Thursday, May 17, 2018

'Book Club' reads like a sitcom

A terrific cast can do little to save a lightweight comedy about mature women who, thanks to a shared book club reading of Fifty Shades of Gray, decide that they must fight against the dying light of their aging libidos. Those who know that Book Club stars Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen and Jane Fonda will have their expectations raised -- only to be crushed by an insipid premise and shallow execution by director Bill Holderman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Erin Simms. Keaton plays the recently widowed Diane, a woman who's being pestered by her daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to leave California and move in with one of them in Arizona. Fonda plays Vivian, owner of a major hotel who claims to have cherished her life of sex without emotional attachment. Bergen portrays Sharon, a respected judge whose husband (Ed Begley Jr.) left her for a younger woman. Steenburgen's Carol is married to the recently retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), a man who has lost all interest in sex. Crippled by a fear of flying (in planes and in her social life), Keaton's Diane meets a handsome older man (Andy Garcia) on a flight to Arizona. Fonda's Vivian finds herself being pursued by an old flame (Don Johnson), a guy whose proposal she declined many years ago. Adding to the overall mediocrity are Richard Dreyfuss (as one of Sharon's first online dating partners) and Wallace Shawn (another of Sharon's suitors). Nothing of note happens in this predictable outing, but it is marked by a certain sadness, the sadness of watching gifted actresses play desperate women in the service of a movie that has nothing in mind that doesn't spring either from cliche or from the dictates of the kind of screenwriting that makes it seem as if these characters have lived most of their lives in sitcoms.

A showcase for actress Juliette Binoche

If director Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In were nothing more than a tribute to the allure and complexity of actress Juliette Binoche, it would be well worth seeing. The movie, however, offers more than a showcase for Binoche, putting her at the center of a story about a woman struggling to come to grips with the relationships in her life. In Let the Sunshine In, Binoche plays Isabelle, an artist of some repute. Yet, the film is not really about Isabelle’s art or about her creative aspirations. And it's not really about her role as a mother, either. Throughout the course of this 96-minute movie, we Isabelle's daughter for only a few seconds. Like Isabelle, the movie fixates on relationships, most of which are, in one way or another, unsatisfying. Denis doesn’t shortchange Isabelle’s sexual life; it opens with her in bed with one of her lovers (Xavier Beauvois), a banker who we quickly learn is a certified jerk. Later, she becomes involved with an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who’s married. She’s almost, but not entirely, done with her ex-husband (Laurent Grevill) and she meets a guy in a club (Paul Blain) with whom she seems to make a powerful connection. Isabelle’s conversations take her on a stutter-step journey in pursuit of lasting commitment. Isabelle’s art life nips at the movie’s fringes but her conversations become a series of false starts and perhaps even avoidance of what's going on with the men in her life. The men in the movie aren't much better at establishing real connections. In the movie’s final going, Gerard Depardieu somewhat inexplicably shows up as a psychic who has a long reassuring talk with Isabelle as the final credits roll. Are we to believe him when he says she’ll ultimately find the longed-for love? Is he fueling her delusions, renewing her hopes in a life that isn't really going to change? I’m not sure, but I found this novel approach to the movie’s closing credits mesmerizing, as full of twists and blind alleys as the rest of a movie that only an actress as supple, furious and open to confusion as Binoche could have pulled off.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The pope speaks his mind -- from the heart

Director Wim Wenders showcases the work and ideas of a pope who wants to establish a church of the poor.
Director Wim Wenders has made an early bid for the canonization of Pope Francis.

Wenders’s laudatory documentary — Pope Francis: A Man of His Word — serves as an inspiring, if mostly unquestioning, look at the priest who heads the Roman Catholic Church. Looking straight into the camera, the pope speaks his mind. Wenders gives the pope a platform that creates the intimacy of a private audience with the pontiff.

In keeping with Francis’s disdain for the pomp of the Vatican, Wenders goes beyond interviews, spending much of the movie's time focusing on the pope's travels, journeys that take the pontiff to migrant camps to Auschwitz to a hospital in the Central African Republic and to lots of other places that aren't typically visited for pleasure.

Not much that the pope says would cause arguments among people of any faith. Moreover, Francis projects a natural warmth that contrasts mightily with his predecessor, the retired Benedict XVI, a man whose theological interests seemed to outweigh his people skills.

For those who aren’t Catholic, there’s much to admire about Francis's social conscience, but Wenders isn't big on follow-up questions.

Wenders’s documentary mentions but doesn't dig deeply into controversial issues such as child abuse within the Church. Wenders also doesn’t do much to explore the split between conservative Catholics and the more progressive followers of Francis, a rift that has found its way into a variety of recent discussions about the future of Catholicism.

