Cocaine Bear

25 Feb

This gory romp with a CGI beast should have audiences lining up for a good time

(from left, back to camera) Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Stache (Aaron Holliday) in Cocaine Bear, directed by Elizabeth Banks.

When in college during the big ’80s we’d cross the Florida peninsula at night to partake in spring break mayhem in Fort Lauderdale and Miami – gonzo road trips for a wee bit of fun. To do so we took a route through the Everglades known as Alligator Alley and were warned by locals never to stop, or at least not to dally. Why? Alligators for sure, but more so, drug dealers and other illicit types collecting bales of marijuana and duffel bags full of cocaine kicked out of prop planes to dealers camped out to retrieve them and sell to those spring breakers. Tony Montana it wasn’t, and often, as I was told, dumps were lost or intercepted by other shady sorts or the ever-prowling authorities. About the only things I ever ran into along Alligator Alley were swarms of mosquitoes and some really godawful, low-grade tequila one of my college mates insisted on drinking as pregame petrol for all in the van not taking wheel duty.

That said, such a real-life drug drop from above is the loose inspiration for “Cocaine Bear,” a devilish little diamond in the rough with cult aspirations that isn’t far off in tenor and production values from the 1990 surprise “Tremors,” starring Kevin Bacon. The drug drop is supposed to take place over Tennessee but goes awry when the plane malfunctions and starts to go down. Most of the coke lands in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, where a few kilos are snorted up by a 500-pound mama bear (we learn that the pronouns are “she/her” when she passes out on a random drug dealer who can then identify her because – well, now you get a feel for the film’s cheeky, campy edge). The bear wants more, and will kill for it, be you a wayward hiker with a little accidental dust on your leg, a drug dealer seeking to retrieve the stash because your Colombian supplier will come for you, a law enforcer trying to intercept the former or an amorous ranger with designs on the park’s goofball naturalist. There’s a potpourri of personalities and agendas swirling around this very dangerous, coked-up beast.

Directed by Pittsfield native and more often actor Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games” and “Pitch Perfect” series) making a nice rebound from her 2019 failed reboot of “Charlie’s Angels,”“Cocaine Bear” packs a lot into 90-ish minutes and hits some hilarious highs. It’s also pretty gruesome and the CGI bear is, to be kind, B-rate, which only adds to the winning camp factor. It’s a go-for-broke concept played to the wire by Banks and bolstered by a cast of deft character actors and stars outside their normal wheelhouse: Keri Russell as the mom trying to find her wayward daughter (Brooklynn Prince), who’s lost in the woods; “Modern Family” guy Jesse Tyler Ferguson; Ice Cube’s kid O’Shea Jackson Jr., so good in “Long Shot” (2019) and pretty spot on here as drug dealer’s gopher; the ever-affable Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the maverick cop out of his jurisdiction and having to deal with a pampered lap dog; Margo Martindale as the park ranger quick on the trigger; Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo”) as the dealer’s son, in tow to help retrieve the coke; Russell’s “Americans” costar Matthew Rhys in a cameo as the coke-snorting aviator who kicks the whole mess off; and the late Ray Liotta as the head heavy not looking forward to answering to his Escobar sources.

How much of it is true? Very little that we know of. In 1985 a load of coke did get lost in Tennessee, never to be recovered, and a 175-pound black bear was found dead of an overdose across the border in Georgia. That’s it – the rest is a gift from Banks and writer Jimmy Warden during the time of year studios dump their failed projects in theaters and on streaming platforms as the movie industry gears up for the Oscars and big-screen spring seasons. Due to an illness I had to scrap my plans to attend a press screening in Boston and instead caught the early Thursday show at the Somerville Theater’s large auditorium, which was a true, relaxing pleasure – navigating evening press screenings, to which media outlets and PR firms often give away promo passes to the public, can be teeming gantlets (a bear, dare I say?). I was in no mood and double happy to stay local. 

Knock at the Cabin

3 Feb

Who’s there is not guests you’d want showing up on family glamping trip

By Tom Meek, Thursday, February 2, 2023

Gay guys rule the apocalypse. With “Knock at the Cabin,” the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, and the “Long, Long Time” chapter of the zombie plague video-game-turned-HBO series “The Last of Us,” this fact can be now be officially confirmed. It’s a good thing too, because they’re the most interesting, fully formed players on screen – the only reason the series maintains an edge and that “Cabin” is more than just an outré M. Night “Twilight Zone”-inspired curio.

