Cry Macho

18 Sep

Cry Macho’: Eastwood goes across the border with a mission suited for his vigorous 91 years

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 16, 2021

For a concept that’s taken almost 50 years to land on the big screen after a swirl of iterations with big names including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pierce Brosnan attached, “Cry Macho” is likely to register as a disappointment for most. The key to the depth of that letdown is the degree of anticipation you arrive with: This is a Clint Eastwood film, and while the actor has wowed from behind the lens (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Invictus,” to name a few) some of his more recent efforts such as “Jersey Boys” (2014) and “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) have been weak-kneed by compare.

The film, a neo-western by definition (think “Hell or High Water” or “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) has a washed-up rodeo star (Eastwood) employed under duress by a Texas ranch owner (Dwight Yoakam) to retrieve his 13-year-old son (Eduardo Minett) from his allegedly abusive, freewheeling mother (Fernanda Urrejola) across the border in Mexico City. It’s a curious setup as Eastwood, now a grandfatherly 91 and a long way from his “Dirty Harry” salad days, is not really the type one might enlist for a mission in which muscle and sinew might be required. But Clint’s Mike Milo is indebted to Yoakam’s rancher for carrying him financially since he broke his back riding a bronc back in the day. Once across the border it’s easy enough to locate mom and the son, Rafa, who dabbles in cockfighting and skirting the law. He also bears troubling welts on his back.

The “Macho” of the title is in fact Rafa’s prize rooster, which may get more screen time than any of his human counterparts – and yes, Clint does make a joke about a man calling his cock “Macho.” The script is littered with several such amiable groaners. Much of the character motivation early on feels disjointed, if not arbitrary, despite being penned by Nick Schenk from the 1975 N. Richard Nash novel), who’s notched solid collaborations with Eastwood in the past (“Gran Torino” and “The Mule”). The film gets about halfway in before Mike and Rafa, holed up in a dusty Mexican village, start to bond in a genuine sense. Mike can’t speak a lick of Spanish, and the police and mom’s goons are searching for the pair. During the lay low, Mike becomes something of the village’s Dr. Dolittle: People bring their ailing pets to him, and he and Rafa make a few pesos breaking wild horses. There’s also a spark of romance with the compassionate cantina owner (Natalia Traven, delivering the best performance in the film) giving them aid and cover. The warring by Rafa’s parents over property and power – a thinly drawn catalyst – just distracts. The ending doesn’t wrap it all up to any satisfactory degree, but there remains those affecting human moments in that remote, dusty Eden.

The Card Counter

10 Sep

The Card Counter’: Poker player has a history, and maybe an appointment to settle old scores

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 9, 2021

Film critic turned screenwriter turned director Paul Schrader has long been busy at the task of plumbing the tumult of men at war with themselves and the rest of the world. Take Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (Schrader penned this 1976 Martin Scorsese classic) or Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988, another Scorsese collaboration), let alone Schrader’s last critically hailed directorial effort. “First Reformed” (2018), in which Ethan Hawke plays a priest struggling with his faith, sobriety and place in the world. “The Card Counter” is more of the same, and probably most akin to the filmmaker’s unheralded 1992 effort, “Light Sleeper.” The big ante here is the casting of Oscar Isaac (“Ex Machina,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) as a troubled gambler who goes by the curious pseudonym of William Tell, and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda, something of a muse of the championship poker circuit who matches players with silent backers interested in a cut of the action (50 percent, to be exact).

That’s the deal, but what’s going on under those cards is something more nuanced and darker. We learn early on that Tell has spent almost 10 years in prison. Just what for isn’t readily clear, but we know he used that time to garner the skills of the film’s title. Out of lockup, Tell works casinos methodically, moving about regularly and being careful to take modest winnings and remain under the radar – until he runs into La Linda, who recognizes his talent for what it is. It’s also at one of these random East Coast casinos that Tell wanders into a police and security convention where a lecture is being given by one Maj. John Gordo (Dafoe) on the latest in security technology. It’s there too that a young man named Cirk (Kirk with a “C,” played by Tye Sheridan, best known for his gamer in “Ready Player One”) approaches Tell, slipping him a piece of paper and telling him he knows who he is and that they need to talk. Not to give too much away, but it turns out Cirk’s father, Gordo and Tell were torturers (er, experts in enhanced interrogation techniques) at Abu Ghraib. Gordo, a private contractor who led the operation, could not be prosecuted for crimes on foreign soil; Tell and Cirk’s dad, enlisted men captured posing with the tortured on camera, were not so lucky.

