Saturday, December 29, 2018

Mary, Queen of Scots


Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots has a scenarist’s eye for intrigue and an art director’s eye for tableaux but the two women around whom all of these scheming courtiers swirl, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), feel more like emblems than characters.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Vice


Christian Bale’s lumbering, monomaniacal Dick Cheney lends essential gravitas to Adam McKay’s self-satisfied Vice as it traces the future V.P. and change-maker through his early days as a congressional aide, rise as a GOP wrangler and his eventual commanding of the war on Iraq.

Bumblebee


Travis Knight's irresistibly clever, never robotic, fine-tuned Bumblebee weaves stories of intraspecies revolution, alien invasion and teenage rebellion with a modicum of sci-fi hokum and cheese but an abundance of visual wit -- just what one expects from Spielberg productions.

The Mule


Clint Eastwood's The Mule calls us to reflect on our national family as we ride shotgun with an unfiltered nonagenarian drug mule (Eastwood) who was a miserable husband and father but a masterful grower of daylilies and as amiable and annoying an old codger as ever drew breath.T

Aquaman


Jason Momoa's salty swagger and lovable dudeness keeps James Wan's Aquaman afloat even when maddeningly complex and unending surf and turf battle scenes -- both the small and the epic -- and villanous speechifying threaten to sink the proceedings in soggy bombast and monotony.

Mary Poppins Returns


Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns has two ace troupers in Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the narrative is cloying, often dull, the musical numbers flat and unengaging despite hawking the message our troubles disappear when we take a risk and unharness our imaginations.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

La Negrada



Jorge Pérez Solano's La Negrada (Black Mexicans) trains a dispassionate but thoroughly captivating lens on the lugubrious lives of a dozen dispossessed Afro-Mexicans in Oaxaca coastal villages, where isolation and insulation are heirlooms, like votive candles and fishing boats.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Nancy Wilson


Nancy Wilson's passing reminds me of the days when albums by "colored singers" were in the collections of much of Middle America above the Mason-Dixon, alongside Perry Como and Peggy Lee. Ms. Wilson, whom I loved, had regal bearing, seemingly perfect pitch and impeccable diction. She was cabaret fabulous and sang American standards without too much jazz (leave that to Ella and Sarah). She transitioned into the modern era along with Dionne but was never embraced by the young-uns. Dunno why. Still, hearing her deliver smooth and smoky, inoffensive two-minute sides evokes images of that time when some black entertainers had to scrub the race out of their shows to make a living. Green Book 'Merica. RIP.

Monday, December 10, 2018

At Eternity's Gate


The visual intensity of Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate might be off-putting to those who will find his use of extreme close ups claustrophobic and long passages of frantic, handheld tracking nauseating. But, to me, they are wholly indicative of Van Gogh's obsession and compulsion.

It will NOT be a blockbuster but I feel it is an important film in its difficulty and unease -- both in its subject and its composition. It feels determined to test the viewer's patience and endurance, defiantly uncompromising, like Van Gogh.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Green Book



As a major studio release, Green Book has the expected number of Hollywood moments -- those scenes where the emoting and speechifying take off. One that was edited for the trailer comes midpoint in the film. Dr. Donald Shirley, the black classically trained pianist, has just been admonished by his white driver and assistant, who earlier in the film displayed a penchant for racial prejudice, for essentially not being in touch with his, Shirley's, roots. According to the film, Shirley, incredibly, was unfamiliar with Little Richard and Aretha Franklin and much of African-American popular music, but, in the movie, performed something that approximated blues-inflected classical music in his concerts and lived in an apartment above Carnegie Hall that was a shrine to Africana. He actually met Tony wearing a regal tribal robe and sitting on a throne (compensation?). In the pivotal confrontation mid-film, the pianist and his driver are standing in the pouring rain, Shirley has been offended by Tony's remarks and is walking who knows where when he stops. "If I'm not black enough, and I'm not white enough, and I'm not man enough, then, Tony, what am I?" The trailer did not include the phrase "man enough," perhaps not to give away that Shirley was gay. He was depicted in the film naked at the YMCA, having been arrested with, presumably, a man he had met there. Little is made of Shirley's sexuality beyond this horrifyingly tin-eared scene, in which Tony bribes the police to let Shirley go. The choice for the edit is clear -- the producers did not want to introduce the sexuality element into the promotion for a film that offers NO insight into that dimension of Shirley's personality. Exploring the isolation that most certainly grew out of the intersection of race and sexuality and cultural upbringing would have been fascinating to me. I guess we'll have to wait a little longer for those stories from the majors.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Boy Erased



Boy Erased's excellence is not just in Lucas Hedges but in the evenness across the cast. Some films have a single stellar turn that offsets weaker deliveries. Here, every word and action rings true. None truer than Nicole Kidman as a mother battling to save her son and herself.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

 
 
Thematically, "Somebody To Love" might have served as a better title for the Queen flick. "Bohemian Rhapsody" capsulizes the band's audacity but the song's unusual structure and fairly inscrutable lyrics made it more of a novelty -- albeit one helluva karaoke treat. "Somebody To Love" to me, speaks to Mercury's emotional isolation, which also underpins the movie's message. Mercury was searching for identity and trust and comfort and ultimately something called family. Though not a successful film, it is exhuberant and rather splendid when it isn't artificial and self-conscious in its depictions of excess. https://youtu.be/op07UzSCu4c

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Star is Born (2018)


