Thursday, January 27, 2022

Two movies about police/community relations

It's fitting that current movies about policing reflect widespread concerns about the relations between police and minority communities.  Two new movies -- The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain and A Shot Through the Wall offer an opportunity to consider the complexities of situations that result in bad outcomes --- in both cases death at the hands of a police officer. 

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

     The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain,  available on HBO Max and featuring a terrific performance from Frankie Faison, tells the real-life story of Kenneth Chamberlain. A 68-year-old resident of White Plains, N.Y., Chamberlain accidentally set off his medical alert alarm. Policemen showed up at Chamberlain's public housing apartment and asked to be admitted.
  From that point on, nothing went right.
  The movie begins innocently enough. The police want to make sure that Chamberlain is OK. Alarmed by a police presence, Chamberlain refuses to open his door. 
  Unwilling to take "no" for an answer, the police exhaust their options until the most aggressive of them decides it's time to break down the door.
    All the while, Chamberlain communicates with a medical alert operator, persuading her that his heart is fine and asking her to tell the police they're not needed. The emergency call is reversed, but the cops still won't leave.
   One of the officers raises ridiculous questions about whether Chamberlain might not be alone? Is he trying to hide something?
   Faison perfectly captures Chamberlain's agitated confusion, as well as his insistence on his rights. He knows the police have no search warrant and that there's no probable cause for them to insist on entry. He alternates exasperation and moments of lucidity as he talks on the phone with his sister and later his son. He wants to be left alone so that he can return to bed.
   Director David Midell adds nuance. At least one of the officers understands that escalating behavior on the part of the police can only push Chamberlain further into desperation mode.
   Midell's decision to film in a single room and in the cramped hallway outside Chamberlain's apartment creates 81 minutes of claustrophobic tension.
   Based on recordings from the medical alert call, the movie chronicles an event that took place in 2011. Had it occurred today, more people probably would have known about a case in which a man lost his life. None of the officers were charged.
    Be sure to listen to a recorded police remark that plays at the film's end. It may explain something about why the situation wasn't defused and why Chamberlain, a former Marine and a retired corrections officer, wound up dead.

A Shot Through the Wall

Unlike The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, A Shot Through the Wall is a fictional account in which a Chinese-American police officer accidentally fires his gun during a chase through a narrow apartment hallway. The bullet goes through a wall and kills an African-American teenager.
  Set in Brooklyn, NY, A Shot Through the Wall serves up a complicated racial calculus. Mike Tan (Kenny Leu) had no idea who was behind the wall when he accidentally fired his gun. As a result, he insists that he can’t be accused of racial targeting.
    Still, Mike knew where he was and unholstered his pistol anyway.
   Director Aimee Long focuses on Mike and the increasingly pressurized environment that surrounds him.
  We meet Mike's parents (Tai Ma and Fiona Fu), people deeply rooted in their community. Mike also has a Black fiancee (Ciara Renee). Her dad (Clifton Davis) is a cop and Mike's supervisor.
   Despite Mike’s insistence that the accident had nothing to do with race, the local Black community protests. They don't want Mike to escape any consequences.
   Leu conveys Mike's guilt and his anxiety as he's increasingly isolated: The police union initially supports him but ultimately yields to community pressure. 
   Among other things, Long looks at family dynamics, racial tensions, TV news appetites, and even the role of social media.
   The movie's ending feels contrived, too pat to be believable but Long sustains interest as she tries for (without quite achieving) a big-picture look at a hot-button issue. 