Like the aforementioned Schrader masterworks, “Card Counter” ultimately becomes about redemption, atonement and a sense of justice that’s not congruent with what laws and courts would impose – something Schrader made so indelible with “Taxi Driver.” “Counter” is also loaded with metaphors and a foreboding aural moodiness by Robert Levon Been that becomes the haunting externalization of Tell’s inner turmoil. (Been is frontman for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; his late father, Michael, lead singer of The Call, scored “Light Sleeper.”) Isaac, with his long face, brings an intense heaviness to the part. His Tell is a loner, a man in between who’s not interested in saving himself but in righting the wrongs of the past. La Linda, Cirk and Gordo give him those opportunities in different ways, some willingly, some not. Tell takes Cirk under his wing for that East Coast tour staked by La Linda, who drops in from time to time to check on her “horse.” There’s a deep, instant chemistry between La Linda and Tell, one Schrader smartly pulls back on, turning it into a slow burn with palpable yen and connections that go places in the other’s soul that haven’t been stirred in years. The relationship with Cirk, while effective, often feels like too much of a plot point insert for Tell’s subsequent actions. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise riveting character study, a retooling of Schrader’s seminal motif made wholly new again.

Flag Day

20 Aug

Flag Day’: Penn raises ‘Flim-Flam’ flags aplenty, acting with family in another daughter’s memoir

By Tom Meek Thursday, August 19, 2021

About every five years, Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn takes the director’s chair for a tight focus on those struggling mightily in small arenas. Many of these lo-fi, big-themed efforts come with some heavy-duty thespian firepower. For his directorial debut, “The Indian Runner” (1991), Penn was blessed with a cast that included Viggo Mortensen, David Morse, Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis and Benicio Del Toro, as well as Dennis Hopper; afterward he teamed up with Jack Nicholson for “The Crossing Guard” (1995) and “The Pledge” (2001). Here the film’s more of a family affair in which Penn’s real-life children, Dylan and Hopper, play his onscreen progeny. The cast has some A-list names too with Regina King, Josh Brolin and Eddie Marsan in the mix, but in parts so small that if you close your eyes for a few seconds you might miss them. 

Adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s 2005 memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life” (script by Jez Butterworth, a co-writer on “Black Mass” and “Ford v Ferrari”), “Flag Day” depicts the tumult of a father-daughter relationship across decades. Penn plays the titular con man, with his daughter portraying the young Jennifer Vogel. The film’s an earnest but rambling mess that draws you in with its shaggy-dog charms and wisps of mystery but pushes you out with jerky POV shifts and scenes of characters just screaming and shouting at each other without saying anything or furthering the narrative – my guess would be improv gone wrong. Told mostly through Jennifer’s gaze, the film occasionally (and jarringly) jumps to Penn’s John off on his own doing some pseudo-sociopathic activity. He has an abode with windows papered up as if he were a vampire, an empty briefcase he takes to his nonexistent job each day and is always looking over his shoulder. Over the years Jennifer often finds John in a “business meetings” with Hell’s Angels-like ruffians from which he often comes out bloodied. John’s a talker, always spinning and not quite dad-of-the-year material, but by comparison with his ex-wife Patty (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings” and “Big Sky”), a lethargic alcoholic who could not get out of bed in the early years, he seems like a better choice at least to Jennifer. She seeks him out after mom’s creepy new beau tries to crawl into bed with her and mom, in the aftermath, sides with her man.

Just what John is up to is never made clear. It should be a major distraction, but when the late-teens Jennifer comes back to roost with him, the film becomes more about the two of them trying to get a leg up on life together and less about the dubious schemes John sets up while Jennifer is at work (as an intern and then journalist at Minnesota’s City Pages, where I also wrote). The film becomes a bittersweet waltz of hope, heartbreak and delusion, and a deeply intimate one. Penn, embracing the ’70s and ’80s setting, shoots for that lived-in indie look and at times evokes the gritty realism of John Cassavetes; at other, more lyrical turns he projects the dreamy idealism of Terrence Malick. It’s an arty endeavor, but not one that endears.

As far as Penn’s directorial efforts go, “Flag Day” is a step up from his 2016 misfire “The Last Face,” starring then-girlfriend Charlize Theron, his son Hopper and Javier Bardem, but still a lesser effort and a long way away from his 2007 high, “Into the Wild.”

