Thursday, August 17, 2017

The bicker, they kill. That's the movie

Medicore Hitman's Bodyguard breaks little new ground.

In The Hitman's Bodyguard, bickering buddies shoot lots of people amid a flood of explosions, car chases and other forms of visual mayhem. There's also ample use of the "MF" word and a mounting pile of action sequences that have been edited to create a feeling of maximum frenzy.

The buddies in question are played by Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, two stars who have branded their big-screen personalities to the point where it's almost impossible for either of them to do anything unexpected.

Reynolds can be smart in the glib way of characters created by snark-capable writers. Jackson does variations on the savvy, profanity-spewing killer who eventually reveals a moral foundation for his seemingly reprehensible actions.

Watching Reynolds and Jackson go through their standard motions provides most of the pleasure in The Hitman's Bodyguard, an action comedy that tries to blast its way through the brick wall of late summer indifference.

The title pretty much tells the story. Reynolds portrays Michael Bryce, a bodyguard whose A-list career shatters when he fails to protect an important client from assassination. Reduced to second-rate protection jobs, Michael basically hangs around waiting for the plot to arrive.

The story kicks in when Jackson's Darius Kincaid turns up. Imprisoned for being a hitman with hundreds of kills, the notorious Kincaid makes a bargain with Interpol. If he testifies against a vicious Belorussian dictator (Gary Oldman), the authorities will release Kinkaid's equally lethal wife (Salma Hayek) from the Amsterdam prison where she's being detained.

At various points throughout, Hayek's Sonia is seen terrorizing her cellmate, exposing her cleavage, and trying to make up for limited screen time by contributing her own carload of profanity to the movie's "R" rating.

Elodie Yung plays Amelia Roussel, an Interpol agent, and Michael's former lover. She promises to help Michael regain his status as a high-priced bodyguard if he'll agree to escort Kincaid from prison to the Hague, where Oldman's character awaits trial for crimes against humanity.

You don't need to be a genius to know that the trip will leave many bodies strewn in its violent wake or that credibility takes an early hit.

After taking a bullet in his knee, Kincaid limps through action sequence after action sequence with the movie stopping for occasional flashbacks to explain how Kincaid met Hayak's character or how Michael developed a relationship with Yung's character.

Director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) seems to buy into to the theory that all action should be edited into fragmented shards, and the incessant banter between Reynolds and Jackson provides little that would make Oscar Wilde envious.

There's not much else to say about this formula job, which never rises above genre mediocrity, but may satisfy those who find this sort of rampant destruction appealing.

A caper movie, country style

Director Steven Soderbergh has fun with Lucky Logan, a heist movie set in West Virginia.
It's a bit of a stretch to think that anyone has been eagerly waiting to see Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, play a hillbilly safecracker from West Virginia. But Craig does just that in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky, a caper movie in which a group of West Virginia rednecks stage a robbery at the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600, a NASCAR race held on Memorial Day weekend.

Those who try to mine veins of importance from Logan Lucky, which was written by Rebecca Blunt, may find themselves straining. Logan Lucky stands as an enjoyable -- if slight -- caper comedy build around odd ball casting that creates much of the movie's appeal -- that and Soderbergh's understanding of how to freshen a formula.

An unlikely duo of Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play brothers. Tatum's Jimmy Logan is a beleaguered construction worker who loses his job for not reporting a pre-existing health condition; he has a limp. Jimmy's brother Clyde (Driver) works as a bartender despite having a prosthetic lower left arm, a souvenir from his military service in Iraq.

Jimmy would like to spend more time with his daughter after his divorce from Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). But Bobbie Joe and her husband (David Denman) plan to move to a swankier town, leaving Jimmy with a great need for money if he wants to maintain a relationship with his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie), a child who participates in beauty pageants.

With no legitimate prospects in sight, Jimmy uses the code word that his brother knows signals trouble. "Cauliflower."

The rest of the movie follows a pleasingly predictable pattern in which Jimmy assembles the crew he needs to pull off the heist. One of Jimmy's primary partners in crime is Joey Bang (Craig), a felon whose participation presents Jimmy with an obstacle. Joey's in jail. Jimmy contrives a scheme to get Joey out of the slammer so that he can put his larcenous plan in motion.

Jimmy's sister (Riley Keough) plays a role in pulling off a robbery that allows Soderbergh to revel in West Virginia color, sometimes in ways that seem a trifle self-conscious.

To further complicate matters, Joey insists that his participation is contingent on Jimmy involving Joey's two brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), a couple of guys who probably never will be mistaken for MENSA candidates.

Two additional performances are worth mention. Seth MacFarlane shows up as Max Chilblain, a British race car impresario, and Hilary Swank makes a late-picture appearance as a cop who's trying to nab the thieves.

Like many heist movies, Logan Lucky requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, and it's tough to avoid not thinking of the movie as a kind of knockoff of Soderbergh's Ocean's series, only with dirt under its fingernails.

I enjoyed Logan Lucky, even though I was seldom unaware that I was watching actors tapping into their inner rednecks. As it stands, the cast seems to be having the kind of good time that transfers to an audience.

A couple of clicks toward even more weirdness and Logan Lucky might have landed Soderbergh in Coen Brothers territory. Now that really would have been something to behold.

He fights to be a father

Menashe, a Yiddish-language film, tells the story of a widower whose relationship with his son is threatened.

Menashe, the main character in the movie of the same name, lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a member of a Hassidic sect, Menashe tries to adhere to the letter of Jewish law.

Not a man of worldly ambition, Menashe earns his living working the cash register at a local grocery store. Menashe speaks mostly Yiddish and the subtitled movie about him -- directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein -- makes room for only a smattering of English.

Those unfamiliar with Hassidic life may find Menashe as foreign as if it were taking place in another country. We're in the US, but Menashe immerses us in a culturally isolated community made up only of Hassidic Jews.

That doesn't mean that Menashe's story fails to strike a few universal cords. A widower, Menashe has been told that can't keep his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) unless he remarries. Menashe's rabbi (Meyer Schwarz) has ruled that every child must grow up in a two-parent household. The
complication: Menashe has no desire to submit to another arranged marriage.

As a result, Rieven lives with his stern uncle (Yoel Weisshaus), a man who's married, has his own family and views Menashe as incurably irresponsible.

Menashe Lustig, a bearish man whose story inspired Weinstein's screenplay, portrays the title character in a movie that has been cast with non-actors who appear to be deeply embedded in the world that Weinstein apparently had to film on the sly so that he did not run afoul of the Brooklyn-based community where the story takes place.

You'd think that our sympathies automatically would go to Menashe. But Weinstein makes it clear that Menashe doesn't really know how to raise a child -- even as he shows the father's love for the boy and the boy's love for his father.

As played by Niborksi, Rieven comes across as a smart kid who, at times, understands that his father might be in over his head.

The movie includes a wonderful scene in which Menashe shares beers with two Puerto Rican co-workers during a break from work. He also shares the story of his less-than-happy marriage. Honest and relaxed with these strangers, Menashe unburdens himself in English. His companions tell him that without a wife, he's free to do what he pleases, analysis that couldn't be further from Menashe's truth.

This lovely, human scene reminds us that there's life beyond Borough Park, even if Menashe and every other character in the film have no pressing desire to interact with it.

The first year anniversary of the death of Menashe's wife drives the story over the course of a single week. Despite his brother-in-law's objections, Menashe insists on holding the memorial service in his cramped apartment. He wants to prove to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi and to the community at large that he's capable. To the movie's credit, we're not convinced that Menashe is up to the task. He may not believe it, either.

Weinstein leaves it up to us to decide what to make of the lives he so richly evokes in a movie that qualifies -- on the basis of language alone -- as one of the year's more unusual offerings. It has been a long time since I've heard this much Yiddish, the language with which my grandparents were most comfortable and which my parents spoke when they didn't want either myself or my brother to know what they were talking about -- or when English simply couldn't match the richly sardonic capabilities of Yiddish.

Language aside, Weinstein's Menashe succeeds in doing what many good films do; it opens the door to a world most of us don't really know and allows us to meet the characters in it on their own terms. Nice work.

'Brigsby Bear' and 'Dave Made A Maze'

It's unusual that two movies, both of which risk silliness and both of which achieve some success, open during the same week. But that's the case with Brigsby Bear and Dave Made A Maze, both of which arrive in Denver and presumably around the country this week.
Brigsby Bear, the more engaging of the two movies, tells the story of a young man who was kidnapped as an infant. Kyle Mooney plays James, a man who's freed from captivity after 25 years.

