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.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

This movie wants to "stop making sense"


     Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert -- a directing duo known as The Daniels -- overwhelm the screen with the aptly titled Everything Everywhere All at Once, a movie that spends more than two hours racing through a multiverse in which characters suddenly morph into alternate versions of themselves. 
     It's impossible to watch the Daniels maneuver through the chaos without acknowledging their ability to crack visual jokes, rip through dense helpings of exposition, and commit to a full-scale creative bombardment of the audience. 
     Now, it should be said that there are people who will enjoy this teeming barrage of a movie precisely because the Daniels don't skimp on invention. But those who don't think that comprehension and creativity are mortal enemies may find themselves looking for guard rails.
     No stranger to martial arts action, Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant to the US who runs a laundromat with her husband (Ke Huy Quan). Quan, you may remember, appeared in The Goonies as a kid. 
     Mired in a listless marriage, the exasperated Evelyn tries to deal with a lesbian daughter (Stephanie Hsu) who, in one of the movie's alternate universes, assumes an entirely different identity.
    If you see the film, keep an eye out for a character named Jobu Tupaki. Also watch for the giant everything bagel.
     No, I'm not kidding, although the Daniels probably are — at least I hope so.
     The Daniels seem to have dedicated themselves to the idea that quiet equals boredom. Blink and you'll be watching a fight scene in which Quan's Waymond turns a fanny pack into a weapon. 
     During a scene in a tax office, Waymond reveals a new side of himself, providing Evelyn with instruction about how to "jump" from her current life into a parallel one in which she's a martial arts maven with a mission. She’ll find additional identities as the movie barrels forward, including a stint as a movie star.
    To further complicate matters Evelyn's visiting father (James Hong) never approved of her marriage to the feckless Waymond.
      Other characters pop in and out of various universes. Damn the transitions, it's full speed ahead. 
      Sporting a puffy paunch, Jamie Lee Curtis turns herself into a sight gag; she plays a dictatorial tax auditor who's appalled by Evelyn's haphazard record keeping. 
    The Daniels (Swiss Army Knife) convert distraction into attraction -- or at least they try. In one alternate universe, the characters have hotdogs for fingers, for example. In another, Evelyn and Joy turn up as rocks. 
    And, yes, it does feel as if everything we're seeing is happening all at once. Serious issues morph into cartoon-like jests. Sure lines blur but don’t we all live in a state of disorientation? So what if the movie’s scenes play like an explosion of hyperactive production numbers?
    Everything Everywhere All at Once will delight some and confound others as it offers a cafeteria-style variety of pleasures: a terrific costume here, a funny bit there, an ingenious fight in another place.
     All frantic all the time, the movie gallops toward a conciliatory -- and I guess -- happy hug of an ending. 
     The trouble with this bumper serving of creativity is that the meal is not only glutted but served so fast, it's difficult to digest.
     Somewhere up there on the screen, there's a movie. Maybe dozens of them. If this sounds like your cup of chaos, have fun. As for me,  I guess I still prefer my movies one at a time.