Bradley Cooper's tuneful remake of the much-remade A Star is Born feels most true when the film's stars (Cooper as hard-drinking / hard-drugging country rocker Jack and Lady Gaga as drag show chanteuse and ballad-belter Ally) are off-stage, exploring the contours of each other's face. These elegantly crafted scenes, which Cooper both starred in and directed, display a refined emotional sensibility, behind and in front of the camera, that is highly evocative. Though the music performances are strong (how could they not be?), one of the film's greater contributions to the ASIB legacy, IMO, is its presentation of America's cultural diversity -- in this age of oppression and exclusion. Some might argue that the picture's rainbow is a bit too deliberate, too calculated; Ally's background too wispy; Jack's relationship with his manager / brother (Sam Elliott) more a dramatic device than a true narrative element; and Jack's meltdown too precipitous and, in one scene, too gauche. But, to me, Cooper has created a beautiful film of love found and lost that will break many a heart.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Meg

Jason Statham in The Meg (2018)

Yes, Jon Turteltaub's The Meg borrows without apparent shame from the Spielberg, Cameron, Emmerich playbooks (Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Abyss, Godzilla) and goes on to load this familiar human v giant critter story with distracting "family fare" that adds little to the proceedings because the characters lack depth. Star Jason Statham's diver Jonas meets cute Bingbing Li's intrepid oceanographer Suyin and her precocious and curiously ever-present 8-year-old daughter on a billion-dollar deep-sea rig off the coast of China, where their benign explorations disturb the rest of a 90-foot prehistoric shark believed extinct, which leads to wholly predictable results. (The picture seems oddly anti-scientific inquiry). Turteltaub has populated the film with the usual array of factotums who deliver plot points when they're not being sacrificed to the voracious 90-foot shark of the tile. And, as expected, it's the chomp-chomp and Statham's close calls that are the most fun. In my screening, a family of five sat in a row near mine, the youngest child in daddy's lap throughout the flick, which is grisly and bloody and chock-full of peril. If you're going to traumatize your child, pick a better flick.

A Simple Favor

Actor / director Paul Feig is known for his frothy, sometimes filthy, comedies (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy). His latest film, A Simple Favor, has delectable doses of crass humor wrapped around a chewy murder mystery that has some inspired surprises. Anna Kendrick stars as uber-Single Mom and vlogger Stephanie, who befriends and is seduced by another Mom, Emily (Blake Lively), whose big-city, psycho brio domestic goddess Emily finds intoxicating. Emily is married to the hunky Sean ("It Boy" Henry Golding), an English literature professor who can't seem to reignite his career. When Emily disappears, Stephanie tells her vlog subscribers (the posted comments from whom add a wonderful bit of cultural spice to the story) and takes off to discover what happened to her. Stephanie shifts into detective mode and uncovers hidden (at times hilarious) secrets on the back roads of Emily's past and realizes quickly enough that nothing is as it seems.

White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick (2018)

French Director Yann Demange's White Boy Rick tells the true story of a white Detroit teen in the '80s who joins a black drug-dealing organization, ingratiates himself to its members and leaders but ends up turning evidence against them in exchange for a lighter prison sentence, which is not delivered. Newcomer Richie Merritt is the eponymous youngster, Rick Wershe Jr., who lives with his desperate but enterprising gun-dealer father (Matthew McConaughey in his usual fine form) and druggie sister (a terrific Bel Powley). We're led to believe young Rick's circumstances account for most of the disaster his life becomes, but the case is not convincing because aside from the bombed out landscape we don't really come to feel present in Rick's world; his life remains cloudy and remote. The film also has a convoluted narrative (filmed mostly in Detroit, the seasons don't seem to line up from scene to scene) and the lack of substantive exchanges between the characters leaves their motivations blurry and indistinct. Too often important characters seem to occupy the same space but aren't actually in the same moment. The film also fails to recognize the elephant in the room: the whiteness that is referred to in the film's title and the book upon which it is based. How was 16-year-old Rick Wershe able to overcome racial distrust, if not animosity, as he clearly did? We're not offered more than just passing references to Rick's relationship with his closest friend, a low-level player in the organization. Why are they friends? What is their history? How was their friendship used to lend Rick gravitas? While the film has several powerful scenes (the rescue of Rick's sister from a crack den is gut-wrenching) the whole feels frustratingly incomplete.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

BlackkKlansman


Spike Lee's BlackkKlansman has a frustrating sloppiness to it that, while not unique to Lee's film, is especially disappointing because it undercuts the picture's noble intensions. Lee usually manages to walk the line between genius and jive pretty well, but in this film, which is based on a true account by black Colorado detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who with a white co-worker (Adam Driver) infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the mix of dogma and dogging is particularly unsettling. One would think that a director as astute as Lee would have discovered by now how to pull "racist white" from an actor without the result being cartoonish. There's too much dastardly on the screen and not enough ominous. Do the Right Thing, Lee's unquestionable masterpiece, is so good because the hate was presented in credible layers. Not so here. Lee has always seemed to me to believe that more is always better, so Klansman has set pieces that are longer than they need be, exchanges between characters that verge on tedious and speeches that are half-again preachier than necessary. BlackkKlansman is an exhausting and not entirely successful indictment of stark organized racism, which, if you think about it, is pretty low-hanging fruit for someone with Lee's talents.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Leave No Trace


Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is as principled as the movement that shares the film's title -- a worldwide community committed to minimal impact while enjoying the wilderness. In the first 15 minutes of this film, a father, Will, and daughter, Tom, (Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, both splendid) are shown in their "home," a camp in a woodsy public park in Portland, Oregon, where they forage off the grid, undetected and undisturbed. Dad, a war veteran who appears plagued by PTSD, runs his daughter through drills that are to help the girl elude those wanti wanting to disturb the peace. He's decent and loving; she is unspoiled and obedient. They are hurting no one. Of course, the peace is disrupted; father and daughter are discovered, detained and relocated to a tree farm where the owner (Jeff Kober) lets them live in exchange for Dad's labor. It's not long before the two are off again; Dad's anxieties will not let him be. Granik's film is loaded with dread but blessedly free of belligerence. Yes, the distress in it is heartbreaking but it's so elegantly written and finely tuned that the viewer's anguish is triggered not by rage but by a simple line spoken by a young girl, bone tired of running and hoping that finally her father's demons might be quieted: "I like it here."

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sorry To Bother You

Boots Riley's commitment to worker liberation has suffused the music he's written with his uber-Marxist rap collective The Coup and with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. Riley's first feature film as writer and director, the fascinatingly bizarre Sorry To Bother You, is beatifically political, anti-capitalistic and pro-labor at a time when the world seems to be colluding against the Average Joe and Joanna. Riley's protagonist, a chronically underemployed black man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfied of Get Out and Atlanta), is hired by an Oakland telemarketing company that sells nothing in particular. His ability to close a deal using his "white voice" gets him promoted upstairs where Cash's kind of moxie would be useful to the murky corporation, which practices a unique form of mind-control and labor enslavement. Cash's girlfriend Detroit (the tireless Tessa Thompson) and his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) are talking about revolution and urging Cash to infiltrate the ranks of the oppressor and bring down The Man (represented here by a oddly cross-dressing Armie Hammer) from the inside. Of course, little goes as planned and the big reveal three-quarters through the picture might send some folks bolting out the door but that would be regrettable because the messages within this American nightmare are layered and profound. This radical and phenomenal film raises the bar substantially for black cinema.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp


 Nothing speaks more to the easy likeability and sad inconsequentiality of Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and the Wasp as the Partridge Family's 1970s earworm theme "Come On Get Happy," which is featured in this, the latest installment of the eternal Marvel Comic Universe film series. Paul Rudd is again the eponymous Ant-Man and comely Evangeline Lilly the equally eponymous but more badass Wasp, both of whom can change their size with the help of "magic" space suits designed by Wasp's dad. Since the first film (2015), Rudd's Scott Lang has been under house arrest for reasons that, frankly, I have little memory of, when he's kidnapped by Lilly's Hope and her father, former Avenger and S.H.I.EL.D. genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to help retrieve Pym's wife / Hope's mother, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, from the quantum realm, which means getting really, really small. To do so, they have been building, with the help of giant ant minions, a shrinking machine -- which looks quite a lot like a huge printing press -- using parts purchased from a lowlife tech dealer (played with gratuitous Southern smarminess by Walter Goggins). Because all of this hoodoo science is easy-peasy, the only things standing between the terrific trio and their rescue mission are the FBI, Laurence Fishburne's rival scientist genius and a mysterious costumed figure who can walk through walls (snarling British beauty Hannah John-Kamen). Ant-Man is decidedly third-string on the MCU bench but, for my money, Michael Pena's turn as Lang's motor-mouthed sidekick Luis is MVP and he owns all of the best parts of this picture.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Hearts Beat Loud


Something at the core of Brett Haley's Hearts Beat Loud draws viewers in but also keeps the picture from really taking off. The film, which stars Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as a father and daughter in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn during the summer before she leaves for UCLA, carries a message about the universality and restorative powers of music, how it unifies and rejuvenates, but the picture doesn't offer enough connective tissue to give the story any weight. Offerman's Frank barely runs a record shop, which exists, sadly, more as a narrative device than another character, which would have been sooo much better. Frank has virtually no interactions with customers, in fact, no one darkens the door of store through 90 percent of the film. Most of Frank's contact is with his pretty and brainy daughter, Sam; his friend, local barkeep and weed head Dave (Ted Danson) and his landlady / friend(?) Leslie (the ever-engaging Toni Collette). But their interactions are a bit plodding and reveal little about any of them. The most interesting aspect of the film, for me, is the treatment of the creative process, as Frank, who had a brief and undistinguished music career when he was young, and Sam write a song together that becomes an indie darling on Spotify (which along with Apple probably bankrolled this picture). This reawakens Frank's dormant longing to be heard and, perhaps, to bring back to life Sam's mother, who was the victim of a motorway accident while riding a bicycle years before. It is in all of these potentially resonant elements that the movie ultimately disappoints. Though it features three nifty emoesque ballads, the picture doesn't allow the characters to explore their pain, loneliness or disappointments or why they are doing any of the things they are doing. Too often Haley resorts to trite aphorisms that are folded into songs and so become anthemic. Offerman and Clemons are both fine in their roles but there is no warmth between them and, truly regrettably, Sam's relationship with a lovely but one-dimensional artist (Sasha Lane) feels tacked on and insubstantial.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?


