Thursday, October 19, 2017

A heartbreaking ode to childhood

I can't think of a movie that better captures the evanescent joy and freedom of childhood than The Florida Project, a movie set in a run-down motel in Orland, Fla., the kind of place where residents always are one small step away from homelessness. Joy and freedom, yes, but no matter how much fun these kids have, we know they're hanging on by a thread.

Not coincidentally, the movie takes place near Disney World, an attraction dedicated to an entirely different view of childhood and family than the one the movie so keenly observes. Also not coincidentally -- but definitely ironically -- the motel in which much of the story takes place is called The Magic Castle. Nothing about The Magic Castle, a dump coated with purple paint, seems either magical or noble.

If you're interested in knowing how certain effects in movies are achieved, a bit of on-line research usually can lead you to answers. But I don't know if it's possible to explain how director Sean Baker (Tangerine) obtained the performances that make The Florida Project so convincing and special, particularly from the kids who populate his movie.

Six-year-old Moonee, rendered in an irrepressibly energetic performance by Brooklynn Prince, provides the movie with its centerpiece. Moonee seems to be enjoying a summer away from school with two friends: Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Cotta's Jancey lives with her grandmother in the nearby and equally bereft Futureland Inn.

These are not kids who are sent to summer camps, chauffeured from one enriching activity to another or otherwise sheltered from the harsh realities of a junk-food life in a place where most of the residents have little chance for brighter futures.

It's not surprising that at one point, the kids badly damage an abandoned property or that each of them becomes vulnerable to dangers that Baker doesn't always follow to the most harrowing extremes. What would be the point? Things are bad enough for these kids without piling on.

Moonee lives with her mother (a terrific Bria Vinaite), a young woman who tries to cobble together a life. Vinaite's Halley perpetually runs out of money and we fear that she'll never get a grip on how to be a responsible adult, much less a mother. But -- and here's where the movie shines -- it's equally clear that no matter how unprepared for motherhood Halley is at 22, she loves Moonee. She can be a playmate and a friend to her daughter, but she can't be the adult in the room, probably because in one way or another her early life mirrored Moonee's.

A world-weary custodian named Bobby (an excellent Willem Dafoe) presides over the motel. Bobby collects rent, enforces rules and tries to maintain a semblance of order. Dafoe portrays a sympathetic man who has seen almost every manner of hardship befall the denizens of this shabby world, often more than once. When he tries to help, he knows that he's bucking a tide of bad luck and despair.

The achievement of cinematographer Alexis Zabe must be acknowledged; his images can be lustrous and beautiful without shortchanging the seedy environment in which Moonee and Halley spend their time, occasionally trying to get a taste of the good life. When Moonee has a chance her to eat a real meal, her face practically erupts with delight.

Sometimes, there's less need to rattle on about exceptional movies than when we deal those that are mediocre. That may be the case with The Florida Project, a movie that concludes with a scene catapults Moonee into a world of promise and fantasy.

I won't say anything more about the movie's final shot, but everything that precedes it tells us that Baker knows better. Rude awakenings loom in Moonee's world of dreams. And that's what accounts for the sadness beneath every moment of euphoria in The Florida Project: Fantasies may buoy our spirits, but they also can curdle into the most devastating of lies.

He refused to be bed ridden

Robin Cavendish spent 36 years of his life paralyzed from polio, a disease he contracted while working in Kenya in the 1950s. Breathe, a new movie starring Andrew Garfield and marking the directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis, turns Cavendish's story into a life-affirming celebration. It may sound odd for a movie about a paralyzed man, but Serkis (The Lord of the Rings and the Planet of the Apes movies), has made a sometimes giddy, feel-good movie -- and, as a result, Breathe never feels entirely credible. Early on, the movie focuses on Cavendish's relationship with Diana (Claire Foy), the love of his life. The two meet, marry and head to Kenya. When the stricken Cavendish is brought back to England, he initially wishes for nothing more than to die. He has no desire to spend his life attached to a breathing machine. For an active adventurous man, life had lost its meaning. Diana, who by this time is pregnant, eventually brings her husband out of his funk and the rest of the movie charts the ways in which Cavendish struggles to lead a meaningful life. With the help of an inventor (Hugh Bonneville), Cavendish labors to escape his bedroom, an ambition that led to the invention of a mobile wheelchair with a built-in breathing machine. For those who are unable to breathe on their own, life becomes a new kind of adventure, one dependent on a continuous flow of electricity and, ultimately, on others. Displaying a preternatural helping of good humor, Garfield gives a spirited performance as Cavendish, no small feat considering he's limited to working with his face and voice. Serkis delivers moments of interest, but the movie eventually becomes mawkish with a conclusion that proves touching -- if not heartbreaking. If Breathe advances a view that's anything close to the truth, Cavendish probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way, but Breathe might have benefited from a little less burnish and a lot more soul searching.

A farewell to Harry Dean Stanton

If you're interested in deep questions about life and death, you probably can do better than Lucky, a movie that's devoted to watching a man in his 90s -- played by the late Harry Dean Stanton -- consider the fate that awaits him. An atheist who doesn't believe either in the soul or heavenly immortality, Stanton's Lucky is left to smoke cigarettes, drink his daily Bloody Mary and peer into the terrifying void that awaits him. Lucky perfectly fits a parched New Mexican setting in which Stanton's collapsing face seems as natural as an aging cactus -- and just as prickly. Lucky doesn't seem to care much about anything, although he's able to summon enough anger to deliver a diatribe against a local lawyer who's helping another senior citizen (David Lynch) with his estate planning. In one of the script's awkwardly quirky touches, Lynch's character says he wants to leave everything to his best pal, a tortoise that recently escaped into the desert. Members of the supporting cast (Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley Jr, for example) have their moments, but this is Stanton's show. His Lucky comes off as a World War II vet who still recalls the horrors of conflict and who, as his doctor (Begley) says, qualifies as something of a miracle, having never moderated any of his health-threatening habits. Lucky should satisfy those who crave one last go-round with Stanton, who died in September at the age of 91. Directed by actor John Carroll Lynch, Lucky serves as an ode to Harry Dean, an actor who made a career out of playing men who never seemed to give a damn what anyone thought of them, a trait that made the actor admirable to audiences grown weary of ingratiating performances and celebrity polish.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thurgood Marshall, young attorney

Not a bio-pic, Marshall concentrates on a single, racially charged case.

Chadwick Boseman has made a specialty out of playing historical figures. He began with Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), followed with James Brown in Get On Up (2014), and now tries his hand at Thurgood Marshall in Marshall.

A cautionary note: Marshall isn't really a bio-pic about the man who became the country's first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Rather than taking a sweeping look at Marshall's amazing life and career, the movie focuses on a single case that took place in the early 1940s when Marshall worked as the NAACP's only lawyer.

Law books in tow, Marshall traveled the country defending African Americans whom the NAACP believed to be innocent, men who were on trial only because of their race.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin and written by civil rights attorney Michael Koskoff with his son Jacob, Marshall deals with a racially tainted judicial system -- not in the Jim Crow South but in Bridgeport, Conn.

The case in point involves sex. An African-American limo driver (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of having raped and attempted to murder his employer's socialite wife (Kate Hudson).

As an out-of-town lawyer dispatched by the NAACP, Marshall needs a local attorney to act as the "official" counsel for the defendant. Enter Josh Gad as Sam Friedman, an insurance lawyer who's suddenly thrust into the limelight in a case for which he's ill-prepared.

The trial judge (James Cromwell) rules that only Friedman can speak during the trail. The 33-year-old Marshall acts as Friedman's coach and strategist, often scrawling notes as he sits next to the silent defendant. Friedman never before has argued a criminal case.

Hudlin relies heavily on the evolving relationship between Marshall and Friedman to supplement the judicial proceedings. Self-assured, brilliant and even a bit arrogant, Marshall always seems to know exactly what he's doing as he represents those accused of crimes, knowing that every move he makes also subjects the NAACP to possible scorn.

Friedman slowly comes to share Marshall's convictions, initially fearing that association with a racially explosive case -- which he's more or less dragged into -- will ruin his business and tarnish his reputation.

The movie eventually takes the familiar form of a courtroom drama, which Hudlin handles in a straightforward fashion that would be right at home on a TV series; he interrupts the proceedings with recreations of the accounts of those who offer key testimony, notably Hudson's Mrs. Strubing and Brown's Joseph Spell, two people with widely divergent versions of what really happened.

Hudlin seasons the movie with snippets from Marshall's non-courtroom life. He travels so much that he spends only limited amounts of time his wife (Keesha Sharp). The couple desperately wants to have a child. In what amounts to dramatic name dropping, Marshall meets with poet Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and novelist Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda "Chili" Thomas) in a Harlem night club.

