Thursday, November 30, 2023

A grim helping of John Woo action


Director John Woo returns to Hollywood action with Silent Night, a movie that evokes memories of Woo's work during his bullet-riddled days of Hong Kong action, not to mention Hollywood efforts such as 1997's Face/Off.  Memories, however, aren't enough to carry Silent Night across the finish line.
   Woo is an undisputed master of action, but in a year when John Wick: Chapter 4 set a high bar for inventive over-the-top  gunplay and fighting, outrageously violent movies have their work cut out for them, Silent Night included.
   The story: Joel Kinnaman plays a father who sinks into despair. How could he not? Kinnaman's Brian lost his young son when rival gangs raced through his neighborhood firing at each other. Brain gave chase and was shot in the throat by a gang leader who left him for dead.
    Brian survives, but a bullet that lodged in his throat damaged his vocal cords, preventing him from speaking and leaving Kinnaman to squeeze all the gloom and despair he can muster   into Brian's expressions.
    Not surprisingly, living with a man who's deeply embittered about his son's murder exhausts Brian's wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno). When she leaves, Brian is free to do what the main characters in such movies do: seek revenge or, if you're more high-minded, a crude form of justice.
  Brian's quest for vengeance, preceded by vigorous training, leads to a major body count and several displays of the violent ingenuity that made Woo famous during his Hong Kong heyday, which is when I became a fan. 
    A sketchy screenplay sets up the movie's vengeful rampage. But after its explosive opening, Silent Night takes too long to reclaim the only reason for its existence: exaggerated action and wild violence that employs a battered red Mustang, knives, and several varieties of firearms. 
     That's Woo, I guess, but a relentlessly grim tone tamps down the movie's kick. Silent Night struck me as more morose than exciting, a genre exercise that lights a fuse, but, unlike Woo's best work, doesn't blow us away.

Inside a Michelin three-star restaurant

 In the Michelin three-star restaurant Le Bois sans Feuilles, no detail is too small to receive concentrated attention. If you enter the kitchen, you might hear the chefs mulling the merits of using shisho or passion fruit in dishes that have yet to earn a place on the menu. 
 I've never been to Le Bois sans Feuilles, which is located in central France, and probably never will. Lunches are priced in the 300 plus Euro range, and wines, of course, will significantly augment the bill.
 The restaurant doesn't stint on service. Sommeliers will guide you through the best wine parings for the meal you order. The wait staff is intimately acquainted with every dish and ready to accommodate any allergies or preferences you may have. Advance notice appreciated. 
 No, I've never been to Le Bois Sans Feuilles, which has been owned by the fabled Troisgros family for generations. Fortunately for me and other moviegoers, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has. A specialist in lengthy films with fly-on-the-wall flavor, Wiseman has made a four-hour documentary called Menus Plaisirs -- Les Troisgros, an immersive elook at how a great restaurant operates.
   A word of caution: Fly-on-the-wall cinema is an illusion; nothing about Menus Plaisirs should be considered haphazard.
  As with Wiseman's previous work (City Hall and In Jackson Heights are two examples), the director offers no narration and no title cards to establish locations or introduce characters. Wiseman doesn't give guided tours; he provides extraordinary access to worlds we might otherwise never penetrate -- not with so much detail.
   Menus Plaisirs  also tells a generational story, introducing us to Michel, the Troisgros family elder, his two sons, a daughter, and Michel's wife. All are part of the family business.
   But it's the chefs who command the most attention. Cesar now serves as head chef at Le Bois Sans Feuilles, one of the several restaurants owned by the family. Leo, a second son, runs another of the family's restaurants.
   As a trio or sometimes individually, father and sons also visit businesses that supply their restaurants with cheese, wine, and beef, all run by people who treat their jobs as callings, much in the way the Troisgros family approaches its businesses. 
    If you're not a culinary expert, some of the dishes --  veal brains, for example -- may prove challenging, but Wiseman, now 93, makes no judgements about any of the Troisgros culinary preoccupations.  
    Should you find any of them a little too refined  ... well ... that's your problem. Among other things, Michel seems like a nice fellow, always eager to chat with customers. He's accessible and the atmosphere at Le Bois San Feuilles, located in a rural area and featuring open space in both the dining area and kitchen, doesn't seem designed to intimidate. 
    Devotees of food television know that watching meals being prepared can be captivating. I'm not one of those folks, but there's something mesmerizing about seeing the Le Bois sans Feuilles staff cook snails in pools of butter or construct (I don't know what other word to use) complex desserts. 
    Wiseman shows what's required to run a renowned restaurant; the Troisgros mixture of experience, intuition,  innovation, and commitment to quality explains how the family's success has been maintained and passed from one generation to the next.
   Le Bois sans Feuilles was awarded its three stars in 1968 and has held onto them ever since, a rare accomplishment that underscores the relationship between high standards and greatness.
    As I watched the film, I wondered. Is one possible without the other?

