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Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

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The Buena Vista Social Club,” a 1999 film about the music of Cuba and the independent spirit of musicians under Fidel Castro, is a rare nonfiction feature to become a phenomenon. Directed by Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire“), it was nominated for an Oscar as Best Documentary and grossed a staggering (for a nonfiction film) $23 million at the box office. And it inspired untold numbers of non-Cubans to familiarize themselves with such musicians as Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Rubén González and Elíades Ochoa, who were deep into senior citizenhood when Wenders’ camera crews tracked them down for interviews and watched them play concerts in New York and Amsterdam. The movie followed on another success, guitarist and composer Ry Cooder’s same-titled 1996 studio recording, which has sold over 12 million copies to date. 

Given all this, the death of Castro and the resultant opening-up of Cuba to the United States would seem like a slam-dunk for an enterprising documentary filmmaker. A sequel would let us catch up with the surviving musicians, find out how their late-career international success affected them, and give us a sense of how both Cuba and its music scene have changed since the movie and the album came out two decades ago. 

Unfortunately, Lucy Walker’s “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios” plays more like a well-intentioned but unsatisfying addendum to Wenders’ movie and Cooder’s recording. There isn’t enough in the way of new information or observations to justify a full-length feature. Castro’s death would seem like a fine pretext for revisiting the old stomping grounds, but so much time has elapsed that the movie can’t find a decent way in again. Watching the film feels a bit like revisiting your old school long after you’ve graduated, or returning to your hometown after years of living elsewhere. So many geographical and emotional signposts have disappeared or been subsumed that the movie seems to be struggling to recapture lightning in a bottle, then settling for reminding us of how extraordinary that bottled lightning was. 

Something feels off from the opening section, which revisits the Buena Vista Social Club—a haven for Black musicians and their music—and finds that there’s nothing much to see. The place is a gym now. Areas that used to house a stage or a bar now contain weight machines and treadmills, or have been reconfigured by walls that weren’t there before. From that point forward, the film contents itself with retelling stories that we heard in “The Buena Vista Social Club” while cutting between the disappointing, disconnected present and the raucous, glorious past. 

The change in visual texture is intriguing if you’re into that sort of thing—the crisp, high-definition video of today giving way to blocky, fuzzy low-res footage from the Wenders film, and from personal archives. But there’s a disquieting sense that the filmmakers are using all of their powers to create a follow-up that honors the original yet stands apart from it, and never quite getting there. There’s dazzling new material in the middle, showcasing previously unseen footage of vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, but it’s not enough to make you feel as if you’re seeing a fresh take on this subject. The most effective section of the film is the final third, which celebrates the lives of seven musicians who died in the two decades following the release of “Buena Vista Social Club.” But here, too, there’s a sense of too little, too late. 

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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From yo-ho-ho to yo-ho-hum.

Isn’t it generous of the folks at Disney to bestow upon us, the humble ticket-buying public, another chance to contribute to star Johnny Depp’s wine-of-the-month club fund by launching a fifth voyage into the diminishing returns of its “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. And, by returns, I am not talking about the gazillions of gold doubloons collected at the box office—$3.7 billion worth worldwide to be exact.

Instead, it’s that sinking feeling that has been growing with each successive voyage into blockbuster overkill in the form of distracting 3-D gimmickry, eardrum-endangering sound, frantic action set pieces, CGI spectacle (warning: get ready for super-fake ghost sharks) and the debasement of such top-tier talents as Bill Nighy, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and, now, Javier Bardem that the studio needs to simply drop anchor and move on.

True, this is the most successful series of films based on a brand-name theme-park attraction—not exactly a matter of pride, however, given that neither 2002’s “The Country Bears” nor 2015’s “Tomorrowland” were deemed worthy of sequels by the House of Mouse. But what was amusing, clever and innovative in 2003’s original, “The Curse of the Black Pearl”—I always liked those pirates who were exposed as skeletons when struck by moonlight—now feels like “been there, plundered that.”