Wenders includes the pope's now famous remark on gays. "Who am I to judge?" The pope tells reporters on a Vatican flight that if a gay person seeks God, he wouldn't judge that person. Does that mean that he would judge gay atheists?

Wenders also mentions Laudato Si, Pope Francis's controversial and comprehensive encyclical on the environment, which includes the assertion that wealthy countries are destroying poorer nations, a radical thought, but Laudato Si also includes what isn't talked about here: the pope's argument that population control doesn't address the problems of the poor, an observation that leads to a reinforcement of the Church's anti-abortion stance.

I can't read Wenders's mind, but I wondered if he weren't trying to present a universalized version of the pope that skates past sectarian concerns, questions that almost always produce divisiveness.

To that, Wenders's supporters might say that the director was far more interested in character than controversy. For me, the keywords in the movie’s title are “a man.” Wenders's camera reveals a life-sized pope, an approachable figure who took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi as a mark of humility, a decision that leads Wenders astray. Re-enacted footage of the 12th-century saint who inspired Francis to take his name could have been discarded. A slender account of the saint's life disrupts the movie's flow without adding much to our understanding.

The title of Wenders's documentary suggests that Francis lives as he preaches, insisting on a joyous approach to God that sounds more appealing than clerical finger-wagging.

And when it comes to expressing ultimate values, Francis keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground. He elevates the value of a smile and a sense of humor over self-seriousness and somber piety.

Wherever your political and religious sympathies lie, you'll discover a leader who cares about and identifies with the poor and who seems as comfortable among them as he is behind a pulpit.

Some may find it difficult to see Pope Francis: A Man of His Word as anything more than hagiography, but it's impossible to deny Francis’s appeal to a deep sense of humanity that he himself reflects. Whatever else can be said about Pope Francis, he comes across as a man who would like nothing more than to awaken our better angels.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Get your snide on with 'Deadpool 2'

Ryan Reynolds proves that he's still got plenty of life as Deadpool.

Deadpool 2 was shown at a preview screening with a caution to critics to avoid spoilers. I'm not sure that anything you could know in advance would ruin the experience of watching Deadpool 2, a sequel to the snidely effective first installment of a Marvel Comics series that seemed perfectly matched to Ryan Reynolds' mocking awareness of comic-book movie tropes.

The movie also made a ton of money.

But about those spoilers. I'll demure by telling you that there are sight gags, a surfeit of action, a sequence in which Deadpool finds himself in prison with a mystery mutant kid (Julian Dennison) who can spew flames from his fists, and more -- much more. Like most comic-book movies, Deadpool 2 subscribes to the more is more school of filmmaking.

The movie also makes room for a bit of pathos in the form of shared feelings of guilt that touch both Deadpool and Cable (Josh Brolin), a cyborg with a bionic arm and a perpetual scowl.

The story includes the amusing addition of some wannabe superheroes who meet with tragic/comic fates and various X-Men who drop in at various points in the story. Why not? Everybody needs a team.

In the hands of director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde), Deadpool 2 devolves into a series of mini-movies that finally are hammered into a more or less unified whole that includes a fakeout about who the movie's real villain might be.

In addition to Reynolds, I enjoyed the work of Zazie Beetz (as Domino) and Stefan Kapicic (as the voice of the strait-laced Colossus). Plenty of other characters careen through the movie, cropping up like kernels of corn bouncing in a popper.

True to form, Deadpool 2 doesn't skimp on one-liners and visual gags, many of them referencing signature moments in other movies: Basic Instinct (yes, that movie again) comes to mind, but there are enough to suggest that viewers bring a scorecard.

The basic trick of the Deadpool movies remains the same: Reynolds delivers a running commentary on the movie's characters and various plot developments, a strategy that can amuse even as it attempts to insulate the movie from criticism. In a way, Deadpool 2 doesn't try to speak to the audience; it is the audience.

That's why Deadpool can be viewed as a big movie for a large but narrowly focused audience, one that's in on the joke, which includes non-stop tongue-in-cheek references that turn the movie into a perpetual wiseass machine. If you don't share the movie's attitudes -- at least for a couple of hours -- Deadpool may seem dumb and pointless: The movie’s smarts are rooted in pop culture and the abundant Marvel Universe.

So, a concluding comment: Leitch and Reynolds have delivered a movie that meets and occasionally exceeds expectations for a second helping but has little to offer those who aren't steeped in Marvel culture.

I chuckled enough to say that Deadpool 2 can be fun and that Reynolds hasn't worn out his welcome as the foul-mouthed superhero who's at his best when he doesn't give a damn about saving the world and who kicks butt while making fun of whatever passes for a story in these comic-book extravaganzas.

