Thursday, October 26, 2023

David Fincher's brutal, efficient thriller


     It's not easy to make a movie about a man whose survival depends on anonymity and obsessive attention to detail, so much so that he's constantly replaying a manual of instructions in his head. "Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don't improvise." 
      That's the profile of the nameless character who occupies the center of David Fincher's The Killer, a plunge into the life of a high-paid assassin who plies his lethal trade with exactitude and indifference to anyone else's causes or concerns.
      A major irony triggers Fincher's movie. 
      After a tense and artfully shot opening scene in which the killer (a trim Michael Fassbender) waits for his prey, he misses. Having botched the job, the killer flees the empty Parisian office he'd been occupying as he prepared to shoot someone in the apartment across the street.
      Once he misses his mark and the movie finishes some wily flirtation with Rear Window voyeurism, the killer embarks on a globe-hopping trip spurred by the story's core mystery.
      Fincher has made terrific real life crime movies (Zodiac) and movies that rely on a mixture of fantasy and bristling cynicism (Se7en and Fight Club). He's never made a movie that wasn't steeped in style and directorial competence. 
      Put another way, Fincher knows what he's doing and we feel his confidence.
       Post his assassination attempt, the killer heads to a retreat he keeps in the Dominican Republic. When he arrives home -- a very nice place, by the way -- he learns that his lover (Sophie Charlotte) has been a badly beaten. 
       Then it's off again, this time to get to the bottom of what  brought his lover to the brink of death. He travels to Chicago, New Orleans, Illinois, and Beacon, New York.
        Fincher introduces the movie's chapters with title cards based on the characters the killer tracks: The Brute and The Expert, for example.  Sala Baker plays The Brute; Tilda Swinton appears as The Expert.
       Fassbender has been given some amusing dialogue and his character uses a string of fake credit cards issued in the name of TV characters, Archibald Bunker to cite one example.
       It's as if Fincher is inviting us to play a cinematic game that's willing to wink at us from time-to-time.
       But when it comes to the killer's MO, Fincher pulls no punches when the killer confronts the go-between separating clients from killer (Charles Parnell) or his frightened secretary (Kerry O'Malley).
       The performances are crisp but I wouldn't regard The Killer as an actors' showcase; it's a director's movie -- with help from  cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, an edgy score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and tunes from the synth-heavy group, The Smiths.
        Based on a French graphic novel, The Killer slides through a world without either God-given or human morality. But this isn't Dostoevsky, it's a thriller that keeps us in a state of agitation as Fincher displays efficiency void of judgment.
        Oh, and for good measure, he adds a brutally extended fight scene that includes an encounter with a pit bull.
        The Killer may not be Fincher's best work but, within its narrow constraints, it nails its moves.