Friday, November 24, 2023

An offbeat look at celebrity culture

   Dream Scenario, an inviting display of imagination from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, latches onto a rich idea and has fun playing with it.
   Nicolas Cage portrays Paul Matthews, a tenured biology professor at a small college. Paul bores his students and deludes himself about the book he hopes will lift him from academic obscurity -- if only he could write it. Bald and bearded, Paul has been relegated to life's sidelines.
  And there he remains until he learns that he’s cropping up in the dreams of strangers. Not one or two people, but a legion of folks for whom he’s become a new kind of creature — a dream celebrity.
   Borgli also introduces us to Paul’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement). Paul's sudden notoriety will plague all of them.
    Not surprisingly, Paul's celebrity attracts an ad agency that wants to set him up with an endorsement program.  Paul’s life as an academic who studies the adaptive power of evolution? Who cares?
    Michael Cera has a nice turn as the head of the agency, a new-breed kind of exec who would be unrecognizable to the suits who ruled during Madison Avenue’s heyday. 
   Cage deftly handles Paul’s foundering as he suddenly becomes a known commodity or, more precisely, a commodity many imagine they know. Ironically, Paul has done nothing to achieve fame other than play recurrent roles in people’s dreams.
    At first, Paul appears in dreams as a passive, ineffectual observer. Eventually, he starts playing murderous roles in horrible nightmares. Borgli skillfully visualizes all of this — although the film's modest quality helps keep effects from dominating.
   As the story progresses, Borgli broadens its scope, taking glancing blows at academia, cancel culture, viral online exposure, student over-sensitivity, and misplaced judgments, people refusing to take responsibility for their dreams. 
    The idea of how a mass phenomenon involving dreams develops remains a mystery Borgli has little interest in solving. Why bother? There's no need for an explanation.
    Fair to say that Borgli doesn’t quite know how to end a film in which cleverness sustains a steady level of amusement rather than becoming a self-conscious expression of trendy social criticisms.
    Borgli gets more out of his premise than you might expect; he turns a film about dreams into a nicely wrought commentary on current realities.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

One very weird summer vacation


   Emerald Fennell's Saltburn skewers those who aspire to the heights of wealth and privilege, with the writer/director indulging her taste for evisceration, exaggeration, and obvious provocation.
    Fennell focuses on Oliver Quick, an Oxford student played by Barry Keoghan. The bookish Quick, whose name sounds as if it were lifted from a Dickens' novel, attracts the attention of one of Oxfords  cool guys (Jacob Elordi). 
     Increasingly comfortable with his newfound acceptance, Oliver tells Elordi's Felix that he won't be going home for the summer, despite the recent death of his alcoholic father. He says he can't bear to be around his mentally deranged mother; he wants to keep his high-achieving life on track.
  Perhaps out of pity or maybe because he's kind, Felix invites Oliver to visit Saltburn, the massive estate where his family lives in aristocratic splendor and where Felix, despite his obvious entitlement,  seems closest to normal.
  Turns out the rest of Felix's family consists of bizarrely drawn characters, all vividly sketched in caricature fashion. Mom (Rosamund Pike) speaks through clenched teeth, launching acidic barbs in all directions; Dad (Richard E. Grant) seems monumentally out of touch; sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) reeks of trouble. Her mother describes her as "sexually incontinent."
  Two additional characters took up residence at Saltburn before Oliver's arrival. These hangers-on include another Oxford student (Archie Madekwe), a young man who's somehow related to the family and a family friend (Carey Mulligan) who insists on spewing repeated tales of the catastrophes that have befallen her. 
  The butler (Paul Rhys) seems to regard himself as superior to one and all. Perhaps he's the referee in a game in which the participants have lost sight of all boundary lines.
   OK, sounds like we're on the road to a broadly conceived comedy of manners but Fennell, who directed Promising Young Woman, has other things in mind. Her movie becomes increasingly bizarre -- perhaps even perverse. That shift gathers force when Oliver, whose creepy leanings already have been established, climbs into the bathtub where Felix recently had been bathing and, by the way, masturbating. Oliver starts to drink the bathwater as it swirls down the drain.
    Clearly, Oliver is not what he seems. You certainly wouldn't want to ask him how he spent his summer vacation.
    The detail about the bathtub might be a spoiler; I include it to ward off the squeamish and to demonstrate that Fennell specializes in sights intended to make us wince, perhaps the equivalent of the queasy responses elicited by graphically repellent gore in horror films.
    I'd be lying if I didn't say that some of this is entertaining and funny -- in a twisted sort of way. 
    Like Promising Woman, Saltburn wraps up with far-fetched twists that continue Fennell's outrageous march through developments that are meant, I think, to encourage us to look back and search for clues that might have tipped us off to where the movie was headed.
     On one level, Saltburn -- by including images that invite averted eyes  -- can be viewed as a movie that dresses for dinner and then throws up on itself. On another, it's a daring comic display of the base motivations that underly class privilege.
    Whatever view you take -- and I'd opt for the latter -- Fennell takes us on a ride that bounces over some wicked bumps. Obviously I can't know her intent, but by the look of things, I'd guess, as was the case in Promising Woman,  that she prefers comedy that leaves bite marks.

