pigeon that seems to be guiding her steps, a ploy that pushes the story into fairy tale turf. Necessity drives Carmen to steal keys from a sleeping guard. She opens the church from which she's been banished and hides in the confessional. The story takes an odd turn when parishioners begin confessing to her. Undaunted, Carmen dispenses advice that's both bold and comical. Later, she'll "borrow" some candlesticks and a chalice from the church and sell them to a pawnbroker (Steven Love) in a nearby city. Buhagiar can't paper over all the screenplay's implausibilities and McElhone's performance probably deserved a richer movie. Still, Carmen, set in the 1980s, can be viewed as a pleasing tribute to a woman with fortitude enough to find a new life.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

It’s dressed up but where’s it going?

 

 By the time I saw Don’t Worry Darling, the movie already had become the subject of an off-screen backstory involving its director and two of its stars. Consider yourself fortunate if you’ve been able to avoid reading about tensions between actress Florence Pugh and director Olivia Wilde, as well as stories about Wilde and the movie’s male lead, Harry Styles.
  I’d been unable to miss the chatter but didn’t give it much thought as I watched Wilde receive a monumental assist from cinematographer Mathew Libatique whose eye-popping colors give the movie an arty glaze, like a high polish on an expensive new car.
  This could be a case, though, where the movie's strengths and its weakness tend to merge. Don't Worry Darling has trouble blasting through the style that Wilde (Booksmart) brings to it and pushing beyond what we know from the outset: Composed surfaces ultimately can't conceal their cracks.
  The story, if you haven’t heard, involves a group of folks who work for the vaguely defined Victory Project, a company that has created the isolated town of Victory, a retreat where employees live, dress, and act as if the 1950s had never ended. 
  The men head to an office — called the headquarters — while the women tend to cooking and kids, and — if Pugh's character is any indication — the crucial task of cleaning windows.
  The women of this manicured world are happily oppressed; they love greeting their men with drink in hand — and more. An early scene finds Style’s Jack Chambers arriving home to perform oral sex on his wife Alice (Pugh). Styles propels his eager spouse to heights of ecstasy as she knocks dinner off the dining room table.
   So goes another perfect day.
   Thanks to set decorator Rachel Ferrara and production designer Katie Byron, these early scenes present the lives of a supposedly privileged few, folks who have fled the ambivalence of contemporary life, all the while reinforcing the role of men as kings of their midcentury castles.
   Visually, everything is groomed to the max. Costume designer Arianne Phillips's clothes look as if they’d been purchased at a thrift store that sold nothing but items that had never been worn.
   Pugh (Midsommar, Little Women, and Black Widow) already has established her credentials as an actress who can anchor a movie. She does so here, out-classing Styles with a performance of burgeoning desperation. Alice suspects that the game is rigged.
   An executive named Frank (a terrific Chris Pine) hovers over the happy residents of Victory. An empathetic boss and true believer, Frank’s affirmations make him seem like the president of a fraternity, the kind of guy who  specializes in kissing the dean's ass. Of course, we know from the start that Frank can't be trusted.
  Several women round out the cast. Gemma Chan plays Shelley, Frank’s loyal wife, Wilde appears as Bunny, Alice’s friend, and KiKi Layne portrays Margaret, a woman who has seen through the Victory Project illusion. Finding no exit, she leaps off a roof.
   Some scenes make you wish Wilde had indulged the story in more weirdness. At a company party, for example, Frank learns that he’s about to be promoted. He's required to do a celebratory dance that makes him look like a puppet jiggling on the end of someone’s strings.
   So what are we left with?
   Visual jokes about the ‘50s — the men leaving home in synch as they drive what appear to be beautifully restored cars of the period — can carry a movie only so far and much rides on third-act revelations, which the screenplay handles in cursory manner that some may find a bit befuddling.
  It’s possible that Wilde wants to deliver a cautionary message: The supposed time when America brimmed with security, order and middle-class comfort rested on illusion, delusion and the stifling of women.
  But watching the movie I felt as if I'd been invited to a dinner at which the host had set a great table but didn't follow through with a satisfying main course. 



