Wednesday, June 28, 2023

'Dial of Destiny:' the fun wears out


  Archimedes, one of the most renowned mathematicians of the ancient world, doesn’t usually show up in fantasy-reliant action movies.
 He nonetheless finds his way into Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the latest story about the fabled archeological adventurer who made his first screen appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark way back in (gasp!) 1981. 
  This time, Indy packs his bags with references to the previous movies as well as a search for the fabled Dial of Destiny, a.k.a. the Antikythera mechanism.
  In the movie, the Antikythera is said to be one of Archimedes’s  inventions, a device that, in fictionalized IndyWorld, can locate fissures in time that allow for travel into the past. 
   In a way, the entire movie — with James Mangold taking over directing chores from Steven Spielberg — is like traveling into the past, an action-heavy adventure in which Mangold demonstrates journeyman competence but fails to generate enough of the ingredient that has distinguished the best Indiana Jones’ efforts: fun.
    The movie features appearances by a de-aged Harrison Ford, as well as the well-preserved Ford, who — in his 80s — is still willing to don his fedora and take on physical challenges. 
     Once again Indy battles (who else?) Nazis.
     An add-on: Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays Helena, the daughter of one of Indie’s old archeological cohorts (Toby Jones).
     Part adversary and part ally, Waller-Bridge adds a touch of naughtiness to the proceedings, but not enough to sustain a gleeful, whip-cracking romp. 
    Other names include Antonio Banderas, as a sea captain, and, more importantly, Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Voller, a Nazi scientist who, after the war, began working in the American space program. 
   The movie kicks off with a speedy train sequence set during World War II and leaps forward to the late 1960s, the period when most of the action takes place.
    Many of the movie’s characters want to find the Dial of Destiny, the movie’s MacGuffin. Indy thinks it belongs in a museum. Voller wants to find both halves of the device and use it for his own evil purposes.
    Note: In these kinds of movies, there always seem to be missing parts that need to be recovered to activate a device’s potential. 
    In this case, Voller has a cockamamy plan to travel back in time, change the course of the war, and mastermind a German victory.
    Of course, there’s plenty of globe-hopping, taking the movie to Morocco and Sicily, among other places. 
    And, yes, there are chases galore, most executed by Mangold and company with the required skill.
     Still, it's difficult not to realize that we’re watching Mangold and his team blend the ingredients into the familiar Indiana Jones recipe, a self-conscious awareness that works against surprise.  
   Yeah, time for another chase. Yeah, time to squirm, this time thanks to a cave full of bugs.
     Ford brings a carload of trademark grumpiness to the role. He remains credible as an aging action hero — albeit one who occasionally creaks.
     The early Indian Jones movies had a celebratory quality that returned us to the days when movies could be approached with naivety and wide-eyed expectation.
     Belonging to a now-faded moment, that feeling is difficult to revive. So it's no surprise that Dial of Destiny can feel a bit stale.
      Designed as the final chapter in the Jones saga, Dial of Destiny  doesn’t generate all of the thrills we expect from a series that arguably already should have been put to rest.
      Sigh deeply and move on.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

No prizes for ‘No Hard Feelings'