No knockout for this rumble in the jungle

      Action, comedy, and romance are the hallmarks of many movies.
     The Lost City serves up generous amounts of each of these  ingredients yet still feels no more than adequate, possibly because the movie -- which pairs Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum -- doesn't provide its stars with anything that doesn't feel a little too familiar. 
    In itself, such a limitation might not be fatal but the movie also fails to sustain the comfort that sometimes makes formula movies not only tolerable but desirable, a feeling akin to stepping into a well-worn but comfortable pair of shoes.
     Bullock plays Loretta Sage, a successful author of romance novels who's sick of writing them. She's also sick of the model (Tatum) who has been posing for all of her book covers. 
    Tatum’s Alan appears on covers as Loretta's star creation, Dash, an adventurer with shoulder-length locks and a pumped-up body. Women love the books and swoon over Dash.
    Early on, Loretta is kidnapped and hauled off to a jungle island by a pampered rich guy (Daniel Radcliffe) who's given the unlikely name of Abigail Fairfax. 
    Fairfax's goal echoes that of many other villains: He's looking for lost treasure. He drags Loretta into the search because her late husband was an archaeologist and because a couple of ancient symbols appeared in one of Loretta's novels. 
    Neither provides much of a reason for kidnapping but then there isn't much reason for anything in The Lost City -- other than to dish out entertainment that floats in the wake of better movies -- from Romancing the Stone to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
     The initial kidnapping occurs while Loretta is on a book tour that has been arranged by her manager (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and another tag-along character (Patti Harrison as Loretta's social media manager.)
      Determined to rescue Loretta, Tatum's Alan follows. The two eventually find themselves tromping through jungles with motorcycle-riding thugs following in hot pursuit. 
      Among the movie's "big" moments: Channing bares his butt in a scene in which Loretta picks leaches off Alan's exposed body. Given a full frontal view (unseen by the audience), Loretta marvels over the size of Alan's ... well ... you know.
     Early on, the movie shows promise. Alan (in full Dash regalia) upstages Loretta during a tour appearance and when she disappears, he enlists the help of a mercenary played by Brad Pitt
     Had Pitt -- decorated with tattoos and a pony tale -- been in more of the movie, Lost City might have found a sweet spot. Pitt's Jack Trainer, a warrior and mediation master, has the skills of an adventurer that, for Alan, don't go beyond posing for book covers.
     Sadly, Pitt's appearance amounts to a slightly swollen cameo. That leaves Bullock and Tatum with the task of gradually igniting the sparks of romance.
     OK. No need to go overboard with negativity. The movie's comic byplay scores as passable. Moreover, the movie doesn't want for exotic locations. (Most of the filming was done in the Dominican Republic.)
    Adam and Aaron Nee (Band of Robbers) handle directing chores in breezy if not buzz-worthy fashion. 
   But the main attractions are Bullock and Tatum. They know how to work the material but the material ... well ...  that's another story and not a particularly inspired one.

A determined rescue in blinding snow

 Not every movie wins the battle when it comes to fighting nature. Director Malgorzata Szumowska's Infinite Storm gets halfway there. The movie pits an experienced mountain hiker (Naomi Watts) against a raging winter storm. Not only must Watts' character save herself, but she must also rescue a discombobulated hiker (Billy Howle) who climbed New Hampshire's Mount Washington to commit suicide.  Based on a true story, Infinite Storm offers a powerful twist: Howle's nameless character doesn't want to be rescued — at least not at first. Scenes in which Watts (as Pam Bales) searches for the badly dehydrated young man have some charge, as do the ordeals in which Bales and her reluctant charge confront treacherous obstacles. Howle's character refuses to share his name with Bales so she calls him "John." Well and good, but flashbacks to Pam's past (perhaps added to provide emotional heft) disrupt the survivalist flow. John receives a bit of backstory, as well. The Slovenian alps substituted for New Hampshire and the mountain views can be forbidding but Infinite Storm might have benefited either from more depth or fierce streamlining. I'd opt for the latter: Caught in blinding snow, the only motivation that probably matters is getting out alive.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Two very different horror films: 'X' and 'Master'