Morgan Neville's loving documentary on Fred Rogers and his groundbreaking public television program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, is so loaded with heart and tenderness that many will find it tough to sit through it dry eyed. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, turned children's television into a consuming mission to help young people grow into adults who took care of one another. Neville's film shows Rogers, a lifelong Republican who died in 2003, using puppetry, storytelling and music to comment on world events and work through his own lingering childhood unhappiness and insecurities while delighting children nationwide. This is a beautifully endearing portrait about a man whose life was the embodiment of a much-needed message -- we need each other to survive.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

  • Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is over modulated and overwritten — loud and long — with heroes that are lacking in screen appeal, a predictably ridiculous and confoundingly open-ended script and special effects that are costly but only serviceable. Yes, the bad guys are, again, dinosaur Kibbles but even the visceral satisfaction of seeing them devoured feels stale.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Hotel Artemis


 Drew Pearce's Hotel Artemis is fueled by the premise that even criminals deserve quality health care -- but that's not the entirety of this grisly and sporadically entertaining picture. It also attempts -- unsuccessfully as it turns out -- to juxtapose tenderness with bloody brutality. Several unsavory characters check into a futuristic L.A. hotel / hospital during an urban riot sparked, we're told, by the privitization of drinking water. That water element is purely background as it is never explored and nothing ever becomes of it. The acting is fine (Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Jeff Goldblum) but the writing is epigrammatic when it's not mawkish, that is, characters are either talking like mobsters or blubbering like mopes. This could lend a sense of balance but instead it just feels contrived.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story


Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story is as precise and competent as a film can be but it lacks essential warmth and surprise. The leads (Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover) are attractive but frustratingly inert. Circumstances toss them into the same cockpit but despite their close proximity they generate no heat. The script, written by A-list Hollywood writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, is safe and familiar and leaves plenty of room for the interminable battles these films inevitably devolve into. Because of the construction of this long-in-the-tooth series, and the placement of this episode in the ongoing Star Wars saga, the film is nearly devoid of real tension.The last 30 minutes are spectacular but deliver little WOW in the end. Disappointing.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ocean's 8





In Ocean's 8, writer / director Gary Ross (Free State of Jones) offers up a by-the-numbers heist flick that lets the ladies run the show but doesn't actually up the ante for the Ocean franchise. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett head the crew of lady scoundrels and thieves in an audacious scheme to steal a $150 million necklace from its wearer (a never-better Anne Hathaway) during the exclusive Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala. Bullock is Debbie Ocean, sister of Danny Ocean, played so memorably by George Clooney in previous installments. Danny is now dead, and Debbie is just released from prison and aching to get back at the person who ratted her out (Richard Armitage). That factors heavily into her plans. As with previous Ocean films, the thrill is in watching the execution of an intricate operation but "8" lacks the previous films' edginess and close calls. All happens pretty much as it was story-boarded, which short changes the ladies, I feel. As it is, they all look FABULOUS from start to the flashy, photo finish. James Corden has several winning moments as a British insurance investigator who is called in by Cartier to find the missing jewels and who succeeded in catching both Debbie and Danny after previous capers.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Incredibles 2

Animated adventures have more action set pieces than live features because there is less conversational exposition, usually, and because animation lends itself to greater range of possibilities for battles and audiences expect it. Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2 is a terrific picture in those respects but also has levels of meaning — family, commitment, trust, duty, etc. — that adults will really dig. If this family is a metaphor for modern America’s most crucial social unit then it’s a brilliant one and represents crucial elements of contemporary life with good humor and intelligence. It is NOT just a movie about superheroes. Still, the most entertaining set piece in I2 was an “incredible” baby vs raccoon fight.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

First Reformed


Paul Schrader's powerfully disconcerting morality film First Reformed will no doubt prompt audiences to question their most grounding beliefs -- and that is what make this puzzling picture so captivating and disturbing. With glacial pacing and a level of interiority that is not often seen in contemporary cinematic narratives, First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke in a part that will garner him nominations and maybe statuary come awards season. Hawke is the addled and alcoholic minister of a "museum church" in Albany, where he maintains an ascetic existence and appears to be slowly succumbing to lung disease. His ministry, such as it is, brings him in contact with a congregant (Amanda Seyfried) and her environmental activist husband (Phillip Ettinger) and a crisis that spins them and Hawke's character out of their orbits and into conflict with a church leader (a refreshingly measured Cedric "the Entertainer" Kyles) and a powerful local businessman (Michael Gaston). My favorite Schrader films (American Gigolo, Hardcore, Affliction) all involved characters beset by extraordinary circumstances and their own natures. Hawke's Reverend Toller struggles with faith in his God and fellow man, and we find ourselves pulling for him despite our own natures and better judgments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Superfly


Music video auteur Director X's Superfly re-hash is all about excess -- too much money, too much sex, too much cocaine, too much blood, too much trust, too much hate, just too much -- and it all adds up to a surprisingly satisfying ride. The wonderfully charismatic young actor Trevor Jackson (Grown-ish) stars as the elegantly "processed" Youngblood Priest, a major player in the Atlanta drug trade who is off everyone's grid until he dodges a bullet that ends up in the gut of a bystander. Then, as they say, shit gets real. Helping Priest move weight and avoid drug rival Snow Patrol's loose guns are his BFF Eddie (an outstanding Jason Mitchell best known to me from Mudbound and Straight Outta Compton) and his winsome muse Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and her gangsta bitch girlfriend Cynthia (Andrea Londo). Director X and screenwriter Alex Tse have crafted a crackling film that pops with snappy wit and artfully choreographed throwdowns that is a fitting, if not all together reverent, homage to Gordon Parks Jr.'s 1972 original.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Upgrade





