Friday, April 28, 2017

Will we allow technology to ruin us?

The Circle wrings its hands over a problem that already has been explored elsewhere -- and fails to pack a persuasive punch.

When we're on-line are we using our computers or are our computers using us? And what about all those apps that allow us to share everything about our lives? Have we become genial participants in the destruction of our own privacy?

These and related questions constantly are debated when we discuss -- often on the very technology that's under consideration -- the increasingly linked world many of us spend far too much time inhabiting.

The great fear, of course, is that corporations with sinister motives are taking charge of all this "connection," turning us into a nation of idiots who blindly worship technology without giving enough thought to the gods before whom we're bowing. It's not only our data but our heads that are stuck in various clouds.

Such thoughts inform The Circle, a new movie based on a 2014 novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with the movie's director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now).

The movie stars Emma Watson as a young woman who lands her dream job with a company called The Circle. The Circle seems to be one of those "hot" Silicon Valley businesses that specialize in developing apps that create synthetic communities. The company's latest invention -- a tiny camera that can be placed anywhere without fear of detection -- is celebrated at a gathering presided over by the company's president, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks).

Bailey calls the project SeeChange. He introduces the camera with the committed fervor of someone who believes that life never again will be the same -- and that the great shift he's selling is a very good thing.

Bearded and adopting the friendly attitude of a tycoon who's adored by his employees, Hanks appears only intermittently as the movie introduces Emma's Mae to The Circle's corporate culture, which includes monitoring every employee's health and pushing participation in a variety of extra-curricular activities designed to strengthen bonds of camaraderie.

Of course, everything at The Circle seems a bit artificial, and the company's concern about the well-being of its workers might be a bit much even for these isolated tech nerds to swallow.

Much of the movie plays like a parody of the sort of companies at which campuses have replaced offices and order is imposed in ways that sustain an illusion of free-form play.

Eamon rules the company with a partner, an underutilized Patton Oswalt, who does more to suggest manipulative ambition than Hanks.

A wasted John Boyega portrays Ty, the man who created the company's signature app, TruYou. Ty wanders around the campus, occasionally bumping into Mae with whom he shares his cynicism about The Circle.

Privacy becomes the movie's big issue. How much are we willing to surrender? Are the benefits of SeeChange (everything from suicide prevention to halting child abuse) real?

Mae becomes the human guinea pig for testing SeeChange, wearing the tiny camera at all times and turning into an Internet star. She also loses her relationship with a low-tech pal, Ellar Coltrane in a wobbly performance that makes him appear like a non-actor and makes us even more appreciative of the work that director Richard Linklater did with him in Boyhood.

Watson's performance seems to stick close to the surface, but her character could have been better drawn. Same goes for Hanks' Eamon, and although the movie raises intriguing questions, it expresses them with a ton of on-the-nose dialogue that lacks the eloquence of, say, the on-the-nose dialogue Patty Chayefsky wrote for Network, a movie that, in its talky way, was prescient about reality TV and the tendency to turn news into entertainment.

Besides, the principal characters in Network were grown-ups, not 29somethings who seem to approach the workplace as if it were the playgrounds they wish they'd never outgrown.

The late Bill Paxton appears as Mae's father, a man crippled by MS. Paxton's presence -- which reminds us of his absence -- has an emotional impact the filmmakers couldn't have anticipated.

There's nothing wrong with a movie that wants to play with issues and ideas. What such movies need, though, are deeper characters than those who populate The Circle.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to Google a name that I saw dropped on Facebook.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A piercing look at a corrupt society

In director Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, the moral fiber of characters is tested. Most don't pass.
You know the drill. Two people covers. Fearful that attention spans immediately will erode, filmmakers employ a variety of strategies. The characters might talk as they walk. Maybe the camera shifts between close-ups of the speaker and the listener. Or perhaps we hear the conversation in voice over as the camera takes us to a place the filmmakers believe will advance the story.

There's nothing wrong with any of these approaches, but Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) has little use for them. Instead, he often places both speakers in front of the camera and allows them to converse in a medium shot that would drive many directors crazy with impatience.

Mungiu's style works because he allows life to unfold before the camera as if he's doing nothing whatsoever to manipulate it. He enables us to live with his characters, experience what they experience and understand the society that surrounds them.

Mungiu's new film, Graduation, evolves from a simple premise that conceals a multitude of complications. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a physician, angles to help his teen-age daughter (Maria Dragus) gain admission to prestigious Cambridge University. Romeo approaches this goal with more than the usual parental anxiety because he wants to open a door for Dragus's Eliza to leave a society steeped in corruption.

En route to school one day, Eliza is attacked. The assault shakes her, interfering with her ability to take her exams. The doctor, an ethical man, suddenly must decide whether he should plunge into the web of corruption that will be required to give his daughter an advantage in the testing.

Mungiu further complicates the life of Titieni's Romeo. He has a wife (Lia Bugnar) with whom he doesn't seem to have gotten along for years and a mistress (Malina Manovici) who has a young son. She becomes pregnant with Romeo's child.

Fortunately for audiences, Mungiu doesn't make films that are strident in their condemnation of those struggling in post-Ceausescu Romania. The corruption we see takes place in an atmosphere where pretty much everyone understands how the get-ahead game is played.

The police chief (Vlad Ivanov) is one of Romeo's friends; the doctor doesn't hesitate to go to him for help. The police chief advises Romeo to discuss the matter of his daughter's exams with one of the town's officials (Petre Ciubotaru), a man who wants to be bumped up the waiting list for a liver transplant. Help me; I'll help you. That's the way of things.

None of these people come across as evil, and we even develop sympathy for the ailing town official, who's obviously fearful of dying and perhaps dimly aware that he won't be able to finagle his way out of his own mortality.

Those familiar with Mungiu's work may place Graduation a notch lower than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a 2007 drama about a young woman trying to obtain an abortion in Romania during the 1980s. But that doesn't mean Graduation isn't worth seeing.

Every scene reveals new wrinkles of character and, equally important, of the society in which these characters function. Moreover, Titieni's performance is a wonder. He appears in nearly every frame and creates a character who has abandoned any belief that Romania will reform itself. He tries to hang on to his own integrity and ultimately must face the most difficult of problems. How much ethical compromise justifies a result that most would agree is desirable?

Thick and heavyset, Romeo carries his weight like a burden. It's not just about a few extra pounds. He's weighed down by a society in which hope too often surrenders to desperation.

What to say to a dying friend?

A Spanish drama about an actor facing his final curtain -- and his dog.

Julian has a plateful of what, these days, we're fond of calling issues: Topping the list is Julian's terminal lung cancer, but that's not the only problem Julian faces. He must come to terms with a life that has included a failed marriage, a troubled relationship with his grown son, and bad behavior toward friends.

Moreover, Julian must decide what to do with his most trusted companion, a dog named Truman, a bullmastiff that seems to move through the movie with something akin to exhausted resignation.

Though named for Julian's trusted dog, Truman isn't exactly a dog movie. The movie's precipitating event occurs when Julian's best friend decides to leave his home in Canada to pay a four-day visit to his lifelong pal, who lives in Madrid. A reluctant Tomas shows up without telling Julian that he's coming. What does one say to a dying friend, anyway? And how much will Tomas be forced to confront his own mortality?

Director Cesc Gay easily could have made Truman into a three-hankie tearjerker. Another choice would have been to give the movie a sorrowful tone as we're exposed to the relationship of two friends who've known each other since childhood. Gay takes neither route, opting instead for an approach that allows the actors -- Argentine actor Ricard Darin (as Julian) and Spanish actor Javier Camara (as Tomas) -- to create a relationship that is at once comfortable and challenging.

It doesn't take long for us to learn that Julian has decided he's done with chemotherapy, a course of treatment that gave him a brief respite from a cancer that since has returned. Julian's sister Paula (Delores Fonzi) can't accept Julian's decision. Tomas, on the other hand, realizes that Julian's choice makes sense. Why prolong a battle that can't be won?

There's a bit of an odd-couple undertone to the friendship between the two men. Julian has lived a life that has made room for impulse. Tomas, a married science professor, seldom follows his whims.

Still, he wants to be available for his pal and accompanies him to a funeral home where Julian arranges for his departure. He even indulges Julian by paying for an impromptu trip to Amsterdam so that Julian can visit his son, who's studying abroad. Among other things, Julian hasn't a Euro to his name.

Julian visits his doctor, but Gay wisely avoids turning Truman into a medical drama, devoting more time to Julian's efforts to find a home for his aging dog and to reconcile with himself before it's too late. The dog's destiny isn't difficult to predict, but what really makes this movie satisfying is Gay's focus on two men on the cusp of the third act of their lives, an act that Julian will not live to play out.