    With or without clothes, Jennifer Lawrence knows how to hold the screen. 
    And, yes, newcomer Andrew Barth Feldman makes a fine teenage foil for Lawrence’s character in No Hard Feelings
    Comedies are nothing without contrivance, but some contrivances are better than others, and No Hard Feelings can’t parley a sex-worker premise into a consistently winning entertainment.
     Lawrence plays a down-on-her luck resident of Montauk, Long Island who answers an ad placed by two affluent parents. These overly involved parents want their son to loosen up (i.e., lose his virginity) prior to leaving for his freshman year at Princeton.
    Heaven forbid a shy but bright kid arrive at Princeton equipped only to learn something.
     Employing her substantial gifts for physical comedy, Lawrence plays Maddie Barker, a woman who hates watching wealthy visitors invade her hometown, a seaside heaven that once welcomed folks who weren't seven-figure earners.
     A remnant of older days,  Maddie has fallen behind in her taxes, and might lose the house her late mother left her. 
     She’s desperate when she sees the ad that sets the plot in motion. Wanted: a young woman to help break through the shell of inhibited 19-year-old kid. If she succeeds, Maddie will be given a Buick Regal, a car that might save her career as an Uber driver.
    In the movie's opening scene, a tow-truck driving former boyfriend (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) reposes Maddie's car.
     About those clothes. In a night-time skinny dipping scene, Lawrence does full-frontal nudity as she races from the ocean to confront pranksters who threaten to steal her clothes, as well as the clothes of Feldman’s Percy.
      Necessary? Not really. Maybe it's meant to impress us with its boldness.
      Although most of the movie revolves around 32-year-old Maddie and her relationship with Percy, a small supporting cast doesn't have much to do.
     Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick play Percy’s parents. Natalie Morales and Scott MacArthur portray Maddie’s friends.
      It’s pretty easy to guess what’s going to happen. What starts as a crass plunge into sex work for the intimacy-averse Maddie softens as she develops a genuine fondness for Percy, a kid who doesn't want to have sex with someone he doesn't really know.
      Despite a formulaic backdrop, No Hard Feelings, which was directed by Gene Stupnitsky (Good Boys), occasionally detours into moments that feel genuine and Lawrence makes sure that Maddie barges her way through all manner of difficulties. 
     A few moments suggest what might have been. When Percy plays piano and sings his version of Hall & Oates' Maneater, the movie takes a welcome and unexpected turn.
     Some of the movie’s comic high points (Percy riding naked on the hood of a car, for example) strain to be funny, raunchy and memorable. They miss the mark. 
     Too often, No Hard Feelings follows suit. It's not as bad as you might have feared given its premise nor as good as you might have hoped. I guess that adds up to a fair to middling effort.

Wes Anderson visits the ‘50s in ‘Astroid City’