Aussie director Leigh Whannell's Upgrade borrows narrative elements from a half-dozen films -- primarily Blade Runner, RoboCop, 2001 and Death Wish. Derivative is not always bad, and in this case similarities can be overlooked because Whannell's execution is sure. This is an interesting, though loopy, sci-fi body count flick that stars Charleston (S.C.) native Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace, an underemployed mechanic and restorer of vintage muscle cars. Left a quadriplegic in a thugland attack that killed his wife (Melanie Vellajo), Trace finds his way to boy genius scientist Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who offers him a makeover -- a sentient chip named Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) that will make him better than new. With his restored mobility and Stem's timely guidance and occasional intervention, Trace hunts the shooters, but obstructions are plentiful and threats are bloody. A tenacious detective (Betty Gabriel of Get Out) suspects Trace has gone vigilante and that he is dispatching with gruesome efficiency some really dirty, enhanced bad guys but she's early on not aware of Trace's Upgrade, and when she does learn of it, Trace and Stem may be too far gone for her to stop.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Hereditary


Ari Aster's Hereditary works so wonderfully because Aster's story inhabits a tilted, wall-eyed world populated by folks who are a tad too earnest or detached, too intense or unconcerned, who say things that are both meaningful and meaningless, who seem to be loving and indifferent. When the horrors begin we're not immediately sure this is creepy enough to be frightening -- maybe it's just strange. And it is that uncertainty -- and Toni Collette's amazing performance as a frightful mother, wife and daughter in a household haunted either by her Hecuba of a dead mother or by madness -- that holds us tightly through a film that is so deliberately pace it might tax the patience of patrons wanting more solid scares with the abundant grotesquerie.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

RBG

I find it hard to imagine anyone making a more loving portrait of an iconic figure than Julie Cohen and Betsy West have in their documentary of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG).  In many ways the film is quite conventional -- mapping a bit of Ginsburg's childhood, her college years at Cornell, then Harvard and Columbia, and finally her career as a litigator on behalf of women faced with discriminatory treatment in both private and public arenas and ultimately her years on the Supreme Court. Though all of that is noteworthy and duly inspiring, I was moved more by the tender love story between the tirelessly studious and exacting RBG and her gregarious and devoted husband, Marty.  Each of RBG's professional milestones is framed in conventional newsreel style but also through the lens of her husband's devotion and boundless respect for his wife and her work. It's touching and utterly charming.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Rider





Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao's The Rider is the beautifully crafted story of a young rodeo cowboy (Bradley Jandreau) who is recovering after being thrown and stomped by a bronco. Bradley has a metal plate in his head and a spastic hand that doesn't always do what his brain tells it, a developmental disabled younger sister (Lily Jandreau) who he dotes on and a father (Tim Jandreau) who is so full of bitterness and regret that he's of little use to his motherless children. Yes, the lead characters are just about playing themselves as are many of the other residents of the dismal South Dakota reservation where the story is set. Though he's as battered as a war veteran, Bradley, under-educated and lacking real options, exudes an optimism (perhaps foolishly) about his life, his dream that he will ride again because, dammit, that's what cowboys do. Zhao's scenes of the restless Bradley, ill-advisedly, training horses and mounting them to gallop through the scrubby Dakota plains are riveting and will surely earn cinematographer Joshua James Richards accolades. Zhao, who also wrote the screenplay, devotes most of the picture to showing how broken bodies and broken spirits heal -- or don't. Bradley's best friend, Lane (Lane Scott) was himself severely injured while riding a rodeo bull. Footage of the strikingly handsome Lane, full of swagger and fire, makes the time the audience spends with his wrecked and palsied body, looking at his nearly unresponsive face, all the more painful, and Bradley's commitment to him both inspiring and heartbreaking. The Rider is emotionally draining and deeply, deeply moving.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2's director David Leitch and star Ryan Reynolds plow deeper into the first film's irreverence to lampoon the Marvelous Comic Universe of which Deadpool is self-satisfactorily not a part of. Propriety is MIA in the eternal rejuvenator's bloody but not entirely cynical adventure, which directs as much of its attention to the world of film as it does to the film's fictional world. In this sweeping and nonsensical tale, costumed avenger (lower case A) Wade Wilson / Deadpool loses his true love (Morena Baccarin) in a revenge attack by some bad guys and vows to join her in the afterlife. The indestructible Deadpool's powers of rejuvenation, however, keep him from achieving his goal, so, in the meantime he joins up with a motley crew of not entirely actualized mutants to save a mouthy, intemperate and dangerous kid (the hilarious young Kiwi actor Julian Dennison of Hunt for the Wilderpeople) from a time-traveling assassin (Avengers: Infinity War's MVP Josh Brolin). The body count, of course, is unchartable, and the laughs are delivered so fast and furiously that the script (co-written by Reynols) often works against itself.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Isle of Dogs


 Wes Anderson’s films are so compositionally complex that they are visually overwhelming. When combined with a satirical script that is equally as dense with wordplay, you have a work that is easy to admire but, at least for me, difficult to love. Anderson’s animated Isle of Dogs boasts all of the qualities that make Anderson’s films motion picture events. Expressively voiced by Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, Courtney B. Vance and Liev Schreiber, Isle is the story of the expulsion of all canines from a Japanese city and the boy who sets out to find his banished pet. Its signature Andersonian wit is burnished with poetic passages about duty and loyalty.