If there's a conclusion to be drawn here, it might go something like this: Even in dire situations, we remain ourselves, bumbling through as best we can.

Lost in the woods inside her head

If you've ever watched someone go through a schizophrenic episode, you understand how families can be ravaged by the behavior of a person who spirals into a world of delusion and horror, augmented by flashes of what appear to be thrilling cosmic insights. The documentary, God Knows Where I Am, tells the story of one such person. Relatively late in life, Linda Bishop was consumed by schizophrenia. During a frigid winter, Bishop occupied an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse in what was becoming a suburban neighborhood. She was about 100 yards from a neighbor but never was seen and never asked for help. Apples she found in a field became Bishop's only sustenance. Ultimately, Bishop starved to death. Directors Jedd and Todd Wider discovered a diary that Bishop dutifully kept. As a result, what might have been an anonymous death becomes the center of a sorrow-laden film that exposes the dangers of schizophrenia -- to self and others. Punctuated by Lori Singer's readings from Bishop's diaries, the movie presents a picture of a woman who expected divine intervention to save her from her four-month ordeal. I was going to call it a "self-imposed" ordeal, but that would be a little unfair. In her pre-illness life, Bishop was a good friend and a fine mother, but she lost herself to an illness that she protected from outside intrusion. True, she stopped taking the medications that normalized her life, but can a person whose mental processes become terribly distorted make responsible choices about her own welfare? Some of Bishop's diary entries have a transcendent glow that the directors try to match with visuals of the house and surrounding woods. But help -- divine or otherwise -- never arrived, and Bishop succumbed. Perspective is provided by Bishop's sister and her daughter, by townsfolk, by law enforcement officials, and by former friends. The title, taken from Bishop's writings, is instructive: Had Bishop been able to put a question mark at the end of that sentence, she might be alive today.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

When a search becomes a destiny

The Lost City of Z brings a real sense of adventure to the screen.

These days, the movies give us lots of synthetic adventure, including gargantuan comic-book creations for a generation of couch potatoes. It's been a while since anyone tried to serve up any real adventure. Credit director James Gray with doing just that in The Lost City of Z, the amazing story of a 20th Century explorer who journeyed deep into the Amazon jungle in search of an ancient city he dubbed "Z" and which others called El Dorado.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was a British army officer who was sent to Latin America to help chart the border between Brazil and Peru. During his mapping expedition, Fawcett became convinced that he had found archeological evidence of a lost civilization that was far more advanced than anyone believed possible. European prejudice against Latin America's non-white indigenous populations preferred to see savages, not innovators.

Basing his movie on David Grann's 2009 non-fiction bestseller, Gray tells a story that shifts between England and the Amazon -- with a brief stop for some compelling war footage. Fawcett served as an officer in World War I; he was wounded during a vicious trench battle.

Populated with stuffed-shirt Brits, Amazonian tribesman, and Fawcett's loyal crew, the movie proves a stirring adventure that opts for credible realism rather than over-inflated drama.

Joining Hunnam -- quietly fierce in his commitment to finding the lost city -- is a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, who plays Henry Costin, one of Fawcett's crew. On his last expedition to the jungle, Fawcett also was accompanied by his son Jack (Tom Holland). A fine Sienna Miller portrays Fawcett's wife, a woman who wanted to participate in an Amazonian mission but wound up staying home. She cared for the couple's three children and endured a life of committed loneliness. She supported her husband's dreams.

At one point, tension erupts between Fawcett and arctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a man who initially supports the search for the lost city but who becomes a liability when he faces the jungle's heat and hardships.

Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant) never before has worked on such a large scale. With support from cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray gives the jungle sequences vigor and excitement that surpasses the scenes in England, a location to which the movie periodically returns.

I have to admit, though, at times I found myself yearning for a more rapturous approach to the movie's imagery. Maybe that's more my problem than the movie's. The British interludes tend to disrupt the adventure but that may be the point. We share Fawcett's impatience about returning to the jungle.

When Fawcett encounters an opera company in the middle of the jungle, viewers may be reminded of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, another Amazon-based movie about doomed obsession.

But Hunnam (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak) makes an interesting choice: His Fawcett is not a man of febrile passions; he's a man of mettle, and he approaches adventure as a kind of solemn duty. It's his reason for being.

Fawcett eventually loses his heart to the jungle. The jungle, however, isn't the most accommodating of lovers, a reality that underlies the movie's best sequences: Arrows of tribesman raining down on the explorers' raft, an encounter with head hunters and the crew caught in torrents of onrushing water.

At one point, Miller delivers the line that underscores Fawcett's ambition and perhaps the movie's, as well. She cites Robert Browning's poem, Andrea del Sarto, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

Despite references to Britain's imperial racism and slavery, I'm not sure that Gray attains the thematic heights that a film such as this could have reached. But his grasp proves strong: As the story of a man who consistently risked his life in search of a city only he believes existed, Lost City serves up more genuine excitement than most of its artificially inflated competitors.

Movies in the time of war and heartbreak

A great cast makes Their Finest irresistible.

I can't recall the last time I saw a movie set during World War II that made me feel better than when I sat down to watch it. Don't get me wrong, Their Finest, the movie to which I refer, never mires itself in cheap sentiment. Rather, it celebrates the pluck required to persevere in the face of terrible loss -- and, in this movie, those losses can be felt.

On one level, Their Finest is a comedy about British moviemaking during the World War II. It's 1940, and the British government wants films that are both authentic and inspirational. In search of a realism that also will appeal to the female audience, the Ministry of Information recruits an advertising copywriter (Gemma Arterton), who may have a flare for such matters. Initially, Arterton's Catrin is assigned to writing only women's dialogue, which -- in the trade -- inelegantly was referred to as "slop."

Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners and An Education) offers period-piece comforts and a cast that hits every note, including the most acerbic, with bracing clarity.

The heart of the story involves a burgeoning relationship between Arterton's Catrin and a snidely witty screenwriter played by Sam Claflin. Because of his writing skills, Claflin's Tom Buckley has been exempted from the military; perhaps his position at the home front explains Tom's cynicism. But Claflin reveals a man who genuinely cares about the movies and hopes to make a good one.

There's a complication: Catrin happens to be married. I won't say more about how the movie works this out, but know that Arterton and Claflin make a great screen couple. They argue plenty, but also set off sparks -- and, even better, their attraction springs from something akin to an appreciation of each other's skills. They're unlikely soul mates.

Joining Arterton and Claflin are Richard E. Grant, as a studio head, and Bill Nighy as an actor whose ego is stronger than his recent successes. If you didn't already know, Nighy qualifies as a comic treasure, an actor who can inflate a character's sense of self-importance without turning an audience against him. His timing remains exquisite, and he brings sincerity to scenes that require it without being cloying.

I'd love to see an entire movie about Nighy's character and Sophie (Helen McCrory), the woman who eventually inherits the job of being his agent.

The movie's writers and filmmakers are working on a screenplay for a film about Dunkirk, which is supposed to buoy British spirits, bring tears to the eyes of war-weary Londoners and help persuade the US to join the war effort. To support the latter purpose, a hunky American (Jake Lacy) who has been flying in the British air force is foisted on cast and crew. He flies better than he acts.

Set during a time when most of Britain's young men were away, Their Finest shows how the door of opportunity opened for women. Arterton's character is more than ready to walk through it. It also makes clear the horrors of the Blitz, the ceaseless bombings that made life in London truly hellish. Young men were dying at the front and civilians were dying at home.

OK, it's not exactly a revelation to say that we must keep on even when times become terribly bleak, but I had no problem watching this group of actors deliver the message.

Scherfig manages a neat trick. She has made a movie that juxtaposes smiles and heartbreak and emerges on the far side of maudlin. Good for her.

'Unforgettable?' More like regrettable

In trying to dream up a reason that someone might want to see the new movie Unforgettable, I could come up with only one reason -- and it's more about curiosity than anything that might be termed credible persuasion. Katherine Heigl, who usually plays sweet, turns bitter to play the latest murderous ice queen to provide an audience with reasons to hiss, boo and giggle. Sporting shoulder-length blond hair that never has seen a curl and an alabaster complexion, Heigl looks like a late-model android; there's something unnervingly fake about her appearance. As directed by Denise Di Novi, from a screenplay by Christian Hodson, Unforgettable can't even manage to attain the level of superior trash. It's not for want of trying: A melodramatic story introduces us to Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), a writer who leaves San Francisco to join her fiancé David (Geoff Stults) and his daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Traumatized by an abusive relationship in which she was beaten, Julia is ready for a new life. Enter Heigl's Tessa, David's insanely possessive former wife who intrudes herself on her husband's new relationship. Tessa ultimately carries her obsession to absurdly violent heights. A near thorough lack of plausibility and scenes that had a preview audience laughing (in the wrong places, I think) make this a preposterous entry into an already soggy spring lineup.