This time, the subtitle—and there’s always a subtitle—is “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” I get a vicarious thrill whenever a film’s name is actually spoken out loud by a character and Bardem’s ghastly Captain Salazar—a zombie-fied rival of Depp’s perpetually soused swashbuckler Jack Sparrow whose re-awakened ghoulish Spanish crew is determined to slay every pirate on the high seas—doesn’t disappoint. As this leader of a gang of buccaneers in various degrees of decay explains in between the gushes of blood oozing from his mouth, he always leaves one survivor to pass along his legendary exploits. Why? “Dead men tell no tales.”

Norwegian directing team Joaquim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki“) as well as screenwriter Jeffrey D. Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”) appear to be addicted to chaos. They even crowd the IMAX-imized screen with no fewer than six schooners vying for the spotlight—which leads to an excess of captains, too. I half-expected that the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria would make cameos. Instead, Paul McCartney—you know, the cute one—takes over token rock icon duty from Keith Richards as Sparrow’s  oddly cheery incarcerated uncle.

What else is new, you might ask? With Depp’s tipsy high-jinks at half-mast in the funny department these days—a running gag about the term “horologist” gets a real workout—two fresh and younger faces have been brought on board. Boy-band-bland Australian actor Brenton Thwaites is Henry, the grown son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, who return briefly after skipping out on No. 4). He eventually pairs up with Carina Smyth (Brit actress Kaya Scodelario of “The Maze Runner”), an orphaned self-taught astronomer whose smarts get her pegged as a witch. They partner with Sparrow in seeking Poseidon’s trident so Henry can break the curse that has exiled his father and eventually run into another old friend, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, who once again rises above the busy chases, sword fights and loud calamities simply by being subtle rather than obvious). That the newcomers don’t engage in a romance is as original as “Dead Men” gets.

Much of the two-hour-plus running time is eaten up by elaborate stunt-filled centerpieces. One has Sparrow repeatedly avoiding a guillotine’s blade by the narrowest of margins while Carina manages to avoid death by hanging. Another goes all Cecil B. DeMille with the parting of the ocean while the previously mentioned ghost sharks lack “Jaws”-like snap. Meanwhile, an ill-timed “I do” nearly gets an appalled Sparrow wed to a plump elderly widow with a massive case of scabies. At some point, he acquires a mischievous capuchin monkey.

The most ridiculous though satisfying sequence involves Sparrow’s entrance that could double as a metaphor for the entire movie. A new bank is being celebrated on the isle of Saint Martin and the ceremony revolves around a giant safe. Once opened, Jack is found inside taking a nap atop stacks of money as well as someone’s wife. He apparently was supposed to pull off a robbery and ends up accidentally stealing the entire building instead. Alas, once the pursuit runs its course, most of the riches have been emptied out onto the streets.

Those who go to see “Dead Men Don’t Tell Tales” might just recognize that hollow feeling as they leave the theater. 

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Baywatch

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If you’re like me, you laughed at the trailers for “Baywatch,” the feature-film comedy sendup of/homage to the cheesy lifeguarding adventure TV series. That show featured quasi-hunk David Hasselhoff and bodacious babe Pamela Anderson plucking bodies from water and solving crimes, something that was not really their bailiwick—a point that this movie at first pokes fun at, and then belabors into unfunniness. But let me not get ahead of myself.

The trailers were funny enough to make me look forward to the picture. Imagine my displeasure when confronted with the nearly two-hour full feature, in which the trailer jokes were no longer funny; a full feature with a storyline that an enterprising six-year-old might have thought was a little too rudimentary. (The fact that the storyline was concocted by Thomas Lennon and David Ben Garant, the hipster hacks who have in fact written a book about how to make big dollars in Hollywood by writing utter crap screenplays, could be said to add insult to injury were both injury and insult not totally predictable.)