Since breaking in with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, Shyamalan has largely made his buck with misdirection plot pivots that sometimes deliver (“Unbreakable” and “The Village”) and other times fall down woefully (“The Happening” and “Lady in the Water”). We won’t talk about some very bad departures from the format – okay, we will: the inert “After Earth” (2013) and inept “The Last Airbender” (2010) – but Shyamalan got back on track with the creepy grandparent thriller “The Visit” (2015) and the concluding chapters to his “Unbreakable” trilogy, “Split” (2016, in which James McAvoy is so good) and “Glass” (2019).“Old,” the 2021 film about a resort island where the aging process goes haywire, had promise and an excellent ensemble (Alex Wolff, Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal), but wasn’t quite top-shelf Shyamalan. “Knock at the Cabin” is a bit more the same. It starts with a couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), glamping at the woodsy structure of the title. Musty odors and squeaky screen doors this is not, with a spacious main room replete with a central fireplace, flat-screen TVs and columns of stately bookshelves nearly worthy of comparison to the square-jawed angularity of the dads, Eric (Groff, from the excellent “Mindhunter” series) and the rugged Andrew (Aldridge, of “Fleabag”). 

The vacation gets interrupted when Dave Bautista‘s hulking Leonard encounters Wen out catching grasshoppers and demands to speak to her fathers. Leonard’s got three friends, Redmond (Rupert Grint, very far from his ”Harry Potter” days), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, “Persuasion”) and Adriane (Abby Quinn, “Torn Hearts”), a teacher, construction worker, nurse and a cook who come with garish homemade weapons. They share a vision of the world ending, and after tying up the dads home-invasion style (think “The Strangers” or “Funny Games”) give the dads and Wen an ultimatum: Choose one of the three to sacrifice to save the world. Are these four ostensible horsemen of the apocalypse crazy? And if not, why is god, Satan or an alien power giving us the mandate now?  

Reports on those televisions show tsunamis consuming beaches, planes falling from the sky and worse. Time is ticking down and a decision must be made, but there are rules: The four can’t harm the three – and don’t want to – but can restrain them. And one of the four must pay in flesh at the top of each hour if a decision isn’t made, enforced by the others with those ghoulish weapons. The film, based on Boston-area author and teacher Paul Tremblay‘s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” becomes something of a stage play rooted in one locale, similar to Daren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” and quite cyclical – nearly running out of gas before the final frame. What keeps it going are the performances by Groff, Aldrich and the scene-grabbing Cui, the humanity of their tribe delineated by touching flashbacks of how they came to be, cleft lip and all, the slow-emerging profiles of the four at the door and some awkward yet interesting veers into homophobia as a possible agent in the mix. 

Religious overtones and bigger themes feel tacked on and the final resolution feels like a plop in a lake, but hey, the dads and Wen are a fun lot to spend time with, be it woodsy recreation, cataloging nature or battling the evils of the universe to absolve all of humankind.

Women Talking’

7 Jan

Impressive cast elevates hideous crime into a debate about freedom

 Tom Meek, Friday, January 6, 2023

Sarah Polley’s ambitious adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel of the same title is a poignant contemplation about women, their systemic subjugation and ultimately the union of sisterhood that enables them to stand and fight male oppression, which in this case packs a heinous, criminal twist. Toews’ “Women Talking” was inspired by real events in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia where several women and underage girls were given animal tranquilizers, raped repeatedly while unconscious and told that their bruises and subsequent pregnancies were the work of ghosts and devils. It’s a dark tale that, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, feels necessary and on point.

In construct, the film feels a bit like a stage play; much of the action takes place in the loft of a barn where three matriarchs (played by Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey and the great Frances McDormand) and their female kin debate what to do in response to the spate of sexual atrocities. There’s almost no men onscreen, though their presence remains ever present through the lingering effects of their misdeeds. The one XY allowed up in the loft is a sheepish lad by the name of August (Ben Whishaw), tasked with taking notes of what the women say and to help record the events that led to this moment. Why he’s invited is an interesting twist – part of the sequestered community’s oppressive tradition is that only boys learn to read and write. The revelation’s not as vile or personal as sexual assault, but illuminates a community where a segment can be used and abused with seeming impunity. The scene of a teenage girl waking up in the aftermath of one such unlawful trespass is heartbreaking. When the women catch onto the methodic violations (they’re called “attacks”) and capture a perpetrator in the act, he gives up his fellow assailants and several are imprisoned, with the rest in town rallying around and trying to post bail.

The film has a veneer of surreality that works to its benefit. Polley never tells us explicitly we’re embedded in a Mennonite community, and for a while you feel you could be on an Amish farm in rural Pennsylvania, or even the Calvinist outpost in Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2015), but then a pickup truck blasting “Daydream Believer” rolls down a dusty road and there’s a reality-check moment that feels right out of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” (2004) – it comes early, so don’t have at me for a spoiler.

Over its run, “Women Talking” becomes a bit too cyclical and verbose. The main debate becomes if the women should leave while the men are away, stay and fight or forgive and move on. It’s provocative and engaging at first, but begins to ebb into something existential that blunts the severity of the situation. Still, Polley has an ace cast who are all-in on concept and mission, especially Jessie Buckley, who last year starred in another thought piece about the harmful, entitled misdeeds of the opposite sex in Alex Garland’s “Men.” Here she plays one of the matriarch’s daughters dispensed into a marriage with a known abusive husband – and encouraged by the mother to stay. Mara Rooney (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Social Network”) is one of the young women violated and impregnated in her sleep.

