Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Review: 2021 Oscar-nominated animated short films

Oscar-nominate short films: Animated


6 minutes 

This cute and cuddly short from writer/director Madeline Sharafian follows the adventures of a little bunny eager to build his new home down in the earth. He's pleased with his architectural plans for a single-room dwelling with all the important features labeled ("Bed!" "Table!" "Me!" Disco?"). His joy is quenched when other underground critters burrow into his den while expanding their own -- moles, mice, frogs, salamanders, ants, etc. It turns out their more expansive homes put his to shame, so the rabbit continues to dig deeper until trouble strikes. The wordless animals are anthropomorphic, with little stoves and showers, though I'm not quite sure why they need shovels to dig. A fun and uplifting story about togetherness.


Genius Loci

16 minutes

In this surrealist hand-drawn short from France, a young woman has a series of mind-bending journeys. Asked by a neighbor to watch her baby and finish cooking dinner, a spilled glass of water leads to a wash of images and ideas that flow one into the next. She journeys out into the streets and encounters a trio of young toughs who harass her. Some papers blown by the wind become a pair of dogs chasing and playing with each other. A dropped apple vibrates like a cellphone. Lots of imagination here and plenty of visual beauty, though I craved more of a narrative structure. Later our protagonist encounters an organist who espouses cacophonous music -- "just sound, with no meaning." This is the cinematic equivalent.



If Anything Happens I Love You

13 minutes

 An absolutely heartbreaking, very simple piece of animation that only uses straight lines in black-and-white, and smatterings of the color blue. A married couple wallow in unhappiness, unable to reach out to or speak to each other. Meanwhile, their shadows come to life and seem to push and pull them toward happier behavior, but are ignored. A damaged patch of their house wall opens up to the story of their life: a daughter, now gone. We see her life unfold, and her shadow also interacts with her parents and pulls them toward away from despair. Quiet, powerful and moving.


9 minutes

Difficult to describe this film -- it's wondrous, perplexing, disheartening, possibly enlightening. There's no story -- just a intricate pyramid diorama that we review from top to bottom, then back up again. Inside are thousands of tiny human figures at work or play, mimicking the sum of all human activity. There is agriculture, industry, marriage, death, religion, politics and so on. A war breaks out between the forces, and when it's over the cycle begins again. Your eye goes this way and that, trying to make out what each little activity portends. I was intrigued but never could really make sense of it.

Yes People

9 minutes

This quirky Icelandic film looks at the quotidian lives of various people living in and around the same apartment building. There's the old man who shovels snow from the walk for everyone, without thanks. His amorous wife, who loves him but not his penchant for ripping out flatulence. The exuberant music teacher and her teen son, who spends all night playing video games and falls asleep in school. The resentful housewife with whiskey fleas, sneaking a bottle she hides in the kitchen trash, and her corpulent husband, long since emotionally checked out. I'm not sure what it all amounts to, but it's a pleasing though also sobering portrait.

Also playing: Highly Commended (non-nominees)


The Snail and the Whale

To Gerard


Review: "Concrete Cowboy"


Black cowboys riding the range on the mean streets of Philly? It sounds like a fantastical Hollywood concoction, but as "Concrete Cowboy" movingly illustrates, inner-city stables were and are a real, albeit dying way of life stubbornly clung to by modern horse lovers keeping the spirit of the Old West alive back East.

The solid new Netflix drama stars Idris Elba as Harp, an old-school cowboy living the life as the top cowhand at Nessie's Stables, a rundown horse haven and gathering place for local equine enthusiasts. They have a large empty field across the way for giving kids riding lessons, exercising their dozen or so horses and holding neighborhood festivals.

A few steps in any directions, though, and it's the familiar urban blight of tattered homes, liquor stores, poverty, drug deals and suffering. These cowboys, who highlight the trodden history of Black and brown folks like them who helped tame the West, know they are playing out their last string on borrowed time... but they'll keep riding it as long as they can.

The film, directed by Ricky Staub from a screenplay he co-wrote with Dan Walser, is at once sentimental and gritty. Caleb McLaughlin plays Cole, Harp's estranged teen son who gets dumped off at his row house by his mother after she becomes fed up with his constant scrapes with trouble. 

He's not a bad kid, but he's sliding down a long slope toward a sharp cliff.

Harp seems indifferent at first to Cole's presence. He offers him a couch to sleep on, and not much else. Harp has nothing but beer in the fridge and has a horse, Champ, squatting in his living room. To Cole, it seems like his pops cares more about the hooved resident than him.

Cole soon receives some tough love from the other cowboys, notably Nessie herself (Lorraine Toussaint) and Paris (Jamil Prattis), who wound up in a wheelchair -- not from riding but gangbanging. Cole is put to work shoveling horse poop and other menial jobs, and ever so slowly starts to ease into this adopted community.

Most of the horses are castoffs and headcases, such as Boo, a stallion the veteran cowboys are afraid to go near. But Cole finds an affinity for his fellow hothead, and together they manage to cool each other's temper.

He also runs into Smush (Jharrel Jerome), a childhood friend who gave up the cowboy life to run the streets. Cole instantly falls in with him, much to Harp's dismay, and they expand Smush's drug trade, bringing the attention of the local street boss.

It's clear Cole is going to have to choose between these two new ways of life, and it's here where the story becomes a bit rote and predictable. We know what's going to happen to certain characters long before they do, and it becomes an exercise in waiting around for the movie to arrive.

Still, I reveled in the colorful background characters -- many of them played by real-life Philadelphia cowboys (like Prattis). Some of the best moments are just hanging around a campfire, huffing on a harmonica, singing old songs and praising forgotten history.

Devenie Young plays Trena, another childhood friend all grown up into a fetching cowgirl. She's willing to give Cole a chance, after she's put him through his paces. Clifford Smith (aka Method Man) turns up as Leroy, a stable regular as a youngster but now a police detective. There's a tenuous peace between the stable crew and Leroy, knowing there are lines that cannot be crossed. Byron Bowers plays Rome, the chucklehead of the group who's still telling the story of the time -- one time -- he beat Harp in a race.

