Friday, March 1, 2024

Another film occupies its own world


   No one is likely to accuse Julio Torres, the writer/director of Problemista, of lacking ambition. 
   In his mischievous debut film, the former SNL writer and creator of the sitcom Los Espookys, tackles the maddening complexities of emigrating to the US, the insular hypocrisies of the art world, and the coming-of-age problems of one young man.
   That's a lot and Torres’s movie can't handle it all, even with humor and bold, if often silly, displays of creativity. The movie can feel like a scrapbook of ideas set aside for another day.
   Like many immigrants, Alejandro, played by Torres, has a dream. He aspires to design toys for Hasbro, a career that might be an overreach. Consider the duplicitous Barbie-like doll with fingers crossed behind her back, for example. Or how about the truck with the flat tire, intended to teach kids a cautionary lesson?
  To support himself, Alejandro works at a company that freezes corpses for future unthawing. He soon meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a former art critic whose late husband's body resides at the facility from which Alejandro is in the process of being fired.
   Sporting an unruly crop of red hair and a badly curdled temperament, Elizabeth obsessively works to establish the reputation of her recently departed husband (RZA), an artist who specialized in paintings of eggs nestled in billowy folds of fabric.
   Thanks to Swinton's embrace of her character's fury, Elizabeth blows through the movie with tornadic force.  A sharply offensive woman, she cuts no one any slack. As a character, Alejandro can't compete with her.
   Now and again, Alejandro communicates with the doting mom (Catalina Saavedra) he left in his home country of El Salvador. She believes she can solve any problem her son might encounter, a conviction that has diminished Alejandro's capacity for self-assertion.
   Lacking much by way of ordinary reality to play against, Torres's whimsical approach swamps the movie.  And at times, the movie goes self-consciously bonkers, notably in its depiction of a character called Craigslist (Larry Owens), a surreal embodiment of the website devoted to classified advertising.
   Despite Elizabeth's scourge-like presence, the film's overall tone is only mildly satiric, a movie that too often feels as if it has taken its own idiosyncrasies as its subject.
  Torres treats the film like a playhouse for his imagination. For me, the movie’s ideas, though sometimes clever, didn't always translate into enough laughs: The net result: Problemista left me wishing Torres better luck next time.

Monday, February 26, 2024

'Dune: Part II': a stunning epic


 Huge in scale, long in the telling (166 minutes). and sporting arcane references from author Frank Herbert's landmark 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune: Part II has arrived. Don’t fret. Director Denis Villeneuve, who released Part One in 2023, delivers a movie with enough visionary heft and action to justify its epic scope.
  I thought Villeneuve's initial effort represented a marked improvement over David Lynch's 1984 sci-fi foray into Duneland, making the most of a drama steeped in intrigue and boasting enough bizarre-looking characters to sustain several otherworldly parade floats.
   More action-oriented than Part One and benefiting from cinematographer Grieg Fraser's stunning desert imagery, Part Two tells a story even non-fans should be able to follow as opposing planets in a vast galactic empire vie for control of melange, a rare spice that serves as an emblem of power.
   In this edition, we spend more time with the Fremen, desert dwellers of Arrakis, the planet where spice is mined and refined and where the heartless Harkonnen have become an occupying force.
    Much of the movie involves efforts by Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) to earn a place among the Fremen. Paul wants to join their fight against the Harkonnen, led by the blubberous Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard).
   Eventually, the Baron unleashes his nephew Feyd-Rautha, a sneering, sadistic villain brought to frighteningly sharp life by Austin Butler.
    Villeneuve keeps a large supporting cast from swamping the various throughlines. A dust-covered Javier Bardem adds humor to his portrayal of Fremen leader Stilgar. Dave Bautista brings bulky menace to the role of Beast Rabban, another Harkonnen sadist, and a subdued Christopher Walken turns up as the emperor who presides over a vast planetary imperium. Josh Brolin returns as Paul's one-time mentor.
    With all that out of the way, let's get to the heart of the movie, provided by Chalomet and Zendaya, who plays the Fremen warrior Chani, a young woman dedicated to ridding the Fremen of oppressive colonial rule. 
     Paul, who earns the Fremen name Usul, and Chani fall in love, allowing the movie to raise questions about Paul’s loyalties. Is he for Fremen freedom or will he use their belief in him to augment his power? Can the aristocratic Paul be trusted by the justifiably suspicious masses?
    Much is made about whether Paul might be the messiah some of  the more fervent Fremen have been awaiting, allowing the movie to touch on additional issues concerning the dangerous ways religious and political aspiration can corrupt each other.
    The stakes may be starkly drawn, but characters are nicely shaded. Rebecca Ferguson returns as Paul's mother, encouraging his ambitious side and sometimes finding herself at odds with her son.
     Part Two thrives on scale, booming set-pieces (a gladiatorial battle with, alas, a crowd that looks CIG-generated), and the summoning of giant sandworms that live beneath the surface of Arrakis and are the source of melange, the spice with near-miraculous powers.
       For all its intricacies, betrayals, and plotting, the story retains its thematic resonance. What moral prices must be paid to control the spice.
      Now, after almost six hours of movie, Dune isn't finished. Questions remain for Paul, Chani, and the entire empire. Expect Part Three. I find that a bit dispiriting. If a story can't be told in six hours, maybe it's a miniseries.
      But the world of Dune remains intriguingly complex, full of characters whose roles shift and evolve. Credit Villeneuve with filling the screen with enough exotic flavor and bold action to keep Dune vividly alive through two helpings. 
      There's no reason to think he couldn't do the same in a third.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

A disappointing 'Drive-Away Dolls'