One of the big quandaries that arises in the ongoing debate is what to do about the boys? There’s some consensus that 15 is the right cutoff between offender and innocent who need their mother. There’s also a school of thought that the boys, and even the men, are victims of tradition, lore and a religion that enables it all. Going beyond #MeToo, “Women Talking” brings to the fore religious regimes not unlike the conservative theocracy in Iran, which recently has come under criticism from brave naysayers within. Polley’s film isn’t a clean shot, but it hits a nerve that needs hitting again and again. 

The Best Films of 2022

1 Jan

In 2022 we finally got back to the movies the way we knew them. There we blockbusters again, as evidenced by “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” ringing it up the box office, but the real eye grabber was the strength of the Non-English language films, which could mean another “Parasite” year at the Oscar. My top 10 list has a six Nom-English language films with strong Korean and Iranian leanings. Without further ado…

1. Return to Seoul

Cultural identity takes center stage in Davy Chou’s emotional sojourn about a 25 year-old Korean woman (Ji-Min Park), adopted by French parents as a young girl, who returns to Korea to meet her biological parents. The piquant awkwardness of being from somewhere else while appearing to be “from here” ebbs to a degree as Park’s Freddie shows us what she’s all about, brash and cavalier, she takes lovers and discards them with aloof nonchalance. It’s a compelling character study that has one of the best “dancing by yourself” scenes in film. The true amazement here is that Park, whose performance is deep, nuanced and felt, is a first time actor. Chou takes the simple concept and deftly curratses the right moments to move us through time and Freddie’s emotional odyssey.

2. Tár

Todd Field’s first film in 15 years following “Little Children” likely could not have come into existence without its star, Cate Blanchett, who delivers a turn so bravura, lived-in and essential that it may just be the most defining performance of a highly accomplished career that already has notched two Oscars (“Blue Jasmine” and “The Aviator”). Her Lydia Tár, the commanding maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic, is a barrier breaker and even more so, a breaker of souls. Lydia has a wife and daughter – she’s a self labeled “U-Haul lesbian” – and also manipulative, often cruel, if not abusive, and an opportunist fostering and engaging in several inappropriate relations with young aspiring female musicians and conductors. Field’s provocative flip is of a woman behaving as entitled and above the law as many a miscreant called out and cut down via the #MeToo movement. The astute use of sound, both atmospheric and Lydia’s keen perception of it, gives the film an aurally immersive texture that deepens the moral contemplation. Let’s hope it’s not another 15 year for Field’s next potential magnum opus.

3. Decision to Leave

The latest from Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “The Handmaiden”) is a dark crime drama in which the lives of a police detective and murder suspect intersect and fold in on each other. It’s a psychological thriller that has Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) looking into the curious death of a skilled rock climber who fell despite safety measures. Gathering the mountainside evidence makes for an interesting process, with a second detective strapped to Hae-jun’s back as they rope walk up the sheer surface. Suspicion falls on the wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant who’s not quite fluent in Korean – did I mention that her departed husband was an immigration official? Hae-jun is a hands-on profiler sort and in scenes when observing Seo-rae, he’s suddenly in the room, a ghost to her, observing her. It’s a neat device Park throws at us that blurs the lines between reality and projection. It’s also a reflection of Hae-jun’s detached demeanor; he’s an insomniac, and has a strangely dysfunctional sex life with his wife. Natch, Hae-jun and Seo-rae have an attraction to each other that hangs dank and ripe in every scene they’re in. In the second part of the hypnotic slow burn, both have relocated to the same new city where Seo-rae is married to a fund manager and works as a caregiver to the old. It’s here that the film moves into darker territory, as Seo-rae is visited by a disgruntled client of her husband who slaps her around (the character is actually named Slappy) and there’s another death that cannot be misconstrued an accident or suicide. Of course Hae-jun is the one assigned the case. How Park lays down the cards does have reveals, but it’s mostly a deeply internal reckoning by Hae-jun. The film feels a bit like a true-crime noir and would make a perfect double bill with countryman Bong Joon Ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003), about Korea’s first true documented serial killer.

4. EO

In spirit, an updating of the Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic “Au hasard Balthazar” about a mistreated donkey that ultimately becomes a provocative Christ-like contemplation. The official Polish entry for the Academy’s Best International Feature, says much about humanity as the people who meet and interact with the wayward ass meandering across the country’s photogenic landscape treat it with wide ranging regard—contempt and compassion among them. Jerzy Skolimowski, best know for his 1982 film “Moonlighting” about a Pole laborer in London (Jeremy Irons) had made a tight focused narrative that’s big in scope and rich in visuals. To boot it has the great French actress Isabelle Huppert in a small part as a countess.