How is it, you might ask, that the trailer jokes are funnier than what is in the movie? Well at least one joke from the trailer isn’t in the movie. And as for the rest, the answer lies in the fact that this is another one of those raunchy comedies that’s barely a movie, that looks like it was edited by dumping a bunch of footage into whatever movie-cutting software they’re using and hitting “randomize.” The number of out-of-continuity shots in the first 20 minutes was so large I stopped counting.

The movie begins with Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch Buchannon, head lifeguard of Baywatch, running around his beach, reaffirming his supremacy. Tryouts for positions on his team are tomorrow, and today a few of the new recruits introduce themselves. One is Ronnie (Jon Bass), the tubby, nerdy tech guy with a thing for always-running-in-slo-mo Baywatch hottie CJ (Kelly Rohrbach). His thing is such that it causes him some physical discomfort in a long, drawn-out, unfunny “stuck junk” bit half adapted from “There’s Something About Mary.” Another candidate is Alexandra Daddario’s Summer, who will be the slo-mo brunette to CJ’s blonde. (Ilfenesh Hadera is Stephanie, the most authoritative female of the crew.) The guy who headquarters says must be included is disgraced Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron), who’s getting on the crew in a combination of publicity stunt and community service. Mitch is not too happy about this. His name-calling of Matt (which does include the sobriquet “High School Musical”) is one of the few running bits that manage to raise a smile.

After all the characters are introduced, we cut to the next day’s tryouts, at which Ronnie and Summer prove their mettle, and Matt goes head-to-head with Mitch. And after this scene, the movie injects an “are you looking at my boobs” exchange between Summer and Matt, in which the characters are wearing the costumes they had on in their introductory scenes taking place the day before. As they used to say on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “They just didn’t care.”

Which may still have you asking, how does this affect the jokes? Well, in the trailer there’s one isolated bit in which Efron’s character stands gloating on a yacht deck, saying “Jason Bourne ain’t got nothing on me.” Only he doesn’t get to the last word, because a bad guy behind him knocks him out. Funny in the trailer, because it’s cut to hit on a certain beat, and it does. In the movie, they use a completely different take of the line and the shot—it’s a tighter perspective from a low angle, with a little anamorphic distortion—and there’s no breathing room before Efron makes his proclamation, so the line falls flat.

It kind of goes that way throughout the movie. Which also features long periods of too-sincere homilies about teamwork, weirdly gratuitous brutality (one innocuous character is subjected to a grotesquely grisly death) and an extended corpse-penis joke which, in the dishonorable tradition of “Dirty Grandpa,” subjects a character played by Zac Efron to humiliation in a way that’s not even stealthily homophobic. On the plus side, the movie has a pervading air of crass amiability about it—it’s almost like a two-hour end-credits gag reel. (Nevertheless, it contains an end credits gag reel.) But as I said, if you saw the trailer, you got the best the movie has to offer. 

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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The title of Steve James’ new documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is a play on a phrase that was popularized during the 2008 financial crisis: that certain banks were “too big to fail” and had to be rescued by the United States government to stave off total economic collapse. Among the more shameful legacies of that period is confirmation that if you’re an executive of a multi-billion dollar international financial institution, nothing you do, no matter how stupid or willfully criminal, will result in anything worse than a comparatively minor fine, and you might not even have to pay that.

But if you’re a small, family-owned bank in Chinatown, well, it’s a different story. The titular bank is named for the Chinese calculator. It’s owned and run by the Sung family, Chinese-Americans who live in Greenwich, Connecticut and commute to Manhattan to oversee the flow of funds, the distribution of loans, the collection of payments and so forth. James, whose distinguished career includes “Hoop Dreams,” “At the Death House Door” and the recent Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself,” has a knack for finding the universal within the specific, and often a much larger and more complex story nestled within a specific account of one event.

That’s the case here, too. The main object of interest is the 2015 trial of Abacus bank officials on charges of conspiracy, larceny and systemic fraud. But woven around that is a story of immigrants assimilating and obeying the laws of their home country over generations, only to be made an example by their adopted nation’s power structure for what seem, in James’ account, like specious or intellectually dishonest reasons.