    Contemporary horror has gotten meaty enough that I'm sure it has inspired doctoral theses wherever film studies are taught. Thanks in large part to Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us), racial prejudice has joined the world of horror movies. You can include the recent Candy Man in that category, as well.
  Then there's the world of horror served straight no chaser, movies that are more aligned with the history of horror than with any topical issue. These movies require that we know that filmmakers are keenly aware of horror conventions and precedents. Such films may be violent and even vile, but we're expected to be in on the joke. 
    Let's start with a movie that's both a riff on previous efforts and an attempt to deliver an alarmingly  sleazy helping of horror. 
  X walks in the bloody footsteps of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a variety of other movies that aficionados will easily identify. 
   Director Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) also takes a bow toward Boogie Nights as he tells the story of a group of young folks who gather at an isolated farmhouse to make a porn film. The year: 1979.
    The cast includes the porn movie's female leads (Brittany Snow and Mia Goth) and a young woman (Jenna Ortega) whose original job involves the production's sound. Ortega's Lorraine eventually decides that if she's going to work on a porn film, she might as well be in one. Porn seems less a matter of talent than of a simple decision. Yes or no? The women decide.
   The men are represented by Martin Henderson as a low-rent impresario with few illusions about what he's doing. He's joined by Owen Campbell as RJ, an aspiring filmmaker who deludes himself into thinking he's making an independent film. Kid Cudi plays the well-hung Jackson, the male star of the porn film which is given silly a throwback title, The Farmer's Daughter.
    Trouble, of course, lurks. The crew has rented a facility from a farmer and his wife, characters we instantly recognize as lethally dangerous. Both are old to the point of desiccation with leathery skin that looks as if it might have been preserved in formaldehyde. 
     I won't get into spoilers but you should know that West doesn't skimp on gore or nudity. He tries to serve two masters: an audience that's hip to horror ploys but also wants to be creeped out and shocked.
     He does a bit of both in a movie that adds thematic weight to its blood-clogged pores, much of it centering on Pearl, the farmer's wife. Pearl laments the loss of her beauty and sexuality and, therefore despises, a youthful crew that has turned sex into something that requires only consent.
     The old woman wants nothing more than to be desired, the one thing age has denied her. West occasionally photographs her with backlighting that seems to liberate her from time and hints at how she might once have looked.
     (I haven’t named the actress that plays Pearl but suggest you look it up after you’ve seen the movie.)
     Occasionally, we see a preacher railing about sin and hellfire on a black-and-white TV in the farmer's house, a detail that yields an unexpected payoff before the movie ends.
     West does a reasonably good job of mixing skin and gore, although the movie's willingness to kneel at the altar of contemporary horror keeps it a bit hemmed in: We know we're watching a movie -- albeit one that inhales deeply and breathes sleaze.
       Whether you want to breathe along with it remains an open question. Know this, though, X may not transcend its horror  niche but it embraces it with unwavering commitment.
    In Master, director Mariama Diallo takes a different tack. Diallo has made a horror film in which the characters are haunted by institutional racism at fictional Ancaster College.
      The prestigious school has a tarnished history.  In its early years, a woman was hanged for witchcraft. Since then the students have perpetuated a legend: Every year, the witch's ghost selects a freshman whose soul she will steal on the anniversary of her death.
      Enter Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a high school valedictorian who we instantly know will be the witch's next target. Along with her roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder), Jasmine is assigned to Room 302, which has a history of turning at least one of its occupants into a victim. 
       It's less a room assignment than a sentence.
       At Ancaster, Jasmine faces both supernatural and social threats. The student body isn't welcoming. 
       A fine performance from Regina Hall as a housemaster and tenured academic helps raise questions about the price a black student pays to prove worthy in an institution steeped in white bona fides.
       Amber Gray plays Liv Beckman, a Black professor who pushes wokeness on her students. Jasmine's paper on  The Scarlet Letter earns an F from BeckmanPoor Jasmine. She failed to connect Hawthorne's story to critical race theory.  
      The film also makes room for a mystery about a woman who insistently phones Hall's character and, of course, there's the ghost.
       Master might be a case in which the horror could have been dropped to good effect. Racism in academia remains a valid and important subject and it might have benefited from a bit more subtlety.
        Eerie manipulations and obviousness aside, Master still manages to hit some powerful notes about the endemic persistence of racism in the so-called "best of circles."