  In Astroid City, director Wes Anderson returns to the 1950s to create a self-consciously expressed artificial environment in which he can ... well ... I'm not sure exactly what. 
  Astroid City overloads on the dry visual wit that has distinguished Anderson's style. Anderson's movies (The French Dispatch and The Grand Budapest Hotel) are so strenuously stylized that one can only assume that we're meant to revel in the cleverness.
   In this case,  Anderson creates a phony desert landscape in which he locates the town of the movie's title. The story and its characters feel like miniatures encased in high-quality plastic, Bakelite perhaps. 
   I guess the question arising from all this is whether Anderson's approach transcends playful amusement? The dialogue and some of the issues (the rise of atomic weapons) suggest he has more in mind than chuckles.
   Whether you can make that leap with him seems to turn audiences into supporters or detractors or, just as likely, those who are simply confused. Watching Astroid City, I alternately found myself in all of those categories. 
     One of Andreson's best sight gags involves a highway constructed in the middle of Astroid City. The road ramps upward and then ends abruptly, suggesting that the town's early optimism ran out of gas. Make what you will of that. I laughed.
   Anderson populates Astroid City with a large and notable cast.
   Jason Schwartzman plays Augie Steinbeck, a war photographer who's traveling with his four kids and the ashes of his late wife, a once loved woman whose remains have been stored in a Tupperware bowl. 
   To add to the story, the little town plays host to a mini-convention of Junior Stargazers. A funny Jake Ryan portrays Augie's son Woodrow,  a nerdy Stargazer with a serious scientific bent. 
    If all this weren't enough, Anderson adds another meta layer. We know from the start that everything that unfolds in Astroid City is part of a television play that's introduced in black-and-white sequences by a character called The Host (Bryan Cranston).
   Later Adrien Brody will turn up as Schubert Green, the man who seems to be directing the play which was written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton).
   Of all the movie’s many actors, Brody alone seems entirely comfortable in this world. He retains a sense of fluidity that other actors can’t always achieve when visiting AndersonWorld. 
   As you probably can tell, Astroid City can be regarded as a scorecard movie. You'll need one to keep track of the many actors who pop up. Jeffrey Wright plays General Grif Gibson, a military man who addresses the Stargazers. 
    You'll also find appearances by Matt Dillon, Steve Carell, Hope Davis, and Liev Schreiber.
   More notable is the work of Scarlett Johansson who plays movie star Midge Campbell and who -- during the course the play we're watching -- converses with Augie. Both characters speak from their motel rooms, observing each other through windows.
   Midge pops back and forth from the play to black-and-white behind-the-scenes sequences that show us what's happening backstage at the production.
    Other characters also appear in both realities.
   The performances are molded into the movie's deadpan style that's enjoyable if you pick out highlights, notably a dance sequence led by Montana, a cowboy played by Robert Friend
    A scene in which an alien lands in Astroid City is as funny and beautifully executed as it is cheesy -- in the manner of third-rate 50s sci-fi.
    And, oh yes, Tom Hanks.
    Hanks pays the grandfather of the Steenbeck brood; he shows up for the burial of his daughter's ashes and connects the movie to the grief that drives Augie and his kids.
    For the most part, the appearances of the movie's many actors lack the joy of  recognition that sometimes can be derived from a large, recognizable cast. Here, they come and go without fanfare.
    Astroid City looks like one of those towns that were constructed for atom bomb tests and, at various points, we see mushroom clouds in the background. The town is named for an astroid that long ago smashed into earth, leaving a portion of itself as a valued memento.
     Anderson divides the movie into acts, which heightens the sense of remove that he creates; for me, at least, this is both Anderson’s strength and weakness. His characters can be more like objects than people and they operate in the coded way that fits the rest of the film. 
     At times, Astroid City has a piercing brilliance that I found captivating. Overall, though, the movie proves fitfully enjoyable, something we observe as if looking through a microscope meant to satirize and dissect cliched images of lonely Western landscapes. If they were paintings, they might be admired for their cartoon-like clarity.
    My advice: Grab what you will from the passing tray of oddities, ignore what baffles you. Sometimes Astroid City feels like a collectors show of mid-Century bric-a-brac; best to take it booth by booth.

Monday, June 19, 2023

A ‘Flash’’ too long’ -- but there's Keaton


The first thing to know about The Flash is that it's 144 minutes long. Go ahead, sigh. I did. I begin here because this overstuffed helping of DC Comics chaos has trouble sustaining engagement beyond maybe the first hour and a half of its two-hour and 24-minute run time. A little more than halfway through, I started looking at my watch as I wondered how much more director Andy Muschietti (It) would throw into this frenzied whirl of a movie. The answer: a lot. We're talking Batman, supervillain Zod, Supergirl, time travel, and even two Flashes, both played by Ezra Miller, the actor who has had his
 share of legal troubles. You can look up Miller's woes, but I hope that he's able to straighten out his life and continue his career. Here, Barry Allen (a.k.a. The Flash) encounters a younger version of himself when he travels back in time. When we first meet Barry, he's troubled because his mother (Maribel Verdu) has been murdered, a crime for which his father (Ron Livingston) has been arrested. The movie's big kick involves the appearance of Michael Keaton, who reprises his role as Batman. I thought donning Batman’s cape weighed Keaton down; he's playing a reluctant, weary Batman, but Keaton’s work exceeds cameo levels and his presence registers as a plus. An early scene in which babies are vaulted through the sky (a baby shower of sorts) is almost weird enough to justify a look but Miller's high-strung performance wears thin as the movie wears on — and it does wear on. Despite its title, the last thing The Flash does is race quickly across the finish line. Keep an eye on Sasha Calle (Supergirl), though. She has enough edge to cut through  the flying bric-a-brac, self-referential nods, noisy action, and plot overload. *

