Tuesday, August 29, 2023

When a mom tries to be a detective

Hilary Swank is 49 years old. Jack Reynor is 31. That means if Hilary Swank is going to be believable playing  Reynor's mom, she would have had to given birth to him when she was 18. Possible of course, but Swank doesn't exactly look like the mom of a 31-year- old police officer, which is what Reynor plays in The Good Mother. Confused about the relationship at first, I adjusted. But was it worth the bother? A misfire of a thriller, The Good Mother tells the story of Swank's Marissa, an upstate New York journalist who tries to solve the murder of her younger son, a troubled kid who seems to have gotten lost in the drug trade. Turns out the late son's girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) is pregnant with a baby that will be Marissa's grandchild. It's always a bad idea for reporters to play cop, especially if the reporter happens to be drinking too much, which is the case with Marissa.  That doesn't stop Marissa from joining forces with Cooke's Paige as they try to find the killer. Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte takes a down-and-dirty approach to Albany, the city where this dime-a-dozen drama occurs. But atmospherics can't mask an increasingly unbelievable story that, at one point, finds Marissa racing through the streets carrying a baby in a car seat. Not the best way to trail someone. Might as well ask someone to play football while pushing a stroller. The movie's central mystery remains murky, even after a big reveal, and The Good Mother joins the ranks of darkly hued thrillers that vanish into their own gloom. 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

‘Gran Turismo’ races on a formulaic track


     If I weren't writing about films, I doubt whether I’d see Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story,  the real-life tale of a young man who made the shift from an expert player of a popular car racing game to the high-speed world of the track.
     Gran Turismo probably will have its greatest appeal among those who spend hours trying to excel at PlayStation's popular pastime, which was invented by Japanese designers who spent years giving the game an astonishing degree of versimilitude.
       So what about the rest of us, those who don't play video games and who aren't especially interested in sports car racing?
        I guess the surprise is that Gran Turismo is watchable while being predictable. The movie makes little attempt to dig beneath the surface or say anything we haven't heard before -- and still manages to cross the finish line without being disqualified.
    Put another way, the movie is OK.
       Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) tell the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a kid who grew up in Cardiff playing Gran Turismo and dreaming of driving real races cars. 
     Working-man Dad (Djimon Hounsou) thinks Jann should continue his education. Mom (Geri Horner) seems more supportive. Jann's brother (Daniel Puig) ... well ... he's in the movie, too.
        Jann might have continued drifting and dreaming if it hadn't been for a slick promoter (Orlando Bloom) who sells Nissan on the idea of sponsoring GT Academy, a facility where talented gamers would be trained to drive real race cars. 
        Initially reluctant, a former driver turned chief engineer (David Harbour) agrees to train the young crew. No one else wants the job.
         The idea is that the game requires so much skill that the best sim drivers, as they're called, could make the transition from gaming cafes and isolated bedrooms to professional tracks.
         At two hours and 15 minutes, Gran Turismo doesn't skimp on training montages and racing footage as Jann progresses, eventually competing to earn his license as a professional driver while facing opposition from an arrogant driver (Josha Stradowski) who believes Jann's lack of experience will endanger other drivers.
         Obvious questions roar through the plot as loudly as the movie’s cars. Will Jann wash out or will he become a professional driver and, ultimately, a winner? Will Dad, a stern man who played soccer and who hasn't supported his son's ambition, eventually come around? Can the movie accommodate more product placements?
          As a failed driver who couldn't overcome a tragic incident in his past, Harbour gives his character old-pro flavor. The rest of the performances are up to snuff.
      It's unfair to criticize a movie such as Gran Turismo for being formulaic. There’s reassurance in familiarity. You can even anticipate some of the dialogue before the characters open their mouths.
         Of all the racing footage — much of it convincing — a crash in which Jann's car becomes almost vertical on the track  proves difficult to watch.  And Blomkamp ingeniously shows how Jann's mind works, turning real cars into blueprints of their game versions while driving on real tracks.
        Gran Turismo's B-movie plot doesn't mesh with what seem to be grander ambitions. The resultant movie suffers when it tries to inflate Jann's achievement into a broader endorsement of the kind of  bromides in which movies specialize. Dreams can become real. Stuff like that.
        Gran Turismo is best when it drives in its own narrow lane and doesn't try to turn Jann's story into a cheering session for every underdog.