A marriage, a trial, and a complicated movie

 Director Justine Triet must have understood that we've all seen too many movies that try to dissect crumbling marriages. In Anatomy of a Fall,  Triet offers an absorbing look at a rocky marriage but with two major variations: First, the husband in this troubled duo is dead. And second, the wife (Sandra Huller) is on trial for his murder.
 Insightfully written by Triet and her partner in life, Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall raises customary questions about guilt or innocence.  Huller's Sandra and her attorney (Swann Arlaud) contend that Sandra's husband committed suicide. The couple's 11-year-old son (Milo Machado Graner) takes on an important role as the trial develops, but  it's the slow revelation of detail that carries the day.
   Triet wisely tamps down the conventional elements that easily could have defined her movie. Instead, she peels back layers that expose the complexity of a relationship in which Sandra's success as a writer and her husband's failure at the same endeavor caused friction, as did the move that brought them from Germany to a small French town.
    The key to the movie -- which won the Palm d'Or at last spring's Cannes Film Festival -- can be found in Huller's performance, which is deep without being showy. In interviews, Triet has pointed out that Sandra is no angel; the screenplay establishes her as a self-possessed woman who never insists that she was the perfect wife.
   Sandra's fate ultimately hinges on a recording that her late husband made during one of their arguments. He evidently hoped to use it as the basis for one of his stories. 
     The recording becomes essential to understanding the larger point Triet is making: Context changes everything. What might sound abrasive but common in an overheard argument takes on another dimension when it becomes part of a court proceeding.
     Don't fret, the movie doesn't leave us hanging. We get a verdict but the jury’s decision isn't really the point: Triet leaves it to us to pick our way through the messy aftermath of a marriage in which both husband and wife may have thought they were sacrificing too much for the other.
    Anatomy of a Fall isn't a movie for those who want definitive answers; it's for those who are more interested in asking questions as they turn the story this way and that.


Monday, November 20, 2023

Leonard Bernstein's dizzying whirl of a life

   Bradley Cooper’s Maestro is many things -- sometimes all at once.
  Cooper directs and stars in a kaleidoscopic look at Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most famous American classical music personality of our time.
 Bernstein, of course, didn’t confine himself to the classical canon. He composed for Broadway, notably creating West Side Story’s brilliant score. He also became a literate spokesman for the classics, explaining them to children at his famous Young People’s Concerts, which were televised in the 1950s and early '60s.
 Cooper has produced an avid work that, until its morose final act, moves at headlong speeds. Most of the first part of the film is presented in black and white, shifting to color for its second half and concluding with a lingering death scene that’s nothing short of operatic -- at least in its agonizing length.
   Right off, Cooper establishes Bernstein’s attraction to men. A  bisexual, he married Chilean actress, Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan in one of the year’s best performances. Mulligan's Felica bristles with fast-talking charm, sophistication, and intelligence; she's almost the living embodiment of a character Katharine Hepburn might have played at her wittiest best.
   As much as anything, the movie is about the marriage between two people who loved each other, although one of them (Bernstein) seldom was wholly there for the other. 
  But don’t pity Felicia. She knew who Bernstein was when she married him, and Cooper and Mulligan make it clear that the two care about each other. Lenny, as he was known to friends, and Felicia were soulmates; she did what many women did for men and some still do; she subordinated her rising stage career to the demands of husband and family. 
    Mulligan’s performance is a marvel, but what about Cooper, who initially drew criticism for donning a prosthetic nose that some thought would over-emphasize Bernstein’s Jewishness? Forget the nose, it’s a non-issue. Cooper’s performance captures the nasality of Bernstein’s speaking voice; he's true to Bernstein's vigorous conducting style which hovered somewhere between possession and aerobics.
   But the performance takes some getting used to. In the film's early going, I found Cooper’s dead-on portrayal distractingly unrelaxed. Bernstein can seem so precisely drawn that it’s like looking at a portrait in which the edges have been too sharply defined. 
   But that’s the point, I suppose. Bernstein was on the move, sampling life and deep-diving into music, which was the core of his life, maybe even his entire life
   When he conducts Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at Ely Cathedral in England, Bernstein's famed physicality attains full force. It wouldn't feel entirely out of place if Cooper were to conclude the scene with an apotheosis, something as grandly magnificent as  Bernstein’s direct ascent into heaven. 
    Just kidding, but it's difficult to overstate how transported Bernstein seems to be by the music's power.
    What the film lacks (and it’s an important deficiency) is an assessment of why Bernstein was such a significant figure musically, and you won’t learn much about Bernstein’s interpretation of classical pieces. If you're interested, you can find plenty of that on YouTube.
     I haven’t made up my mind about all of Cooper’s directing choices. The opening sequences include shifts from one location to another that  storm onto the screen with the verve of someone bursting into a room, and the ways the characters snap off their dialogue, sometimes felt overdone. I wondered whether Cooper wasn't guilty of too much self-conscious wielding of the cinematic baton. 
     But then again, that’s part of Cooper’s interpretation of the screenplay, which he wrote with Josh Singer, and Maestro boasts too many commanding scenes to ignore: Bernstein lying to his daughter (Maya Hawke) about his sexuality or an argument between Bernstein and Felicia that takes place in the Bernstein’s Central Park West apartment while a snoopy float from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats by. True to his free-wheeling spirit, Bernstein at one point fantasizes that he's one of the dancing sailors in On the Town, another Broadway production for which he wrote the music.
     Maestro goes down more easily if you accept the fact that it’s not a conventional biopic. It's an immersion in Bernstein’s emotionally charged life, his roving eye for bed partners, his bouts of depression, and his ferocity about music. 
    Cooper doesn’t dwell on the social constraints that kept Bernstein closeted — at least to the public; he leaves it to us to remember that attitudes toward gay people were quite different in 1943, the year Bernstein made his debut as a conductor with the New York Philharmonic, a last-minute substitution for an ailing Bruno Walter. 
      At one point, Bernstein’s sister (crisply portrayed by Sarah Silverman) tells Felicia, who's a bit down, that she shouldn't be surprised. Surely, she understood what it’s like to be caught in Bernstein’s orbit. 
    That’s what Cooper does. He catches us in Bernstein’s dizzying orbit. He suggests that Bernstein’s career sprang from a life lived at spin-cycle speeds that left both joy and pain in its wake -- for others and for Bernstein himself.