   I'm not sure how to classify Drive-Away Dolls, a solo directing effort by Ethan Coen, half of the great Coen Brothers team. The brothers are now working separately. Coen wrote the screenplay with his wife Tricia Cooke.
   Drive-Away Dolls almost feels like a Coen Brothers movie, maybe the rough draft for one. Remember, I said almost. Intermittently amusing in a deadpan way, Coen's episodic comedy drifts toward disappointment.
  Coen has described Drive-Away Dolls as a "queer" movie, a caper tale centered on two unabashedly gay women, the flamboyant Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and the more reserved Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). 
  When the movie opens in 1999, Jamie has just dumped her girlfriend, a uniformed cop played by Beanie FeldsteinJamie departs the apartment they shared as Feldstein's character sobs hysterically and pries a dildo (a gimmicky gift from Jamie) off one of the walls. 
  The story then leaves Pennsylvania, taking to the road as Jamie and Marian head for Tallahassee in a drive-away vehicle they obtain from a low-rent business run by Curlie (Bill Camp).  
   The dour Curlie insists on not being called “Curlie” even though his name is embroidered on his shirt. First names are too familiar for a first meeting, Curlie insists.
  That should give you an idea about the humor.
  Unbeknownst to Jamie and Marian, a suitcase has been placed in the trunk of the Dodge Aires they're driving. A suave gangster (Colman Domingo) wants the suitcase back. He dispatches two goons  (C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick) to retrieve the goods.
  What's in the suitcase? The contents of the suitcase constitute one of the movie's surprises, a joke that you'll have to discover for yourself.
  Qualley dominates as a woman who dedicates herself to freeing the spirit of the more sensible Marian, encouraging her to approach sex with libidinous abandon.
  For the most part, sex is presented with raunchy comic flare as the movie looks to find its footing. A digressive story works its way through stops at lesbian bars, a make-out session with a girls' soccer team, and an eventual face-off with the women's inept pursuers. 
   Matt Damon shows up toward the end as a senator with an interest in acquiring the suitcase.
   Coen's willingness to indulge in the ridiculous offers a degree of fun as he goofs on B-movie tropes, but, in sum, Drive-Away Dolls comes off as a ragged, 84-minute helping of comic overreach.
     The main characters are up-front about their lesbianism or “queerness,” if that’s more appropriate. But like it-or-not assertions of sexuality aren’t enough to keep much of the rest of the movie from feeling stale.

A collection of "Perfect Days'

 I’m late to the party reviewing director Wim Wenders' Perfect Days, which had its premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, traveled the fall festival circuit, and finally found its way to theaters. 
   Simply put, as it should be in this case, Wenders tells the story of Hirayama (Koji Yakusho),  a middle-aged man who cleans amazingly well-kept and beautifully designed public toilets in downtown Tokyo.
    The idea of clean public restrooms proves a revelation. Who among us hasn’t submitted to pressing bathroom needs despite serious reservations we may have had about the available facilities?
   Wenders wrote a minimalist screenplay with author Takuma Takasaki and adopts a style that many critics have compared to Yasujiro Ozu, the great chronicler of family life in Japan who died in 1963. 
  Perhaps so, but Wenders seems to gravitate toward an outsider's view. He's an outsider here, as he was to American culture in Paris Texas (1984) or even in 1987's  Wings of Desire, set in Wenders' home country, but still reflecting Olympian distance from its characters.

   Perfect Days is about noticing the unnoticed. If you were to see a person meticulously cleaning toilets would you ask yourself, "What is the totality of this person’s life?" 

     Subsequent questions might follow: Is this person humiliated by what might be regarded as  “lowly” work? Is he ever disgusted by it? Does he aspire to more? Does his work breed contempt for those who create the dirt he strives to eliminate?

   Wenders applied his imagination to the task, and, in so doing, has created a movie that only hints at answers. Hirayama is a bit of a blank, a character defined by a series of small actions and routine.

 Hirayama awakens at the same time everyday. He trims his mustache before leaving his small apartment, furnished with bookshelves, a sleeping mat and not much else. The plants he waters are his only companions.

  Each morning, Hirayama buys a drink from a vending machine, boards his truck, and drives to work. En route, he listens to tapes of rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He lives in a world of oldies.

   On the job, Hirayama has minimal interactions with a more voluble co-worker (Tokio Emoto). When he breaks for lunch in a surrounding park, he takes photos of the swaying tree tops. 

  Contrary to expectation, Hirayama isn’t a hermit or misanthrope. He’s a loner, taking his evening meals  in an underground mall restaurant. He bathes at a public bathhouse. He doesn't seem lonely.

  When the film brings Hirayama into contact with a niece (Arisa Nakano), he's unexpectedly open. He later meets with the sister from whom he’s estranged. It's clear that she represents something he wants no part of.

   Whatever the reasons for Hirayama's rejection of his earlier life,  he has reduced his days to repetition and pattern. Rather than presenting him with suffocating constriction, his choices seem to have made life manageable, maybe even deeper.

   Consider: There's much to be gained by simply observing the same trees every day, watching light bounce around their leaves or observing how wind changes their posture. If Hirayama were an artist, no one would find his behavior odd.

   Maybe all we need to know is this: Hirayama had one kind of life. Now, he has another. He lives with concentrated attention in a city that affords him the anonymity he seems to need.

  We can't fully understand what all this means to Hirayama, and Wenders mostly keeps it that way. If he's an outsider, so, too, are we. 