James wasn't physically abused by his kidnappers; instead, he was isolated from everyone else by two people (Mark Hammil and Jane Adams) who claimed to be his parents and who evidently told him that the world was too contaminated for him to venture beyond their well-sealed home.

During his years of captivity, James became totally absorbed in the world of Brigsby Bear, a TV show that he watches on videotapes which his faux father, who dons a gas mask when he leaves the family compound, brings home.

Clunky looking and amusingly amateurish, Brigsby Bear introduces James to a complex fantasy universe that encompasses a variety of different worlds and villains.

There's no reason why the now-grown James should continue his interest in something as child-centered as Brigsby Bear, a series that wouldn't cut it even during the less sophisticated 1970s.

But the totally isolated James no longer makes any distinction between Brigsby's world and his own.

The movie shifts gears when the local police -- led by an amiable detective (Greg Kinnear) -- liberate James. He's returned to his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins. They try to bring James up to speed about a world that has passed him by.

When James's interest in Brigsby doesn't subside, his parents decide that he ought to see a therapist (Claire Danes). She tries -- without much success -- to convince James to abandon Brigsby and drop in on the "real" world once in a while.

But James persists, so much so that he and a new pal (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) decide to continue making Brigsby Bear videos. James wants to fulfill the only destiny he can imagine, bringing the series to its conclusion.

James becomes author, filmmaker, and star (in a bear suit) of the Brigsby Bear show.

Look, all of this sounds a bit ridiculous, but director Dave McCary, working from a screenplay by Mooney and Kevin Costello, displays a light, sensitive touch that eschews ridicule, even as it examines the role fantasy plays in keeping James going.

McCary could have put a sneer on the movie's face, turning it into a kind of hip satire about the danger of losing oneself in pop-cultural fantasies. Instead, he has made a captivating charmer of a movie about a young man trying to negotiate a world he may never fully understand.

Dave Made A Maze takes a different tack with its silliness, introducing mild elements of horror and danger along with a healthy dose of 20something dislocation.

Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives home from a weekend trip to discover that her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has erected a cardboard maze in their small living room.

The structure looks entirely wobbly and unsophisticated, a warren of boxes and smoking chimneys that might not withstand a strong wind.

From inside the maze, we hear Dave telling Annie that he's lost. He also makes the preposterous claim that the maze is much bigger on the inside than it appears when viewed from the outside.

Not knowing what to do, Annie asks for help from Dave's pal Gordon (Adam Busch). Others turn up, including a guy (James Urbaniak) who wants to make a documentary about the maze.

Eventually, Annie and company enter the maze, where they discover that Dave was right about the scale of the structure -- and also about its dangers. Booby traps lurk everywhere and a lethal Minotaur roams the premises.

Like Dave's maze, the movie adds creative, low-rent effects, some quite clever and most making inspired use of cardboard.

Dave Made A Maze ultimately wears out a thin premise. But at a swift 80-minutes, it proves more engaging than you'd think for a movie with a substantial number of cardboard sets.

A look at a Hollywood life

Michael Almereyda, who directed Ethan Hawke in a version of Hamlet set in Manhattan, brings his skills to a documentary about Hampton Fancher. If you just said, "Hampton who?," you're not alone. Fancher isn't exactly a household name, although he's credited as one of the writers of 1982's Blade Runner. Fancher also gets a writing credit for the screenplay for the much anticipated Blade Runner 2049, due this fall. Once an actor, Fancher appeared in a variety of shows during the 1960s: Bonanza, Perry Mason and Gunsmoke among them. Not afraid of the talking-head approach, particularly in his film's latter going, Almereyda concocts a fascinating look at a California life that led Fancher to the movies. Fancher fled home at the age of 16 and traveled to Barcelona to study flamenco. He's been married and unmarried and involved with a variety of women, including actress Barbara Hershey. Fancher is an interesting talker and storyteller, the kind of guy who always sounds like an "insider" no matter how obscure the story he's telling. Sci-fi fans will most appreciate the movie for Fancher's explanation of how he became involved with author Philip K. Dick and later with Blade Runner, which was based on a Dick novella. Almereyda allows Fancher to tell his own story, but often shows us photos from Fancher's past or from TV shows and movies in which the actor appeared. I enjoyed spending time with Fancher in Almereyda's documentary about a man whose life seems possible only in a place where everyone aspires to make movies.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trouble on a troubled reservation

In Wind River , an FBI agent and a tracker look into the mysterious death of a young woman.
There are so few movies with Native American characters that one is tempted to recommend Wind River solely on the basis of casting that includes many Native American actors. But in the hands of writer/director Taylor Sheridan, Wind River can't entirely balance concerns about terrible conditions on a Wyoming reservation with the genre demands of a thriller.

A subdued Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a Wyoming-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer who becomes involved in investigating the murder of a Native American teenager, whose body he finds in a snow-covered field. The young woman has been shot and sexually violated.

Olsen's Jane Banner, a newly minted FBI agent, arrives in Wyoming to figure out exactly what happened to the dead girl (Kelsey Asbille), a resident of the grimly impoverished Wind River reservation.

The screenplay puts Cory in a difficult spot. He knows the terrain and he knew the dead girl. Unlike the outsider played by Olsen, Cory has long-standing relationships in the Native American community. He had been married to a woman from the Wind River Reservation (Julia Jones), but their relationship ended in divorce after the disappearance and death of their daughter.

Obviously, Cory can't look into the death of another young woman without confronting the burden of grief and guilt that he carries with him. He couldn't protect his daughter from the sometimes lethal hostilities directed toward Native American women.

Sheridan wrote the screenplays for two better movies -- Sicario and Hell or High Water. This time, he creates a story that wallows in the dour resolve of men accustomed to suppressing anger and pain. Many of the characters seem to have accepted injustice as part of the fabric of a world that, for them, long ago slipped beyond redemption.

Only the town's sheriff (Graham Greene) shows splashes of humor, but it's of the deadpan variety, and the movie's snowbound landscapes add to the feeling of emotional desolation.

A skilled tracker, Cory spends most of his time hunting animals that prey on sheep and cattle. He wears a snowsuit to protect him from lethally cold temperatures. (The movie actually was shot in Utah, so if you've been to Lander, Wyo., where some of the movie supposedly takes place, don't be surprised if you feel a bit disoriented.)
Scenes between Cory and his young son and those between Cory and his estranged wife add humanity, as do scenes in which Cory meets with the father (Gil Birmingham) of the dead teenager. Such moments suggest that Wind River might have been more affecting had it spent even more time with the dead girl's shattered family.

Olsen, so good in Martha Marcy May Marlene -- isn't able to bring much depth to a character who makes up half of a cliché; she plays novice cop to Renner's savvy frontiersman.

Sheridan shows some of the physical and emotional impoverishment of life on the reservation. Wintry atmospherics and pervasive gloom almost become characters in a story that ultimately succumbs to a burst of extreme violence.

This finale involves a flashback and a shoot-out that overwhelms some of the movie's earlier observational insights. A final title card about the disappearance of Native American women from reservations -- evidently a widespread a problem -- struck me as too little, too late, almost an apology for the violent crescendo that preceded it.

A 2012 New York Times article about the Wind River Reservation, provides a better feel for life on what the locals call "the res." The article notes that, at the time of its writing, those living in Wind River had a shorter life expectancy than the inhabitants of war-torn Iraq.

The story also attributes the following quote to a tribal advocate:

"This place has always had the gloom here. There has always been the horrendous murder. There has always been the white-Indian tension It's always been something."
To his credit, Sheridan captures some of that feeling, but in the end, the sound of gunfire drowns out the cries of characters whose lot in life seems to demand that they find ways to bear the unbearable.

Young women step toward college

The students we meet in the documentary Step are spirited and entirely engaging.
The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009 with the stated aim of getting every one of its students into college. Modeled on the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, the Baltimore edition accepts 100 students a year. Students are selected through a lottery process.

If you look at the school's Web site, you'll find prominent mention of the BLSYW's competitive Step team and of Step, the much-heralded documentary about the team's young women. But, and this is a key to understanding the school, you'll find more emphasis on academics, counseling and on an educational culture that stresses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In what presumably was an attempt to honor the school's mission, director Amanda Lipitz's documentary spends as much time on the lives of three seniors as it does on the school's Step team, which is in the midst of trying to recover from an off year in which the team's best stepper -- Blessin Giraldo -- missed 53 school days.