Young gay women start a fight club

   If you haven't already, it's time you discovered Ayo Edebiri, the young comedian/actress who appeared earlier this summer in Theater Camp and who’s best known for her work in the acclaimed series, Bear.
  In Bear, Edebiri joins a beautiful ensemble as sous chef Sydney Adams. She scores again as a high school lesbian with a crush on a cheerleader in Bottoms, a risky comedy from director Emma Seligman, who directed the indie hit Shiva Baby.
   Working from a screenplay she wrote with Rachel Sennott, one of the movie’s stars, Seligman tells a boldly outlandish story about two   teens who feign a claim that they've experienced incarceration in “juvie.” Street cred established, they start a high school fight club for young women. 
   The duo wants to meet “hot” cheerleaders but sells the club as a feminist launching pad and mini-society for self-protection.
   Here, Seligman takes her biggest risk. The fight club is no feather-weight sham. These girls push and punch for real, usurping violent  strategies usually reserved for men. 
     The most obnoxious men in the movie are the school’s football players, who -- in blatant parodic fashion -- never take off their uniforms; even during classes, they refuse to shed the signature emblems of their identity.
    It’s far-fetched, of course, but Sennott, as the snarky PJ, and Edebiri, as the more wary Josie, are funny and engaging. They’re playing kids who have been tagged as “losers,” but both have an underlying sense of self that suggests they believe in their sensibilities, and the story eventually conspires to teach them that their adopted facades can be as much of a trap as football uniforms.
    Bottoms doesn't deal with the ways in which prejudice crushes young gay people. PG and Josie experience bigotry but they’re not isolated and they’re not jittery about declaring their sexual preferences. 
    Edebiri and Sennott, who starred in Shiva Baby, receive able support from Havana Rose Liu, as Isabel, the cheerleader girlfriend of the school’s principal jock (Nicholas Galitzine). Kala Gerber appears as Brittany, the cheerleader PJ is crushing on. 
     Ruby Cruz has a nice turn as Hazel, a club member who might be the most dangerously subversive of them all.
      Marshawn Lynch was never known for making public statements during his NFL career. Here,  the erstwhile Seattle star, known a plays a high school history teacher who accepts the role of faculty adviser to the fight club. Yes, he’s funny.
      Even ambitious comedies need plots and I wouldn’t say that Bottoms excels when it comes to storytelling, even though it stages an explosive finale with a riotous flavor that banishes any lingering thoughts of credibility.
      The physical violence — between club members and those deemed as antagonists — can cut against the comic grain. People really seem to get hurt; that may be part of Seligman’s strategy. She’s intent on upsetting an apple cart full of cliches about young women.
    Seligman eventually softens the proceedings to allow for genuine expression of emotion, a ploy that flirts with genre cliche.
    At  other times, the movie seems to be straining. Note the inclusion of a horny mom  (Dagmara Dominczyk) who's having an affair with Galitzine's high-school hunk of a character.
    Not everything about the movie works but Seligman, Sennott and Edebiri are onto something and, like the characters they play, they’re ready to make their mark, even if it leaves a few bruises.

A journalist does under cover work


Juliette Binoche plays a journalist who goes undercover to expose the exploitation of the women who clean ferries that traverse the English Channel. The work is brutally difficult, and the women who do it struggle to keep their heads above water. Based on a book by real-life reporter Florence Aubenas, Between Two Worlds finds Binoche posing as Marianne Winkler, a divorcee whose well-heeled husband left her without resources. Desperate, Marianne turns to gig work. As the story develops, Marianne befriends Chrystele (Helene Lambert), a single mother straining to keep her three-kid household afloat. The cleaning work is far from glamorous, and director Emmanuel Carrera, working from a screenplay he wrote with Hélène Devynck, depicts the drudgery the women experience as they hurry to make beds and clean bathrooms during the short period between ferry trips. The screenplay also attempts to deal with the ethical issues involving reporters and their sources, particularly when the journalist doesn't identify as a reporter.  It's an interesting enough issue but the movie's commitment to portraying the dogged realism of gig labor turns ethical concerns into a bit of an afterthought. The byplay among the women reflects appealing authenticity; it made me wonder whenever Between Two Worlds wouldn't have been more effective had it told Chrystele's story and left journalism at the shore.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