Impressive battles mark 'Napoleon'

 At a time when arguments about authoritarianism have swamped much of the public discourse, it's easy to understand why director Ridley Scott was interested in bringing a story about Napoleon to the screen with the always nervy Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. 
 Phoenix remains one of Hollywood's most adventurous actors. In Napoleon, he creates a lumbering, dour general who became an emperor with a weakness, an over-reliance on his wife, Josephine (a sly Vanessa Kirby). 
  For Napoleon, Josephine functions like a good-luck charm. He needs her. He pines for her while doing his day job; i.e., conquering the world.
  Sex scenes between Napoleon and Josephine demonstrate his lack of subtlety and her lack of interest. Taking Josephine from behind, he approaches sex as if he were leading a charge on the battlefield. 
  Assertive and ambitious, Josephine shows only passing interest in fidelity. Not surprisingly, Napoleon isn't happy about his wife's digressions -- or much of anything else for that matter.
  Though never dwelled on, the movie finds time to make a joke about Napoleon's fabled lack of height, but mostly Napoleon is the boulder around which the rest of the movie flows. 
  The movie could have been called The Battles of Napoleon. Scott stages sweeping battle sequences that include Napoleon's triumph at Austerlitz and, of course, his downfall at Waterloo. 
    I'm no expert on 19th Century military maneuvers but Scott seems to be; he understands the tactics employed in each battle. In a stunning sequence on a lake during Austerlitz, canon balls crack the ice as bleeding soldier's sink into the freezing depths.
    Scott's mastery of scale makes us aware of how brutal, open-field warfare could be. During the course of Napoleon's epic career, about three million soldiers (French and otherwise) died on battlefields. 
    A note here: At a time when action sequences often degenerate into indecipherable blurs, Scott gives a master class in how they should be done. 
    The movie leaps through history as if it were in danger of evaporating. It's left to Phoenix to sketch Napoleon's character with scowls, exclamations that can sound anachronistic, and the establishment of a bulky presence.
    A leader at the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon rose out of France's post-revolutionary chaos to become a ruler who, in this rendering, seems more persistent than cunning. He was also legacy conscious. Distraught because Josephine couldn't provide him an heir to his throne, Napoleon divorced her; he quickly found a substitute who sired a son.
   It's indicative of both the film's focus and failings that few of the supporting characters in Scott's large cast are given much opportunity to standout. At times, the characters seem buried under churning hunks of French history, which slide by like chunks dislodged from a melting iceberg.
   Admirable in bits and pieces, some spectacular, Napoleon left me feeling as if I'd watched a slightly cynical historical recreation rather than a brilliant reinterpretation of history. And for all its attempts to remind us of old-fashioned epics, one can't help but be surprised that Napoleon doesn't make a deeper impression. 
    A four-hour version of the movie will be seen when it's released on Apple TV+. I'm eager to see it because even at two hours and 38 minutes, this one feels truncated. I couldn't help thinking that there must have been more to this conquering egotistical lout than Napoleon reveals.
     Unless Scott wanted to tell us that history sometimes can revolve around an oafish leader -- providing, of course, that he has an army at his disposal.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

A tone poem set in the rural South

 Writer/director Raven Jackson makes her debut with the poetic All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, a movie that dispenses pungent fragments of story while serving up maximum helpings of atmosphere and African-American culture. Jackson gives tactile life to her look at young Mackenzie (Kaylee Nicole Johnson), a kid who grows to maturity in the rural South. Don’t let that synopsis fool you, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt avoids linear progression, allowing sensation to dominate, often through the use of exaggerated close-ups that demand immersive attention. Sometimes, Mackenzie helps guide us through the story. At one point, she watches her mother and father (Sheila Atim and Chris Chalk) dancing tenderly in their living room, losing themselves in each other's embrace. Three additional actresses — Mylee Shannon, Charleen McClure, and Zainab Jah — play Mackenzie as she advances toward  womanhood. Exchanges between Mackenzie and her sister (Jaya Henry) add a playful dimension to the world Jackson creates. Some of Jackson’s imagery — thunderstorms or close-ups of hands, for example — become repetitive and Jackson's bypass of exposition can blur the line between immersion and disorientation.  I’ve read that the movie’s title stems from the transplant to the American South of an African practice, finding particles of clay to eat, perhaps a suggestive way of saying that Jackson's characters are inseparable from the corner of the world they inhabit. Jackson treats life as a kind of nourishing soil that we can run our fingers through; though not always fully realized, Dirt Road hits its share of evocative and memorable notes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A ‘Hunger Games’ prequel lacks urgency


