Thursday, July 27, 2023

A mansion haunted by a lack of fun


I didn’t expect much from Haunted Mansion, Disney’s second big-screen version of a movie inspired by one of its popular theme park attractions. That's precisely what the movie delivers: not much. Gone is Eddie Murphy of the crummy 2003 installment, replaced by a team led by LaKeith Stanfield and supplemented by Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, and in a smaller role, Jamie Lee Curtis. An effects-laden amusement that seldom engages, Haunted Mansion  casts Stanfield as a disaffected astrophysicist and ghost skeptic who’s grieving the loss of his wife. Dawson plays a mother who, along with her nine-year-old son (Chase W. Dillon), moves into a dilapidated New Orleans mansion that might as well sport a neon sign, something on the order of “this way to the ghosts.”  Mother and son miss the boy’s late father. Haunted Mansion feels more like a dated amusement park fun house than a contemporary chiller — but without much of the “fun.’’ Had Disney allowed Haddish — who plays a medium — to cut loose, the movie might have saved itself, although it also might have sacrificed its PG-13 rating. Buried by CGI and make-up, Jared Leto plays the Hatbox Ghost, the badass ghost who wants to trap the rest of the cast in the mansion. Hotbox must be vanquished to lift a long-standing curse -- or some such. Attempts to deal with issues involving grief prove shallow; director  Justin Simien’s movie falls short as either comedy or frightfest. The cast deserved better — and so did we.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

A mother battles with foster care


   Some of the year’s toughest movies have dealt with heartbreaking issues involving foster care. A Thousand and One told the story of a woman who rescued a boy from foster care. I won’t say more because those who haven’t seen the movie should be able to experience it with fresh eyes.
     Now comes Earth Mama, a movie about a 24-year-old woman with two children in foster care and another on the way. Expanding her short film, director Savanah Leaf focuses on Gia (rapper Tia Nomore), a woman caught in a frustrating trap. Gia wants to bring her son and daughter home, but the requirements for liberating them from foster care plunge her into conflict.
      Gia can't work enough hours at a photo shop to meet the income qualification for renewed custody because she's constantly attending mandatory classes or meeting with social workers.
      The word “realism” can mean many things. I prefer the word authenticity. Not a second of Earth Mama suggests that Nomore is anything but the character she’s playing. 
      No saint, Gia has struggled to kick drug addiction that caused her to lose her kids in the first place. She’s now drug free and scenes in which she interacts with her kids show her to be a caring mother. She wants to be a good mom for them — and also to prove her own competence.
       Although one social worker seems insensitive, Leaf vilifies no one. Another social worker (Erika Alexander) suggests that Gia consider adoption. The social worker isn't coercive. She wants Gia to understand her options.
       A pregnant friend (Doechii, a rapper and singer) pressures Gia to keep the child, telling her that giving up the baby would be an affront to God — and a betrayal of her culture.
        Although she's wary, Gia meets a couple (Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Bokeem Woodbine) who want to adopt. They’re decent, well-meaning folks who have a teenage daughter (Kami Jones) who seems as if she could be Gia’s friend. 
      No one pushes Gia to do anything, but her situation minimizes her ability to maintain control of her life.  
     Neither Leaf nor any of the actors showboat; the characters  emerge unbothered by any performance puffery.
      A wary Nomore makes no attempt to ingratiate herself with the audience. Understandably cautious, Gia’s one tough cookie. And so, it seems, is Leaf who brings us close to the characters, giving us as little opportunity for escape as she gives Gia.
      I don’t mean to suggest that Earth Mama qualifies as an endurance test. It's just tells a painful story, and, sad to say, proves heartbreakingly convincing. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Nicolas Cage uncaged again


Nicolas Cage takes another turn as a nut job of uncommon intensity in Sympathy for the Devil, a movie that, for much of its 90-minute running time, finds Cage’s character in a car with Joel Kinnaman’s David. Listed as The Passenger, Cage's character holds David hostage as they drive to a purported reunion between The Passenger and his fatally ill mother. As it turns out, The Passenger knows about David’s suburban life and threatens his family, including the pregnant wife David was on his way to join when the movie opens. She's in the hospital, having gone into labor. The Passenger force David to take a road trip, all the while bullying and badgering the poor guy. Suggestions that David may not be an unlucky rando percolate throughout. A violent scene at a roadside diner takes the comic edge off director Yuval Adler’s rendition of Luke Paradise’s screenplay and squanders some of its credibility, as well. Cage’s performance feels familiar and so does much of the movie, which seems to have been form fitted for Cage. At one point, The Passenger struts his way through a rendition of I Love the Nightlife, but Cage and Kinnaman  can’t “boogie” their way out of a movie that doesn’t always emerge from the shadow of earlier efforts. Strange, no? When it comes to movies,  the weird seems well on its way to becoming commonplace.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Barbie faces an existential crisis -- really