   Or maybe I'm overthinking this. Maybe all Wenders is doing is answering a simple question: How does one man live? It's enough for a movie that resists the usual dramatic touchstones, opting instead for singularity, an undiluted look at a man thoroughly committed to the choices he’s made.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Bob’s Cinema Diary: February 16, 2024 -- 'God & Country,' a documentary, and 'Monolith, a drama set in one location

God & Country

Religion and politics can make for a toxic mix, something the founding fathers of our enduring but often wobbly nation understood. Director Dan Partland, in a documentary produced by Rob Reiner, delves into the fervor that lights the Christian Nationalist fire. Does Partland's God & Country preach to the secular choir? Not entirely. Some of the best voices in this volatile documentary are raised by people of faith, notably Rev. William Barber, New York Times columnist David French, author Jamar Tisby, historian Anthea Butler, and sister Simone Campbell, a nun, lawyer, and activist. An  equal number of fiery voices spout their nationalist convictions with tub-thumping fury. The gist of their proclamations include the claim of direct instructions from God, the assertion that the U.S. is a Christian nation, pro forma condemnations of abortion and Joe Biden, as well as unwavering allegiance to the MAGA movement. Served in large doses, so much Christian Nationalism will leave many viewers fearful about a country founded on the genius idea that church and state should be separate. I don't think Partland aims to change any minds. Instead, he sounds a warning about Christian Nationalism and explains its origins, linking it to racism inflamed by school desegregation. Put another way, the film sounds an alarm for everyone who subscribes to a common sense bromide, "You go to your church. I'll go to mine." To which I'd add, "or no church at all." Partland's incendiary documentary reminds us that if the US falls apart, it won't be because of any external enemy; it will be because of intense factionalism, in this case represented by extreme Christian Nationalism.


focuses on a disgraced journalist (Lily Sullivan) who’s licking her wounds at her parents' isolated but austere home. In an effort to reclaim her reputation, Sullivan's character (referred to only as The Interviewer) dives into the turbulent waters of podcasting. She works on Beyond Belief, a series in which she applies investigative skills to oddball stories.  She interviews characters (always heard and never seen) in pursuit of a story that will reopen doors for her. Early on, she encounters a woman who tells her about a 20-year-old event involving a rift with the wealthy family for whom she worked. At the heart of the story: a mysterious black brick that contains indecipherable writings and exposes those who possess them (there's more than one brick) to bizarre visions. A warning from aliens? Obscure art objects? Australian director Matt Vesely blurs the line between reality and paranoia, and fabrication and truth, putting Sullivan’s character into an increasingly agitated state. He opens up a one-woman show by allowing his camera to explore the house, observe  the journalist’s computer screen, listen to her phone calls, and see the many text messages she receives. Monolith ultimately works better as a character study of a desperate woman than as a fully realized sci-fi thriller, but credit Vesely with getting further than you might expect from a minimalist approach.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Snared in the Spider-verse web

    Just when Oscar season has diverted attention from the ever-accumulating mountain of superhero movies, we get Madame Web. Like other entries in this highly variable genre, Madame Web seems designed to expand the list of characters who, in this instance, spin their way through other movies.
   Dakota Johnson joins Sony's version of the Marvel-verse as Cassandra Webb, the daughter of an arachnologist who, in the movie’s Peruvian prologue, discovers a rare breed of spider and dies during child birth.
    Leaping ahead, the story charts Cassandra's development from a career as a New York City EMT to her belated emergence as Madame Web.
     It doesn't take long for Cassandra -- better know as  Cassie -- to discover that she has the power to see into the future, a capacity depicted in abrupt flashes that hit the screen with the force of pumpkins smashed against walls.
     Plot twists lead Cassie to take charge of three teen-agers (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor, and Isabela Merced) who are destined to play roles in the spider-verse's unfolding future.
     Responsible for the death of Cassie's Mom and some awkward early picture exposition, the movie's villain (Tahar Rahim) gains spider powers. He's able to walk on ceilings, for example.
     So where were we? Does it matter?  
     Not really, but for the record, Cassie becomes the girls' protector, forming a familial group dedicated to ... what? ... maybe future movies.
      At least in the early going, director S.J. Clarkson tries to ground the movie in recognizable reality. Cassie and her EMT partner (Adam Scott) deal with big-city perils, but the movie eventually forgets about Scott's Ben Parker, a name that provides a clue about the interconnected spider-verse Clarkson weaves.
     Only box office indifference will end the Marvel onslaught. Meanwhile, lame dialogue, a pervasive lack of wit, and an inability to overcome Marvel fatigue keep this one from going anywhere. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

An abridged view of Bob Marley's life

  Aside from a stop as one the Kens in Barbie, British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir might be en route to an icon-centered career. In Regina King's One Night in Miami, Ben-Adir gave an almost bookish spin to his portrayal of Malcolm X.  Now, he appears as Bob Marley in director Reinaldo Marcus Green's Bob Marley: One Love
  Speaking in Marley's Jamaican patois, Ben-Adir radiates the power of Marley's stardom, along with a sense that, like many stars, something about Marley evaded capture. Ben-Adir, by the way, did his own singing. 
   Far from a comprehensive biopic, One Love covers the years 1976 to 1978, referencing Marley's youth in vaguely drawn flashbacks. 
   The flashbacks -- like lyrics in a memory song -- too often leave us wanting more information about Marley's formative years and certainly more about the journey that elevated Marley and his band, The Wailers, to prominence in the reggae world and beyond.
    After an assassination attempt on his life during a period of intense political strife in his native Jamaica, Marley moved to London, where much of the movie takes place. 
   Green's major accomplishment involves allowing his movie to spin in Marley's orbit, giving us flashes of how stardom in Europe pushed him off-center. We also get glimpses of Marley's Rastafarian beliefs, his copious ganja consumption, and his interactions with the Wailers.
      Marley's wife Rita (a magnetic Lashana Lynch) gives the movie its steadiest beat. She eventually erupts over Marley's infidelities and excesses. standing her ground with fiery conviction.
      Even in a movie that covers only two years, it sometimes feels as if Green (King Richard) is skimming,   touching on Marley's multiracial background and his conversation to Rastafarianism. He was raised as a Catholic.
      Much attention is given to the creation of Marley's signature album, Exodus, and the movie's other musical numbers land on the right bases, e.g., I Shot the Sheriff, No Woman, No Cry, and Get Up, Stand Up.  Ben-Adir captures Marley's on-stage performing style, nailing the agitated moves that animated his presence.
      One Love culminates with Marley's triumphant return to Jamaica, where he was adored. Ben-Adir's performance, replete with winking humor -- makes clear why Marley became an admired avatar of liberation and of a pan-Africanism that melded spiritual and musical aspiration.
     Marley died from melanoma at the age of 36. Brief as it was, his life deserved a richer movie. Despite the virtues of its performances, One Love feels truncated, even fragmentary.
     For now, Marley's music will have to stand as his most enduring legacy.