The charismatic Giraldo comes closest to being the film's main character; she's from a home in which the refrigerator can remain empty until the Food Stamps arrive. As the school year progresses, Blessin's mother misses parents' nights, and her counselors struggle to motivate her to commit to the academic excellence which they're confident she can achieve.

At one point, a school official asks Blessin why she can't make as big a commitment to the school's academics as she has made to Step.

All of the students on whom Lipitz focuses come from economically strained backgrounds and all of them have grown up around the violence that continues to plague Baltimore. The movie begins with clips of protests that erupted after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of spinal cord injuries sustained in the back of a police van.

The point is that none of these young women are sailing smoothly toward success; their challenges are many, but -- if Step is any indication -- their spirits are strong enough to meet them.

Lipitz also introduces us to Cori Grainger, the class valedictorian. She's part of the Step team but dreams of attending Johns Hopkins. Cori's mother -- Triana -- was 16 when Cori was born.

Like any teenager, Tayla Solomon, the movie's third student, sometimes finds her intensely focused mother "annoying." But Mom, who's employed as a corrections officer, clearly works hard to ensure that her daughter doesn't drop her guard. When Tayla's grades slide, Mom -- who attends every practice of the Step team -- lets her daughter know that she's skating on thin ice and that boys will not be a distraction.

The Step team's coach -- Cari "Coach G" McIntyre -- proves supportive of the Step team, but she, too, has a single-minded focus on achieving excellence.

Lipitz includes lots of scenes at Step practice, where Coach G supervises. Her goal: To win a championship at an annual Step competition held at Bowie State University. The steppers, who call themselves "The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW," must be in top form to compete against teams from several other states.

The movie makes clear that for these young women success can be motivated by their desire not to lead lives that constantly are shortchanged by money woes and hardship.

I found Step a bit scattered, and I wish Lipitz had spent more time showing how step routines are developed. But I was impressed less by the filmmaking than by the young women of Step and by their school's supportive but disciplined approach, which seems to insist that in a sink-or-swim world, sinking simply won't be accepted as an option.

Marion Cotillard in 'Land of the Moon'

Marion Cotillard plays a woman longing for love and sex in From the Land of the Moon, a movie based on a 2006 novella by Milena Agus. Set mostly in Provence during the 1950s, the movie introduces three men into the life of Cotillard's Gabrielle. A high school teacher who loans Gabrielle a copy of Wuthering Heights becomes the first man on whom she has a crush. When that proves disastrous, Gabrielle's mother decides that her daughter ought to be married. Mom suggests that Gabrielle marry Jose (Alex Brendemuhl), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who works on the family farm. Jose agrees even though Gabrielle has vowed never to love him -- and, at least in the beginning, never to have sex with him. The third unlucky chap is Andre Sauvage (Louis Garrel), a veteran of the Indochina war whom Gabrielle meets at a Swiss spa where she has been sent to recover from kidney stones, which the movie refers to -- presumably with metaphoric/psychological intent -- as "stones disease." Throughout, director Nicole Garcia offers suggestions that Gabrielle may be mad. Lush photography aside, everyone in From the Land of the Moon seems to be burdened by unfulfilled desires. Cotillard proves more than capable of playing a woman distracted and possessed by her own inner life. Cotillard dominates every image in which she appears (which is most of them), giving her character an air of troubled beauty; her performance is almost (but not quite) enough to carry From the Land of the Moon to success. A surprise late-picture twist fails to ring true and isn't all that surprising, anyway.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

When the police become torturers

Detroit immerses us in a brutal racist incident that took place during the city's 1967 riot.
I found it impossible to watch Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit and not be flooded by a complex torrent of reactions to the movie's undeniable visceral power. Bigelow takes an unflinching look at a little known racist incident that took place during the Detroit riots of 1967. Police brutality and racism are awful, of course, but how much of it do we need to see before that point effectively has been made?

That's a question that every moviegoer will have to answer for his or herself, but -- I wondered, if in trying for unblinking honesty, Bigelow hadn't sometimes mistake intensity for insight.

Bigelow divides her movie into three unequal parts. She begins with an appropriately frenzied approach to the Detroit riots, settles into a disturbing and violent example of racist brutality, and then -- as if to temper the horror of what we've been watching -- spins out a courtroom finale in which the offending police officers are brought to trial.

Bigelow bases her movie on a true story, chronicled in a 1968 book by John Hersey, The Algiers Motel Incident. Events at the Algiers were a kind of adjunct to the Detroit riots that began when the police raided an after-hours bar frequented by black patrons.

No matter what side of the political divide on which you fall, it's nearly impossible to watch Detroit without making references to the climate between black communities and police forces that have been infected by institutional racism -- not only in 1967, but in 2017.

At the Algiers Motel, several young black men, two white women, several police officers and a black security guard are thrown together during the heat of the riot. The police officers -- led by a racist cop (Will Poulter) -- terrorize their captives in ways that result in psychological trauma and, ultimately, killing. By the end of the night, three young black men are dead.

From the outset, we've tagged Poulter's Krauss as an undisguised racist. Even before the incident at the Algiers, he goes unpunished for shooting an unarmed black man in the back.

The movie's segments in the Algiers Motel are on a par with the kind of sustained cruelty we sometimes see in horror films. Of course, torture is precisely what the police are doing to their innocent victims, perpetrating an invisible slice of horror during the intensely pressurized atmosphere of a violent outburst that made Detroit resemble a war zone.

During this portion of the film, the police line their victims against the wall, singling them out for humiliation, along with two white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) who were partying at the Algiers. The cops accuse the women of being prostitutes, an opinion they seem to justify only because the women have been hanging around black men.

Three figures stand out among the black men, the lead singer of a group called The Dramatics (Algee Smith), a military veteran recently returned from Vietnam (Anthony Mackie) and a friend of Smith's character (Nathan Davis Jr.).

No one is more conflicted about what's happening at the Algiers than John Boyega's Dismukes, a security guard sent by his employer to protect a store from looting. Dismukes becomes caught up in the Algiers' drama. He's a law-and-order guy, but he's not blind to the racism that's being displayed by out-of-control cops.

All of this begins because the cops believe that someone in the motel fired a gun at them. As it turns out, the gun was a starter pistol fired by a young man (Jason Mitchell) who had been trying to frighten a small gathering at the Algiers by mimicking the way white policemen treat blacks. To make his act more convincing, Mitchell's character draws the fake gun, eventually firing it out a window.

I don't want to leave the impression that Detroit proceeds entirely without nuance. In the movie's later going, we meet cops who are appalled by what happened at the Algiers. We sometimes see the movie's brutal but self-serving cops trying to find a way out of the situation they've created. Not every black character is willing to stand up for truth when it comes to exposing the viciousness to which they've been subjected.

Bigelow may want us to understand that the cops have deluded themselves into believing that abuse is not only justifiable but a privilege of their positions of authority. Once the firebombs start flying, these policemen seem to think they've been granted license to do anything.

All of this unfolds after a prologue featuring paintings by Jacob Lawrence that try to provide some context for the riots: northward migration by blacks devolved into segregated housing projects and high unemployment. That's the gist.

Later, we'll see news clips of George W. Romney and President Lyndon Johnson, political leaders who remind us that what we're witnessing springs from a reality; the government apparatus geared up to meet what it saw as the challenge of unleashed fury and wanton destruction.

Written by Mark Boal, who also wrote Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit might have been even more daring had it taken some time to show us the pre-riot atmosphere in the Detroit police department, the conditions that presumably made Poulter's character possible.

As the movie unfolded, I found myself wondering how a director as meticulous as Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) would have handled such a volatile story.

It's also worth remembering that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing already made a statement about the ways in which racial violence can be kindled.

So a confession: At various points during events at the Algiers Motel, I wondered what Bigelow was trying to accomplish by allowing them to drag on so long.

Other points are more economically made. Mackie portrays a Marine who recently returned from Vietnam. Having served his country offers him no protection from the wrath of the police.
That's a powerful observation.

It also helps to remember that many of the current and well-publicized incidents of questionable police conduct did not take place under violent duress; racism hardly needs riots as an excuse to express itself. Sometimes, all it takes is a traffic stop.