Tully



In Jason Reitman's Tully, Charlize Theron is Marlo, the due-any-minute pregnant mother of an 8-year-old and 6-year-old. Though she loves her earnest but absent husband (Ron Livingston) and her lovable but challenging kids (Lia Frankland and Asher Miles Fallica) she's unraveling, rapidly. When her status-conscious brother (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny to relieve some of the pressure, Marlo rejects the idea at first but shortly after the third arrives decides to give it a chance. The weirdly empathic Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a godsend who helps Marlo not only get some rest but uncover the real reason happiness has been so elusive. The script by Diablo Cody (Young Adult, Juno) is soulful and winning and, quite often, hilarious.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Cinema Filings: Call Me By Your Name -- Updated


Narratively and compositionally, Call Me By Your Name offers a wealth of material for cinephiles to study. Though not a perfect film, it is an interesting and evocative one that overcomes its ambiguities with strong performances and emotional intelligence. These notes assume the reader has seen the film at least once. (BECAUSE I TRY TO DEAL WITH EVENTS IN THE FILM CHRONOLOGICALLY, SCROLL DOWN FOR NEW MUSINGS.)

*One of the film's most reproduced images is of the film's young protagonist Elio Perlman, elbows resting on a stack of books, framed by an open window in his family's Italian villa, where doors and windows are often propped open or batted by breezes, suggesting an openness to the setting and those who live there, even though some of the residents have secrets.


*Many scenes take place at a dining table set up just outside the villa's kitchen; an orchard of apricot, cherry and peach trees is just beyond. Food is ever-present as is the easy exchange among guests, who appear to be many. And this, again, lends a liberality and civility to the setting and its denizens.
   
*Among the film's many beauties is the fluidity of language among Elio, his parents and their summer resident, the American graduate student Oliver, whom Elio is drawn to. Director Luca Guadagnino stages an opening scene with the Perlmans speaking alternatively English, French and Italian. This is repeated in later scenes and is matched by the presence of Italian and French newspapers in the home. Theirs appears to be an international consciousness, probably one that is foreign to many audiences in the U.S.

*Annella Perlman is a translator, who one afternoon reads to her husband and son from a German edition of a Renaissance romance. The three are gathered on a couch in the villa's music room / study while rain pours outside. The staging suggests this is a familiar setting for them. The text, about a lovelorn and indecisive young knight, resonates with Elio and seems to light a fire under him to resolve his own matters of the heart. And, indeed, he tries in the film's next scene.



*Though celebrated for its candid representation of the intimate moments between Elio and Oliver, the film also revels in ambiguity that contributes to its in medias res tone. What had been the nature of Elio's relationship with Marzia before Oliver arrived? Where was Oliver spending his nights? How much did the Perlmans know when they sent Elio off with Oliver to Bergamo? Though not deal breakers, these questions do linger.

*And what to make of Marzia? For me, this wonderful character, played with even tenderness by Esther Garrel, epitomizes the film's commitment to peace and grace. Her "friends for life" scene with Elio was a balm for an audience left raw by Oliver's departure. 


*Like the best of film, CMBYN operates on many levels -- the visual and the auditory. Having extraordinarily attractive performers can eclipse other subtler narrative elements. For example, the tolling of bells -- town square, church or dinner -- punctuates several scenes in the film and complements the filmmaker's effort to ground the action in a time and place. These sounds, while recessed, can be as meaningful as the saying of the boys' names -- whether during introductions, lovemaking or that fateful winter phone call. They're all markers.

*Cinematographer Mukdeeprom's camera lingers on details of the film's setting and the characters' faces, hands and feet to strip away artificiality and decrease the distance between viewers and subjects. Oliver's foot floating refracted in the villa's pool, Elio's bare feet as he leaves the pool to challenge the "usurper" at picking apricots and, later, as the two men's feet find each other during their midnight tryst. These shots, while part of the film's sensuality, also disclose the humanity of these subjects. 

*It's not entirely clear in the film why Oliver was so overbearing during his first days with the Perlmans, but Elio seems the only one put off by the casual nature of the student's interactions; Oliver seems brash and self-involved. The scene at the volleyball game crystallizes this. Oliver, taking a break from his noisy display in the game, grabs the bottle of water from Elio and then gets "handsy"with him, a gesture that is misread. Professor Perlman might actually be onto something when he says in the next scene that Oliver might be "shy." Perhaps this "shyness" is unease mixed with a desire to be liked but not truly known. Of course, Elio cracks that egg -- eventually.



*Metaphors can be stretched beyond reason but one resides in Annella's peach orchard that is difficult to resist. Elio's discovery of a form of carnal knowledge with the aid of fruit does allude to the Garden of Eden and the introduction of sin to the world. Elio's response after being discovered by Oliver does reflect shame and disgrace, though Oliver himself is amused and intrigued. The shot of Elio plucking the fruit is nearly biblical.

*The short but important interlude after Elio's Bach "recital" is the scene of him scratching out scolding notes to himself about his earlier treatment of Oliver. "I was too harsh" and "I thought he didn't like me." This scene gets to some of the interior nature of the source novel, which is narrated by Elio, and reveals the vulnerability hiding behind the bravado.

*Oliver's brief comment about "hiddenness" he shares with Elio from the manuscript he was preparing strikes an ironic note, after the fact, as both men were at the time hiding, perhaps not as well as they imagined, secrets from one another. Hiddenness is also present in Elio's secret loft in the villa where he consorts with Marzia and later Oliver. And, of course, in his furtive snooping about Oliver, and his rather feral encounter with Oliver's swimming trunks (a much closer encounter was in the novel).


