Thursday, March 28, 2024

An Iranian woman seeks her freedom


You'd have to have been living in an alternate universe not to know that many Iranian women face difficulties bred by oppression and patriarchal tyranny. So it's hardly surprising that writer/director Nora Niasari's Shayda provides another powerful example, this time focusing on Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi),  a woman who traveled to Australia  with her medical-student husband (Osamah Sami). When the movie opens, Shayda already has separated from her abusive spouse. She and her seven-year-old daughter (Selina Zahednia) live in a shelter that protects battered women. The story's considerable tension revolves around Shayda's attempts to be free. She has filed for divorce but fears that if her husband takes their child to Iran, mother and daughter will be separated forever. As the story develops, Shayda receives support from a friend (Rina Mousavi) who no longer lives a traditional lifestyle. She also meets a young man (Mojean Aria) who has spent time in the US and embraces modernity.  Ebrahimi carries the movie, infusing every scene with a mix of determination and dread. Initially, Shayda's husband claims to be receptive to change but he can't contain the rage that drives him. Nasari, who reportedly based some of the movie on her own life, may not break new ground, but with Ebrahimi's help, she makes Shayda's story feel alarmingly fresh.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

A cop who has lost his memory

I can watch Russell Crowe in almost anything and not feel cheated. And, yes, I've seen The Pope's ExorcistCrowe has traveled a long way from his Gladiator days; he now seems immersed in pure character work with little emphasis on heroism. In Sleeping Dogs, a jumbled noir thriller, Crowe plays a retired homicide detective who's suffering from Alzheimer's. Crowe's Roy Freeman has been given an experimental treatment to help jar his memory back to life. The story kicks in when a death row inmate (Pacharo Mzembe) asks Roy to revisit a case in which he helped get a conviction. The former detective struggles to rebuild long-ago events involving the murder of an academic (Marton Csokas) who had a sexy femme fatale research assistant (Karen Gillan). Roy asks his one-time partner and drinking buddy (Tommy Flanagan) to help. Some of the story is told in flashbacks that introduce us to an aspiring author (Harry Greenwood) who falls for Gillan's character.  Crowe gives the movie a solid center but it's not enough to keep incredulity at bay. A surprise twist of an ending fails to shock (you probably will see it coming) and Sleeping Dogs winds up squandering Crowe's efforts. 

Time to give up on 'Ghostbusters'?


 It would be a mistake to assume that critics never crave an evening of simple diversion. That’s how I approached Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, the latest in a comic franchise that has made intermittent appearances in the nation’s multiplexes since 1984.
 Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, vets of the original, both appear in the new movie, a promising bit of casting and, although the first movie isn’t among my favorite comedies, I was hoping for laughs in a climate of unabashed silliness. 
  Besides, what could be better than an ample helping of the kind of straight-faced intensity only Aykroyd can deliver?
  All I can say is that hopes aren’t always rewarded. 
  Although Frozen Empire didn’t generate embittered antipathy (at least from me), I found it uninspired, callow, and guilty of misstepping by trying to whip up a real scare or two. 
   To begin with, Murray isn’t in Frozen Empire all that much. Aykroyd’s appearance goes beyond cameo levels but it’s as if he’s taking the role of straight man without a comic to foil to play against. 
   The only scene that begins to suggest wit involves Aykroyd and Patton Oswalt, who appears as a paranormal researcher working at the main branch of the New York Public Library.
   Credit Kumail Nanjiani for bringing a shabby conman’s ease to a role that figures heavily in the plot, but could have been further expanded.
    Returning to the revamped New York City firehouse of the original, the movie centers on a familiar group composed of characters from previous sequels: Paul Rudd (now an aspiring stepdad), Carrie Coon (as Mom), and McKenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard) as her two kids. 
     Grace’s Phoebe emerges as a teen with a ghost-busting gift. She befriends a spirit named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind) who happens to be a chess whiz. 
    Director Gil Kenan, working from a screenplay he wrote with Jason Reitman,  piles on franchise references and adds the requisite amount of special effects. But the principal "ghost" — an evil god named Garraka  -- lacks the necessary silliness to keep the comedy on track. The movie takes Garraka, who can coat the world with layers of life-destroying ice, a little too seriously.
    The original movie relied on Murray’s sardonic delivery and the unashamed and often tacky preposterousness of its ambitions. The giant Stay Puft Marshmallow man who trampled Manhattan in 1984 has been shattered into legions of tiny Marshmallow men, a proliferation that’s overused to the point where it loses its whacky charm.
     The movie also includes an additional team of paranormal researchers financed by the wealthy Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson of earlier movies). That group includes more characters from previous editions who are charged with studying the behavior of captured ghosts, perhaps hinting at the possibility of a rapprochement between humans and the spirit world.
      Other figures from the series reappear, notably Annie Potts, the original  Ghostbusters secretary, and William Atherton, who portrays the oppositional authority figure who wants to hold the Ghostbusters responsible for collateral damage wreaked by their efforts.
      Judging by this edition, there seems little need for another Ghostbusters. Passing proton packs from generation to generation has its limits.
      At one point, Aykroyd’s aging character refers to being in his Golden Years. He wants to spend his twilight years doing what he’s done before, busting ghosts, I guess. I wouldn’t wish a life spent playing golf on Aykroyd's Ray Stantz, but there must be a better alternative.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