Thursday, September 15, 2022

Viola Davis gets fierce as a warrior

 

  An actress of intense focus, Viola Davis might have been born to play a female warrior — not a Wonder Woman style superhero but a a battler born of hard experience and bone-deep commitment. With a swaggering walk and steely gaze, Davis mixes indomitable will and commitment to principle.
   Inspired by a true story, The Woman King introduces us to the so-called Amazons or in terms of Dahomey culture, the Agojie. These were women trained for war in the Kingdom of Dahomey after many of  its men were captured and sold into slavery by the rival Oyo empire. 
  The conflict between Oyo and Dahomey forms a backdrop for plentiful action sequences in which the women prove their formidable strength. 
  Director Gina Prince-Blythewood, working from a screenplay by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, finds the heart of the movie when she introduces Nawi (Thuso Mbedu),  a young woman who’s handed to the Agojie by her father.
  Cocky and arrogant, Nawi must learn to submit to the Agojie ethos, which roughly amounts to one for all and all for one: Military success relies on the smooth functioning of the group rather than on individual heroics — although there’s plenty of the latter,  The Woman King being a movie not a historical tract.
  Men don’t much feature in the story, primarily because the Agojie are housed in a separate and restricted part of the king’s palace.    
   John Boyega portrays the Dahomey ruler, King Ghezo, a monarch with many wives and mildly conservative views. Davis’s Nanisca tries to convince the king that selling Africans is wrong regardless of the ethnic group to which someone belongs. 
  Two additional women (Adrienne Warren and Lashana Lynch) distinguish themselves as Agojie warriors, mentors and confidants.
   European intrusions arrive in the form of a white slave trader (Hero Fiennes Tiffen) and his pal Malik (Jordan Bolger). Born of an Africa mother and a white father, Malik has been sent to Dahomey by his mother to find his roots. 
  Nawi catches his eye and the screenplay toys with a dubiously plotted romance while trying to remain true to the notion that the last thing the Agojie need are male protectors. 
   The Woman King team creates an alluring Dahomey village where the Agojie train and where Nanisca eases her strained muscles in the azure waters of an indoor pool, perhaps the 19th century equivalent of a hot tub.
    If the Dahomey village has been idealized, so be it. Viewers may find other suggestions of the kind of cultural celebration that existed on a much more hyper-realized level in Black Panther. 
   Aside form the slavers, the principal villain in the piece arrives in the person of Oda (Jimmy Odukoya), who rules over the Oyo and ruthlessly participates in the slave trade in alliance with the Portuguese. Nanisca has her own reasons for wanting to vanquish Oda. 
   The Woman King was filmed in South Africa, not in the West African nation of Benin, as the former Republic of Dahomey now is known. Presumably, the rituals and dances staged by Prince-Blythewood  reflect a degree of authenticity.
   As for historical accuracy, a little time with Google will let you know that the movie cuts corners, opting to provide what might might be considered an outline of the forces at work in West Africa during the second decade of the 19th century.
   Whatever its shortcomings, The Woman King has Viola Davis, who’s playing a character enhanced by conviction and strength wrought from the punishing toil of living.
    The sight of Nanisca charging an enemy, her scimitar pointing skyward, will make you believe that she can strike fear into the hearts of anyone who would do her wrong.




A prequel serves up horror of its own


    Maybe you haven't spent the last several months yearning for a prequel to the movie X, released earlier this year. Perhaps you didn't even see X, a well-regarded helping of horror about the dangers of trying to make a porn film on an isolated farm.
    Director Ti West's reasonably smart film referenced horror history while serving up its own brand of chills.
   Pearl takes us back to 1918 to tell us how the desiccated hag of the first movie spent her youth. Using the same settings found in X, West enhances the color of his images. He adopts an approach reminiscent of the way Todd Haynes paid homage to director Douglas Sirk in Far From HeavenPearl comes on like melodramatic comfort food from a bygone cinematic era.
    Too much genuflecting at the altar of film history? 
    Maybe, but West links his work to the past and, in this case, to his previous movie.
   References to other movies aside, Pearl functions well as a stand-alone effort, although it won't be everyone's idea of a scary good time. Slowly paced and evocative, Pearl uses its nostalgic allure to draw us into the increasingly weird world of its title character.
    West turns Pearl into a showcase for Mia Goth, who played dual roles in the first movie and was unrecognizable as the killer crone of X.  Here, Goth meets the moment with unsettling flashes of mania and longing.
  Goth's Pearl lives an emotionally and sexually undernourished life on a farm with her sternly religious mother (Tandi Wright) and paralyzed father (Mathew Sunderland).
   Dressed in overalls, Pearl looks as if she might have tumbled out of Norman Rockwell painting. We know better, particularly when Pearl spears a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it an alligator or when she has enthusiastic masturbatory sex with a scarecrow.
   Pearl joins a long line of insanely frustrated women. She dreams of being a star and finds encouragement from the projectionist (David Corenswet) at the town theater. He urges her to dream -- but shows her a "special" film he acquired in France, a helping of porn that underscores the theme of dreams that are smashed or even perverted.
   Pearl's chance at escape arrives when a friend (Emma Jenkins-Purro) tells her that a traveling dance troupe plans to hold auditions at the town's church. 
  Against a backdrop of illuminated crosses, Pearl gives a knock-out performance but an eerily stoic panel of judges rejects her. They want a blonde.
   What's a frustrated young woman supposed to with her husband off fighting World War? And what about those movie-inspired fantasies in which Pearl sees black-and-white images of chorus girls kicking their way to the glamorous life she believes she deserves?
  The answer is obvious but still alarming. Pearl's smile --a grin that stretches her face to the breaking point -- no longer will mask the evil that festers within.
  West offers gore and murder but served sparingly when compared to the butchery that sometimes dominates contemporary horror.
   And despite his love for movie references, West’s approach remains idiosyncratic and he’s not afraid to take chances -- big ones. At one point, Pearl delivers a lengthy monologue, part confessional and part threat. It could have derailed the movie but Goth makes it work.
   Clearly, Pearl is too twisted and weird for all viewers. But it's more accomplished than X and it allows Goth to smear the screen with blood, unleashed rage, and a killer smile -- or maybe I should say, a killer’s smile.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Whodunit? No matter, the actors are fun