Deadpool 2 even tries to add some heart to all its carnage and clangor. Fair enough, but I doubt whether this edition will cause many lumps to form in many throats. But let's be real: No one goes to a Deadpool movie expecting to reach for a hankie.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A new entry into the revenge genre

A French director fills the screen with blood and tension.

First-time French director Coralie Fargeat has delivered one hell of a calling card, attacking the screen with Revenge, a debut movie that leaves a bloody, indelible impression. Some will see Fargeat's movie as a feminist act of turning the tables, a movie about a woman whose fight for survival pits her against three men, all of whom deserve whatever punishment they get.

But however you choose to view Revenge, it will be difficult to argue against the movie's kick-in-the-gut power.

Movies such as Revenge don't so much tell stories as they find the ingenuity required to keep the action heated, raw and, above all, moving.

A bare-bones plot kicks off when the super-hot Jen (Matilda Lutz) is raped by a hunting buddy (Vincent Colombe) of a man (Kevin Janssens) with whom she's having an extra-marital affair. Another thuggish hunter (Guillaume Bouchede) ignores the whole thing. Instead of aiding Jen, he turns up the volume on the TV.

None of this was supposed to happen. Janssen's Richard hoped to dispense with his boy-toy before his hunting companions turned up at his isolated, aggressively modern desert home. When they arrive a day early, the two men disrupt the sexual interlude that the square-jawed Richard hoped to conclude before setting out to find four-legged prey.

Initially, Jen seems as bubble-headed as she is beautiful, strutting about in a bikini and showing no self-consciousness about being ogled.

Don't be fooled. Fargeat has more in mind than pandering to male fantasies -- at least not those involving sex.

Instead, she serves up a stylishly slick helping of tension, violence, and action in a movie that's not (I repeat "not") for the squeamish.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in the parched expanses of the desert but I'll warn you that there are images that will tempt you to look away from the screen. In one such, Fargeat uses an excruciating close-up to show a man digging into an open wound to remove shards of glass from his foot.

I mention this by way of warning you that there's enough plasma spilled in Revenge to stock a blood bank.

Fargeat offers just enough characterization to create a bit of depth. Initially, Jen seems like a bimbo who knowingly has involved herself with a married man. Fargeat even slips in a Lolita-like shot of Jen with a lollipop.

Richard seems the perfect male mix of success and hypocrisy, a philanderer who calls his wife from his desert retreat, feigning marital loyalty and familial concern. Colombe's Stan -- the leering rapist who attacks Jen when Richard leaves the house for a couple of hours -- eventually has second thoughts about his brutality. Only Bouchede's character seems too dim-witted to care about what's happening.

Revenge is best seen without much advance knowledge about what transpires. I won't say too much about Jen's transformation into a warrior, although I will tell you that it begins with a whopping shock.

Shot in Morocco, Revenge makes great use of desert settings and cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert wields his camera with remarkable deftness.

Whipsmart when it comes to technique and visual wit, Fargeat has made a movie that's tense, lurid and exciting. Not everyone has a taste for this kind of movie, but if you do, Revenge definitely should satisfy.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A supreme court justice and an icon

Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West make little attempt to hide their affection and respect for Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG, a documentary about a jurist who has become an icon of feminism, intelligence, and independence. The directors' approach would be unbearable if Ginsburg weren’t worthy of veneration born of a keen intellect and natural personal charm. One of the movie’s strengths is that it highlights the relationship between RBG and her late husband, Marty Ginsburg. They met as students at Cornell and spent 56 years in a marriage in which two very different attorneys (he was a tax lawyer) managed to support one another, and in which Marty's wit often proved a saving grace. Ginsburg, of course, was a groundbreaker. She attended Harvard Law School when women didn't find much representation in the nation's law schools, a gender wall Ginsburg helped topple along with a variety of other impediments to equality for women. And if the film is right, no one — male or female — should expect to outwork Ginsburg, who still works out at age 85 and isn’t afraid to burn the midnight oil. Even Ginsburg's detractors, who get short shrift here, would have to admit that RBG is formidable, whether on the bench or away from the court. Spending time with her proves a real pleasure.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Melissa McCarthy parties on -- and on

A mother joins her daughter as a college student in Life of the Party.

It’s entirely possible that a woman who gave up her career ambitions when she committed to marriage and raising a daughter might return to college to complete her senior year, particularly after being dumped by her husband of 23 years. It’s also possible that enough time would have passed that the woman's daughter could have arrived at her senior year in college, as well. It's even possible that mother and daughter would find themselves enrolled at the same university.