A movie that doesn't keep its promise

Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac star in The Promise , a would-be epic that touches on the Armenian genocide of 1915.

When the Ottoman Empire was falling apart in the early part of the 20th Century and the first shots of World War I were being fired, 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Turkish army. Unlike the industrialized genocide of Nazi Germany, the murder of Turkey's Armenian population took place in less systematic fashion. In part, the Ottoman mass murders were prompted by deep-rooted Ottoman suspicions that the Armenians represented a rebellious social element. An already teetering empire would be further imperiled. And, of course, the Armenians were Christians in a predominantly Muslim culture.

There were other reasons for Ottoman antipathy toward its Armenian citizens, but few of them -- beyond the bigotry of Turks -- are effectively dramatized in the historically sketchy new movie, The Promise.

Although the Armenian genocide makes its way into much of the movie, the filmmakers try (understandably, I suppose) to find a hook on which to hang a drama with mainstream aspirations.

In pursuit of said hook, they concoct a romantic triangle between an Armenian who aspires to become a doctor (Oscar Isaac), a sophisticated Armenian woman who has lived in Paris (Charlotte Le Bon) and an American journalist (Christian Bale) trying to chronicle the murderous assault on the empire's Armenians.

Working in a conventional style that favors handsome imagery, director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) introduces audiences to a horrific chapter of history about which many know little. But George fails to fuse the movie's many elements into an emotionally shattering whole.

Tellingly, the movie's most moving element arrives during the end credits when we see photos of young Armenians who perished at the hands of Turks. A title card that enumerates the period's genocidal toll leaves us to contemplate the unthinkable in ways the movie too often fails to provide.

The story begins in a small village in southern Turkey, where Turks and Armenians live in harmony, according to Mikael Boghosian (Isaac), the village apothecary. Mikael aspires to be a doctor. To achieve his goal, he agrees to marry and use his fiancee's dowry to pay tuition in Constantinople, where he'll pursue his medical studies. Mikael vows to return to his bride-to-be (Angela Sarafyan) as soon as he completes his studies.

In cosmopolitan Constantinople, Mikael meets Le Bon's Anna. Immediately, he's smitten, thus putting his marriage promise in jeopardy. Anna, an Armenian who has lived abroad, already is involved with Chris Myers (Bale), a hard-hitting reporter who tends to lose his temper when confronted with Turkish prejudice and self-satisfaction. He becomes pretty involved in the stories he covers.

The romance forces George to bring the lovers together before driving them apart, a necessity that also prompts George to divide his attentions between Mikael's story -- forced labor to support the war effort and subsequent escape -- and Chris's attempts to document genocidal atrocities.

Mikael's perilous journey eventually returns him to his home village, where his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) insists that he fulfill his promise, marry his fiancee, hide in a cabin in the woods and "make babies." Chris's journalistic probing lands him in a Turkish prison.

Unfortunately, many developments in the movie are telegraphed or put to the service of the emotional agenda dictated by the love story and by what may have been a desire to tame a period of indigestible political chaos for the screen.

There's value in The Promise for those who know nothing about the fate of the Armenians, but a movie such as this should have left one devastated and inconsolable. Perhaps it could have had George been able to shed the kind of italicized filmmaking that, at one point, introduces actor James Cromwell (as Henry Morgenthau, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire) to deliver an on-the-nose bit of dialogue in opposition to injustice.

Isaac's brooding, thoughtful demeanor is supposed to play against a bearded Bale's singular commitment to getting the story, but George and his co-screenwriter Robin Swicord haven't been able to satisfy two masters: the need to depict the horrors of genocide and the desire to tell a heartbreaking love story.

So we wind up with a movie that often misses its mark, and suffers all the more for it by having had the courage to tackle such an important subject.

The story of a stormy relationship

Cezanne et Moi tells the story of the friendship between Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.
Sometimes expectation becomes the enemy of enjoyment. That partly explains why I found Cezanne et Moi, the story of the stormy friendship between artist Paul Cezanne and novelist Emile Zola disappointing.

But my initial enthusiasm about the prospect of seeing a movie about an artist whose studio and home I visited in Aix-en-Provence isn't the only reason that Cezanne et Moi proved a letdown.

The rub: The movie doesn't have enough to say about either Cezanne's art or Zola's writing.

Skipping back and forth in time, director Daniele Thompson depicts a relationship in which Zola gains fame and fortune and Cezanne suffers from a lack of recognition. Although their fates were different, neither man achieved much by way of contentment.

Cezanne comes across as a typical outsider, a painter who's contemptuous of the success of other artists. He can behave in ways that turn him into the sort of fellow people might cross the street to avoid.

Zola, on the other hand, acquires money, a home in Paris and social status. But in this telling, he also knows that his comfortable life is at odds with the social outlook expressed in his writing. He frets about being a hypocrite.

Cezanne and Zola were childhood friends in Aix-en-Provence, but as the two matured, their social positions reversed. Usually broke, Cezanne struggled to survive on a small allowance from his disapproving family. Zola, who didn't hail from a family with money, found material success.

Zola's novel, L'oeuvre became the occasion for a major split between the two men because it depicted details of Cezanne's life. Cezanne felt betrayed.

Guillaume Canet plays Zola as an emotionally steady fellow who loans Cezanne money and mostly endures the painter's insults. Guillaume Gallienne has the showier role as an artist of explosive temperament.

Women are less important to the story, but not inconsequential. Alice Pol portrays Zola's wife, Alexandrine, a woman with whom Cezanne once had an affair. Alexandrine was a seamstress and maybe a prostitute whose marriage to Zola moved her up the social ladder. Deborah Francois portrays Cezanne's mistress.

All of this would have been fine had Thompson done more to explore the work of either man. She particularly shortchanges Cezanne, offering too little by way of illumination about how he viewed his work.

Safe to say that Cezanne has eclipsed Zola in terms of reputation, so a modest suggestion: A trip to a museum where you can view Cezanne's art might prove more rewarding than this scattered, intermittently compelling drama.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bloat hits the 'Furious' franchise

A ridiculous story, lots of action and decreasing amounts of fun.

What started in 2001 as an amped-up and gritty look at the street racing subculture has spawned a total of sevens sequels. Overall, the Fast and Furious movies have done a good job of satisfying action-hungry audiences while also taking on the job of turning an ethnically diverse cast into a popular rogue family.

That was then.

In its latest incarnation -- dubbed The Fate of the Furious -- the franchise finally falls prey to a 21st Century disease: overstated bloat. Not only that, the movie has lost much of its original flavor, resorting instead to a ludicrous story in which the Furious gang becomes a kind of Mission Impossible team that must thwart the ambitions of a super villain named Cipher (Charlize Theron). Cipher wants to go nuclear and take half the planet with her.

Vin Diesel's Dominic Toretto faces what passes in such movies as a moral crisis, and the movie drags out familiar characters Jason Statham's Deckard, Dwayne Johnson's Hobbs and Kurt Russell's Mr. Nobody. A hodgepodge of a script mixes and matches characters as the ruthless Cipher coerces Dom into working against his old team.

The movie begins with Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) honeymooning in Havana. With Latin beauties allowing their rumps to protrude from skimpy short shorts, a street race develops, really the last time the movie takes a serious bow toward its revved-up roots.

Director F. Gary Gray increasingly yields to the temptation of producing a clangorous noise-machine with lots of computer-generated effects, the most notable occurring when hundreds of cars tumble headlong out of a parking garage as the result of a major hacking that takes control of their computer systems.

By the end, the movie introduces a gargantuan submarine that threatens the car-crazed team. And, of course, many "hot" cars race by, although they all speed so quickly, it's difficult to admire them.

Some of the regulars get short shrift, particularly Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris, who banter with one another in limited but typical fashion. Nathalie Emmanuel portrays the group's tech genius.

A screenplay by Chris Morgan and Gary Scott Thompson includes the kind of macho lines that are supposed to be repeated outside of the theater but most of them prove ham-handed. At one point, Diesel's Dom says that the mad genius Cipher should be wary about taking her foot off the tiger's neck; i.e., him. I suppose that's the movie's idea of sage advice.

Of course, gunplay and explosions are followed by more gunplay and more explosions.

Best thing about the movie: Helen Mirren's cameo appearance.

Second best thing: Statham bringing a bit of winking humor to his role as an assassin.