     We're in the 1950s and London audiences are flocking to a stage  adaptation of Agatha Christie's Mousetrap, so much so that the production has just celebrated its 100th performance. 
   Always eager to capitalize on a bona fide success, Hollywood has taken note: A film production looms. 
   At a party celebrating the play's success, the cynical director who has been asked to make the movie is murdered. The age-old question arises: Whodunit?
    In the case of See How They Run, it hardly matters who committed the crime. The movie is less a mystery than a genre spoof  that clearly knows the game its playing.
     Working from a screenplay by Mark Chappell, director Tom George allows his movie to run on winking humor and the pleasure of watching actors "sell'' characters that border on the parodic.
     First, there's Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), the obnoxious and newly murdered movie director who we learn had been feuding with the movie's screenwriter, the mincing Melvyn Crocker-Norris (David Oyelowo). 
     Two policeman anchor the story. Demonstrating a flare for character comedy, Saoirse Ronan portrays Constable Stalker, a novice cop who's eager to prove her worth.  
     Sam Rockwell joins Ronan as Inspector Stoppard, a veteran detective who's entirely too fond of drink and who's prone to falling asleep on the job. Rockwell doesn't overdo the English accent but still conveys disbelief and rueful judgment as he and Stalker set about solving the crime.
     Ruth Wilson as the play's producer and Reece Shearsmith as the aspiring producer of the movie both do fine work. Harris Dickinson finds laughs as Richard ("Call me Dickie") Attenborough.
     No need offering a cast roster but everyone seems to have understood the nature of material that may remind audiences of Knives Out, which, I suppose it must be said, was better.
    Comparison to other movies, as well as expectations associated with Glass Onion, director Rian Johnson's follow-up to Knives Out,  shouldn't detract from a movie that (bless its soul) finds a lane and occupies it well -- or at least, well enough.
    So who did it? Why, the actors, of course. They're largely responsible for delivering the generally snappy goods.

Bob’s Cinema Diary: Sept. 14: '22 — 'Clerks III' and 'Simchas & Sorrows'

 Clerks III


I suppose lots of folks are fond of remembering Kevin Smith’s Clerks, a black-and-white indie that debuted in 1994. Not me. Since Clerks was released, I’ve not been tempted to revisit the movie and I somehow missed Clerks II, possibly because I was out of the country at the time of its release. Now comes Clerks III, a comedy that likely will provide a trip down nostalgia lane for Smith’s fans. Much of the original cast has returned, supplemented by Rosario Dawson, who appeared in the second installment. Smith’s brand of snark, pop-cultural awareness (90s style), and mild self-mockery have never been my cup of amusement. In this latest addition, convenience store co-owner (Jeff Anderson) convinces his pal Dante (Brian O'Hallaran) to help him finance a movie that very much resembles the original Clerks — or, as we’re prone to saying these days — a movie that adds a meta layer to its Jersey origins. Mildly amusing at times but muddied by the introduction of death as a topic of consideration, Clerks III features two (count 'em) heart attacks. Smith clearly knows how to add a bit of zest before the proceedings turn sentimental. Still, Clerks has little to offer those who are not committed to completing the Clerks cycle or waiting for several "surprise" cameos.