5. Hit the Road

Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi’s debut is right in line with the films of his politically imprisoned father, Jafar, whose dissident-leaning works “The Circle” (2000), “Offside” (2006) and “The White Balloon” (1995), have gotten him into trouble with the theocratic government. Eerily, “Road” tells of the story of a family in an SUV on a sojourn across the baren Iranian desert, up against time and clearly looking to escape a situation. Just what that situation is and what’s at stake takes a while to come into focus and done so with such careful, provocative meting by the younger Panahi.

6. Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Daniels who piqued audiences with their “WTF did I just see” “Swiss Army Man” (2016) with Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse whose unbridled flatulance can transform his stiff form into a jet ski of sorts or need to know where you’re going, his boner is a perfect north pointing compass. Here the Daniels take the multiverse concept and cheekily blend it with a first gen immigrant experience. The result is astounding, gonzo spectacle reined in by the film’s excellent cast with Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) as Chinese transplant trying to run a laundromat while under investigation by a relentless IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) and estranged from her husband (Ke Huy Quan) and heady daughter (Stephanie Hsu). The jumps through the rabbit hole has Yeoh’s mom in turns as a glamorous martial arts movie star (now that’s meta), a lesbian lover to Curtis’s agent and an addled human whose fingers are hot dogs.

7. Holy Spider

Ali Abbasi’s riveting, true crime serial killer thriller recounts a crime spree in Iran that yielded 16 victims in the early 2000s. A Saeed Hanaei, a construction worker who feels the need to purge the Shiite hub of Mashhad, Iran of prostitutes, Mehdi Bajestani delivers a performance that mesmerizes as much as it terrifies and never flinches. His preferred mode of performing those cleansing acts is strangulation, and the violence, hard to take (big viewer trigger warning), is rendered with prolonged and disturbing intimacy—think Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” (1972). After such deeds Saeed simply returns home to his family as if weary from a day’s work. When the film shifts to the courtroom, the grabber is the throng of people in the street supporting Saeed as if a hero come home from the war.

8. Emily the Criminal

Aubrey Plaza, also currently starring in season two of “The White Lotus,” is all-in as the titular Emily, an art school dropout with a criminal record, trying to get by via gig-work while drowning under a heap of student loan debt. What’s a tough Jersey girl lost in LA to do when the closest she can get to her dream job is an internship that doesn’t pay? The answer is credit card scams with some shady sorts; dreamers with their backs also up against the wall. Part of the nuanced character study’s appeal is the complexity of Emily, who refuses to wear the label of victim no matter how frustrated she becomes, and when pushed, she’s a can do, take no shit operator. The film’s a first time effort by John Patton Ford, a name to watch for down the pike.

9. Triangle of Sadness

Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner is a strange sojourn that doesn’t quite click with the intense, quirky fury of his “Force Majeure” (2014) or “The Square” (2017). The film’s told in three chapters, beginning with a bunch of young, shirtless male models aping for the lens in camaraderie but clear competition. We home in on one hunk named Carl (Harris Dickinson, “Where the Crawdads Sing”) whose standoffish girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean, a young actor-model who died after filming) is a trending influencer who makes more money than he does and reminds him of it often. The couple gets to go on the luxury cruise that makes up Chapter 2, with Woody Harrelson in a boozy cameo as the Marxist captain (though it’s Vicki Berlin, sporting a blonde pixie bob, who runs away with the film as the head steward). Chapter 3 takes us into “Lord of the Flies” territory with several of the boat’s passengers and crew marooned on an island with head toilet cleaner Abigail (Dolly De Leon) holding the conch as the only one who knows how to forage and make fire. The reversal of power structures and gender roles, and the grim extremes to which folks go, take the dark comedy into provocative and unsettling places, though it hits some wildly inane snags along the way, including a dinner party right out of Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” (1983). The title, as we’re told by a talent agent, refers to the area between the nose and the forehead that expresses the title emotion.

10. Athena

Romain Gavras’ riotous ghetto thriller is something of a bristling bull both for its acrid texture and bravura filmmaking. Jaw-dropping in composition, the film contains a series of unbelievable long shots (even by “La La Land” standards) and essentially amounts to 90 minutes of social unrest inside a French housing development known as Athena. The name channels the god of war, and to the housing project war comes. The cause for so much violence is the death of an Algerian boy, purportedly by police. We begin with one of the boy’s brothers Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a decorated soldier just back from a foreign mission, listening to a officials’ press conference; the camera pivots and moves into the crowd, where another brother, Karim (charismatic, impressive newcomer Sami Slimane), hurls a Molotov cocktail at the podium, igniting a coordinated flash raid of the police station that feels like a scene out of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976). Karim and crew abscond with weapons and take a hostage back to Athena, where a prolonged siege ensues, ebbing and erupting with the balance and outcomes shaped by the actions of Abdel, Karim and a third, older brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), the projects’ resident drug dealer, who all have very different agendas. The dynamics between the brothers and the bigger issues and prejudices amid raging war takes on the scope of Shakespearian tragedy. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Gavras, who cut his teeth shooting music videos (M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls”), is the son of filmmaker Costa-Gavras, who made a whole career out of political unrest with “State of Siege” (1972), “Z” (1969) and “Missing” (1982) among the many.

