Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love in a time of gender fluidity

Oscar nominee, A Fantastic Woman, takes us to Chile where a transgender woman finds herself in conflict with her dead lover’s family.

A Fantastic Woman
tells the story of the war between a transgender woman and the family of her deceased lover, heightening its emotional impact with a magnetic performance from Daniela Vega as Marina, a trans waitress whose creative side emerges when she sings in the cabarets of her hometown, Santiago, Chile.

Nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category, A Fantastic Woman opens as if it’s going to be a traditional rom-com. Marina and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) seem like an ideal couple. They enjoy each other’s company and share a sexual attraction. The two are out for an evening. They’re celebrating Marina's birthday and preparing for a romantic vacation trip.

It’s at that point that director Sebastian Lelio pulls the rug out from under Marina — and us. On the eve of their trip, Orlando dies of an aneurysm.

From that point on, the movie presents Marina with a twofold challenge: She struggles to gain a measure of acceptance from Orlando’s family while fending off constant assaults on her identity as a woman.

Informed by routine bigotry, the police question Marina about whether she may have been complicit in the 57-year-old Orlando’s death. Suspicions also are raised that Marina may have been out to bilk an older man. A detective wants to know if she was paid to have sex with Orlando.

It doesn’t take long for Orlando’s family to make their feelings known. Orlando’s former wife (Aline Kuppenheim) and his adult son (Nicolas Saavedra) aren’t shy about expressing their contempt for Marina. To make matter worse, they bar Marina from attending Orlando’s funeral.

Only Orlando’s older brother (Luis Gnecco) tries to be a little sympathetic to Marina’s position.

The conflicts in A Fantastic Woman are distinctly (if not distinctively) drawn. And there’s little question about where Lelio (Gloria) expects our sympathies to lie.

As for the second matter — how a transgender woman is perceived — the film proves more interesting, involving Marina in a variety of confrontations that strike at the core of her being.

At one point, Orlando’s son tells Maria, “I don’t know what you are.”

She says that she’s the same as him — human.

I suppose that's the challenge that Lelio presents to an audience, to see Marina simply as human -- and perhaps to realize that the real questions that torment Marina's antagonists only can be addressed by the now unavailable Orlando. Did his family really know him at all?

A singer and model by trade, Vega gives a performance that encompasses both Marina's ferocity and vulnerability. She ably advances the movie’s best instincts, those that celebrate a spirited woman whose only aim is to have the legitimacy of her grief recognized and respected.

Aardman again achieves its goal — silliness

Generally, I’ve liked the work of Britain's Aardman Animations, the folks who gave us Wallace & Gromit. Aardman’s Early Man follows the studio's Shaun the Sheep movie (2015) with a story built around a shamelessly ridiculous notion. Hapless cavemen from the Stone Age face off in a high-stakes game of soccer with a Bronze Age championship team. You probably didn’t know that soccer — football to the Brits — was invented during the Stone Sage, but fell out of favor with cavemen who never were able to win a big game. Time passed and the sport was taken over by the more advanced Bronziacs. As usual, voice work in an Aardman movie hits the spot. Tom Hiddleston provides the voice for Lord Nooth, a greedy Bronze nobleman who wants to gobble up all the bronze he's able to obtain -- legally or otherwise. Eddie Redmayne gives voice to Dug, the movie’s hero, a cave dweller who tries to whip his unruly cohorts into a bona fide soccer team. Timothy Spall does duty as the voice of Chief Bobnar, the aging head of the caveman clan and director Nick Park goes vocal as Hognob, the cheerful pig companion of the cavemen. As the creator of Wallace & Gromit, Park knows his way around this kind of animation and there are clever bits, many of them arriving as asides. Not as funny as expected or quite as wild as it might have been, Early Man boasts some of the trademarks of Aardman characters, bemused figures with hearts as big as their oversized chompers. Score this one as “amusing.”

