Thursday, February 23, 2023

This ‘Bear' didn't gnaw on my funny bone

   Braving snow and extreme cold, I went to a preview screening of Cocaine Bear. I didn’t expect a must-see movie but I was curious to learn what filmmakers might do with a story based on an oddball report from the 1980s.
   In 1985, a drug smuggler leaped from a plane after dumping much of the cocaine he was transporting. The poor man's parachute didn’t open, the smuggler died, and the cocaine landed in a Georgia forest. A bear ingested some of the cocaine. Eventually, it was found dead, too.
   I had never head the story before reading about the movie inspired by this long-ago incident but two things immediately struck me. Both the 1980s and cocaine jokes are culturally passé, a dated backdrop for a contemporary story.
    The movie’s trailer seemed to suggest that the filmmakers were trying for a blend of horror and comedy, mixing jump scares, gory gags, and goofy characters, nothing to be taken seriously. 
   That’s pretty much what the filmmakers achieve in a strained attempt to make something out of the movie’s weird hook.
   Director Elizabeth Banks concentrates the story in Georgia's Chattahochee-Oconee  National Forest where a variety of folks embark on different searches -- all while trying to avoid turning into bear food.
   -- A mom (Keri Russell) searches for her teenage daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her daughter’s pal (Christian Convery). 
    -- A detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)  tries to track down drug smugglers. 
    -- And some lame drug dealers (Alden Ehrenreich and O'Shea Jackson Jr.) seek to recover the product they hoped to sell. 
   -- In his final screen appearance, Ray Liotta plays the father of one of the drug dealers, a two-bit drug lord with little regard for human or animal life.
   -- Margo Martindale shows up as a horny park ranger. 
   I'm omitting some of the cast but it hardly matters because many of the movie’s humans wind up in pieces anyway. A severed leg here. A head there. Entrails streaming from torsos. You get the idea.
   Of course, a CGI bear terrorizes everyone with its claws, jaws, bear slobber, and insatiable appetite for increasing quantities of cocaine.  
   Banks can’t get much beyond the novel allure of the movie’s title, and Cocaine Bear, at least for me, didn't whip up enough scares or laughs to satisfy any initial curiosity.

A vivid look at a woman who wrote

 She wrote only one novel but it became a classic. She was thirty years old when she died of tuberculosis. One of her sisters also became a famous novelist. Sounds like Jeopardy, no? Answer: Who is Emily Bronte?
 In Emily, director Frances O'Connor draws on some the limited facts about Bronte’s brief life. More importantly, she finds something of the wildly independent spirit that infused Bronte's signature work, Wuthering Heights.
  That's not to say that Emily spends all its time brooding or wandering the moors that haunted Bronte's Heathcliff. Brilliantly rendered by Emma Mackey, Emily becomes a semi-fictional creation that helps us appreciate the artist behind the art, not a character who once lived but one who feels fully alive.
   The movie embeds Emily's story in her family life.
   Bronte's stuffy widowed father (Adrian Dunbar) favors sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and tolerates wayward brother Bran (Fionn Whitehead). 
   Gemma Jones portrays Aunt Branwell, the woman who holds the Bronte household together. As the youngest of the Bronte sisters, Anne (Amelia Gething) benefits from everyone's affection.
  Aspiring writers during the time the movie takes place, Emily and Charlotte engage in an intense sibling rivalry. Charlotte, of course, wrote Jane Eyre, another highly regarded novel.
  Bronte scholars will recognize the many liberties that O'Connor, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, takes -- none more prominent than the inclusion of a torrid love affair between Emily and newly arrived clergyman William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). 
   Tormented by his clerical conscience, Weightman staggers into an affair that Emily has far less trouble embracing. He can't entirely overcome the guilt that springs from an ingrained sense of propriety. 
    It's hardly a spoiler to note that the affair leads to heartbreak and allows O'Connor to make effective use of a hoary literary conceit. No fair telling more but this risky ploy easily could have curdled. Instead, it works, giving the movie a novelistic feel.
    Emily's brother Branwell proves a delusional mess, the Bronte who declares himself a writer and romanticizes his role as such. The problem: If he ever had any talent, Bran surrendered it to drink and opium.
    When Branwell shares a manuscript with Emily, she delivers a takedown so withering, it may give you chills. I was tempted to try to copy it verbatim should the need for such a brutally honest reaction ever present itself. And, no, I don't think it I could say those words to anyone.
     In the movie's most unsettling scene, Emily dons a mask that her father had made of her late mother. She seems to channel her mother's spirit. I didn't quite know what to make of the moment and I'm not sure the movie did either. Still, it augments the unease surrounding Emily, the feeling that she exists at a remove from others.
    O'Connor presumes that we understand Emily's attraction to the fragrance and forbidding mysteries of the moors.  It helps I suppose to have read Wuthering Heights or at least seen William Wyler's 1939 adaptation starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. 
    Emily isn't a bona fide biopic. Maybe that's why the movie never feels as if it might by suffocated by period-piece trappings. Besides, Emily may be something better than a straight depiction of Bronte's life: A look at the vital spirit that burned in a writer whose dark novel about ferocious love still resonates almost 175 years after her death.