As the film explains, no one in the Sung family—including bank co-founders and married couple Thomas and Hwei Lin Sung and their four daughters—was directly connected to the shenanigans in the loan department of their Chinatown bank. The offenses included embezzlement, bribery and larceny. Documentation proves that once the Sungs realized they were employing dishonest people, they fired them immediately and reported their offenses to authorities, even providing fat binders full of documents to the district attorney’s office to strengthen the case against the accused.  James makes a compelling case that Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. threw Abacus and the Sung family under the bus because he needed to prove he was tough on white collar crime, and knew he could scapegoat a Chinese family because they owned a small, independent bank in a community too small to affect his chances at re-election.

Government and media witnesses to the investigation and trail agree that they never saw anything like the treatment of Abacus bank employees by Vance’s office. They were handcuffed and paraded down public corridors in a group of fifteen, their wrists linked by handcuffs as if in a chain gain, and three of the people in that lineup were Chinese-Americans who technically shouldn’t even have been there because they had already been released on bail. (Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi called the image “almost Stalinist.”) There is, by this film’s account, no compelling evidence that the Sungs were guilty of anything worse than failing to detect the actions of dishonest employees until they’d already caused a lot of damage. The case presented by the film is one of negligence or poor oversight, not active conspiracy to break laws.

But as gripping as the movie is as a legal thriller, it’s even more notable as a portrait of a community. James, whose crew spent many hours with the Sungs all over Chinatown and in Connecticut, has constructed a rich and revealing context for this tale, and it’s one that is rarely showcased in American cinema. This is a film filled with Chinese people engaged in an underdog story not unlike the one in “It's a Wonderful Life,” a film the Sungs adore and that inspired Thomas to enter the financial industry. We get a strong sense of a thriving community that defines itself in relation the mainstream of American culture and that is aspirational but never entirely comfortable or accepted. This is a precarious psychic state to exist in for successive generations, and it’s unusual to see it portrayed onscreen with such empathy and nuance.

More immediately fascinating, though, is the film’s depiction of an accomplished Asian-American family filled with strong-willed, educated professionals who obviously love and respect each other and have a great rapport. Some of the most striking scenes in “Abacus” are unrelated to the trial itself. They just show the Sungs sitting around a kitchen table or a table in a Chinese restaurant, talking about money, the law, the movies and each other. They talk over each other, interrupt each other, talk over each other. They crack jokes, tease, apologize and compliment one another. The physical fact of their existence onscreen is inspiring. So is the film’s impressive array of archival images, documentary film snippets and bits of TV news reports, showing Chinatown through the ages. There is history here. An entire world. And we finally get to see it. What happened to the Sungs seems horribly unfair, but this film is a silver lining. Everyone needs to see it.

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Everything, Everything

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Charismatic film actors can work miracles with so-so material. But there usually comes a point when they can no longer camouflage that the story they are so earnestly committed to telling is somewhat suspect.

For at least half of “Everything, Everything,” the latest best-selling young-adult novel to find its way to the big screen, I was content enough to simply bask in the company of 18-year-old Amandla Stenberg (Rue in “The Hunger Games” franchise) and 22-year-old Nick Robinson (“Jurassic World”), the two attractive leads who star as Maddy and Olly in this adolescent romance. Blessed with bright blemish-free faces, a precociously articulate way with words as they discuss calculus and literature, knock-‘em-dead smiles and effusively emotive hair, this pair’s presence puts a welcome sheen on an old thematic chestnut: the destiny-driven infatuation that won’t be denied, even in the face of a potentially lethal disease.

The malady in question? Maddy is a “bubble girl,” meaning that she suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency aka SCID. As a result, she is allergic to the outside world and must live in an antiseptic environment (complete with a stylish mostly white and certainly organic wardrobe). There have been “bubble boys” on TV (John Travolta in 1976’s “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” and that sore-loser Trivial Pursuit player on “Seinfeld”) and in movies (Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2001 dramedy “Bubble Boy”). But a female version is a rarity and the so-called bubble in this case could pass as something out of a high-end décor magazine for medical patients. The hermetically-sealed contemporary abode in Los Angeles features plenty of spacious windows so that Maddy can at least pretend she can connect to the world beyond her laptop—something she hasn’t been able to do in 17 years.