It's not a terribly meaty part for Idris, who hangs in the background more than I would've liked. Harp seems to have a very clear concept of himself, where he's lacking and when he has a right to strut. He knows where his range is and sticks to it. Part of him wants to be a good father, but he's also wise enough to grasp you can't pick up at year 16 and expect a smooth jump right out of the gait.

Even though the story could've stood to be a bit more innovative, there's a lot to like about "Concrete Cowboy." It's another page in the rich story of the Black experience in America, filled with degradation but also fierce pride and unfettered joy. Even though we ran out of new land to explore a long time ago, some are still out there riding along the edge of whatever frontier they can find.


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Review: "Six Minutes to Midnight"


I'm a sucker for World War II movies, especially based-on-true ones like "Six Minutes to Midnight." It was arguably the single most important event in human history, and even today there are still endless tales of unheralded heroism, sacrifice, debasement and tragedy to be told.

Strangely, this spy drama starring Eddie Izzard is curiously flat and lacking emotional appeal. It has an interesting premise: a British school for German girl that becomes a locus of intrigue that could alter the fate of the war. It's got secret agents posing as teachers, double-crosses, intimidating brutes and Dame Judi Dench as the noble but self-deluding head mistress.

Yet I found the movie, directed by Andy Goddard from a screenplay he wrote with Izzard and Celyn Jones, to be predictable and even a tad dull. Izzard's character isn't very well fleshed out, existing as a sort of do-gooding everyman without any history of distinctive personality traits. 

He fills out a suit marvelously, but the role is thin as tissue.

(I should mention Dench and fellow Brit acting legend Jim Broadbent receive top billing, though Izzard's the star and main character, as well as serving as executive producer. This film is clearly his baby, yet he takes a lesser credit. Though I suppose just being in the same movie with those two stalwarts must be reward enough.)

As the story opens in summer of 1939, the English teacher at the Augusta Victoria College for Girls at Bexhill-on-Sea on the southern coast of England goes mysteriously missing. We see him being nervously chased about the boardwalk, so we know it's not just the jitters. Thomas Miller (Izzard), a middle-aged widower with a journeyman's history of going from school to school, is hired on a trial basis as replacement by Miss Rocholl (Dench), who runs the college.

Roscholl is a strong adovcate of Anglo-Saxon cultural alliance, and is aware how this looks in the days before the outbreak of a war that seems certain. She informs Miller that a number of the students are daughters of Nazi high command, so discretion is key.

It turns out Miller is a Brit agent who's been sent to ferret out what's going on at the school. He's disturbed to find the young women listening to Hitler broadcasts and even giving the Nazi salute -- with Rocholl and the young teacher, Ilsa (Carla Juri), joining in. 

Broadbent turns up, all too briefly, as Charlie, the local bus driver who seems to know more than he ought. James D'Arcy plays the police captain looking into the matter who's unreasonably snotty about it. Jones, the co-screenwriter, plays his brutish corporal, one eyebrow melted in a permanent sneer. David Schofield plays Miller's huffy superior who meets him for clandestine hand-offs of secrets.

One of the film's weaknesses is that the students are never really given strong identities, just acting as a sort of greek's chorus of blonde, apple-cheeked emotional windsock. The only two that really stand out are Maria Dragus as Astrid, the headstrong one even Miller confesses he's a little scared of, and Tijan Marei as Gretel, the smart, timid girl the others pick on.

The movie starts to explore Gretel's relationship with Miller a little bit, with him trying to support her against the bullying. There's even a brief suggestion she might be Jewish, or passing as gentile, though it's soon swept aside for more spy vs. spy stuff.

If the intrigue were more exciting, we might forgive the lack of character development. As it is there's just a vague description of there being a list of British undercover agents being circulated through the school, and that the Nazi commanders intend to bring the girls home before declaring war. I never could quite figure out why the MacGuffin has to be tied to the school -- aren't there hundreds of other ways to transmit the secret list?

Izzard isn't terribly convincing as a secret agent, shortish and stocky with floppy blond locks. Miller does a lot of running in the movie, on the lam from both German and British authorities at different points, though there is one clever bit where he impersonantes a marching band musician.

"Six Minutes to Midnight" doesn't work very well either as a human story or as a spy thriller. It seems like the start of something very good, but a lot of ingredients were left on the counter.


Review: "Nobody"

Hutch Mansell isn’t the sort of guy to make a strong impression on you… or any kind.

He’s a middle-aged suburban dad who punches the clock at work, does his father/husband duties at home dutifully if without a lot of zeal, avoids trouble and doesn’t appear to have any major vices or hangups.

Hutch, played by “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk, is smallish in stature and physically closer to timid than imposing. His father-in-law and brother-in-law (Michael Ironside and Billy MacLellan), who run the machine shop where he does the books, push him around because they know he won’t push back.

When a pair of nervous thieves break into his house in the middle of the night, Hutch is content to hand over his valuables without a fight. Even when his teen son, Blake (Gage Munroe), tackles one of the intruders and Hutch has a clear shot to take out the other one, he demurs and lets them flee.

The cops tell him he did the right thing, but at this point everyone is convinced he’s a wimp.

But as we’re about to find out, Hutch is a “Nobody” -- someone with a dark past that he’s spent the last few years trying to stash away. The break-in winds up being the match that lights a long-dormant fire he’s been secretly longing to stoke.

I’m not sure what you’d call “Nobody,” directed by Ilya Naishuller from a script by “John Wick” writer Derek Kolstad. It wears the clothes of a standard revenge action/thriller, but I couldn’t help detecting dark notes of humor throughout.

Certainly the presence of Odenkirk, a veteran comedy writer/actor, underlines that theme. Easing up on 60, he’s basically the polar opposite of a screen badass. Though when Hutch’s glare finally hardens, we feel like we ought to take a step back.

Hutch winds up getting into an epic duke-out with some hoodlums on a city bus. I like the way Naishuller and the stunts team stage these -- very gritty and bloody, without any superhuman kinetics or resistance to injury. Hutch gets as good as he gives, and is pretty well a pulp by the end.