Bob's Cinema Diary: Feb. 24 -- 'Linoleum' and 'Juniper'


Few of us are lucky enough to live up to our own expectations. Those who have difficulty accepting this harsh truth often wind up bitter as they sift through the shards of crushed dreams. That's a tough way of talking about Linoleum, a mostly gentle comic movie that explores the life of Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan), a once aspiring physicist who uses his garage to host a makeshift science show for kids. When the remnants of a wayward satellite fall into Edwin's backyard, he decides to redeem his life by building a rocket that will take him to the moon. Director Colin West offers some startling sights -- notably, a red car falling from the sky -- to kick off his story. Somehow the driver of the car (also played by Gaffigan) survives and reveals that he's a former astronaut. Not only that, Edwin's show has been picked up for syndication with the former astronaut taking over Edwin's spot. To make matters worse, Edwin's wife (Rhea Seehorn) wants a divorce. His daughter (Katelyn Nacon) forms a relationship with the astronaut's son (Gabriel Rush).  By the end of the movie, West clears up the movie's mysteries and we realize that he has taken an unconventional approach to a story about recognizable themes. Brace for a scene of abuse that are tougher than the film's oddball tone might suggest. But credit West with imbuing his quirky (in the best sense of the word) movie with something more than novelty: the source and torment of unrealized potential. 


In Juniper, Charlotte Rampling plays an alcoholic who spent her professional life as a war photographer, a career that presumably led  her to consume massive quantities of a mixture composed of gin and water. Debilitated by a broken leg, Rampling's Ruth travels from England to New Zealand to visit her widowed son (Marton Csokas)  and her rebellious teenage grandson (George Ferrier). Csokas's character promptly leaves to settle business in Britain, asking his son Sam to help with Ruth's care, a prospect that Sam greets with unsurprising resentment. The presence of a traveling nurse (Edith Poor) helps ease Sam's torment. Rampling has no trouble conveying  Ruth's bitterness and her demanding sense of superiority. Still, it's too easy to see where Juniper is heading. What could have been a hard-edged look at an alcoholic and her troubled grandson softens into the story of a redeeming relationship between grandmother and grandson. Director Matthew J. Saville's efforts benefit from Rampling and the rest of the cast but I couldn’t buy a story in which grandma proves she can be one of the boys -- for the good of her grandson, of course. Rampling's astringent performance deserved a movie to match it.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