‘Cabrini:’ an ode to determination


    I always feel a bit awkward reviewing movies about religious figures. Such movies can trigger a series of false assumptions on the part of readers.
   If a reviewer praises the movie, he or she can be seen as endorsing a particular set of spiritual assertions. Criticism, on the other hand, easily can be confused with rejection of someone's beliefs. 
   Moreover, the sincerity that marks most "religious" movies doesn't always equate with artistic success.
   Cabrini, a bio-pic about Frances Xavier Cabrini, occupies a middle ground, locating itself somewhere between inspirational fare and hardscrabble realism while trying to liberate itself from parochial constrictions.
   I don't know if Mother Cabrini, as she was widely known, viewed herself as a prototypical feminist  but the movie tends to treat her as one, an ambitious and determined woman battling long odds to achieve her vision. 
   Frances Xavier Cabrini arrived in the US in 1889 determined to care for New York's poor Sicilian immigrants while also aiming to expand her work into a global network of orphanages and hospitals. 
  Cristiana Dell'Anna plays the lead role, painting a portrait of a dedicated woman who challenges male authority: first the Pope (Giancarlo Giannini), and later a New York archbishop (David Morse) and the mayor of New York City (John Lithgow).
   Note: I used the word “woman” and not the word “nun.” That tells you something about the movie’s generalized approach.
   Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde plops Mother Cabrini and her nuns into the squalor of New York's Five Points, a lower-east side neighborhood. 
  Driven by respiratory problems, Cabrini knew her body eventually would betray her. In the film, she works as if every day might be her last. 
  In New York, Cabrini takes orphans off the streets and provides refuge for a Five Points prostitute (Romana Maggiora Vergano) who's being brutalized by her pimp. 
    The dialogue sometimes has the ring of a rudimentary civics lesson. At one point, Cabrini talks about defending immigrants of all ethnicities; they're the future of America, etc.
  Aside from WASP prejudice, little mention is made of the social conditions that forced so many Italian immigrants into abject poverty.
   As an outsider, it struck me that the movie downplayed the spiritual/religious aspects of Cabrini's Catholicism, as well as the role religion played in the lives of the populations Cabrini served en route to becoming a saint in 1946, some 29 years after her death.
   It would be an exaggeration to think of Cabrini as a movie about a nun who becomes a feminist superhero, but you get the idea and, in this case, the moral of the story seems reducible to a bromide: Miracles are made by determination, hard work, and to use a decidedly non-Catholic word, chutzpah.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Adventure racing movie hits its marks

