Archive | July, 2021

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.