CODA

12 Aug

Coda’: This Child of Deaf Adults is called to sing in a family drama from Cambridge’s Sian Heder

By Tom Meek Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Cambridge Rindge and Latin grad Sian Heder connects old and new with local color and universal language in “Coda,” a heartwarming English-language adaptation of the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier” about an aurally able girl from a deaf family with a desire to sing. Forget France, we’re in old-school Gloucester for this spin, hanging on the working-class side of town the way Kenneth Lonergan’s award-winning “Manchester by the Sea” (2016) did. It’s a rewarding transposition for us locals.

The acronym of the title is “Children of Deaf Adults.” Here that’s Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, “High-Rise”) a Gloucester High student who lives with mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), dad Frank (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) – all three deaf. The Rossis are a fishing family; Ruby works the boat early in the morn and, understandably exhausted, nods off in class. Mean, more-well off girls give her a hard time and form a barrier to her afar crush, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), one of the popular kids, but Ruby finds an in when she learns he’s signed up for choir. Ruby, ever singing on the boat and at home, follows suit.

“Coda” moves in a fairly predictable arc, but it does so sans apology and it does so well. Plot threads include the struggles of the the small Gloucester fisherman to remain relevant in changing times and the quiet, ongoing struggle for the hearing-impaired to not be brushed aside. That latter is at once moving and has many clever, gut-tickling moments, such as when Ruby must translate to a doctor about mom and dad’s burning loin issues – Frank signs that his balls are on fire. The doctor explains it’s just jock itch from the sea and humidity, and that the two should lay off sex for a while. That comes as something of a relief for Ruby because mom and dad are usually at it, and loudly so, when friends or Miles stop by.

Oscar winner Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”) is the big name here and she’s brash, funny and vulnerable as Jackie, but the real tour de force is Kotsur as Frank. The two have perfect chemistry, blasting heavy metal out of their pickup – another one of the many cringeworthy moments Ruby endures with warmth in her heart. The two actors are deaf in real life, as is Durant (effective as the big brother arriving into manhood). Heder was determined to use hearing-impaired actors not only for authenticity but because the are underrepresented on film.

Heder who struggled as an actor after graduating Carnegie Mellon University, got a CV bounce and access from writing on “Orange is the New Black.” Her directorial debut “Tallulah” (2016) was another tight, situation-driven female journey staring Ellen Page as an adrift young woman who intervenes dramatically on behalf of the toddler of an inattentive and over-privileged mother. Both films are deeply nested in their protagonist’s view and dilemmas. “Coda” is a more typical drama, but it’s also shows the director deepening her art. She and the cast hit all the right notes, making an old tune hip and catchy again.

Local note: Heder’s parents are local artists Mags Harries and Lajos Héder. Harries is responsible for “Glove Cycle,” the bronze mitts that adorn the endless escalator in the Porter Square T station.

The Suicide Squad

8 Aug

‘The Suicide Squad’: Supervillains born to lose get their chance like James Gunn’s ‘Guardians’

By Tom Meek Wednesday, August 4, 2021

With this semi-reboot of DC’s Suicide Squad concept, the whole riveting potential of Harley Quinn still remains to be realized – and perhaps never will be. “The Suicide Squad,” not to be confused with “Suicide Squad,” is a step up from that disappointing 2016 entry point as well as “Birds of Prey” (2020), the muddled feminist take designed to let Margot Robbie take her Harley out for a wide-open spin. The carrot here is that it’s helmed by James Gunn, the once lo-fi auteur of gore and superhero quirk (“Slither” and “Super”) who rose to mainstream notoriety with the marvelously offbeat Marvel Universe entry “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). It’s wildly intriguing, if curious, to see him on the DC side of things, but what better hand to give a boost to a floundering franchise holding tight to the blood-splattered dress of its all-star player?