*When the power went out at the villa that rainy afternoon, Professor Perlman told a disconsolate Elio that he and his mother were always there for Elio if he ever needed to talk. In the next scene, during the Piave confession, Elio told Oliver he was confiding in him because there was no one else he could talk to. A truly strange reveal given what the professor said. As attractive as Elio is, the character also had more than a tinge of the callow manipulator in him -- lying to the girls and crabbing about his mother -- which actually made the character all the more believable.

*At Monet's Berm, Oliver tells Elio he likes the way he says things. I liked the way everyone spoke in the film. One of the true delights of the picture is how carefully the dialogue avoided banality. Even the raucous lunch time exchange about Italian politics was spicy and rococo, which made Oliver and Elio's fairly terse exchange after their midnight rendezvous all the more endearing. "I just wanted to be with you" is probably as lovely and honest a sentiment that can be shared with a loved one. 


*Elio's nosebleed after Monet's Berm was an elegant narrative red herring. To those who were brought up on motion pictures in which tragic figures were felled by virulent diseases, Elio's nosebleed was probably viewed as presage to a cancer diagnosis. In fact, it served to more fully awaken Oliver's suppressed feelings for Elio but also pressed Oliver into the uncomfortable position of revealing his canard with the young Parisienne Chiara. This would explain Oliver's hasty retreat from the villa when Chiara and Marzia arrive and his conspicuous absence the following day, which led to the fateful midnight tryst.

*The other passionate love affair in CMBYN is the film's infatuation with books. The famous shot mentioned at the top of this posting -- which actually does not appear in the film -- suggests not only Elio's voracious appetite for the written word but the life of the mind all of the residents of the villa embrace. Elio not only reads but he notates in the margins as he does, suggesting an intellectual maturity that early in the film may have actually outgrown his emotional maturity. By film's end, they were pretty much on par.


Elio's Bach "recital" was an obvious choice when clips were distributed for the talk shows because it shows Chalamet's "virtuosity" at the piano and a bit of the dynamic between the two characters early in the film. To my ear, it actually might be the stagiest of the scenes in the movie; it feels like both men are playing roles within roles -- Oliver and Elio were clearly trying to impress one another -- which adds to the levels of complexity in the narrative but might also feel more inauthentic than is needed at that juncture.

 

*The Lake Garda "truce" is an important moment in the film, also captured in stills (see below), that signals an ending to the sparring between Oliver and Elio, at least for the moment. Elio's earlier comment at breakfast about "almost" having sex with Marzia the night before and his fairly transparent attempt to show he did not resent Chiara's interest in Oliver did little to stanch either his or Oliver's clear interest in the other. (Perhaps that's what all the shouting was about at Garda that evening.) Sexual orientation is never addressed straightforwardly, but one would infer that Elio and Oliver were pretty "fluid" in their sexuality, even though Oliver early on would rather not talk about "those things." That declaration was followed by the kiss at Monet' s Berm. Actions and words?


*At the end of the Crema piazaetta scene (below), Oliver rises and prepares to leave. Elio, uncertain, rises too, assuming, if we're to read his facial expression, that they're continuing on their journey or returning to the villa. As they remount their bicycles, Elio loses balance and leans into Oliver, who steadies him by placing a hand firmly on his shoulder for perhaps a beat too long, which foreshadows the later massage scene at the volleyball game.  A gesture we would discover three quarters of the way into the film that was Oliver's way of signalling his affection. The film is a festival of ambiguity -- allusion and elusion, miscues, non sequiturs, elliptical remarks that trail off. Just like life.



*The interiority of CMBYN is what drives much of my fascination. What's going on inside these people who are both open with their living space and so guarded with their interior space? This guardedness is mirrored in the "speak or die" passage from The Heptameron and in Oliver's face as he and Elio discuss it. It is not clear, and it shouldn't necessarily be, what Oliver is thinking or his intention in inviting Elio to accompany him to town that afternoon. The film's narrative is silent, which leaves it to viewers to infer motives if we are inclined to do so. However, one thing is certain from the exchange before they departed, neither welcomed the idea of being separated for the afternoon. 

 

*In a small but not incidental scene early in the film, Elio is in the villa's pool while Oliver is swimming laps. It's one of many occasions when the audience watches the watcher (Elio). When Oliver stops to ask Elio what he's thinking about, Elio is deliberately unresponsive: "I'm not going to tell you." As with so much else in the film, this exchange is ambiguous; it might be Elio's way of masking his interest or punishing Oliver for being so outgoing and charming or a way of teasing him to get attention. Whatever the case, it doesn't work because when Oliver gives up, Elio gives in.  These smartly observed moments, pulled from the novel's brilliance, are what collectively make the film so resonant and real.


*The crucial Piave war memorial scene was craftily staged but curious in its affect, as Oliver, so assured through most of the film to that point, seemed to retreat from Elio's advance. It was here that the two started speaking in code, acknowledging their attraction but not speaking about it plainly so as not to cause trouble for Oliver. Insisting that Elio cooperate seemed both sensible and weak. Of course, Oliver would redeem himself, if only briefly, at Monet's Berm.


*The promotional shot of Elio and Oliver walking bicycles down a village street does not appear in the film, although the pairing could easily be imagined in that story space. The shot does suggest to me an unsettling obsession on Elio's part (it's difficult to imagine the character being so transfixed) and a degree of obliviousness that Oliver could not credibly claim after Monet's Berm. Still, the film's hint at a reversal of the theme of Mann's A Death in Venice is framed nicely here.