A disturbing story set in Tunisia


 In 2016, Olfa Hamrouni made news protesting against the Tunisian government for reasons I won’t disclose here so that viewers unfamiliar with the story can discover it in theaters.
  Besides, there's more to every story than a single sentence can contain, and director Kaouther Ben Hania finds enough nuance and background in Four Daughters to stock the pages of several novels.
 Ben Hania's quasi-documentary employs actors and recreates dramatic scenes, adopting the kind of meta approach that usually bothers me. Why not just tell the damn story? 
    Here,  though, the approach suits the complexities, entanglements, and moral conundrums that emerge throughout a film that engages, disturbs, and surprises.
  For all its participants -- real people and actors -- the film becomes a kind of ensemble exorcism in which the demons of the past are confronted -- if not entirely banished.
  Olfa appears in the film as do her two youngest daughters, Eva and Tayssir. Camera-ready kids, Eva and Tayssir help Ben Hania capture the giggly intimacy of sisters raised by a difficult, desperate, and often cruel mother. 
 Too shattered to relive some of the story, the real Olga yields to an actress (Hend Sabri), who handles the dramatic scenes. Nour Karoui portrays older daughter Rahma, and Ichrak Matar plays Ghofrane, another of the older siblings, who we’re told at the outset have disappeared. 
  What happened to them serves as the mystery that keeps the film percolating.
   Majd Mastoura plays all the male roles, at one point becoming so rattled, he withdraws.
   The story might have been entirely "Sins of the Mother." Each of the women carries the crippling influences of the previous generations, especially Olfa, who tries to create a strict environment for her daughters, calling their playful longings evidence that they are, in her words, “whores.”
   Forced into an arranged marriage, Olfa has her own rebellious streak. She beat up her husband on their wedding night, used his blood to fake proof of lost virginity, and eventually slept with him once a year for the sole purpose of conceiving children. She'd rather have had boys and even goes as far as to say that she hates girls.
   But that doesn't mean that Olfa's grief over the disappearance of two daughters isn't real or that she never shows affection for her two younger daughters or they for her. This despite the fact that one of Oaf's post-marriage boyfriends had his eyes (and hands) on two of the daughters. 
   Ben Hania leaves us with much to digest in a film full of heartbreak and joy -- all set against a backdrop of Tunisian political turmoil that led to a rise in religious fervor. 
    Neat explanations elude us and mood shifts can be swift and broad. One of the daughters moves from being a rebellious Goth kid with colored hair to donning a hijab, a journey that can seem as perplexing as the rest of the developments in this unflinching attempt to uncover the truth  -- or, in this case,  many truths.


Thursday, October 19, 2023

The life and work of an experimental artist


The artist Robert Irwin, deep into his 80s when some of the documentary Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling was made, is now 95. Irwin's career spans work from paint on canvas to large-scale installations that have earned him a place among artists whose work is classed as "experimental."  Perhaps taking a cue from the plain-talking Irwin, director Jennifer Lane takes a straightforward approach to Irwin's life and artistic evolution. Often supporting himself with money won at race tracks, Irwin eventually abandoned studio work and moved into the world, where he created art in response to natural environments or built structures, art that almost had the feeling of an ambush. Considered by some critics to be one of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Irwin famously designed the Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles. The movie's title comes from a comment by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, who described a famous white on white painting as “a desert of pure feeling.” The movie culminates with Irwin's transformation in 2016 of an abandoned military hospital in Marfa, Texas, turning it into an evanescent light display. Lane emphasizes Irwin's idea that the point of art is experience and that experience shifts and transforms along with changes in time, light, and weather. Art isn't about permanence; it's about transcendence in any given moment. The movie tends to a lag a bit but creates a platform for any one interested in thinking about the nature of art and perception or simply wanting to meet a man who seems to have spent his life going his own way.

*Irwin died on Wednesday, October 25, 2023. He was 95 years old. Here's The New York Times obituary. All the more reason to see A Desert of Pure Feeling.