Boseman, who'll next star in the Marvel Comics adventure Black Panther, brings steady conviction and sly humor to the role of Marshall. Although his character functions as the lead attorney for the defendant, Gad mostly defers to Boseman. Gad plays a middle-class Jew who slowly sees the civil rights light.

The writers may have felt that the case -- which involves race relations and sex -- would be entirely compelling, but Marshall sometimes seems bound by period-piece trappings and routine genre tropes that make the movie feel less exceptional than its title character might lead you to expect.

Still, Marshall's story -- even part of it -- remains a worthy subject: The influence of race on American criminal justice remains a hot-button issue and Marshall understands that the way some cases unfold has more to do with white perceptions, particularly about black men having sex with white women, than with facts, a condition that's still very much a part of our national tragedy.

Jackie Chan hits a somber note

The Foreigner pits Chan's character against a former IRA man played by Pierce Brosnan.
No one has made martial arts feel more joyous than Jackie Chan. Throughout his long movie career, Chan has been involved in some of the most intricately brilliant fight scenes ever filmed, many of them choreographed in ways that tip over into physical comedy.

One assumes that the always likable Chan, now 63 and perhaps past the point where he wants to risk more injuries, may not be able to continue at the bruising pace he once set. So it's hardly surprising to see Chan taking another tack in director Martin Campbell's The Foreigner, an adaptation of an insensitively named 1995 Stephen Leather novel called The Chinaman.

In The Foreigner, Chan's work takes a somber, determined turn as he plays a London father whose daughter is killed during a bombing by a group that identifies itself as a new incarnation of the IRA. Having given up his career as a hitman, Chan's Quan Ngoc Minh resumes action, setting out to avenge his daughter. Quan's mission of revenge brings him into the orbit of a former IRA man now serving in the government, Pierce Brosnan's Liam Hennessy.

Quan believes that Brosnan's character knows who's responsible for the London bombing. Having gotten nowhere with British counterintelligence agents, Quan insists that Hennessy name names. If the law won't provide justice, Quan will get it for himself.

It takes time for Chan to reveal his character's lethal side. Quan bows when he meets people and generally presents himself as an obscure restaurateur who runs a London takeaway joint. Few know that Quan was raised in Vietnam, where he was trained by US special forces. As a result, Quan knows how to build bombs and kick butt. He can commit to a mission with unrelenting persistence.

Quan heads to Belfast, following Hennessy to his country estate. There, Quan steadily raises the ante by setting off a series of increasingly powerful explosions. Meanwhile, Hennessy must deal with his angry wife (Orla Brady), the British government bureaucracy and a variety of other problems, including the ire of an IRA man who believes Hennessy has sold out men who once were his bothers in arms.

Chan vanishes for long stretches as Hennessy's intrigue-laden story moves toward center stage.

Campbell treats the material more as a political thriller than a martial arts display, and the whole package winds up as a hard-boiled entertainment that's not afraid to strike at point-blank range even if it doesn't quite manage to earn credit as more than another darkly hued movie shot through with the customary bitter undercurrents.

The man who was Deep Throat

Mark Felt takes us inside the world of the FBI during the days of Watergate.

Although an FBI investigation into matters involving White House personnel can be related to today's headlines, Mark Felt: the Man Who Brought Down the White House feels a bit dated and remote. In telling the story of Mark Felt, the man better known as Watergate's Deep Throat, the movie attempts to take us inside the FBI during the time when Felt began talking to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

Working from Felt's 2006 memoir, director Peter Landesman wraps his story in so much seriousness he might as well be preparing to enshrine it in a museum. For all its portent and heaviness, Landesman's movie about the messy work of saving the republic feels more like a weighty footnote than a main event.

As the title suggests, Felt -- whose identity was kept secret until 2005 -- occupies the movie's center. Felt, we learn, was passed over for the top FBI job when Herbert Hoover died. Despite the slight, associate director Felt insisted that he remained loyal to the agency.

As the movie tells it, he became a whistleblower because he refused to see the FBI compromised as investigations into the Watergate burglary began to heat up. He wanted to defend the integrity of an agency that wasn't supposed to be tarnished by political considerations. And maybe he was also furious and hurt about not getting the job for which he spent much of his adult life preparing.

Looking gaunt and severe, Liam Neeson plays Felt as a lawman accustomed to maintaining a stony front. A father estranged from a daughter who has been won over by the counterculture, Felt quietly endures his wife's (an underused Diane Lane) drinking and dissatisfactions, and he soon finds himself at odds with interim FBI director L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas).

An outsider to the ranks of law enforcement, Gray is put in the job to be a Nixon ally in the FBI after Hoover's death. Felt also finds himself at odds with FBI agent Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore), a guy who doesn't mind bending the rules and who becomes Gray's top assistant.

Scenes in which Felt interacts with fellow agents -- some of whom respected and feared him -- make us feel as if we're piercing FBI walls of secrecy, but that's not enough to elevate the movie to the level of importance to which it must have aspired.

Michael C. Hall has a nice turn as White House counsel John Dean, and Bruce Greenwood turns up as a journalist with whom Felt confided before he established a secret relationship with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

For the most part, Landesman places the film squarely on Neeson's shoulders, using the actor's statuesque presence as a key to setting a somber tone. Nothing wrong with that, but this gloomy earnestness seems to be Mark Felt's only tone. The movie sticks to it as doggedly as Felt adheres to his desire to protect the FBI from concerns that he insists are irrelevant to law enforcement.

Mark Felt leans heavily toward portraying Felt as an American hero -- perhaps with the mud of accommodation on his shoes, but a hero nonetheless.

The movie tells us that in addition to his Watergate efforts, Felt was involved in dubious FBI efforts to find members of the Weather Underground. Felt was found guilty, but eventually was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. This part of Felt's story plays like an afterthought. Besides, Felt remains noble to the end, refusing to pass any blame to subordinates.

There's no question that Felt was at the heart of events that shook the nation -- but Mark Felt wears its solemnity of purpose like a straight jacket, something that can't be said about All the President's Men, still the best Watergate movie of all.

The incredible story of 'Wonder Woman'

A movie that tells the surprising story of how a comic book superhero was born.

In its early days, the comic-book version of Wonder Woman included homoerotic imagery, ample amounts of bondage, and other quasi-erotic suggestions that were later purged from the adventures of the world's most famous female superhero.

I confess to knowing little about Wonder Woman's origins, so I was doubly intrigued by Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, the story of how the Wonder Woman character originated in 1941. If you want to be totally surprised by the answer, stop reading now, but I'm confident you'll be interested to learn the odd path that brought this now-familiar character to realization.

In Professor Marston and the Wonder Women -- based on real events -- writer/director Angela Robinson tells the story of Wonder Woman with inclusions of lesbian and straight sex, a long-standing threesome, and a living situation that was provocatively unconventional during the '40s and '50s. Hell, it would be provocative even today.

Limited only by its small-movie look and straightforward style, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman treats Wonder Woman creator Professor Marston -- actually Dr. William Moulton Marston -- and the two women in his life as a springboard from which to advance an argument about tolerance for those who choose to live outside the parameters of traditional marriage.

The movie also becomes an ode to the early days of contemporary feminism, but even at its most didactic, Professor Marston remains an intriguing look at the offbeat story behind Wonder Woman.

Early on, we meet Dr. Marston (Luke Evans), a respected psychologist. When the movie opens, Marston and his psychologist wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) are trying to invent a lie detector. The year: 1928.

Hall's Elizabeth rails against a system that marginalizes her work as a psychologist because she's a woman. Obviously brilliant, the rueful Elizabeth hates being ignored by a male-dominated academic establishment.

The emotional complexity of the story begins to take shape when Marston, who teaches at Radcliffe College, enlists the help of a promising and attractive undergraduate (Bella Heathcote). At the time, Radcliffe functioned as the women's arm of the then all-male Harvard University.

In a startlingly frank exchange, Elizabeth tells Heathcote's Olive that she should stay out of bed (not the words she uses) with her husband. But eventually, it becomes clear that Olive's crush is not for the charismatic professor, who is attracted to Olive, but for Elizabeth.

And then things get even more complicated. Olive must acknowledge that she has sexual and love interests in both Marston and his wife, a situation that eventually leads to the formation of a bounds-breaking family.

Both Evans and Hall acquit themselves well, but Heathcote gives the most surprising performance. She takes Olive from a somewhat innocent student to a full and often eager participant in the socio-sexual experiment that, at least in Dr. Marston's view, constitutes a brave attempt to liberate women and teach men to respect them.

