Thursday, May 26, 2022

Major violence, small rewards -- and no saints


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

Monday, May 23, 2022

'Top Gun' sequel hits the right marks


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

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Another trip to 'Downton Abbey'


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

Transcending the ranks of campus comedy

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A film that lingers on death's doorstep

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

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

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Dr. Strange vanishes in a blur of action


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