'Golda' marred by docudrama flavor


The title is slightly misleading. Golda isn't a full-blown biopic about  former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir. It's a narrow-gauge look at how Meir handled the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the one in which Israel was attacked by Egypt, Syria and Jordan on Judaism's holiest day of the year. 
   Under a ton of prosthetic makeup, Helen Mirren plays Meir, a tough-minded woman who spends much of the movie interacting with the Israeli high command, including Israel's Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger).
    In this telling, Dyan comes off as less than heroic, cautioning against a large-scale mobilization of Israeli forces even though the   head of the Massad (Rotem Keinan) warned that an attack was imminent. For her part, Meir sometimes miscalculates. 
   Director Guy Nattiv, an Israeli who lives in the US, takes what struck me as an oddly off-kilter approach, introducing Meir with booming closeups of her wrinkled face and using music -- Dascha Dauenhauer wrote the score-- that wouldn't be out of place in an horror movie.
   In the days before and during the war, Meir was heavily burdened. 
   She was suffering from lymphoma but the condition didn't stop her from chain-smoking, puffing away even during radiation sessions.   
     She also agonized about mistakes that could cost lives. She keeps track of fallen Israeli soldiers, recording the number of casualties in a small notebook she carries.
     In depicting a war marked by both terrible setbacks and triumphs for Israel, Nattiv avoids the customary depiction of Israelis as brilliant tacticians who seldom err.
    An opening title card explains the movie's view about some of the Israeli bumbling. Buoyed by its 1967 victory, the country had fallen prey to hubris. Israel had become over-confident.
     The relationship between Israel and the US comes into play. 
     With President Nixon bombarded with Watergate issues, it fell to Henry Kissinger (played by Liev Schreiber) to calm Meir. Kissinger wanted to  keep Meir from intensifying conflicts between the US and Soviet Union, which was backing the Egyptians. 
   The heavy make-up on Mirren has an unintended consequence. Sometimes, it's impossible to ignore -- as in shots of Meir's swollen ankles. You keep searching for traces of the actress under the make-up, a distraction for me. 
    Suffering from cancer and coughing up blood, Meir looks as if she might at expire at any moment, although she's also unflinchingly severe and decisive when necessary.
     Perhaps to bolster verisimilitude, Nattiv intersperses news footage into the proceedings. A clip of Egypt's Anwar Sadat meeting with Meir during cease-fire talks makes for the movie's liveliest exchange.
    Golda has its moments but falters as a high-stakes political and war-time drama. The movie never seems to find its footing, partly because Golda dominates and the other characters are seldom developed beyond sketches, mouthpieces for various positions.
    A movie this focused can be intense but Golda sometimes feels as if it's moving too slowly, and Nattiv's dramatization of 18 turbulent days of Israeli history isn't always presented in clear, incisive fashion.  
   For all the cigarettes that Golda Meir smokes, the movie rarely catches fire.     