Third best thing: There is no third best thing.

OK, I'm speaking only for myself here. It should be noted that this installment surely will rock the box office, that two more movies are slated and that, by now, audiences have learned to accept the preposterous and even to love it.

Once a bona fide movie, the real fate of the series is to have become a highly calculated mix of muscle, mayhem, faux menace and canned sentiment. For me, there's more noise than fun in this edition.

Youth in Warsaw: bored and a bit boring

The Polish movie, All These Sleepless Nights, makes its point about the hollow lives of Warsaw 20somethings early and then makes it again and again -- and yet again. This dreamy drift of a movie involves real people playing themselves, but doesn't qualify as a documentary. The movie mostly shows scenes from the lives of two friends (Krzysztof Baginski) and Michal (Michal Huszcza). The movie covers a year of nocturnal wandering through the city, as Krzysztof and Michal party and smoke cigarettes. One night seems to fade into another: The movie's only plot development occurs when Krzysztof begins a relationship with Eva (Eva Lebuef), a woman who used to be Michal's girlfriend. Tension develops between the two men, who begin as roommates but drift apart. Krzysztof's off-screen narration makes attempts at philosophical musing, but the movie's greatest achievement may be an inadvertent one. This generation is too young to remember either World War II or even the great liberation from Soviet oppression in 1989. The young people we meet spend no time talking about politics nor do they seem interested in establishing meaningful careers. Krzysztof senses that his life is empty and perhaps even realizes that finding a healthy relationship isn't necessarily going to fill the void. Director Michal Marczak never hurries through any of this. Clearly, those living lives of booze, drugs and hanging out won't be able to sustain it forever. But what comes next? The movie -- and we -- can't be sure. It's this kind of context that gives the movie whatever meaning it manages to convey. Otherwise, All These Sleepless Nights proves a rather unrelenting test of audience endurance.

Weird horror, but what's the point?

Let me confess it at the outset: I'm getting awfully tired of low-budget horror, and The Void did little to change my mind. Writer/directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski serve up a gore-soaked story about one horrible night in a rural Canadian hospital. The movie's directing duo tells the story of a feckless cop (Aaron Poole) who finds a battered young man (Evan Stern) in the woods. Poole's Daniel takes the wounded fellow to the ill-equipped local hospital, where the staff doctor (Kenneth Walsh) tends to him. Daniel also interacts with a nurse (Kathleen Munroe) who happens to be his estranged wife. Their marriage teetered after the death of a child. There's also a dopey trainee (Ellen Wong) and a couple of threatening outsiders (Daniel Fathers and Mik Byskov) who, at least initially, terrorize everyone. Meanwhile, a group of mysterious men in white robes begin circling the hospital. The movie is poised to punch a tension-filled ticket, but veers off into a heap of dimly explained gobbledegook about mad attempts to outwit death. Horror aficionados may enjoy the movie's style. In the end, though, a nuthouse approach to its story undermines The Void's eerie efforts.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

She's gifted. Is that good?

Chris Evans stars in a story that asks: What's the best way to raise a math genius?

Is it better for a child to be supremely gifted or ultra-normal? Let's define some terms. In the case of the new movie Gifted, a genius child is one who can hang with mathematicians twice or even three times her age, figure out brain-busting equations and become a splendid freak of nature, a prodigy who deserves to be separated from her rude and scoffing peers. Normal? Well, those kids play with other children, don't consider themselves part of brainiac aristocracy and generally fit into their surroundings.

If those sound like extremes, you're right. And that's part of the trouble with Gifted, which concocts many scenes designed to advance one side or the other. Nuance? Not really.

Frank (Captain America's Chris Evans) takes care of his seven-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace). Mary's a math genius, but Frank -- who lives in Florida and who scratches out a meager living repairing boat motors -- doesn't want his niece to become an isolated outsider, a girl segregated from other kids by her astronomical IQ.

Mary lives with Frank because her mother (also a math genius) committed suicide. Before her death, Frank's sister suggested that Frank raise Mary. Mary's late mom grew up under the harsh tutelage of a mother (Lindsay Duncan) who focused on math prizes to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

Against the advice of his neighbor (a wasted Octavia Spencer), Frank sends Mary to public school. Her teacher (Jenny Slate) quickly recognizes Mary's capabilities and suggests -- along with the school's principal -- that Mary enroll in a school for gifted kids. A full scholarship will be arranged, but Frank resists.

To add to the movie's inflated poignancy, Mary has a one-eyed cat for a pet, another of the film's outcasts.

Before the movie ends, Duncan's Evelyn sues her son for custody of Mary. The drama takes us through foster homes, courtroom scenes, separations that are supposed to be heartbreaking, and the near-death of the one-eyed cat.

The movie ignores many potentially rich dramatic pathways, the most notable being its refusal to explore why Frank quit his job as a Boston philosophy professor to become a blue-collar dropout in Florida. If Frank really wanted to become Mary's guardian, he might have kept his job and his health insurance. He would have avoided looking irresponsible and bereft.

But Gifted isn't complex or subtle enough to explore such contradictions: They simply become part of a backstory that's more suggested than probed.

Shorn of his Captain America persona, Evans seems only a little less bland; Duncan does her best to convey the arch elitism if an IQ snob and young Grace proves cute and engaging.

The movie's basic conflicts are interesting enough, but director Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider Man and (500) Days of Summer) doesn't plumb enough depths: Instead, he throws lots of tasty ingredients into his stew and overcooks them until they soften and (alas) turn to mush.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A comedy that doesn't age well

Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin are all wonderful actors, but they're not miracle workers. They can't save Going in Style.

Three aging friends who are trying to scrape by on Social Security organize a bank robbery. That was the premise of a 1979 movie called Going in Style, which starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. Writing about that movie in the Chicago Reader, critic Dave Kehr said the movie, which was directed by Martin Brest, "imposes a quiet, attentive style on the story, saving it from cuteness and emotional facility. There are laughs, but the prevalent tone is one of discreet compassion, without condescension or sanctimony."

Leap ahead to 2017, and you'll find another movie entitled Going in Style, which has the same basic premise, but which stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin. Sadly, Kehr's quote isn't applicable to this new comedy, which has little to say about aging and hardly draws blood with its stab at social relevance. Our aging and embittered protagonists consider robbing a bank because the company for which they worked for many years has dissolved their pensions.

It shouldn't need saying, but I'll say it anyway. Freeman, Caine, and Arkin are all worthy of much admiration, and they do their best to keep this leaky ship afloat. They're all watchable, but the material with which they're working proves neither funny nor poignant.

Caine portrays Joe, a retired factory worker who lives with his daughter and granddaughter in Brooklyn. After falling behind on house payments, Joe's on the verge of losing his home. Freeman's Willie and Arkin's Albert are roommates who share an apartment across the street from Joe's house. They, too, worked at the factory and will fall into dire straits when their pension checks stop.

To further complicate matters, Willie needs a kidney transplant because dialysis no longer is doing the job for him.

Director Zach Braff, working from a script by Theodore Melfi, who re-worked the Edward Cannon story on which the 1979 movie was based, takes us through a variety of stock situations, including a ludicrous (but not funny) warm-up robbery in which the three men enter a local convenience store to try their hands at shoplifting.

Recognizing their incompetence at larceny, Caine's Joe consults with his former son-in-law as he searches for a consultant to help plan a bank robbery. The trio commits to stealing only enough to cover their pensions. Any additional monies will be given to charity.

Enter Jesus (John Ortiz), a pet-store owner who instructs the would-be felons in the intricacies of bank robbery, which he regards as an art.

Additional support comes from Anne-Margret, as an older woman who's interested in Arkin's character, from Matt Dillon as an FBI agent, and from Christopher Lloyd in the thankless role of a demented senior who belongs to the same neighborhood club as the movie's three main characters. If nothing else, Lloyd demonstrates what you might expect, senility is no laughing matter.

Braff, still best known for his work on TV's Scrubs, has directed before (Wish I Was Here and Garden State), but his touch here is far from deft.

Because the movie's stars all qualify as treasures of the cinema, the best approach to Going in Style might be simply to sigh with disappointment and move on.

Capturing the rhythms of real life

Director Hirokazu Koreeda tells a story about a man who has lost his way -- and many not want a map.
Hollywood-style, delusional escapism remains foreign to Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. Koreeda (Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son) doesn't make movies that bang home plot points with sledgehammer force.

Instead of reaching out and dragging us into his films, Koreeda allows us enough space to approach situations that resist melodramatic overstatement. Slowly and deftly, he entangles us in the lives of his characters.