Sunday, March 13, 2022

The 2022 Critics Choice Awards

   The Critics Choice Association announced its 27th annual awards Sunday (March 13), thus upping the odds that The Power of the Dog -- winner of the Association's best picture -- will nab a best-picture Oscar in two weeks. 
   The Power of the Dog also won best director (Jane Campion), best adapted screenplay, and best cinematography.
   The winners of the CCA's awards, it should be pointed out, often serve as bellwethers for Oscar. It's also worth noting that the CCA awards include categories (best ensemble and best comedy, for example) that you won't find on Oscar's list.
   I should also point out that I'm a member of the Critics Choice Association (movies, not TV). 
   Here's a list of all the movie winners. Winners are listed in bold. Other nominees follow.
Best Picture

The Power of the Dog
Don't Look Up
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
Nightmare Alley
Tick, Tick ... Boom!
West Side Story

Best Actor

Will Smith, King Richard
Nicolas Cage, Pig
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Peter Dinklage, Cyrano
Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick ... Boom!
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

 Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Lady Gaga, House of Gucci
Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Best Supporting Actor

Troy Kosur, Coda
Jamie Dornan, Belfast
Ciaran Hinds, Belfast
Jared Leto, House of Gucci
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Caitriona Balfe, Belfast
Ann Dowd, Mass
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard
Rita Moreno, West Side Story

Best Young Actor/Actress
Jude Hill, Belfast
Cooper Hoffman, Licorice Pizza
Emilia Jones, CODA
Woody Norman, C'mon, C'mon
Saniyya Sidney, King Richard
Rachel Zegler, West Side Story

Best Acting Ensemble
Don't Look Up
The Harder They Fall
Licorice Pizza
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story

Best Director
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Denis Villeneuve, Dune

Best Original Screenplay
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Zach Baylin, King Richard
Adam McKay, David Sirota, Don't Look Up
Aaron Sorkin, Being the Ricardos

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
Sian Heder, CODA
Tony Kushner, West Side Story
Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, Dune

Best Cinematography
Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog
Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
Greig Fraser, Dune
Janusz Kaminski, West Side Story
Dan Lausten, Nightmare Alley
Haris Zambarloukos, Belfast

Best Production Design
Patrice Vermette, Zsuzanna Sipos, Dune
Jim Clay, Claire Nia Richards, Belfast
Tamara Deverell, Shane Vieau, Nightmare Alley
Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo, The French Dispatch
Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo, West Side Story

Best Editing
Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn, West Side Story
Una Ni Dhonghaile, Belfast
Andy Jurgensen, Licorice Pizza
Peter Sciberras, The Power of the Dog
Joe Walker, Dune

Best Costume Design
Jenny Beavan, Cruella
Luis Sequeira, Nightmare Alley
Paul Tazewell, West Side Story
Jacqueline West, Robert Morgan, Dune
Janty Yates, House of Gucci

Best Hair and Makeup
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
House of Gucci
Nightmare Alley

Best Visual Effects
The Matrix Resurrections
Nightmare Alley
No Time To Die
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Best Comedy
Licorice Pizza
Barb and Star Go Vista Del Mar
Don't Look Up
Free Guy
The French Dispatch

Best Animated Feature
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon

Best Foreign Language Film
Drive My Car
A Hero
The Hand of God
The Worst Person in the World

Best Song
No Time to Die, No Time to Die
Be Alive, King Richard
Dos Oruguitas, Encanto
Guns Go Bang, The Harder They Fall
Just Look Up, Don't Look Up

Best Score
Hans Zimmer, Dune
Nicholas Britell, Don't Look Up
Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
Jonny Greenwood, Spencer
Nathan Johnson, Nightmare Alley