Luckily enough, single mother Pauline (Anika Noni Rose of the film version of “Dreamgirls,” a Tony winner whose abilities are at half-tapped here) is a caring doctor who tends to all her daughter’s health needs as well as a vigilant warden who makes sure she is never exposed to harmful elements. She is especially cautious since her husband and a son died in a car accident years ago. Soon after, Maddy got terribly sick and that was that. But then new neighbors move in and, lo, Maddy spies Olly, the super-cute skateboarder next door, who makes eye contact and waves as she peers through glass.

In what seems to be a clever play on the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” the love-struck pair can see into each other’s bedroom window and communicate by various means. They initially bond over silly pantomimed jokes at the expense of a misbegotten bundt cake baked by his mother and rejected by Pauline since, you know, germs. Then Olly writes his cell phone number on his pane, and soon they are whispering sweet text messages to one another at all hours of the night. There is even a kindly nurse a la Shakespeare named Carla (Ana de la Reguera), who acts as their sympathetic go-between and goes so far as to let Olly into the house after he promises to keep a safe distance from Maddy (fat chance).

I like how director Stella Meghie brings to life Maddy’s architectural models of a diner and a library as she imagines that her text message exchanges with Olly are face to face conversations taking place in life-size versions of her creations. It allows the movie to breathe. That an astronaut figure that inhabits her miniatures also shows up as a character is a nicely humorous and surreal touch. And the matter-of-fact portrayal of a bi-racial relationship is presented just as it should be—unremarked upon.

But, at a certain point, when Maddy starts to rebel against her mother’s strict rules and Olly’s father becomes abusive, it is inevitable they will run away—and to a beach, since that is Maddy’s dream. Think “Love Story” crossed with a PG-13 “Blue Lagoon” minus the ickier stuff. That is where logic begins to go askew. Yes, you can get a credit card at 18 just by signing up for one online. Yes, you can buy plane tickets with it on a web site. But how can you fly without ID since she surely doesn’t have a driver’s license, given her response to being in a car with Olly behind the wheel. Plus, you just know there will be a BIG TWIST coming eventually and, when it does, it drags everything down with it. 

Being around any young people in the throes of a blossoming crush can be a tonic, a contact-high reminder of how it feels to be so consumed by such a rush of intense feelings. It can also be annoying as hell, especially when they shut out the rest of humanity including those who care about them the most. “Everything, Everything” tries to have it both ways and only partially succeeds in being the right romantic medicine.

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The Woman Who Left

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In his appraisal of Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me,” critic Nathan Rabin describes a “Morning Paper Auteur” thusly: “A filmmaker who picks up the morning paper, grows more enraged about each article he reads, and decides to make movies that forthrightly address every social ill in the known universe.” Dostoevsky-obsessed Lav Diaz is one such busy fellow. Something like annually, he crafts a many-hours-long opus about the ills plaguing Filipino society, wrapped up in some themes and ideas borrowed from Crime and Punishment. Why make a film about religious cults, abortion, sexual abuse, or Diaz’s own life as a filmmaker when you can combine them all, as he did in the six-hour “Century of Birthing”? Diaz is back at it in the four-hour “The Woman Who Left,” about prison life, regional crime, transgender identity, corruption, family, religion, poverty and murder.

The year is 1997—though the modern cars on the street say otherwise—and the place is a Filipino prison. Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio, a once-ubiquitous movie star in the Philippines whose career slowed down when she became president of one of the most popular TV networks in the country) is exonerated without warning, 30 years into a life sentence for murder. Turns out she was framed by one of her closest friends in the joint, who kills herself after confessing, with a little help from an ex-boyfriend named Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael De Mesa). She begs the few people she still knows not to tell anyone that she’s been freed because she wants to do some sleuthing into the frame-up before anyone knows she’s on the loose.