When the ride comes to an end

      There are big deaths (you know the one I'm talking about) and smaller losses, those that challenge the way we view ourselves  — debilitating illness, retirement or some other life-altering change of circumstances.
     In Jockey, Clifton Collins Jr. plays a jockey facing such a moment. Along with aging, a variety of injuries have taken their toll on his body and on his psyche. He no longer rides without fear. And if he can’t ride, what’s left?
     Collins's Jackson mostly plies his trade for Ruth (Molly Parker), a trainer with whom he's developed a kind of  partnership. The know how to read each other.
Collins conveys the mix of will and doubt that besets Jackson as he tries to push beyond his limits. He fights to lose weight, checks his hand for trembles, and forces himself to continue his training.
    Bentley cast real jockeys in some of the movie's roles, a decision that enhances the movie's sense of authenticity, a feeling for the routine of track life, alternating moments of drudgery and beauty.
    When the jockeys share stories, we realize that they've all suffered injuries but none of them wants to abandon the rush that accompanies the opening the starting gate.
    To round out the story, Bentley -- who co-wrote the screenplay with Greg Kwedar -- introduces an aspiring young rider (Moises Arias) who turns up claiming that he's Jackson's son from a long-forgotten dalliance. 
    The character also serves a thematic function, offering Jackson an opportunity to pass the torch to another generation while also sounding a cautionary note. Arias' Gabriel might be looking at Jackson as more than a possible father; he could represent the young man's future.
    Jockey may put Collins into the forefront after a career of character acting but even if it doesn't, it provides him with a well-deserved showcase.
    Credit Bentley for avoiding a big-race finale. Instead, he opts for a poignant look at what it means for a man to accept his fate and let go of the thing he prizes most.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Almodovar's look at mothers and history

   For much of his career, director Pedro Almodovar has devoted himself to a pleasure-filled aesthetic. Almodovar's Parallel Mothers doesn’t entirely abandon the director's love of splash colors. Almodovar's characters typically arrive on screen drenched in decor and design. The women in his movies seldom appear ordinary.
  Of course, there’s another side to this coin. Does the emphasis on exteriors cloak what’s on the inside of all those characters? Is Almodovar playing a sly game with us?
  Living in Spain, Almodovar must know that his country’s leap into post-Franco modernism carried risks, even as it brought gender fluidity, sexual expression, and bold artistic expression.
  The joys of liberation threaten to obscure a brutal past in which dissent and dissenters were not tolerated.
  That's the troubling foundation on which Almodovar allows Parallel Mothers to unfold, focusing his story on a successful photographer (Penelope Cruz) who's trying to settle a debt with the past.
   In her work. Cruz's Janis meets Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist. She wants Arturo to help excavate a site which the folks in her hometown have identified as the location of a mass murder. Janis's great grandfather was among those slain by fascist soldiers.
   As the story evolves, the personal and the political prove inseparable. Janis sleeps with Arturo, becomes pregnant, and opts to keep the baby. The married Arturo isn’t ready to leave his ailing wife. Janis seems intent on being a single mother.
   Almodovar sketches all this quickly before settling into the main part of the movie, which deals with Janis’ relationship with another young mother (Milena Smit), this one still a teenager.
    The two women meet when both are in labor and sharing a room at a Madrid hospital. 
     Almodovar opts for a contrivance (I won’t reveal it here) that easily could have sunk his movie, pushing it toward cliche. Instead, he shows us how the two women are drawn together as they face troubling questions, some  hinging on generational differences.
     Still a young woman, Smit’s Ana is less attuned to recent Spanish history than Janis. She’s a kid and she’s given a nearly impish look that’s reinforced by Smit’s performance.
     Additional characters appear. Almodovar veteran Rossy de Palma portrays Janis’s editor, a woman who hires Janis for glossy photoshoots. Ana’s mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), an actress, seems too preoccupied with her career to fully acknowledge her daughter.
    Cruz’s performance holds the movie together. Cruz has talked about the intuitive connection she has with Almodovar.  Since 1977, she has made seven films with Almodovar, including Volver (2006) and All About My Mother (1999).
   I don’t know if Cruz is romanticizing her relationship with Almodovar but her work here is first-rate. She’s playing a character burdened with her own issues while fulfilling a cultural responsibility, an obligation to the past.
    At a key point in the movie, Janis also must make a crucial decision about her own relationship to the truth.
    By the movie's end, Almodovar has reminded us of a lesson that goes beyond Spain, the Spanish Civil War, and totalitarianism. We must dig up the past before we can put it to rest. We owe it to the dead and to ourselves.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

It's January. Do we need to wake up yet?