When boyhood meets adolescence


 In the Oscar-nominated Close (best international feature), Belgian director Lukas Dhont brings timely concerns about masculinity to a story focused on two boys whose friendship is challenged by the onset of adolescence. 
  The more artistic of the two, Remi (Gustave De Waele) is an accomplished oboe player with a well-developed imagination. More grounded, Leo (Eden Dambrine) still feels closely bonded to his friend. 
  As it must, though, the innocence of boyhood will fade.
  When a group of girls at school suggests that Remi and Leo might be "together," Leo and Remi are confronted with a view of themselves neither had anticipated. They see themselves as inseparable and ascribe nothing else to it.
   In response to the beginnings of peer pressure, Leo pulls away from Remi, opting to play hockey and spend more schoolyard time with other boys. He wants to be one of the guys. He may not admit it but he doesn't want to be thought of as gay.
   About midway through, Dhont puts aside the Edenic tone that marks the film's early going. He begins to explore issues of grief and guilt associated with a tragic development that can't be revealed without spoilers. 
    Dhont keeps his camera close to the boys, notably Dambrine who has the larger role and who carries the movie on his young shoulders.
     Among the supporting performances, Emile Dequenne (as Remi's mother) and Lea Drucker (as Leo's mom) do standout work. 
     With Close, Dhont joins the ranks of filmmakers who have obtained disarmingly natural performances from young actors, always something at which to marvel.
     It may be a minor point, but I found it interesting that the hockey-playing kids aren't vilified or turned into budding macho sadists. They're just kids playing a game they love.
   Close strives -- and often succeeds -- to bring sensitive and careful observation to a story about two boys at a crossroads that's difficult to navigate and he does it with sensitivity and respect for his characters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Ant-Man goes to the Quantum Realm


  As everyone now knows, Marvel has created a  universe of interrelated characters who often find themselves fighting to save the world — or perhaps many worlds in the case of Marvel's multiverse extravaganzas. 
  I'm far from a Marvel zealot, so I don't always find it easy to remember all the ways in which Marvel has woven its intricate tapestry of superheroes and supervillains, Avengers and those who must be vanquished.
 Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, the third free-standing Ant-Man movie, can be seen as one more stop on Marvel's never-ending highway. It's not without some pleasures but doesn't climb to the top of the Marvel mountain either.
  In what probably counts as a miscalculation, director Peyton Reed inflates the Ant-Man universe, downplaying the low-stakes quality of the previous movies by setting most of the story in the Quantum Realm.
    What’s that? If you’re looking for a scientific explanation, you’ll have to search elsewhere. The Quantum Realm is one more big-screen arena for the display of bizarre creatures, weird landscapes, and other digital creations that, at least in this case, amount to a mixed bag of goodies.
    At one point, multiple versions of Ant-Man appear, forcing the “real” Ant-Man into a pseudo- identity crisis or some such. 
   And late in the movie, an impressive army of ants launches a pivotal attack. These ants, we’ve been told, have techno capabilities but the story is less interested in ant genius than in stuffing the Quantum Realm with as much bric-a-brac as possible.
    What’s notable about the humans who carry the Ant-Man banner?
     Paul Rudd returns as Ant-Man and continues his comic take on the character who, in his human form, is known as Scott Lang. 
    Ant-Man’s teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) plays an important role, setting off the plot when she sends signals into the Quantum Realm, thus transporting the major characters to a dimension beyond space and time -- also possibly belief.
     Michael Douglas returns as Dr. Hank Pym, Ant-Man’s inventive, ant-obsessed father, and Michele Pfeiffer gets more screen time as Janet Van Dyne, mother of Hope Van Dyne, a.k.a. The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly). 
      The WASP, who shares the movie’s title with Ant-Man, appears when needed but sometimes seems like a bit of an afterthought.
     Inside the Quantum Realm, the screenplay divides the characters into groups, one centering on Janet Van Dyne; Janet’s importance stems from having spent nightmarish decades in the Quantum Realm. She knows its dangers.
      Ant-Man leads another group. Both groups are committed to a shopworn aspiration: They want to return home. 
     Of course, a villain must emerge.
     Meet Kang The Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken fiend who has been banished to the Quantum Realm and is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.     
      Well, not really. Kang, too, wants out. If only he had the power core that’s necessary to launch the ship that would allow him to travel to any realm. So many realms. So many opportunities to terrorize. 
    Say this for Powers, he imbues the story with a gravitas it barely can support.
     The movie's best creation might be MODAK, a golden sphere that houses the face of what's left of a man. MODAK bills itself as the Ultimate Weapon. It’s more like a sight gag, what might have happened had Salvador Dali decided to paint Humpty Dumpty.
    Early on, Bill Murray shows up as Lord Krylar. Seems he and Janet Van Dyne had a fling during her long stay in the Quantum Realm. Reed gives Murray an entrance befitting a significant character and then allows him to vanish. 
       A word on the name Krylar: How did the drug companies miss this one, as in “ Ask your doctor about Krylar?” 
       I can’t get too worked up about Quantumania’s stumbles. I also can’t say found this edition as amusing as the original Ant-Man, which was notable for its humor and, by Marvel standards, modesty.
       I left a preview screening with a shrug. I returned from the journey to the Quantum Realm feeling less like a satisfied moviegoer than a traveler who had acquired another stamp on my Marvel passport. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Ordinary life, familiar issues — a fine movie