Little illuminated in 'Dark Tower'

Inspired by eight Stephen King novels, this summer movie may do a quick fade.
One of America's most popular and prolific authors, Stephen King wrote eight novels in his Dark Tower series. Instead of picking one of them, director Nikolaj Arcel and his team, which included Arcel and three additional writers, decided to make a big-screen mash-up of King's opus, cherry picking what they must have seen as choice elements for a screenplay.

The resultant movie -- The Dark Tower -- can be taken as a pean to unabashed eclecticism, drawing on everything from spaghetti westerns to sci-fi ploys to Tolkien-like fantasy.
Early fears that the movie would veer toward incoherence can be set aside. The Dark Tower -- which alternates between a world called Mid-World and present day New York City -- can be followed, but before it's done a different question emerges: Followed to what end?

Neither bad enough to offer the guilty pleasures of pure trash or good enough to constitute enthralling summer fun, the movie -- which clocks in at a merciful 95 minutes -- features a cast that includes Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, each of whom plays a character representing a different moral polarity. Elba portrays The Gunslinger, a cowboy seeking revenge against the Man in Black (McConaughey).

This disreputable Man in Black, also known as Walter, killed The Gunslinger's father and has devoted himself to destroying the Dark Tower.

The tower, which looks like a giant stalagmite that has been painted black, can be found at the center of a circle that encompasses many universes. If the tower falls, demons will be unleashed. Horrors will ensue. The Man in Black will capitalize, reigning over the chaos.

To achieve his evil goal, the Man in Black appropriates the energy of specially gifted children to beam potent rays of destruction at the tower.

A Manhattan teenager named Jake (Tom Taylor) is the most powerful of these psychically gifted young people. The Man in Black wants to use Jake to destroy all the universes, which are connected by portals.

Nutty? To be sure, but most fantasies resist careful scrutiny, and -- in this case -- themes about sons who lose fathers barely resonate.

Add some creatures with skin that they wear (seams show) and a variety of other tricks that give birth to special effects that fall short of knockout levels, and you've got the idea.

Elba, a fine actor, looks great in a Clint Eastwood-style duster. Sporting an upwardly brushed hair style that might make Christopher Walken envious, McConaughey does his best to convey the eerie villainy of a character who refers to his various abilities in the plural, calling them "magics."

The Man in Black can work simply, as well, killing people by passing a hand over their faces and telling them to "stop breathing."

It seems cavalier to dismiss a movie inspired by eight novels with a short review, but I see no reason to belabor this one or to suggest that I returned from any of the movie's various universes with anything resembling great rewards. Despite lots of huffing and puffing on the part of the filmmakers, The Dark Tower seems far too easy to shrug off.




Family problems, '90s style

How you react to Landline, a comedy set in 1995, depends a lot on how you react to Jenny Slate, a comic actress whose performance encompasses what might be called a level of hysteria you'll either find endearing or annoying. (I leaned toward annoying.) On the verge of marriage, Slate's Dana is one of those characters who hasn't settled into her self. As a result, Dana's not sure whether she's ready to spend a lifetime with her fiancé (Jay Duplass). Dana's father, on the other hand, has been in a long marriage with his sometimes sardonic wife (Edie Falco). An advertising copywriter who aspires to be a playwright, Dad (John Turturro) is having an affair that's discovered when Dana's rebellious younger sister (Abby Quinn) finds a series of love poems Dad has written to his mistress. How rebellious is Quinn's Ali? She smokes cigarettes, has become sexually active and even tries snorting heroin. Meanwhile, Slate's Dana acts out her uncertainty about marriage by having an affair with an old college flame (Finn Wittrock). The supporting performances are sharp and the writing by Lillian Robespierre, who directed, and Elizabeth Holm, can be funny. (Robespierre, by the way, directed Slate in Obvious Child, a 2014 rom-com involving a woman who has an abortion). Landline never creates the feeling that anything momentous hangs in its easy-going balance, but it has been drawn with affection for characters whose struggles, for the most part, feel real -- if not profound. Remember it's the '90s, a time when people still had dot-matrix printers attached to their clunky looking computers. It doesn't have much to do with what the movie's about, but looking at these techno dinosaurs made we wonder whether anyone ever swooned with nostalgia over yesterday's technology. I'm guess, no.

A sex object from another world

One woman's husband is having an affair with her brother. Another woman, seen having sex in the movie's opening scene, shows up at a hospital to be treated for a mysterious injury she tries to pass off as a dog bite. We've already got enough grist for any dramatic mill, but The Untamed -- directed by Mexican director Amat Escalante -- adds a bizarre twist to its sexually loaded scenario. The movie's Lothario turns out to be an alien creature whose tentacles are the source of intense sexual pleasure for all of the characters; the alien creates sensations so intense, they either become addictive or wind up killing those touched by the creature. Escalante works in a straightforward style that never calls attention to the movie's inherent weirdness. The principals in this helping of quasi sci-fi (Eden Villavicencio, Ruth Ramos, Jesus Meza and Simone Bucio) play characters living in a limbo between the mundane and the extraordinary. Add the tyrannical mother of one of the characters and you have a domestic drama with a wild card (the alien) that may represent an unleashed helping of id. The Untamed won't appeal to every taste -- especially those who think the idea of sex with an octopus-like alien slithers toward the repulsive. Despite its deadpan treatment of an implausibly weird premise, the movie's gamble (mixing the unquestionably strange with the drearily familiar) yields mixed results.

A career role for Catherine Deneuve

Always an actress of elegant beauty, Catherine Deneuve lets down her guard in The Midwife, a movie about a midwife (Catherine Frot) whose life is upset when Deneuve's character turns up after a long absence. Deneuve portrays Beatrice, the mistress of Frot's character's late father. Director Martin Provost begins by introducing us to Frot's Claire, a woman devoted to a profession that helps bring new life into the world. A single mother with a son in med school, Claire spends her free time tending to a communal garden in a Parisian suburb. There, she meets a genial truck driver (Olivier Gourmet) who's interested in starting a relationship. But the relationship that most impacts Claire involves tense meetings with Deneuve's Beatrice, a flamboyant woman who has exaggerated her station in life. As it turns out, Beatrice has contacted Claire out of desperation: A brain tumor has left Beatrice with a limited amount of time to live. The movie serves as a showcase for Deneuve, who's playing a character who's both irresistible and annoying. Frot ably abets Deneuve's performance. Together Deneuve and Frot deliver a nice duet in a somewhat forgettable melodrama with an interesting sidelight. Claire's small maternity clinic is about to be overwhelmed by a high-tech addition to the health landscape that's sure to sacrifice the kind of personal touch that Claire very much values. The movie's irony, I suppose, is that Claire, a woman skilled in birth, is asked to help Beatrice face her death.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Charlize Theron, kicker of butts

Atomic Blonde has style to spare, but wears itself out.

What's the most damning thing you can say about a movie? That its actors don't behave credibly. That it has been miscast? That its plot wobbles? That its dialogue sounds lame and wooden? That it displays too little visual imagination?

All of those are unfortunate missteps, but only one of them (the one about a story made overly complex by a needlessly fragmented narrative) applies to Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron's plunge into the world of movies based on graphic novels.

The damning sum total of the movie's plot intricacies and icy stylizations, at least for me, is that I didn't much care about the outcome of a story set in Berlin in 1989, a time when the wall separating East and West Germany is about to topple and spies on both sides are beginning to wonder about their role in a post-Cold War world.

This sounds like John Le Carre territory, but Atomic Blonde, which springs from a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and has been directed by David Leitch, wallows in attitude and style in ways that create little by way of emotional involvement.

For all its hyper activity, the movie often feels exhausted, perhaps because it taps into an already mined thematic vein in which old antagonisms are evaporating like morning mist exposed to new sun.

Theron's performance as the self-possessed Lorraine Broughton embodies nearly everything you need to know about Atomic Blonde. A cooly efficient MI-6 agent, Lorraine arrives in Berlin to obtain a list of western spies a wannabe Stasi defector (Eddie Marsan) has offered to sell before it reaches Soviet hands.

Ably demonstrating her mastery of martial arts choreography (think Hong Kong movies of a couple of decades back), Theron plays a spy so cool she takes ice baths. Lorraine's blonde hair frames the countenance of a character who has been trained to turn her face into a mask. It's possible that Lorraine has worn her spy mask so long, it has become real.