She catches a boat to the province where Trinidad has settled down with his family, starts dressing like a man to hide her identity, and cases the town. She gets information about her target from a host of unlikely sources, including an epileptic trans woman (John Lloyd Cruz), a shanty town salesman and a mentally challenged homeless woman (played by husband and wife Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino). Something interesting happens as she prepares to take some form of revenge on Trinidad for taking her life away; she starts to really get to know and like the street urchins who surround her during her nocturnal investigations. They start to worship her as she throws her money around to help their children see doctors or offers her home for them to take temporary shelter. She becomes a negative image of Trinidad, using her influence for good, instead of ignoring the struggling underclass.

“The Woman Who Left” recently picked up the Golden Lion, the highest honor at the Venice Film Festival. As when Kim Ki-Duk’s “Pietà” took home the honor in 2011, one wonders whether the wandering focus and rough technical edges of the project only added to the feeling of authentic grimness both films cultivate. The sound of the film is a real mystery: sometimes it seamlessly transports us into the next image, other times the transitions pop loudly, like Diaz had to rush the film to premiere and couldn’t go back and smooth over the issues. This could simply be a product of Diaz shooting, directing, editing and writing the film and just not being able to spread himself equally across all tasks. His images definitely don’t suffer, whatever the case, as his usually silky black and white photography demonstrates. His street scenes are some of the most striking in the world cinema canon, and his compositions, which place his subjects in a diagonal trajectory across the Z and X axes, generate momentum even when the camera stays still for upwards of ten minutes.

The film makes heavy use of radio broadcasts to heighten the tension on the streets, constantly highlighting that there’s a rash of kidnappings unlike any the country has ever seen. Mother Theresa and Princess Diana are killed in the same bulletin. Diaz’s world is defined by senselessness, by the push and pull of gods exerting their power and then toppling. Horacia, with her random acts of kindness, seems to be the film’s version of Mother Theresa, though even she, in a fit of God-like cruelty, beats a mother of five in front of her children (the beating is augmented by inexcusably cartoonish sound effects). The woman will later forgive her for the violence, as if it’s just part of life.

“The Woman Who Left” isn’t as exhausting as other recent works by Diaz, like “Century of Birthing” or “Norte, The End of History,” and its grace notes are more sublime. In a four-hour movie that largely consists of people having drawn out, aimless conversations on empty streets, those are crucial. There’s the unforgettable bellow of the hunchbacked tinker hawking his wares, the sight of a drunken woman swaying beneath a street light, the way an addled mind seems to find footing in the repeated pronunciation of the word “Demonio,” Horacia trying to teach someone to sing “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story.” That song was covered by Tom Waits on his 1978 album Blue Valentine, which similarly creates and exists in an urban hellscape, where trash sweeps indifferently past god’s prisoners, bleeding from wounds they don’t remember collecting. The song means a lot to Horacia, hinting that her suffering might not be for naught if she can find some form of escape. Her reality is gone, and she attempts to rewire her identity after losing it in jail, trying and failing to project change onto her fellow street dwellers rather than directly confront herself. She accidentally undoes her most profound act of kindness by refusing to patch herself up instead of pointlessly seeking revenge.

The film finds something like transcendence in its final minutes, when Horacia flees the countryside to find her long-missing son in the city and must finally concede that she is still in some form of jail, though she is free. In a montage that recalls the conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,” we’re shown the “Missing” posters adorning dozens of street corners, blank walls and alleyways. Horacia’s presence is felt only through the sheer number of posters, painting the town with loss, trying to recreate one’s presence where humanity is rejected. Humans in the city come to look like insects busily running around, unable to change their lives, or do more than blend into an unfeeling urban design. Horacia’s devotion, like her signs, are ignored. Finally, she staggers, like the living dead, in a circle, the signs bearing her son’s face underfoot. His absence mocks her, literally becoming the ground beneath her feet. It will haunt her and support her, like the life she lost to incarceration. 