Friday, February 9, 2024

When the partying gets too hard

 How to Have Sex should not be mistaken for a big-screen instruction manual for those hoping to spice up life in the bedroom. Director Molly Manning Walker delivers a movie that's less libidinous than woozy with drink, partying, drugs, and excess. The story, if it can be called that, begins when three British teens (Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, and Enva Lewis) arrive in  Greece for a bust-out, post-exams holiday. The girls are determined to have sex, or so they say, and McKenna-Bruce's Tara aims to lose her virginity, a reversal of the usual adolescent boy ploy. Two boys (Shaun Thomas and Samuel Bottomley) soon figure into the mix. The movie immerses us among partying teenagers whose lives unfold against an incessant baseline beat. At first, the girls operate at party peak but  something must shatter the upbeat throb of drunken teenage mania. It shouldn't surprise you to learn that the sex Tara finds has nothing to do with love, affection or even pleasure. McKenna-Bruce's performance deepens as the movie progresses. She hasn't done well on the exams that determine whether she’ll be college-bound. No amount of diversion can conceal her future, and it's possible we're meant to think that Tara finally attains some form of realization. Maybe How to Have Sex is a telling picture of young people, many of whom are on the cusp of ... well ... nothing much. Perhaps these kids party like there's no tomorrow because they can't envision one. Whatever Manning Walker had in mind, her movie struck me as too much of an ordeal. Mania has its place in movies but it also tends to breed exhaustion. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

A 45,000-year-old hunk of horror

 The inhabitants of the world created by first-time director Andrew Cumming in Out of Darkness -- a movie that travels 45,000 years back in time -- may be dressed in furs and armed with wooden spears but they communicate in ways that feel authentic. Avoiding cartoonish grunts and exaggerated gestures, Cumming presents the movie's  dialogue with subtitles. A language reportedly was invented for the movie, which begins when a group of wanderers arrives on a barren shore, six people who've risked death to avoid starvation. Led by Adem (Chuku Modu), these nomads wind up fighting a screeching demon that seems to be mutilating whatever game it finds. One of the members of the group (Sofia Oakley-Green) is called a "stray,"  a woman picked up along the way. Oakley-Green's character doesn't fit easily into the patriarchal hierarchy that has been built around Adem. When Adam's son (Luna Mwezi) is snatched, Adem begins the search for him. Much of the movie takes place in dark wooded areas as Cumming works his way through what plays like a routine horror scenario. Turning the "stray" into one of the most assertive of the travelers  adds a feminine twist to a story that tries to expand its way out of what initially appears to be a genre trap. Cumming has more in mind than gore and jolts, but it's not easy to escape the horror trap he's set for himself. I give him credit for trying and offer this footnote: Once you’ve finished watching, you may want to rethink the title's meaning. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

When food is more than just a meal

   It's nearly impossible not to get caught up in the images of haute cuisine that help define The Taste of Things, an elegant beauty of a film from Vietnamese French director Tran Anh Hung
   Stimulated appetites aside, Tran's movie, based on a 1924 novel by Marcel Rouff, is as much about the intimacies of a long-standing relationship as it is about the meals that are alluringly photographed by cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg.
   Tran creates an insular world inhabited by a small group of epicures who visit chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel) to savor his subtly flavored creations. Juliette Binoche portrays Eugenie, the cook who lives and works in Dodin's house and sometimes sleeps with him.
  The movie opens in the bustle of a 19th century kitchen where cray fish and quenelles are being prepared along with a lion of veal. The dialogue is minimal, task-related, and warm. The atmosphere is enriched with the aromas we imagine to be emanating from Eugenie's stove, a flat surface heated by burning coals.  
   Preparation marked by diligence dominates the early scenes. Roles in the kitchen have been developed and refined during the course of the 20 years in which Dodin and Eugenie have collaborated.
   So what's all this labor for? Dodin has built a reputation as a chef of some renown; he creates meals the devoted men who gather at his home, sometimes covering their heads with napkins so that they can concentrate on the aromas of a newly served dish. 
   Despite its intensely narrow focus, the movie never feels pinched. Violette (Galatea Bellugi) works as Eugenie's assistant. A girl (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire) hopes to benefit from Dodin's tutelage, perhaps becoming his apprentice. When it comes to food, she's a bit of a savant, able to identify almost all the ingredients in a complex dish at first taste.
   All of this could have been the subject of a satire about effete bourgeois snobs whose lives have narrowed to a squint, 19the century aesthetes who have blinded themselves to the rest of life. Tran (The Scent of Green Papaya) has no such inclinations.
   It's possible to view the movie’s meals as stand-ins for art or what it takes to produce a great collaborative work, something on the order of an important director who has developed an essential relationship with a favored cinematographer. 
   The title has significance. It seems crude to refer to the consumption of this food as "eating." It's more about tasting and dazzling the senses in the pursuit of pleasures available only to those with enough cultivation and refinement to appreciate each bite.
   If The Taste of Things reveals character, it does so more through suggestion and quiet conversation than declarations.
    Dodin isn't an autocrat of the kitchen. His feelings for Eugenie are complicated but sincere. Fair to say he loves her. Perhaps he wants to marry Eugenie to cement her presence in his household, but he's also a tender man who respects the skills on which he relies.
    When Eugenie becomes ill, Dodin cooks for her, serving the meal in the dining room where the men usually gather, a loving act of role reversal.
  For her part, Eugenie is skillful, independent, and sound of judgement. Her current arrangement allows her to determine when the door to her bedroom will open to Dodin. She'd rather be a cook than a wife because she knows that marriage will restrain her freedom, substituting duty for choice.
  Plot developments emerge during a movie in which small gestures prevail. Better to discover them in a theater than in a review.
  The Taste of Things tells a story about two people who are together but separate, in other words, a relationship.  Tran not only allows his characters fully to inhabit their environment. He treats them with the respect their dedication to excellence has earned.
   Like the meals we see, The Taste of Things has been assembled with taste, balance, and artistry. 