Simchas & Sorrows



Finally, a movie about converting  to Judaism. I’m kidding of course. I doubt whether the world has been waiting for someone to explore this subject. But it's tackled head-in Simchas & Sorrows, a rom-com that interrupts a generally humorous approach for serious observations, most of them delivered by a progressive rabbi (Nari Nef) who refuses to ignore an elephant in the room: She raises the subject of Palestinians with the couples she instructs. Writer/director Genevieve Adams plays Agnes, a Catholic-educated woman who’s engaged to Levi (Thomas McDonell), a young Jewish man who wants his future wife to convert. Agnes, who has given up on religion, is also pregnant. The prospect of a child further complicates matters of cultural difference. The characters are rounded out by Levi’s brother and his condescending fiancee (Annalise Cepero), by Levi's father (Chip Zien) father, and by Agnes’s grandfather (John Collum). Adams conveys a message about tolerance, acceptance, and ways to live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world but the movie seems to prefer sincerity to sharply realized drama. Yes, it’s good to be respectful and not be too insistent on dotting every “i” and crossing every cultural “t.” No arguing with the message, but a last-minute revelation feels like a cop-out and, to me at least, it didn't feel as if the movie had fully engaged with its subject.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Standing up for herself in 'God's Country'

 

  Throughout its 102-minute running time, I wondered why Sandra Guidry -- a character played by Thandiwe Newton in a finely wrought performance -- decided to move from New Orleans to the isolated wilderness of a western town that hosts a small college and a local populace that doesn't eagerly welcome strangers.
 Director Julian Higgins, who-cowrote the movie's screenplay with Shaye Ogbonna, does answer the question. Victimized by hurricane Katrina and feeling guilty for being unable to protect her mother, Sandra left her job as a New Orleans police officer to take a tenure-track position at the local college. 
  Sandra brought her aging mother with her but mom didn't last long; the movie opens with Sandra attending her mother's cremation. 
  Sandra, perhaps the town's only Black resident, may have wanted extreme isolation or maybe the framework of the story doesn't quite support everything Higgins has in mind.
    God's Country, by the way, was based on Winter Light, a short story by James Lee Burke, which may be why the film sometimes reflects the kind of sketching often found in short fiction.
     In addition, a 2015 short film, also by Higgins, told roughly the same story -- only the main character was named Roger Guidry and was played by a male. I've never seen the short film but it seems obvious that the gender switch added new resonance.
    All that aside, Higgins creates a tightly woven drama that pits Sandra against two brothers (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White), the head of her department at the college (Kai Lennox), and her own past. 
   Sandra's patience faces extreme tests -- both with departmental racism and the two hostile brothers who won't take "no" for answer when it comes to trespassing on her property where they want to hunt.
    Higgins wisely softens the lines of a revenge saga, creating an unexpectedly affecting scene in which one of the brothers comes close to recognizing a common bond with Sandra. 
     The local sheriff (Jeremy Bobb) sets the stage for an explosive conclusion when he expresses his reluctance to respond after one of the brothers fires an arrow into Sandra’s front door. Folks in these parts settle differences themselves, he tells her, upholding a mythic western ethos of self-sufficiency.
     But even the exasperated sheriff doesn’t always meet expectation. As a guest at a school Christmas party, Bobb's Gus Wolf -- who's actually the acting sheriff -- labors to understand Sandra. Despite her service as a police officer, her background couldn't be more different than his.
     Newton wisely reins in Sandra's anger as the movie references other issues.
     An example: A question about sexual abuse arises when one of Sandra's best students (Tanya Beatty) shares a story about inappropriate behavior by the head of the English department.
     Shot in Montana, God's Country isn't likely to serve as an advertisement for Big Sky Country, although we're never told the name of the town or state where Sandra has landed. Higgins and cinematographer Andrew Wheeler do their best to capture landscapes chastened and made dreary by a harsh winter. 
      God’s Country may not be a small gem. But with considerable help from Newton, Higgins creates a somber portrait of an isolated but iron-willed woman trying to assert her power in a hostile environment.

     

