Welcome to Marwen


A bunch of living dolls.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorks/Universal) Steve Carrell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Weaver, Janelle Monáe, Elza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Falk Hentschel, Matt O’Leary, Nikolai Witschl, Patrick Roccas, Alexander Lowe, Stefanie von Pfetten, Neil Jackson, Samantha Hum, Siobhan Williams, Eric Keenlyside, Clay St. Thomas, Kate Gajdosik, Veena Sood. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Welcome to Marwen is a dramatic version of the acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol (which if you haven’t seen, stop right now and see it) which is the story of artist Mark Hogancamp, who was viciously beaten outside of a bar in 2005 by a bunch of guys who objected to the fact that he likes to wear women’s shoes. The men got off lightly; all of them had been released by the time the documentary came out.

Here, Hogancamp (Carrell) has no memory of his life before the attack (as was the case for the real Hogancamp) and used a fictional Belgian village populated by action figures, mostly modeled after women that Hogancamp knows – from his physical therapist (Monáe) to the clerk at the hobby shop where he buys his supplies (Weaver) – and Hogancamp himself (an idealized heroic version of himself he calls Captain Hogie) set during World War II. Mark’s lawyer is trying to get the reclusive artist to appear at the sentencing hearing of his attackers but Mark is very reluctant; anything that reminds him of that night sends him into severe panic attacks.

Helping matters is the appearance of a new neighbor, Nicol (Mann) who is compassionate and kind, and whom Mark develops an instant crush on. She could be his way out to normalcy or a reminder of past traumas that will send him spiraling hopelessly back into near-catatonia.

Critics tended to hate the film (see below) which I can understand; it’s not an easy story to get across and quite frankly, Zemeckis was not an awe-inspiring choice to make it. His sentimentality tends to rub critics the wrong way, but I found it affecting here, and there are some scenes when Carrell, who is absolutely wonderful at times, just breaks your heart. The romance between Marc and Nicol is absolutely realistic as well.

The movie ends on a bit of a predictable note and might turn people off – the dolls can look a little bit creepy. Some find men playing with primarily female dolls to be un-woke, but in the context of a man badly traumatized trying to deal the best way he can, I think it’s forgivable. Not the greatest movie Zemeckis has done, but it is entertaining and heartwarming enough to be enjoyable.

REASONS TO SEE: Carrell does a good job. Nice special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is predictable. A bit creepy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some of it bloody. There are also disturbing images, some brief sexual references and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real life doll village Marwen is based on is called Marwencol, which is a combination of Mark, Wendy and Colleen. The Nicol character is based on Colleen, but her name was dropped from the town’s name.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic:  40/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marwencol
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Wretched

AMC vs. Universal


As if things weren’t bad enough for the theater industry, the American Multi Cinemas chain – the largest in the United States – announced that when theaters reopened, they would no longer be showing any films made by Universal or their associated labels (including DreamWorks, Focus and Illumination). Considering that Universal has in its upcoming slate two of the biggest franchises in Hollywood – Jurassic World and F9 (The Fast and the Furious) this seemed like AMC was shooting itself in the foot.

The controversy erupted over an interview that NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell gave to the Wall Street Journal, in which he lauded the $95 million that Trolls World Tour made on Premium Video on Demand (PVOD) and how Universal would be looking into doing day and date PVOD in the future alongside their regular theatrical releases.

This raised red flags in the theatrical exhibitor firmament. For decades now, there has been an understanding that there would be a window between theatrical releases and home video/streaming releasing which would give theaters a chance to make as much revenue as they possibly could. Considering that theaters only get a portion of admission fees (they do get 100% of concessions which is why it costs so much for popcorn and a soft drink),that get larger the longer a movie is in theaters, it is in the best interest of theaters to keep movies in the multiplex for as long as they can.

So AMC head honcho Adam Aron took the drastic step of banning Universal product in his theatersWith. He was joined the next cay by Cineworld, owners of Regal – the second largest chain of theaters in the country. It’s possible other chains will join the ban.