Thursday, March 10, 2022

He brings quips on his time-travel trip

     Hints of Back to the Future waft through The Adam Project, a story in which a time traveler meets his younger self and tries to spare humanity from the oppressive future in which the movie begins.
     Working from a screenplay credited to four writers,  director Shawn Levy (Free Guy and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) does his best to freshen a formula that relies heavily on Ryan Reynolds's already established ability to be charmingly snide. 
       The well-received Free Guy (not by me) paves the way for  a  Levy/Reynolds collaboration that lacks the intricate maneuvers of the first movie but probably will please some fans. 
       Me? I’m lukewarm.
     Levy tries to give his movie a satisfying emotional core; i.e., a sentimental conclusion with wholesome messages attached, one strengthened by the presence of Mark Ruffalo as Adam’s father, a physicist who assures his son that he really did love him.
       Forgive the past tense here. Blame time travel.
       A strong cast that also includes Jennifer Garner, Zoe Saldana, and Catherine Keener adds appeal to a movie that employs action and special effects to show Reynolds's Adam Reed stealing a spaceship in 2050, plunging through a worm hole, and landing in 2022, the year in which he was 12. 
    Walker Scobell portrays young Adam, a quick-witted kid who's bullied at school. He may not be furious with his fists but he's seldom at a loss for words, a quality that sets up lots of verbal byplay between the two Adams.
      In 2022, young Adam is ensconced in middle school. He lives with his recently widowed mom (Garner). She’s confused about how to deal with a kid who can't always avoid trouble.  
     So why is the adult Adam racing through time? He wants to find his wife (Saldana) to alter a future in which she will fall prey to an evil corporate titan (Keener) who’s up to no good no matter what period in which she lands.
    Amid the somewhat generic action, Levy delivers bromides  about mother/son love and father/son reconciliation, not to mention the way lovers are destined to find each other in whatever time they live.
     The supporting cast helps elevate the proceedings, which lean heavily on Reynolds's ability to be the cynical guy who eventually learns that a heartfelt statement can be better than a quip. 
      No point, delving into plot mechanics. Know, though, that some of the interchanges between the two Adams are amusing and the movie establishes itself as amiably familiar, which -- I guess -- is better than stunningly awful.
     Or, as the clerk at the DMV shouted to the long line of license seekers, “Next.”

Two strangers on a hellish train ride


     In Compartment No. 6, a Finnish production set in Russia during the 1990s, a young woman takes what begins as one of the worst train rides in history.  
      Laura (Seidi Haarla) hails from Finland and studies language and archeology in Moscow. To supplement her studies, she wants to see the Kanozero petroglyphs, 5,000-year-old rock drawings located in north western Russia.
    Before departing, Laura attends a party hosted by the woman she regards as her girlfriend (Dinara Drukarova).  The two were supposed to travel together but Drukarova's Irina bowed out at the last minute, an early sign that she has lost interest in Laura.
    On the train, Laura is assigned a compartment with an unruly young Russian (Yuriy Borisov). Borisov’s Ljoha drinks, curses, and makes crude sexual advances. 
    Laura seeks different accommodations. The conductor, a woman who resembles a prison guard, insists that Laura remain in her second-class compartment. 
   Boorish and loud, Ljoha boasts about his patriotism ("Russia is a great country") and generally makes a nuisance of himself until he passes out. 
    Later, he’ll announce that all humans should be killed, the kind of sweeping statement you'd expect from a man with a shaved head and a major scar running down is forehead.
   But this amped-up bit of misanthropy isn't what it seems:  Ljoha's responding to news that a young guitar-playing wanderer from Finland has stolen Laura's camera -- after she was kind enough to invite him to share their compartment.
     Borisov reminded me (at least a little) of Toshiro Mifune; he's playing a man of boisterous physicality. He's half-offensive and half-comic and it seems apparent from the outset that director Juho Kuosmanen (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki) won't be making a rom-com about two mismatched strangers who fall for each other.
   That's a clue about how the movie operates. Kuosmanen subverts expectation as he explores the possibility for something approaching genuine connection.
    If you've ever wondered what Russia was like in the early days of the post-Soviet era, Kuosmanen provides a good feel for a country that still seems mired in Soviet gloom. Ljoha is headed to Murmansk to work in nearby mines; Laura seems uncertain about what she's doing.
   Kuosmanen filmed on trains, not in a studio, a choice that enables him to make us feel the confinement passengers experience during a journey that unfolds over several days. 
   The mood softens as Laura and Ljoha get to know each other and we begin to think that Ljoha might not be as awful as he first seemed.
   During an overnight stop, Ljoha hot-wires a car and takes Laura to meet an older woman who dispenses advice and shares ample quantities of homemade liquor that she refers to as moonshine. 
    The movie’s period trappings can seem a little shocking. In the absence of cell phones, Laura makes calls from phone booths. Phone booths? Remember them?
   Compartment No. 6 captures the shabby particularity of a part of the Russian environment as it must have existed in the 1990s, a time before the world seemed more homogenized.
     Kuosmanen reveals character under strained circumstances, allowing Laura and Ljoha to emerge as two lonely people lost in the desolation of a dreary Russian winter.
      Don’t panic, though. Kuosmanen skips past depression with two characters we slowly learn to care about and with a view of Russia that few of his ever will see particularly in these days when Russia isn’t exactly anyone’s destination of choice.