*Elio's invitation to Oliver to go swimming the morning after their midnight rendezvous likely rang with deja vu for some viewers. Oliver extended the same invitation to Elio, under quite different circumstances, near the beginning of the film  / the summer. At that time, Oliver, presumably returning from a night out, found the lone Elio in his bedroom with idle hands. Elio, startled by the brash American's intrusion and puzzled by his interest, agrees to go swimming though he clearly would rather not. And it was then that the cogs of their companionship began to turn. Because so much is hidden in the film, Elio's suggestion that they go swimming might be viewed as a statement that he's ready to move on from the night before, wash it away, if you will. The next scene at the river, Elio is swimming apart from Oliver, which leaves questions for Oliver, and the viewer, about what had just transpired between the two.

*In CMBYN's story world, people have names and not labels.  Neither Elio nor Oliver self-identifies as homosexual or bisexual during the course of the film. Their "more than a friendship," as Professor Perlman describes it, doesn't seem to exist on a social or political plane. It just exists. It might very well be that what grows between them, while first stifled by Oliver's fear of discovery, is so organic to them as men, and how they choose to experience the world, that the sexual component is just that -- a component of their friendship, an intense component but a component nonetheless. That's not to suggest the characters are not gay or bi or lie somewhere else along the sexuality continuum. And one might imagine that their physical relationship might have taken off quicker had either of them been "out." But that would have been an entirely different, and not altogether interesting, journey.

Call Me By Your Name's Timothée Chalamet -- Updated



Here I post notes about Timothée Chalamet, whose work in Call Me By Your Name earned him accolades and honors around the world. These are not fandom ravings but rather random musings about this exceptional young man's craft.




*A Chalamet / Glover pairing for Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen or Othello, Beckett's Godot or Parks' Topdog/Underdog would be singularly epic.


*2018 promises to be an even bigger year for Young Mr. Chalamet. Along with Beautiful Boy and Woody Allen's joint there's Hot Summer Nights (TC does Breaking Bad?) I didn't know this number was in the mix. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=O5ROSS9ReUY

 

*In Pamela Romanowsky's The Adderall Diaries (2015), Chalamet was cast as the teenage son of an abusive father (Ed Harris), who grows up to be a drug-addicted and self-destructive author (James Franco). Chalamet appears in flashes of memory, recoiling from his father's temper, self-injuring and retaliating against abandonment. It's a demanding role even though it does not carry a narrative arc, and, once again, he demonstrates his readiness and willingness to commit to a challenging part.


*Chalamet's performance in Miss Stevens (2016) was hauntingly nuanced, even though it contained some histrionics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH8y3lky2FM). His character, the boundaries-challenged Billy, was both endearing and unnerving, walking that line between comforter and creep. For an actor so young to be able to negotiate such difficult emotional territory is quite extraordinary. 



*The mystery of Chalamet's attractiveness will probably never be solved to everyone's satisfaction -- if the attempt were to be made -- but it has occurred to me that in some photographs he bears a striking resemblance to Liz Taylor. Taylor's appeal, of course, is legendary, but Chalamet's allure is not entirely in bone structure and facial symmetry. From where I'm sitting, it's in his mien, manner and intellect, as well.

*In interviews, Chalamet has included Joaquin Phoenix among the actors he admires most. I can certainly see the affinity, if it's based on body of work. Phoenix picks idiosyncratic roles; he seems to thrive on the serious challenges. His characters are often taciturn, brutalized men who glower. One recent exception was his pained loner / romantic in Her. Frivolous and Joaquin Phoenix do not occupy the same space. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XeK0rc_9a0  I'm confident the same will be said about Timothée Chalamet in time.

*Chalamet should have won the Oscar because he was in nearly every scene of Call Me By Your Name, speaks three languages in it, plays Bach, covers everything from diffidence to passion, holds audiences in their seats without saying a word, and Frank Ocean thinks he rocks.

*I've heard Chalamet in a dozen interviews and think he's got one of the nimblest, most sagacious minds of any 22-year-old I've ever come across. And I've been teaching them for 25 years. He's unaffected and engaging, a real joy to watch.


*He will be one of the most consequential persons in cinema sooner rather than later. Aside from his outstanding screen work, in interviews he is focused, incisive and generous. If he avoids predators, Chalamet will be the Paul Newman of his generation, for real.

*Having seen CMBYN a couple dozen times since January -- alone and with friends -- I feel the film itself, due in no small part to his leading role, stands up remarkably under close scrutiny. It is scrupulously composed (I've created another posting for those thoughts) and thoroughgoing. Just remarkable in its presentation and affect. It is masterful and will endure.

*As a friend said to me after a screening, it takes real immersion into a role to enable an actor to alter their appearance so dramatically and to such powerful effect as Chalamet does in the course of the picture.


*The film societies decide who gets hardware, not how enriching the work was. Often the two are the same, not always. Challenging, stimulating work (whether film or performance) will always be prized by those who were touched, enlivened. And that's not bad. Not bad.


*I'm intrigued by Chalamet's 2014 film short Spinners () and its message about displaced and discarded young people. Film shorts are trickier for me to comment on than features because I rely so much on narrative that "snapshots" leave me too much room for mischief.



*Knowing that Kid Cudi's credos speak to Chalamet adds interesting levels to the actor's descriptions of what gets him going and how he's handling his fame. I suppose walking the line between the desire for affirmation and "whatever" can be tricky. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRPpLGxGNZY

Yesterday

  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...