A shot of horror from Neil LaBute


 Well, it's better than Out of the Blue, a recently released Neo-noir clinker.
 I’m referring to House of Darkness, the second movie from writer/director Neil LaBute to reach theaters within the last couple of weeks.
  LaBute's early triumph, In the Company of Men (1997), prompted many to accuse him of mining a strong vein of mysogyny. I didn't see the movie that way but LaBute's work usually paves the way for strong arguments.
  In House of Darkness, LaBute gives full vent to any desire he might have had to distribute a healthy comeuppance to insensitive men. 
  The result is a medium-grade horror film in which a libidinous but  shallow financial advisor (Justin Long) meets his match in the person of three sisters (well-played by Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin, and Lucy Waters). 
   The movie begins just after Long's Hap Jackson meets Bosworth's Mina Murray at a bar. Hap gives Mina a ride home, hoping the trip will lead to something more. He anticipates a conquest, so much so that he calls one his buddies to brag when Mina leaves him alone to prepare drinks.
    In this case, home happens to be a mansion surrounded by woods, a sure sign that Hap has as much chance of finding carnal bliss as one might have locating a Serena hater at the US Open — or anywhere else for that matter.
   For much of its 88-minute running time, House of Darkness plays like a creepy two-hander as Mina and Hap flirt, spar and try to out-maneuver each other. Mina, who initially seems like a push-over, quickly reveals a cunning side and we know that Hap -- poor Hap, if you will -- is in for it.
   But how much do we feel for hapless Hap? Not much, as it turns out.
   As played by Long, Hap varies his personality to fit whatever situation he confronts. He doesn’t inspire either high levels of identification or sympathy. 
   It's also clear -- thanks to a giveaway title -- that horror looms.
   To arrive at the movie's bloody conclusion, LaBute introduces a mythic fairy-tale element and pushes the story to gory extremes.
    More game-like than deep, House of Darkness keeps you watching. And say this: It's difficult to sustain interest when a movie creates little doubt about where it's headed. A strong cast -- hats off particularly to Crovatin -- creates enough tension to carry LaBute's revenge-driven effort to its inevitable finale.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Two short takes before a long weekend

 Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul


Writer/director Adamma Ebo tackles the hypocrisies of a Black megachurch in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, a muddled satire that seems unsure how hard it wants to hit. I have no idea what Ebo believes when it comes to religion but her movie can confound as it tries to blend comic and serious elements. Decked out in some of the year's most flamboyant costumes, a commanding Regina Hall plays the First Lady of the Atlanta megachurch where her husband (Sterling K. Brown) presides. Early on, we learn that Brown's pastor Lee-Curtis Childs has disgraced himself. He's busy warding off suits by former male congregants who have claimed sexual abuse. Hall's Trinitie Childs stands by her man, even though she knows he has foundered on the rocks of what the church regards as a forbidden temptation. Hall holds the movie together as Brown conveys the fallen pastor's attempts to regain his pulpit privileges, which include an immaculately groomed mansion, a sleek Bugatti, and celebrity status. A rival couple (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance) prepares to lure the Childs's disillusioned flock to a new venue. Hall and Beharie give the movie its backbone, even though its broadly comic gestures and moments of high drama can't compensate for an already depleted mock-doc approach. The movie, which includes Trinitie's donning of white face for a weirdly misguided roadside promotional effort, can't resolve what feels like uncertainty about how sharp a satiric knife to wield.

The Good Boss 


Javier Bardem's Julio Blanco runs a company that manufactures scales. Julio claims to care about his employees, insisting that they've become members of an extended family. That’s true if you happen to be part of a family that gives you a trinket and a hug as it pushes out the door. Alternately smarmy and exasperated, Julio deals with a cascading series of problems on the eve of a visit from a team of judges who will decide whether the company receives a coveted award for its achievements. Julio wants to win, but layoffs -- notably of a protesting former employee (Oscar de la Fuente), marital problems of an important manager (Manolo Solo), and Julio's dalliance with a slyly seductive intern (Almudena Amor) --  push him toward extremes. Otherwise, director Fernando Leon de Aranoa, who also wrote the screenplay, sketches in upbeat strokes that allow Bardem to build a wry performance around Julio's well-practiced duplicity. Thanks to Bardem and a fine complementary cast, The Good Boss amuses, even though it takes a darkly jolting turn as the 10-day period before the factory's inspection draws to a close. I wouldn't take The Good Boss as a definitive critique of capitalist hypocrisy. Still, as an enjoyable comedy and a showcase for Bardem, it can be as diverting as it needs to be.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Stallone takes on a superhero role