To be honest, I had difficulty determining whether the movie bought Marston's line or regarded it as something he invented to excuse his sexual cravings. Maybe both things are true, but Evans does a solid job of showing that Marston keeps up a principled front no matter what unfolds.

To tell its story, the film employs a framing device in which the head of the Child Study Association of America (Connie Britton) questions Marston about the corrupting influences of Wonder Woman on the nation's youth.

We also see the moment at which Wonder Woman was born. After Marston develops a relationship with Greenwich Village porn merchant (JJ Field), he tries to involve both women in bondage. During their initial session, Olive dons a tiara, a silver burlesque costume, and boots. Marston has an "ah-ha" moment. Suddenly, he sees Wonder Woman standing where just a few moments earlier only Olive could be found.

Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive lived together for some time and took responsibility for raising children born to both women. The movie deals with the difficulties that manifested both inside and outside such a relationship. Things didn't always go smoothly.

Although it can be taken as a somewhat subdued manifesto for sexual and female liberation, the main reason to see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is simpler: It may not be a great film, but it sure has one hell of a story to tell.

Living inside van Gogh's paintings

Loving Vincent can't find a story equal to the artist who inspired the movie.
It's easy to see why festivals gobbled up Loving Vincent, an animated work that tells the story of artist Vincent van Gogh in the style of the master's paintings. Tactile and throbbing with energy, the movie's images seem intended to allow viewers to take a vicarious journey inside van Gogh's world.

The story of how the movie was made is impressive. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman hired 125 painters to take us into the surroundings of van Gogh's later years, if someone who died at the age of 37 can be said to have had later years. To obtain the motion that animates the story, some 64,450 oil paintings were created.

The directors first filmed live actors, using that footage as source material for the movie's many painters. I've read that every second of film required 12 hand-painted frames to bring us into the cafes and rooms van Gogh made famous.

Nothing if not ambitious, Loving Vincent uses actors to give voice to characters familiar to those who've seen van Gogh's work -- and who hasn't? Among the van Gogh subjects who have made it into the movie: postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd), Doctor Gachet and his daughter Marguerite (Jerome Flynn and Saorise Ronan). Van Gogh, who appears sporadically, is voiced by Robert Gulaczyk.

Clearly a labor-intensive affair, making Loving Vincent required big-time dedication and the movie easily could have resulted in folly. Loving Vincent is no disaster, but it's not quite the triumph that its subject deserves.

Many reasons: To begin with, the movie's painting proves inconsistent, perhaps an inevitable result of using hundreds of artists.

That, however, wouldn't have mattered had the story lived up to the stature of the artist. Kobiela and Welchman try to wrap the story in mystery. After van Gogh's death, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is dispatched from Arles by his postman father to deliver a letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in Paris, but never mailed.

As the story unfolds, the initially skeptical Armand becomes increasingly sympathetic to van Gogh; in particular, he wants to know more about van Gogh's death.

Questions about whether van Gogh killed himself or was murdered don't do enough to add intrigue to a movie that covers mostly familiar ground about one of the world's most recognizable artists.

As various characters recall their dealings with the artist, the movie switches to black-and-white renderings of episodes from the painter's life, some of which look more photographic than painted.

In sum, Loving Vincent might be deemed a noble failure that some will wish to see me merely because of love for van Gogh or because the endeavor certainly qualifies as daring. But it's equally true that little in Loving Vincent proves as illuminating as van Gogh's work itself.

Besides, isn't adding motion to van Gogh's painting a prime example of gilding the lily. Van Gogh's work already reflects a reeling, explosive sense of energy that hardly needed a booster shot from the movies.

Father and son tackle the wilderness

Walking Out revolves around a view of manhood that's steeped in the self-sufficiency of men who brave the rugged mountains of Montana, hunting for elk and living out an ethos built around a relationship to the mountains and its wildlife. The story: Fourteen-year-old David (Josh Wiggins), who lives in Texas with his mother, makes his annual visit to his father Cal (Matt Bomer) in Montana. Cal and David hike into the mountains so that David can snare his first elk, a metaphor for his coming-of-age. Working from a story by David Quammen, directors Alex and Andrew J. Smith deliver a metaphorical tale about fathers and sons and how their roles can shift as circumstances change. The relationship between Cal and his father (Bill Pullman) are seen in flashbacks that add a multi-generational touch. Not surprisingly, Cal and David run into trouble in the mountains and the movie becomes a stark survival tale -- albeit one that tries not to overplay its hand. The story's poignancy stems from the knowledge that fathers and sons never really know one another. In sum: a medium-impact survival story set against the grandeur of forbidding and beautiful surroundings.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A visually rich return to the future

What's real and what's not? Blade Runner 2049 wants to know, but it may cause some head scratching..
I'm not one of those people who consult director Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) for philosophical guidance. I liked the movie well enough when I first saw it, but haven't joined the cult of enthusiasts who make regular return visits, often followed by heated debates about what, in the movie, should be taken as real and what shouldn't.

But there's no question that Scott's movie -- based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep -- set the pace for a lot of the dystopian sci-fi that followed in the wake of Blade Runner's noir-flavored foray into a dangerously decaying Los Angeles.

Now comes Blade Runner 2049, set some 30 years after the original. If you're looking for a beautifully realized vision of the world as the filmmakers think it might exist several decades from now, this new edition -- directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) -- works hard to provide it.

Major credit accrues to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who makes ample use of yellow and orange hues to create a world that feels as if its enveloped in poisonous smog. Breathe at your own risk.

The desiccated landscapes of the movie's early going tell us that the world has been drained of its richness, its abundance having been exploited to the point where even a dead tree has become something a novelty. Technology may hold sway, but the Earth has become infertile.

We also learn, from opening title cards, that replicants -- genetically engineered creatures that are indistinguishable from humans -- are designed to be safe and servile. But Blade Runners, those who hunt down and "retire" replicants, still operate, searching for older replicants that had the audacity to make a case for replicant self-determination.

Prior to a screening, publicists read a statement asking critics not to reveal plot points and other surprises. OK, I'm not going to talk much about the plot except to say that it's not always easy to follow the one concocted by writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. I'd say that 2049 wants to be a deep-thinking detective story with a replicant hunter named K (Ryan Gosling) sent on a quest to ...

I won't say more, except to note that replicant-related peril puts the entire structure of the society Villeneuve depicts at issue.

Among the film's creations, you'll find Joi (Ana de Armas), an electronically produced holographic woman that adores K and offers no resistance when it comes to fulfilling her role as a fantasy. You'll also see Jared Leto as the head of a company that produces replicants in a performance that's too transparently spectral and weird. Leto's Wallace is served by a ruthless woman (Sylvia Hoeks) who's all business -- and bad business at that.

Even icier than she is on House of Cards, Robin Wright portrays the LAPD big-wig to whom K reports.

Gosling punctuates a purposefully inexpressive performance with small inflections, and -- if you've read anything about the movie -- you know that Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, only in a more worn-out version. The replicant hunter of the first movie evidently has been in hiding for the last 30 years, taking up residence in an abandoned Las Vegas casino where he can watch holographic Elvis projections and we can ponder a few similarities to the work of Stanley Kubrick.

The movie, which has its longueurs, perks up considerably when Ford arrives. I should tell you, though, that most of the time, I found myself in a state in which I seemed to be floating through the story, not really caring where it was going as I awaited the next intriguing bit of visual invention.

In his positive Hollywood Reporter review of 2049, Todd McCarthy astutely pointed out that the "style and tone" of 2049 owes more to Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker) than to Scott's original. McCarthy's observation is correct but I wonder whether this approach -- creating an almost expanded sense of time -- doesn't deprive the picture of narrative interest while threatening to turn 2049 into a massive art project with a vision that exists more to be dissected than actually lived in. Food is now produced synthetically. As in the original, cars fly. High tech paraphernalia can be found even in the seedy tenement in which K lives. The ravages of climate change create snowfall in Los Angeles. When Leto's Wallace presides over a room in which a platform is surrounded by water that splays ripples of reflection across walls.

That's another way of saying, Villeneuve doesn't give us much reason to connect emotionally to much of anything in 2049.
I suppose 2049 serves up plenty of fodder for those who wish to philosophize about what's real and what isn't or to ruminate on how artificial intelligence changes our ideas about what it means to be human. But after the movie's sometimes taxing, 164-minute running time, I found that other more immediately pressing needs required attention.

Struggling to survive -- the movie, that is

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are stranded in the mountains. In this case brrr is bad.