Aliens rule in comic helping of sic-fi


   When you see the aliens in Landscape with Invisible Hand, you'll probably giggle. These are not imposing creatures who gobble up humans like candy. They're goofy-looking visitors with paddle-like hands. Their doughy loaf-like bodies suggest what beings might become should they cede all their vital functions to technology.
    Somehow (never mind how) these aliens -- known as the Vuvv -- have become the rulers of Earth, selling their presence as a high-tech boon to humanity even as they engage in all manner of entrepreneurial exploitation, replacing people with technology whenever possible.
   Working from a YA novel by M.T. Anderson, writer/director Cory Finley explores class hierarchy and the commodification of ... well ... nearly everything, especially art.
    Basically, the human characters dominate the story.
    Asante Blackk plays Adam, a high school student who aspires to be an artist. Adam lives with his mother (Tiffany Haddish), a lawyer who has been put out of work by the Vuvv, and his sister (Brooklynn Mackenzie). 
    Dad (William Jackson Harper) did a disappearing act shortly after the aliens arrived.
   At school, Adam meets Chloe (Kylie Rogers). Chloe, her brother (Michael Gandolfini), and her father (Josh Hamilton) are homeless. 
   Sensing a kindred spirit, Adam invites Chloe and the rest of her family to move into the basement of his mother's house.
   Finding a place to live represents an upgrade, but the visitors occupy a lower rung of the house's social pecking order. Conflict looms when resentment begins to supplant gratitude.
    For their part, the aliens, convinced of their superiority, seem bemused by Earth's inhabitants. Because they don't reproduce sexually, the aliens are fascinated by human romance and want to observe it up close -- for both edification and entertainment. 
    Looking for extra cash, Chloe and Adam become members of a courtship broadcast team; i.e., stars of their own reality show. The more aliens who tune in, the more Chloe and Adam earn. They need the money and they like each other anyway — at least at the outset.
    Later, the Vuvv place one of their number in the household to further study the human institution of marriage. This leads to a bizarre mock wedding between the Vuvv visitor and Haddish's character.
     Finley eventually focuses attention on the commodification of art.  When Adam's work becomes popular, Vuvv eyes light up. They'll reward him handsomely and turn his art into a replicable commodity. Will Adam sell out or stick to his principles?
     Blackk gives the movie’s keynote performance, a quietly expressive rendering of teenage awakening. Rogers keeps pace.
     Finely scores points for inventiveness and for making a sci-fi movie that plays down super-sized effects. His depiction of aliens becomes part of a larger joke about exploitation and the class fractures it breeds.
     The movie's themes stay close to the surface and Landscape doesn't quite attain breakthrough velocity. Its amusements may be intermittent but they're enough to keep things going.
    The title, by the way, would be great for a one-person art show.

Friday, August 11, 2023

A gay romcom follows formula


I suppose that Red, White & Royal Blue proves that a gay-themed romcom can be as formulaic and mushy as those that feature relationships between men and women. The movie’s premise brims with high-concept simplicity: What if the handsome bisexual son of an American president fell in love with a handsome British prince, the one who — like real-life Harry — never will ascend to the throne. Can the prince (Nicholas Galitzine) defy royal stricture and go public with his love? Will the American (Taylor Zakhar Perez) torpedo his mother’s campaign for reelection? Will Uma Thurman, who plays the president, accept her son’s gayward tilt? Director Matthew Lopez answers these questions in a movie that opts for fantasy and glamor while preaching-to-the-choir about the importance of love and acceptance. No arguing with the message, but the delivery system is mostly lightweight, moving the two main characters from antagonists to lovers and bringing the proceedings to a feel-good conclusion. Stephen Fry makes an appearance as the king who wants his grandson to deny his gayness, even after exposure in the tabloids. Maybe Red,White and Royal Blue deserves credit for not trying to be anything more than late-summer fluff, a movie in which two men fight the odds, rush into their love/sex scenes, and face predictable obstacles. But is it asking too much for even a formula job to include a few edgy touches?

Thursday, August 10, 2023

A gloomy helping of Dracula and gore


Sailors aren't the only victims in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a movie based on a single chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Hope dies, as well. I'm talking about the hope for a movie that might have become a worthy addition to cinema's voluminous vampire library. What we get instead is a heaping helping of portentous drama. Noisy and boring, Last Voyage deprives Dracula of any twisted charm, turning him into a ravenous beast with exceptionally bad teeth. The trailer offers a glimpse of what Dracula looks like when in full vampiric bloom. Early on, we learn that Dracula has organized a voyage in which he will be shipped from Transylvania to London in a crate big enough to hold a refrigerator. Director Andre Ovredal makes it clear from the start that he's after a tale that reeks of foreboding. Most of the story takes place on the Demeter, where we meet the ship's doctor (Corey Hawkins), the ship's captain (Liam Cunningham), and the dour first mate (David Dastmalchian). As crew members succumb to Dracula, the filmmakers display a fair measure of fleshy gore. Toby (Woody Norman), the captain's grandson, is also on board. Although the movie is short on suspense, we wonder how far the filmmakers will go. Will young Toby wind up as vampire food? A woman (Aisling Franciosi) is found in one of the 50 crates that have been stowed in the Demeter's hold. She knows how relentless Dracula can be. The filmmakers seem to be striving for symphonic swells of terror as the sailors face a terrible evil. But atmospherics can carry a movie only so far and The Last Voyage of the Demeter sinks under the weight of its unrelieved gloom.