In his new film, After the Storm, Koreeda focuses on Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe), a man who's approaching middle age with only one achievement under his belt: He wrote a prize-winning first novel. Since then Ryota has accomplished virtually nothing. He works for a low-grade detective agency, gambles away whatever money he earns, and generally fails to meet any of the responsibilities that a husband and father should meet, which is why his marriage fell apart.

Ryota may be another the many movie men who refuse to grow up, but as the long-faced Abe plays him, he's hardly despicable. Although he treats child support payments with indifference and isn't above asking his appropriately judgmental sister (Satomi Kobayashi) for money, he clearly loves his son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa).

Ryota also frets about his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, a guy who buys Shingo the baseball glove that Ryota had promised to deliver. Ryota knows he's a man who can't be relied on to keep a promise, but still resents the role another man might play in his son's life.

If the plot has a prime mover, the role falls to Ryota's mother (Kirin Kiki). She understands that her son is very much like his late father, a man who made frequent visits to the local pawn shop to support his gambling habits. Mom lives in a suburban apartment complex. She wonders when her son will buy her a better apartment. Her face and manner tell us that she knows that's wishful thinking.

Like many older people, Kiki's character seems resigned to her fate, but not without showing traces of humor and spunk.

The storm of the title arrives in the form of a typhoon that strands Ryota, his former wife and his young son at his mother's apartment. As she contemplates her own demise, Ryota's aging mother hopes that she can help reconstitute the family her son shattered, but Mom is no dope. She knows she's working against very long odds.

It's possible to conjecture that the storm of the title is not the typhoon that slams into this coastal suburb, but the series of events that broke Ryota's family apart in the first place.

Koreeda -- who works with an unfussy camera -- takes us through a transitional period in Ryota's life, although it's not clear that he'll ever defeat the psychological demons that keep him from fulfilling his promise.

If you're after cinematic flamboyance, Koreeda probably isn't your kind of director. But if you have a taste for a movie that tries to show us the consternation of characters whose lives haven't worked out as anticipated, you may well find yourself warming to a movie that looks at lives that are not very far from our own -- unless, of course, you're one of those rare souls who's living precisely the life you imagined for yourself when once you were young.

Kidman of Arabia (really)

Werner Herzog directs Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert, a sparkless historical epic.

Werner Herzog isn't David Lean, and Nicole Kidman is no Peter O'Toole. I don't mean that as a slam on either Herzog or Kidman, the talented director and fine actress who have teamed for Queen of the Desert, an historical epic about Gertrude Lowthian Bell. Bell, a woman who probably will be unknown to most audiences, was a writer and adventurer who helped Winston Churchill draw the lines that carved up the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Herzog fans immediately will be struck by the movie's surprisingly conventional style, which (alas) relies heavily on images of Kidman riding camels, on two somewhat listless romances and on the less-than-exciting intricacies of tribal politics among the Arab populations of the empire once controlled by the Turks.

A miscast James Franco portrays Henry Cadogan, Bell's first love. As he whispers his way through a British accent, it's difficult to take Franco seriously. Robert Pattinson, who shows up as T.E. Lawrence at least uses his crooked half-smile to suggest Lawrence's mischievousness.

Damian Lewis plays the third man in Belle's life, Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie; Bell writes to Doughty-Wylie as she wanders across the desert. Periodically, we hear Kidman reading these letters in hushed tones.

Kidman captures Bell's courage, her confusion when it comes to romance and her determination not to be limited by gender. But Herzog relies on far too many glamor shots of Kidman, who manages to look beautiful even in extreme circumstances of desert heat and dust, not to mention the threat of hostile Arabs, most of whom ultimately are charmed by Bell's tenacity.

Herzog can't be accused of skimping on scenery; many of the desert images are steeped in grandeur, but the movie's swelling musical score feels like something lifted from another era.

Bell supposedly drew up the boundaries of modern Iraq, a skill that may have inspired Herzog to use on-screen maps to follow Bell's progress around the region, an old-fashioned technique that he presents without any trace of irony. Same goes for some of the cornball dialogue in which Bell talks about giving her heart to the desert.

Aside from telling us that Bell -- one of the first women to attend Oxford -- was an early example of feminine assertion, it's not exactly clear what Herzog hoped to say. Such is the price of reigning in idiosyncrasy: Herzog seldom has made a movie this sparkless and generic in its feel.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

She navigates a new life as a cyborg

Scarlett Johansson stars in Ghost in the Shell, a visually stunning but flawed version of a much-admired Japanese anime series.

The makers of Ghost in the Shell, a live-action version of a story that stems from a revered 1995 anime offering by Mamoru Oshii, have spared no expense trying to move the awe needle by creating a visual environment that befits an amazingly conceived future world.

Led by director Rupert Sanders, the Shell team places their movie somewhere between reality and imagination. Those who feared that this version would somehow diminish their feeling about the achievements of the original will have their own take on the movie. I'm not a purist, so this edition didn't bother me. Besides, there' nothing to stop anyone from watching the original, which derived from a manga comic.

Now for the controversy: Some commentators have been upset by the selection of Scarlett Johansson for the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg who strives to bring evildoers to justice. An American star playing a Japanese character? Surely, this role should have gone to an Asian actress, certainly a powerful argument.

The counter argument revolves partly around commercial considerations. A big-ticket production needs a big-ticket star. Perhaps to appease critics, the character Johansson plays is referred to only as "Major." I've also read that the filmmakers explain the ethnic shift by telling us that the character who died and whose brain was transplanted into a cyborg was Japanese. Johansson's cyborg ... well ... it's a synthetic creation that has been designed to look ethnically neutral and, yes fanboys, sexy in a flesh-colored, body-clinging suit that makes Johansson appear to be naked.

But its background as much as sensuality that qualifies Johansson for the role. She played an alien in 2013's Under the Skin. She's handled action in 2014's Lucy. And she's been an entirely artificial character, as the off-screen voice of a computer operating system in Her (2014).

I don't know if it constitutes high praise, but Johansson makes a pretty good cyborg, a character who's haunted by slivers of memory from her former human life.

To the extent that the movie has intellectual concerns, they revolve around questions of what exactly makes a person human. The idea is that advanced cyborgs are inhabited by what the movie refers to as "ghosts;" i.e., the souls of humans who have been developed into entirely new creatures -- in this case under the supervision of Dr. Ouelet (French actress Juliette Binoche speaking with an American accent).

There were times when I wished that Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) would wipe away a low-impact story and simply let us wander around the city he has created, an urbanscape where giant hologram advertisements are projected from buildings, where high-rise apartments reach for the sky and the streets feel alluring and alive.

Aside from Johansson, the rest of the cast is relegated to true supporting roles. Pilou Asbaek appears as Batou, Major's loyal and totally human partner. Takeshi Kitano plays Aramaki, a human who's not to be trifled with and who has an empathy for the cyborg plight. Michael Carmen Pitt portrays Kuze, a mysterious, hooded cyborg. Peter Ferdinando has been given stand-out moments as Cutter, a sinister character who runs a company that develops robots.

Some of the human characters have been "enhanced; i.e., they've chosen to develop certain parts of themselves with cybernetic infusions, something I thought about on the ride home from a preview screening as I debated about making yet another appointment with a chiropractor about recurrent back issues.

Fair to say, though, that Ghost's overwhelming visual achievements tend to dwarf any serious consideration of what it means to be human and an action-enhanced story tends to do what a surfeit of action sequences generally do -- numb our sensibilities, a liability that, for me, was abetted by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe's trance-inducing score.

So where do I come down on this mega-production that's probably going to cement Johansson into a long-running franchise? If you want to be overwhelmed by visuals, have at it. If you're looking for a high degree of involvement in a compelling story, be a little wary. And if you want to see a perfect fusion of story and visuals, you may want to be even warier.

Poles who helped save Jews

Jessica Chastain starts in The Zookeeper's Wife, the latest big-screen drama to deal with the Holocaust.

Israel has awarded the title "Righteous Among the Nations" to more than 26,000 Gentiles, brave souls who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. To date, more Poles -- 6,620 in all -- have received this honor than individuals from any other nation, a statistic partly explained by the fact that Poland became the epicenter of Nazi efforts to annihilate Europe's Jews. Beyond that, Poland had the largest pre-war Jewish population of any country in Europe, numbering 3.5 million.

Among those honored by Israel are the characters in The Zookeeper's Wife, a movie based on a true story that was recounted in a best-selling book by author Diane Ackerman. There's an inherent pitfall in such heroic Holocaust stories, the most notable being that they can be seen as having defining power concerning a historical crime that never should be seen through a life-affirming lens. That's why overall context is so important when it comes to Holocaust dramas.