Greed and murder on Osage land

  First things first: Credit director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Joe Roth with trying to wrestle David Grann's best-selling 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon, into a viable screenplay, not because they have succeeded brilliantly but because they're bound to shine additional light on a neglected chapter of American history.
   Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of a wealthy white man who viewed himself as a benefactor of Oklahoma's Osage people while he schemed to steal the wealth the tribe acquired when oil was unexpectedly discovered on its land in 1897.
    Scorsese teams with frequent collaborators Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio for immersion into a world of betrayal, deceit, and unmitigated greed, taking a deep dive into period-piece trappings thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Preito and production designer Jack Fisk. 
    The core story is too complex to reiterate in a review, so I'll give only a brief outline:
     De Niro's Bill "King" Hale connives to find a "legal" way to steal oil revenues from the Osage. Hale enlists the help of his nephew Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a returning World War I veteran who treats his uncle like a mentor.
    Hale tells dim-bulb Ernest that if he were to marry an Osage woman, he'd put himself in line to inherit her wealth should she die before he does. In Fairfax, Okla., marriage bred thoughts of murder among unscrupulous whites.
      As Hale and his cohorts saw it, the Osage needed help dying. 
      A character without a moral center, Ernest falls for Mollie (Lily Gladstone) but soon recognizes that he's married into money. When his uncle leans on him to keep the money in the family, he's not talking about Mollie's family. 
       Mysterious, tender, and balancing life between two cultures (Osage and Catholicism), Gladstone gives a memorable performance. As a diabetic, Mollie spends the last half of the movie languishing in bed, as Ernest injects her with supposed doses of insulin, augmented by drugs Hale says will “calm her down.”
       Flower Moon is littered with murders, all of them prompted by racism and greed. Even at that, the movie doesn't show the full scope of the crimes against the Osage. Many of the Osage took ill with something corrupt doctors mysteriously called "wasting disease."
       Early on, Scorsese shows how the Osage reacted to their newfound wealth, enjoying the same excesses that whites might have indulged in given similar circumstances. Men bought flashy new cars. Women donned fashionable dresses, and a sense of Jazz Age inhibition took hold.
       Mollie's sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers) becomes a wild child of the age, a fiercely independent party girl destined to become a victim.
       Hale's strange blend of  righteous posturing ("a friend to the Osage") and evil make for an interesting combination. De Niro gives Hale a clenched nasty quality, accented by spectacles and button-down period attire. 
       DiCaprio has a more difficult task because he's walking a fine line between Ernest's oft-declared love of money and devotion to his wife and family. Ernest plays a role in the murder of Mollie's sister and her husband and he's generally in league with his uncle.
      Sporting a perpetual scowl, DiCaprio's Ernest eventually realizes  he's selling his soul. He does it anyway. 
      I'd say that neither actor totally blends into the proceedings; it's almost impossible for them not to dominate the movie.
      The white actors speak with Oklahoma accents that may make you think you've stumbled into a Cormack McCarthy novel;  Scorsese and Roth may try a little too hard to capture the rhythms of the American West.
      Osage women are represented by Mollie's sisters (Jillian Dion,  MeyersJanae Collins) and by Mollie's mother (Tantoo Cardinal), a woman who makes no bones about mistrusting white ways.
      When an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons's Tom White) arrives to investigate the murders in the movie's third hour, the story gains some much-needed steam. White turns up long after the Osage had begged Washington to help solve crimes local law enforcement, under Hill's sway, ignored.
      The subtitle of Grann's book reads, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  The second part of the title doesn't receive much attention here, leaving Plemons to play an ordinary man who gets the best of people who thought they easily could outwit him.
       A through line of the detection, trial and punishment unfolds, albeit with wobbles. After his arrest, Ernest waffles about whether to testify against his uncle, supervised reunions between Ernest and Mollie take place, and other developments slow the march toward legal justice -- or a 1920s attenuated version of it.
        An epilogue in the form of a recreated true crime radio broadcast about the murders takes the movie into another dimension that not only robs the finale of some of its potency but introduces a new subject, media exploitation of crime.
        Scorsese could have devoted more time to the workings of the Osage Tribal Council and to the Osage themselves, and his movie is steeped more in mournful sadness than outrage, which tamps down its overall dramatic fire. 
         I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese may already have done that by making the movie three-and-a-half hours long, but I wouldn't call the movie a masterwork. Because we're talking about Scorsese and an important subject, that pretty much sums up what I have to say.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