Friday, March 4, 2022

A meditative helping of low-key sci-fi

   Korean-born director Kogonada has a keenly developed aesthetic sense. In After Yang, a futuristic story in which a family loses a companion -- an android known as a technosapien -- Kogonada sustains a meditative mood that gets into your head and under your skin.
   The movie has a story of sorts. Android Yang (Justin H. Min) has been purchased as a companion for the adopted Chinese daughter (Malek Emma Tjandrawidjaja) of Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). 
   When Yang breaks down, young Mika becomes distraught. Her parents purchased Yang to be a companion and to help school young Mika in Chinese culture.
   What's a dad to do? Try to get Yang repaired, of course. 
   Turns out Yang was purchased as a refurbished model and the company that issued Yang's warranty has gone out of business. Jake tries an unauthorized repairman (Ritchie Coster), who says Yang might be equipped with spyware. He gives Jake Yang's memory chip (or something like it) and suggests that he review its contents before deciding whether to repair Yang or let the technosapien "decompose."
    Jake then consults a professional (Sarita Choudhury) who helps him browse Yang's memory. He learns about Yang's connections beyond the family, notably with a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) who once worked as a barista.  
    Kogonada's movie falls mostly on Farrell's shoulders. Jake sorts through Yang's memories, a task that forces him to ponder the relationship between memory and humanity. 
    Even as Jake's inner turmoil is suggested by a restrained Farrell, the movie operates under a transfixing calm. After Yang floats by easily, challenging assumptions about ethnicity and other matters. Complex issues rise like bubbles in a stream.
   If you're waiting for a knock-out plot development, you may still be waiting after the end credits roll. Kogonada  (Columbus) looks at big issues through a narrow gauge, the design of the home occupied by this family, the driverless car with plants growing in it (we see only the car's interior), and the delicacy with which Farrell approaches brewing a cup of tea.
    Kogonada leaves it to us to decide what to make of the way Jake and his wife connect as parents too busy to fully relate to their child and each other.  It's not only Mika who misses Yang; the family doesn't quite know how to function without him.
    Making a movie of subtly shifting tones is a gamble that doesn't always pay off and Kogonada offers little by way of explanation of how humanity has arrived at this multi-cultural, multi-racial point. 
    Still, I found it impossible to watch After Yang without getting caught in its quiet flow. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

A Palestinian woman faces impossible choices

    Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad tackles a series of difficult issues in Huda's Salon, a movie in which a hair appointment triggers a complicated series of choices for a woman living in the West Bank. 
   Initially, it seems as if Huda's Salon will be a genial look at interactions between an ordinary woman and her hairdresser, a salon-based movie in which casual conversations become increasingly revealing.
   When the movie begins, Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is having her hair washed by Huda (Manal Awad), who owns the salon that gives the movie its title.
   The two chat about Reem's controlling husband (Jarwal Masarwa). Reem wants to return to work as a hairdresser; her obsessively jealous husband wants her to play the traditional roles of wife and mother to their infant daughter.
    Then, the entire shape of the movie shifts. 
    It's difficult to say more without including spoilers, but I'll tell you that Huda involves Reem in a situation that puts her under great stress. She connives to force Reem into spying for the Israelis. 
    The rest of the movie involves the ways in which Reem tries to escape the vice grip of a situation in which there seem to be no good choices. 
      Huda eventually falls into the hands of the resistance and is subjected to interrogation by Hassan (Ali Suliman).  Scenes between Huda and her captor feel a bit like a stage play in which two opposing characters learn that they share some of the same weaknesses.
    An Israeli presence is mostly implied but it's clear that Abu-Assad wants to explore life in a pressure cooker environment in which issues of patriarchy, politics, and betrayal collide.
    Elhadi conveys the fury and frustration of a woman trapped by marriage and circumstances over which she has little control. Awad's Huda expresses the deep resignation of a compromised woman who long ago abandoned hope that she could survive.
    Abu-Assad ratchets up tension -- even though his direction hardly can be called slick or supple. 
    By the time Huda's Salon concludes, we're as conflicted as the characters about the harsh decisions they're forced to make. I'm guessing that's precisely where Abu-Assad wanted to leave us.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Can a despairing Batman still fight crime?