Having said that, it's also true that stories about those who risked their lives to save Jews deserve to be told, and few are more intriguing than those recounted in The Zookeeper's Wife.

Prior to the war, Warsaw's zoo was run by Antonina and Jan Zabinski. During the war, the Zabinskis managed to hide 300 Polish Jews at the zoo, using the zoo's facilities to conceal them from the Germans.

As a cover for their efforts, the Zabinskis turned the zoo into a pig farm. They convinced the Nazis that they could raise pigs to feed German soldiers. They would nourish the pigs with scraps collected from the Warsaw Ghetto. Jan made trips to the ghetto, where he covered Jews in garbage and smuggled them to safety.

On screen, Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, a woman with a special affinity for animals. Johan Heldenbergh portrays her husband, Jan.

For reasons that may have more to do with international marketing than with historical authenticity, everyone in Zookeeper's Wife speaks English, employing a variety of accents with Eastern European flavor, an approach that already compromises the material.

It should also be noted that Chastain is a wonderful actress, but there are many fine Polish actresses who easily could have tackled this material.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) opens the movie with an idyllic passage in which we learn that the zoo functions as Antonina's Edenic paradise. She makes her morning rounds on a bicycle while a baby camel trots happily behind her. A couple of more clicks in the direction of cuteness and we'd be talking Dr. Dolittle.

It doesn't take long for the Germans to begin bombing the zoo as part of its invasion of Warsaw. Animals die, and Antonina, Jan and their young son (Timothy Radford) are terrorized.

Daniel Bruhl plays a Nazi zoologist who arranges for some of the zoo's best animals to be shipped to Germany for genetic experimentation. German soldiers shoot the rest.

Bruhl's character flirts with Antonina, who tries to keep his interest alive while warding off his most flagrant advances; she knows that this zoologist -- sort of an animal-oriented Mengele -- must think of her as an ally if she's going to continue her life-saving efforts.

Caro's treatment of ghetto life and of the Polish home army remains sketchy and not entirely satisfying.

The script has been tailored to showcase Chastain, who gives a credible performance. Portraying the character who does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to saving Jews, Heldenbergh mostly is asked to look grave. Bruhl's SS zoologist manages a neat trick: He's bland and menacing at the same time.

The Jews in the story become little more than props used to support Antonina's gentle heroism, although the story of a Jewish girl who's raped by German soldiers proves harrowing.

In all, The Zookeeper's Wife is a medium-grade drama that has been given the look and feel of a prestige offering.

If you want to see a remarkably shaded and far more agonizing story about the interaction between Poles and Jews during the war, try Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, a movie that offers nuances and hard-core realities that Caro's effort doesn't begin to approach.

Can the wounds of war ever heal?

Director Francois Ozon's Frantz examines grief in the aftermath of World War I.

Whenever I thought director Francois Ozon's new movie about coping with grief after World War I was being a little too explicit, Ozon introduced something that changed my mind: a plot development, a character revelation or an unexpected nuance.

In telling a story that takes place before the wounds of war have begun to heal, Ozon (Under the Sand and Swimming Pool) draws us into the world of his characters and into ourselves, posing a question that should make for much post-movie debate. What would we do if we found ourselves dealing with the same situation as Ozon's characters?

Using black and white and vivid color to contrast times of unbearable grief and fleeting forgetfulness, Ozon renders a beautifully subtle surface that masks the agonies that lie beneath.

Anna (Paula Beer) is a young German woman who lost her fiancé (Anton von Lucke) during the war. Anna now lives with her late fiance's parents (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber). Most of the movie takes place in a small German town where the scars of war aren't readily visible, but where no one has begun to move on.

Each day Anna visits the grave of her beloved fiancé, Frantz. She's wearing her grief like armor against the world: A local from the town (Johann von Bulow ) wants to court her, but Anna avoids relationships. Besides, von Bulow's Kreutz comes across as a bit of a creep.

The daily lives of Anna and the dead man's parents are interrupted when a French soldier (Pierre Niney) arrives in town. He, too, visits the grave of the fallen Frantz. Ultimately, he begins to associate with Anna and with Frantz's parents. He tells them that he and the late Frantz met in Paris before the war. They shared cultural interests, became friends, but were separated when the fighting broke out.

Ozon raises questions that heighten involvement in the story. Were Frantz and Niney's Adrien lovers? Had Frantz hidden this part of himself from both his fiancé and his parents? What precisely was the connection between Frantz and Adrien?

No fair telling more, but know that the drama unfolds against a backdrop of residual German resentment toward the French. Frantz's father initially greets the visitor with undisguised hostility. But Frantz's mother, desperate to learn about her son's life as a student in France, wants to hear what Adrien has to say.

Slowly, Anna begins to awaken. She may even be developing a romantic interest in Frantz, a situation that raises eyebrows among her neighbors, who can't accept the humiliations of defeat.

Eventually, Adrien departs for Paris. After a time, Anna follows, and we expect that these two will console each other; both have experienced what they view as the pointless carnage of war.

I won't tell you about the obstacles Anna and Adrien face, although you'll surely consider one of the major ones as you speculate about what you're watching.

Directed with welcome sensitivity, Frantz might have borrowed a title from director Mike Leigh. Secrets and Lies would have been appropriate, and those familiar with cinema will recognize that Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have reworked Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 drama, Broken Lullaby. But it's not necessary to know anything about the film's predecessor to appreciate what Ozon and his fine cast have accomplished.

They've taken us deep into the lives of characters who live in the past, but whose emotions still feel painfully alive.

A mostly subdued helping of horror

Here's a horror movie with an intriguing pedigree: The Blackcoat's Daughter was directed by Osgood Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins, an actor who's still most remembered for his indelible performance as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. In addition, the film's music was written by Elvis Perkins, Osgood's brother and another of Anthony Perkins' children. Pedigree aside, Perkins' film stands as its own helping of quietly engineered horror. Blackcoat's Daughter focuses on two girls (Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton) who remain at their private Catholic school during a break in which the other students have headed home. Shipka's character is the weirder of the two, a girl with a spooky affect and a look of eerie determination. (You may recognize Shipka as the girl who played Don Draper's often sullen daughter on Mad Men.) Boynton's Rose seems more normal, although she's grappling with a difficult issue: She's pregnant. Later, we meed Joan (Emma Roberts), a young woman who escapes from a mental institution and is given a ride by a married couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who are heading toward the school. The movie's brooding score and its somber, snow-covered images leave little doubt that something awful will happen before the film concludes. It takes time for the inevitable violence to arrive, but that's part of what makes the film effective. No sense over-praising Perkins' debut accomplishment, but this small hunk of horror shows more than enough promise to make us look forward to his next outing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

More alien dangers from space

Entirely predictable, Life generates tension -- but not much else.

Life arrives in theaters as another Alien clone -- only like most derivative movies, it's not nearly as good as the original.

The best thing about Life may be its depictions of the crew of an international space station floating through extravehicular missions or taking care of daily tasks in the space-station's gravity-free environment. Gliding through the station's narrow corridors looks like it might be fun -- at least for 10 or so minutes.

The story follows a standard alien-on-spacecraft arc. The crew finds carbon-based life in soil samples from Mars -- or something like that. The science officer brings the simple, single-cell creature to life by feeding it glucose. What begins with wonder and awe quickly sours as this simple cellular creature develops into a predatory, octopus-like monster with a face that may remind you of the deep-space monster in Alien.

Once the monster makes its predatory intentions clear, the crew must fight for its life -- and to keep this creature away from Earth. The creature is dubbed Calvin by school children on Earth where the discovery initially is celebrated.

Director Daniel Espinosa ably turns the tension crank as he mixes two marquee names -- Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds -- with a lesser known cast, making Life an ensemble piece in which no single character really stands out. British actor Ariyon Bakari makes a bit of an impression as the station's chief science officer.

Movies such as Life can't really work if we're not repelled by the alien creature's eating habits. The monster's tentacles probe the throats of its victims as it embraces them with a combination of waving tentacles and what appear to be stingray-like wings. Someone describes the creature as a deadly mixture of muscle, brain and eye, which is pretty much what the movie tries to be -- albeit with intermittent success.

Much attention has been given to creating a credible space station, which helps with plausibility. Life offers no wild-eyed futuristic version of space travel, but takes place in the bland near-future.

Don't forget, though, it was the industrial strength cynicism of the original Alien, as well as its hideously vicious creature, that made for such a compelling experience. Life offers tension, but without much of an accompanying vision to elevate it. Gyllenhaal's character voices distaste for life on a conflict-riddled Earth, but that's about it for philosophical musing.