Close and in the hunt: S.S. Rajamouli’s bold, three-hour-plus anti-colonial epic “RRR,” Robert Egger’s primal revenge quest “The Northman,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” the gorgeously shot documentary “All that Breathes” about two brothers trying to save small raptors in India, the Harvey Weinstein paper chase “She Said,” Spielberg’s nostalgic nod to his youth, “The Fabelmanns,” the subtly lessoning “Turning Red,” critic darling “Banshees of of Inisherin”and Charlotte Wells’ arresting father and daughter getaway, “Aftersun.”


24 Dec

Old-timey Hollywood debauchery, indulgent chaos of Biblical proportions

There’s been a lot of self-indulgent film projects this year – “The Fabelmans,” “Amsterdam,” “Bardo,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Top Gun: Maverick” to name a few – and just in time for Christmas, here comes the cherry on top: “Babylon,” from director Damien Chazelle, who with this what-did-I-just-see spectacle of seems hellbent on topping that awe-invoking opening scene in “La La Land” (2016) by any means possible. The film, something of a love letter to the silent-to-talkie crossover era in Hollywood, begins with a torrid gush of a pachyderm’s fecal matter on the head of a some poor Hollywood underling, then ups the stakes with a raucous flapper rave turned pseudo-orgy, replete with a midget riding a giant penis pogo stick that ejaculates. No, I am not making this shit up.

Once there’s a moment to catch your breath and the gonzo, hyperkinetic hedonism comes to a post-coital rest, the film trains its lens casually on a trio right out of central casting: Brad Pitt (“Fury,” “Inglorious Basterds”) as the movie star Jack Conrad, a blend of Fairbanks and Clark Gable; Margot Robbie (“The Suicide Squad,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) as the Clara Bow-esque modeled Nellie LaRoy, who gets her big break taking center stage at the aforementioned bash; and Diego Calva in a breakthrough turn as Manny Torres, a studio errand boy and fixer (he’s the one who fetched the elephant, but not the one showered by it) who rises in the Hollywood ranks through his happenstance relationship with Jack.

The cast is more than game, the production values are through the roof – every shot screams opulent cinematic artistry – but something’s amiss in all the mayhem and madness. Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which also starred Pitt and Robbie (this their third teaming, “The Big Short” being their first), was also steeped in a Tinseltown transition (Golden/TV era to New Hollywood), but that film had soul and flawed characters up against time and imbued with genuine vulnerability. Here Jack and Nellie party 24/7 and never have a hair our of place when on set. Also too, they’re not that interesting, they get their moments at the top and sulk once the sun sets on them.

The film spans a 26-year period, with Manny’s ascent becoming the heart of the film. It’s easy to root for Manny even as he becomes involved with Nellie and shackled by her overindulgences in gambling and cocaine. From there the film goes to some very dark places – I’ll just say that there’s a subterranean party with S&M, a strongman geek and a crocodile that makes that first fete feel tame. In the vast cast there’s a lot of zesty personas hanging on the fringe: Tobey Maguire as a red-eyed fop who runs the numbers game, Eric Roberts as Nellie’s opportunistic father, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea as a buttoned-up studio exec, director Spike Jonze as a maverick director in the vein of Eric von Stroheim and Li Jun Li, who steals every scene she’s in as the commanding chanteuse Lady Fay Zhu. The rest of the vast cast includes Any Warhol regular Joe Dallesandro, Jonah Hill, Olivia Wilde as one of Jack’s exes, Max Minghella as the real-life Irving Thalberg (the blend of real and fictionalized is curious) and Jovan Adepo as a Black band leader whose narrative thread weaves throughout but never carries much heft. Themes of race, here and with Manny, are largely left unexplored.

And about the title: I’m not that up on my Bible, but clearly the film takes its name from the city that in Biblical lore was the locale for the erection of the tower to reach God that resulted in our vast array of world languages. Later, its licentious activity was the target of God’s ire, as Sodom and Gomorrah were. The metaphor perhaps being that the talkies and the formal studio system were the cleansing of the silent era’s excess? The one going to indulgent extremes, however, is Chazelle. “Babylon” is a clear passion project and it shows. It rivets and dazzles, but forgettably so. 