  If I ran a film festival, I'd assemble a tribute to Sylvester Stallone. And, no, I'm not kidding.
  I'd invite the star and include five of his movies in my festival schedule: The Lords of Flatbush (1974 ), Rocky (1976 ), First Blood (1982 ), Cop Land (1997), and Creed (2015). 
  I'd love to hear Stallone discuss a career that has spanned more than 50 years and has included wildly popular movies, as well as movies that most critics have disparaged, 1983's Cobra, for example. 
   All of which brings me to Samaritan, a movie that wouldn't come close to making my greatest-Stallone-hits list but one that allows the actor to flex some superhero muscle -- and pretty much get away with it.
   Happily, Samaritan does not spring from the pages of either Marvel or DC Comics. It originates from a series of graphic novels by Bragi F. Shut, who also wrote the movie's screenplay.
   In a way, it's a relief to see a comic-book movie that doesn't feel as if it's aspiring to be summer's biggest "event." Credit Samaritan with knowing its place in the cinematic universe.
    A low-rent helping of grunge and action, Samaritan unfolds on the mean streets of Granite City, the urban dystopia where teenage Sam (Javon Walton) is bent on finding Samaritan, a superhero who has been presumed dead for more than 20 years. 
   Sam believes that Samaritan is very much alive and living incognito as Joe Smith (Stallone) in the same low-income neighborhood where Sam and his single mom (Dascha Polanco) reside.
   A lively Walton proves convincing as a street kid who develops a relationship with the gruff but caring Joe. Joe's occupation: garbage man, work that allows him to find and repair discarded objects, say a radio that has seen better days.
   Pilou Asbaek portrays the villainous Cyrus, a criminal who wants to revive the spirit of Samaritan's dead twin brother, the evil Nemesis. Epic enemies, the brothers didn't get along.
   Oh hell, forget the details. The plot makes some sort of sense -- if that's not too strong a word -- when you're watching the movie.
   It takes a while for Stallone to curl his upper lip into a snarl but the actor fulfills the screenplay's demands with old-pro ease while allowing signs of age to add some creak to his step.
   Director Julius Avery keeps things moving toward a third-act surprise as Samaritan traverses its dreary cityscape, an over-worked cliche of urban decay.
    Enough. If you're amenable to stepping outside the normal boundaries of what you might consider a good or bad movie, Samaritan -- showing on Amazon Prime -- might keep you involved for much of its economical 99-minute running time. 
    And don't forget to attend my Stallone tribute, providing my imaginary film festival ever takes place.
    

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Much is said in a mere 'Three Minutes'

 

   Put a camera in front of people and you're bound to elicit a variety of reactions. Some will pose and posture. Still others will feign indifference. Kids likely will be more demonstrative than adults. 
  You'll see all of those reactions in Three Minutes: A Lengthening, a film shot by a tourist in the Polish town of Nasielsk in 1938. The film was taken by David Kurtz, who traveled from the U.S. to his Polish hometown on what turned out to be the eve of the German invasion and the Holocaust.
   Not a skilled photographer, Kurtz's footage operates on strictly amateur levels, but the movie's poignance evolves from the knowledge we bring to the film. Simply put: We know a good deal more than the people who are being photographed — and what we know is horrific.
    More than the sadness of watching ordinary people long gone, Three Minutes conveys the eerie sorrow that comes from our awareness:  The people we're watching didn't die of disease and old age. Their lives never ran the expected course. Most were murdered in German death camps. The movie becomes a historical time bomb.
   The footage was discovered in 2009 by Kurtz's grandson Glenn, who gave it to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Director Bianca Stigter fashioned the footage into an artful reminder of the lives of folks who had no idea about the fate that awaited them.
   We see kids in the street. People gather in front of the town grocery or exit the town's synagogue. The boys wear caps. Some of them are boisterous, less so the girls. The ordinary humanity of Nasielsk's Jews makes Stigter's film unusually touching.
    Glenn Kurtz wrote a 2004 book titled Three Minutes in Poland and Stigter follows Kurtz's lead, talking about the difficulty of identifying these lost souls.
    A woman who saw the footage recognized her grandfather, Maurice Chandler, a man who survived the Holocaust. Chandler was 13 when the footage was shot. In interviews conducted recently,  Stigter offers guidance about the town and its residents.
   You'll learn something about attempts to restore the footage but the real power of the movie lies in searching the faces of people who were very much alive on a sunny and unexceptional day in a town most of us never would have heard of had it not been for three minutes of film.