As the story progresses and the fatalities mount, Gyllenhaal's presence increases -- but without creating any special impact. The ship's medical officer (Rebecca Ferguson) also receives more attention.

Terror about making contact with another form of life hardly constitutes a novel story line, and the movie's conclusion proves relatively easy to outguess.

It's possible that Life will turnout to be a placeholder or maybe a warm-up act for Ridley Scott's soon-to-be-released Alien: Covenant. I was hoping for more.

Shooting up in Scotland again

A highly stylized and very loopy sequel to 1996's Trainspotting.

That fun-loving, heroin-shooting gang from Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle's 1996 stylistic plunge into down-and-out life in Edinburgh, is back for a second helping in T2 Trainspotting. In what amounts to a case of big-screen recidivism, Boyle allows echoes from the first movie to resound throughout a boisterous second helping. Boyle brings non-stop energy to a movie that attempts to create poignancy about the way childhood friendships can devolve into tattered adult lives.

A simply plot involves attempts by the group to open a high-end brothel, but the real fun of T2 consists of reuniting with familiar characters who retain substantial amounts of their old humor, uncontrollable brutalities and criminal preoccupations. These guys are all 20 years older, but not a hell of a lot wiser.

When Ewan McGregor's Mark returns to Scotland from Amsterdam, he's hardly surprised to learn that his former cronies are upset with him for having absconded with funds they all should have shared.

The movie's gallery of maladjusted men includes Mark's pals Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner). Then there's the psychopathic Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the thuggish lout who escapes from jail to seek revenge against Mark and to reunite with a wife and son who aren't exactly overjoyed about his return. Sharing space with Begbie is like living with someone who keeps a loaded gun on the nightstand.

Part of the movie's enjoyment involves seeing how these actors have aged. Sporting a closely cropped haircut and neatly trimmed mustache, Carlyle seems to have added bulk that makes Begbie as physically threatening as ever.

Still showing traces of his youth, Simon has taken up with a Bulgarian refugee (Anjela Nedyalkova), promising her that she'll be in charge of the brothel he wants to build, euphemistically calling it a spa in what John Hodge's mildly satirical screenplay offers as an example of Edinburgh's march toward gentrification.

T2 doesn't have much on its mind, but it's buoyed by Boyle's relentlessly stylized approach, which includes flashbacks, quick cuts, freeze frames, overly saturated colors and lots of splash.

Trainspotting was seen as a breakthrough film. T2 lacks the electrifying juice or novelty of its predecessor, but it's enjoyable in a loopy way -- even if it is an exercise in superfluity. Credit Boyle with specializing in upbeat movies about downbeat lives.

If you're looking for a better movie about what happens when former pals reunite, try Donald Cried, a comic indie set in Rhode Island during a bleak winter. A Wall Street banker (Jesse Wakeman) returns to his hometown after his grandmother passes away. Wakeman's Peter has the misfortune of losing his wallet on the bus trip he took to his desolate destination. The subsequent lack of funds forces Peter to hook up with an old high school buddy (Kris Avedisian). Avedisian, who also co-wrote and directed, plays Donald, a character who manages to be both innocent and offensive at the same time. Avedisian's Donald is the high school guy who was tolerated by his buddies, who always tried to keep him at arm's length. Inadvertently abrasive in nearly everything he does, the shaggy, ill-kempt Donald never seems to have left his high-school self behind. Wakeman and Avedisian play off one another in ways that are funny, nervy and realistic. Avedisian's Donald is a wounded soul who nonetheless retains his pluck, and that makes Donald Cried a weirdly bracing comedy about the clash between those who want to leave their hometown behind and those who never will escape its hold.

I didn't buy 'Personal Shopper'

Kristin Stewart reunites with director Olivier Assayas for a ghost story.

Director Olivier Assayas worked with Kristen Stewart in the well-received Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), the story of a young woman working as a personal assistant to a famous actress (Juliette Binoche). Now, Assayas has reunited with Stewart for Personal Shopper, a movie that does its best to defy description.

Assayas tries to combine various genre elements, most notably those of a ghost story, those of a philosophical thriller and those pertaining to the portrait of a grief-stricken character at loose ends.

Stewart's Maureen is haunted by grief after the death of her twin brother, Lewis, a young man with whom she shared a heart defect and with whom she made a pact. Brother and sister agreed that whoever died first would contact the other from the great beyond. We're told that both Maureen and her brother were mediums.

Stewart's Maureen lives in Paris where she works as a personal shopper for an apparently famous model (Nora von Waldstatten). Maureen, who doesn't seem to fit into Paris or perhaps into any known surroundings, travels around the city on her motor scooter. She's looking for items that might please her mostly unappreciative boss.

Sometimes, Maureen tries on her boss' clothes, something she's not supposed to do. Assayas treats these clothes-swapping incidents as if Maureen's violating a taboo, reinforcing the idea by having Maureen masturbate in her absent boss's bed.

Maureen also spends time at the house where her brother passed away. She encounters various noises, but not getting a clear message from the next world, although Assays shows us a computer generated shimmer that we assume is the late Lewis's ghost.

Once in a while, Maureen Skypes with her boyfriend (Ty Olwin), a young man who's working in cybersecurity in London.

More importantly, she begins receiving text messages (well-handled by Assayas over the course of 20 minutes) from an unidentified man who seems to know her every move. The ghost? A stalker? Someone menacing? Someone helpful?

Stewart plays an unhappy 27-year-old woman of frustratingly spare expression. That makes her a perfect match for Assayas's maddeningly spare approach. He's big on showing us glossy interiors, but doesn't seem all that interested in human interiors.

Say this, though, Stewart manages to look entirely of the moment even when her character is bored.

Assayas steadfastly refuses to define his movie, which isn't made any clearer by the addition of a brutal murder. You can take all this as irritatingly or provocatively French, depending on your taste.

I don't mind ambiguity, but there's a difference between ambiguity and vagueness. For me, Personal Shopper blurred the line. Put another way: Personal Shopper feels arty and pretentious, but left me unsure about what its pretensions even were.

People, people who eat people

If you're thinking about becoming a veterinarian, you'll want to avoid this school.

Part grotesque curiosity, part horror film and part cautionary tale linking cannibalism, sex and carnivorous behavior, the Belgian/French movie Raw marks a debut in which director Julia Ducournau delivers a blood-stained calling card you won't soon forget.

That's a good thing if you put a premium on shocking imagery presented with an eye that understands how to compose and light a bone-chilling image and not such a good thing if you're a squeamish viewer with an aversion to gore, even when wrapped in a surpassingly stylish package.

The movie tells the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman who enrolls in a veterinary college to pursue what those around her recognize as her superior talent for the profession. But this is no ordinary school. The students must endure a week of hard-partying and hazing that includes chowing down on a piece of raw rabbit kidney.

This bit of culinary torment poses a particular challenge for Justine who has been raised by her parents as a staunch vegetarian. Justine immediately develops an awful rash from her exposure to meat. The taste of flesh also arouses a cannibalistic urge that Justine will find difficult to resist. Be warned.

As it turns out, Justine's sister (Ella Rumpf) already is enrolled in the school. The relationship between the sisters allows Ducournau to explore issues connected to sibling rivalry. Rumpf's character seems intent on indoctrinating Justine into the repulsive behavior that they share.

Marillier does a fine job showing the stress experienced by a young woman who's trying to come to grips with urges she didn't know she had -- and, in this case, which isolate her from nearly everyone. Her gay roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) becomes a witness to her evolution.

I did plenty of grimacing during Raw, which also contains an unexpected lesson in primary color mixing. As part of the hazing, Justine has her body painted blue and is forced to make love to a male student whose body has been painted yellow. They're not allowed to leave the room until they both turn green, and if you can watch Justine sampling her first finger without cringing, you've got a stronger stomach than I.

I'm not sure that Raw entirely keeps its allegorical promise, but I don't want to dismiss Docournau's talent, which is substantial if not yet fully realized in the script she wrote.

Making adept use of the veterinary school environment, Ducournau immerses us in a world in which the students are oblivious to the macabre sights around them. We're in a world gone mad, and without much by way of relief. No wonder the students party so ferociously. It's as if they want to throb their way out of the misery of the animals they dissect and treat -- and possibly out of their own desperation.