An animated helping of Chinese noir

Writer/director Jian Liu tackles adult animation in Have a Nice Day, a slyly cynical helping of neo-noir filmmaking. Liu puts money at the center of a plot that introduces us to a variety of characters who exist on the margins of Chinese society. The story kicks off when a low-level driver steals money belonging to Uncle Liu, a gangster who seems to have been pulling the strings of crime so long he's a bit bored by his own ruthlessness. Many different folks look for the money as the world-weary Liu orders a variety of subordinates to do his bidding. Among them, a butcher named Skinny who works as a hitman. Watching Have a Nice Day feels like turning the pages of a wily graphic novel set in a trashed-out industrial town where neither the Chinese economic miracle nor the remnants of Mau's ideological boom have much relevance. To emphasize the point, the movie defines three levels of freedom, all revolving around money. First freedom: Buy stuff at the local market. Second level: Buy at a supermarket. Third level: Purchase goods online. Jian creates a world in which nothing soars and money-grubbing wears just about everyone out. If you think about it, there's a fitting response -- sort of an ironic shrug -- to what the movie has to say, something simple really: "Have a Nice Day."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Black Panther' elevates the comic-book genre

Chadwick Boseman stars in a fine Marvel Comics movie with a feel all its own.
Director Ryan Coogler begins Black Panther, his Marvel Comics adventure, in Oakland in 1992. Although we’re looking at the streets of a city where kids play basketball on decaying courts, the ensuing sequence adds a whole other dimension. It starts with a knock on the door of a small apartment adjoining the basketball courts. One of the men in the apartment checks the peephole and says that a couple of "Grace Jones-looking chicks" are knocking.

I won’t reveal more except to say that in this Oakland-based prologue, we meet a king, two of his female soldiers and the king’s treacherous brother -- all from the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda.

That’s a lot of information for a movie that hasn’t really even started. But it’s telling because Coogler (Fruitvale Station and Creed) wastes no time linking the lives of those kids on an Oakland playground to an ennobling mythos that draws on African tradition. The movie involves a fair measure of fantastic developments, but they feel solidly grounded.

Whatever meanings you read into Black Panther, you’ll find a movie that’s filled with the kind of commanding characters who do as much to create the movie’s world as the CGI razzle-dazzle Coogler also employs.

The story centers on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince and soon-to-be-king of Wakanda. Wakanda allows the world to believe that it's impoverished and irrelevant. The country appears bereft but hides its true face from the world. In Wakanda, tradition and advanced technology mingle without strain; tribal culture is maintained while amazing technical feats routinely are accomplished.

Coogler, who wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, deftly balances action, exposition and a large cast of characters that includes T’Challa’s love interest (Lupita Nyong’o), a woman with her own agenda. Nyong'o's Nakia feels duty bound to use Wakandan knowledge to help an ailing world, so much so that she puts civic obligation before love.

We also meet a variety of other characters, the most important of them a ruthless refugee from Oakland named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger, a man with a giant chip on his shoulder and a plan to arm the world's non-white populations, eventually challenges T’Challa, a.k.a, the Black Panther, for his throne.

Perhaps because of the way Coogler creates the appealing landscapes and urban environments of Wakanda -- almost an African Shangrila -- and perhaps because the movie seldom feels less than mythic and elevated, Black Panther differentiates itself from every other movie ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics.

It's also encouraging to discover that the women in Black Panther boldly claim their turf. In addition to Nakia, there’s General Okoye (Danai Gurira), a warrior who wields a mean spear and who's ferociously loyal to Wakanda. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright adds brashness as the young woman who invents and controls most of Wakanda’s miraculous high-tech inventions. Her obvious counterpart, Q in the James Bond movies — only with a devilish streak.

The women in the cast are in fine form, and so are the men, especially Jordan who's scary good as a man at war with the world. Unassuming and unburdened by an overload of machismo, Boseman’s Black Panther makes an appealing superhero. Better yet, he shares the movie with every other actor without ever getting lost in the action, plot mechanics, and comic-book jargon.

Black Panther probably will give Boseman his widest exposure yet, but he’s already proven that he’s a terrific actor in earlier work. (He should at least have been nominated for an Oscar for his stunning portrayal of James Brown in the underrated Get On Up.)
Black Panther more or less divides into two parts. In the first, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer, steals an African artifact from a British museum. We quickly learn that the artifact is made of Vibranium, the mysterious substance on which Wakandan civilization and the Panther's powers have been built. Klaue thinks he’s gotten hold of something that will make him rich, but his meanness is no match for those with bigger dreams.

At this point, we also meet Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent who gets swept up in Wakanda's affairs. I haven't even mentioned Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), who plays one of T'Challa's allies.

And, yes, there’s abundant action, most of it decently handled by Coogler — from car chases in the cramped streets of Seoul, South Korea, where the movie takes up early residence to a final battle in Wakanda involving clashing warriors and charging giant rhinos.