The Whale

21 Dec

Isolated and literally heartbroken, Fraser’s character carries weight of stagey drama

By Tom Meek, Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Director Darren Aronofsky, a decidedly deft cinematic craftsman, has taken some deep dives into personal torment: “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), “Black Swan” (2010) and “The Wrestler” (2008), to name a few. Here he’s back digging into that all-consuming inner turmoil, but his visual verve – the thing that brings that internalized struggle to the viewer – is missing, emasculated and eradicated by the narrative’s format. Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s 2013 play about a 600-pound recluse struggling with his place in the universe, “The Whale,” as adapted by Hunter and framed by Aronofsky, feels pretty much like a play with the camera perched on the edge of our protagonist’s living room, where nearly all the action takes place. That makes some sense, since Charlie (Brendan Fraser) can’t really get off the couch without the aid of a walker, cane or other hoists.

It’s a game go by Fraser, who put on weight for the part (with the final 300 pounds coming from the obvious use of prosthetics) and was last seen with ample heft as a baby-faced gangster in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” (2021). Much is asked of Fraser in “The Whale,” and he responds convincingly, conveying a troubled yet compassionate soul with more than his share of emotional vulnerability. Charles teaches an online writing class (never using his camera for the video sessions), pushing students writing essays to really dig down and say something from within, not just check the boxes of an assignment. Visiting Charles frequently are his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink, enjoyably nasty, if only two-dimensionally so), his nurse (Hong Chau, last seen being far less compassionate in “The Menu”) and a young religious missionary seeking a soul to redeem (Ty Simpkins). Along the way we learn the reason for his daughter’s vindictive state: Charles abandoned the family for another man, and because that didn’t go so well (the details are never fully explained), Charles fell into a deep depression, with food as his only solace. We’re also told by his nurse that Charles’ blood pressure is through the roof and that he’s suffering mini heart attacks at regular intervals but won’t go to the hospital – another nagging snag to the plot.

The title of the film (in theory) is not a reflection of Charlie’s appearance, but a reference to a cherished essay about “Moby Dick.” This dicey fine line has sparked some backlash, and perhaps deservedly so, if not for the title then perhaps for scenes of consumption as Charles folds a whole pepperoni pizza in half and snarfs it down in fast, carnivorous chomps, or his nurse enabling him by bringing him meatball subs that he eats off the crest of his chest. The scenes are nearly as look-away worthy as those in “Bones and All.” Still, there’s palpable love for Charles and his quest for redemption, and all the threads do converge emotionally in the end, even though it feels somewhat manufactured. And that’s another changeup from Aronofsky – clean clarity, not provocative chaos (as in his 2017 film “Mother!”). The bland, matted cinematography takes some zip off, but Fraser, clearly committed, carries much, and the supporting cast do their part.

Avatar: The Way of Water

17 Dec

After thirteen years, James Cameron gets back in the swim of things

By Tom Meek, Thursday, December 15, 2022

Much was made of James Cameron’s 2009 passion project “Avatar,” a $240 million cinematic (or is that computer?) revolution that mixed live-action humans with 10-foot, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi, an indigenous race on the distant planet of Pandora (don’t open that box!). It was a grand, opulent immersion that scored nine Oscar nods, with wins for Visual Effects, Art Direction and Cinematography, and made nearly $3 billion worldwide, the most by a movie, ever! It was also a fairly flat revisionist fable: White man who is part of the invading forces switches sides, embeds with the technologically inferior natives and leads them to a victory that otherwise could not be achieved – “Dances with Wolves” (1990) circa 2150.

The militarized mining force that devastated Pandora’s ecosystem in that first “Avatar” chapter went by the moniker of the Resources Development Authority, a corporate, colonizing NGO bristling with annexation ’roid rage. The “oorah” mentality fueled and led by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) felt right out of central casting, Snidely Whiplash simplistic without a nod or wink. In the new “Avatar: The Way of Water,” that limited two-dimensionality – and Quaritch – are back, and ready to rumble. What’s at stake this time? Pretty much the same as the last time: the ways and existence of indigenous folk and a delicate ecosystem with which they share a sustainable, symbiotic relationship. The big changeup in “Way of Water” is the milieu for the showdown and the resource the colonizing forces covet; instead of “unobtainium” and the planetary neural net that the Na’vi can plug into via their USB-enabled hair cord, it’s the water-world side of Pandora and the juice from a whalelike creature’s brain that can ease aging in humans.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), one of Quaritch’s grunts who last time around earned his pay by having his consciousness transferred into a Na’vi body to act as an RDA envoy, is back to lead the water Na’vi against Quaritch’s Sky People (any affiliation to Skynet?), named so because of their flying and now wave-riding war machines. Jake and Quaritch (seen shot full of arrows last time, now in Na’vi form too) don’t need liquid-filled tanks to lie in for the avatar process; they’re full-on Na’vi, and Jake’s married (funny how earthly traditions span galaxies) to love interest Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), who taught him the ways of the Na’vi and Pandora. Between the two films, they bore a small brood. Also in the mix as young Na’vis are veteran actors Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weaver, who have worked with Cameron in the past – Winslet on that other water adventure (“Titanic”) and Weaver on “Avatar” and “Aliens” (1986). There’s even a Tarzan-clad human named Spider (Jack Champion) running around with the Na’vi teens.