I've been searching what's left of my movie-saturated brain trying to find something (anything, really) positive to say about The Mountain Between Us, a survival adventure starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, the Dutch/Palestinian director who gave us two Oscar-nominated works, Paradise Now and Omar.

It's not an easy task, but I came up with two things, and I'll share them before I proceed to tell you that The Mountain Between Us qualifies as a major disappointment, a movie that shatters credibility before shifting gears and making an ill-advised turn from formulaic adventure to formulaic romance.

So about those positives: To begin with, it's a pleasure to see the gifted Elba in a lead role as an accomplished man, in this case, a neurosurgeon who's trying to get to reach a patient in need of his skills.

Another positive? Fair to say that Abu-Assad does a decent job with the plane crash that strands the movie's two principals near the film's beginning.

OK, I'm out of positives. Now for the negative side of the ledger:

Winslet plays Alex Martin, a photographer with war-time experience. When the movie opens, Alex is trying to reach Denver for her wedding, scheduled to take place the next day. She's frustrated when she learns that all flights have been canceled because of bad weather. She notices that another passenger -- Elba's Ben Bass -- faces the same problem and proposes that they join forces, hire a private plane and remain on schedule.

Having described the movie as a survivalist adventure, you already know that the plane goes down in the forbidding mountains of northern Utah. This, after the pilot (Beau Bridges) has a stroke while flying, never a good.

Alex, Ben and Walter's dog, an animal that Abu-Assan occasionally uses for inappropriately cute reaction shots, survive.

If you're going to get into this wilderness ordeal, you'll have to forgive some inconsistencies. At one point, Ben suddenly turns up with a nice pair of hiking boots. A small matter, but you can search for others on your own.

Initially, Ben and Alex argue about the best course of action. He's prone to logical thinking: She's more willing to follow her instincts. Should they stay with the plane or try to walk to safety, a difficult proposition because Alex's leg is broken and neither of them has a clue where they are or how far they might have to travel in to reach a point of survival?

Neither Winslet nor Elba need any selling when it comes to acting ability, but they're not well served by inane dialogue, an obviously stated moral (stronger together) and a late picture, eye-rolling conversion to romance that throws us into a whole other genre.

Adapting a novel by Charles Martin, screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz move through plot points like a hiker negotiating deep drifts without the benefit of snowshoes. As is the case with many movies, this one may have begun as someone's labor of love; it turned out to be ... well ... just laborious.

Spending time in the library

Thank God for Frederick Wiseman, the documentary filmmaker who makes films that proceed without benefit of any orienting narrative, quick cuts or agitated attempts to inject drama into scenes that unfold in real time. Wiseman's latest -- Ex Libris: The New York Public Library -- goes on for nearly three hours and I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I found some of it tedious, particularly scenes in which library staff talk about the institution's digital future and its attempts to retain relevance. The way technology has impacted libraries is, of course, tremendously important, but I hated staff meetings when I had to attend them and watching someone else's proves no less enervating. But that's a price I willingly paid for allowing Wiseman to open the doors to an institution known to the world for its Fifth Avenue and 42 Street branch, the one with the staircase guarded by two lion sculptures on pedestals. Wiseman takes us through that branch of the library and some of its less recognizable outposts. Watching Ex Libris isn't like taking a guided tour; it's more like being given a pass to go anywhere in the library, accumulating impressions and drawing whatever conclusions we wish to draw -- if any. For me, Ex Libris was at its most involving when Wiseman takes us to Q&A sessions with such notables as musician Elvis Costello or authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Dawkins. Wiseman also shows us that the library has a social dimension, conducting after-school programs, for example. Don't be misled by the fact that I've offered only a short review of Wiseman's 197-minute movie. By no means take that as a suggestion that Ex Libris should be dismissed. Like many of Wiseman's other films -- most recently In Jackson Heights (2015) -- Ex Libris functions as a kind of time-capsule document, something that could be viewed years from now by those who want to understand something about the way institutions functioned in our tumultuous times, in this case, trying to keep pace with change while remaining faithful to its overall mission.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A fight for equality or more hype?

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Battle of the Sexes, a movie about the much-heralded match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

Battle of the Sexes -- the story of the much-hyped 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs -- isn't exactly a good movie, but it contains interesting work around the fringes.

Bill Pullman, to take one example, steeps his performance in a fully vested sense of privilege as Jack Kramer, a former tennis champ and executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals. A staunch opponent of the idea that women and men tennis players should earn equal money, Pullman's Kramer stood at the head of the tennis establishment.

Pullman effortlessly imbues every ounce of his performance with an ingrained belief: Women never could equal men on the tennis court. I don't know what the real Kramer was like, but Pullman has been asked to embody the sexist beliefs of a sport that was male-dominated in the 1970s, and he uses the opportunity to deliver a character who has no idea that he's confusing prejudice with fact.

Another fine -- but also minor performance -- in Battle of the Sexes belongs to Elizabeth Shue, who plays Riggs's wife, Priscilla. The scene in which Priscilla dissolves their marriage becomes an exquisite rendering of decisiveness from a woman who understands that Riggs, a compulsive gambler, never will provide the stability she needs. Priscilla tells Riggs the marriage is over with a sense of dignity, authority, and love that's stunning in its compassion.

In line with Shue's performance, the movie treats endangered marriages with a kindness that's quite unusual. Prior to the big match, King's marriage is being tested. She begins a lesbian relationship with her hairdresser. King's husband (Austin Stowell) tries to weather the storm, holding his emotions in check.

It also should be noted that Sarah Silverman has a nice turn as Gladys Heldman, the savvy woman who helped organize and find funding for the women's tour that King and others started.

I know. I haven't said a word about the big match that the movie presents as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the women's movement. I also haven't mentioned that Emma Stone does a credible job as King, although I found myself constantly evaluating her against whatever memories I have of the real person.

With a set of crooked false teeth, Carrel gives an interesting spin to Riggs's life, making him a man whose chauvinism becomes shtick. At the time of the match, Riggs was 55; King was 29. Solely on the basis of his gender, Riggs tried to sell the idea that an aging male tennis star could beat a vibrant young woman with an exceptionally strong game. Riggs, of course, couldn't conquer the difference caused by age, even with a gargantuan supply of vitamin supplements.

You don't get the sense that Riggs totally believed in his chauvinistic rants. He was trying to sell tickets and provide himself with a big payday. For him, the match was an opportunity to put himself into the center ring of a circus -- until, of course, the moment when he realized that he couldn't beat King.

For King the stakes are higher: She wants to prove that women should be treated equally by the tennis authorities. Earlier in the movie, she leads a revolt in which women players withdraw from high-profile tournaments and create their own tour. The issue: equal pay.

Much of the movie (too much, I'd say) is taken up by the budding relationship between King and her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). At the time, any hint of gayness would have destroyed King's career, so she was forced to walk a thin line between her emotional needs and her public image.

In part, the movie is hampered by its structure. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) alternate between Riggs and King, a stylistic choice that's equivalent to putting a net between two parts of the narrative and, then, shifting from one side to the other. As a result, Battle of the Sexes can feel as though it's moving sideways instead of gaining forward momentum.

Faris and Dayton do a decent job with the big event, which took place in Houston's Astrodome. The surrounding hoopla almost overwhelmed the actual match, which King won easily.

During the match, the directors show us shots of women rooting for King and middle-aged men looking disconsolate as they realize that their avatar was headed for defeat.

Granted the '70s were a tumultuous time for male/female relations. I know. I was there. But the guys I knew at the time thought the King/Riggs spectacle had less to do with gender barriers than with hype: I didn't take the match seriously enough even to watch the ABC telecast of it.

Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy, the directors must have realized that they had loaded their plates, picking a subject that touches on gay emergence, marital woes, shifting cultural norms, the inflated atmosphere that can surround sports and the desire of some to cash in on all of the above. Faris and Dayton never quite find a tone to encompass the chaos that not only rocked the culture but impacted individual lives.

Put another way, this is one tennis movie that could have used more topspin.

Wild, crazy and ... well ... dangerous

Tom Cruise plays a drug smuggler in the middle of an impossibly complicated situation.
If you really want to know the story of Barry Seal, a pilot who supposedly worked for the CIA and smuggled drugs for the Medellin Cartel, you'll have to do some on-line research or read books such as Daniel Hopsicker's Barry & The Boys: The CIA, the Mob and America's Secret History. Or you could try Del Hahn's Smuggler's End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal or you could devote your time to something other than taking a deep dive into a strange footnote to US history.