   Is there still an appetite for The Hunger Games
The makers of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes presumably hope so. 
   Unlike the four previous movies, this prequel doesn't center on a young rebel who must survive and triumph in a lethal contest. Instead, it focuses on a different series regular, Coriolanus Snow, played here as an 18-year-old by Tom Blyth.
     Anyone who's up to speed on the previous Hunger Games movies — and I can’t imagine others will be interested — knows that Snow will become the coldly cunning president of the dystopia author Suzanne Collins creates in her YA novels. Donald Sutherland played Snow in the earlier movies.
     Based on a Collins novel published in 2020 and directed by series vet Francis Lawrence, the movie seems an odd duck, a kind of extended backstory that reaches the screen 10 years after the last movie.
    Despite its Songbirds title, you may be surprised to learn that the movie sometimes feels like Hunger Games, the Musical.  Lawrence showcases several musical numbers by Rachel Zegler (West Side Story), who plays Hunger Games contestant Lucy Gray. 
     Zegler’s Lucy enters the games with Coriolanus as her mentor, the tribune assigned to guide her through the violent Hunger Games spectacle. We see enough of the games to get the point; they’re brutal and unforgiving and … well … a tedious nod to expectation.
     The story eventually illuminates Coriolanus's inner struggle;  his capacity for love and empathy bumps up against the brutal imperatives of his ruthless ambition.
    The supporting cast includes a notable contribution from Peter Dinklage who brings tormented depth and sadness to the role of a professor who instructs tribunes. Jason Schwartzman plays the game emcee, but the movie lacks the satirical spark that boosted the earlier movies and gave Stanley Tucci's performance its verve.
      Josh Andres Rivera has a nice turn as Sejanus Plinth, a rich kid who befriends Coriolanus. Although Plinth’s family can buy his safety, a sense of justice turns him into a rebel. 
       Viola Davis appears as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the person charged with spicing up the televised games, which, in their 10th year, have begun losing viewers. The decline invokes the story’s major question: Why are The Hunger Games necessary?
      The movie offers one answer; franchise-hungry Hollywood may have another.
       A plodding story becomes more interesting in the final going but not without raising another issue: length. At two hours and 37 minutes, the last segment asks the audience to stay involved past what feels like amore natural ending.
      I wouldn't say that Songbirds is dreadful, but like its lynchpin performer Jennifer Lawrence, it probably should have moved on. What's the point? The idea of exploitative TV as a social control mechanism seems like a dragon that already has been slain — or is that some other franchise?


An actress tackles a sensational story

  Gracie was 36 when she slept with Joe. He was 13. 
  She went to jail for her choice and gave brith to a baby (his) while incarcerated. May December,  a movie about the aftermath of their affair, begins 20 years after Joe and Gracie made national news.
   The age difference disturbs, of course, but equally important, is the fact that Joe's marriage deprived him of the opportunity to grow into the role of husband and father. Joe and Gracie, who live in Savannah, Ga., have three kids, all older than Joe was when their life-changing affair began.
   In what feels like an attempt to give the story some mind-bending dimension, director Todd Haynes focuses on the arrival of Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress who will play Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a movie that's soon to start filming.
   Elizabeth becomes increasingly insistent as she explores the lives of the characters who lived the story.
   Absorbing and quietly challenging, May December engages us in a pursuit similar to the one Elizabeth undertakes. We're continually trying to process scenes that don't quite compute, a father trying to relate to a teenage son who's going through a stage he never experienced.
     As she tires to nail the character, Elizabeth meets Gracie and her two twins (Gabriel Chung and Elizabeth Yu), teens who are about to graduate from high school, leaving Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) as empty-nesters. An older daughter — the one born in prison — already has left home.
     Think about your life. Is the person you loved at 17 someone you could have spent the rest of your days with?  We wonder whether Joe and Gracie really love each other or have backed themselves into a corner, trapped into justifying behavior few would condone.
    The screenplay's focus on acting elevates content that easily might have turned trashy. As a result, May December hinges on Portman's performance as an actress who tries to penetrate Gracie's soul, ultimately in shockingly disreputable ways. Can acting be viewed as an invasion of privacy, even an act of aggression?  
   Under the guise of professionalism, Elizabeth also explores the salacious nature of the material. When she visits the stock room in the pet shop where both Gracie and Joe once worked and where they were caught having sex, she allows her imagination to reproduce Gracie's moment of ecstatic abandon. 
     Fortunately, the owner of the pet shop remains otherwise occupied and out of view.
    Portman's performance requires a degree of subtlety and seduction. Initially, she must seduce the audience, asking that we grant her the presumption of professional curiosity. But as the movie develops, Elizabeth's twisted psyche becomes more evident.
   Elizabeth’s quest broadens the movie’s scope: She talks to a variety of Savannah residents, including the man to whom Gracie was married (D.W. Moffett) at the time of her dalliance. She also meets with the lawyer (Lawrence Arancio) who represented Gracie at her trial and with her son (Cory Michael Smith) from her first marriage.
      Questions of control -- Gracie's over Joe and the rest of her family -- are reflected in the way Moore shifts identities: mother, seductress, wife, and lover.  
      Only Melton's Joe seems an innocent participant in a drama he never really controlled. Joe breeds butterflies, an overly obvious symbolic reference to his inability to escape the cocoon of his marriage and blossom into a fully developed adult.
       Should we believe Gracie when, late in the movie, she insists that Joe initiated their sexual relationship? And even if her assertion were true, does it altar the fact that she was an adult and he was still a kid?
      Those familiar with Haynes's work (Far From Heaven and Carol) won't be surprised that Haynes has little interest in sanctioning his characters or generating undue sympathy for Gracie, a woman who, after all, spent time in jail for second-degree rape.
      In the end, May December is as much about the way Haynes and his two principal actresses toy with the story than about the story itself. He provokes us to ask questions that revolve around a central inquiry,  "What becomes of people who have lived through this kind of experience?"
    With a screenplay by Samy Burch and Alex MechanikMay December is more than a trashy TV movie. Viewers may disagree about how much more because Haynes can confound as much as he clarifies, leaving us to wonder whether we're meant to take everything we see at face value.
     Whatever you decide, you may find yourself realizing that in the game Haynes and his cast of characters are playing, no one emerges victorious. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Some amusing bits in a 'Marvels' mess