     Imagine a world in which Barbie (yes, that Barbie) suddenly begins thinking about death. What if dark thoughts intrude on Barbie’s otherwise bright and shining life?
     But wait. You don't have to imagine such a scenario. Director Greta Gerwig has done it for you.
     Part satire, part pop-cultural celebration, and part cheering session for feminist assertion, Gerwig's Barbie tries to accomplish a neat trick -- at least as far as its audience is concerned. 
    The movie attempts to please the adoring legions of girls who grew up playing with Barbies while also taking a bite (a soft one to be sure) from a satirical apple.
      Whatever it's about, Barbie derives much of its comic kick from the pink-hued work of production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran. They create Barbieland, an aggressively happy place that might be the best thing the movie has to offer.
      Two star turns help keep the movie spinning. Margot Robbie makes a smiling Barbie whose perfect life unravels when she begins having unwanted thoughts and (oh, the horror!) her beautifully arched feet turn flat.
      Working a high-beam smile and allowing an occasional lonely teardrop to roll down her face, Robbie slips into full Barbie mode. 
    Ryan Gosling plays Ken, the male doll who, at the outset, lives only to bask in the warmth of Barbie's gaze, a role that’s bound to breed discontent.
    Written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, the story eventually takes Barbie to the real world of Los Angeles where she tries to find the girl whose thoughts plunged her into existential crisis. There’s evidently an emotional link between the Barbies and the girls who play with them.
    Ken tags along with Barbie but eventually returns to Barbieland, where he tries to establish his stilted idea of patriarchal government, ousting Barbie president Isa Rae and engaging in parodic muscle flexing. He becomes the ultimate poseur. 
      Barbie remains in LA for a while, eventually meeting and fleeing from Mattel executives -- led by Will Ferrell -- who want to put her back into a box -- literally.
       Hey, if you’re looking for subtlety, you’re in the wrong place.
       When a fleeing Barbie finally returns to Barbieland, she's accompanied by humans. America Ferrera plays a former Barbie enthusiast, a Mattel employee who travels to Barbieland with her skeptical teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt). 
      Robie's Barbie describes herself as Stereotypical Barbie, which suggests she's not alone. Barbieland is home to all manner of Barbies, some representing various stages of the doll's evolution.
         Ken isn't alone either. A multitude of Kens inhabit Barbieland.
         Kate McKinnon plays Weird Barbie, an exile in Barbieland who fell out of favor when someone played too hard with her. 
         Gerwig works overtime to incorporate meaning into this pink bauble of a movie. Does Barbie inspire girls to be more than smiling dolls?  Is she a product of the male quest for dominance, an unattainable role model to which no girl can measure up? Can the human world coexist with heavily marketed merchandise? 
         In some ways, Barbie is nothing more than a dressed-up sketch that wants to have it both ways, treating Barbie as a pop-cultural heroine and as a satirical object in a story that argues that young women must create identities free of commercial and social influences. 
         Another way to pose the question: To be plastic or not to be plastic?
         Gerwig finds enough laughs to keep anyone from trying to plumb any depths or wonder whether the plot makes any sense at all. 
       Enough. You've probably read that Barbie ends with a one-liner that gives the film its sharpest kick. It does.