This feels like a lose-lose situation for those that are caught in the middle – the moviegoing public. Both sides have pros and cons to their positions. For Universal, the pros are that the trend for movie viewing has been changing as audiences are increasingly watching films at home. As home theater set-ups get more sophisticated, it is not impossible to if not replicate at least approximate the theater experience in your own living room. It is also demonstrably less expensive, particularly for families; an evening at the movie theater including concessions, tickets and parking can often run right around $100 for a family of four or more. Although services like AMC A-List are making it more affordable for families to go out to the theater together, it still can be a hassle. Studios are well-aware of these changing trends and would be foolish not to be preparing for it. With a profusion of streaming services appearing, the demand for product is only growing and especially for product that is exclusive to those services. While Disney Plus and the upcoming HBO Max (debuting in May) have a built-in studio supply chain (Disney and Warners, respectively) Universal which at present doesn’t have a streaming platform of their own will likely end up supplying product to established outlets like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu.

The con for Universal is that movies going directly to PVOD rob theaters of a potential revenue stream. The situation with Trolls World Tour was unique; scheduled to hit theaters in March, the coronavirus pandemic closed the movie theaters  up and with nowhere to show the film, and most of their slate postpones or canceled, Universal felt that the lesser of two evils was sending Trolls World Tour direct to home video, allowing families with antsy children to see it at home while quarantined. However, the nearly hundred million dollar take went to the streaming services and Univeral; the theaters made nothing on the film and while art houses and independent distributors are partnering up for virtual cinema experiences that partially benefit independent theaters that show indie films, nothing like that exists for big chains and the studios aren’t about to take something like Top Gun: Maverick and put it on a video streaming service benefiting AMC or Regal since theaters won’t due a lot to promote the films. The loss of potential profits to the theatrical film exhibition industry, which is already suffering and operating on a thin margin, is devastating and might be the straw that breaks the back of chains like AMC which is already in some financial difficulty.

For AMC, the pro is preserving a business model that works; they can if they play their cards right possibly negotiate a more favorable rental fee system that allows them more of a buffer. It also might make other studios think twice before considering taking a similar stance as Universal, in which case the chains will be at the mercy of the studios who could leverage big blockbusters with smaller films, forcing theaters to carry less profitable product in order to get their hands on the big blockbusters that are their bread and butter.

The negative is that they are being seen as petulant and tone-deaf by the moviegoing public, who are already complaining loudly about the cost of going to the movies. Some fans are already saying they will take their business to smaller chains like Alamo Drafthouse and see the big blockbusters there. Even having the industry standard A-List promotion, it has to be said that the A-List really only benefits regular moviegoers; casual moviegoers will find less value in it and consequently will feel less brand loyalty. If people start seeing AMC as the Avaricious Mean Chain, it could spell trouble for their bottom line which is already, reportedly, in trouble.

For those fretting that they won’t be able to see Minions: The Rise of Gru in their favorite theater, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. This is likely to be resolved before the theaters open up again. However it shakes out, the likely loser in all of these machinations will be the public, which is pretty much par for the course these days.

Mortal Engines


A dystopian vista.

(2018) Science Fiction (UniversalHera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae Kim, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Mark Mitchison, Regé-Jean Page, Menik Gooneratne, Frankie Adams, Leifur Sigurdarson, Kahn West, Andrew Lees, Sophie Cox, Kee Chan, Sarah Peirse, Mark Hadlow, Caren Pistorius, Poppy McLeod. Directed by Christian Rivers

 

Bigger, as we have all come to learn, is not necessarily better. More often than not, bigger is just…not as small. When it comes to movies, we do love our big loud blockbusters, but sometimes we take a gander at the trailer, mutter “I can’t even” and move on to another podcast.

Based on the four-book young adult series by Phillip Reeve, Mortal Engines is set a millennium into the future when the surface of the earth has been razed by wars. Cities have become motorized literally – they are on wheels – and roam the landscape like pirate ships, absorbing smaller cities and using their innards for fuel. Think the opening sequence of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life but on a grander scale

Young Hester (Hilmar) lives in the dystopian future and she has a thirst for revenge against London’s heroic leader Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving) and attempts to assassinate him but is foiled by historian Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan) who discovers Valentine’s terrible secret. For this he is ejected from the city along with Hester, both of whom are left to make their way in the blasted landscape. The two hook up with swashbuckling Anna Fang (Kim) while trying to elude homicidal cyborg Shrike (Lang).