*A brief confession: As someone who grew up reading DC comics (not Marvel), I keep rooting for the DC characters, but prefer them when seen as individuals not part of a repertory company of superheroes. Fingers crossed for next time. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

A haunting look at roads not taken

 There are moments in many lives that can, in retrospect, be viewed as pivotal: relationships that didn’t blossom, loves that went unexpressed, and connections severed by geographical separations. 
 Such moments can prompt "what-if" thinking, the act of trying to imagine the nature of a life that didn’t happen from the perspective of one that did. 
  Nora (Greta Lee)  and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the two main  characters in director Celine Song’s Past Lives, put their toes in "what-if" waters. They try to find each other after years of separation. That may sound like a romcom formula but life seldom evolves in formulaic ways and neither does Past Lives.
   Nora left Korea at the age of eight and moved to Toronto with her family. She grew up and relocated to New York City to pursue her ambitions as a playwright.
    Hae Sung remained in Korea, where he became an engineer. He didn’t marry but never abandoned the idea that he might reunite with the girl whose departure left him saddened and lonely.
    As Nora and Hae Sung approach adulthood, they make an on-line connection and begin regular conversations via the internet. Nora breaks off the talks when she's about to embark on a writer's residency in Montauk, Long Island. 
    Perhaps she doesn't want anything to interfere with her work or maybe she realizes that time and distance have created an unbridgeable gulf between herself and Hae Sung.
     During her residency, Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro), the writer who will become her husband. He'll become worried -- not in a crazy way -- that if Nora reconnects with Hae Sung, their marriage will dissolve.
    It takes 24 years for Hae Sung to visit New York in hopes of reuniting with Nora. Together, they ponder their lives and the meaning of lost connections. When they meet, you can see them searching each other's faces for traces of their younger selves.
    Nothing happens on the sly. There are no secrets here. Nora's husband understands that his wife needs to meet with an old friend.
    In the movie's best scene, Nora, Arthur, and Hae Sung are seated at a bar on Manhattan's lower Eastside. Initially, Nora translates for her husband but soon winds up having a revealing conversation with Hae Sung, which her husband can't understand. Arthur knows only rudimentary Korean -- and not much of that. Hae Sung's English is spotty at best.
    Song introduces speculation by the characters about the way connections are formed: Is it fate or perhaps encounters in previous lives that are recurring in the present? But Song isn't pushing an explanation. She's acknowledging the mystery of ties that are difficult to relinquish.
      Song has a delicate touch, so don't be surprised not to find volcanic emotional explosions or tidal waves of passion that conquer calm consideration. That doesn't mean the movie stirs no emotions.
    Grief, albeit perhaps gentle, inevitably accompanies the sadness of unsatisfied yearnings and roads not taken. Even if past and future lives are possible, we still must live them one at a time.  