The Pink Cloud

     The thing about January, at least in terms of movies, is that there’s not much to say. Many moviegoers are still catching up with last year’s best efforts. Moreover, a kind of tacit acknowledgment among the movie faithful promises that nothing terribly significant will happen before the new year tightens its grip on the collective consciousness.
    I’m excluding deaths, which this January included Peter Bogdanovich and Sidney Poitier. 
     Sad news aside, it’s with low-voltage spirit — or maybe it’s just a mood — that I turned my attention to two movies that have the year 2022 firmly affixed to their release. 
    I begin with Shattered, a movie that falls into the category commonly known as thrillers. Such movies often tell stories in which crime figures prominently.  The nastier the crime, the bigger the supposed thrills.
     Classified as a thriller, Shattered caught my attention because it features an appearance by John Malkovich.  Malkovich can project a judgmental quality embellished by hints of superiority. He knows how to add a sinister garnish to a commonly turned phrase.
    Unfortunately for Shattered, Malkovich portrays a minor character, a motel operator whom the screenplay eventually feeds to its femme fatale, a conniving woman who inflicts pain and death with an angelic, choir-girl smile plastered on her face.
     Shot from certain angles, this woman (Lilly Krug) looks beautifully innocent. We’re meant to understand that a lonely, newly divorced tech whiz (Cameron Monaghan) could easily be infatuated by her.
     Having sold his company for a mega-fortune, our tech whiz has moved into an isolated house in Montana that reeks of modernism. 
      Shattered involves a home invasion with a twist. The homeowner -- Chris by name -- invites the perpetrator into his house after she offers to nurse him back to health. While walking to his car with his new love interest, Chris was attacked by a pipe-wielding thug. The result: a badly broken leg.
    The screenplay touches the expected bases. We’re briefly introduced to Chris's former wife (Sasha Luss) and his young daughter (Ridely Asher Bateman), a sure sign that they will re-emerge at some later point.
       Krug's Sky has no interest in the tech whiz aside from the fact that he’s rich. Predictably heartless, she's unfazed by the sadistic impulse required to drill into the cast that encases Chris's mangled leg. She wants to steal Chris's identity and take his fortune. She's cruel but shallow.
       Just in case we didn't know that Sky is up to no good, she also murders her lesbian lover and roommate (Ash Santos), having moved in with Santos's character because her digs offered a view of the tech whiz’s home. Sky used a telescope to case the joint.
      Eventually, Sky's partner in crime (Frank Grillo) shows up, perhaps for no other reason than to break the sadistic monotony of Sky’s cruel rampage. 
      A familiar, played-out story leaves us to wonder how much we're supposed to care about an MIT grad who seems to have over-achieved himself into what looks like early and pointless retirement.
       Formula hardly matters in movies anymore but character still does, and Shattered’s crew falls low on the interest scale.
       Nothing about The Pink Cloud -- an allegorical offering from Brazil -- qualifies the movie as a thriller. Though shot before COVID, the movie acquires topical resonance in these days of quarantine and isolation, which -- as I'll explain later -- becomes a double-edged sword.
       The Pink Cloud poses an interesting question: What would happen if you found yourself quarantined with a stranger with whom you’d just had a sexual encounter? What if a diverting afternoon's   pleasure suddenly turned into a kind of sentence?
        So goes the fate of Giovana (Renata de Lelis) and Yago (Eduardo Madonna), the unfortunate duo that learns they are stuck in Giovana's apartment after a lethal pink cloud descends on their  town. 
   Once exposed to the mysterious cloud, death occurs within 10 seconds.
    The situation might have been bearable for both Giovana and Yago had it not gone for years. But the damn cloud won't go away.
     As time passes, the movie’s reluctant couple deals with the birth of a son, the result of their first encounter. They eventually tire of each other and seek ways to escape their isolation. He tries virtual relationships and she immerses in a virtual reality mask that enables her to simulate the experience of lying on a sandy beach. 
       Pink Cloud explores relationships in pressure cookers while glancing at parental responsibilities in a severely limited world. 
     Interesting stuff, but the movie solves some of its problems a bit too easily. Food and other purchases are delivered through a tube that attaches to one of the apartment's windows. It’s not clear how the movie's implied economy works. 
    And, of course,  neither we nor the characters know where the cloud came from. Perhaps, it originated in Metaphor Land, inviting comparison to any situation in which the atmosphere suddenly turns toxic.
    Director Iuli Gerbase's employs a couple of Zoom calls and FaceTime exchanges to open things up, but the movie centers around the way Giovana and Yago differ. Simply put, she yearns for the outside world; he comes to terms with confinement and may even like it.
    The two actors are good, but haven't we had a taste of isolation and sensory deprivation during the past couple of Covid years? The idea of experiencing more of it in a movie may not be the most appealing of prospects. 
    It may be odd to say but Gerbase seems to have made the movie too effective for its own good. I appreciated the effort but wanted out.