A grim look at marriage in the future


   Foe takes place in 2065. As is almost always the case these days, the future looks even worse than the present, so much so that corporations want to establish colonies in space. 
   Steeped in Gothic austerity, Foe — based on a novel by Lain Reid, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Garth Davis — displays  palpable ambition as it deals with marriage, artificial intelligence, gender roles, and crushed dreams.
   Working with two fine actors (Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal), Davis mixes elements from various periods, using anachronistic music and introducing futuristic sci-fi concepts that unfold when a stranger (Aaron Pierre) visits the farm where Hen (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal) live in isolation.
    Smooth-talking and assured, Pierre's Terrance represents vaguely defined corporate and governmental interests.  He informs the couple that they’ve been short-listed for an important experiment. If they pass vigorous tests, they’ll qualify to spend a couple of  years on a space station called The Installation, part of a strategy to ensure human survival once the world starts running on empty.
    As the story evolves, we learn that only Junior has been selected. Hen (short for Henrietta) will remain behind. Junior has no choice in the matter; he’s been conscripted, a human guinea pig.
     Lest she be lonely, Hen will be supplied with a substitute human, a replicant that precisely mirrors everything about Junior: his appearance, his memories, and his ability to simulate the ardor that once pervaded their now-flagging relationship.
     Hen and Junior aren't exactly overachievers. Junior works at an industrial chicken farm and Hen earns a bit of money as a waitress, but there’s little reference to the world beyond the couple’s 200-year-old Midwestern farmhouse. They’re like prisoners sharing the same cell.
      Tension mounts when Terrance moves in with the couple as part of Junior's prep and to help develop Junior’s replacement.
     That’s a lot of exposition for a movie that’s less interested in sci-fi or even plot than in creating space for the relationship between Hen, Junior, and Terrance to settle, bounce off the walls, and grope toward resolution.
        An essential conflict emerges. Junior sees no reason to abandon the grim horizons of the farm that has been in his family for generations; longing for something more, Hen remembers she once could see a future for herself.
        A dusty piano that’s kept in the farm-house basement represents a side of Hen that her marriage forced her to bury. And Junior’s name suggests a man/child who never has found a pathway to maturity. 
        Ronan’s performance can be both sensuous and resentful; in the showier role, Mescal dips into Junior's madness, despair and simmering rage.
        Foe sets up a dynamic in which we wonder whether Terrance’s stated goals mask another agenda. A score by Park Jiha and Oliver Coates suggests deeper mysteries than the movie embraces, serving as a kind of on-going tease.
        I’ve waited to pass critical judgement on Davis’s work because that’s how I experienced the movie, an unsettling waiting game that asks for a delayed response.
        Foe tries to go deep but only half succeeds. It’s like a replicant of an art movie, almost convincing, but never quite hitting the thematic high notes that could have lifted it from the grey zone in which the movie, like Junior, seems stuck.

The mystery of Jean le Carre


  In The Pigeon Tunnel, a documentary about author Jean le Carre,  director Errol Morris uses a Philip Glass score to create an atmosphere of simmering mystery, not unlike le Carre's much-admired spy novels, the feeling that we're moving toward a disturbing revelation.

   But single revelations aren't le Carre's specialty and Morris doesn't follow that kind of path, either. Although much of le Carre's conversation in Morris' documentary is frank, le Carre keeps some doors securely closed. More on that later.
   Morris never has been particularly interested in talking heads. In this case, dramatic recreations illustrate major moments in le Carre's life, concentrating most notably on the author's relationship with a conman father who also was a profligate gambler.
     Born in 1931 as David Cornwell, le Carre reviews his life, considering influential events (his mother left him and his brother when he was five), and talking about how his work in British intelligence helped shape the fictional worlds he built and the characters who occupy them.
   The film is named for an odd phenomenon le Carre frequently references in his novels. It's also the title of a 2016 memoir published by le Carre, four years before his death at the age of 89.
   As a boy, le Carre accompanied his father on a trip to Monte Carlo where they stayed at a hotel that bred pigeons on its roof. The pigeons would fly through a special tunnel. Upon reaching open air, they became targets for guests who like to shoot.
   The surviving birds returned to their roosts until summoned for the next round of killing, a cruel entrapment that serves as a darkly suggestive metaphor for le Carre. 
   We listen to le Carre talk about themes of betrayal and deceit -- both of self and others, the core of spying and, perhaps for le Carre, an essential human trait. Morris supplements the conversation with images from films adapted from le Carre's novels.
    The film was produced by le Carre's sons (Simon and Stephen Cornwell) but it's not an unalloyed homage; le Carre doesn't present himself as the hero of his story yet he holds much in reserve. He never discusses his role as a father, his name change, or his love life. Morris allows his film to live within these bounds.
      A must for the legion of le Carre fans and an intriguing introduction for those who aren't deeply familiar with le Carre's work, The Pigeon Tunnel struck me as an oddly unsettling work. Le Carre talks about the deceit and betrayal as addictions, the sense that the spy knows what others don't and is privy to secrets that, if known, would make ordinary folks shudder.
      But the joke's on us. No such explanatory secrets pierce the fog of moral ambiguity that interested le Carre. Le Carre remains in charge of his conversation, even as Morris avoids talking-head stasis.
      I don't know if Morris helps us know the "real'' le Carre, but the le Carre we meet emerges as talker of masterful control and, more importantly, a writer of impressively similar bent. 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