That said, Robbie’s maniacally mercurial – and damn lethal – Quinn is a supporting player here, which is good and bad. Good in that she’s a lightning bolt of frenetic energy in every scene she’s in. Bad in that when she’s not onscreen, the film ebbs noticeably. Also, at more than two hours, the film feels way too long for what it is. It begins with the snazzy pop that Gunn was able to maintain throughout the entirety of his two “Guardians” chapters as a squad of convicts with special skills (“odd” would be the better word) is led by patriotic jarhead Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Quinn to a beach landing on Corto Maltese, a fictitious South American country. In their charge there’s a Laplander with a catchy accent and a big javelin (Flula Borg), a soldier with detachable arms (Nathan Fillion), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, playing the part again), SNLer Pete Davidson as Blackguard, the fly in the ointment, Gunn regular Michael Rooker with glorious, flowing Edgar Winter-like locks as Savant and a giant CGI weasel. The landing’s something of a D-Day, with few besides Quinn making it to the next stage. 

Gunn, playing with us, rewinds to the assembly of the team by government handler Amanda Waller (Oscar winner Viola Davis, also back again). There we learn that the team, known as Team One, really was a “Suicide Squad”; it was a distraction and fodder so Team Two, led reluctantly by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a dead shot with an arsenal of firearms neatly attached to his body armor, could slip in sans bloodbath. His squad is equally as ragtag, with John Cena growing his acting chops as Peacemaker, a sardonic arms and demolition expert, and the straight-faced Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who can toss toxic dots at adversaries and whose mommy issues nearly upstage Quinn. There’s also a waif known as the Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) who can summon a horde of rats, and King Shark, aka Nanaue, the half-man, half-shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone and a likable oaf when not chomping on human flesh – I really wanted a Land Shark joke, which would have been justified by Davidson’s inclusion. Speaking of humor, the reason the United States wants to infiltrate Corto Maltese is something called Project Starfish, for an ever-transforming extraterrestrial housed in a castle-like silo by a mad scientist called The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), who has brain bulbs or whatnot sticking out of his head and looks like the unholy fusion of Hellraiser and Doc from the “Back to the Future” films. Getting back to that joke, Peacemaker remarks that “in prison, a starfish is another name for butthole.” He later says he’d eat a beach full of penises to do his duty for country. Yeah, a lot of the gags miss wide, which is why you’re only too happy when Quinn drops back in the game.

From a sociopolitical angle you could argue that the film shines a light on the long-running exploitation of developing Latin countries by U.S. and other Western interests. Naturally, there’s also those home-bred despots looking to fulfill their megalomaniacal whims – the killing of women and children being a moral threshold for some of the Squad, and a shrug and whatever for others. The movie’s supposed to be Elba’s, and while his Bloodsport’s sword-waving with Peacemaker is puckishly good second-tier fun, the shine here is Quinn. No Quinn, no movie. In the grand finale the Squad is confronted with said starfish, something of a cross between a kaiju and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s not a shark jump, but it does underscore the missed opportunity.

Asian Food Aid

31 Jul

Project Restore Us adds 150 families to its work delivering culturally appropriate food support

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 29, 2021

Project Restore Us, launched last year by restaurateurs Tracy Chang of Pagu and Irene Li of Mei Mei Restaurant of Boston, and others to help keep their businesses afloat while feeding the community, has expanded by partnering with the Asian American Resource Workshop and Vietnamese American Initiative for Development. On Sunday, working out of Mâe Asian Eatery storefront in Cambridge, 30 volunteers will cart groceries to an additional 150-plus families in need.

Instead of serving its enticing fusion of Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese, Mâe closes on Sundays – and this is when, Chang, Li and the Project Restore Us team perform their work of kindness.

Mâe is at 781 Main St., in The Port neighborhood between Central and Kendall squares.

One of the concepts behind the project was to provide people with nutritional and culturally appropriate food, replacing the random produce and low-nutrition processed fare that comes from most food pantries. The new partnerships allow Project Restore Us to more strategically deliver culturally germane groceries to area Vietnamese and Latinx families affected by Covid – bolstering the communities and hunger awareness in the face of a troubling uptick of hate crimes against Asians.

“The spike in acute anti-Asian violence has highlighted the importance of our work in combating the persistent violence of immigration and food insecurity that wearies and disempowers our Asian American and other immigrant community members,” said Marena Lin, one of the project’s co-founders with Chang, Li and Lily Huang, director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

Chang adds that violence toward Asians is not new. “It’s just become more newsworthy during Covid because of the incidents in Atlanta. For instance, my grandparents owned a restaurant in Cambridge (Tokyo Restaurant) from 1988-2000. Multiple times, they were the target of hate crimes. They had a molotov cocktail thrown into their establishment. They were tied up, beaten and robbed on multiple occasions in their homes in Lexington and Winchester,” she said.