Visually, the film is stunning, more so than the last, though you can’t escape the fact that it still looks like a video game running on the greatest graphics card of all time. I saw it in 3D Imax and suggest any fan champing at the bit do the same – it’s worth your greenback. The film cost nearly $340 million to make, and for about every $2 million you get one minute of Cameron’s obsession.

Keeping in mind that it took 13 years between the original and “Way of Water,” there are another three “Avatar” sequels on the slate. The sad thing is that the series has already begun to feel a bit like Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films: indulgent and long, with flabby, uninspired – recycled is more like it – dialogue. It’s too bad, too, because Cameron has taken concepts such as “Terminator” (1984) and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) and shepherded those concepts in fresh, new ways.

I did sit through the whole three-plus hours fully engaged, marveling at the effects and the imaginative designs, but when I walked out I felt Camron had just told me the exact same story, and all he did was just add water.

Film Clips

5 Dec

‘The Inspection’

Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical account is about Ellis, a gay Black man (Jeremy Pope) joining the Marines because his mother (Gabrielle Union) kicks him out and, as a homeless Black man, he decides his time on the street is something of a death sentence. Pope’s Ellis tells us he’s going to make his life mean something, but this is during the don’t-ask, don’t-tell era, when a whiff of “gay” would mean being hazed in brutal ways you’ve seen in other boot camp dramas such as “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and “A few Good Men” (1992). “The Inspection” is not on par with those films in terms of production and scope, but it is deeply personal and moving. Pope does so much behind the eyes to convey the pain of enduring cruelty and repressing his identity during a hateful time, and Bokeem Woodbine sparks fire as an unrelenting drill sergeant, propelling the film the way R. Lee Ermey and Louis Gossett Jr. did in “Metal Jacket” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) respectively.

‘The Fabelmans’

Steven Spielberg’s nostalgic and self-indulgent semi-autobiographical tale – a theme this week – frames a young filmmaker coming of age during the end of the Great Age of Hollywood in an America rife with antisemitism. We begin with a young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan, replaced as the character ages by Gabriel LaBelle, of the “American Gigolo” television series) reluctantly taken to his first film by doting parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams). The film, “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), and the experience spark an awakening as Sammy becomes obsessed with the film and recreating the train crash scene with miniatures, concocting something of a home movie studio. Then, because dad lands a dream job with IBM in California, the Fabelman clan relocates to the cauldron of cinematic wonders; Sammy, surrounded by blond Adonises, is bullied regularly for being Jewish, but instead of folding Sammy takes up a camera. The results, often shared with the community, is more a uniting salve than a harsh light on inequities and othering. It’s an odyssey of self-definition and embracing one’s inner passion that moves poetically in chapterlike strokes and gives insight into one of the most creative cinematic minds of our generation, a jagged, bittersweet sojourn that made Spielberg the visual fable spinner he is. The solid ensemble includes a gruff Judd Hirsch and Seth Rogen as extended Fabelman kin and a quirky, deft cameo choice as the aged John Ford (not to be named, as it’s a ticklish surprise that should not be ruined, but I will say the person is named elsewhere in this column). It may be the most inspired casting of the year.

Film Clips

29 Nov

‘Strange World’ (2022)

Props to Disney for stepping it up and putting a mainstream face on inclusion. In this animated adventure into the unknown, not only is the family at the center interracial, but the teen son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) is gay. On the planet of Avalonia, the Clades are famous: Grandpa Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) is a legendary explorer with a statue in the village square – he’s also been missing for 25 years – and pop Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) has his own monument for discovering and harnessing a plant called pando that provides sustenance and a source of power for airships – think “Avatar” (2009). The pando supply is dying, which has something to do with a big hole that just opened up in the mountain, so Searcher reluctantly joins a military detachment to explore the phenom and hopefully save the planet. Ethan, who can’t land his crush and is bored working on the family pando farm, wants to get out and be like grandpa; even though told not to go, Ethan ends up in the mix, as does mom (Gabrielle Union), an ace pilot, and the family’s three-legged dog. In the hands of veteran animators Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who collaborated on “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021), “Strange World” channels such classic adventure fare as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959) and “Fantastic Voyage” (1966). It checks all the Disney boxes, though the degree of genuine conflict, even across the generations, feels a bit subdued despite the envelop being pushed.