Coogler and his team deserve credit for creating a great-looking and distinctive entertainment. But this is one helping of popular culture in which effects don't dominate every scene and characters have room to breathe. That’s good news for Marvel and even better news for those in the audience who think they’ve already had enough comic-book movies to last a lifetime.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

'Fifty Shades' reaches its end -- thankfully

Soft-core sex and soft-headed plotting make this chapter a bore.

Anastasia and Christian Grey are now married. Don't feel bad. I wasn't invited to the wedding, either.

But I did see some of the photos. In fact, Fifty Shades Freed, the third movie featuring the bondage-loving couple of E.L.James' best-selling trilogy, opens with Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan reprising their roles as Anastasia and Christian by exchanging vows.

There's dancing at a glamorous reception before the happy couple hops on a private jet and heads to Paris. Of course, no honeymoon would be complete without a set of handcuffs to spice things up in the bedroom of Christian's luxury yacht, another part of the honeymoon trip.

Much of Fifty Shades Freed's one-hour and 45-minute running time involves sex scenes staged in various expensive surroundings as the Greys learn to adjust to married life. He's still too possessive; she bristles a little at the loss of some of her independence.

Don't fret, though. The Greys' idea of kissing and making up may involve being strapped to a wall, but it seems to work for them.

In this gauzy, soft-core world, money is no object. Maybe that's why the Greys feel free to bore us with their inane lives and well-sculpted bodies, putting the latter on display in much the same way as the trendy furnishings of the Grey's apartment or the film's fashionable settings.

If there's a strategy here, it might have something to do with pleasing the eye and subduing the restless mind. Anastasia's bare breasts and Christian's exposed butt substitute for plot points as the movie leafs through one coffee-table image after another.

Director James Foley takes charge of the conclusion of the Fifty Shades trilogy, which strains to find something to do with its two protagonists by introducing thriller elements in the final going.

The first movie, which was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, had the distinction of being better than anyone imagined it could be. The next two, both directed by Foley? Not so much.

You can tell a movie is running low on imaginative gas when it must work in a car chase, this one involving prominent display of Grey's spiffy Audi with Anastasia at the wheel.

Other characters appear, notably Anastasia's ex-boss (Eric Johnson) and one of her gal pals (Eloise Mumford). Rita Ora portrays Christian's sister. Marcia Gay Harden returns as Christian's mom.

None of these secondary characters matter because the movie runs them over as it pushes Anastasia and Christian toward conventional family life -- at least as it's lived in soft-headed fantasies that treat reality as if it were a disease no movie ever would want to catch.

Oscar shorts go long on hot topics

It's time to focus on short films again.

This week, shorts in all Oscar-nominated categories (live action, animation, and documentaries) will be available for viewing at a variety of outlets around the nation.

My impression: Taken as a whole, the nominees aren't quite as strong as they've been in previous years, but that doesn't mean that you won't find stimulating fare in all categories. Besides, the Oscar shorts packages provide us with an opportunity to support the kind of filmmaking that isn't subject to the customary and often-oppressive commercial constraints that sometimes limit mainstream filmmaking.

First, the live action shorts: These include a variety of films about topical subjects, many inspired by real-life events. A gunman invades a school in Dekalb Elementary. A Christian woman is terrorized by Al-Shabaab in Watu Wote: All of Us. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till becomes the focus of My Nephew Emmett.

Two additional films (The Silent Child and The Eleven O'Clock) are fictional with The Eleven O'Clock serving as the group's only comic entry. Moving in its depiction of a family conflict, Silent Child focuses on a deaf girl whose preoccupied mother thwarts her daughter's development when she refuses to allow the girl to learn sign language.

The Eleven O'Clock involves comic confusions in a psychiatrist's office, features sharp byplay from its actors and leads us to an amusing, though slightly predictable, conclusion.

Though based on a true story, Dekalb Elementary struck me as somewhat flat, although it does illuminate the brave efforts of an ordinary woman who tries to defuse a potentially violent situation. The starkly conceived My Nephew Emmett deals with volatile racial issues, calling attention to the Mississippi relatives the 14-year-old Till, who hailed from Chicago, was visiting at the time of his brutal murder.

The Oscar-nominated documentary category also touches on a variety of hot-button topics: from a telling portrait of a mentally troubled artist (Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405) to an elderly interracial couple (Eddie+Edith) who are forced to separate when family intervenes. Eddie and Edith were 95 and 96 when they tied the knot.