I’ve often asked myself the following question: If I weren’t reviewing would I bother with this or that movie? When it comes to Arthur the King, a story about adventure racers starring Mark Wahlberg and co-starring an indefatigable mixed-breed dog, the answer probably would be a resounding, “No.” But Wahlberg, who produced, and director Simon Cellan Jones turn out a sports adventure picture built around endurance, courage, and the willingness to take chances. The action sequences — competitors crossing a deep divide while hanging on a wire with mountain bikes strapped to their backs, for example — generate white-knuckle tension. Wahlberg plays Mikael Lindnord, a racer determined to win what will be his last race. He gathers some stalwarts (Simu Liu, Ali Suliman, Nathalie Emmanuel), and it’s off the Dominican Republic. About the dog:  As the adventures unfold, the team meets the dog, eventually dubbed Arthur. A wounded denizen of the streets, Arthur becomes a helpmate and companion to the team, even at one point saving their lives. He follows Mkael wherever he goes. A true story about a Swedish racer has been transferred to the US, but as depicted here, the sport seems to have a definite international flavor.  Focusing on a
dventure racing -- a competition about which most of us know little -- freshens the movie's formula. And, yes, the finale tugs at the heart strings, particularly for dog lovers. So, no, I might not have otherwise sought this one out, but I wasn’t sorry I saw it, either.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

An introduction to samba jazz

Every music scene has its history. In They Shot the Piano Player Spanish directors Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba build a story around Brazilian jazz and one its premier artists, pianist Francisco Tenorio Junior. Skillfully employing hand-drawn animation, the directors introduce us to Jeff Harris (Jeff Goldblum), a fictional American journalist who travels to Brazil to research a book on bossa nova.  While there, Harris becomes fascinated by Tenorio's story. A key figure in samba jazz, Tenorio traveled to Buenos Aires where he vanished in 1976, a disappearance that was considered odd because, in a time of brutal Argentine oppression, he wasn't a political figure. One of Harris's Brazilian pals (Tony Ramos) points him to a variety of Brazilian and Argentine musicians who become the subject of interviews presented as near monologues. Harris's inquiries guide us through the music, Tenorio's mysterious disappearance, and political conditions in Brazil and Argentina in the '60s and '70s. Centering the film on the inquiring Harris creates the feel of an animated documentary that's illustrating -- often beautifully -- a journalistic quest. But the interview structure also keeps the story from evolving dynamically. Consider They Shot the Piano Player an imperfect but worthy introduction to a musical chapter with which many will be unfamiliar. 

Muscles, menace in a 'noirish' thriller


   It would be a serious mistake to mess with Jackie (Katy O'Brian), an Oklahoma woman who has pointed her life toward winning a Las Vegas body-building competition.
   Jackie's the dynamite that propels director Rose Glass's Love Lies Bleeding, a seamy noir tangle set in New Mexico in 1989.
  A convincing Kristen Stewart — as a woman frantically trying to control the unmanageable — plays the central role of Lou, a chain-smoker who works in the grungy gym where Jackie turns up to pump iron. 
 Lou’s duties include cleaning the toilets, which could be read as both an exercise in degradation and an act of penance for as yet undisclosed sins.
  Sex looms as Lou and Jackie tumble into a heated relationship. But Glass (Saint Maud) has more in mind than an obsessive love story; she's out to pump adrenalin into an exaggerated helping of Neo Noir while injecting it with a healthy shot of cult-classic juice.
   A well-selected supporting cast adds to the grimy atmospherics. Dave Franco portrays JJ, a bully who, early in the movie, has sex with an indifferent Jackie. She hopes he'll help her get by. A first-order sleaze, JJ later beats up his wife (Jena Malone), who happens to be Lou's sister. 
  Revenge looms, and Jackie provides it in a gripping scene made more vicious because by the time it arrives, Jackie has been shooting massive quantities of the steroids Lou provides for her.
  Watching Jackie's muscles bulge brings the Hulk to mind; her strength becomes a near special effect. Her fury can't be controlled; her spring-loaded muscles crack to attention. 
 A bit of comic relief arrives in the form of Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), a ditzy woman with an undisguised crush on Lou and a refusal to take "no" for an answer.
  Roid rage and noir make for a combustible combination as Lou's gun-running father (Ed Harris) lurks in the background, gradually assuming a more important role in the story. 
  With stringy hair drooping over the sides and back of his bald dome, Harris goes satanic, creating a stand-out figure, the menacing calm at the center of every storm. 
  When the finale arrives, the film rockets over the top in ways that either will amuse you or put you off, perhaps an inviting mix of both. 
   Love Lies Bleeding may encourage you to expand your thoughts about female bodies, but it's firmly rooted in Glass's desire to blast her way into an overcrowded genre -- and do it with boldness and audacity. 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Oscars score a win