The images here are fantastic and the premise is imaginative, if impractical and somewhat illogical. Peter Jackson co-wrote this and was a producer on the project which explains it’s nine figure budget. Unfortunately, the plot is so convoluted and full of outright thievery from other franchises (Star Wars in particular) that once you get past the overwhelming visuals you are left with a plot that isn’t very good and characters that aren’t very interesting.

While I admit to being a junkie for Hugo Weaving (and he does elevate the movie significantly), he is offset by Hilmar who is the lead. She has almost no personality which is the fault of the writers, and no charisma which she has to look inwardly for. Putting a young person at the forefront of a big budget tentpole is always risky, but in this case that risk didn’t pay off.

This is still wonderful eye candy but little else. It the writers had put as much creativity to the story and characters that the special effects teams did to their craft, this would have potentially the start of a bold new franchise. Instead, it will go down in the annals of Hollywood as one of the biggest flops of all time.

REASONS TO SEE: The visuals are impressive and imaginative. I’d see Hugo Weaving in anything.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is nonsensical and borrows too liberally from Star Wars. Hilmar has almost no presence whatsoever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leila George, who plays Katherine Valentine, is the daughter of Vincent D’Onofrio and Greta Scacchi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: City of Ember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Welcome to Marwen

Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)


The sad face of a man facing a transition in life.

(2017) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Mohamed Djouhri, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach, Mehdi Ramdami, Sonia Mekkiou, Chawki Amari, Lamri Kaouane, Aure Atika, Zineddine Hamdouche, Saadia Gacem, Hamid Ben Si Amor, Sensabyi Beghdadi, Imene Amani, Nawel Zeddam, Abdelaziz Zeghbib, Samir El Hakim, Aziz Boukerouni, Nadia Kaci. Directed by Karim Moussaoui

 

A writing professor in college once said that life isn’t like a story; it has no beginning or end; it’s just one long middle that we’re all dropped into and thus we try to muddle our way through as best we can. Maybe it’s for that reason that we like our stories to have beginnings and endings.

This Algerian film is an anthology with a bit of Robert Altman to it; each story is the life of a character that we get to walk in the shoes of for a short time. Mourad (Djouhri) is a developer in Algiers who is in a morass. His ex-wife Nacim (Hamdouche) has summoned him, ostensibly to talk to his indolent son who is about to withdraw from medical school to essentially hang out with his friends, His current wife Rasha (Atika) is dissatisfied with life in Algeria and wishes to move back to Paris; Mourad is disinclined to do so, so Rasha is pushing for a divorce. At the same time, the deal to build a hospital that he and his partner are working on is beginning to look more problematic by the hour. But on his way home from his ex’s house, Mourad’s car breaks down and he ends up witnessing a brutal beating. Terrified, he remains hidden and when the chance to get away comes, he gets is butt home and doesn’t think to call the police. His ineffectiveness haunts him.

His driver Djalil (Ramdami) asks for time off to drive Aicha (Amar) to her wedding in a small village in the desert. On the way there, her father gets food poisoning and must be taken to the hospital; Djalil ends up spending time with Aicha, who it turns out is no stranger to Djalil. They have been lovers for some time, but this arranged marriage to an older man is advantageous.

On the way to the wedding ceremony, Aicha’s father stops to help a man stranded at the side of the road. This turns out to be neurosurgeon Dahman (Kachach) who is facing a pending life change of his own. Awaiting a promotion, he circles around waiting for something to happen rather than demanding that he get the promotion he deserves. Word gets to him that a woman living in a hovel in a poor neighborhood nearby has accused him of something horrible. He is advised to confront the woman, which he does. As it turns out, while he didn’t directly participate in the gang rape that the woman accuses him of, he did nothing to prevent it. A son with emotional and physical issues resulted from the rape and what the woman wants is for the son to be given a name. She asks the doctor for his, but he is not in a position to do so. He is getting married himself in a matter of days. However, he begins to feel guilt towards the woman’s plight.