'Dicks': An overdose of campy spirit


   Dicks: The Musical  carries on a heavy flirtation with transgression before delivering a reassuring message about the legitimacy of all kinds of love. 
   Director Larry Charles (Borat) turns a show written by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp into an upbeat big-screen musical that leans heavily on old-pro theatrical skills provided by Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally as a long-divorced couple.
 The movie tells the story of identical twins (Jackson and Sharp) separated at birth. One grew up with Lane’s character; the other with Mullally’s. 
   When the twins, who don't look alike, meet as adults, they attempt to reunite their parents -- a difficult task because Dad is openly gay.
   Mom, whose vagina has separated from her body (don't ask), spends her time in a wheel chair. Dad, by the way, keeps two hideous mini-monsters caged in his home, lovingly referring to them as his "sewer boys." They were captured in city sewers.
   Charles brings the musical numbers to the kind of boil that can elicit applause from an audience that’s willing to go along with the movie's profanity and even sacrilege. Bowen Yang appears as God, another gay character. No need pointing out who might be offended.
      Megan Thee Stallion portrays the boss who supervises both men, each of whom considers himself a crack salesman. 
      I don’t know precisely what Charles had in mind but I took the movie as an encouragement to consider the strange relationship between form and content. Charles astutely follows the form of a musical, paying careful attention to when tunes appear, how they're staged, and who performs them. 
     As a result, he provides genre kick without us having to worry too much about the sentiments being shared.
     Still, if you’re not up for a dirty-talking movie, there’s no need to try this one. Dicks delivers a mixed bag of rapidly fired jokey dialogue, but is less successful at making the grotesque amusing.
      And even if you're ready for everything Dicks has to offer, you may wish the movie seemed like a less self-conscious attempt to demonstrate how rude, crude, and naughty it can be.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Two new docs: 'Silver Dollar Road' and 'Joan Baez I Am a Noise'

Silver Dollar Road


In the documentary Silver Dollar Road, director Raoul Peck tells a complex story about betrayal, racism, and the separation of a family from land it thought it could occupy in perpetuity. Peck depicts many layers of injustice, but the one that seems to stand out most is the eight-year imprisonment of two members of the Reels family, men who refused to vacate their homes along Adams Creek in North Carolina. A story of dislocation begins when one of the family members claims ownership of the land and sells it to a developer. The patriarch of the family -- Elijah Reels -- bought the land in 1912 and left it to his entire amily when he died. The land became "heirs'' property, and although Elijah Reels left no will, the family contended they had a legal right to it. Peck talks to family members and details the battle they were forced to fight. Apart from the legal tangles, monetary strain, and a disputed way of life, Peck uses interviews and images of the land to show that the family once found a home that allowed them to support themselves and sustain a way of life, even when southern racism roiled around them. Based on a 2019 article that appeared in ProPublica, the movie calls attention to how many Black families systematically have been deprived of land since the days of  Reconstruction. Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) deals with denied justice but also shows how land can (and could again) be the basis for community survival. 