  A number of years ago, a friend suggested that there are two kinds of movies: Those that are indisputably entertainments; i.e., they try to tell highly dramatized stories that operate at recognized distances from ordinary reality. 
  Nothing wrong with that but, as my friend argued, another kind of movie also deserves consideration, one that works on a smaller scale while trying to remind us,  “This is how we live.”
  The fine French film One Fine Morning belongs in this latter category, the cinema of ordinary life.
  Relying on a convincing performance from Lea Seydoux, French director Mia Hansen-Love introduces us to a widow and single mother who works as a translator. Seydoux's Sandra has a daughter (Camille Leban Martins) who needs attention. Nothing special. Just the attention eight-year-olds demand.
   The problems that Sandra encounters are vexing and familiar. Her father (Pascal Gregory) is losing himself to dementia, a particularly difficult affliction for a former philosophy professor whose life has revolved around reading and thinking.
   Long separated from her ex-husband, Sandra's mother (Nicole Garcia) tries to help, but she has moved on with her life as a political activist and refuses to make an emotional investment in her former husband’s situation.
    When it becomes clear that Sandra's father no longer can live independently, she attempts to place him in a good nursing home, a problem compounded by cost, waiting lists and practical considerations: What to do with all those books her father has accumulated, his prize possessions?
    Sandra’s life further complicates when she runs into Clement (Melvin Poupaud), an old friend who works as a cosmochemist, a job that has something to do with studying chemical compositions related to the origins of matter. A different kind of chemistry sparks.  A relationship develops. 
   Again, complications can't be avoided. Clement is married and has a young son. He also travels a great deal for his work. Hansen-Love doesn't portray Clement as a louse. He's genuinely conflicted about the affair he's having. Can he do the right thing? And what, in his case, is the right thing?
     For her part, Sandra needs many things: A mature sexual relationship, a solution to her father's problems, and the energy to continue her career while caring for her daughter. 
    Put another way, she's like millions of women who juggle their way through the intricate routines of daily life.
     Hansen-Love avoids the kind of plot points that thunder through a movie. Problems arise. Solutions are found. Compromises are made. Sandra's relationship with Clement assumes an on-again/off-again quality. 
     Credit Seydoux and Hansen-Love with an achievement that doesn’t call undue attention itself: They open a window into a life depicted with clarity but without either brutalizing sharpness or soggy empathy.    
     So, the we leave the movie by paying it the best compliment we can: Yes, this is how life was for some women in 2023. 