 Watching The Marvels, I occasionally felt as if I'd walked into a movie in the middle. Maybe the folks who had been there from the start understood why a battle in a Jersey City home featured characters who had passed through what the movie called "jump points" and were now swapping locations with one another.
    OK, I did see it from the beginning and I'm exaggerating, but The Marvels isn't likely to show up in many screenwriting classes that place a premium on coherence.
     A sequel to 2019's Captain Marvel, The Marvels mostly explains its mysteries as it plasters the screen with abundant fights (not thrilling), attempts at humor (a gag involving the musical Cats proves amusing), and a story in which Carol Danvers, a.k.a., Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) must atone for inadvertently wrought consequences inflicted on Hala, home planet of the Kree.
     Sporting a snarl and hefting a hammer-like weapon, the vengeful Dar Benn (Zawe Ashton) leads the battle against Captain Marvel.
    In this outing, Captain Marvel doesn't fly solo. She teams with two young women, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), an energetic Jersey teen who idolizes Captain Marvel.
     Rambeau, by the way, is the now-grown daughter of Maria Rambeau, a friend of Captain Marvel in past episodes.
     Captain Marvel, Kamala, and Monica Rambeau race through a stream of unimpressive effects and a screenplay that, to me, never seems to find its footing.
     Director Nia DaCosta (Candymanadds feminist and youth spin, but seems less interested in narrative cohesion than cinematic play, much of it silly, notably a scene in which Captain Marvel becomes a princess in a world in which all the characters sing their dialogue, a misplaced but weirdly welcome Bollywood intrusion.
     At that point, I wondered what glories DaCosta might have achieved had she approached the entire movie in a spirit of parody. The movie's cute but nasty alien cats, though overplayed, could have helped in that  regard. 
     A merciful one hour and 45 minutes long, The Marvels made me think that the MCU universe has become so splintered generalists need not apply. The Marvels is a fans-only endeavor -- and it remains to be seen whether all of them will be eager to sign on.

An unsung civil rights hero

    Born in 1912, Bayard Rustin dabbled with Communism as a young man and spent two years in jail as a conscientious objector during World War II. He later fought to integrate American labor unions, and  played a key role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 
   Though deprived of credit, Rustin was the visionary and organizing force behind the now famous 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his fabled "I Have A Dream" speech.  
   Because Rustin was openly gay before such declarations became commonplace, he upset some members of the civil rights establishment. NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins, for example, thought Rustin's sexual orientation disqualified him from playing a leading role in the March. 
  That's a lot of territory and Rustin, a semi-successful bio-pic built around a strong performance by Colman Domingocovers some of it, even as the richness and sweep of Rustin's life plays second fiddle to the March on Washington.
  Martin Luther King, the figure most associated with the march, and Rustin were friends. They had a falling out and eventually reconciled. As King, Aml Ameen wisely avoids mimicry, capturing King's idealism, as well as his more pragmatic concerns.
   The rest of the cast includes Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, renowned head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a major figure in the civil rights movement. Jeffrey Wright plays an Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a spot-light hungry Harlem Congressman, and a miscast Chris Rock appears as NAACP chief Roy Wilkins.
  Informative as it can be, Rustin isn't a dramatic knockout; the story can be weighed down by the movie's need for exposition, montage, and a detailed depiction of how Rustin rallied volunteers to create an event that would attract more than 250,000 people to the National Mall.
     Working from a screenplay by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, director George C. Wolfe suggests an element that conforms to the current political climate, the "intersectionality" that found Rustin battling bigotry on two fronts -- racial and sexual. Rustin was more of a universalist than that statement might suggest, an old-fashioned Leftie with deep labor roots and a commitment to class struggle  -- albeit in a non-violent fashion inspired by Gandhi. 
      Gayness seldom becomes a focal point in a story that's embedded in the roiling issues of the moment.  A romance between Rustin and a married preacher (Johnny Ramey) points to a period when some gay men had no wish to open the closet door. 
     It’s long past time that Rustin, who died in 1987, began securing his place in the popular imagination. Perhaps Rustin -- now in theaters -- will help with that, particularly when the movie bows on Netflix on Nov. 17.
    Fair to say that Domingo and Rustin deserved a richer movie than Rustin, which is too much of a historical refresher for those who lived through the period and too much of a primer for those who didn't.
     Still, Domingo carries the film past its rough spots, capturing Rustin's fiercely unapologetic activism, deep-rooted conviction, and intellectual heft. Take the word "unapologetic" seriously: It may not have been easy, but Rustin insisted on defining himself: Courageously, he refused to outsource the job.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Bob's Cinema Diary: Nov. 3, 2023 -- 'The Persian Version' and 'Fingernails'