The project estimates it has delivered more than 300 tons of food to more than 8,000 households marginalized by the pandemic since May 2020. It plans to send two waves of groceries each month, or as funds dictate. Information is here.

The Green Knight

31 Jul

The Green Knight’: Arthurian odyssey, updated

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 29, 2021

David Lowery’s cinematic adaptation of the late 14th century Middle English chivalric romance (a poem about an odyssey, to be more precise), “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” is a hypnotic wonderment and one of the best films – if not the best – of the year so far. The cast and filmmaking are superb. “The Green Knight” is also the edgiest Medieval rendering since John Boorman’s “Excalibur” (1981) mixed arty filmmaking, sex and dark psychodrama into the cauldron of drama that is King Arthur’s court.

At one point the lady of a castle (Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina”) offers Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, “Hotel Mumbai”) a book from her vast collection and quips that sometimes she rewrites stories to make them more dramatic and relevant, if so moved. As evidenced by “The Green Knight,” Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man and the Gun”) was so moved, keeping the bones from the anonymous original author but adding a few twists and fantastical flourishes that blur the lines of reality brilliantly and make us question the mind of the protagonist.

The yarn begins with a cozy gathering at the castle of the aged King Arthur (Sean Harris, perfectly delicate, yet commanding) on Christmas Day, as Gawain dreams of knightly fame yet spends most of his time hedonistically with his lover (also played by Vikander) and other “millennials” of the Middle Ages. The merriment (you’d think it would be bawdier, but this is a dour lot) is interrupted by the entity of the film’s title (played by Ralph Ineson), who makes a magnificent entry. Part tree, part man, he looks like something from the mind of Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water”) and issues a challenge to the court for a knight to strike him a blow; a year later, he gets to strike back at the Green Chapel, his place of residence some six days north. Gawain, seeing an opportunity to earn his wings, jumps at the opportunity and lops off the Green Knight’s head. Easy-peasy, right? Not so fast. The Green Knight scoops up the head and rides off laughing. “One year hence,” he shouts.

It’s a long year for Gawain, who balks on the eve of the quest. A sagely Arthur and the desire for knighthood spur him on, and much of the film is Gawain’s journey. Along the way there’s the bloody remains of battle, a puckish young lad (Barry Keoghan, so good in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), a frisky fox, giant women who look like the blown up Joi from “Blade Runner 2049” (2018) and a maiden seeking her head. The grueling sojourn reveals Gawain’s fragility both mentally and physically. He’s not a very apt adventurer, and his chivalry is tested when, starving and near collapse, he arrives at the castle of a twinkle-eyed lord (Joel Edgerton, “Loving”) and his lady (the book-offering Vikander), who welcomes Gawain in and nourishes him. The sexual tension between the three is deeper than Loch Ness, though there’s also the matter of a blindfolded old hag who looms in the corner of every frame during the chapter, ever watching and judging.

The cast is exceptional (including Kate Dickie and Sarita Choudhury as Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay, respectively), but the film is Patel’s, and he shines in the part of a man wanting much without doing. His long face and sad, soulful eyes lend to Lowery’s drab atmosphere of contrasting prosperity and fame, poverty and despair. The other stars are the cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo, the Irish landscape that poses for his lens and Daniel Hart’s attention-holding score, which turn the film into an immersive experience. The ending adheres to the poem for the most but launches into new areas – creating tendrils, if you will. The whole dreamy rendering is rooted but simultaneously airy, a lofty lore, freakishly forged by visionary filmmaking.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

18 Jul

‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ provides a tasting menu of takes on the late chef

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 15, 2021

Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville’s documentary, ROADRUNNER, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of CNN / Focus Features

It’s uncanny how alive Anthony Bourdain appears in Morgan Neville’s documentary about the celebrity chef, raconteur and intrepid traveler, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” Not because it’s good to see his familiar, avuncular mug grabbing at life with zest and glee, but because of his self-reflective inner probing that feels as if he’s chiming in on his own life and death in the present – something that’s impossible, as Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. Still, his input is eerily prescient.

Neville steers carefully around much of that headline-grabbing act and in doing so raises more questions than answers, which is certain to leave those seeking closure unsatisfied.