Fire, water spark an animated romance


   In a time of multiverses and multiplying identities, it's hardly surprising that Pixar has jumped into a world in which characters must learn to confront their prejudices.
   Elemental, Pixar's latest animated feature, offers a story about lovers who, on the surface, don't seem made for each other.
   Under the guidance of director Peter Sohn, Pixar serves Elemental's major hunk of symbolism with a heavy hand, creating an obstacle-strewn romance between (ready for this?) fire and water.
    Fire appears in the form of Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), a flaming orange creature who's about to inherit a store operated by her father (Ronnie Del Carmen) and her mother (Shila Ommi). 
   The Lumen family are immigrants in Element City, a whimsically realized urban center divided into neighborhoods occupied by creatures inspired by four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. 
   Fire and water begin to mix when Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie),  a hunky bubble of a character, turns up in Firetown. Fire and water aren't compatible, which means the movie must work overtime to show that different ethnicities don't necessarily doom a developing romantic relationship between Amber and Wade.
    When Pop Lumen's store springs a water leak, Wade, a city inspector, offers to help Ember meet a deadline to set things straight; she has one week to correct the situation. 
   To further complicate the story, Amber, who's prone to incendiary bursts of temper, isn't eager to take over the family business. She has her own dreams.
   The animation is mostly fanciful. The voice work engages. Even a wobbly approach to a stream of ethnic/racial themes proves workable -- if not deeply explored.
    In a major set piece -- every animated movie needs one -- Amber visits an underwater garden from which she and other fire people previously had been banned. The movie thus leaps into additional trendy terrain: Systemic prejudice works against the fulfillment of individual dreams.
    Although it benefits from an eclectic musical score by Thomas Newman, Elemental may not rank among Pixar's best. Still, it's passable, particularly for younger audiences. Fire notwithstanding, the movie is more likely to tug the heart strings than leave audience suffering from heartburn. 
    Strained heat references on my part, but, hey, we’re talking the visually complex and thematically crammed world of Elemental.
    Maybe I'm too literal minded but the movie's central metaphor struck me as suspect. The next time something burns, I doubt that love and acceptance will leap to mind. I'll be calling for the firehoses.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

A Holocaust story falls short


    The German/Russian/Belarusian movie Persian Lessons begins with a title card telling us that the movie was inspired by true events. Opening credits also tell us that the movie was based on a story by German screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase. 
   As things stand, we're left to guess where inspiration leaves off and fact begins, a problem for a film that deals with a subject that suggests heavy historical obligations. 
   Director Vadim Perelman tells the story of Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a Belgian Jew who, along with a group of Jewish captives, is about to be shot by German soldiers. Gilles pleads for his life by insisting that he’s Persian not Jewish, an Antwerp resident of half-Iranian background.
  As luck — or massive contrivance — would have it, a German officer at the transit camp where the soldiers are based has made it known that he wants to find a Persian prisoner who can teach him Farsi. The soldiers deliver Gilles to the officer (Lars Eidinger), who lays out the rules under which Gilles, who now calls himself Reza, will fulfill his instructional duties.
   Eidinger’s Koch has a personal reason for his request. He plans to move to Iran after the war, join his brother, and open a German-themed restaurant or maybe he’s just looking for a post-war escape hatch.
     Gilles, of course, knows nothing about Farsi and must make-up a fake language to trick Koch into keeping him alive. He also must remember what he’s told Koch so that he doesn’t expose his ruse.
     Gilles' system for memorizing his verbal inventions turns out to have significance beyond the poor man's survival and, in a way, provides some justification for what we’ve been watching.
    Biscayart creates a character burdened by the anxieties of mastering the calculations that will keep him alive. Eidinger has the more difficult job of making Koch credible.
     At a couple of points, Gilles is almost exposed but the screenplay contrives to rescue him. Luck, of course, can play a role in life but drama is another matter.
    As for the Farsi lessons, they seldom seem convincing; Koch limits his understanding of Farsi mostly to the accumulation of nouns. Tree. Table and such. We're reminded of the way toddlers learn language through the repeated naming of objects, but the lessons don't seem to go much beyond that.
     Persian Lessons works best as a disquieting portrayal of the relationship between a Nazi officer and his prisoner; that relationship  softens as Koch begins to see Gilles’ humanity, particularly when it becomes clearer that the Germans are losing the war.
    Despite interest generated by the uneasy relationship between its two main characters, Persian Lessons falls short. Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) relies on a premise that seems too shaky to support a film about a such a daunting subject.  
    Persian Lessons doesn’t t`otally collapse but it wobbles under the weight of the contrivances required to keep it going.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