Joan Baez I Am a Noise

I didn’t know much about the life of Joan Baez before watching Joan Baez I Am a Noise, a documentary about the singer’s life  and career. Now, I may know too much. Directors Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle, and Karen O’Connor take a deep dive into Baez’s tumultuous life. What differentiates the film from ordinary bio-docs is Baez, who talks frankly about heartbreak (the end of her relationship with Bob Dylan), failed marriage, sibling rivalries, career missteps, civil rights and anti war activism, and childhood abuse. Baez never felt at peace, despite the sense of calm abiding her music sometimes reflected. Baez isn't shy about revealing herself, even including a bit of  taped dialogue from a therapy session. Baez, who was 79 when much of the film was shot, is now 82. Age seems to have encouraged her to take an unflinching look at her story. The documentary makes us aware that Baez has lived an amazing, if often roiling, life. I never thought of Baez’s music as “a noise.” It’s her life — a mixture of expression, activism, and fame - that made the noise to which her music can seem like a beautiful counterpoint, perhaps even a grace note.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Jamie Foxx scores in "The Burial'

       It may sound improbable, but The Burial might be the most entertaining movie ever made about a contract dispute. Ridiculous? Well, add this to the equation: One of the main characters in the movie owns funeral homes in Mississippi, not exactly an occupation that prompts anticipatory smiles.
      But is The Burial entertaining?
      Yes. I say this because  although The Burial tells a David vs. Goliath story that revolves around a serious issue, the movie has the soul of a feel-good comedy. 
      Moreover, Betts -- with a massive assist from Jamie Foxx -- has us rooting for a lawyer who’s already super-rich when we meet him. Foxx gives a power house performance as Willie E. Gary, a flamboyant attorney with a habit of winning. A whirling dervish of bravura energy, Gary can talk like a country preacher.
         He may be religious, but Gary has taken no vows of poverty. Aspirational to the max, he lives in a Florid mansion with his wife (Amanda Warren). He wears expensive suits, drives expensive cars, and owns a private plane he’s named "Wings of Justice." A diamond-studded watch adorns his wrist. 
      Gary, a real-life character who has been the subject of a 60 Minutes profile, isn't a revolutionary or an innovator; he’s someone who’s defiant enough to beat the opposition at its own game.
     Why not? The son of a sharecropper and one of 11 children, Gary put himself through Shaw University and North Carolina Central University School of Law. Forget Harvard Law, Gary specializes in taking other attorneys to school.
       Oh yeah, the real-life law suit that inspired the movie...
          In 1995, funeral home owner Jerry O'Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) sued the Loewen Group, an empire-building Canadian company that was devouring smaller American funeral homes. 
       Faced with financial difficulties, O'Keefe, accompanied by his attorney Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), travels to Vancouver to meet with Loewen chief Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp) on his yacht. 
         A deal was made — or so it seemed. O'Keefe would sell several of his funeral homes to Loewen but would keep the profitable burial insurance part of his business. They shook hands. O'Keefe signed the agreement; Loewen didn't. O'Keefe's suit followed.
      Betts could have suffocated the movie in a tangle of legal issues. Instead, she takes an approach more suitable to broad-based entertainment.
   Working from a screenplay she wrote with Doug Wright, author of a New Yorker piece about Gary, Betts builds the movie around her biggest asset, the comic flare and unabashed conviction Foxx brings to the role.
   To sharpen the courtroom conflict, the easily underestimated Gary battles a Harvard Law School graduate (Journee Smollett) brought in to head the Loewen team. Known for her aggressive approach, Smollett's Mame Downs has earned a bitingly descriptive nickname, The Python.
    Infighting among Gary team members, notably between Gary and Ruck's Mike Allred, lights additional sparks. O'Keefe's long-time attorney, Allred regards himself as an expert in contract law. He doesn't easily adjust to working with Gary. Allred hasn't entirely conquered years of Mississippi prejudice.  
   Mamoudou Athie plays Hal Dockins, a young black friend of O'Keefe and recent law school graduate. Hal introduces O'Keefe to Gary and remains involved in the case, a calm counterpoint to Gary's brashness. 
   Hal also makes a discovery that sharpens the case's racial dynamics, which had been in play from the outset. Part of the reason Hal wanted Gary to lead the team involved the make up of Hinds County, Miss., where the trial would be held. Hinds County is more than 70 percent black.
   Jones wisely takes a quietly determined approach. Undemonstrative but forthright, the 75-year-old O'Keefe has a single goal. He wants to protect his fortune for his 13 children and 40 grandchildren.
     Betts keeps the movie from turning into a love fest between Gary and O'Keefe. O'Keefe is Gary's first white client but the two have enough country in them to understand and care about each other. 
    A scene in which Gary, O'Keefe and Loewen meet to discuss a possible settlement is a small classic of gamesmanship -- except O'Keefe doesn't seem to be playing a game, which gives him an edge. He wants what he wants: to drag Loewen down for all the trouble he believes the company has caused him.
   The courtroom scenes are crisply executed, the tension, sufficient, and racial issues add weight to the proceedings.
    Looking back on the movie, I realized The Burial isn't really about a case or a cause. It's not built on outrage nor is it a sardonic take on capitalist greed. Sure, it cheers for the little guy but it runs on Gary's verve; i.e., on Foxx's performance.
  The movie gives Foxx his best showcase since Ray. He wrings every bit of juice from a role he owns from the beginning to the final credits. He looks like he's having a hell of a time; his unleashed brio becomes infectious. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