A birthday party at death’s edge


   Totem from Mexican director Lila Aviles brings us into a house where a child must deal with the impending death of her father. 
   Leaning heavily on intimate close-ups, Aviles approximates the viewpoint of seven-year-old Sol (Naima Senties), a girl whose artist father (Mateo Garcia Elizondo) has been crippled by cancer.
   As if to add to the child's natural bewilderment about losing her father, the fractious family of Garcia's Tonatiuh has gathered for what will be his final birthday, a celebration in the face of death. Tona, as he's affectionately called, refuses chemo; he's had enough of suffering. 
  By the time we meet the family -- aunts, brothers, and a grandfather -- Tona has become nearly invisible in the house. He  spends most of his time in his room, where he's attended to by his nurse and caretaker (Teresita Sanchez). 
  Sol's mother (Iazua Larios), an actor who works in the theater, seems as devoted to her theatricality as to her husband. She drops Sol off at the family home and leaves to attend to other business.
  One of Tona's sisters (Montserrat  Maranon) clouds her grief with drink. Another sister (Marisol Gase) hires a spiritualist to try to save her brother, adding a weird comic flourish to the proceedings. 
  Aviles doesn't do much explaining, perhaps because she often presents the world as it might appear to Sol and her cousin (Saori Gurza), who's also too young to grasp what’s happening.
  Did I mention that grandpa (Alberto Amador) also has had cancer -- his of the larynx? He's now speaking through a device that his grandchildren find amusing. He doesn't.
   It’s possible to wonder whether the family isn’t engaged in a bustling exercise in avoidance. Commotion, chaos, and competition for the bathroom blur opportunities for focused attention. Animated by dread and party preparations, everyone stays busy.
   Sol is fascinated with the life in and around the house  -- snails and insects in particular. Perhaps she's wondering about the proliferation of living things whose existence has nothing to do with the preoccupations of the adults in Sol's life. Or maybe that’s just me.
  I sometimes wondered whether Aviles had over-committed to the kids' point of view -- not only visually but in terms of how she reveals relationships within the family. 
   There's a tradeoff, though: Totem has a lively present-tense feel, an immersion in the precarious moments before a multitude of feelings can be sorted. It's also one of the few movies that deals honestly with how people cope (or don't) with mortality.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

'Argylle': a spoofy but hollow spy game


   The screen bursts with activity in the unashamedly silly Argylle, but too little of it matters.
   Known for his work on the Kingsman franchise, director Matthew Vaughn lifts tongue into cheek for a multi-layered espionage spoof that casts Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway, a successful spy novelist who gets caught up in the real thing. 
   The title stems from one of Conway's characters, a  debonaire agent known as Argylle (Henry Cavill) who squares off against an evil consortium known as The Division.
  Conway's pet cat Alfie accompanies her everywhere, peering out from a plastic window in her backpack. And, yes, the cat -- or some CGI version of it -- eventually figures in the story.
   Vaughn jams the movie with names and faces, offering cameos from Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBoseJohn Cena, and Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson spends much of his screen time watching an NBA game. Aside from a punchy  opening scene, the others seem inconsequential.
    Vaughn includes extended work from Sam Rockwell, as Aidan, a real spy who meets Elly and, in the film's early stages, emerges as her protector. 
     Bryan Cranston turns up as the head of The Division and Catherine O'Hara plays Elly's Mom. 
     Most of the characters have dual identities, a ploy that mostly serves to muddy the already murky waters. Know, though, that Elly sometimes watches real-world characters morph into her fictional creations, blurring lines in a way that's not particularly confusing but becomes repetitive.
      Jason Fuchs's screenplay includes a few clever touches and a bit of amusement. Vaughn goes for broke when he turns a major fight sequence into a dance number shrouded in clouds of red smoke. In another fight, he makes clever use of an oil slick.
       And, yes, there's a big plot twist. And, no, it probably won't knock you out of your seat.
       Neither does Argylle, which feels like an evocation of similar movies -- some directed by Vaughn.  Little more than a helping of CGI-fueled cinematic play, Argylle  overstays its welcome at a length of two hours and 19 minutes.
       But play isn't enough to save the day -- or a movie that doesn't seem to have much else on its mind.


Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Dealing with death at an early age

    Max, a teenager, has fallen into a coma as a result of terminal brain cancer. His mom brings him to a hospice where he'll receive palliative care. As it turns out, the young man has landed in the same Florida hospice where Terry Schiavo's husband is fighting a bitter right-to-die battle. 
   In Suncoast, director Laura Chinn’s debut film, the din of protest surrounds the hospice, but the movie doesn't boil with issue-driven fervor. 
   Instead, Chinn assays the strain caused by a Max's impending death while also exploring his younger sister's struggle to experience something akin to normal adolescence, assuming there is such a thing.
  Understandably unnerved, Max's single mother (Laura Linney) can't focus on much else. It's difficult for her to see that her son's illness also casts a shadow over her daughter (Nico Parker), a high school senior who has had to care for Max so Mom could work.
  Afraid to leave her son alone, Mom decides to move into the hospice with him. Parker's Doris is left on her own, a potentially enviable position for a teenager. 
   Despite some initial wariness, Doris allows a group of girls to host parties at her modest home. She begins to develop friends. She begins to see what she's been missing.
  Chinn mostly avoids mean-girl cliches, obtaining nicely modulated performances from her youthful cast and from Linney as a preoccupied woman who can't always suppress her rage. 
   The movie has a mild Christian backdrop. Woody Harrelson plays a widower and protest regular. Religious but not dogmatic, he tries to befriend Doris, encouraging her to acknowledge her grief.
   Harrelson's Paul doesn't allow his beliefs to stand in the way of trying to help a kid who doesn't share them, a nice touch, but his character seems a bit of digression.
   Doris attends a Christian school but neither she nor her classmates are particularly religious and one of her teachers (Matt Walsh) conducts an ethics class that's so even-handed, it feels contrived.
  Through it all, Chinn doesn't forget that her story hinges on grief and loss. She brings the drama to its tear-jerking peak during Doris's prom, a celebration she's clearly earned even though it's taking place against a backdrop of illness and death.
   This keen sense of loss elevates the movie even when Chinn rounds off the sharp edges a better movie might have had. She makes the heartbreaking finality of what mother and daughter must face feel achingly real.

He fights a battle for land and order


 A single-minded former military officer wants to develop a farm on soil has been deemed too tough to till. An unscrupulous land baron stands in his way.
  That may sound like a dozen Westerns you've seen, but The Promised Land, a sturdy frontier drama, takes place in mid-18th Century Denmark. 
  Mads Mikkelsen, at his flinty best, anchors a story that pits his character, the bastard child of a nobleman, against a sadistic aristocrat (Simon Bennebjerg) who'll do anything to maintain control of the Jutland heath.
   Director Nikolaj Arcel leans heavily on Mikkelsen's sternly chiseled performance while introducing themes that touch on racism and the cruelties of a hierarchical society.
   The Promised Land has as clearly a drawn villain as you could want. Bennebjerg's Frederik De Schinkel favors horrific measures of control, including scalding a runaway tenant farmer with boiling water. He brutally rapes the women who serve on his estate.
  Recognizable to American audiences for his work in Casino Royale (2006) and more recently, Indiana Jones the Dial of Destiny, Mikkelsen gives his Ludvig von Kahlen, the battle-scarred aura of a man who has seen too much.
   But Kahlen refuses to be defeated. He wants to spread civilization to the heath, and, in the long term, earn the status and recognition of a nobleman.
   No revolutionary, Kahlen doesn't aim to topple the prevailing order. He hopes to join it, and he believes he can curry the king's favor by proving that the land on the heath is arable. 
     Seen only once and briefly, the king wants to settle the  heath but his skeptical advisors work against him. They allow Kahlen to proceed as a way to humor the king. But they believe that even the strong-willed Kahlen won't be able to conquer the heath.
   Initially, Kahlen finds three allies for his work: a paster (Gustav Lindh) who wants to build a church on the heath and a couple (Morten Hee Andersen and Amanda Collin) who've fled Schinkel's tyranny.
   Kahlen also cares for a Roma child (Melina Hagberg) whose dark complexion turns her into an outcast and allows Arcel to expose the racist superstitions of the settlers Kahlen finally attracts.
   At various points, Kahlen also encounters an admiring noblewoman (Kristine Kujath Thorp) who disdains the prospect of marriage to Schinkel. She has her eye on him in a way that he can't quite handle.
   Gradually, Kahlen turns his crew into a family and by the film's end, we realize that Arcel has been staging a stark character study in which Kahlen's commitment to order collides with Schinkel's belief in a chaos, which he uses to justify his abominable behavior.
    I won't give away important plot points but relationships with Collin's character, who serves as a housekeeper, and with Hagberg's character allow Kahlen's humanity to emerge -- albeit in ways that don't break faith with the staunch fiber that compels him.
    The movie's third act feels a bit too compressed, and The Promised Land occasionally flirts with melodrama, but it tells an involving story that embodies the spirit of the bleak, unforgiving landscape on which it unfolds.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Traveling through a mysterious world


     Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is nearly three hours long, moves at a pace some will find glacial, and doesn't seem interested in sharply defined resolutions. 
     That may not sound inviting but Vietnamese director Pham Thien An has made an exceptional film, one that asks us to live with it, travel with it, and experience life through its eyes. Confidently conceived and deliberate in its execution, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell absorbs us in its grief, mystery, and beauty.
     Pham wraps his movie around a minimal story. Thien (Le Phong Vu) faces a major change when his sister-in-law is killed in a motorcycle crash. Her five-year-old son Dao (Nguyen Thinh) survives the crash. 
     Taking the boy under wing, Thien travels from Saigon to the rural village where he was raised. He hopes to find his brother -- the boy's father -- and deliver Dao to him.
     Such is the film's spine, but Pham turns Thien's travels into a spiritual quest that introduces us to the simply expressed Catholicism of villagers whose homes are full of iconography. 
     How should we regard the faith that the film finds in some of its characters? Pham never tells us. It's  part of the reality Thien encounters, no different and no less physically apparent than trees along a roadside. Perhaps religion represents the past Thien thought he left behind when he took up residence in Saigon.
    The countryside gives the film a lush, expectant quality. Mysterious fogs embrace landscapes. We feel the dampness. We slosh through mud-clogged roads after a downpour.
   As he searches for his brother, Thien meets three pivotal characters: an older man who fought against the Vietcong, a nun he once hoped would become his girlfriend, and an elderly woman who describes a journey she took to the place where souls live and from which she reluctantly returned to her body and the fetid world it inhabits. 
   Pham's imagery can be spacious. He photographs a scene in which Thien speaks to a war veteran as an almost reluctant form of intrusion. Thien waits a long time before his camera shows us the face of the man with whom Thien is speaking. 
   Speaking is probably the wrong word. Mostly, Thien listens. 
   Pham allows us to imagine backstories that remain unspoken. Why did Thien's brother leaves his wife and child? Why did Thien remain in Saigon when the rest of his immediate family left for the US? What ultimately will become of Dao? Will Thien return to Saigon?
   The film requires patience. Watching Thien slowly push his crippled motor scooter up a hill tests one's endurance. That may be part of the point. If we're in a rush, as Thien may have during his days in the city, it's difficult to look for the profundity around us.
    Pham never edits his images into disruptive chunks; he immerses us in time and space, encouraging us to wonder about the meaning of what we're seeing -- or simply to see  it.
  Neither we nor Thien arrive at a fulfilling destination, at least that's how I felt. Maybe that's the point. Thien's spiritual search -- if that's what it is -- brings meditative observation to a high level, approximating the limbo in which Thien finds himself.
  We think that the meaning of all this should be deep. Perhaps, though, there's no revelation to be had -- just unfolding experience: mundane, strange, and emergent. Life, after all, is under no obligation to explain itself to us.
   Pham achieves something rare: We almost feel each moment attaching to the next. On and on and on again, as the movie seeps into consciousness.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Is it school or another minefield?

 you’re looking for a disturbing view of contemporary education, the German film, The Teachers' Lounge, is a good place to start. Director Ilker Catak takes us into a middle school where problems involving trust, perception, identity, racism, and privacy simmer toward an eruptive boil.
  Sounds dire, I suppose, but in 2024, it could be just another day at school.
  Catak focuses on Ms. Nowak (Leonie Benesch), a newbie teacher who wants to be fair to her students,  colleagues, and herself.
  Whatever calm the school knew vanishes when money is stolen from the wallet Ms. Nowak leaves in the teachers’ lounge during a break. The theft occurs in the midst of a wave of thefts that have scourged the school. 
   Ali (Can Rodenbostel), a kid whose parents are Turkish immigrants, becomes a suspect after the administration casts an overly broad net. Students are asked to reveal the contents of their wallets.
   But wait. A video provides strong evidence that the culprit is a member of the administrative staff whose son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) attends the school. Oskar, who happens to be a good student, becomes an adamant defender of his mother.
   Before the movie concludes, teachers, the student newspaper, and the entire student body become involved. The students tend to overgeneralize about the issues. Everyone takes sides, and the school’s atmosphere turns toxic.
   Throughout the turmoil, Ms. Nowak continues trying to reach Oskar. She refuses to give up on him or turn him into an enemy. But Catak doesn’t lionize her or any of the other teachers. They’re part of a system that breeds cynicism, mistrust and confusion.
   Catak moves the story to a tense beat, sometimes employing the language of a thriller, an accomplishment considering, after all, that The Teachers' Lounge is about sixth graders.
   Teachers' Lounge isn't trying to be inspirational; it's an unflinching look at how a school can serve as a microcosmic example of a society in which, to borrow from the title of another movie, few do the right thing, perhaps because it’s nearly impossible to discern what that might be.*
*A note: The Teachers' Lounge this week was nominated for an Oscar in the best international feature category.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Trying to understand oppression

 Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, should be digested, argued with, and discussed. 
   A highly regarded journalist who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson took on a monumental task. She sought a unifying theory to explain oppression, something that might, in her view, go deeper than racism, which has become a catch-all for all manner of issues -- from social slights to murder.
  Mixing personalized reporting and theoretical thinking, Wilkerson traveled to India and Germany to  examine the role caste played in creating brutally stratified social systems at various historical points. She also assayed the role caste continues to play in today's world.
  To call this a "big" inquiry understates the scope of Wilkerson’s thesis-building ambition. 
   How is any of this the basis for a movie? 
   Director Ava DuVernay answers the question by taking a stylistically eclectic approach while focusing  on Wilkerson's quest for answers.  
   For DuVernay, Wilkerson's book becomes a springboard for a cinematic essay that begins when an editor (Blair Underwood) asks Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) to look into the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin.
  Initially resistant, Wilkerson begins to search for something deeper, something that might recast (you'll pardon the pun) views about what we commonly refer to as "racism." 
   At a social gathering, Wilkerson describes "racism" as a default word that's starting to lose its meaning.
   She eventually concludes that caste better explains oppression. Why else would an all-white society such as Nazi Germany create a hierarchy in which Jews were demonized and murdered?
   Ellis-Taylor ably conveys the ceaseless drive that can push a journalist to dig deeper, the dissatisfaction that comes from suspecting that there's more to a story than meets even the intelligent eye.
  DuVernay rounds out the movie with an often sad personal dimension. While researching, Wilkerson deals with the death of both her husband (John Bernthal) and her mother (Emily Yancy). 
  The film uses Wilkerson’s relationship with a cousin (Niecy Nash) as a bridge to connect the theoretical and the practical, one of Wilkerson's strengths as a writer, to ground ideas in experiences that can be felt.
    That beloved cousin also dies while Wilkerson is working on her book, adding more grief  to a movie that’s overloaded with it. 
    While in Germany, Wilkerson learns that Nazi lawyers looked to Jim Crow to help design their campaign against Jews, presenting the information as we watch re-enactments of a book burning and a meeting of Nazi lawyers.
   In what I took as an important encounter, a German woman questions Wilkerson’s thesis about similarities between US and German history regarding slavery and the Holocaust, condemning both but insisting on their differences.
   The exchange is portrayed as an insult to the author rather than a valid intellectual challenge. I think that may have something to do with how the scene is played, but in a movie that's not afraid of talk, the discussion could have gone further.
    If you’re interested in this topic, you can read James Q. Whitman's Hitler's American Model (2017), a scholarly work that examines the extent to which Nazi lawyers studied Jim Crow laws.
    A digression? Maybe. But Origin also can be viewed as digressive. The pieces of DuVernay's jigsaw don't always fit neatly together, and the movie may be more successful as the story of a search for answers  than as an endorsement of any conclusions.
  At times, the film feels like a documentary, particularly when Wilkerson travels to India to learn about the country's Dalit population. She's looking for the ways caste connects oppressed populations in different countries.
  DuVernay also recounts the story of four anthropologists -- two black and two white -- who produced a landmark 1941 book (Deep South), a study of caste and class during the days of Jim Crow. 
   Origin sometimes threatens to become a CliffNotes version of Wilkerson’s book and Wilkerson can sound a bit didactic when she's expounding on the controlling web woven by caste. Blind acceptance of caste makes it seem as if it's part of the natural order, to paraphrase something she says at a gathering of friends and family.
    However you regard Wilkerson's encompassing idea -- which I think tends to go further than the specifics of her observations allow -- Origin stands as a work of telling detail and admirable intent: to provoke, illuminate, and encourage us to see and feel the world through Wilkerson's eyes -- and DuVernay's, as well.
     Judging by her work, I'd say Wilkerson isn't content to operate in default mode. Judging by  Origin, I'd say DuVernay isn't, either.


Thursday, January 18, 2024

Dolph Lundgren in a played-out thriller


At 66, Dolph Lundgren shows his age in Wanted Man, a predictable thriller that's short on kick. The actor who played the formidable Drago in Rocky IV (1985) and who toted  grenade launchers and other hardware in The Expendables movies portrays a bigoted California detective who's caught on camera beating up a Mexican immigrant. Lundgren's Johansen and his pals, including Kelsey Grammer as a retired cop, aren't shy about expressing their prejudices. The glare of publicity causes his boss to send Johansen to Mexico to help with the extradition of two hookers (Christina Villa and Daniela Soto-Brenner) who witnessed the murder of DIA officers and who might be able to identify the killers. The job is supposed to allow Johansen to fade from the news and help his bosses recover from a PR nightmare. After a brutal attack on the road back to the US, Johansen and Villa's Rosa struggle to survive pursuit by drug cartel thugs and corrupt Mexican police officers. Like the rest of us, Lundgren isn't immune to aging, and, as the movie's director, he allows father time to give his character a shop-worn quality. Fair enough, but not even occasional bursts of violence can save the movie from feeling played out.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Bob's Cinema Diary: Jan. 18, 2024: 'Freud's Last Session' and 'Apolonia Apolonia'

Freud's Last Session 

Based on an off-Broadway play, Freud's Last Session imagines the waning days of Sigmund Freud’s life, building a movie around an invented a conversation between the great psychoanalyst (Anthony Hopkins) and author C. S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) of Narnia fame. Lewis, a believing Christian, and Freud, an atheist, hash out big questions against a backdrop of war. The year: 1939. That should have been enough. But director Matthew Brown opens things up, adding, among other things, scenes depicting Lewis's horrific experiences in World War I. Hopkins's performance emphasizes the pain Freud experiences from cancer of the jaw, his consumption of pain-relieving morphine, and his dismay about having had to leave Vienna because of the rise of Hitler and Nazism. Freud's dependent relationship with his gay daughter (Liv Lisa Fries) also breaks into the solitude of Freud's study, where much of the movie is set. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the interchanges between the two primary characters often lacked urgency. In all, Freud’s Last Session struck me as a missed opportunity for intense conversation sans any distractions. 

Apolonia Apolonia

Director Lea Glob filmed painter Apolonia Sokol for 13 years, charting the painter's life as she gradually gained recognition for her portraiture. As a kid, Sokol lived a bohemian life with her father in a theater in Paris. She eventually attended the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, an institution that can serve as a launching pad for major art careers. Apolonia's graduation didn't immediately vault her into the art world's upper tiers. In the U.S., Apolonia met Stefan Simchowitz, a collector, promoter, and patron who cultivates relationships with young artists. Glob follows her own growth and confusions, as well as Apolonia's in Apolonia Apolonia, a movie that captures the chaotic life of a young artist. Apolonia Apolonia stands as an imperfect documentary about an artist's struggle. But its imperfections and narrative leaps sometimes seem well-matched to a life in which both director and her subject are trying to find their footing.