These final moments abandon the rhythm Diaz had established over the preceding few hours as if to prove that life is always capable of slipping from our grasp and reorienting itself. No matter the steps we take to gain back some measure of control, we are no match for the aimless designs of the world upon which we so casually tread. That a film this busy can find such focus in its closing moments says that whatever Diaz’s methods of inspiration and creation, he knows exactly what he’s doing. 

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Wakefield

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The idea of just walking away from a seemingly settled life is one that’s gotten a pretty good workout in both film and literature. The 2008 short story “Wakefield,” by American literary giant E.L. Doctorow, put a particularly funny and dark spin on the theme. One evening after a tough commute back from the city, New York suburbanite Harold Wakefield chases a raccoon that scurries up to the attic of his house’s standalone garage. Once secure that the pest is gone, Wakefield pauses. From the garage’s windows he can see inside his own house. His beautiful wife Diane (Jennifer Garner), with whom married life has soured; his twin daughters, who treat him as a stranger. Wakefield, on an impulse, decides to stay in the garage overnight. To see what happens, at least that what he thinks at first.

The screenwriter and director Robin Swicord, sticking pretty closely to the specifics of the story’s events, has made a smart, intriguing, sometimes provocative and often oddly moving picture of “Wakefield.” (The movie is dedicated to Doctorow, who died in 2015.)

Bryan Cranston plays the title role, and in the opening scenes, as he strides through Grand Central Station and dictates dark legal edicts and predictions into his iPhone, he exudes cold, buttoned-up authority. Once he’s set up camp in the garage attic, he becomes curious about their reaction to his disappearance, curious about the people Diane consults with—her mother, “the widow Babs” as Wakefield refers to her, and a younger, handsomer colleague of Wakefield’s are among them, and they both arouse his ire, which we infer he never kept well-hidden in his former domestic life anyway. But more than that, he’s cackling with glee over all the misanthropic bile he can cook up while looking at them. Referring to his former life as “a prison cell where the light is never turned out,” he lets his petty sadistic misanthropic thoughts run riot even as he scavenges the neighborhood dumpsters for food.

The premise sometimes feels like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener channeled through John Cheever. But Doctorow was not as despairing a writer as those other American masters. He was a progressive humanist, albeit an always tough-minded one. Swicord brings this perspective to bear on her cinematic vision of Doctorow’s story. When Wakefield is discovered by a couple of sweet-wide-eyed residents of the house next door—a learning center for differently-abled children, which, Wakefield boasts, he was all in favor of, but Diane expressed many not-in-my-backyard concerns about—the hardened viewer may roll his or her eyes in anticipation of the threatening teachable moment in which Wakefield rediscovers the joy of family. While his interactions with these two kids, played with great unaffected loveliness by Pippa Bennett-Warner and Isaac Leyva, do yield a share of magic moments, that’s not the epiphany to which the movie is headed.

Because Wakefield’s too twisted up for that. The sexual dynamic of his marriage, the dissembling with which he won his wife over, and other related factors make him unable to let go of his attachment even as he lets all his responsibilities go to hell. Once Wakefield is near full scary-looking derelict mode, the movie flashes back 15 years, to his courtship. And here it stumbles a bit, because while Jennifer Garner at 45 can still pretty plausibly play 30 or even 25, Bryan Cranston at 61 doesn’t do 45 very well, and I don’t think he’s supposed to be playing 45. I know this is the sort of objection brought up by folks that Alfred Hitchcock disdained as “plausibles,” but given that the movie is so well-crafted in other respects, the effect of no effect—aside from makeup making the actors look a little ruddier, there seems not to have been much effort put into de-aging—threw me out of the movie for a little while.

That aside, “Wakefield” is kind of a wonder. (Especially at a time when so many American indie films are steeped-to-drowning in the gestalt of the Millennial couch-sleeper.) The frankness of the key performances is consistent and sometimes startling. Even though half of her screen time consists of her being seen but not heard, Garner has a consistent crispness; her character is simultaneously transparent and slightly enigmatic. And master Cranston clearly recognizes the meal a role like Wakefield represents, and takes his time with it. He plays the part clean and plain, never nudging the audience for sympathy but making them want to ride shotgun with him on his lunatic journey. 