Friday, July 21, 2023

Oppenheimer: The story of man and his times


    In Oppenheimer, the story of the scientist known as "the father of the atomic bomb," director Christopher Nolan takes a deep look at a complicated man who found himself poised at a pivotal moment of history.
    A theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer led the bomb-making effort in the Los Alamos, New Mexico. Deemed an unlikely choice for the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was supported by Leslie Groves, an Army officer charged with overseeing the project, which employed  some of the world’s most gifted physicists.
    Oppenheimer might be less stylistically self-conscious than such Nolan movies as Inception, but that doesn't mean the movie lacks style. Nolan presents his story in sharply edited narrative bursts that brim with detail and suggestive power.
   Working from American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a 2005 biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan builds the story around a politically loaded 1954 closed-door hearing at which Oppenheimer’s security clearance was challenged.
   At three hours in length, Oppenheimer is comprehensive enough to be a compelling account of the invention of the atomic bomb and a character study about a man riven with contradiction. Simultaneously proud of his achievement and aware of the horrific destruction he helped unleash, Oppenheimer was cursed with irresolvable conflict.
    Cillian Murphy brilliantly portrays Oppenheimer from his student youth through his appearance at a closed-door hearing which pitted him against Lewis Strauss. As head of The Atomic Energy Commission, Strauss had it in for Oppenheimer.
     Subtle, reticent and wily, Murphy’s Oppenheimer belongs to a rare group of scientists devoted to pursuits about which most of us remain only sketchily aware. In Oppenheimer's case, quantum mechanics.
    Oppenheimer wasn’t immune from the intellectual arrogance such endeavors can breed. He often held his cards close to the vest, minimizing his liberal/left leanings when necessary. Nonchalant about his association with friends who were members of the Communist party, he ultimately got caught in the backwash that swept the country during the McCarthy era.
     As intriguing as Murphy can be, he receives support from one of the strongest casts to populate a movie in some time. 
    Made-up to the point where he almost disappears, Robert Downey Jr. portrays Strauss, a figure whose presence grows as the film progresses. Downey creates an indelible portrait of a man cast into a world in which he's almost always out of his depth.
      Matt Damon does solid work as Groves. Other performers find featured moments, including Benny Safdie as physicist Edward Teller. 
      The movie's all-star group of scientists and theoreticians includes Kenneth Branagh as Neils Bohr and Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and participant in the Manhattan Project.
      Nolan dips into Oppenheimer’s tangled personal life with performances by Florence Pugh as a politically consumed woman and Oppenheimer paramour and Emily Blunt as Kitty Harrison, Oppenheimer’s wife. The harried mother of his children and a hard drinker, Harrison emerges as a woman who refuses to be bowed by her husband's interrogators.
     The test of the atomic bomb precedes the movie’s third act, which tends to make the remainder of the story feel slightly anti-climactic. 
      Still, scenes at the hearing (in black-and-white) allow for a burgeoning conflict to emerge: Oppenheimer came to oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb, a position that put him at odds with Teller and a defense establishment increasingly mired in Cold War frenzy.
       There are genius strokes: Focusing on Oppenheimer’s face when bombs explode in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example. Nolan spares us the sight of nuclear devastation. We know that Oppenheimer knows what he's wrought.
       Nolan also displays a keen understanding of how an academic environment that sheltered so many gifted scientists merged into the country’s war-time agenda. He captures the fervor of men who found themselves moving from the world of theory to the world of practice.
         With help from composer Ludwig Goransson, Nolan masterfully infuses a surfeit of expository scenes with tension and urgency, leaving it to us to debate some of the ethical considerations that probably are more evident today than they might have been during the heat of war.
        A movie about a momentous subject that’s branded as one of the year’s most important releases carries a major burden. Time will tell whether Nolan has lived up to it.
       Meanwhile, Oppenheimer deftly illuminates the allure and dangers of being caught in the sweep of history.
       It's a movie about Oppenheimer, yes, but you remember him in the well-developed context of the movie's cascading scenes and shorthand revelations, a man fully and sometimes dangerously situated at a historical turning point whose implications still reverberate.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Tom Cruise on another action-packed mission