He revolutionized the world of Cheetos

Earnest and likable, Flamin' Hot marks the big-screen directorial debut of actress Eva Longoria. It’s easy to see why the story of Richard Montanez (Jesse Garcia) appealed to Longoria. Montanez's life offers an opportunity to look at the achievements of a hard-working janitor who rose to the higher ranks of the Frito-Lay company by inventing a product (Fammin’ Hot Cheetos) and helping the company market it to a growing Hispanic audience. The marketing of any kind of Cheetos doesn’t strike me as a cause for cinematic celebration but Longoria compensates by turning Flamin’ Hot into a story of personal triumph. Garcia conquered the long odds of being poor, dabbling in the drug life, not graduating from high school, and growing up with an abusive father (Emilio Rivera). Garcia comes across as a nice guy who loves his loyal wife (Annie Gonzalez) and avidly seeks help from an engineer (Dennis Haysbert) at the Frito Lay factory where he quickly becomes a model employee. It's also refreshing to see a movie, even one with cornball tendencies, in which Mexican-American characters draw strength from their culture. If you browse the net, you'll find stories that question how Flamin' Hot Cheetos were invented. Still, I liked the characters and took the movie as an ethnically-oriented feel-good entertainment that wants to underscore the potential of workers who typically are overlooked. A proviso, though: I couldn’t suppress second thoughts about the supposed glories of snack food. To borrow and distort a famous phrase Allen Iverson used in discussing  his attitude toward practice, "We're talkin' about Cheetos, man. Cheetos."  *
*Full disclosure. I’m not a big Cheetos fan, but if I eat them, I prefer the original Cheetos. No Flamin' Hot Cheetos for me. 

Remembering Yogi Berra as a great player

Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, best known simply as Yogi, caught for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963, still banner years for baseball’s all-American popularity. The title of an engaging documentary about Berra, It Ain't Over, comes from one of the many Yogi-isms that have become part of popular lore, whether he said them or not. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”  Stubby or powerfully compact if you prefer, Yogi was a great baseball player who — according to the documentary — became a cartoon version of himself, so much so that his game skills have been overlooked. Berra won three MVP awards and owned 10 World Series Championship rings. He caught the only perfect game in World Series history, Don Larsen’s 1956 triumph against the Brooklyn Dodgers. A St. Louis native,  Berra made his splash in the Big Apple until he got crosswise with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. In 1985, Steinbrenner fired Yogi, at the time the team's manager. Annoyed by shabby treatment, Berra stayed away from Yankee Stadium for 15 years. Berra, who died in 2015 at the age of 90, monetized his lovable side with commercials for Yoo Hoo, Miller Lite, and Aflac. The animated hit “Yogi Bear” never won his favor. Director Sean Mullin includes interviews with some of the usual suspects, notably Billy Crystal and Bob Costas. Some Yankee favorites chime in. Among them: Tony Kubrick, Willie Randolph, and Mariano Rivera. Lindsay Berra, Yogi’s granddaughter, boldly states the documentary's theme: Berra’s on-the-field accomplishments have been overlooked. She keynotes the argument by noting that Berra wasn’t included in a 2015 All-Star Game ceremony honoring a quartet of great living players; Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. Mullin includes a highlight reel’s worth of baseball footage, and enough Yogi-isms to satisfy. Some may wonder exactly how the prowess of a Hall of Fame player can be said to have been overlooked but the movie’s thesis is less important than the way it brings Berra to life and once again recalls the days when baseball really was the national pastime.*

*If you were a kid living in the shadow of New York City, in my case northern New Jersey, during the 1950s,  questions of identity revolved around three possibilities. Did you root for the NY Giants,  Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Yankees? I was a Giants fan and like many of those who rooted for National League teams I hated the imperial Yankees with their massive stadium and conquering ways. Reflecting on it, though, I can’t recall anyone who disliked Yogi Berra. He was a Yankee, sure, but as a likable guy, a great catcher, and a terrific clutch hitter, even Yankee haters gave him a pass. 