A genie fails to conjure enough magic

   
  Australian director George Miller (The Road Warrior movies) travels to Istanbul to tell a story loosely based on an A.S. Byatt collection of short stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.  Miller and his team put a lot of effort into creating a look that's designed to amuse, enchant, and sweep us away.
   Despite an intriguing theme about the role of storytelling in our lives, Three Thousand Years of Longing turns out to be one of those movies whose parts don't add up to a satisfying whole — and not all the parts are captivating, either.
     Miller teams two fine actors in a tale about an academic (Tilda Swinton) and a Djinn (Idris Elba) who encounter one another after Swinton's Alithea Bonnie purchases a small bottle during a visit to Istanbul's Grand Bizarre.  
     Alithea returns to her hotel room, tries to clean up the bottle, and, lo, a genie emerges. The skeptical academic, who studies the role of narrative in mythic literature, is granted three wishes. She's reluctant to use them.
      While waiting for Alithea to make up her mind, the Djinn tells Althea stories, some of which Miller beautifully realizes while others falter. The imaginary Arabian backdrops often are more interesting than the stories that unfold in front of them. 
       A variety of characters emerge as the Djinn tells Alithea about his previous attempts to free himself from his bottle: If he grants three wishes, he'll be free. One tale involves a ravenous and infantile sultan who surrounds himself with portly women.
       Miller is a talented and important director who has veered off the Mad Max track before -- notably with Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and Lorenzo's Oil (1992). He previously tried his hand at fantasy with 1987's The Witches of Eastwick
      After his triumph with Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and with another Road Warrior movie looming, it's easy to understand why Miller wanted a change of pace with a story that's meant to be savored rather energized by speed, the difference say between sipping a glass of wine and downing it with one mighty swig.  
     Put another way: I was rooting for Three Thousand Years of Longing but had difficulty sustaining interest as scenes between Swinton and Elba (shown in various sizes and often with smoke rising from his body) bogged down.
     At once majestic and knowing, Elba creates a memorable Djinn but Swinton's Alithea proves a bit dull, an academic who longs for love and companionship.
      Miller is too talented not to find some masterful moments but the movie suffers from a lack of drive, and when Alithea and the Djinn return to London, the screenplay expands to include a romantic dimension in which the fantastical and the mundane try to merge.
     Generous viewers may give Miller a pass. I'd have no quarrel with those who are so inclined but, for me, this story about the transcendent importance of stories seldom made it feel as the stakes were vital.
     Besides, the best way to celebrate stories is to tell a great one. Three Thousand Years of Longing falls short in that regard.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A hostage-taker with small demands

     

  Watching Michael K. Williams in Breaking serves as a forceful reminder of how much the late actor commanded every scene in which he appeared. Williams, who grew up in a tough Brooklyn world,  died of a drug overdose in September of 2021. He was 54.
   It's worth remembering Williams's great performances as Omar Little in The Wire and as Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire. Williams was a rare actor whose anger, ferocity, and intelligence made him unforgettable.
   That's an odd way to begin a review of a movie in which Williams plays a supporting role but I wanted to acknowledge an actor whose presence always seemed to burn through the screen.
   In Breaking, Williams plays Eli Bernard, a police negotiator who tries to persuade the movie's main character (John Boyega) to release two employees (Nicole Beharie and Rosa Diaz) he's holding hostage at a small bank.
   Based on a true story, Breaking stands as an indictment of the VA. A botched VA payment of a paltry $892 triggered a breakdown by Boyega's Brian Brown-Easley. 
   A former marine, Easley teetered on the line separating an earnest young man from someone who had slipped into paranoid fantasy. 
   A terrific Boyega makes it clear that Easley didn't want to hurt anyone, even though he threatened to detonate a bomb if the VA didn't meet his ludicrously modest demand. 
    An absurd media frenzy enriched the premiere hostage movie -- Dog Day Afternoon. Director Abi Damaris Corbin  also charts Easley's attempts to attract media coverage. Easley eventually establishes contact with a producer (Connie Britton) at a local TV station. But the media isn't a target here.
     Corbin maintains a seriously committed point of view throughout: After serving in the Persian Gulf, Easley was discarded by a bureaucratic system that rendered him invisible.
    Breaking isn't a perfect movie. Contrasts and connections between Easley and Bernard, both former marines, are provided in sketchy fashion, and Bernard's clash with unsympathetic white officers in the Georgia town where the story is set are shortchanged. Tension comes and goes.
      But a strong cast is anchored by Boyega's memorable performance as a who young man who asked for very little -- and couldn't even get that. 

More Neo-noir, fewer thrills

   


Writer/director Neil LaBute came out of the gate fast, wowing Sundance audiences with the severely caustic In the Company of Men (1997).  LaBute has been working steadily since, plying his trade in movies, theater, and TV. Few writers can turn a line of dialogue into a punch to the face better than LaBute and his movies usually are worth an argument or two. So, it was with modest expectations that I approached Out of the Blue, LaBute's latest entry into the Neo-noir sweepstakes. Ray Nicholson plays Conor, the potential sap in a drama in which his character -- an ex-con working as a librarian -- falls for a supposedly irresistible seductress (Diane Kruger).  Hank Azaria makes intermittent appearances as Conor's parole officer, Gia Crovatin signs on as one of Conor's library co-workers, and Chase Sui Wonders portrays the stepdaughter of Kruger's character. Nicholson and Kruger fail to generate the requisite heat, Azaria's character seems out of place, and most audiences easily will guess which way LaBute wants the noir winds to blow. Those expecting end-of-picture twists will find them but Out of the Blue neither sings nor stings. Insertion of titles between segments (perhaps intended as humorous) slows things down as LaBute works his way through a kickless tale of murder, gullibility, and deceit.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