       Shrouded in darkness and despair, Gotham City has become a crime-ridden disaster zone.
     Batman -- or should we say The Batman -- is riven by doubt, unsure that battling one villain after another has done anything to win the war on crime.
     Such is the grim environment director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and a couple of Planet of the Apes movies) creates in The Batman, a movie whose Neo-noir ambitions overshadow attempts at comic-book verve. 
     Robert Pattinson's despairing Batman seems as likely to take a suicidal jump off a tall building than to leap to the rescue of an endangered stranger. 
     And in his Bruce Wayne identity, Pattinson looks like a refugee from a Grunge rock band, a shaggy-haired rich kid unsure of his place in an irredeemably corrupt city.
     Batman is more isolated than ever. The cops view him as a vigilante and intruder. Only detective James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) regards Batman as an invaluable crime-fighting resource. 
     Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have concocted a plot that plays out against the light-starved cinematography of Greig Fraser. If you live in Gotham City, you don't need a weather report; you can bank on rain and a near-morbid gloom. 
      A couple of things need to be said early on. It's possible to view The Batman as a cousin of director Todd Reid's The Joker, although it contains nothing quite as daring or startling as Joaquin Phoenix's performance. It's also a clear descendant of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, only meaner.
     Moreover, dystopian visions  -- even when as well-executed as the one created by production designer James Chinlund -- aren't as shocking as they once were. A three-hour running time -- makes for a long wallow in the darkness of a movie that's hot for rot.
      Is that appropriate? We’re living through an extremely disturbing — some would say dire moment — but The Batman is not a response to global crisis; it’s a step in the evolution of a comic book character filmed before events sent people scurrying to find Moldova on a map.
      However it may be seen, the movie loads up on villainy. Principal villainous duties fall to Paul Dano (masked until the movie's finale) who plays The Riddler, a serial killer introduced when he murders Gotham's mayor. 
     An emotionally wounded maniac, The Riddler has lost all tolerance for hypocrisy, which means he's basically unfit for life in society.
      We also meet The Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell), who looks as if the might have been recruited from Al Capone's old gang. 
      The movie also includes conventional mob figures. Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) wields behind-the-scenes power in Gotham. He knows everyone's dirty secrets and uses them to make sure that he controls Gotham's lucrative corruptions.
      If you're looking for rays of light, you'll find some in the performance of Zoe Kravitz, whose Selina Kyle is in the process of emerging as Catwoman.
      Selina flirts with the impassive Batman but he's hidden in his creaky redoubt of uncertainty. He's too busy looking for reasons to carry on to pause for either sex or love.
     Reeves doesn't skimp on action. Fight scenes and an old-fashioned car chase satisfy the need for speed.
     At its best, The Batman drips with shuddering dread. Too bad the movie concludes with a half-hearted attempt at a hopeful resolve, a letdown after so much dark commitment.
     I wish I could say that The Batman was a triumph. It's not. But it's no schlocky misfire either. Reeves asks us to join Batam as he tries to determine whether his work has meaning. 
     Maybe it's a stretch, but I wondered whether Reeves hasn't ----- in that way -- made us partners in the effort to keep a franchise alive, to keep Batman functioning in a badly compromised world. He probably has.
     Of course, I recognize that you may have more important things to worry about -- at least I hope you do.