Turns out one of the toughs is the kid brother of Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksey Serebryakov), a peacocking local Russian mob kingpin. He vows payback, leading to ever-escalating levels of violence, which Hutch knows he should do more to avoid but really revels in -- at one point literally crossing his fingers hoping the Rooskies will respond to his latest instigation.

The always-terrific Christopher Lloyd (not me, the talented one) turns up as Hutch’s dad, wasting away in a nursing home but still boasting a quick and well-placed pinkie finger. RZA makes a late appearance as an old chum with similar talents and inclinations. Connie Nielsen plays Hutch’s wife, who has a different reaction than you’d expect to his relapse.

“Nobody” is simultaneously very grim and a helluva lot of fun. We all sometimes entertain the daydream we could break out of our tame identities and be a Bond or Bourne. This time the bruiser is pretending to be one of us -- not putting on a mask, but taking one off.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972)


I decided to check out "Lady Sings the Blues" for two reasons: it's out in a gorgeous new Blu-ray edition, and it's the first major biopic of jazz icon Billie Holiday, preceding "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" by nearly 50 years.

I thought Andra Day was terrific in "United States," though the film is somewhat slapdash and takes a lot of liberties with historical fact, up to and including concocting a romance between Holiday and the federal agent who was supposed to be keeping tabs on her.

Turns out "Lady" isn't that much more accurate, despite being based on her own autobiography, co-written with William Dufty. It tracks her fight to the top in painstaking detail, wallows in her drug addiction for the middle and third acts and then skates through the last dozen years or so of her life in hasty order.

It also omits her first two husbands, centering only on the figure of Louis McKay, the part played by Billy Dee Williams. The movie -- screenplay by Suzanne de Passe, Chris Clark, Terence McCloy -- pretends as if he was with her from her very start, when in fact they only knew each other during the last few years of her life.

McKay is depicted in the movie as a slick businessman with some shady aspects who nevertheless acts as Billie's guardian and soulmate. Most accounts say he was really a two-bit louse who sucked money and attention from Billie. He was also reportedly physically and emotionally abusive, a characteristic she unfortunately seemed to share with all of her other relationships.

Williams is in fact the best thing about the movie, and his scenes with Billie usually have a strong emotional tug. He plays McKay as a smooth operator who first sees her as a conquest, but comes to genuinely care for her and becomes invested in being her rescuer when she hits her downward spiral.

Between the domestic violence, opioid addiction and being hounded by the feds -- not to mention being raped as a teenager -- it's no wonder Billie Holiday sang sad songs without equal. 

My biggest problem with the movie is Diana Ross in the lead role. Despite earning an Oscar nomination (the film also received four others, including adapted screenplay, art direction, costumes and music), Ross just isn't convincing as Holiday. Certainly she pales in comparison to Day, though I may be biased by having seen the more contemporary performance first.

Ross doesn't look anything like Holiday, which is not uncommon in biographical films. But she doesn't sound anything like Holiday, which is bewildering.

Holiday's phrasing of lyrics and bending of notes made her sound instantly recognizable. She was influenced by the instrumentals of jazz, and wanted her voice to be able to sound like a sliding trumpet, dithering saxophone or blaring trumpet as the case may be. Her singing style is central to her iconography.

Instead, Diana Ross sings like... Diana Ross. She's a fine singer of course, but coming from a pop background she sounds like a little girl compared to Holiday's resonance. There's no basement in her voice, just the balcony.

I'm reminded of David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma" and seemingly going out of his way to give his speeches in a manner unlike MLK. Like Billie Holiday, their voices rang out through the ages in a very distinctive way, not just what they said but how they said it. Eschewing that sound is a fatally bad choice.

Ross does a lot of singing in the movie, so every time she opens her mouth we're reminded that we're very much not listening to Billie Holiday. Her stage presence is a pretty good simulation, though, mimicking the stoop-shouldered way Holiday often performed, head bowed as if almost in reverence of her own talent.

The film was directed by Sidney J. Furie, who's had quite a career including some high-toned projects like this and "The Ipcress File" as well as drek such as "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" and "Iron Eagle" and its sequel. He's continued to make films steadily since the late 1950s and, closing in on age 90, has another one in post-production. 

He's got a good feel for the character scenes, though some of them tend to be a little too loose and improvisational, especially in the second half. This is especially prevalent in the scenes with Richard Pryor as Piano Man, Billie's musical usher and intimate friend -- also a purveyor of her "stuff," as she calls her narcotics.

She was initially hooked on drugs via Harry, the smiling, blond-headed white musician played by Paul Hampton who initially encouraged Billie to come out on the road along with his partner, Reg Hanley (James Callahan), who's more of a straight shooter who genuinely loves and respects her because of her talent. 

Harry likens the dope to simple medicine, noting that if you get hit by a car the first thing they do when they take you to the hospital is pump you full of morphine. Of course, when the going gets tough and Billie gets hooked, Harry is nowhere to be found.

The film treats Billie's famous 1947 arrest as its framing device, opening with her being thrown into a padded cell to go cold turkey, with the story eventually catching up to that point. There's nothing about the trial or subsequent legal troubles, however, and there's no grand conspiracy to keep her down because of the song "Strange Fruit," an allegory on lynching. 

I noticed the songs in the movie tend to be very short, some of them barely a minute. They're the actual famous Billie Holiday tunes, though usually cut down to just a couple of stanzas and the chorus. I often find my attention wandering in musical movies where we keep having to sit through four- or five-minute complete songs -- that certainly was the case with "United States." But I was equally irritated by getting these little sample-sized versions.

In the end, "Lady Sings the Blues" takes the life of a legitimate legend and works hard to distill it down to the usual cliches: artist comes from nothing, displays phenomenal ability, encounters various obstacles combined with personal flaws, and is undone by them. We've seen it in "A Star Is Born" -- all the iterations -- and countless other showbiz stories.

I probably could've swallowed all of that if we actually got a meaningfully close portrayal of Billie Holiday. Instead we get Diana Ross, which ain't bad, but that's something else.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Review: "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier"


I liked “WandaVision” but was frustrated by its high-concept, deep-backstory approach to bringing the Marvel Comics Universe to the small screen. It took four or five episodes to really get simmering and only kicked into the highest gear for the last couple of episodes.