As someone who hasn't delved deeply into Seal's life (I haven't read either of the above two books), I assumed that director Doug Liman took a Hollywood-sized share of liberties with Seal's story to bring American Made to the screen. He also hired Tom Cruise to play Seal, a bored TWA pilot who -- according to the film -- went did surveillance work for the CIA in Latin America, stumbled into the drug trade with the Medellin Cartel, found himself at odds with the DEA, and cut a variety of deals as he attempted to keep himself out of jail.

Liman, who directed Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, uses a framing device to tell Seals' tale. The smuggler makes a series of videotapes that lead us into extensive flashbacks in which Seal's complicated life of crime unfolds.

Cruise portrays Seal in typical Cruise fashion. Seal is all amped-up energy as a pilot who responds to events with pinball speed and very little reflection. Cruise's Seal has enough mischievous charm to make the movie fly, that and screenwriter Gary Spinelli's appreciation for the rank absurdity that put an unknown man into the middle of a historical maelstrom.

Seal may be a pilot, but he's no Top Gun; he's a blur of serial impulses, a down-scale version of other Cruise characters, but a welcome reminder that even when he plays a less-than-admirable guy, Cruise's big-screen magnetism holds sway.

The script isn't big on motivation: Bored with his TWA gig and dabbling in the occasional smuggling of cigars, Seal becomes a prime target for CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). Schafer assures Seal that legality doesn't really matter so long as he's working for the "good guys."

Seal lies to his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) and tells her that he's leaving TWA to open his own business. As the movie progresses, Lucy senses the truth, but she, too, is dazzled by the riches that Seal's drug smuggling brings, especially when the CIA relocates his operation from Seal's native Baton Rouge to the small town of Mena, Arkansas.

Liman approaches a fractured narrative with speed that tends to give a near antic quality to the proceedings which also include an appearance by Caleb Landry Jones as Seal's dirt-dumb brother-in-law.

If you approach American Made as a Cruise-driven entertainment, you'll find an involving helping of all-American cynicism in which the world spins without the benefit of a moral compass.

To bolster the film's authenticity, Liman makes occasional use of news footage, but in American Made, tone convey's more of the movie's truth than any particular incident, and -- like most movies that deal with the rise and fall of a criminal, American Made shows the dizzying fun of Seal's rise, a time when he had so much money, he couldn't launder it fast enough.

The difficulty with this kind of buzzed filmmaking is that it immerses us in a world that spins without the benefit of any moral compass, obliterating any real sense of personal responsibility. Part conniver and part pawn, Seal resembles an adrenaline junkie looking for the next high.

Whether you see this as a statement about American life during the 1980s or as a perverted form of entrepreneurial striving may not be the point: Cruise and Liman ask us to share Seal's kicks and risk, right up until the inevitable crash puts a stark exclamation point on what has been an enjoyably crazed ride.

An aging queen finds renewal

Victoria & Abdul focuses on Queen Victoria and the Indian Muslim who perked up her final years.

If nothing else can be said about Victoria & Abdul, a nicely appointed period piece starring Judi Dench as England's fabled Queen, it should be noted that director Stephen Frears has come up with one of fall's best special effects. No, it's not an explosion and it has nothing to do with the far reaches of space; Frears's great contribution to the world of effects arrives in the form of a sculpted, multi-colored gelatin dish that is served as dessert to the Queen, who -- in her dotage -- no longer has the most impeccable table manners.

The dessert serves as a reminder of courtly opulence, a bit of ornamentation that tells us far too much time is being spent on matters of far too little importance.

Enjoyable in the way of slightly wry British period pieces, Victoria & Abdul is so dominated by Dench that it could have been named solely for the Queen who ruled from 1837 to 1901. Victoria died at the age of 82 to be succeeded by her son Edward VII whose reign lasted a mere nine years.

When we meet the Queen, she's in that phase of life in which she's being indulged (sometimes grudgingly) by the royal household that attends to her. She falls asleep during formal dinners and needs servants to help her to sit upright in bed, as if they were pushing a great rock up a steep hill.

As imagined by Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall, the Queen's problems are twofold. She's bored and lonely, never having totally recovered from the death of her husband Albert, some 31 years prior to the start of the movie.

The emotional vacancies in Victoria's life are addressed when chance brings an Indian Muslim to London to present the Queen with a ceremonial coin. Tall and handsome, Abdul (Ali Fazal) arouses the Queen's interest. She gives him and another Indian jobs as footmen and later makes Abdul her munshi; i.e., her teacher in matters pertaining to the mysterious ways of the East. Victoria learns Urdu and listens as Abdul slips in the occasional slice of wisdom gleaned from the poet Rumi.

In the early going, Frears sets a mostly comic pace, suggesting that he may be trying to mock the pretentious formalities of court life. The burden of representing all this pretension falls on actors surrounding the Queen: Tim Pigott-Smith as her flustered secretary, Michael Gambon as the dour prime minister, and Eddie Izzard as Bertie, the Queen's ambitious but patently hollow son and heir.

Dench, who played Queen Victoria in 1997's Mrs. Brown, provides the best reason to see the movie. She makes the Queen's loneliness convincing and even conveys hints of girlish infatuation as she gets to know Abdul. She's charmed by him. She badly needs to be charmed by someone because everyone around her seems to have curdled into near-parodic members of the aristocracy.

But Victoria & Abdul has more in mind than comedy. It also assays the cultural frictions created by the presence of a Muslim in this upper-class gaggle of bigots and stuffed shirts, a crowd in which eyebrows seem to be raised in perpetual disapproval.

Victoria & Abdul is based on a true story, but I don't know whether it's accurate to say that in her final years, Victoria tried to pierce the curtain of propriety that surrounded her, taking aim at the royals who wanted Abdul sent back to Agra, India, and the obscurity from which he emerged.

Unfortunately, Abdul becomes a kind of prop, a character who allows Victoria to show her decency, as well as to make one last stab at asserting her authority. When Abdul's wife and mother-in-law arrive, their faces are hidden behind burqas. In a way, Abdul himself remains hidden. Is he a simple naif whose motives are pure? Is he a bit of a charlatan trying to advance himself? Frears would have done well to give us more than glimpse into Abdul's soul.

Speaking of Frears, it's worth noting that some of his sharper edges seem to have soften from the days of the 1980s when he gave us movies such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Dangerous Liaisons. There are traces of bitterness and restrained sarcasm in Victoria & Abdul, but nothing the will unsettle most viewers.

Though their main characters find themselves in quite different circumstances, Victoria & Abdul seems aligned with Frears's Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) in which Meryl Streep plays a deluded New York heiress. Both movies have crowd-pleasing elements and moments of rue and both deal with aging women who face debilitating losses of luster as the ticks of mortality's clock grow ever louder.

A key figure in the struggle for rights

The documentary Dolores tells the story of Dolores Huerta, a Mexican-American organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez to found and advance the United Farm Workers union. Director Peter Bratt focuses on Huerta's long career of activism, which tends to be lesser known than Chavez's. In addition to charting the work of an activist, the movie also lets us know how Huerta's 11 children viewed their mother's life. For Huerta's offspring, their mother's commitments caused resentment and, later, insight and admiration. Even within the movement for the rights of farm laborers, Huerta sometimes was criticized for not staying home with her kids. Huerta paid other heavy prices for work; she was severely injured by police during a protest in 1988, an experience that brought her family together. Bratt's film helps give Huerta, instrumental in organizing the multi-year grape boycott that ended in 1970 with the signing of a new contract, the importance she deserves. More importantly, Dolores reminds us of what's possible when pressure is exerted at the grassroots level -- not to mention the persistence and sacrifice required by those who strive to bring about change. As one of her sons says, "If you're going to walk away from your family like that, you gotta believe in something bigger." Huerta, who also understands the pain her children sometimes felt, certainly believes in something bigger and she has spent almost all of her 87 years fighting for it. Dolores opens in Denver on Sept. 29 at the Mayan Theatre with appearances by Huerta for Q&As during the film's opening weekend. Check with the theater for the show times at which Huerta will be present (303-744-6799).