    So that’s early January. 
     I want to say something about Poitier. Poitier became a star when I was a kid. I saw The Defiant Ones (1958) at the Embassy Theater in North Bergen, New Jersey. I remember thinking that Tony Curtis, with a southern accent by way of New York, was no match for Poitier. 
     With its italicized symbolism — white and black convicts chained to each other and on the run — survives more as a social artifact than a telling statement about race in America.  
     Times have changed but current views about race haven't impinged on Poitier’s movie-star status. 
    If I had to pick a favorite Poitier movie it would be Raisin in the Sun, a 1961 big-screen adaptation of Loraine Hansberry’s play. As Walter Lee Younger, Poitier gave one of his angriest, most vulnerable performances. He made us feel Walter Lee’s delusions, as well as the intensity of his desire to break the bonds of a suffocating job as a white man’s chauffeur.
     Like most memorable actors, Poitier infused his work with flavors (anger, conviction, and stature among them) that suggest far more than what was often written on the pages of the screenplays he brought to life.  
       He was one of the greats. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

They can save world. What about the movie?

  Who says movies can't be educational? 
  The 355, a Bond-like thriller starring Jessica Chastain, derives its title from Agent 355, a real-life woman who spied for the rebel colonists during the Revolutionary War. 
  Yes, that was news to me, too.
  Oh well, the movie's title hints at the only revolutionary thing about it. The 355 quickly establishes itself as a formula job that tries so hard to attain franchise status, it might as well have been called The 355, Chapter 1. 
  Directed by Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) from a screenplay he wrote with Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith, The 355 pits five women -- Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, and, late in the movie, Fan Bingbing -- against an evil genius who's trying to snare a device that can cripple the world's computer networks.
    Much of the time, it seems as if The 355 has been concocted to demonstrate the obvious: Women can make butt-kicking movies, too. 
    Of the women, though, only Kruger seems adept at projecting a killer vibe. Nyong'o plays a computer whiz who's trying to break with her MI6 past. Cruz? I'll get to her later.
   Chastain's Mace (short for Mason) and Kruger's Marie, a German agent, begin the movie as antagonists, squaring off in a chase sequence set in the Paris Metro. 
    Mostly, though, these women don't travel by subway. Instead, they globe hop from Paris to Marrakesh to Shanghai as the story contrives to unite them against a common foe.
   Absent a compelling story, we're left to wonder whether someone thought A-list pizzaz could elevate the movie's collection of undistinguished action, predictable plot points, personal betrayals, and slick packaging. 
   The 355 does feature one unusual job: Cruz plays a shrink with a narrow specialty. Her Graciela counsels Colombian secret agents and enters the picture to provide therapy for a rogue agent played by Edgar Ramirez
   Sebastian Stan portrays one of Mace's fellow CIA agents as well as a sort of minor (very) love interest.
   If by some miracle, there's a second helping of this uninspired brew, a title already awaits. How about The 356?