Lorraine is bruised and bloodied by fights, but the bruises feel like physical post-it notes, self-conscious attempts to add realism to an overall atmosphere rich in faux trappings. Watch out for Lorraine's high heels.

Lorraine is asked to work with another British agent, James McAvoy's Percival. Percival, who has plied his trade in Berlin for some time, claims to know everything about this increasingly corrupted environment.

With his hair cut short, McAvoy offers plenty of scenery-chewing mania, but a framing device adds to the feeling of a mishmash unified only by style and attitude. Intermittent breaks in the action arrive when Lorraine is debriefed by an MI-6 desk jockey (a dyspeptic-looking Toby Jones) and a CIA operative (a bearded John Goodman).

Sofia Boutella portrays a French spy who has a sexual encounter with Theron's character. Does it mean anything? Or is it just a way for the filmmakers to add an LGBT twist to a story that wants to be hip, which -- in this case -- requires a bit of prurient seasoning?

Protracted and built around the grunting exhaustion of the protagonist and her enemies, a late-picture fight scene packs some wallop, as does a car chase in which the crunch of colliding metal smashes against your ear drums. Moreover, the movie's opening scenes are cool enough to feel like exercising without breaking a sweat.

But for all Theron's punches, kicks and icy stares, the movie's flirtation with ideas remains unconsummated. Besides, how many stylistic trump cards can one movie play before you start wondering whether it has anything else in its deck? For me, so many that I eventually stopped caring what Atomic Blonde might deal next.

'Endless Poetry' is aptly named

An inventive filmmaker immerses himself in a wild version of his own life.
An 88-year-old poet of cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky is best known for 1970's El Topo and for 1973's The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky also became the subject of Jodorowsky's Dune, a 2013 documentary about the filmmaker's difficult and ultimately failed attempt to turn a popular piece of science fiction into a movie. (David Lynch wound up directing a big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel.)

In 2013's The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky began to tell the story of his life, focusing on his early days in Tocopilla, Chile, where he grew up under the thumb of a tyrannical father who had become obsessed with Joseph Stalin.

Jodorowsky's latest -- Endless Poetry -- continues the director's autobiographical journey with Jodorowsky revealing the ways in which he left his childhood behind and began to emerge as an artist.

For most of the movie, Jodorowsky is portrayed by his youngest son, Adan, who comes across as a poet, a clown (literally), a dancer and a comedian.

The filmmaker -- who also appears in the film -- builds a variety of episodes around the relationships young Jodorowsky forms with artistically oriented Chileans who provide him with a community that confirms and encourages his Bohemian dreams.

During this period, Jodorowsky has a defining encounter with Stella (Pamela Flores), a woman from whom he ultimately must seek liberation. When Stella and Jodorowsky walk down the street, she holds him by the genitals, an amusingly literal embodiment of their one-sided relationship. Flores, by the way, also portrays Jodorowsky's mother, who sings all of her dialogue.

Feel free to interpret this bit of dual casting any way you like.

The movie's main tension involves Jodorowsky and his father, portrayed by Brontis Jodorowsky, another of the director's sons. Father/son tension ripples throughout the movie even when Dad is off-screen and seems forgotten.

Narcissistic, full of wild theatrical flourishes and nudity, Endless Poetry serves as a kind of abstract memory trip that lives in its own eclectically assembled world.

Endless Poetry isn't for every taste, but those who give it a try will find a celebration of imagination from a director whose sense of invention seems unchecked either by censorial impulse or personal inhibition.

Man and beast on the road in Thailand

Director Kirsten Tan makes his debut with Pop Aye, a film about a man whose mid-life crisis brings him into contact with an elephant he believes he knew in his youth. Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) is going through a bad patch, highlighted by the imminent destruction of his signature work as an architect, a shopping mall that he hoped would be a place for families to experience relief from the pressures of daily life. Thana buys Pop Aye, the elephant in question, on a Bangkok street, vowing to return the animal to the country town where both Thana and the animal grew up. This turns Pop Aye into a Thai road movie, as Thana and Pop Aye make their way to the home of Thana's uncle (Narong Pongpag), the man who presumably will take care of the aging elephant. Getting Pop Aye back to nature gives Thana purpose in a life that seems to be shrinking by the minute. Along the way, Thana encounters a variety of characters including Dee, a man who claims to want to die so that he can join his brother in heaven. Jenny, a transgender woman Thana encounters in a bar, offers assistance. Like the lumbering elephant, Pop Aye can be awkward at times, but the movie genially conveys the power of a restorative link between a depressed man and his new best friend.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

'Dunkirk' makes fear feel real

Trapped on a beach, British soldiers scramble to survive in the early days of World War II..

In 1940, some 400,000 British troops (along with French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers) were stranded on a beach in France. The soldiers were backed into a military cul-de-sac by German forces that rapidly were moving westward. The troops had little support from the air or the sea. On this lonely stretch of beach in northern France, they were strafed by German planes. Their only way out was to be transported back across the English Channel.

That's the backdrop for Dunkirk, the latest, and perhaps most masterful, film from director Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, The Dark Night Rises and Inception).
Watching Dunkirk, I kept recalling a long ago conversation I had with a World War II veteran who worked at the Rocky Mountain News. We were having coffee in a room behind what was called "the backshop," the place where the printers worked when newspapers still employed printers. I was telling him about some war movie I'd seen.

"You know what war is?'' he asked.
"What?" I responded, readily conceding that his knowledge of the subject was far greater than mine since he had served with Patton's Third Army in France and Germany. For him, war wasn't a movie.

"Fear. Nothing else," he replied.

It's too early to determine whether Dunkirk is a great war movie, but I believe Nolan got one thing right. He conveys the fear of men who, minus air support or ships to transport them off the beach, became targets. The term "sitting ducks" seldom has been more appropriately employed.

Nolan uses all of his considerable cinematic skills to make us feel the explosive force of bombs, the startling eruption of bullets or the vulnerability of the few British pilots who made their way to Dunkirk in planes that, by today's standards, seem like little more than flying crates.

Nolan divides his story into several related parts. In the first, a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) escapes German gunfire that wipes out all his fellow soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. He arrives on the beach, where thousands of British soldiers have assembled.

He and another soldier (Aneurin Barnard) carry a wounded soldier to a Red Cross rescue ship. They race through masses of soldiers carrying a stretcher toward the pier where the boat has docked. Their motives have a double edge. They want to board the ship themselves.

The officers on the beach are played by Kenneth Branagh (Navy) and James D'Arcy (Army). The soldiers await help, but Branagh's character knows that the British command wants to preserve its destroyers for later battles. Prospects for rescue are dim.

Another story focuses on a British civilian (Mark Rylance) who decides to sail his private boat to Dunkirk to help rescue the stranded soldiers. He's accompanied by his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local teenager (Barry Keoghan).

On their way to Dunkirk, this civilian crew saves a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) whose ship was sunk by a German torpedo. Cillian's shell shocked soldier wants Rylance's character to turn his boat around. He doesn't want to return to the nightmare he just left.

If you see the film in an IMAX theater with the sound cranked, you'll feel every shock and rumble -- many of them enhanced by Hans Zimmer's score, a pounding affair that rises like an adrenalized pulse. It's the musical equivalent of writing in all capital letters: DREAD. FEAR. PANIC.

Nolan's third story deals with the air war. Tom Hardy files a RAF Spitfire. Hardy's character -- his face mostly obscured by the mask that supplies him with oxygen -- engages in dogfights with German planes. These dizzying air battles rank among the best ever filmed. (Nolan shot his film with IMAX cameras on 65 mm film; he puts us in the cockpit with Hardy in ways that are disorienting and, of course, frightening.)

It's difficult to imagine that cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema won't win an Oscar for his stunning work here.

Nolan shifts between all these stories in an effort to provide an encompassing view of Dunkirk. Individual stories are subordinated to the creation of an overall feeling of war chaos.

We can assume things about the characters from their behavior -- Rylance's steadfastness, Branagh's leadership, Whitehead's "ordinary-Joe" qualities, but Nolan leaves most of that work to us.

In some respects, the movie's heroism belongs mainly to its civilians. As it turns out, a small armada of private boats traveled to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded soldiers. It was a stirring moment of British unity that defined the pluck and spirit of a united people facing terrible duress. To portray it, Nolan mostly dispenses with dialogue.