Looking for some peace and quiet

In Pursuit of Silence reminds us that silence really is golden.
If ever there were a time for a documentary such as The Pursuit of Silence, it's now. Director, editor and co-cinematographer Patrick Shen has made a movie that reminds us of the necessity to find some peace and quiet -- and also that the two are intimately connected. We all know a lot about the opposite condition in a time when Kim Jung-un screams at Trump and Trump yells back at Kim, when TV news often consists of antagonists shouting at one another, when sporting events are filled with wall-to-wall noise having little to do with the games, when volume in movie theaters can be cranked to ear-splitting levels, and when the ubiquitous rings of cell phones are likely to jar the senses at any moment. When you watch The Pursuit of Silence, which informs us of the high decibel counts with which most of us live, you may find yourself longing to find a silent space. Even our national parks and forests aren't entirely immune to noise from passing cars or from planes passing overhead. Shen keys on composer John Cage as an early and important artistic proponent of silence, citing Cage's 4'33, a totally silent piece that he debuted in 1952. If you can't get away from the din of the city, you'll find a bit of respite in some of Shen's beautiful imagery, glimpses of Alaska's Denali National Park, for example. A tea ceremony in Kyoto made me wonder whether every world leader shouldn't be required to engage in such a ritual before giving a speech. Shen interviews experts on the impact of noise on human well-being and leaves us with a quote we'd all do well to inscribe on our doorposts: "Silence returns us to what is real." To use a popular phrase in a new context, "Maybe it's time we all got real." The above image, by the way, is one of the calm, meditative sights that Shen uses to put us back in touch with the silence many of us spend excessive amounts of time trying to avoid.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Learning to survive catastrophe

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs during the Boston Marathon bombing.

For most of its 116-minute running time, director David Gordon Green's Stronger stakes out a claim to importance. In telling the story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), the movie becomes one of the rare entertainments that isn't about graphic displays of violence but about realistic depictions of the effects of violence on those who experience it.

For those who don't recall, Bauman was waiting at the finish line for his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) to complete the 2013 Boston Marathon. He lost both his legs when two bombs exploded. Bauman also was able to identify one of the bombers, having stood about a foot away from the perpetrator.

In the climate of "Boston Strong" that followed the bombings, Bauman became a hero. He was honored at a Boston Bruins hockey game and later at a Red Sox game. He was bombarded with public adulation. As a survivor of a cruel tragedy, he became a symbol of triumph over terrorist mayhem.

Green shows us what Bauman's life was like in the post-bombing days. In a wheelchair and reliant on his girlfriend and his mother (a strong Miranda Richardson), this goofy but good-hearted son of Boston faced dual problems: adjusting to a disabled life and also to the attention he never sought.

Gyllenhaal's performance anchors the movie; he mixes moments of humor with moments of self-pity. Gyllenhaal portrays a man who others see as a hero, but who would rather get drunk with pals than pat himself on the back. Who can blame him? For Bauman, using the bathroom has become a physical ordeal.

To play the role, Gyllenhaal lost weight, turning Bauman into a gaunt figure with a crooked, diffident smile. A Costco employee who worked roasting chickens before the bombing, Bauman never seemed to have any great ambitions. Had the Marathon explosion never happened, he might have been content to watch Red Sox games in bars while exchanging stinging insults with friends. He might have been a working-class Peter Pan, a young man who sees no great benefit in entering the adult world.

Bauman doesn't always appreciate the help he gets from Maslany's Erin, the girlfriend who quits her job to help him through his arduous therapy, which includes learning how to use artificial legs.

Green tries for authenticity in his depiction of working-class Bostonians, a little grittier than what we saw in Peter Berg's Patriots Day, another movie about the Boston Marathon bombings.

Bauman's family and friends are tough, profane and not altogether agreeable people who are only too happy to join him at a bar or try to capitalize (emotionally) on what they view as his ascendance. As Patty, Bauman's Mom, Richardson creates a character who's jealous of Erin's potential to replace her as the central figure in Bauman's life.

Richardson's face reflects a mixture of bitterness, fear and occasional hope; she never tries to make us like a character who has difficulty letting go of her son. Bauman lived with his mother at the time of the bombing and remained at her home afterward.

Maslany proves equally determined as Erin, a young woman who goes through hell along with Bauman and is pushed to her breaking point. Like everyone in Stronger, she's not afraid to lose her temper.

Green doesn't dwell on the explosion that took Bauman's legs, although he brings it up in quickly inserted flashbacks that, by the end, of the movie, blossom into a more vivid (and perhaps unnecessary) display of the blast that changed Bauman's life.

Scenes in which Bauman meets Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the bystander who helped him at the site of the bombing, are well played by both Sanz and Gyllenhaal. Carlos lost a son in Iraq. Evidently, many who had relatives who were killed or maimed in America's recent wars looked to Bauman's story to reassure them that life could go on.

Toward the end, Green yields to a temptation that he manages to elude for most of the movie. He allows the movie to join the inspirational chorus in which Bauman, as a person, and Bauman, as a symbol, begin to merge. These final scenes have an unavoidable taint of hagiography that mingles with a genuine thematic attempt to give Bauman moments of reconciliation that allow him once again to be comfortable in his own skin.

Obviously, there will be those who find the film's conclusion more stirring than I did, but Gyllenhaal's strong performance and equally vital contributions from a fine supporting cast keep Stronger on track, making it a powerful look at what happens when ordinary people are damaged by events over which they have no control.

I can't think of a more wrenching scene than the one in which doctors remove the bandages from Bauman's remaining legs. Not only is the removal screamingly painful, but it also serves as a stamp of finality on Bauman's condition.

Green shoots the scene creatively, showing us Bauman's tormented face and the face of his girlfriend in profile; what remains of Brad's legs appears in soft focus between them. Do we want to see? Does he?

Together, Green and Gyllenhaal have made a movie that asks us not to look away.

He thinks everyone else is better off

Director Mike White casts Ben Stiller as a father whose confidence is lagging in Brad's Status.

Ben Stiller knows how to squirm in his own skin. Cheers for writer/director Mike White, who has found the perfect vehicle for Stiller to express a nearly intractable case of mid-life jitters. In Brad's Status, Stiller portrays a father who accompanies his son on a tour of the New England colleges to which the young man has applied. The trip forces Stiller's Brad to evaluate his own life. Mostly, he doesn't like what he sees.

Brad believes his old college chums have surpassed him in the success department, and Brad wonders whether he hasn't wasted his life running a non-profit when he could have been focused on magnifying his bank account.

Not that Brad is suffering. And that, ultimately, may be the movie's point. Brad and his wife (Jenna Fischer) live a comfortable life in California with a son (Austin Abrams) who's going to have no difficulty attending a good college and finding a place for himself in the world.

But Brad is undone by his ceaseless competitiveness. He insists on evaluating his life in terms of others -- even to the point where he might be envious of his son should the young man be admitted to Harvard. Brad graduated from Tufts, a fine school but not Harvard.

White, who wrote the screenplays for Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and Beatriz at Dinner and who directed Year of the Dog, this time adopts an accessible approach, keeping his focus on the way Brad's rampant feelings of inferiority look when contrasted with what seem to be his more or less problem-free life.

To make the point, White's screenplay introduces us to the men with whom Brad compares himself.
White plays a successful movie director who happens to be gay but who didn't invite Brad to his wedding. Luke Wilson portrays a hedge fund manager who has acquired all the accouterments of great wealth, including a private jet. Jermaine Clement appears as Billy, a tech whiz who made a fortune and retired to Maui to live with two young women who know how to fill out bikinis.

Michael Sheen's Craig rounds out the quartet of jealousy-inducing stories that torment Brad; Sheen's Craig is a pundit who often appears on TV. He teaches a course at Harvard and can't make it through a restaurant dinner without someone approaching him to offer praise.

During Brad's visit to Boston, he and Troy meet one of Troy's friends. Shazi Raja portrays a young woman who seems to grasp the magnitude of privilege that supports Brad's life, but she's not entirely likable, either. She's a little too glib, a little too quick with her accusations, and a little too disrespectful of Brad's experience.

That, too, gives Brad's Status a welcome sense of realism.

White brings the movie to a somewhat predictable conclusion and he pretty much follows a blueprint in scenes that show us that the objects of Brad's envy aren't problem free. Everything looks better when viewed from the outside, and Troy seems far better adjusted than a father who picks at his life as if it were a scab that's beginning to itch.

OK, so it's not an insight that will rock your world, but White delivers it in a movie that manages to be easy going and troubled at the same time -- more insightful and a bit more rueful than you'd expect from what initially sounds like such an unpromising premise.

A kinder, gentler boarding school

Some time after the film's debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, someone decided to change the title of a winning new documentary from In Loco Parentis to School Life. In loco parentis refers to situations in which an educational institution assumes parental responsibilities for a young person.

When I was in college, issues of in loco parentis were routinely discussed in campus newspapers. I'm not sure discussions about the role of college administrations vis-a-vis the lives of their students are conducted in quite the same way anymore, but the initial title of School Days suggests a role for schools that goes well beyond classroom instruction.

That approach certainly applies to the Headfort School, Ireland's only primary-age boarding school and School Life's fascinating subject. I don't know if you can extrapolate larger educational meanings from School Life, but I do know that I would have loved to attend such a school, this one located on the remnants of a large estate.