Friday, February 10, 2023

She tries to woo an old lover


Dave Franco directs his wife Alison Brie in Somebody I Used to Know, a comedy about an LA woman (Brie) who hits a career rough patch, retreats to her hometown, and reunites -- sort of -- with a former boyfriend (Jay Ellis). Brie's Ally also visits her mother (Julie Hagerty), a woman whose sexual encounters continually are interrupted by her daughter. Funny? Not really. Ally left her former beau to suffer when she went to Los Angeles hoping to become a serious filmmaker. Instead, she wound up producing a reality TV show, a hit for a while but then canceled. Ellis's Sean seems interested in Ally but instead of a straight-ahead romcom, we get a comedy with a complicating twist that sours a movie that wasn't all that great from the start: Sean is engaged to be married to Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons), a musician who has had relationships with other women but wants to settle down. Transparent in her motives  and off-putting to the point of obnoxiousness, Ally tries to forestall the pending nuptials. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Brie, Franco maneuvers his way to an ending in which ruffled feathers are smoothed and everyone gets on with their lives. Good for them but not for a comedy that lacks both perceptive bite and laughs.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Impersonation as a way of life

 Seriously Red stars a hard-working Krew Boylan as an Australian real-estate worker who believes her real calling is to be a Dolly Parton impersonator. To this end, the screenplay -- directed by Gracie Otto -- pushes Boylan's Raylene "Red" Delany into a troupe of professional impersonators. Turns out Red, covering her natural color with a variety of platinum-blonde wigs, makes a good Parton. The movie tries too hard to be funny/cute while delivering the expected message: In the end, best to be yourself. Bobby Cannavale signs on as the troupe's boss. He hires the inexperienced Red because she's got moxie. Eventually, Red teams with a Kenny Rogers impersonator (Daniel Webber). They become a hit on the impersonation circuit as well as lovers, never shedding their roles as Dolly and Ken. Thomas Campbell plays Red's best friend; he loves her for who she really is. A plentiful supply of Parton tunes boosts the story's energy. There's no pressing reason to catch this one unless you've been yearning to see Rose Byrne, one of the film's executive producers,  play an Elvis impersonator.  Really. One more thing: About midway through, Red gets breast implants in an effort to try to approach the reality of Parton's famous physique. The procedure leads to a semi-surreal production number that takes place with Red under anesthesia. I told you the movie was trying hard. But trying hard and getting there are are not the same. Seriously Red has its moments but they don't add up to much.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

More big-screen con games


Contrived and not always credible, Sharper tells a story that drops con atop con. Although the movie's  structure -- focusing on five characters and introducing each one with a title card -- feels familiar, Sharper picks up steam when Julianne Moore shows up as a schemer with an eye for rich men. You'll have to wait for Moore's arrival because Justice Smith and Briana Middleton kick things off as young people who meet at the New York City bookstore run by Smith's Tom. Tom falls hard. But in true noir fashions, Middleton's Sandra isn't all that she seems. Secrecy and deception open a door for director Benjamin Caron, working from a screenplay by Brian Gatewood and Alessandra Tanaka, to twist the story into knots that aren't particularly difficult to untangle but still offer some fun. A solid cast earns its pay, including John Lithgow in a smaller role as a wealthy hedge fund manager who's dating Moore's Madeline. Middleton has a nice turn, initially telling Tom she's a graduate student working on her doctorate. Sebastian Stan takes on the role of Max, a master manipulator with a mean streak, and Moore adds smarts and sexual spice. At the heart of all the maneuvering: money -- billions in fact. You'll probably see the conclusion coming and the movie doesn't pack a gleeful Sting-like wallop. OK, so Sharper is no groundbreaker -- but it's always difficult, at least for me, to resist a movie about con artists that plays the game well enough to sustain interest, even if it's not a genre classic.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