It reminded me of the second season of “The Walking Dead” — sometimes you just need to get the hell off the farm and start brain-spearing some zombies.

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” goes the opposite direction, quickly jumping into a 10-minute, balls-out action sequence within the first 30 seconds. The MCU’s devotion to humanizing its heroes has been its saving grace, so I don’t crave constant chase-chase bang-bang.

But starting with some kapow, and then letting the temperature cool down before building to more heat spikes, seems the wiser choice.

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) aka the Falcon and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) aka the Winter Soldier have been second-tier figures in the Avengers cycle, but with plenty of complicated history and trauma. Now they get a chance to explore their pasts and current relationships in this six-episode run, all directed by TV veteran Kari Skogland (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), in what is surely shaping up to be a multi-season venture.

Disney+ is only showing us the first episode for now (which debuts Friday March 19), but based on the early going we’re in for a showboating ride with plenty of action but enough time and space for meaty character-building.

Preview looks have been compared to a cheeky buddy-cop spin, though the pair — who faced off in the movies — don’t actually even meet up in the first outing. It appears the central conflict will center around the Flag-Smashers, a multinational terrorist consortium (think Antifa meets Proud Boys) that thinks things were better during the 5-year “blip” when Thanos turned half the world’s population to black ash.

Sam’s working with the Air Force to smoke them out, and gets the opening honors in a daredevil airborne chase involving planes, helicopters, missiles and acrobat parachuters. He’s having doubts, though, about taking up the mantle of Captain America, agreeing to put the iconic shield gifted to him into museum mothballs.

There’s also a sideplot about Sam working with his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), to save the family’s fishing boat and business. This leads to some racially tinged reality about what workaday life is really like for a world-saving hero, especially a Black one.

Meanwhile, Bucky has been pardoned with the condition that he eschew spycraft and violence (right!) and work with a therapist on his nightmares resulting from his decades as the Soviet-brainwashed Winter Soldier. Having lost his best — only, really — friend in Steve Rogers, Bucky’s almost totally on his own, though he has an older Japanese pal. And there’s hint of budding romance with a local barkeep.

Disney reportedly spent $150 million to make six episodes of “Falcon” after shelling out $225 million for nine of “WandaVision,” or an average of $25 million per. So there’s no chintzy special effects or demurring of bringing in other big MCU names for guest spots, including Don Cheadle.

This is full-bore Marvel story arc with all the customary razzle-dazzle and thoughtfulness about connecting pieces to the greater universe. Let’s hope “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” can sustain this early, promising energy level.


Review: "The Courier"


There are a lot of stark, weighty moments in “The Courier,” a tense political thriller about a largely forgotten spy intrigue around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis that centers on two unlikely figures.

Greville Wynne, a largely anonymous British businessman, was recruited to be the go-between man for Oleg Penkovsky, a highly placed Soviet official who leaked information critical to the West getting Nikita Khrushchev to back down and remove nuclear armaments from Cuba.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wynne as a feckless middle-class salesman, sort of a lovable huckster, who gets drawn into the scheme reluctantly and winds up emotionally invested. He and Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) become friends of a sort, doing a lot of drinking and carousing in the name of putting on a show for all the Soviet surveillance following them around on Wynne’s trips to Moscow -- but also because they build a genuine kinship.

In my opinion the film spends too much time on various side characters, and instead should’ve focused intently on the relationship between the two men. Penkovsky, a war hero, considers himself a patriot and loyal Communist. But he can’t stand the reckless, impulsive ways of Khruschev, despite being a pet favorite. Wynne’s an apolitical type who comes to fear the global threat on his doorstep.

Still, we get lots of the usual enjoyable “spy movie stuff,” or at least the more realistic mold in the vein of “Bridge of Spies” than James Bond. There are dead drops, clandestine meetings, code names (“Ironbark” for Penkovsky), complicated escape plots, and all the rest. And Cumberbatch and Ninidze do build a solid onscreen rapport, especially in same later scenes when things take a grim turn for their characters.

Rachel Brosnahan plays Emily Donovan, an American CIA agent who first steers Penkovsky toward her English MI6 counterparts, with Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) acting as her main partner. In typical fashion, the British spy lords are stuffy and conservative, while the fiery Yank is always pushing for bigger, bolder -- and riskier -- actions.

(Of course, Brosnahan gets several everyone’s-staring-at-her scenes where people are shocked by the presence of a woman in these circles, which are tiring.)

Wynne, who had already represented Western manufacturers in Soviet bloc countries, is convinced by the pair to do the initial outreach to Penkovsky, the idea being that all their operatives have already been marked by Russian snoops. Plus, Wynne is the perfect cover because he doesn’t resemble a spy -- though I did chortle at their description of Wynne, played by the whippet-lean Cumberbatch, as flabby and out-of-shape.

Wynne initially refuses, pointing out that his wife, Sheila, is too smart not to figure things out. She’s played by dynamic Jessie Buckley, rather wasted in a standard “fretting housewife” role. Olga Koch plays Penkovsky’s wife, while Kirill Pirogov is nicely icy as the KGB man who begins sniffing after him, though very politely.

Director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter Tom O'Connor keep things moving at a quick pace, not getting too bogged down in the geopolitical implications of the missile crisis, which mostly takes place in the background on television screens or radio broadcasts.

Can two men really change the world? Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky altered the trajectory of the Cold War, possibly even helping avert the nuclear attack that represents the closest the world ever came to total manmade devastation. They get their deserved moment in the hero’s limelight with “The Courier.”


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Review: "Dutch"


"Oh, I don't lie: I enjoy the harvest of my labor."
There are a number of ways to approach reviewing a terrible movie. The most common is to go into full-on mockery mode, which, as Anton Ego from "Ratatouille" noted, "is fun to write and to read." There's the opposite end of resentment and rage, which I've occasionally indulged in, as with last summer's "Tenet." I once panned a movie entirely in bullet points.

Then there are movies so transcendentally awful, like the crime drama "Dutch," that my mood upon receiving them is best described as astonishment. I truly can't believe this got made, or released.