Considering all this, it’s not too much of a stretch to view Melissa McCarthy’s new comedy, Life of the Party, as a plausible effort to show what might happen if such a mother/daughter situation developed in the hallowed halls of fictional Decatur University.

But that’s where credibility ends and comedy (or what passes for it) begins in Life of the Party, a movie that provides an answer to a question you probably haven’t spent much time considering -- at least I hope not. What could be less appealing than an R-rated McCarthy comedy directed by her real-life husband Ben Falcone (Tammy and The Boss)? Yep, it’s a PG-13 rated comedy from the same team.

The mostly wan Life of the Party follows McCarthy’s Deanna into the dorms of Decatur and turns her into an archeology student who doesn’t dig up enough laughs to earn Life of the Party a passing grade.

At first, Deanna’s daughter’s (Molly Gordon) expresses embarrassment at having her mom around campus. But without much by way of transition, mother and daughter find a new bond as gal pals.

Daughter helps Mom with a fashion makeover that takes her from prim and proper to a woman who appeals to a college kid (Luke Benward) with whom she has hot sex. As Deanna puts it, she rocks his world.

Of the supporting cast, Maya Rudolph, as Deanna's best friend, gives a ribald edge of an otherwise staid suburban woman. Matt Walsh is wasted as Deanna’s ex, a man who has taken up with a realtor (Julie Brown) who bosses him around and immediately sells the home in which he and Deanna lived. The house was in his name.

Deanna has a sullen, self-isolating roommate (Heidi Gardner), but the sisters in her daughter's sorority are a fairly generic group for whom Deanna morphs from a fish-out-of-water woman into an inspirational figure.

Supposed high points protrude self-consciously from the mix. These include a scene in which Deanna and her college cohorts trash her ex-husband’s wedding, a scene at an 80s themed party at which Deanna dominates the dance floor, and a restaurant scene which Deanna confronts her former husband.

The restaurant scene lands some laughs, perhaps because it contains one of the movie's few surprises.

The only moment I found slightly amusing was a bit of physical comedy in which Deanna fumbles her way through an oral archaeology mid-term, engaging in battle with a recalcitrant lectern. Maybe I’m clutching at straws but the bit reminded me of Jerry Lewis. A little?

Otherwise, Life of the Party suggests that the filmmakers might do well to return to comedy school for a refresher in how to avoid the kind of formula traps that tend to neuter comic potential.

When ghosts have yet to die

Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in Ismael's Ghosts.
By most measures, French director Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts should be dismissed as hopelessly muddled, slightly pretentious and loaded with self-conscious time shifts that can confuse more than they clarify. But Desplechin’s movie, I think, deserves more nuanced consideration, particularly if you think of it as a rambling meditation about a filmmaker who’s battling ghosts of his past, one of which turns up in the form of a real person.

Desplechin begins his film as if it were a thriller about a spy named Ivan Dedalus, a film-within-a-film ploy that suggests Desplechin’s desire to turn Ismael's Ghosts into a kind of cinematic playground. Don’t become overly involved in this thriller because you’ll soon learn that you've entered the imagination of writer/director Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a director who's working on the screenplay for the movie we’ve been watching.

A second rank filmmaker, Vuillard never seems to have matched the work of his former father-in-law Henri Bloom (Laszlo Szabo), a director who’s not afraid to allow his ego to spill over into rudeness while insisting that his behavior constitutes an essential form of rebellion.

We also learn that Vuillard's former wife (Marion Cotillard) disappeared 21 years ago. She since has been declared dead but Vuillard can't abandon her memory.

The movie's set-up creates many boats for Desplechin to rock. Vuillard is the midst of a new relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) when a woman turns up claiming to be the long-lost Carlotta, the wife he can’t forget.

To add to the film’s already challenging density, we also learn that the spy in Vuillard’s movie is based on the life of his real brother, a man who has little respect for Vuillard.

All of this information slides into view without much concern for either chronological or even logical coherence.

But Desplechin isn’t attacking the formal conventions of cinema so much as he’s recreating Vuillard’s fevered world, rendered in rendered in alternating strokes of joy and desperation by Amalric, whose portrayal of Vuillard does little to glorify the role of the film director. In Amalric’s hands, Vuillard becomes a mess, a man who can annoy, amuse and even plunge — a little too willingly perhaps — into moments of existential despair.

As a woman who refuses to explain herself, Cotillard adds an aura of mystery and intrigue. Can Carlotta reinsert herself into Vuillard’s life? Will her sudden reappearance cause her father to die of shock? What to make of what Carlotta's claims that she was in a loveless marriage in India during the years in which she vanished from Paris?