With credits including “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018) and the Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013), Neville does a yeoman’s job of getting us the fast what-to-knows: Bourdain was a heroin addict who early on labored in P-town seafood shacks and rose to fame at the age of 43 with “Kitchen Confidential” (published in 2000), an insider’s tell-all about sex, drugs and egos in the go-go New York City restaurant biz. He struck TV fame with “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations” and finally “Parts Unknown,” culinary travelogues with the ever-curious Bourdain digging into the culture and politics of destinations close and far away. What many might not know is that Bourdain hardly traveled at all until doing those shows, and later became agoraphobic.

Neville employs a tight fist in curating who chimes in with reflections. Those giving us glimmers include Bourdain’s TV producers, fellow celebrity chefs Éric Ripert, who was with Bourdain in Strasbourg when he died, and a very emotional David Chang. Also in the mix of close friends are artist David Choe and musicians John Lurie and Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age. Then there’s Bourdain’s past relationships. His second wife, Ottavia Busia Bourdain, gets plenty of screen time but offers little to deepen our understanding. Strangely absent is Bourdain’s first wife, Nancy Putkoski, to whom Bourdain was married for 20 years. Asia Argento, Bourdain’s paramour during his final years, appears only in archival footage. As Neville and several talking heads paint it, the Italian actress and filmmaker was a force of chaos on the set of “Parts Unknown” when Bourdain brought in her and renowned cinematographer Christopher Boyle to shoot a few episodes. The film also sets up Argento as the catalyst for his suicide – the Courtney to his Kurt, if you will. While many chime in that Anthony killed Anthony, others say Bourdain was addicted to Argento, and there’s a front page tabloid splash right before his final act revealing Argento holding hands with another man. All of the above is told in a mere whisper, and you wish Argento was given the lens to share her side of the story.

Also missing from the film is Bourdain’s sense of epicurean love and wonderment. The film is slickly crafted and propelled by music, namely the title track by Boston-based Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and some cool ditties by Lurie and Homme. It’s a celebration of life that leaves many parts of its enigmatic subject unknown.

Black Widow

11 Jul

‘Black Widow’: She’s back for one final adventure that also returns Marvel’s universe to big screens

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 8, 2021

Finally the “Black Widow” backstory drops after long being held back because of Covid. It could be subtitled “All in the Family” or “Family Business,” as Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has a whole family of super spies with super abilities. Dad Alexei (David Harbour) is something of the USSR’s answer to Captain America, called the Red Guardian back in the day (more on that later); mom (Rachel Weisz, “The Lobster”) has crazy tech and disguise skills; and younger sis Yelena (Florence Pugh, “Midsommar” and “Little Women”) is a fellow widow (more on that later).

The film, directed by Cate Shortland, kicks off in early 1990s Ohio, where the clan is an embedded sleeper cell (with Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw playing the young sisters) akin to the Jennings in “The Americans” TV series. We’re barely understanding who is who when the feds come for them. After a shootout and flight aboard a rickety single-prop plane, they escape to Russian turf, where the sisters are drugged and sent to widow school (think the unenviable ordeal J-Law’s reluctant spy had to undergo in “Red Sparrow”). Turns out there’s something called the Red Room, a sky-high hidden fortress where a guy named Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone) cranks out a widow army and controls them with a drug that compels obedience to all his devious commands. He’s a pretty pat – and thin – heavy in search of a Bond film, but it’s up to Natasha and her fam to take him down. Of course, having li’l sis as one of the operatives under mind control means there’s skin in the game. There’s also some nonsense about a coveted red gaseous antidote and a plot for world domination or destruction; I kinda lost the point, as the last hour of the film is a loud, crash-bang showdown that goes on and on and on.

As far as Marvel fare goes, this one is done by the MCU template – Disney must have an app that cranks out the plot points – and as a result has little at stake. We know Natasha still has Thanos and the “Infinity War” to go, and there are several name drops of her Avenger friends, whom she says she needs to bring back together. Shortland, who showed so much promise with edgy arthouse draws “Somersault” (2004) and “Lore” (2012), connects the dots, but as with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck doing “Captain Marvel” (2019), her intimate indie style is nowhere to be found under an unending stream of bombastic CGI effects. I did appreciate the intricate hairstyles given to the widows, especially Yelena’s neatly nested French braids that seemed almost like an armament in their own right. And Harbour, so good in the recent Steven Soderbergh noir “No Sudden Move,” brings the comic relief in spades. Sure he’s a menace early on, but in the present campaign against Dreykov he’s paunchy and shoehorned into his far-too-tight old red uniform and in constant need of some alpha male ego stroking. He and Pugh’s wisecracking younger widow keep you in the action even as the Russian accents drop and then suddenly return.