Monday, June 5, 2023

'Master Gardener' intrigues, confounds


    Sometimes I wonder how keenly Paul Schrader, like some of his characters, feels what it’s like to reside alone in a dimly lit room with an alarming lack of amenities. I thought about this after watching Joel Edgerton in The Master Gardener, the third in a string of movies Schrader began six years ago, the other two being First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021).
   Schrader is one of the few directors who seems to pursue his interests wherever then take him and they often take him to dark places. Remember this is the guy who wrote Taxi Driver, perhaps director Martin Scorsese's most luridly compelling movie.
    In The Master Gardner, Schrader, as he often does, charts another search for redemption. But the movie resists categorization. Despite the specificity of its settings -- a garden tended by Edgerton's Narvel Roth,  a few downscale southern neighborhoods, and several last-resort motels -- Master Gardner can't be taken as realistic. 
   The Master Gardener isn't exactly dreamlike either; it occupies a world scoured of human bustle and although the characters don't always make sense -- at least when you step back for further reflection -- Schrader encourages buy-in while you're watching.
    Working minimally and with his emotions clipped as tight as his slicked down hair, Edgerton plays a former Neo Nazi living in the witness protection program after turning on nine of his former colleagues. Narvel since has tried to rehabilitate himself by becoming a skilled gardener: He heads the team that takes care of a showpiece garden for a wealthy woman (Sigourney Weaver).
    Sigourney’s Norma Haverhill (yes, the name sounds Dickensian) saw something in Narvel and took a chance on him -- or maybe she got an erotic charge from sleeping with a guy with a spray of SS and white supremacist tattoos that are revealed when he removes his shirt. Narvel's torso has become a poster for his past. Usually, he keeps it covered.
      None of the characters are easily understood. Weaver's Norma has a cruel streak fortified by flinty determination. Norma can be beneficent but she's also threatening and severe. She doesn’t like to be questioned.
   The arrival at the garden of Norma's grandniece, a mixed raced young woman played by Quintesssa Swindell, gives the story a jolt.
   Norma instructs Narvel to take Swindell's Maya under wing, educate her in the horticultural arts, and prepare her to inherit Gracewood Gardens. He obliges.
    A fast learner, Maya adapts to the gardening life and begins to develop a close relationship with Narvel.
    Despite bits of gardening information that are dispensed during Narvel's narration of the movie, Schrader isn't content simply to putter around the garden. When he brings Maya's drug-dealing ex boyfriend (Jared Bankens) into the story, the winds of corruption begin to ruffle the flower petals.
     The plot, such as it is, finds Narvel and Maya getting crosswise with Norma. Putting on her most judgmental face, Norma expels them from the garden, turning them into an unlikely Adam and Eve.
    Time for the elephant in the room.
    How can an intelligent woman of color, even one such as Maya who’s addicted to drugs, fall for an older man who happens to be a former white supremacist? Narvel is supposed to have seen the error of his brutal ways, but Edgerton keeps us away from Narvel's inner life. Flashbacks to Narvel's violent racist days haunt him but he carries himself stiffly, like a dutiful soldier who's following a new set of orders.
     Perhaps we’re meant to think that Narvel channels his former racist fury into a commitment to protecting Maya, a woman whose existence represents the racial mixing he once despised. 
    But Maya isn't a helpless damsel in distress; she's got some fire of her own. She doesn’t ignore Narvel’s past. Still, it’s a stretch to think she could live with it.
     Schrader builds toward a violent confrontation. In Master Gardner, violence can be both destructive and purgative.
    Schrader mixes beauty and shabbiness and leaves us to ponder deep questions: Can the most rotted among us find redemption? Can the corruption of the world be detoxified by those who've helped corrupt it? Can what has been destroyed by hate be restored by love?     
     So where do I stand on the movie? I'll say only this:  It sometimes can be better for a movie to be interesting than gratifying and whatever else I thought about The Master Gardener, I did find it interesting. 
    Such a movie, even when not fully realized, can reflect the uncompromising integrity of the artist who made it. That’s something to consider.