The Persian Version


Though light-hearted, The Persian Version deals with serious issues pertaining to fragmented cultural identity and generational disconnection. Say this: Director Maryam Keshavarz isn't afraid to extend her reach. Early on we learn that Leila (Layla Mohammadi) has arrived at a point of friction with her immigrant mother (Niousha Noor). A fully contemporary young woman,  Leila aspires to be a screen writer. After breaking up with her gay wife  (Mia Foo), Leila becomes pregnant from a one-night fling with an actor (Tom Byrne) who's working in a stage production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Keshavarz also tells the story of Leila's mother, a determined woman who willed herself to succeed in America, becoming a business success when her physician husband (Bijan Daneshmand) was sidelined with heart issues.  Mom, the movie's most interesting character, has a backstory. She married at 14 while still in Iran. More complex and demanding than you might expect from a film that strives to leave a feel-good aftertaste, Mom's story could have been its own film. A strong Kamand Shafieisabet plays Mom as a young woman. Scattered as it can be and perhaps with too much on its plate, the Persian Version breaks into enough enjoyable pieces to sustain a 107-minute entertainment.


   Christos Nikou, known for directing Apples, a 2020 festival favorite, has lots going for him in Fingernails, a movie that involves an unwieldy and alarming conceit. 
   In the near future, someone has invented a device that analyzes fingernails to determine whether two people are a love match. Billed as a kind of marriage insurance, the procedure requires ripping out fingernails, a torment Nikou may have seen as the basis for a meaningful metaphor. 
 Stay calm: Nikou suggests more than he shows.
 But let's get back to the movie's strengths, which are concentrated in three names: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, and Jeremy Allen White, familiar from the hit series Bear. 
  Buckley plays Anna, a vaguely unhappy woman who takes a job with a company that tries to teach people how to love one another before submitting to the test that will determine whether they belong together. 
  A teacher by trade, Anna yearns for something that's missing from her marriage to White's Ryan, a dependable guy who no longer lights the spark of romance in their relationship.
 Ahmed plays Amir, one of Anna's co-workers, a lonely guy who slowly falls for her. The two share experiences helping couples at the Love Institute, a firm presided over by Luke Wilson's Duncan. 
   The movie sets up a conflict between emotional allure and "scientific" verification with Buckley and Ahmed giving performances that ripple with attraction and intelligence. 
   Their chemistry almost covers the contrived nature of the central conceit,  presumably intended to satirize the ridiculous notion that matters of the heart can come with guarantees.
   But the whole fingernail business also can feel like a gimmick that challenges credibility, and perhaps even common sense. That’s how I lean.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Trying to freshen an old formula


Paul Hunham might be the most hated teacher at Barton Academy, the fictional New England prep school where much of The Holdovers takes place. Caustic with his students, many of whom he regards as certifiable idiots, Hunham could be the subject of a movie entitled, "Good Riddance, Mr Chips" -- at least as far as most of Barton's students are concerned. 
  Director Alexander Payne focuses The Holdovers on one of Hunhum's dreariest assignments; he's asked to supervise students who, for various reasons, must remain at Barton during Christmas break. 
  Staying at the school when everyone else is enjoying family and friends seems like punishment for those who must endure reduced heat at the school, less-than-festive meals, and the notion that elsewhere great times are unfolding.
   In part, The Holdovers functions as a showcase for Paul Giamatti, who brings a dose of Scrooge to the holiday season, presuming Scrooge had been interested in classical education and the Peloponnesian Wars. Giamatti, who starred in Payne's Sideways, wrings plenty of bitterness from a role that feeds him a steady, if slightly repetitive, stream of nasty dialogue.
   Although a group of boys begins the Christmas break under Hunham's care,  David Hemingson's screenplay contrives to reduce their number to one (Dominic Sessa). Sessa's Angus Tully becomes Barton's last abandoned student. His mother and new stepfather want to spend their holiday vacation alone. 
   Angus stews in his own bitterness, a bright kid who's willing to stand-up to Hunham and who, we know, from the outset eventually will establish a relationship with a teacher who needs to have his humanity revived -- at least partially.
    The school's cook (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) also remains at Barton. Randolph provides deeply felt support as a woman burdened by the loss of her son -- one of the school's few Black students -- to the Vietnam War. The story takes place during the 1970s.
     Payne spices a predictable arc with attempts at variety, a Christmas party thrown by one of the school's employees (Carrie Preston) and a trip to Boston that Angus wants to make to escape the stir-crazy Barton confines, for example.
      Credit Payne with keeping the movie from choking on Christmas corn. He tempers a happily-ever-after ending with revelations about Hunham, whose life has sad underpinnings that raise issues about rich preppie entitlement.
       Although there's plenty to enjoy here, The Holdovers suffers because of a length (two hours and 13 minutes) that seems excessive considering that some of the scenes feel over-extended and the movie, like its characters, sometimes seems to be looking for things to do rather than unfolding organically.
         Still, Giamatti and Sessa hold up their end of the bargain, and Randolph brings a credible sense of pragmatism to a role that easily could have become a cliche. She shows how much emotional dimension a supporting actor can add to a narrowly focused movie that tells a story that, for Angus, may become an oft-told anecdote in his successfully evolving life.