'Beast'; Tension and not much else


Idris Elba provides Beast with a  major draw. But Elba's presence can't offset an improbably scripted thriller in which Elba's character and two daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries) are threatened by a vengeful and highly motivated lion. A group of poacher's killed the beast's entire pride, turning the lion into a killer of humans. The movie begins to resemble a Cujo knockoff -- only set in a South African game park. Early on, Elba's Dr. Nate Samuels, guilty about not having seen early signs of his late wife's cancer, travels with his kids from the US to South Africa. He  hooks up with an old friend and wildlife protector (Sharlto Copley). Samuels hopes to strengthen his bond with his kids by visiting the country where his wife was raised. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur follows a predictable course, setting up scenes in which the lion (CGI) threatens to kill its human prey. A vague thematic connection arises: The lion failed to protect his charges and Dr. Samuels fears that he won't be able to keep his daughters alive. A couple of fuzzy dream sequences don't add much, but the movie whips up tension by adopting a horror movie tone. For  a time, the characters are confined inside a van as the lion stages one pounding assault after another. There's no faulting the cast but the screenplay isn't really fresh enough to create much cinematic roar. Oh well, Beast at least has the decency to confine itself to an economical 90-minute running time. 

Genres collide in ‘Spin Me Round’

 


As the manager of an Italian restaurant that's part of a ubiquitous chain, Alison Brie's Amber thinks she's had a stroke of luck. Dutiful and loyal, Amber learns that she's been selected to attend a corporate retreat in Tuscany. Amber is supposed to stay at a villa owned by the head of the Tuscan Grove chain (Alessandro Nivola) that employs her. As it turns out, Amber and a variety of other managers are housed in a bare-bones hotel near the boss's extravagant villa. Their supposed immersion in Italian culture proves superficial and it soon becomes clear that Spin Me Round wants to shade its comedy with thriller elements. Hidden "romantic" agendas arise, particularly after Nivola's Nick invites Amber to join him on his beautiful yacht. Among the cast. Molly Shannon stands out as a woman with anger-management problems. Aubrey Plaza, always intriguing, plays Nick's no-nonsense assistant, a woman with a libidinous plan of her own. Zach Woods portrays Dana, a guy who buys into the chain's propaganda, at least for a while. Director Jeff Baena, who wrote the screenplay with Brie, tries to blend rom-com and thriller flavors, but the story's mystery seems clear to everyone except the folks in the movie. After generating a few laughs and threatening to ride a pleasant Tuscan vibe, Spin Me Around sounds vaguely ominous notes that don't swell into anything rich or exciting. And, oh yeah, the comedy doesn't always spark, either.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

‘Fall’ scales thrill-ride heights


  We go to some movies because of who’s in them. Other movies attract us because we’re fascinated by the stories they tell. Sometimes we're bored or just willing to take a chance. At other times, a favorite director draws attention.
   Then there are movies that, despite deficiencies, are built around an ingredient so compelling, they're difficult to to resist. I’d put Fall in this latter category. It’s a movie in which dumb behavior by two characters leads to sequences as riveting as anything you’ll see this summer. 
   It’s necessary at this point to say that those made uneasy by heights may find Fall excruciating — in a good way, I suppose.
   Here’s the deal: Distraught over her husband’s death in a climbing accident,  Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) tries to drown her grief with alcohol. 
   A year passes before Becky's climbing pal Hunter (Virginia Gardner) turns up. Hunter insists that if Becky doesn't climb again, she'll always be dominated by fear.
     Hunter proposes that the two tackle a decaying 2,000-foot TV tower that looks entirely misplaced in the middle of the California desert, a relic of another time. 
     Initially reluctant, Becky agrees to make the climb. When the ladder used in the ascent collapses, Becky and Hunter are stranded on top of the tower with no way down.
     The climbers try to use their ingenuity to figure out how they might summon help as the screenplay reveals a source of tension between the two women and adds splashes of backstory.
     Director Scott Mann and cinematographer MacGregor do the rest, creating one harrowing bit after another, all of them stomach-churning if heights aren’t your thing — and they’re definitely not mine.
     The two actresses are well cast. Currey conveys the fear that has stunted Becky's climbing career -- and her life, as well. Gardner imbues Hunter with a sense of bravado that pushes her toward extreme physical feats that she treats as fodder for her on-line presence.
     The movie concludes a bit summarily but the ending came as a relief — not because Fall disappoints but because I was happy to leave that damn tower to the vultures that sometimes circle it.