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The Wizard of Lies

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HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies” reunites a filmmaker and star once at the top of their games. In the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, a film starring Robert De Niro and a film directed by Barry Levinson meant something major. But the ‘00s and ‘10s haven’t been as kind to the two regular collaborators with a few exceptions here and there. To say this solid drama is Levinson’s best work in two decades isn’t much of a bold claim, but it’s even more startling to realize how much De Niro still has in the tank when he chooses to access it. This is a subtle, fascinating performance—a chronicle of a man who destroyed lives, including those of his family members, but never quite understood the depths of his own evil. De Niro doesn’t play Bernie Madoff as a villain, but doesn’t exactly turn him into a sympathetic figure either. Mostly, he was just an asshole, a guy who made excuses for his crimes even as they were tearing his family apart. De Niro’s really subtle work is buoyed by great supporting turns from Alessandro Nivola and Michelle Pfeiffer as well. The 135-minute film suffers from being too long and sometimes bizarrely constructed, but it’s the kind of solid true story we’ve come to expect from an HBO Original Film.

Almost all of “The Wizard of Lies” takes place in the aftermath of the arrest of Bernie Madoff in 2008 for orchestrating the biggest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. When his sons Mark and Andrew, played here by Nivola and Nathan Darrow, who worked for Madoff, discovered that dad was writing an exorbitant number of bonus checks in December, he confessed that he was just trying to “take care of people” before the Feds came for him. And then they learned the truth—everything they thought they knew about their father and the business was a sham. They actually went to the Feds early and turned Bernie in, realizing that they would already be called accomplices, and knowing that every minute they waited would make that charge harder to deny. So, from its opening scenes, “The Wizard of Lies” is set up as the story of a family falling apart.

While the script by Sam Levinson and John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum occasionally flashes back to happier times, it stays focused intently on how Bernie’s betrayal impacted Mark, Andrew and Ruth Madoff (Michelle Pfeiffer). Right away, the boys tried to distance themselves from their father, and, when Ruth stayed with Bernie, they had to avoid her calls as well. There’s a scene in which Bernie learns that his sons have refused to sign off on the bond to get him out of jail that’s one of De Niro’s best acting moments in years. You can see the pain on his face that’s somehow also blended with guilt. On an emotional level, he can’t believe his sons aren’t standing by him, but he also knows exactly why they’re not.

The structure of “The Wizard of Lies” can be a little frustrating as the film jumps back and forth in time, structured around a jailhouse interview with Madoff done years after the house of cards collapsed, and spending an incredible amount of time on the details about how exactly the scheme unraveled. There’s a better version of this film that’s half an hour shorter, and I wanted more of scenes like two key flashbacks: one to a lavish party that shows how much everyone around Bernie benefitted from his evil, and one in which Bernie basically had to play con man to keep money coming in when the market crashed. Mostly, “The Wizard of Lies” is a film of fantastic acting beats—the way Pfeiffer captures a mother choosing husband over sons; the way Nivola’s paranoia builds as he realizes the public hates him too; the matter-of-fact decisions of a suicide attempt by the Madoffs when they saw no other way out.

What’s most fascinating is how well De Niro portrays a man constantly making excuses. He claims that his investors and the government didn’t want to look too hard because they were making money, although the movie is quick to call him on that bullshit logic. It’s also unafraid to portray Madoff as a greedy asshole, the kind of guy who kept his kids in the dark and ruined their potential careers, guilting them into staying in an illegal operation instead of moving on to legitimate ones. A writer once compared Madoff to Ted Bundy, and the truth is neither saw the value of human life. Madoff never concerned himself with the impact his behavior had on the people around him, and the truly sad thing is that the people he damaged most of all were the ones who trusted him completely, his family.

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