This 'Exorcist' didn't make me a believer


  If you've been yearning to watch a fitfully engaging attempt to reinvent a franchise, The Exorcist: Believer might be your kind of movie. 
 Director David Gordon Green, who added three latter-day installments to the Halloween franchise, stuffs his movie with elements that seem intended to update its reach but wind up diluting its power.
 And who would have thought that the word of exorcism would be possessed by the need to give the whole business an interfaith gloss? Roman Catholic priests, long established as the devil's premier big-screen opponents, almost become an afterthought in this sometimes silly battle with the devil.
  Fifty years ago, director William Friedkin made us believe that a foul force of hell could despoil the innocence of a child. An epic struggle of will and ritual played out in the bedroom of a 12-year-old girl, all of it fueled by the furor created by William Blatty's bestselling book.
  Fair to say that Green adds a mildly secular flavor to the proceedings, delivering a message about the importance of working together to combat evil. It takes a village to beat the devil, I guess.
   Green's most significant addition to the Exorcist canon involves dual possession. After a Haitian prologue in which Angela, one the demon's victims is born. Thirteen years pass and Angela (Lidya Jewett) and her friend Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) disappear in the Georgia woods. 
    A frantic search ensues. The girls eventually turn up. Of course, they've been possessed.
   The cast includes Leslie Odom Jr. as Angela's widowed dad. His wife died while giving birth in Haiti. Displaying oodles of conviction, Anne Dowd appears as a nurse with a religious background; and Ellen Burstyn shows up to link this edition to the original. Believer is being billed as a direct sequel to the 1973 movie.
    To fulfill that promise, Odom's increasingly desperate Victor visits Burstyn's Chris McNeil. He's seeking advice about how to save his daughter. Who would know better than the mom from the first movie?
   Turns out Chris hasn't seen her once-possessed daughter in years; the two became estranged after Chris published a book about her experiences. Young Regan evidently didn't want to go public.
    The second possessed girl hails from a churchgoing family, which affords Green an opportunity to show the disruption of a Sunday service. When the demon gets the best of poor Katherine, she marches down the church's center aisle growling about the body and the blood.
    The two girls benefit from make-up, faux bad teeth, snarls, and the use of a familiar devil-like voice that sounds as if its gargling bile.
    Green whips up a couple of jump scares, but what once was frightening sometimes feels like another fulfillment of genre obligations by the first of a reported trio of movies.
   Some of the preview audience with which I saw Believer laughed as the movie fired off fan-oriented references. I guess certain kinds of horror have become less a source of big-screen terror than an occasion for in-group affirmation.
     Oh well, nothing new here: If Believer succeeds, it won't be because of divine intervention: The power of box office will compel the franchise's present and future. 