Another loner living on the margins

Based on graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Wilson gives Woody Harrelson a much-deserved chance to carry a movie. Harrelson plays the title character, a loner who's part misanthrope and part zhlub, a guy whose rebellious streak has extended long past its expiration date. Wilson qualifies as one of those marginal figures that sometimes make it to the pop-cultural center ring, something on the order of Harvey Pekar, who became the subject of the movie American Splendor -- except Pekar actually did something: He wrote comics about his life. Wilson doesn't seem to do anything, aside from hang around his cluttered apartment and strike up inappropriate conversations with strangers. Evidently on his own since his marriage dissolved 17 years ago, Wilson seems to have nothing going for him. Mildly funny and ultimately able to find some pathos, Wilson nonetheless proves a dull entry into the world of downbeat literature that Clowes helped create with Ghost World, which became a movie 16 years ago. Despite its repetitive feel, the movie deals with a variety of events: the death of Wilson's father, Wilson's reunion with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), and the discovery that Pippi gave their infant daughter up for adoption. Wilson thought the baby had been aborted. As Wilson tries to worm his way back into Pippi's life, they drop in on Pippi's sister (Cheryl Hines), a visit that erupts into an implausibly brutal fight. Wilson and Pippi's weekend with their biological daughter, whom they track down at Wilson's insistence, results in Wilson's imprisonment for kidnapping. That's a lot of plot for a movie that doesn't feel as if it's going anywhere. Judy Greer becomes a late-picture love interest as the movie reaches its mildly sunny conclusion. A bearded Harrelson gives himself over to the role, holding the movie together with a shambling walk and hints of Wilson's decency. It couldn't have been an easy task because Wilson isn't the most intriguing of characters. Director Craig Johnson (Skeleton Twins) fully enters Wilson's world, but never really convinces us that it's worth joining him.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

'Beauty and the Beast:' One more time

Disney's reprise of its 1991 animated hit should please old fans and make some new ones.

The idea that love can break the spell of a powerful curse sounds as familiar to us as fairy tales themselves. In the case of Beauty and the Beast -- as imagined by Disney in a new live action version of its 1991 animated edition -- the Beast, a callous prince who has been cursed by a haggard old woman, must find love before the last petal drops off a rose kept in his dank castle. Absent such a love, the Beast and a gaggle of courtiers who've been turned into inanimate objects forever will be doomed to their cursed fates.

Disney's lavish remake its 26-year-old animated classic, Beauty and the Beastt, created little by way of anticipatory excitement for me. I'm no fan of remakes that take advantage of advances in digital technology just to wow us, in this case with talking versions of a clock, a teapot, a candelabra and a feather duster. And, yes, these digitally created do-dads probably show more personality than some of the story's human characters.

Having said that, this version -- starring Emma Watson (Beauty), Dan Stevens (Beast) and directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) -- has enough whimsy and amusement to satisfy those who also will be buoyed by reprises of the Alan Menken/Tim Rice musical numbers -- with a couple of new additions.

Much of the credit for the movie's engaging collection of talking bric-a-brac goes to the actors who supplied the voice work: Emma Thompson voices Mrs. Potts, the teacup; Stanley Tucci gives life to as Maestro Cadenza, a harpsichord; Gugu Mbatha-Raw adds her vocal prowess to Plumette, the feather duster. The voice behind Cogsworth, the clock, belongs to Ian McKellen; and Ewan McGregor can be heard as Lumiere, a dashing candelabra.

Condon spices things up with references to Busby Berkeley, a ton of production design, a major investment in costumes and a generally capable cast that includes Luke Evans as the impossibly conceited and ultimately duplicitous Gaston and Josh Gad as his loyal sidekick LeFou.

You've probably read that Disney has made LeFou a gay character. That may be daring for a Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, but nothing in this upbeat entertainment seems designed to take the glow off the movie's mass-appeal luster.

The film even neuters the Beast, who has been given a leonine countenance -- with horns and bad teeth added for the sake of fright. This Beast makes threats on which he fails to deliver, and isn't quite as self-assured in his menace as you might expect.

Still, he's softened by Beauty, and by the end, it's difficult to say that anyone would mind if the Beast remained a beast rather than returning to his more Disnified form as a devilishly handsome prince.

In a nice touch, Beauty and the Beast begin their rapprochement when Belle (Beauty) discovers that the Beast has a well-stocked library. She's an avid reader, evidently the only one in the tiny village she and her father (Kevin Kline) call home.

There have, of course, been numerous versions of this 18th century tale from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Velqleneuve, including Jean Cocteau's landmark 1946 version, but classic stories seem capable of enduring as many retellings as anyone possibly could desire.

This one opts for a visual razzle-dazzle that plays against Watson's plucky but somewhat ordinary Belle. I wouldn't say that Condon and company achieve perfection, but they've provided a lively, entertaining version of Disney's animated entry from the 1990s.

If we were going to have another Beauty and the Beast, I'm not sure what more we could have justifiably asked or expected.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

For Kong, it's tough being king

Kong: Skull Island introduces many monstrous sights. It's fun, even if the movie ultimately exhausts itself.

Some movies live in a world beyond ordinary standards, so much so that they liberate us from the need to parse or pick at what we were watching. Kong: Skull Island ought to have such a free-wheeling feel -- and much of the time, it does.

Deriving from the 1933 classic, Kong: Skull Island offers a new take on Hollywood's greatest ape, the thrust of which I'll leave you to discover in a theater, but know that Skull Island bursts with giddily presented carnage, much of it presented against a jukebox full of throwback rock by groups ranging from the Jefferson Airplane to Creedence Clearwater Survival.

For at least half of its 118-minute running time, Kong has some real hop to it, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn't shy about putting his cards on the table. A Japanese and American solider square off in a mano-a-mano World War II prologue that dispenses with any suspense about when we'll see the towering ape. We meet Kong before the opening credits are done.

The movie turns the rest of those credits into a flickering newsreel, leaping through successive decades before landing in 1973.

Quickly, and without much time for reflection (a mercy, I think), the story swings into action. John Goodman plays a man who obtains government funding so that he can map an uncharted island.

From Washington, we're off the Vietnam to round up a crew. A disaffected Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) takes charge; he's looking for a mission that offers compensation for a war that he believes should have been won. Packard and his subordinate (Toby Kebbell) gather other disaffected troopers, and join the trip to Skull Island.

Tom Hiddleston plays a tracker who's also recruited for the mission, along with a war-hardened photographer (Brie Larson).

With echoes of Apocalypse Now ringing in our ears, we're headed for Skull Island, which happens to be surrounded by a ferocious and possibly impenetrable storm system. If the movie's adventurers were even mildly sane, they would have abandoned any effort to penetrate the storm with helicopters. But sanity isn't the point here. Instead, unbridled mania prevails, which perhaps explains the presence of a jiggling Nixon bobblehead on one of the helicopters.

After the screening, someone pointed out to me that the number of helicopters inexplicably increased once the choppers took off from the ship that's carrying them to Skull Island.

Continuity aside, the helicopters make it through the storm only to be confronted by Kong, who has little interest in allowing them into his kingdom. He begins swatting choppers out of the sky as if they were pesky mosquitos.

If you're looking for proof that we live in an age of overload, you'll find ample evidence in the rest of the movie. As it turns out, Kong isn't the only dangerous creature on the island. The worst foes are reptilian monsters with forked tongues, hearty appetites and the ability to reawaken any tremors still lingering in audiences from Jurassic Park.

In IMAX 3D, Kong oozes the tropical density of an island where just about every living thing is over-sized and predatory, and the human characters, if these stick figures can be called that, are simply prey.

Did I mention that our adventurers have three days to accomplish their mission and reach the rendezvous point at which they'll be rescued? Yes, the proverbial clock ticks as loudly as the gunfire on the soundtrack.

To further spice the proceedings, the story introduces us to a World War II vet (John C. Reilly) from the movie's prologue. Reilly's character has been stranded on the island for almost 30 years. He's gone a bit whacky after living among a group of locals with a preference for heavily applied mud make-up.

In addition to battling the beasts -- a task that produces enough gore to slime the entire state of Maine -- the adventurers must decide whether to follow the vengeance-hungry approach of Jackson's character or just get the hell off the island.

For his part, Jackson glowers with so much furious conviction you half expect he might be reading one of Skull Island's more negative reviews.

Burdened by bloat, Kong: Skull Island can't help but generate some battle fatigue -- not only for its human and creature combatants, but for an audience. That's another way of saying that if you over-inflate a B-movie, it just might blow up in your face.

And in a digitally enhanced world, you'll notice that the actors are asked to spend a lot of time gaping at sights that had to be filled in long after they'd left the scene, not many dinosaurs being available via calls to central casting.

Minimal acting opportunities not withstanding, it might have been nice to care a little about whether any of these characters were destined to become something more than monster food.

Oh well, perhaps there's justice after all. At one point, a beast throws up the head of a man it has devoured. These creatures may be difficult to kill, but take heart: It's evidently easy to give them indigestion.