 Let me get this off my chest about Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One. Any movie that's two hours and 43 minutes long and calls itself "Part One" wrinkles my brow. If two hours and 43 minutes isn't enough to tell a Mission: Impossible story, how did Citizen Kane manage to be so scintillating, colorful, and richly alive in a mere one hour and 59 minutes?
 OK, now back to reality.
 Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part I boasts some of the best action footage you'll see this year. Moreover, a strong cast adds enough nuance to keep the story from seeming like an excuse to vault from one dizzying set piece to the next.
 This edition takes a topical turn with writers Erik Jendresen and Christopher McQuarrie, who also directs, injecting artificial intelligence into the plot. 
 A brief explanation: An artificial intelligence called The Entity has the potential to control everything. Because AI knows no allegiances, many people want to control The Entity, either living in its good graces or harnessing it for evil.
  Not Ethan Hunt, the character played by Tom Cruise. Hunt, the IM agent who has been defying death since Cruise brought him to life in 1996 aims to kill The Entity. He has no interest in using it, which means he's the defender of humanity's right to be ... well ... human, a value that fits nicely with the series’ preference for stunts over CGI- created effects.
   Cruise, who just turned 61, looks a bit longer in the tooth than he did when Hunt undertook his first mission. Still, longer in the tooth for Cruise, who does his own stunts, isn't quite the same as longer in the tooth for anyone else and he deepens Hunt by adding layers of doubt and regret.
    Two major additions add spark. Hayley Atwell signs on as Grace, a pickpocket who'll end up working with Ethan. Esai Morales portrays Gabriel, a villain who makes no bones about his evil designs on The Entity and who is connected to Hunt's past in ways that presumably will be explored in the next movie.
    A variety of actors make return visits, notably Rebecca Ferguson as Isla Faust, a sometime antagonist and sometime ally of Hunt whose smile suggests that she's crushing on him. Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg reprise their roles as part of the IM crew, and Henry Czerny shows up as a former IM boss who still keeps a hand in intelligence.
   Enough about the cast, which is large and which, over time, has developed characters that rival the Marvel Universe for interconnection and overlap. 
   In these moves, action goes a long way toward defining character, so it's worth mentioning of a few highlights. 
   Dead Reckoning opens with a tense prologue on a Russian submarine and then serves up a battle in the Arabian Desert, a suspenseful scene in Abu Dhabi International Airport, a clever Roman car chase in which Cruise and Atwell are handcuffed to each other in a Fiat, and  a white-knuckled motorcycle ride that finds Hunt driving over a cliff.
   A  literal cliffhanger of a finale puts us aboard a speeding train headed for a demolished bridge while leaning into vertiginous thrills.
   Much of what happens in the movie is motivated by the need to find two halves of a key that can unlock mysteries that the movie pretty much keeps to itself. Using a key as a MacGuffin seems less imaginative than we expect from Mission: Impossible movies, almost Indiana Jones-ish. 
   But everyone wants the key and we'll have to wait until next year to learn what it will reveal about The Entity.
   Now, it's time to offer an addendum to my opening paragraph.
   Look, I prefer forms of storytelling that are more economical and richer; I wouldn't want to call this IM screenplay a model of efficiency. 
  At the same time, I wasn't bored. Going in, I knew the movie was two hours and 43 minutes long, so I occasionally checked my watch to see how McQuarrie was handling all the globe-hopping as he barreled toward an ending.
   Reservations about length aside, I'll look forward to Part Two. My anticipation has less to do with learning the secrets of The Entity than with knowing that Cruise and his team can be relied on to deliver the action-packed goods -- with enough style and sophistication to keep the series humming at high levels.


Thursday, July 6, 2023

Bob's Cinema Diary: July 7, 2023 -- 'Joy Ride' and 'Biosphere'

 Joy Ride

     Who should we place at the head of the class when it comes to raunchy  movies? 
     Maybe you’re thinking white American men. But if you see Joy Ride, an ultra-bawdy comedy starring four Asia women, you might want to reconsider. 
     Director Adele Lim plays raunch for laughs when four women (Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Sabrina Wu, and Stephanie Hsu) travel to China. 
    The ostensible reason for the trip: Park’s Audrey, an up-and-coming lawyer, needs to close a deal in Beijing in order to land a partnership that will take her from New York to LA. 
     Once Lim dips her toes into ribald waters, she's pretty much obligated to try to outdo previous big-screen efforts. She often does. 
      Lim makes her mark with a major sight gag that's best discovered in a theater but which certainly fulfills the obligation to raise the movie's  off-color quotient, delivering the joke with in-your-face panache. 
     The movie also delves (skims is more like it ) into issues of identity. The women are attuned to stereotypes that have been used to diminish Asian Americans and know how to play them back while enriching them with sarcasm. 
     Sex almost always occupies center stage, some of it involving Audrey and a couple of members of a Chinese professional basketball team. Hsu's Kat works overtime to conceal an active sexual past from her strait-laced religious fiancĂ© (Desmond Chaim). 
    I can’t say I found Joy Ride consistently hilarious, but Lim hits the high points square on, and her movie can't be faulted for lack of crowd-pleasing boldness. Joy Ride makes no bones about establishing its place in the world of aggressively impolite comedy.


    Billy (Mark Duplass) once was president of the United States. His best friend Ray (Sterling K. Brown) was his trusted science adviser. Some form of apocalypse has pushed the two men into a self-sustaining sphere that Ray designed. Billy and Ray seem to be the last two people on Earth. Biosphere doesn't want for ambition as it tries to tackle themes related toi gender, male bonding, and the unexplained doomsday that forced these two characters into claustrophobic isolation. Pay attention to the fish farm Ray has created; it holds the key to the survival of the two men and perhaps the entire human species. A twist involving rapid evolution taxes belief but serves as a way for director Mel Eslyn to explore issues revolving around manhood and its meanings. Bottom line for me: I found this two-hander a bit dull and a bit strained in the way it deals with issues involving gender. In the end, the screenplay by Duplass and Eslyn tries to endorse the idea that science and rational thinking sometimes must give way to the unexplainable. Magic would be another word for it, but the movie feels short of that elusive ingredient. It’s an odd mix: High stakes in a low-wattage drama.