Written and directed by Preston A. Whitmore II, "Dutch" is chock full of painfully amateurish acting, cartoonish characters, egregious racial and gender stereotypes, and dialogue that lands like a bowling ball dropped onto polished marble. You can read some of it, verbatim, sprinkled throughout this column.

Without hyperbole, I've seen better from rookie filmmakers on their first no-budget feature. I loathed every minute watching it and put a hex on those responsible for stealing 109 minutes from life I'll never get back. (Not counting the time spent writing this, which I'm striving to minimize.)

"Food is important to me, and I don't like to be interrupted!"

"Dutch" is part courtroom drama, part gangster picture, a little bit coming-of-age story. It arises from the entire oeuvre of movies that wants to model itself after "Scarface" -- even though that's a sprawling mess of a movie itself. The narrative is hard to follow as it uses the trial of the main character as its through-line, with jumbled flashbacks to "7 years ago" or "3 years ago." 

Characters float in and out of the story, important ones being introduced rather late and others we only saw played by another actor as a teenager suddenly showing up and we're supposed to know who it is.

Bernard James, aka Dutch, is a drug dealer from Newark who has risen to the top of the game. He's played by Lance Gross, who's given a lot of great suits and not much else to work with. Dutch smiles a lot for a crime lord, in that ironic sideways way like everything people say to him is taken as bitterly funny. He seems to have no center as a person, other than his ambition and his will to dominate.

As the story opens he intrudes upon the lunch of a Michelle, a successful young defense attorney played by Natasha Marc. In a planned gimmick to draw her interest, he hands over a certified check just before the police arrive to arrest him. The two play a cat-and-mouse game the rest of the movie, which gives a reason for the flashbacks to his younger life so we can learn how he came up.

Marc gets handed a lot of the worst lines to say, and somehow manages to make them even more cringeworthy. Her delivery is so stilted and lacking in any kind of a natural speaking rhythm I wouldn't be surprised if you told me she was reading her lines off cue cards, seeing the dialogue for the first time while filming it.

"Withdrawn. I'm done with this liar... I mean, WITNESS."

Lots of background players to follow. Dutch has a crew of three tight friends from childhood, graduating from boosting cars to murder and taking over the drug trade. They include Ferreira Isabella as Angel, a tough girl who gets the movie's obligatory topless scene; Miles Stroter as Qwan, the timid fat kid who turns tail and becomes a reverend; and Jeremy Meeks as Craze, whose name is self-explanatory.

(You may remember Meeks as the "hot felon" guy, whose sexy mugshot was parlayed into a modeling career and now a step into acting. Personally I think his first calling was probably more his speed.)

There are also a handful of swarthy actors all doing that Italian goombah routine, among them Robert Costanzo as the local mob boss, whose name simply must be Fat Tony; Lenny Citrano as the gangster who took young Dutch under his wing; and James Quattrochi as the overtly racist one who wants to take Dutch out.

"You know you're a very sexy woman right?"

"If I didn't, I would be an idiot."

Speaking of, "Dutch" has some of the most horrifying racial overtones of any modern mainstream film I've seen. With few exceptions, every white person is a locus of evil with the n-word trembling on the edge of their lips, every African-American man is a violent hood perpetually fronting aggression, and every Black woman is a shallow striver parlaying her looks in exchange for bling.

This sort of thing was understandable in the day of 1960s-70s Black cinema, when a new wave of filmmakers coyly adopted the stereotypes of the establishment and turned them around to show how skewed they were. Today it's just reductive racialist self-aggrandizing.

James Hyde sneers and scowls as Anthony Jacobs, the local district attorney who is trying the high-profile case of Dutch himself. His character exists only to be the chief representative of white authority, to be figuratively (and literally) spat upon by the Black characters when he offers them deals to snitch on Dutch. 

Never mind that Dutch really seems to be everything the prosecutor describes: a remorseless killer driven only by greed and a lust for power. It's strange that the movie never directly confronts the question of whether he's actually guilty of the crime he's on trial for, sending a suicide bomber into a police precinct, killing 20 cops. That's kind of an important thing to know about your main character.

But it's early yet. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that "Dutch" left me astonished. I didn't mention a prime reason: it's subtitled as "The First of a Trilogy." Yes, that's right, this film ends on a blood-soaked cliffhanger and two sequels are planned. 

All I can say is: Is that a promise? Or a threat? 


Review: "The Father"

I confess I went into “The Father” without much enthusiasm. Dementia is a subject that’s been pretty well explored in cinema -- “Supernova” is just one recent example -- and I wondered how much familiar ground this film would tread all over again, even with Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman leading the way.

It took but a few minutes to replace my anxiety with astonishment. Director Florian Zeller, who adapted the screenplay (along with Christopher Hampton) from his own play, gives us a gripping tale that puts us right inside the mind of Anthony (Hopkins), an 83-year-old Londoner.

I don’t think I’ve seen a better cinematic depiction of mental illness since “A Beautiful Mind.”

The trick here is that we’re not witnessing Anthony from without, but seeing things through his eyes. To him, everyday life is a confusing journey in which strangers suddenly appear in your apartment, claiming to have known you for years, or strangers seem as old friends.

He also experiences agonizing time slips, so he’ll think it’s still morning when it’s suppertime -- or even that he believes an hour has gone by when it’s been more than a month.

Colman plays his daughter, Anna, who has come to live with Anthony in his marvelous flat… or he has moved into her place, depending on his current mindset. Shockingly, Anna is sometimes played by another actress, Olivia Williams, and the pain on both their faces when he angrily denies her identity is a sight to behold.

This is a masterwork in acting by Hopkins, playing a proud man who’s desperately trying to put up a front of still being in charge of his own life. He’ll make a joke of his forgetfulness, charm the pants off whoever he’s talking to, then teeter off into a canyon of anger and despair the next moment. It’s an incredibly vulnerable performance.

Colman is solid too, playing a woman of middle years who has watched her own life flash by as she’s tended to her father in his decline. She lets us feel the mixture of shame, guilt, resentment and affection when she sees her father. Part of her knows a time is coming when he’ll need more care than she can give, but she’s not yet ready to let go of the responsibility.