School Life focuses on a husband and wife who have taught at Headfort for almost 50 years. Both are dedicated teachers who bring their own personalities to everything they do. The students at Headfort range in age from three to 13, but the film concentrates mostly on the older students.

Amanda Leydon teaches literature; her husband John Leydon teaches Latin. She supervises school dramatic productions; he helps students with their musical development, most of it centered on rock. John's demeanor and wry delivery may put you in mind of actor Bill Nighy, which -- for me at least -- created an instant fondness for the man. The Leydons manage to stay in touch with their students, even as they occasionally sneak off for a cigarette, blowing smoke out of a school window.

Because directors Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane focus mostly on the Leydons, their documentary tends to highlight the arts. The film avoids spoon feeding us information, preferring instead to stay close to students and teachers in ways that allow us to draw our own conclusions about Headfort.

I would have loved to see how subjects such as mathematics, which John Leydon also teaches, and science are taught, but School Days certainly gives us a feeling for an institution that has been built on the idea that a kinder, gentler experience can achieve as much as those built around unflagging discipline.

Dermot Dix, the school's headmaster, discusses the Headfort mission on the school's Web site: "The children's happiness is central and precious."

At Headfort, that ideal doesn't seem to interfere with helping Headfort's students gain admission to some of the best Irish and British secondary schools.

The directors' approach precludes giving certain information, so I did a bit of research myself. By my rough calculations, the cost for Irish students who board at Headfort and who are over 10 years old is roughly $7,710 per term and about $2,400 more for students who do not reside in Ireland. The school offers scholarships for children under 10 and "a small number of bursaries" for older students who may not otherwise be able to afford private education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the annual cost per pupil of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. was about $11,222 in 2013-14. According to the Private School Review, the national average private school tuition is about $9,975 per year. Private elementary school tuition is $8,918 per year and private high schools average about $13,524 per year in the US.

But money isn't the only measure of value. Lest potential parents worry that their students will be unable to compete, Headfort's web site assures readers that children are taught the national curriculum and work to standardized tests, but the school also emphasizes the hope that its students will become "critical, rather than dutiful, thinkers. At Headfort, we know that education is a means of liberation, rather than confinement."
Watching School Life convinced me that, at Headfort, these words transcend the usual brochure boilerplate. If the Leydons are any indication, everyone at Headfort practices exactly what the school preaches.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

It's one 'Mother!' of a movie

Director Darren Aronofsky's wild-ass horror movie aims big -- maybe too big..

Take the exclamation point in the movie's title seriously. Watching director Darren Aronofsky's Mother! is like reading a book in which every word has been italicized for effect: the silences are oh so ominous, the creak of a shoe on a wooden floor can be jarring and when a furnace fires up, it's like a bomb has exploded. The aural atmosphere of Mother! has been amped up to take what starts as a chamber-piece helping of horror and inflate it to the point of explosion -- maybe beyond that.

In his efforts to harness as much on-screen venom as possible, Aronofsky has enlisted an A-list cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Bardem plays a poet; Lawrence plays his devoted wife. The couple has just moved into an isolated country home.

Irritable to the point of hostility, Bardem's character ignores Lawrence's character. She plasters walls and works on turning the house into a little piece of paradise. You probably have a pretty good idea where all attempts at creating paradise wind up.

Buried in an increasingly chaotic plot, you'll find a mordant comedy about the burden of uninvited guests. The first of these is a man who identifies himself as an orthopedic surgeon (Ed Harris). The surgeon excuses his intrusion by saying he thought he had arrived at a bed and breakfast inn.

Harris' character smokes when asked not to, and claims to be a devoted fan of Bardem's work. He also says he's dying. It doesn't take long for the surgeon's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to show up. She's so rude, she makes Harris's character look considerate. She leaves a mess wherever she goes and pushes Lawrence's character into all manner of unwanted conversations.

To augment this bizarre scenario, the couple's two grown sons (Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and immediately engage in a Cain-and-Abel style fight over their father's will.

The credits identify Lawrence's character only as Mother; Bardem is referred to as Him. This tells us that we're watching a film that wants to mine a metaphorical motherland. As is often the case, Aronofsky aims big.

Aronofsky toys with every horror trope he can find: eerie basements, spurts of blood and a steady stream of unexplained noises.

All the while, Aronofsky frames Lawrence's face in booming close-ups; Lawrence expresses perpetual consternation over the fact that her husband insists that these uninvited guests stay; his desire amounts to a betrayal.

Generally, Lawrence's character behaves in ways that make little sense, a problem that afflicts much of the rest of the movie, but Aronofsky seems intent on making us ride a wave that swells with bizarre shocks.

With a movie such as Mother!, much hinges on whether Aronofsky can tie things together. Watching Mother! is like listening to a very long (and not entirely interesting joke) hoping that the punchline makes the time we're investing worthwhile.

Now if you want to excavate some meaning from all the stylistic bric-a-brac, try this. Bardem's character is a self-absorbed artist who pays very little attention to his wife. He allows his guests to insult and berate her, every now and again offering his apologies. The fact that Harris's character is a fan suggests that Bardem's character will put up with anything -- so long as it's accompanied by massive adulation.

Aronofsky carries this notion to wild extremes in the movie's final act, which I won't describe here because Aronofsky's images do have a surprising quality that should be discovered in a theater.

Aronofsky (Noah, Black Swan, The Wrestler and The Fountain) certainly knows how to create vivid images but when he finally wraps up his movie, I had the sense that I had just watched a perversely overproduced and willfully malicious episode of The Twilight Zone. It's as if Aronofsky has channeled impulses from filmmakers such as Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby) and Michael Haneke (Funny Games) and given them an even more twisted spin.

Mostly I felt sorry for Lawrence, a gifted actress playing a character who takes a psychological and physical beating as the film progresses. Aronofsky may be trying to describe a particularly loathsome form of male behavior, especially among artistic men, but to make his point Lawrence must become the movie's sacrificial lamb.

Whatever the case, it's worth noting that in enlarging the characters played by Bardem and Lawrence to float his allegorical balloons, Aronofsky mostly ignores their humanity. I took the movie's preoccupation with close-ups as significant, a way of locking its characters in the prison of a tormenting vision.

With Mother!, Aronofsky huffs, puffs and damn well tries to blow the house down. But this time out, I found myself wondering whether there was anything more to the movie than the ominous howl of all that huffing and puffing.

He's very tough but who really cares?

Mitch Rapp, the hero of American Assassin, battles bad guys and a muddled script.

Loads of people are familiar with author Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, a disaffected loner recruited into the CIA after a terrorist murders his girlfriend on a beach right after the two have become engaged. It may take every fan of Flynn’s 16-book series to turn American Assassin — the first Mitch Rapp movie — into a hit.

Muddled by a scattered screenplay and hampered by Dylan O’Brien’s notably unremarkable performance as Rapp, American Assassin does a fair share of globe hopping but manages to go nowhere.

After his fiancee’s death, Rapp trains himself to become a killing machine, staging a one-man Libyan mission to kill the leader of the terrorist group responsible for his fiancee's death. When American troops disrupt his work, Rapp finds himself in the hands of the CIA, where the head of counter-intelligence (Sanaa Lathan) turns him over to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a former Navy SEAL who trains his charges to be merciless killers.

At first, it seems as if swarthy complexions constitute the movie's only requirement for villainy, but we soon learn that a disaffected American (Taylor Kitsch) is trying to arrange a plutonium deal in Poland. Kitsch's character plans to sell Russian plutonium to Iranians — or some such.

That’s only the beginning of global hopscotching that takes Rapp to Turkey, Italy and other places, moving too quickly even to offer travelogue diversions.

In my view, only three reasons justify seeing American Assassin: a reasonably imaginative virtual reality training sequence, Keaton's crazed handling of a wince-inducing scene in which Stan is tortured and a late-picture explosion that can’t be described without giving away the movie’s climax.

Most of the time, American Assassin -- which was directed by Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger) -- fails to distinguish itself, looking like a low-rent version of the Jason Bourne movies with a little Jack Ryan thrown in.

For all its fights and action, American Assassin fails to generate the excitement we associate with the discovery of a new hero. The movie pauses for occasional chunks of listless exposition before leaping ahead to the next scene or country.

The net effect: Watching American Assassin made me feel as I if were skimming a second-rate novel, leafing from one chapter to the next, vainly hoping to stumble on something good.