‘She Said’ (2022)

In a just twist, disgraced multiple-Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein becomes the central subject of a dramatization about two New York Times reporters who investigated his sexual misconduct and helped ignite the #MeToo movement. We meet can-do Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) reporting on allegations that Donald Trump assaulted multiple women (that “grab ’em” tape with Billy Bush was fresh at the time), which gets no traction; later she teams with Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) to dig into Rose McGowan’s cataclysmic accusations against Weinstein. Both are mothers with young daughters and feel the urgency to break the story; there’s also pressure from Rowan Farrow poking around over at The New Yorker. The paper chase for the truth comes mostly down to getting victims to go on the record, and that proves challenging because of airtight settlement gag orders. Big-name stars wronged by Weinstein including McGowan (heard only by phone and voiced by Keilly McQuail) and Gwyneth Paltrow stay mostly out of frame, but Ashley Judd, playing herself, steps to the fore in more ways than one. Supporting players Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher as the dutiful Times editors overseeing the effort and Jennifer Ehle and Angela Yeoh as victims add to the rich ensemble. Like Kitty Green’s astute 2020 fictional take on the evils of all things Weinstein, “The Assistant,” Harvey also remains mostly off-screen – you never see his face – but is often heard and always felt as a bellowing bull through the phone, bullying, berating and denying. Director Maria Schrader and writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz make sure the focus is on the victims who were silenced by an omnipotent megalomaniac who commanded a squad of legal wranglers to cover his crimes. They now get to have their harrowing ordeals heard.

Bones and All

26 Nov

Searching for where she belongs consumes this cannibal teen

By Tom Meek Friday, November 25, 2022

Not really the kind of movie to see after a Thanksgiving Day feast, or even after the leftovers. No, “Bones and All,” the latest from director Luca Guadagnino (“Suspiria,” “A Bigger Splash”) is not for the meek, squeamish or recently well fed, as its subject matter are the folk known as “eaters,” aka cannibals, and it is, at times, quite gory. (There’s a degree of perversity at play here, as Guadagnino’s career-cementing “Call Me by Your Name” in 2017 starred Armie Hammer, who in the years following would be brought up on sexual abuse allegations that included purported cannibalistic yens.)

Based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, the film begins innocently enough with 18-year-old Maren (Taylor Russell) hanging out with friend as a slumber party. It’s all what normal girls in nightgowns eating junk food and talking about crushes do, until Maren playful nips one of her cohort’s fingers. It’s no big thing until the third or forth nip, when she tries to bite the whole thing off. Friends intercede and Maren sprints off home, where she and her father (André Holland) pack up and depart to a new whereabouts with new aliases. Dad seems to be a champion of his daughter, but shortly thereafter, Maren is on her own with a tape from her father that she plays now and then, through which we learn about her past misdeeds (babysitters fare poorly in the film). Troubled by her condition, which appears to be genetic, Maren decides to find her mother, whom she never really knew. The quest takes her from northern Maryland to Minnesota, with a lot of lessons and feasting along the way.

The setting is the early 1980s, when it was impossible to find a flesh-eaters chat group online – but that’s okay, because these special folk can smell each other. As Maren waits for a bus along the way, a daffy, dapper guy named Sully (Mark Rylance, creepy in a limited role) strolls up and, in an avuncular, Southern twang, tells her he could smell her a mile away and asks her to a house down the way for a bite. Maren naturally is reluctant, and she’s apprehensive as Sully chats away while dressing Cornish game hens. Is this the nourishment he was talking about? Nope. Turns out the house belongs to an elderly woman who’s fallen and can’t get up, and Sully’s waiting for the right moment to feed – just at the moment she dies, because warm food is what’s most desired by the cannibals among us. If the eaters could place an order via Grubhub, the delivery time would most certainly be too long.

Maren moves on from Sully and partners up with a rangy lad named Lee (Timothée Chalamet, who became an A-lister with Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name”) whose methods are more straightforward and seem to benefit society at large – who’s going to miss a convenience story bully? On their meander to Minnesota they swing through Kentucky to give Lee’s 16-year-old sister driving lessons. It’s a strange sojourn, with the pair living on the fringe as vagabond outsiders. They bond, but not really romantically, and encounter other eaters along the way. As you can expect, Sully makes a return appearance, which unfortunately is one of the film’s least credible yarns.

Russell, so good in Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” (2019) grows as as performer, conveying Maren’s inner turmoil with a nuanced physicality. Chalamet’s laconic Lee comes off as a vulnerable, reflective soul while emanating an aura of quiet lethality. The film is also bolstered by indelible turns by Chloë Sevigny, David Gordon Green (yup, the director of “Joe” and the recent, unbearable “Halloween” series reboot) and Michael Stuhlbarg in small parts, but to say more about the what and why would be to ruin the film.

I can say that there will be times when the eaters feed that you may need to look away or thorough split fingers – and even then will hear the ripping and groans of satiation. It’s not cartoonish like some zombie flicks, but visceral, grim and disturbingly real, like Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” (2001) and Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” (2016). “Bones and All” is definitely not a movie for a family, but it about family, roots and tradition, no matter how troubling that tradition may be.