    Yes, the Oscar show was better than usual. Much better.
   Some more or less random reactions. * John Cena's nude bit prior to the best costume design award provided a classic Oscar moment. * Host Jimmy Kimmel hit a few out of the park and whiffed on others. * Ryan Gosling's performance of I'm Just Ken played well with the crowd. * The In Memoriam segment might have played better for the audience than it did on TV. * Someone needs to buy Al Pacino reading glasses. He turned the best-picture announcement into a muffled anti-climax. * 20 Days in Mariupol won the Oscar for best documentary, the first ever Ukrainian film to win an Oscar. Director Mstyslav Chernov's acceptance speech was moving, direct, and properly pointed. * Director Jonathan Glazer's Gaza-referencing acceptance speech when The Zone of Interest won best international film was too hurried. I had to go back and read it online. * It was meaningful to see previous Oscar winning actors address nominees in their respective categories. * I was happy American Fiction (best adapted screenplay) won something. * I wasn't upset that Killers of the Flower Moon and Maestro were shut out. * Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse should have won best animated feature. The Boy and the Heron took the prize. It has been billed as director Hayao Miyazaki's last movie and he's a master of Japanese anime, so ..... * I'm puzzled by those who think Oppenheimer -- the night's big winner with seven awards, including best picture -- is too conventional. Does every picture need to follow in the Everything Everywhere All At Once footsteps? *  If I had an Oscar vote, I'd have voted for best-actress winner Emma Stone (Poor Things) over Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon). That doesn't mean I didn't admire Gladstone's work, but Stone's daring performance was in a class of its own. * I look forward to the day when Mark Ruffalo, nominated in the best-supporting actor category for Poor Things, wins an Oscar. Ditto for Paul Giamatti, who didn't receive a best actor Oscar for his work in The Holdovers. And ditto, too, for Jeffrey Wright (American Fiction). * Enough. Time to move on to this year's movies. Good luck to us all.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Is this Oscar's most predictable year?

  Oscar looms and the suspense is ... well... minimal.
  Film critics usually make Oscar predictions, but this year the exercise seems superfluous. There's so much agreement among prognosticators that the evening -- should it unfold as expected -- may be one of the least surprising in Oscar's 95-year history.
  Peruse the work of Oscar's many mavens and you'll find consensus in most categories. In this case,  I see no reason to dissent.
   So here's what's likely to happen Sunday night (March 10):
   Oppenheimer will win the Oscar for best picture.     Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer) will win best director. Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) will win best actor. Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon) will win best actress. Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer) will win best supporting actor. Da'Vine Joy Randolph (The Holdovers) will win best supporting actress. 
   Best original screenplay will go to Anatomy of a Fall, and American Fiction should land the prize for best adapted screenplay.
   For me, the only mild surprise can be found in the best-actress category. Until Gladstone won the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) award for best actress, I thought Emma Stone (Poor Things) was the frontrunner.
   I suppose Stone's insanely courageous performance in Poor Things still could carry the day. Am I hedging? A bit.
   Another question nags. Could Paul Giamatti's popularity bring an upset in the best-actor category? Giamatti created a memorable character in The Holdovers, and the Academy might want to honor an established pro who always delivers and who seems to be one the most unassuming people in show business.
   I hope that doesn't sound condescending. Giamatti is a terrific actor, as are the rest of the nominees in this category: Bradley Cooper, Colman Domingo, and Jeffrey Wright.
   Aside from hoping that the show, again hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, won't break the three-hour mark, I have no rooting interests. There's no need for the Academy Awards broadcast to take as long as it took Nolan to tell the story of the invention of the atomic bomb.
  One footnote: Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong on all counts. What an Oscar telecast that would be.
  Happy viewing.

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.