Dancing her way toward freedom

A classically trained Russian ballerina wonders how much self-expression she must sacrifice in preparing for her audition for the Bolshoi Ballet. Anastasia Shevtsova, a real dancer, portrays Polina, the movie's title character as a young woman. Based on a graphic novel by Bastien Vives and directed by Valarie Muller and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj , Polina follows Polina from childhood into her 20something years. Initially, Polina studies with Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), no-nonsense teacher who doles out compliments parsimoniously. When Polina travels to Moscow to try out for the Bolshoi, she falls for a French dancer (Niels Schneider) and decides to return to France with him, much to the dismay of her father. Miglen Mirtchev plays Polina's Dad, a man who has fallen into difficulties with the Russian mob but who always wanted to see his daughter become a prima ballerina. In France, Polina joins a company run by Lira Elsaj (Juliette Binoche), a character whose style is freer and more modern than anything to which Polina has been exposed. Trouble looms: An ankle injury hampers Polina's career and her romance falls apart, leaving her to travel to Antwerp, where she works as a bar tender. There, she meets Karl (Jeremie Beligard); you won't be surprised to learn that Polina and Carl wind up dancing together. Hardly groundbreaking, Polina nonetheless features two fine performances from the actresses who play Polina (Veronica Zhovnytska as the young Polina and Shevitsova as the more mature dancer). Polina isn't the deepest drama but the dancing elevates a story that sometimes feels predictable. Credit Shevtsova with creating a character who's trying to use her training and develop her own style. Polina doesn't necessarily want to throw away the past; she hopes to carry it into a more liberated future.

Outrage after a police shooting

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis deliver a strong, clear message in Whose Streets?, a documentary about what happened in August of 2014 after Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. The message: The Civil Rights movement as we once knew it is dead, but that doesn't mean protest has ended. Whatever you think about Brown's killing, Whose Streets? proves informative because it focuses on the people who took to the streets in the wake of Brown’s death; i.e., it can be seen as a portrait of a deeply aggrieved community. The U.S. Justice Department eventually found that the police in Ferguson consistently had violated the rights of African Americans, so it's hardly surprising that Whose Streets? captures the outrage and frustration felt by Ferguson residents who view the post-Brown response as an armed invasion of their community. No disputing the conclusion; we all saw the armored vehicles roll in. Some of the footage comes from cell-phone images captured by protestors, which gives Whose Streets? an appropriately shaky and chaotic feel. Disturbing, if a bit repetitive and digressive, Whose Streets? reflects the mood and concerns of a much-abused population, the residents of Ferguson who weren't shot but who too long have lived with a police force that seems to have done little to serve and protect them -- and, as the movie makes clear, that treatment didn't start with Michael Brown's death.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

'It' sends in the clown -- and he's a killer

Latest Stephen King adaptation likely to score with audiences. To me? A yawn.
The working-class adults in It, an adaptation of a 1,000-plus page 1986 Stephen King novel, are abusive, cruel and, in some cases, detestable. Whether this arises from economic pressures or stands as some sort of class bias isn't entirely clear. Maybe it doesn't matter because the adults aren't the obvious focal point of director Andy Muschietti's adaptation; it's their kids.

To explore the fears of adolescent life, It follows -- if distantly -- a 1990 TV adaptation in which Tim Curry distinguished himself as Pennywise, the clown who terrorizes the children of Derry, Maine.

Muschietti and a trio of writers (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman) shift the time frame of King's novel from the 1950s to the 1980s and deal only with the first half of King's opus. A sequel is set to follow in which the teens of this edition return as adults.

Arriving more than 30 years after the novel's publication, this big screen version suffers from inevitable comparisons with a rash of other horror movies in which teens are terrorized by evil forces and by memories of another King-inspired movie, Stand By Me (1986).

By now, gory horror (icky streams of blood, razor-sharp teeth and other foul manifestations of malignant forces) make it seem as if we've seen It before and deprive the movie of some of the resonance that King must have intended.

Full of familiar King tropes, It tries to follow King's lead, allowing evil figures to provoke familiar fears of childhood. Who, at one time or another, hasn't trembled at the thought of entering a dank basement? That sort of thing.

In what can be viewed as thematic piling on, the teens of Derry not only must confront the buck-toothed Pennywise but are also taunted by the town bully (Nicholas Hamilton). Anyone who remembers his or her teen years may find Hamilton's character a good deal more frightening than any of the movie's booming effects, delivered with considerable verve and polish but too easily left behind in the theater, along with kernels of spilled popcorn.

The teens in the movie have named themselves the Losers Club. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) leads the group. Bill's younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by Pennywise in the movie's swiftly stated prologue.

The rest of the club members mostly are distinguished by single traits. One kid (Wyatt Oleff) is Jewish; another kid (Chosen Jacobs) is black; still another (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is overweight.

Every group of screen kids needs a wise-ass. In this case, the job falls to Finn Wolfhard. Jack Dylan Grazer portrays a kid dominated by his mother.

As the story develops, a girl (Sophia Lillis) joins the pack. Lillis' Beverly has a sexually abusive father and, unfairly, has been branded as "a slut" by her classmates.

Among the movie's problems: Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the scary clown whose makeup and goofy affect conceal his true nature, hovers near cliche, even with his ability to transform from a clown into his horrific real self.

Having pretty much found It to be a yawn, I should hasten to say that the movie likely will add some spin to the multiplex turnstiles after a lackluster couple of late-summer weeks.

Before a preview screening of It, King appeared in a short clip addressed to the audience. He said he was happy with the adaptation and praised the movie's young cast, all of whom do fine work as they spout profanities, shriek and behave as credibly as the story allows; they also discover that their hometown is targeted by waves of violence that appear in 27-year intervals.

Sometimes, it feels as if It lumbers from one set piece to another, giving each of the teens a scene that plays to his or her major fear. Each eruption of shock creates the aura of a super-charged fun house -- vivid but depthless. And at 135 minutes, the film begins to feel as lengthy as the book.

The movie teaches the members of the Losers Club a lesson that might have been culled from Hillary Clinton's campaign slogan: "Stronger together." The monster can't win if the kids unite to overcome their fears.

Although It takes full advantage of current technology in producing its many effects, the movie nonetheless feels trapped by the well-worn demands of a genre in which nearly every move feels too ingrained to break the bounds of the screen and take up residence deep inside our worst nightmares.

When Alice, 40, meets Harry, 27

Reese Witherspoon can't save a rom-com in which the romance isn't great -- and neither is the comedy.

Viewed through the most positive possible lens, the new romantic comedy Home Again has one element that might be regarded as fresh. A 40-year-old woman (Reese Witherspoon) disregards age differences and has an affair with a 27-year-old man (Pico Alexander).

Fair enough, but Home Again breaks little new ground with a mostly desexualized affair that stems less from desire than from confusions caused by a dissolving marriage. Besides, the whole age thing would have been more daring had Alice been written as a 50-year-old woman.

Witherspoon's Alice Kinney has arrived in Los Angeles with her two daughters (Eden Grace Redfield and Lola Flannery) to occupy the house of her late father, a well-respected director who also was known for his womanizing.

While partying at a bar with girlfriends on the occasion of her 40th birthday, Alice meets Harry (Alexander), an aspiring filmmaker.

Harry has arrived in LA with two filmmaking buddies (Nat Wolff and Jon Rudnitsky). The trio hopes to sell a screenplay writing based on a short that gained some recognition of the festival circuit.

After a drunken attempt at romance between Alice and Harry misfires, the three young men wind up living in Alice's guest house where they engage in annoyingly positive interactions with Alice's daughters and prove to be ideal tenants. Why not? They're not paying rent.

It's nice to see Candice Bergen in a brief role as Alice's mother, the woman who suggests that Alice shelter these apparently talented young men. Too bad, the screenplay gives Bergen so little to do.

Alice and Harry eventually begin a romance. The other two guys also have their eyes on Alice, but behave like gentlemen who become ridiculously (if not amusingly) protective of her when her estranged husband (Michael Sheen) arrives with hopes of patching up the marriage.

Director Hallie Meyers-Shyer -- the daughter of filmmakers Nancy Meyers (The Intern) and Charles Shyer (Baby Boom) -- has made the kind of romantic comedy that seems to exist behind the walls of a gated community where suffering is limited and all consequences easily are attenuated.

In starting her own business, Alice meets the duplicitous Zoey (Lake Bell), who hires Alice to decorate a child's bedroom. Zoey takes advantage of Alice, treating her like a nanny. Oh, the indignity.

OK, so rom-coms often rely on easy to swallow situations and posh surroundings, environments that soothe, offering palliative care for reality-weary audiences. But it's definitely disappointing to see Witherspoon, who created a real character in HBO's Big Little Lies, step backward into a world in which the most adventurous thing anyone might do is forgo the luxury of a personal shopper.