If I have a beef with Dunkirk, it's this: Nolan's movie consists almost entirely of climaxes, the kind of scenes that other war movies build toward. And once, the chaos subsides, Nolan doesn't seem to know what to do. Scale overwhelms everything in ways that make sense if you acknowledge that Nolan's aim is to make us feel as if we, too, are on that beach.

That's part of the point, I think, to make us understand that once the fighting starts, thoughts about patriotism tend to give way to the urge simply to survive.

Nolan has made a movie full of fear and frenzy. It's impressive for sure but sensation-oriented films tend to fade once the sensation stops.

Judging by the inescapable sadness in the eyes of the veteran I mentioned earlier, that's not the case for those whose wars weren't fought at the movies.

'Girls Trip' offers major laughs

A raunchy comedy about four women who reunite in New Orleans.
Malcolm D. Lee, who directed the Best Man movies and Barbershop: the Next Cut, knows how to make crowd-pleasing movies -- and that's a good thing.

Girls Trip, a raunchy comedy based on the enduring bonds of black sisterhood, is Lee's latest foray into the lives of 40something black people who -- for the most part -- are leading successful lives.

In this case, four women -- former college roommates -- spend a reunion weekend in New Orleans. But where movies such as the recent -- and deeply abysmal -- Rough Night, strained to push women into the Bachelor Party/Bridesmaids oeuvre, Girls Trip leaps in with remarkable aplomb.

Lee builds the movie around big comedy scenes of the kind that make you laugh in spite of yourself. One involves torrential urination and the other, a grapefruit. No fair describing either, but you should know that they're not for those who shy away from R-rated comedy.

In addition to some funny writing (intermittent, I admit), the movie features four actresses who create appealing characters: Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish. Haddish portrays a firecracker of a woman whose profane expressions and attitude qualify as one of summer's better special effects.

The story revolves around Hall's character. Hall's Ryan is a best-selling author who espouses a you-can-have-it-all philosophy that has great appeal among women. She's married to a former NFL star (Mike Colter). Billed as an ideal couple, the two are on the verge of signing a lucrative TV contract, thanks to the efforts of Ryan's white agent (Kate Walsh).

Hall's Ryan travels to New Orleans to give the keynote speech at Essence Fest, a gathering for black women. She invites her former college pals along. They call themselves "The Flossy Posse."

Queen Latifah portrays Sasha, a journalist who has been reduced to running a celebrity gossip blog. Pinkett Smith portrays a divorced nurse and mother of two, a woman poised to reveal her wild side, and Haddish appears as the loyal member of the group, a woman whose irrepressible energy seems boundless and who's not afraid to unleash a powerful punch or get everyone drunk on absinthe.

At one point, the women drink too much absinthe and hallucinate, an occasion for Lee to bring ridiculous freshness to what could have been a giant misstep.

The absinthe symbolizes the women's goal. They're supposed to let loose, but a bit of harsh reality stands in their way. As it turns out, Ryan's life is far from perfect. Her husband philanders and his current partner (Deborah Ayorinde) happens to be in New Orleans.

To further complicate the proceedings, Ryan runs into a former classmate with whom she obviously shares an unkindly romantic spark (Larenz Tate).

As for Pinkett-Smith's Lisa, she's contending with a young man (Kofi Siriboe) with a very large ... well .... you know.

As is the case with most raunchy comedies, Lee's -- co-written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver -- is not without sentiment nor can it resist a bit of morale-boosting cheerleading for female empowerment. Oh well, those are standard ingredients in this kind of fare, as well.

All this is bolstered by brief appearances from Common, Diddy, Mike Epps and more.

Raunchy comedies aren't everyone's favorite, but for those who like them, Girls Trip will do quite nicely. It may even turn out to be one of summer's few real surprises.

This 'Ghost Story' isn't about horror

Director David Lowrey meditates on time, impermanence and the fleeting nature of our lives.

When leaving a screening of A Ghost Story, I turned the wrong way upon exiting the theater. I've been to this particular theater hundreds of times, and should have known precisely where I was. My disorientation told me that the movie had worked on me in ways that I might not fully have appreciated while I was watching.

For the record, it immediately should be stated that A Ghost Story is no conventional horror movie. It's meditative and sorrowful and it risks ridicule by having the ghost of its title walk through most of the movie in a bed sheet with eye holes that have been blackened.
This may sound Casper the Friendly Ghost. Don't be fooled. This ghost has the lonely majesty of a true wraith. The ghost put me in mind of a line from Wadsworth, the one about wandering lonely as a cloud, except this ghost doesn't wander, it's rooted to one spot.

Director David Lowrey begins the movie by introducing us to a young couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara). They're in bed in a house that's relatively isolated from any neighbors. The two cuddle, nuzzle and whisper to one another so softly, they might be characters in a Terrence Malick movie.

The next thing we know, Affleck's unnamed character is dead; we see him slumped over the wheel of his car, victim of an off-screen auto accident.

Rooney's character then views her husband's body in a hospital morgue -- or perhaps he was not a husband but the other half of two lovers living together. She gently covers his face with a shroud like sheet and walks out of the room. Lowery's camera lingers. Suddenly, the ghost of the departed character played by Affleck bolts upright. The movie's ghost is born.

Perhaps not knowing where to go, the ghost heads back to the home he shared with Mara's character, the place where they loved, argued and worked. His sheet trails behind him like the train of a wedding dress.

After arriving at his former home, the ghost watches as Mara's character eats a pie that has been dropped off by a neighbor as an offer of solace. She devours almost the entire pie, perhaps as a way of trying to digest her grief.

It's impossible to know whether the body under this sheet belongs to Affleck, but if it does, he gives a real performance, showing disturbances to the ghost's mute existence. When Mara's character shows up with another man, enough time having passed for her to consider moving on, the ghost's agitation becomes palpable.

Eventually, Mara's character leaves the home, which then is occupied by a succession of tenants, including a single mom and her two children and a group of people at a party.

In this second group, we meet a man who delivers a dour, extended monologue about the impermanence of everything -- including the entire universe. Everything in our quotidian existences, the stuff over which we fret and obsess, is of little ultimate consequence, he says. Viewed against such a vast panorama, the result of everything is nothing.

You can take this monologue seriously or you can view it as a satiric comment on a sure way to ruin a party by introducing a conversational element that's sure to lower everyone's spirits.

Perhaps to define the world that we're in, we also learn that Affleck isn't playing the movie's only ghost. Staring out a window, he sees a lonely neighbor ghost at a nearby house. They are able to communicate without speaking.

"I'm waiting for someone,'' says the other ghost.

"Who," our main ghost asks.

"I don't remember," is the reply.

This exchange suggests that even the most sharply defined purpose can vanish into the ether of time. This other ghost has forgotten its primary reason for existence, something like when a name we should know disappears into the haze of an encroaching mental miasma. We're sure it's there somewhere, but can't summon it.

More eerie than scary, Ghost Story includes a few typical ghostly activities -- books tossed off a shelf and shattered dishes, but it's not these paranormal stunts that prove unsettling. It's the feeling that we've been unmoored in the sadness of passing eons.

Eventually, Lowrey actually moves about it time, showing us scenes that have or will take place on the very ground where this otherwise nondescript home has been built.

Fair to say that the movie's ghost has something to say about all of us. We're here now. We'll die. Our spirits may cling to a familiar spot, but then we're gone -- not forgotten or forlorn. Just gone.

Viewed that way, A Ghost Story morphs into a cosmic tragedy, a requiem not for one lost soul, but for every one of us fragile beings.

A close-up view of horror in Syria

City of Ghosts tells the story of the men who are trying to inform the world about abuses in Raqqa.
Most journalists seldom -- if ever -- put their lives at risk. That statement can't be made about those brave souls who report for RBSS. You'll understand why I'm talking about danger as soon as I tell you that RBSS stands for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group formed to chronicle the human-rights atrocities committed by ISIS in the devastated Syrian city of Raqqa.

Director Matt Heineman (Cartel Land) introduces us to some of the Syrians who work for RBSS in his painfully powerful documentary, City of Ghosts. Some members of RBSS work inside Raqqa and others have been forced to seek refuge in Turkey or Germany. RBSS's relocated journalists serve as the organization's dissemination arm. RBSS material has been used by major news organizations and also on the organization's Facebook page.

But leaving Syria doesn't guarantee security: ISIS has vowed to kill these impromptu journalists wherever they seek refuge. And in Germany, members of the group also have faced the antagonism of angry crowds that would like to see them deported.