An alien visits a small town


    Sporting gray hair and looking disoriented, Ben Kingsley stars in Jules, a quirk-filled story about Milton, a 78-year-old small-town resident whose life is upended when a flying saucer lands in his backyard. 
    A regular attendee at city council meetings, Milton seems both obsessive and forgetful.  He can make eyes roll by repeatedly insisting that the town's motto is misleading: "A great place to call home."  His suggestion: "A great place to refer to as home."
    Truth be told, Milton's hometown doesn't look like a great place to do much of anything.
    But about that flying saucer ...
    The craft not only smashes into Milton's backyard, it brings an alien visitor into Milton's life. 
   At first, it seems as if director Marc Turtletaub, working from a screenplay by Gavin Steckler, might be charting Milton's descent in the uncharted space of dementia. His daughter (Zoe Winters) suspects that Dad might be slipping.
  But the flying saucer is no hallucination, and Milton slowly develops a relationship with its sole occupant, the Jules of the title. 
   Clad in a suit that makes her look like a cartoon version of an alien, Jade Quon plays Jules, a visitor who never speaks but develops a rapport with Milton and with two local women (Harriet Sansom Harris and Jane Curtin). The women become Milton's co-conspirators as he tries to protect the alien from the town's residents and from threatening government agents.
    Turtletaub adds odd touches, one of them a macabre suggestion that the spacecraft needs dead cats to refuel and continue its journey. Don't ask.
     Jules didn't strike me as Kingsley's kind of movie and I wasn't sure what Turtletaub was after. A mild assurance that older folks needn't be imprisoned by loneliness and habit? A reminder that connections still can be made?
     Whatever Turtletaub had in mind, Jules struck me as a bit of a drag. Or, to be more precise, a mildly eccentric drag.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

A love triangle threatens to collapse


 American indie director Ira Sachs travels to Paris for Passages, a movie about a love triangle. Sachs's story acquires extra spin because the triangle's two men are a gay married couple, one of whom begins a torrid affair with a woman.
   Gender issues aside, Sachs explores issues of ego, trust, and self-deception in ways that make for an engaging drama about a pivotal moment in three lives.
   Franz Rogowski (Undine, Great Freedom) plays Tomas, a film director who’s wrapping a production when the movie begins. Insistent and headstrong, Tomas meets Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos of Blue is the Warmest Colour) at the company’s wrap party. She's in the process of dumping her current lover.
   When Ben Whishaw’s Martin, Tomas's husband, decides to leave the party early, Tomas takes up with Agathe, perhaps because he’s miffed at Martin or perhaps because his insatiable ego demands a celebratory conquest.
     None of this would make sense, if Tomas weren’t charming and assertive. He quickly establishes intimacy with others but also harbors an ego-driven sense of entitlement about the lives and, let's be frank, the bodies of others.
      When Tomas begins an affair with Agathe, he tells Tomas about it, treating it as no big deal. He explains that he’s reinvigorated and excited. He thinks Martin should understand -- and even be happy about the whole business.
      For her part, Agathe, a teacher by trade, knows about Tomas’s relationship with Martin and seems willing to accept it — up to a point. That point eventually will arrive.
     The screenplay by Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias and Arlette Langmann explores these relationships as they stumble along, overlapping at times. It's difficult to believe that the situation can be sustained.
      Any sympathy we have for Tomas stems from the fact that his audaciousness appears to be uncalculated. He can't help being a jerk and even concocts a fantasy in which he can keep both lovers. When Martin dates a novelist (Erwan Kepoa Fale), Tomas ignores his own philandering and becomes unjustifiably jealous. His gall seems boundless.
      A carefully developed personal drama, Passages revolves around Tomas’s actions but doesn’t shortchange the other characters. 
      I wondered whether the explicitness of the sex scenes was necessary but assumed that Sachs wanted to show that a good deal of the attraction here is sexual. Why pretend otherwise? (The film is unrated.)
      No fair telling how the conflict resolves but Passages entangles us in the lives of its characters and has a feeling of plausibility, perhaps because Sachs allows the story to unfold within a small circle, the kind that can, and sometimes does, lead to the unhappy point where folks become lost.
        Put another way: When a triangle collapses, someone's bound to be hurt.