How to stop the end of the world


  M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin is based on a Paul G. Tremblay novel entitled The Cabin at the End of the World. Shyamalan's awkward transformation of Tremblay's title indicates what goes wrong with a potentially interesting movie.
   Not content to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions -- as the novel did -- Shyamalan steeps the story's conclusion in the kind of face-value thinking that undermines the screenplay’s stabs at ambiguity.
  Knock at the Cabin centers on two gay dads (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff) who have taken their adopted Chinese daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) on vacation to a cabin in Pennsylvania.
    If an isolated setting in the woods didn't already signal trouble to anyone who has ever seen a movie, Herdis Stefansdottir's groaning score further tips Shyamalan's hand: A horror scenario involving home invasion will be flavored with quasi-religious suggestion.  
   It doesn't take long for four strangers to force their way into the cabin, carrying ominous looking homemade tools that bear little resemblance to anything available at a local hardware store. 
    Shyamalan gives us a modern version of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, harbingers of punishing global judgment: Dave Bautista's Leonard, Nikki Amuka-Bird's Sabrina, Rupert Grint's Redmond, and Abby Quinn's Adriane.
    A massive hulk of a man, Bautista's Leonard emerges as the stand-out character. In an early scene that's both lyrical and creepy, Leonard meets Wen. We wonder whether he might be the screen's latest serial killer.
   Instead, Leonard turns out to be a bespectacled second-grade teacher who speaks with alarming sincerity about his "mission." 
    He insists that he and his cohorts have had visions. They've been instructed to find this particular cabin so that global catastrophe can be averted. Only one act will stave off devastation. One of the family members must be killed by the others. 
    Are we watching a hoax perpetrated by four brainwashed strangers who we’re told met on-line or is this the real deal, the last days of humanity? 
    The home invaders have convinced themselves that their visions are real. They don't like what they've been sent to do but insist they have no choice. They implore the two dads to take action. When the dads refuse, the invaders kill one of their number and the global devastation begins.
    Leonard turns on the TV, and Shyamalan shows snippets of apocalyptic destruction. Tsunamis vanquish Hawaii. Planes fall from the sky.  
    Putting a child in danger and using the prospect of human sacrifice to drive the plot give the movie a warped undertow that's as distasteful as it is unnerving. For the most of the movie, the two dads remain tied to chairs.
     If a drama such as this is to work, we probably should be encouraged to ask ourselves what we’d do if faced with such a terrible choice. That level of involvement would have required a sense of identification Knock at the Cabin seldom delivers.
   Shyamalan creates tension as the dads try to find a way out of a horrible situation. But watching characters we hardly know struggle their way through the movie's reductive moral dilemma doesn't make it easy for us to find a way in.

A deeply human drama in an Arab village

 Sami (Alex Bakri) is a sad man, so sad that he seldom smiles or warmly engages with others. Sami’s mood colors nearly everything in Let It Be Morning, the story of a Arab/Israeli citizen who returns to his small village for his brother’s wedding.
  Don't be misled, Let It Be Morning is no nostalgic chronicle of a homecoming. After the Israeli army seals off the village, Sami becomes stranded in a political and personal limbo: He's uncomfortable being away from his fast-paced life in Tel Aviv and the mistress who seems to exemplify a typical midlife crisis.
   Sami and his wife Mira, played by Juna Suleiman, have a much loved young son but Suleiman makes it clear that Mira understands the reality of a life that has stagnated.
   Directed by Eran Kolirin (The Band's Visit), Let It Be Morning relies fine performances from Bakri and Suleiman to enhance its low-key, character-driven approach.
  The Arab community depicted in Let It Be Morning, adapted from a novel by Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, isn't unified. Some villagers want to cooperate with the Israelis, who have blockaded the village as part of a campaign to identify illegal West Bank Palestinians who are seeking work. Others want to protest.
   Ehab Salami portrays Abed, a newly minted cabbie who has accumulated crippling debt to buy his vehicle. Once a friend, Abed has become a source of embarrassment for Sami. His insistent presence pushes Sami to face a background he thought he had shed. 
   Simple on its surface, Let It Be Morning leaves viewers with much to digest; the movie stands as a quietly realized counterpoint to current newspaper accounts about Israeli/Arab conflict. 
   That's not to say that the conflict is ignored but that Kolirin takes a  humane approach to tension as his characters struggle to find their footing.
   Let It Be Morning makes it impossible to overlook the humanity of people whom we might otherwise meet only in news reports. Kolirin tells a story about complex characters living in a complex situation over which they don't always have control. In other words, his movie  mirrors life.