A familiar but genial horror movie spoof

 Consider it a small achievement. Totally Killer,  a movie that channels Back to the Future and a variety of Scream movies, proves watchable and moderately entertaining. Kiernan Shipka plays Jamie, a teenager who time travels back to the moment when her mother (Olivia Holt) was a high-school girl who belonged to “The Mollys,” a group devoted to John Hughes’s star Molly Ringwald. Before Jamie returns to 1987, we meet her parents (Lochlyn Munro and Julie Bowen). Jamie's mission in the past: She wants to stop The Sweet Sixteen Killer, a knife-wielding maniac who terrorized the town in 1987. After a 35-year-hiatus, the killer turns up in the present, evidently to complete a vengeful cycle of murder by killing Jamie's mom. Against the grain of current views about crime-riddled cities, Totally Killer follows the lead of numerous horror movies, taking root a small town. The small-town environment allows Jamie to recognize the teen counterparts of adults she knows in the present. The meeting of mother and daughter — on quasi equal footing — results in some amusing byplay, although director Nahnatchka Khan can’t entirely blend the mix of blood and chuckles. Totally Killer works best as a genre spoof that focuses more on being agreeably familiar than breaking new ground. Available on July 6 on Amazon Prime.

Pedro Almodovar visits the Old West

 It's hardly a surprise that director Pedro Almodovar, once regarded as the gifted and undisputed bad boy of Spanish cinema, has decided to make a film about gay gunslingers in the Old American West. Surprisingly, though, Strange Way of Life, a  31-minute, English-language short doesn't  go much of anywhere. Those familiar with Almodovar's work know him as a visual master whose films brilliantly  meld design and meaning. He’s an ardent proponent of entertaining the eye in ways that serve both the worlds and the characters he creates. You'll see some of that in Strange Way of Life, but there's not much more to consider about the movie. Ethan Hawke stars as a bitter, tormented sheriff who reunites with a former lover (Pedro Pascal) after 25 years. Jake (Hawke) has a sexual reunion with Pascal's Silva, but resists taking things further. A strained subplot revolves around Jake's duty to track his sister-in-law's killer (George Steane). The killer happens to be Silva's son. Silva argues that Jake should allow the young man to flee to Mexico. Almodovar includes a flashback to the Wild Bunch days Jake and Silva once shared. Viewers may have seen the subject of gay men in macho worlds better developed in Brokeback Mountain and more recently in The Power of the Dog.  Hawke, however, brings the force of severity to the lawman role Jack feels compelled to play. Strange Way of Life tries for the poignance that stems from recognizing roads not taken. But the movie might be confused with the sizzle reel for a feature-length movie that never materialized.
Strange Way of Life is being released theatrically on a double bill with The Human Voice, another short film by Almodovar. First released in 2020, The Human Voice stars Tilda Swinton in an adaptation of a play by Jean Cocteau. I haven’t seen it.

A horror film Mongolia


I expected a Mongolian horror film to be more original and startling than Aberrance, a movie that director Baatar Batsukh dedicates to Darren Aronofsky, perhaps because he may have drawn inspiration from Aronofsky films such as Mother!. Heavily atmospheric, Aberrance thrives when it’s at its most ambiguous. The set-up: A burly husband (Erkhembayar Ganbat) takes his troubled wife (Selenge Chadraabal) to an isolated country home. Ganbat’s character says he wants to protect his spouse, who has shown signs of deep emotional  disturbance. We’re evidently meant to wonder whether Gambat's character might be an abuser who’s masking dark intentions under the guise of concern. A neighbor (Yalalt Namsrai) intrudes, and a couple of girlfriends visit, along with the doctor who insisted that Chandraabal's character would benefit from isolation. Batsukh applies heavy doses of visual eeriness (red forests, for example) and gets pretty far on mood and performances that remain appropriately elusive. But the film ultimately sacrifices its eerie qualities for clever plot twists that tie things up while also replacing unease with genre-inspired cleverness. References to Mongolian tradition can be found, but the real home for this movie seems to be a house built by other horror movies. Moreover, the movie's isolated setting tends to limit Batsukh's ability to take a deep dive into Mongolian life and culture.