Marriage to Elvis was no bed of roses

    Sofia Coppola's Priscilla tells the story of a 14-year-old girl swept up in Elvis Presley's fame. The message is clear: Narcissistic mega-stars wield power that can lead them to control those who fall under their sway.
   Priscilla Presley's relationship with Elvis deprived her of much of her adolescence. Priscilla became a prisoner in a well-appointed castle called Graceland, Presley's Memphis mansion. She spent her time waiting for Elvis to return home and waiting for Elvis to decide that she was old enough for sex.  Like a decorative houseplant that was destined to become potbound, Priscilla increasingly felt constrained.
   Presley met Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) in 1959 while serving in the Army in Germany. Priscilla's stepfather (Ari Cohen), an Air Force officer, also was stationed in Germany. Priscilla's mother (Dagmara Dominczyk) warned her daughter that she was leaping into troubled waters but Priscilla was too much under Elvis's spell to listen.
  Watching Priscilla, it's easy to forget how big Elvis's stardom was: Coppola treats it as an stablished fact. Her behind the scenes look,  presents a multi-faceted, if inconclusive, portrait of Elvis.
  It's not entirely clear whether Elvis -- played by Jacob Elordi -- was an abusive husband, a Peter Pan-ish figure suspended in boyhood or a pill-popping star who knew how to use his country-boy charm when needed. Perhaps  Elvis was all of those things, a kaleidoscopic figure who looms over Priscilla's young life. 
      Spaney, now 26, convincingly portrays a naive adolescent, an isolated young woman, and a woman who, after 13 years, realizes that staying with Elvis, whom she loved, would keep her in a state of suspended animation. She'd always be the 14-year-old innocent Elvis wanted in his life after the death of his mother.
     With the help of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and production designer Tamara Deverell, Coppola steeps the movie in airless isolation in which Priscilla feels the loneliness induced by Elvis's manipulation, cruelty, and possessive love.
    While Elvis made movies in Hollywood or toured, Priscilla lived a guarded existence at home. She attended a Catholic girls' school but was forbidden to invite any of her classmates home. And when Elvis arrived, he typically surrounded himself with his "boys," an ever-present gaggle of comrades that made little room for Priscilla.
      This oppressive atmosphere supports the film thematically but also threatens to choke it as the story proceeds from episode to episode. In Priscilla, style becomes both a virtue and a trap that generates a bit of boredom, at least it did for me.
         Something else: Elvis was six feet tall. Priscilla Presley is 5'4."
         At 6 feet 5 inches, Elordi towers over the 5'1" Spaeny. The height difference serves to reinforce Elvis's dominance but also becomes a distraction. Twenty-four when he met the 14-year-old Priscilla, Elvis looks like a giant with a Lilliputian girlfriend.
         Elordi's Elvis mixes charm, tantrums, and self-absorption. He adopts an approach to dialogue that might be called the "Memphis mumble," a half-whispered lilt Elvis may have employed in the womanizing that's referenced throughout.
          The movie stops short of showing Priscilla' s post-Elvis life, which included her becoming president of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which, among other things, turned Graceland into a tourist attraction. Maybe that would have complicated the narrative arc in which Priscilla, now 78, saves herself from Elvis in order to be herself. 
        Based on Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, the movie pretty much sticks to what Priscilla could observe both in terms of scene-by-scene development and overall perspective. Priscilla Presley served as the film's executive producer. 
       Coppola remains a gifted director who's not afraid to give her movies (Virgin Spring, Marie Antoinette, and The Bling Ring) distinctive flavor. This time, watching the inevitable unfold can dull the story's edges, leaving Spaeny's nicely realized performance to fill any empty spaces. 
        I know folks hate mixed reactions to movies. In or out, some readers demand.
       Sorry, but that's not me. Priscilla lingered with me, even though at times, it seemed as if it was drifting toward a foregone conclusion with too little happening along the way.