At various times (from Anthony’s perspective) Anna is currently married, or divorced, or recently met someone and decided to move away to Paris. Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss play her lover alternately, whose patience for Anthony varies quite a deal, from kindly tolerance to outright abuse.

Imogen Poots turns up as Laura, a young caregiver who Anna has hired to look after Anthony while she goes away. He’s gone through a slew of such women who couldn’t take his abuse -- for example, he’s constantly misplacing his watch but accuses his caregivers of stealing it. He’s immediately taken with Laura, who reminds him of his younger, favorite daughter: another reservoir of pain for Anna.

“The Father” falls into that small category films that can be painful to watch, but is extraordinarily rewarding for those that do. Such a beautiful, and very human, story.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Black Gravel" (1961)


It's debatable if "Black Gravel" belongs to the film noir tradition. That largely described American crime dramas of the 1940s and '50s, usually in urban settings with the rot of the big city wallowing underneath the gilded prosperity of the post-war era. "Gravel" is a 1961 German drama set in a sparsely populated town on the outskirts of a American military base being built.

It does boast plenty of bleak, tilting black-and-white cinematography -- which, of course, the Yanks pretty much lifted from German Expressionism of a few decades earlier.

The film, directed by Helmut Käutner from a screenplay he co-wrote with Walter Ulbrich, is an unsparing look at the slow-burning animosity between the defeated Germans and their American occupiers. The U.S. wants a place to launch its fighter planes and build nuclear missile silos, while the humbled Germans service the soldiers and workers with drink, prostitutes and more than a little black market enterprise.

The title comes from the material currently most valued, truckload after truckload of pulverized rocks being used to build roads, airstrips and other parts of the base. Robert Neidhardt (Helmut Wildt), the ostensible lead character, is a shady independent truck owner who hauls for the Americans and also works with a fellow former POW, Otto Krahne (Wolfgang Büttner), to milk a little extra off on the side.

It's a fairly comfortable arrangement for all parties involved, and the new American overseeing the operation, Maj. John Gaines (Hans Cossy), understands that a bit of grift serves as grease for the wheels of smooth operation.

However, the rub comes with Gaines' relatively new wife, Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg), a German native who used to roll with Robert back in the day during the early years after the war, always on the move and running some scam or another. They lived freely and lustily, an existence Robert is still practicing and Inge is trying to set aside for a straight life that will lead her, eventually, to the States.

Robert gives the Gaineses a tow after their car breaks down, and the rest of the movie plays out as one long slow burn as he tries to woo Inge back, she protests but not too much, and they get caught up in a horrid accident that turns into a major local scandal and military investigation.

I was less interested in the contretemps of the plot, which frankly get a little dull and repetitive after the one-hour mark, than the portraiture of Robert and Inge. Both Wildt and Zeisberg give impactful, "in the now" performances that reminded me a lot of the French New Wave.

Robert brims with the confidence of a sulking Jean-Paul Belmondo, a certain lunkhead machismo that is like catnip to more strata of womenfolk than an of us care to admit. John by contrast is upstanding, kind and practical, but can't hold a candle to Robert's practiced cruelty. 

Of course, it's all a front, and when the going gets tough Robert breaks down quicker than anyone expects.

I was quite taken with Zeisberg, a willowy brunette with large, emotive eyes and a passing resemblance to Hilary Swank, one of my favorite modern actresses. Her Inge is smart and tough, takes one look at Robert and knows he's exactly the same cad he was before, and seems unafraid of his machinations and come-ons. 

And yet, she's truthful enough with herself than when the breaking point is reached, she knows she'd rather choose a doomed existence with Robert than the quiet haven with John.

"Black Gravel" is quite unrelenting in its tone and sense of tragedy, in a way that American films of the same period flirt with but never quite dive all the way into. It starts with the death of Inge's dog, Tub, who is killed with a rock by one of the truckers because the pup is overly friendly while they're trying to dump their loads. 

Robert isn't at all bothered by this, flinging the carcass into the road bed where the gravel is being dumped -- first being careful to grab the new expensive-looking collar, always on the lookout for a few pressed Deutschmarks. Meanwhile, Krahne uses the distraction to fraudulently stamp out a few extra loads of gravel on the logbook. 

The older man is looking to cash out and move to Canada to go in business with his brother, which Robert considers a cowardly act of desertion -- to him, to their scam, to their country. Both were soldiers though not Hitler enthusiasts, more survivors who understand how to tack into whatever wind prevails.

Robert lives above the bar/brothel in Sohnen, the tiny village on the outskirts of the burgeoning base, and is pretty much the only game in town for the Americans. He works the payphone just outside his one-room place, which is frequently also occupied by Elli, (Anita Höfer), who is a barmaid, whore, or Robert's girlfriend, depending on her mood.

A bountiful blonde in the Brigitte Bardot mold, Elli seems very much in charge of her own little corner of the world, though like Robert much of it is a front. When Krahne tries to convince her to run away with him, Elli teases Robert with the possibility and is incensed when he's happy to cut her loose.

Höfer has a couple of brief bare-breasted scenes -- first the right, then the left -- which is still a fairly shocking thing to see in movies of this vintage. She spends much of her time in the movie lying in bed in various states of undress, playing footsie with Robert's ear or whatever piece of him she can reach. Teasing is her essence.

There are number of shots that seem to linger on women's legs and feet, and I think it's less of an icky Tarantino thing than a commentary on how these females are bound to this place and their fleshy vessels that are controlled by the whims of uncaring men. 

The other big notable shot of legs, of course, are those of Anni (Edeltraud Elsner), a sweet local girl who accidentally gets run down along with her American boyfriend, Bill (Peter Nestler), while Robert is fleeing after being tipped off by Inge that the police are wise to the gravel theft. The site of her legs splayed out from underneath the truck bed, with her beau's mangled corpse behind it, is a pretty arresting image for that era.

My attention waned as the movie went on from that point, as Robert decides to dump the bodies and cover it up rather than report the accident, which was no fault of his own. But "justice is for the rich," he growls, and so the rest of the story is spent in a predictable unrolling of nervous stares, whispered conversations, face-offs over who knows what, and so on.