To say that Heineman's film is difficult to watch understates the case. Using plenty of RBSS footage -- much of it shot with cell phones at great personal risk to the citizen photographers who wielded them -- we see point-blank murders and other horrors that will force many to turn away from the screen.

I've been calling the men who operate RBSS "journalists:" That's not exactly true -- at least they're not journalists by choice. A school teacher, for example, has found himself working for RBSS because of his convictions that his homeland must be liberated from ISIS terror.

And unlike most journalists, these citizen journalists are intimately connected to the stories they report. For example, Hamoud, a cameraman for RBSS, is shown watching images of his father being executed by an ISIS combatant. It's impossible not to think about what must be going through Hamoud's mind and equally impossible to know.

RBSS is not alone in using video. Heineman also shows how ISIS has become increasingly sophisticated in making propaganda and recruitment films.

You won't find a lot of background in City of Ghosts: ISIS moved into Syria after the Arab Spring set off civil conflict and destabilized the country. That's about it.

But a complete political picture of events in Syria isn't the point: RBSS's journalists are dedicated to making sure that the world knows what's happening in Raqqa and, by extension, so is Heineman. RBSS has taken away any opportunity for Westerners to say, "If only we had known."

I'm not sure whether City of Ghosts deserves to be called a great film, but it definitely should be seen. At a minimum, we owe the people of Raqqa our pledge not to look away from their suffering.

Errol Morris's tribute to a photographer

Director Errol Morris (The Blue Line, The Fog of War) turns his keen attention to Elsa Dorfman, a portrait photographer living in Cambridge, Mass. Set almost entirely in Dorfman's studio, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography allows the 80-year-old photographer to review her work. She discusses both the famous and ordinary people who stood before her camera of choice, a large-scale Polaroid the size of a small shed. With the special camera no longer available to her -- the original Polaroid company has been dismantled -- Dorfman decided to put the lens cap on her career. Her retirement provides Morris with occasion to review Dorfman's life as a photographer and her relationship with some of her subjects, most notably poet Allen Ginsberg. Dorfman famously photographed Ginsberg in a suit and, then, sans clothing in the same pose. Merely by focusing his attention on Dorfman, Morris honors the easy-going artistry of a career that spanned from 1965 to the present. Initially, Dorfman sold her photos on the streets of Cambridge for $25 a piece. She always made two versions of her 20X24 inch prints, allowing the subject to select one. Dorfman kept the other, marveling at the fact that subjects often selected her least favorite of the two choices. Dorfman's literary connections began when she met Ginsberg as a secretary at a New York publishing house and continued to develop through contacts made at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. B-Side may not rank with Morris' best films, but it stands as an introduction to Dorfman's approach and work. Think of it as a revealing miniature about a woman who made very large photographs.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

An inter-species fight for survival

In War for the Planet of the Apes, noble Caesar must lead the ape population to the promised land.

Has it come to this? Do we humans have so little faith in ourselves that we must look to apes for inspirational leadership? We are talking, of course, about Caesar, the ape given life by actor Andy Serkis and state-of-the-art digital effects in two previous Planet of the Apes movies.

In its latest edition -- War for the Planet of the Apes -- Caesar becomes a figure as large as Moses, a primate who must lead his fellow creatures out of the hostile wilderness created by murderous humans.

In this edition, the vile humans are represented by an American colonel, Woody Harrelson mainlining a mega helping of the same madness that gripped Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Harrelson's character holds the ape population hostage, turning them into forced laborers in what he views as a last-ditch effort to save mankind from the simian onslaught.

In case we don't get the similarities to Brando's Colonel Kurtz, the movie makes a wryly intended reference to "Ape-Pocalypse Now," but I think most audiences will have caught on without the visual prompting.

Harrelson pulls out as many stops as he can find to portray the evil Colonel who knows how to give his sadism a nearly convincing rationale, and the movie doesn't flinch when it comes to showing us the suffering inflicted on the apes that have been imprisoned in the Colonel's concentration camp.

Director Matt Reeves leaves little room for us to doubt where our rooting interests are meant to lie. The movie clearly sides with Caesar and his cohorts: an orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval) and an associate named Rocket (Terry Notary) among them.

Caesar faces the movie's greatest challenge: He must resist the call for personal vengeance against the Colonel, who's responsible for the death of Caesar's wife and his oldest son. Is Caesar a big enough personality to embrace such a noble cause?

Caesar is aided by a chimp called Bad Ape (voice by Steve Zahn), an escapee from a zoo who knows where to find the Colonel's hideous compound.

The special effects work obviously reaches superior levels, and the visual environment is convincing enough to carry a movie about the war between apes and humans. It's possible that performance capture -- the process by which an actor's motions are digitally translated into computer-generated apes -- never has been so effectively used, so much so that Reeves can include many close-ups of Caesar's saturnine countenance.

Perhaps to keep War from being entirely one-sided, we meet an orphan girl (Amiah Miller). She's taken in by the apes and cared for in a humane fashion.

Those left among the human population are devolving, losing their ability to speak. The apes, on the other hand, are progressing, beginning to master speech. For the moment, all but two of them communicate with sign language. But we know they'll soon be prattling away like the creatures already endowed with the capacity for speech.

The movie takes place 15 years after the lethal outbreak of simian flu, which has decimated humanity. No wonder Colonel is furious.

The settings -- from snow-covered landscapes to remote redoubts -- give the movie a chilled, desolate feeling. This "Ape-pocalypse" isn't exactly a ton of fun, obsessed as it is with its own seriousness. And if you don't like pounding drums, you'll hate Michael Giacchino's score.

The battle sequences are compelling enough, although Reeves's insistently grim approach tends to overwhelm the movie's small attempts at humor.

The point, of course, is that humans have disrupted the Edenic serenity of the planet. Screenwriter Mark Bomback elevates the idea of self-sacrifice in service of a worthy cause, something that human beings have trouble achieving in both the movie and in real life.

In the conclusion to this trilogy of most recent Planet of the Apes reboots, people become the last place to look for real expressions of humanity, which makes War for the Planet of the Apes either a powerful cautionary tale or one very expensive helping of misanthropy.

Two very determined women

She looks for the driver who killed her son.
A grieving mother seeks revenge against the driver who killed her son in a hit-and-run accident. That's the premise of Moka, a quietly mounted thriller from Swiss director Frederic Mermoud. Emmanuelle Devos plays Diane, a shattered mother who's determined to learn who was responsible for her son's death. With help from a private detective, Diane tracks down the mocha-colored Mercedes that struck her son. Hence, the movie's title. Devos's Diane leaves Lausanne and travels to Evian, France to stalk the owners of the car, which happens to be for sale. Nathalie Baye portrays Marlene, a beauty shop owner whose live-in lover (David Clavel) has put the car up for sale. Marlene also has a typically sullen teenage daughter (Diane Rouxel) who develops an odd friendship with Diane. Devos and Baye keep the movie afloat as a determined Mermoud raises questions about the ways in which Diane processes her grief. Tension arises less from typical cinematic ploys than from a question: What precisely will Diane do should she actually get this couple to admit their guilt? A sensible Mermoud allows two fine actresses play against each other, giving full vent to their powers of suggestion. As a result, Moka becomes a revenge story that's more interested in exploring Diane's obsessive need for clarity than in serving another up trumped up drama. The result: A small, but intriguing movie.

Six turbulent years in the life of Marie Curie

If you try to imagine a movie about Marie Curie -- the first woman to win a Noble Prize -- you might envision a stooped scientist leaning over radium-filled beakers or pondering, mind-bending equations of inordinate complexity. Director Marie Noelle takes an entirely different and more defiant approach, bringing a fevered quality to the life Curie lived between 1905 and 1911. During this period, the Warsaw-born Curie worked with her husband Pierre (Charles Berling) and later had a scandalous relationship with married mathematician Paul Langevin (Arieh Worthalter). Noelle seems to have taken a vow that prohibits her from getting lost in period trappings. She sometimes strains to make her movie feel urgent and alive. She barrels through events that include Pierre's death and, most importantly, Curie's battles with a scientific establishment that refused to acknowledge contributions made by a woman. Noelle concentrates on aspects of Curie's life away from the ramshackle lab she ran outside her home. I wouldn't consider that a mistake because Curie labored against a backdrop of personal distractions that no man would have had to endure. Anchored by Karolina Gruszka's vibrant performance, Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge melds a story about scientific discovery with a passionate look at the struggles of a woman whose life should have been a good deal easier than it actually was.