Heroin(e) examines the fight to curb rampant heroin use in a West Virginia town where fire chief Jan Rader devotes her days to rescuing addicts who have over-dosed. Knife Skills takes us to Cleveland restaurant where newly released convicts receive training in the culinary arts. Traffic Stop offers a timely look at the plight of Breaion King, a black teacher who's pulled over by a cop in Austin, Texas. The ensuing encounter, captured with disturbing dash-cam footage, highlights the issues that can arise when police encounter members of the black community.

Animated shorts include Dear Basketball, an ode to former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant. This offering -- which tells of Bryant's early fascination with the game -- might have been more appealing if didn't feel so ego-driven. Bryant co-directed with Glen Keane and wrote the poem on which the movie is based. Bryant talks his love for basketball, but seldom mentions the team aspects of the game that he played with such undisputed brilliance.

In the darkly satirical Garden Party, frogs and toads take over a luxurious villa in the French countryside where evidence of rot seems to have been accumulating for months. Lou, an animated short from the Pixar powerhouse, deals with the reformation of a schoolyard bully. Finely wrought and artful, Negative Space tells the story of how a boy and his father bond over the fine art of suitcase packing.

In my favorite -- Revolting Rhymes --

(photo above) we're treated to the story of the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood and other fairy tales as filtered through the urbane and slightly macabre sensibilities of Roald Dahl.

If I had a vote in these categories, I'd opt for The Silent Child in the live-action offerings; Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 from the documentary category, and, as just suggested, Revoting Rhymes from the Academies collection of animated films.

A cautionary note: If you're looking to me for guidance in filling out your Oscar ballot in these categories, beware. My record for accurate predictions when it comes to short films is, to put it kindly, spotty.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Small matter, big consequences

Oscar-nominated, The Insult examines conflicting passions in Lebanon.

To get the most out of the Lebanese film The Insult you’d do well to learn a little about the Lebanese Civil War, a struggle that began in 1975 and didn’t reach its bitter conclusion until 1990.

Director Ziad Doueiri’s movie is set firmly in the present, but the lingering hostilities generated during a horrible civil war filter through every frame of a story in which a trivial incident — replacement of a drain pipe — escalates into a courtroom battle. Inside the courtroom, all the country’s tensions erupt, sometimes in overly ripe fashion.

The story centers on Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a mechanic who gets into a feud-like argument with a Palestinian refugee (Kamel El Basha). El Basha’s Yasser works as a foreman on a construction crew that’s trying to bring the buildings on Tony’s block up to code. For Tony, even an act of goodwill becomes an intrusion, particularly if the "intruder" is a Palestinian.

Tony’s pregnant wife (Rita Hayek) tries to temper her husband’s rage, but nothing pushes Tony off a course that stems from a terrible incident in his past. Yasser had nothing to do with what happened to Tony, but Tony's hatred has been generalized to include any Palestinian.

Yasser has his own problems with the past; he’s one of some 100,000 Palestinian refugees who has taken up residence in Lebanon. As a refugee, he’s unable to work as an engineer, his chosen field. He has been forced into supervising laborers, and he does so with ingenuity and mostly without complaint.

Both Karam and El Basha give strong performances, El Basha as a foreigner in a country in which many resent his presence. Karam’s Tony becomes Yasser's antagonistic opposite: He's always giving into his emotions. He won’t budge an inch when it comes to looking for a resolution to the conflict that consumes him.

In court, a female attorney (Diamand Bou Abboud) represents Yasser: Tony’s attorney (Camille Salameh) proves the more pragmatic and calculating of the two lawyers.

Doueiri (The Attack) has made a movie that hits its points on the nose, which some may find bothersome, but it’s helpful to remember that the lines of conflict that cut through every scene are drawn from reality.

Perhaps because The Insult spends much of its time in courtrooms, it occasionally loses a bit of steam, but Doueiri understands that the fate of every one of his characters is also the fate of a troubled country. Wisely, he refuses to allow us to forget those stakes.