Zola

2 Jul

‘Zola’: Stripper showdown in the Sunshine state, increasing in tension with every raunchy tweet

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 1, 2021

Well, here we are, people, the first movie adapted from a tweetstorm. Not an incoherent, three-in-the-morning political shaming from @realdonaldtrump (account suspended) but one from a 19-year-old Detroit server and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King, who chronicled her 2015 shitshow of a road trip to Florida after being enticed along by a fellow dancer under false premises. The 148-tweet thread that plays out like “Hustlers” (2019) on steroids, even garnered King an exchange with “Selma” (2014) director Ava DuVernay: “There’s so much untapped talent in the hood,” DuVernay said. Zola’s response: “I’m not from the hood tho Ava. Ima suburban bitch. Still love you tho.”

The real-life King worked at a Hooters. In this stylish, day-glo rendering by Janicza Bravo (episodes of “Dear White People” and “Them”), Zola, played by Taylour Paige, works in a diner and pole dances at night. One day when waiting on an interracial couple, the trashy girlfriend (known as “the white bitch” in the tweet blasts, tagged here as Stefani and animated effusively by Riley Keough) chums up to Zola. “Wanna dance?” she asks casually. Even though we’re in Zola’s head, with her tweets and thoughts coming to us in voice-over, we don’t get much of an inkling as to what the conversation is really about until we land at a male entertainment club.

There’s an immediate bond between the two, as well as a distinct unease that hangs in the air and helps drive the film. For a bigger payday, the two pile into a luxe van with Stefani’s hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and roommate X (Colman Domingo, finding his niche) to go dancing in the Sunshine State. Turns out that doesn’t pay so much either, and X is really Stefani’s pimp; this all unbeknownst to Zola and Derrek, who’s left in a raunchy motel to stew.

Zola’s got a beau back home and has boundaries, and even though X menacingly forces her into a call, the film lets Zola steer her way to just helping garner Stefani better johns on certain blacklisted social media sites, upping the dollar value. Stefani’s all too happy to please and seemingly has no boundaries and limitless energy. Her justification, when pushed, is that she has to support a child back home. She also has masterful control over Derrek, who spends the night frantically calling and texting.

Things get increasingly dicey as another pimp circles, X seems ready to explode into violence and Derrek declines emotionally as he wakes to the harsh reality about Stefani he’s buried through denial, puppy dog love and doofus gullibility. Stefani knows just when to throw the dog a bone, though, and Zola is always there to reluctantly watch the carnal play. It’s also here in the middle of the film that the arc really has nowhere else to go. Guns and group sex don’t raise the stakes; the action has crested, and it feels like the filmmaker and writer Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”) – working off King’s tweets – are happy enough to hang it all on the frenemy chemistry of their two leads. I get the why, but it’s not a very satisfying choice in the end.

That said, the two actresses do play off each other brilliantly. Paige (“White Boy Rick”) is the anchor and holds it all well, but the film is really Keough’s. It’s not a big surprise, as the granddaughter of Elvis has landed in similar roles before in Andrea Arnold’s envelope-pushing “American Honey” (2016) and the streaming series “The Girlfriend Experience,” with those notable turns feeling akin to research for this culmination. Looking like one of the robotic beauties from the “Neon Demon” (2016), Keough nails the white-wannabe-from-the-hood vernacular (think a subtler form of Gary Oldman in “True Romance”) and the race differential between the women only adds to the tension.

The important thing to bear in mind is that this is all this based on King’s tweets; in follow-up stories, the “white bitch” known as Jess has said she turned no tricks, and it was Zola who was down for it. Ostensibly trying to give a nod to that, Bravo and Harris switch perspectives to let Stefani share some thoughts with us, but in the end what happened in those bedrooms happened. Since it doesn’t rescript the facts, this comes off as awkward and distracting, though the leads and Bravo’s stylish eye push the film above its narrative deficiencies with 16mm camera work by Ari Wegner – remember the name – that is vibrant and mood setting. “Zola” begins with all the dark, captivating allure of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Neon Demon” and Harmony Korine’s wicked descent into Floridian fun-time hell, “Spring Breakers” (2013). It just doesn’t know how to finish, and simply ends when you think the big turn is just around the next bend.