A ribald sex farce set in a nunnery

Inspired by Boccaccio's The Decameron, The Little Hours is an unapologetic sex farce built around a 14th Century nunnery where the sisters are anything but pious. In the hands of director Jeff Baena, Little Hours attempts to banish the shame that often surrounds repressed desire, particularly in a convent to which many of the women have been sent because their families don't know what else to do with them. Three nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci) connive under the supervision of a mother superior (Molly Shannon), who's no saint, either. The plot kicks into a higher gear when the resident priest (John C. Reilly) introduces a hunky runaway (Dave Franco) into the mix. Franco's Massetto has taken flight because a nobleman (Nick Offerman) caught him dallying with the lady of the household (Lauren Weedman). Reilly's father Tommasso deceives the nuns, telling them that Massetto is deaf and mute, a complication that adds to the movie's cleverly calculated misunderstandings. Fred Armisen plays a bishop who shows up late in the proceedings to condemn everyone's behavior. Baena makes his intentions clear from the outset with ample use of the "F" word as he pushes (perhaps too hard) toward irreverence. Avoiding period language, the movie genially embraces the all-too-human pursuit of pleasure. Put another way, Little Hours seems to be saying that, despite admonitions to the contrary, bawdy isn't necessarily bad. Amusing when it's working, which (alas) isn't all of the time.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

'Spider-Man' again. Surprise: It's OK

Tom Holland takes over Marvel's web-spinning role.

In Spider-Man: The Homecoming, Marvel pushes the reset button for Spider-Man, adding Tom Holland as the new kid from Queens, the superhero who can weave webs that snare bad guys.

Although not an origins story, Spider-Man: The Homecoming has the feel of one, mostly because Holland's Peter Parker spends much of the movie trying to figure out the parameters that govern the behavior of a super hero. He's aided in this endeavor by Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark -- a.k.a. Iron Man -- who occasionally drops in to mentor young Parker in the fine art of super-heroism.

The movie treats Spider-Man as a typically insecure teenager -- albeit one who aspires to join the Avengers, a group that needs no introductions. If it does, you can stop reading now.

This Spider-Man movie is one of the entries in the Marvel Comics universe that didn't find a home at Disney. A Sony release, The Homecoming makes an amiable addition to a series that was rebooted once before.

So is Holland a better Spider-Man than screen Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire?

Let's say Holland falls somewhere in the middle. Overdoing Spidey's youthful exuberance and naivety, Holland sometimes teetered on the edge of getting on my nerves.

Fortunately, director Jon Watts allows other characters to carry some of the movie's weight. A schoolmate, nicely played by Jacob Batalon, thinks Parker should use his burgeoning superhero status to win over female classmates who might otherwise view him as a nerd.

An underused Marisa Tomei joins the cast as Parker's Aunt May. Tomei has one of the movie's best moments in a final scene.

Think of the undeveloped potential in Tomei's character. A widowed aunt takes care of a teenage boy in a cramped and probably over-priced Queens apartment. This particular widow still has her looks and easily could be living an entirely different life. She might even feel ripples of resentment about having to spend so much time coping with a high-school kid.

OK. I know. That's another movie.

Parker's high school woes include his fumbling attempts to endear himself to the girl of his dreams (Laura Harrier). The Homecoming spends enough time in high school to earn a well-deserved teen-movie diploma.

A nicely timed piece of comic business arrives when Tony Stark's personal assistant (Jon Favreau) tries to talk to Parker in a high school bathroom.

Of course, you'll find the usual number of action set pieces, the strongest of which takes place when Parker's Academic Decathlon team visits the Washington Monument. A battle on the Staten Island Ferry isn't bad, either.

Otherwise, the screenplay -- credited to six writers -- proves an episodic affair with a minimal through line. While working on a scavenging operation, contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) purloins a powerful substance left on Earth by extra-terrestrials. The discovery becomes the basis for an illicit weapons business run by Toomes, who also has a comic-book identity. He's The Vulture.

At times, Toomes dons large, ominous-looking metal wings that allow him to defy gravity and fly about.

Ably played by Keaton, Vulture is a working-class guy whose life turns evil when the government robs him of a salvage contract he fairly won. Thus scorned, Toomes decides to take revenge on society's elites. He feels entitled to be a villain, and Keaton knows how to make him convincingly mean.

Spidey also has been given an internal conflict: Will he become a nationally renowned celebrity superhero or will he remain a hometown Queens boy, a neighborhood version of a superhero? The question gives the movie a bit of unexpected edge. Does Spidey have the self-assurance to shun the limelight?

A surprising twist adds flavor to the final act, which makes room for the multiple climaxes that Marvel movies can't seem to live without.

Given our justifiable fatigue with comic-book movies, Spider-Man: Homecoming fares better than we have any right to expect. It may not always soar, but it doesn't crash-and-burn either. Be thankful.

A topical rom-com that works

In The Big Sick, a young Pakistani aspires to be a comic and finds himself in a challenging relationship.

He's an ethnic Pakistani who's trying to make it in the world of stand-up comedy. That's a tall enough order for anybody, but Kumail also must deal with constant nagging from his family. Mom and Dad want him to marry a nice Muslim woman, have children and solidify his relationship to the Pakistani community, a group consisting largely of recent arrivals to the US.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) has other ideas. He does his best to resist the women that his mother invites over every time he shows up for dinner. He keeps photos of these possible brides in a cigar box in his apartment, claiming to have no interest in living the life his family wants for him.

But Kumail's assimilationist values are put to the test when he meets a white woman and their relationship begins to click.

In most rom-coms that might be the whole story. Not so, The Big Sick, a pleasing and provocative comedy that forces its main character to admit that he lacks the gumption to pursue a love interest that could jeopardize his relationship with his family.

When his new girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) learns that Kumail isn't willing to go the distance with her, she walks out on him.

But that's not the end of the story, either. The screenplay -- written by Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani's real-life wife -- includes an ingenious plot twist. Kazan's Emily falls ill and is put into a medically induced coma.

Emily's illness brings Kumail into contact with Emily's understandably anxious parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). The irony is obvious, but still painful. Kumail was afraid to introduce Emily to his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff). Suddenly, he's deeply involved with Emily's parents.

Both sets of parents are quite good. Kher and Shroff are insistent about their Pakistani roots without entirely giving way to caricature. Hunter and Romano are especially sharp as an apparently mismatched pair. She's rural; he's a city guy. Somehow, they've managed to negotiate the difficult pathways of a long marriage.

Nanjiani makes for an easy-going film presence. He can be funny without constantly resorting to shtick, and Kazan serves up a winning mixture of eccentricity and strength.

Additional color is added by real-life comics Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler; they play a trio of aspiring comedians who perform at the Chicago comedy club where Kumail, who earns his keep as an Uber driver, spends most of his spare time.

Obviously, putting a major character into a coma pushes the movie toward the dire side of things. Even so, Nanjiani doesn't overplay Emily's life-and-death drama or the agonizing ordeal her parents suffer through. He trusts us to understand the seriousness of the situation.

Co-writing the screenplay and starring in the movie must have been enough for Nanjiani who turns the directing chores over to Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris). Showalter keeps the movie humming along nicely.

Vella Lovell has a nice turn as the one woman who might well entice Kumail away from his relationship with Emily. Not only would Lovell's character satisfy Kumail's parents, she's engaging enough to make us wonder exactly why Kumail remains stuck on Emily, who may never emerge from her coma.

But love is love, and there's not much to be done about it.

At its best, The Big Sick is one of those increasingly rare movies that works the way a romantic comedy should.

Nanjiani also has his finger on a brand of ethnic and religious tribalism that feels both current and rooted in the American experience. Although no one will accuse Nanjiani of writing a treatise, he deals with identity issues that resemble those faced by numerous generations of immigrants.

In this case: How can a Pakistani-born Muslim integrate into a new country and still honor his heritage?

My only complaint about the movie involves its protracted ending -- or should I say several endings. But that doesn't diminish the credit Nanjiani deserves for having taken a genial and entertaining leap into the multicultural melting pot.

Stay for the end credits, which feature photos of the real people on whom Nanjiani has based the characters with whom we've just spent one hour and 59 minutes. Clearly, The Big Sick has its roots in autobiography -- which, after all, may be the basis of some of our best comedies.