Agnes Varda and friend take to the road

Faces Places — a documentary by Agnes Varda and a photographer known simply as JR — teams the 89-year-old director with a 33-year-old photographer who specializes in pasting large-format photographs on the least likely of places. Varda and JR set out on what appears to be a casual road trip. They stop, meet the locals, shoot photographs and paste them onto walls, shipping containers, large rocks and on the exterior of a decaying village that never had been inhabited. But if you think about what you’re watching, you’ll probably realize that this free-wheeling look at the traveling relationship between an older filmmaker with failing eyesight and a plucky young artist must have taken lots of planning — not to mention obtaining permissions to film in odd places. An example: A factory that manufactures hydrochloric acid. The relationship between Varda, who has adopted a two-tone hairstyle, and JR, who never removes his sunglasses, has some mildly testy moments (Varda doesn't always like JR's jokes), but mostly the two seem to enjoy each other’s company as they travel about celebrating and monumentalizing the lives of ordinary people. Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, a Varda compatriot from New Wave days, hovers over the movie, although he appears only a clip from one of Varda's films. At one point, JR pushes Varda through the Louvre in a wheelchair, paying homage to a scene Godard filmed for Band of Outsiders. The trip concludes when Varda and JR visit Godard’s home in Rolle, Switzerland. Godard refuses to answer the door, although he has scrawled a note on one of his house's windows. Her feelings hurt, Varda leaves her own note: “No thanks for your bad hospitality.” This little scene adds a note of sadness, a feeling that the past — no matter how vital it felt at the time — can’t be recaptured. At this point, JR senses Varda’s mood of melancholic acceptance. He tries to boost her spirits. But we know that for all its celebratory moments, nothing will overcome the feeling of evanescence that haunts this little movie: The art that JR makes surely will be ruined by weather and if he's lucky, he too eventually will experience the debilities of old age. But there’s nothing morbid in either the movie or in Varda’s attitude toward the conclusion of an amazing and well-lived life. At one point, she says she’s even looking forward to death because “that will be that.” No more films. No more adventures, but an ending that Varda seems to be approaching without regret and without abandoning her desire to live every moment until that final one.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The final years of actress Gloria Grahame

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool but the movie, alas, does.

Peter Turner was a 26-year-old aspiring actor when he met Gloria Grahame in 1979. At the time, Grahame was a 55-year-old fading movie star appearing in a London production of Rain. The two began an affair that became the subject of a book by Turner, who, as a young man, was holding things together by working in a second-hand furniture store.

Grahame, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her work in The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), was known mostly for playing the femme fatale in a variety of film noir movies. She died of cancer in 1981.

Of all the chapters in Grahame's life, the final one -- the subject of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool -- struck me as the least interesting. I took a quick trip to Wikipedia to refresh see if I might be right.

I think I was. Grahame was married four times. Her marriage to director Nicolas Ray fell apart when Ray caught Grahame in bed with Anthony Ray, his 13-year-old son from a former marriage. Grahame later married the young man, who by the time of the wedding had arrived in his 20s. When her third husband, Cy Howard, discovered she had secretly married the younger Ray, he sued her for custody of their daughter.

And I haven't even mentioned Grahame's screen life, which placed her opposite Humphrey Bogart in the great but somewhat overlooked In a Lonely Place. She also worked with in director Fritz Lang's The Big Heat and a variety of other movies. Grahame eventually drifted into a career in episodic television. When things really collapsed, she headed to England. She became Turner's lover and friends with his Liverpool-based family; they took her in when she was dying from cancer.

In director Paul McGuigan's movie, Annette Bening plays Grahame. Jamie Bell portrays the devoted Turner, who at one point accompanies Grahame to Los Angeles and later to New York, but returns to England when Grahame gives him the cold shoulder. The actress had learned that her breast cancer had returned. As the movie has it, she didn’t want to involve Turner in a relationship. that had nowhere to go.

Bell does his best to convey a smitten young man whose patience eventually gives way to frustration, but who still spends time with Grahame when she takes up a brief residence with his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) in Liverpool.

McGuigan employs flashbacks as he moves from Grahame's cancerous languor in Liverpool to the story of Grahame's relationship with Turner. But by dwelling on this May/December romance and Grahame's illness, McGuigan doesn't really do justice to Grahame's life.

The movie manages to spit some welcome venom when we meet Grahame's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her sister (Frances Barber). It's not enough to save the movie.

Bening doesn't look like Grahame but conveys some of the grit and resilience of a star who has lost her luster. Still, the mournful, sentimental Film Stars misfires, perhaps because -- in focusing on Turner's book -- it slices too much meat off the bone of Grahame's tumultuous life.