Thursday, January 6, 2022

He becomes a hero. Is that a good thing?


 Iranian director Asghar Farhadi embraces moral ambiguity. His characters almost always are complex creations, which means that his is a cinema built on unreliable first impressions.
   In A Hero, Farhadi shows us that a web of lies can ensnare just about everyone it touches. And as is often the case, Farhadi uses a specific story as a lever from which to launch a many-faceted look at Iranian society.
   The movie begins when Rahim (Amir Jadidi),  a divorced prisoner, visits a historical site where his brother-in-law (Alireza Jahandideh) plies his trade as a construction worker. On a two-day pass from confinement, Rahim hopes to find a way to repay the debt that sent him to prison in the first place.
  Rahim, we soon learn, owes money to an unforgiving creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh) who believes that Rahim is a fraud and who also happens have been a relative from his former marriage.
   A specialist in bad luck, Rahim is also a victim: He borrowed money to start a business but his partner absconded with the funds
    Rahim's goals are simple: He wants to reestablish a relationship with his young son (Saleh Karimai) and marry his new sweetheart (Sahar Goldust). 
    Worthy aims, but nothing in Rahim's life can proceed until he pays off his debt. He's trapped by circumstance, and Jadidi makes us feel the squeeze that tightens around a man with few resources at his disposal.
     I guess you could say that Rahim wants to claw his way back into the middle class. 
    The movie hinges on a whopping contrivance. Early on, Goldust's character finds a handbag containing 17 gold coins. Could this be the change of luck that enables Rahim to pay his debt and resume a normal life?
   Unable to sell the coins for enough money to clear his debt, Rahim decides that he might as well submit to the dictates of conscience. He begins posting fliers announcing that he has found a handbag and wants to return it its owner. 
    A grateful woman shows up, claims her property, and vanishes.
     Much of the rest of the movie involves the various ways in which others perceive Rahim's “honesty.”
    Hearing of Rahim's "heroism," the prison authorities try to capitalize on the story of an honest prisoner. When a TV crew interviews Rahim, a nonentity becomes a role model. 
    Rahim exemplifies the success of the prison system -- and he begins to enjoy his new status, which is also celebrated on social media, not a good sign because we all know that what social media gives, it also quickly can take away.
     Eventually, a bureaucrat begins to investigate Rahim's story and we sense that nothing good will come of the fuss when Rahim creates a ruse of his own.
     Farhadi (A Separation) piles on the complexities -- perhaps to the point where his characters are slightly obscured and the movie begins to feel too issue-oriented, an attempt to find the point where the personal and social conflate and collide.
     Still, A Hero shouldn’t be discounted. In a contest that could be viewed as a measure to see who (if anyone) will emerge as a good guy, it should surprise no one that Farhadi finds no real winners.

Familiar scenario but a few new twists

In 1967’s Wait Until Dark, Audrey Hepburn played a blind woman confronting a vicious criminal (Alan Arkin). The idea of a blind person trying to fight off home invaders hardly qualifies as new, but See For Me benefits from a couple of novel twists, the principal one involving an app called See For Me, which gives the movie its title. A blind woman (a visually impaired Skyler Davenport) takes a job cat sitting in a luxe home in a forest. As a former skier, Davenport's Sophie has become bitter at being robbed of her career by a degenerative eye disease. Upon arriving at the home,  Sophie calls her pal Cam (Keaton Kaplan) and asks him to guide her through the house using her cell phone. He balks when Sophie proposes stealing an expensive bottle of wine for re-sale, something she’s evidently done before. When Sophie locks herself out of the house, she calls the See for Me app and makes contact with Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a young woman who helps Sophie re-enter the house and also becomes her lifeline when Sophie realizes that several men have broken into the house. They're thieves for whom Sophie becomes a surprise obstacle. Director Randall Okita occasionally taxes credibility but deftly builds tension in ways that may remind some viewers of Don't Breathe, a 2016 movie in which a blind veteran confronts three thieves. While not entirely fresh, See For Me proves a mostly efficient helping of genre entertainment.