"Black Gravel" was quite controversial in its day for its harsh depiction of German-American relations, and in fact the original ending was cut to remove Inge's death in the theatrical version -- another victim of Robert's big damn truck. He dumps her body in the gravel, too, also throwing himself in at the end. Strangely, the original ending just has him driving off into the mist with no resolution at all.

The film also had a moment that was labeled antisemitic and excised under pressure from the Central Council of Jews in Germany. It's strange because the scene is brief and anything but anti-Jewish. 

A drunken old patron calls the pub owner a "dirty Jew" because of his insistence on playing something other than old Nazi-era folk songs on the jukebox. The entire bar instantly grinds to silence at the insult, the camera lingering on the proprietor's arm with the tattooed serial number, and we are clearly made to feel sympathy for him and anger at this doddering relic of a poisonous past.  

The deleted scenes were thought lost to time, but were uncovered in an uncut print about a decade ago, which led to a restoration of the film. 

I can't say as I found "Black Gravel" to be a magnificent piece of cinema with or without these bits, but it does serve as a significant time capsule documenting a place and time, jammed in between showier pieces of history, that has largely been forgot.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Review: "My Salinger Year"


I was pleasantly surprised by "My Salinger Year," a based-on-true literary story with a lot of heart and terrific performances by Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver.

This is one my "afterthought" reviews, meaning I hadn't planned on doing it but unexpectedly found some time in my schedule. I've really stepped up the frequency of my reviews this year, and hopefully you've appreciated the effort. 

It's doubly pleasing when I stumble across a film I admire so much during these moments of serendipity.

Qualley plays Joanna Rakoff, an impressionable young woman who ditches grad school and her boyfriend in California to move to New York City and pursue a writing career. She winds up working as an assistant to the boss of a storied literary agency, Margaret (Weaver), who counts among her client list the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of "The Catcher in the Rye," a book that has become a rite of passage for young intellectuals.

Joanna is bright and enthusiastic while Margaret is old-school and imperious. The obvious comparison will be made to "The Devil Wears Prada," with Weaver's silver-streaked tresses matched to Meryl Streep's.

But this film, adapted for the screen from Rakoff's book by writer/director Philippe Falardeau, quickly diverges in tone and intent. It's not a denunciation of an entire sick industry and way of thought, but a very specific story about people who move about in a a cloistered society.

The story is set in 1996, a time by which Salinger had already gone three decades without publishing anything. His reticence to engage with his adoring public or submit to interviews only heightened his mystique, as the throngs felt certain he was continuing to write but just not sharing it with the world. 

It's ironic that the creator of Holden Caulfield, a kid who seemed to reject everyone around him, was celebrated for being so withholding.

In the course of the movie Salinger is a minor figure, only heard on the phone or glimpsed from behind. He does decide to publish his first book in many years (actually just reprinting an old New Yorker piece), though that event and his relationship to Joanna are not really central to the piece.

It's more about Joanna finding herself and the courage of her own convictions, evolving from reticent mouse of a girl to a bold woman who asserts her independence -- from her job, the men in her life and even Margaret, who becomes a mentor to her, surprising both of them.

Margaret only reluctantly allows one computer in the office, preferring to do business over the phone and Dictaphone. She initially hesitates to hire Joanna because it's bad business to have aspiring writers in a literary agency. She's very much part of the Old New York world of restaurants, conversations and connections.

Joanna is given two main assignments: transcribe Margaret's dictations and answer the mail sent to Salinger. "Answer" is not a completely accurate description of her role, since Salinger has instructed that the exact same form letter be sent to every writer explaining that he will not respond to any correspondence. Then, Joanna is to shred the fan mail.

The only reason they even go through this step is because of John Lennon's murderer, who infamously had a copy of "Rye" when he was arrested and was among those who wrote to Salinger and was rejected. Of course, Joanna becomes enthralled with all the emotion and thought these people put into their missives. 

Falardeau cleverly casts these writers as characters who show up in the middle of Joanna's day, reciting their letters to Salinger and to her, his reluctant stand-in. Of course, she is soon tempted to respond in a more meaningful way.

On the side she becomes involved with Don (Douglas Booth), another aspiring writer who works in a "socialist bookstore" and considers the commerce of publishing (represented by Margaret) as contemptible. Don is a heel who is selfish but charming in a gruff proletariat sort of way, and Joanna goes along with the relationship without really embracing it. 

Like her job, it's an affair lacking any real romance.

Joanna speaks occasionally on the phone with Salinger, who encourages her to invest in herself, both as a writer and a person (despite calling her "Susanna" early on, owing to wartime hearing loss.) Gradually, she starts to listen to this distant muse. Interestingly, she has never actually read "Rye" and hesitates to do so, preferring to bask in others' love for it.

A few other figures float around in the background of the movie. I really liked Seána Kerslake as Jenny, Joanna's friend, roommate and fellow writer wannabe, who is first to see and grasp her future. Colm Feore pops up as Daniel, Margaret's kindly, well-dressed companion -- brother? boyfriend? we're not really sure, but enjoy having him around. Brían F. O'Byrne plays Hugh, who once had Joanna's job but graduated to Margaret's legal-guru-slash-protector.

But really the focus is on Joanna and Margaret. They are two women who seem very different, one at the end of her turning and the other right at the beginning, who come to find more in common than they'd ever thought possible. Margaret doesn't exactly melt into a bowl of warm empathy -- it's just not in her DNA -- but she realizes that Joanna has a promise and resolve in her that needs to be tapped, even if it's not by her.

I only know Qualley from her temptress role in the enjoyable but vastly overrated "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," so I was glad to see her do something more substantive and emotive. Joanna isn't the easiest character to play as someone who is just learning to access her own emotions, but Qualley finds a way to let us see past that timid exterior.

The real Joanna Rakoff has indeed gone on to a notable writing career, including the memoir upon which this film was based. In the end it's less about the mystery of J.D. Salinger than the woman whose barest brush with greatness gave her the courage to chase her own.

Review: "Raya and the Last Dragon"

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is bright and light and full of colors and joy -- and also not a little tragedy.