Gainsbourg’s Sylvia, an astrophysicist by trade, might be the only character who isn’t overcome by waves of personal confusion.

Did I mention that the spy in Vuillard's movie (Louis Garrel) keeps turning up; snippets of thriller that Vuillard is making punctuate the blurry narrative.

I wouldn’t argue with those who find Ismael’s Ghosts stuffed to the point where it bursts any attempt at significance.

You also could tie yourself in knots trying to make something of Desplechin’s literary references, saddling characters with names that recall James Joyce — Bloom and Dedalus, for example. I took all this rarified name-dropping as little more than wry gamesmanship on Desplechin's part.

It helps not to take Ismael’s Ghosts too seriously. Desplechin may be poking fun at us, as well as at characters who get lost in the maze he creates. Of course, the movie frustrates but its confusions push Desplechin toward something vital, the way his characters respond to the disjointed absurdities with which he confronts them.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

When motherhood becomes a nightmare

Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis play an entertaining duet in Tully, a comedy about the staggering burden of motherhood.
For Marlo, three is definitely not the charm.

We’re talking about Marlo’s third pregnancy, an event that has added much weight to her otherwise well-proportioned frame. Tully -- the latest collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody -- introduces us to a very beleaguered mom, played by Charlize Theron. Theron reportedly gained 50 pounds for the role. I leave it to you to decide whether such body stress is justified in the pursuit of one’s art, but Theron never has been one for half measures.

As Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Theron obliterated her beauty to portray a serial killer, the most notable example of the actress's willingness to undergo a physical transformation at the expense of her movie-star looks.

Marlo, whose size and temperament separate her from those who surround her, struggles with issues that pit her sense of well-being against the kind of physical exhaustion and emotional depletion that are fueled by tending to an infant and two additional siblings.

Because her prepartum life isn't exactly wonderous, Marlo carries a weight that’s more than physical. Marlo's marriage has lost all traces of romance. Marlo's bystander of a husband (Ron Livingston) would rather play video games in bed than snuggle up to his wife. It's not that he doesn't care about his wife and kids; it's more that he's lost in his own world.

To further complicate matters, Marlo already has two children, one of whom (Asher Miles Fallica) taxes her patience because of extreme emotional problems that find him terrified by the sound of flushing toilets or relentlessly kicking the back of mom’s seat while she’s driving.

There’s a daughter (Maddie Dixon-Poirier), as well. The daughter seems to pose no out-sized problems, but still ... she's another kid with needs.

Every over-taxed movie mother needs a contrivance to move things along.

Tully's arrives in the form of a gift from Marlo’s affluent brother (Mark Duplass). He offers to pay for a night nanny, a young woman who'll take care of the newborn's overnight needs, thus allowing Marlo to get some much-needed sleep.

At first, Marlo resists, but she becomes so frustrated that she calls in a night nanny.

Enter Tully, the movie’s title character. As played by Mackenzie Davis, Tully is a dream-come-true. She has a great personality. She's in her 20s, but totally understands Marlo and encourages her to take advantage of the service in ways that Marlo hadn’t anticipated. She not only brings the baby to Marlo for night feedings but cleans up the house and ... well ... eventually even awakens Marlo's husband's slumbering libido.

Credit Davis with a showcase performance: She gives Tully such a major helping of verve and savvy that it begins filtering through the entire movie.

As he did in his best movies (Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air), Reitman wraps Tully's social and psychological interests in a glossy entertainment package. Cody, who previously worked with Reitman on Juno and Young Adult, has been known to produce snarky one-liners but here she leans toward the dark side of Marlo's anger and depression without quite toppling into either.

When Marlo visits her son’s school she initiates an ugly confrontation with the school’s principal over her son’s behavior; Marlo flips onto the dislikable side of the ledger. She’s belligerent with the principal, a woman who genuinely seems concerned about her son's ability to fit into the environment of this private school. Marlo isn't always a joy to be around.

Tully may speak loudly to women who can appreciate the overwhelming tsunami that has smashed on the beaches of Marlo's middle-aged life, a point at which the door has all but slammed shut on her youth.

To make that point, the movie eventually offers a throwback scene in which Marlo and Tully return to Marlo’s old stomping grounds in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn for a night on the town, a foray into the kind of nightlife for which Marlo has become decidedly too old.

It’s difficult to say more without introducing major spoilers, so I’ll simply say that the movie’s ending wraps things up a little too neatly — and, dare I say, with just a hint of a cop-out.

Tully can be seen as another look at a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a popular enough movie theme and one that still has plenty of life in it -- even if, in Tully, it doesn't produce a conclusion that's as convincing as Theron's performance.