It’s said that all Disney animated movies have a theme, and the one for this film is how people seem incapable of trusting each other unless there’s a huge crisis at hand… and maybe not even then.

Timely, that.

The story is set in the fictional Asian land of Kumandra, which was divided into five factions half a millennia ago, a cataclysmic time when the protective dragons all disappeared. It seems the land was riven by terrible creatures called the Druun that feasted on human strife, turning everyone they touched into stone. They’re represented as faceless clouds of purple energy and darkness.

The dragons created a magical gem to banish the Druun, wielded by the water dragon, Sisu (voice of Awkwafina), who disappeared in the final battle. Since then the gem has been guarded by the Heart clan, with wise Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) as their chieftain. As the story opens his teen daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) has just been inducted into the corps of guardians.

Benja thinks the rest of the clans need to come together to reclaim the peace and togetherness that have eluded them. But instead the headstrong chief of Fang clan (Sandra Oh) has her daughter, Namaari (Gemma Chan), befriend Raya and then try to steal the gem. In the melee it is broken into pieces that are spirited off.

Flash forward and Raya, now grown to womanhood, roams a land again infested by the Druun. She still tries to reunite the pieces of the gem, and in doing so awakens the spirit of Sisu. She’s represented as a rainbow-colored serpent in dragon form -- think of those giant Chinese puppets you see at street parades -- and similarly coiffed when in human disguise.

Turns out Sisu is not some all-powerful avatar, but a bit goofy and by her own admission “not the best dragon.” Her sense of wonderment is tempered by the firm belief that trust is the foundation of all positive relationships.

The pair sets out to bring the gem back together, again coming into conflict with Namaari and the Fang. There’s also a classic “putting the team together” spirit as they enlist various castoffs to their team. They include Boun (Izaac Wang), a boy who runs a ship/restaurant; Tong (Benedict Wong), a gruff but lonely one-eyed warrior; and Noi (Thalia Tran), a toddler who pulls off all sorts of crazy ninja-inspired heists with her crew of three monkey henchmen.

Tran is terrific in her role, giving Raya equal measures of pluck and grace. Awkwafina’s slightly gravely timbre and surfdude-ish inflections keep Sisu firmly in the comic relief zone rather than being seen as a spiritual guide.

Animation veteran Don Hall co-directs with relative newcomer Carlos López Estrada from a screenplay by rookie Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”). My take is the script needed a few more rewrites and refocusing on fewer characters, though they clearly identify their emotional beats and land on them solidly.

The movie boasts lots of zippy martial arts action fighting, including Raya’s special extendable scimitar. I also liked her pet friend Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), who sort of resembles a pill bug crossed with a marsupial of some sort. He’s a tiny guy in the early sequence but grows into a massive, gentle companion who also doubles as a spinning steed.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” lands in the middle-good field of Disney animation like “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Big Hero 6.” It probably won’t last long in the memory, but everyone’ll have a good time while the ride lasts.



Review: "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run"


"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run" is the first feature film since creator Stephen Hillenburg passed away, and I couldn't help notice this one is markedly kindler and gentler than the previous movies and TV iterations. Even the perpetually scheming evil Plankton is mostly helpful, and crotchety crustacean Mr. Krabs spends a lot more time loving on ol' SpongeBob than berating him.

This is also the first SpongBob movie to use all CGI instead of the traditional flatter-looking 2D animation. The last movie, subtitled "Sponge Out of Water," only employed it for the scenes where SpongeBob and the gang go onto land. 

It's definitely a different look, and takes some getting used to for SpongeBob veterans. (As the father of two young boys, I count myself in this group.) I found the fuzz on the head of Sandy Cheeks (voice of Carolyn Lawrence) distracting, and they apparently did a total reboot on King Neptune, now called Poseidon -- although he's still the same vaguely dictatorial big green dude.

But the voice actors are all the same, as is the zany-yet-wholesome feel, and I soon settled in for an enjoyable SpongeBob adventure.

The story is that SpongeBob's longtime pet/pal, Gary the Snail (Tom Kenny, who also does SpongeBob) has been snail-napped by local mad scientist Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) and delivered into the hands of King Poseidon, who uses his snail secretions to keep his 5,000-year-old looks looking their best.

So SpongeBob sets out on a quest to rescue him, with loyal dimwit/best bud Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) in tow, of course. The rest of the gang -- goodly scientist Sandy, restaurateur/money-lover Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), cynic/clarinetist Squidward Tentacles (Rodger Bumpass) and even Plankton -- eventually tag along, too.

Their journey will take them to the Lost City of Atlantic City, an underwater metropolis of flashing lights, greed and over-consumption. There's a stopover in the desert (possibly a dream) where we encounter some live humans, including Snoop Dogg as a gambler, Danny Trejo as the dastardly El Diablo and Keanu Reeves as Sage, a wise spirit guide who resides inside a tumbleweed.

I was pleased to see some divergence from the usual SpongeBob plot revolving around Plankton trying to steal the secret formula to the famous Krabbie Patties that SpongeBob spends his life cooking up for the hungry undersea denizens. We've had 20 years of all sorts of superspy contraptions and plots to get his hands on a burger, when all Plankton had to do was hand some kid $20 to go buy him one.

Here the theme is more about loyalty to friends, so Krabs and Plankton set aside their beef (har, har) and get on board the rescue-Gary plot.We also get some flashback scenes to learn how all the major characters met each other, centering on adventures at Kamp Koral in the wayback time when they were kids.

(A new TV series looking at SpongeBob's "Under Years" launches the same day as the movie.)

New character include Otto (Awkwafina), a robot whipped up by Sandy who proves to be less than helpful; Tiffany Haddish as the showstopper emcee in Atlantic City; and Reggie Watts as Poseidon's barely-civil chancellor, doing more babysitting than kowtowing to his monarch.

We get several musical numbers, plenty of slapstick and the usual SpongeBob fascination with bodily fluids, odors and sounds. Straight to the giggle center of my kids' brains. (And mine, too.)

"Sponge on the Run" may not have quite the edge of earlier SpongeBob efforts, but watching it is still a a big, warm and wet hug for the whole family.