None of these stories have a resolution; we follow one storyline for a while, then a character from the next storyline has a brief interaction with someone from the first and off we go on the next tangent. There is even an unexpected music video about an hour in, with a kind of Arabic ska song complete with dancing and singing. It is a bit of welcome daffiness in a movie that for the most part is pretty serious.

The movie doesn’t reveal it’s plot so much as let it unfold. We do get brief glimpses of various strata of Algerian society, which gives us a more complete introduction to the country than we might get ordinarily. The women here are for the most part standing up for themselves, something we don’t associate with North African culture. The men tend to be weak and indecisive so from a feminist point of view it’s somewhat refreshing.

I actually ended up liking this movie a lot mainly because we get so thoroughly immersed in the lives of these characters but not all of you might; you are left to draw your own conclusions about the stories and the characters, and you may end up wondering what the point of all of this is. Like life itself, there isn’t always one single point; sometimes we just have to struggle to interpret things as best we can and keep on moving so as to dodge the spears and arrows being lobbed in our general direction. At a time when life is at a standstill, it is comforting to see life as it is, or was, and may well be again, unfolding as it may.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating. The relationships are complex and believable. Unfolds rather than reveals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and slow-developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (mostly offscreen), some profanity and a description of a gang rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Moussaoui.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Kanopy, Microsoft, Realeyz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coffee and Cigarettes
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mortal Engines

15 Years (15 Shana)


If men rolled out of bed looking like this, we’d all be gay.

(2019) LGBT Drama (Breaking Glass) Oded Leopold, Udi Persi, Ruti Asarsai, Dan Mor, Tamir Ginsburg, Lint Balaban, Ofek Aharony, Or Asher, Keren Tzur. Directed by Yuval Hadadi

 

Reaching middle age can be a terrifying proposition. Our entire worldview has to change. No longer are we young and indestructible; we are reaching a point in our lives where we have to take stock and prepare for the future rather than live in the moment. Even though 40 isn’t what it used to be, it still has great psychological significance for most of us.

Yoav (Leopold) has reached and surpassed that milestone. In fact, he’s 42 and outwardly, at least, he seems to have things figured out. A successful architect with a beautiful apartment in Tel Aviv that he shares with his partner of 15 years, Dan (Persi) who is a lawyer. They lack for nothing. They are surrounded by friends. Life is sweet indeed.

Yoav’s best friend since childhood is Alma (Asarsai) who has continued that relationship into adulthood. She is an artist and at the opening of a gallery show for her art, she makes the surprise announcement that she is pregnant. The news floors Yoav; as her best friend, he is offended that he wasn’t the first to know.

Even worse from Yoav’s point of view is that Dan is now thinking of fatherhood for himself and that is something Yoav emphatically doesn’t want. His mother has been dead for a while and his father is dying in a nursing home which Yoav refuses to visit; when on the phone with a representative there, he coldly tells them “Then let him die without seeing me.” That’s just the beginning of a downward spiral for Yoav who begins to resent Alma for her life change and Dan as well for wanting one. Yoav is pushing the two people closest to him away as hard as he can; when his firm loses an important project, the stress is clearly beginning to show. But what’s behind Yoav’s sudden change into jerkhood?

Well, to be honest, we never really find out for sure. Hadadi, who also wrote the film, drops cryptic hints; clearly his relationship with his parents is strained – one wonders if they never accepted their son’s sexuality, but Yoav is convinced he’d make a lousy father whereas Dan is just as sure that Yoav would make an excellent dad.

Yoav is at the center of the film and his relationships with Dan and Alma are the movie’s heart; the relationships are thankfully believable; both Alma and Dan are legitimately hurt by Yoav’s actions which he is unable to adequately explain. When questioned about why he’s behaving this way during a crucial scene, he keeps on repeating petulantly “I don’t know!” which gets tedious but then, I think that’s the point.

Hadadi does a great job to create a character who is unpleasant and barely likable; we get occasional glimpses of a different side to Yoav but mainly we begin to get tired of the man’s self-centered narcissism. Yoav has become so in tune with his own needs that he has ceased giving any thought to anyone else’s. He resents Alma because the change in her life is going to affect him. He resents Dan because he has a life goal that is different than his own. We are left to suss out the reasons for the behavior but at a certain point, we just don’t care. A dick is a dick is a dick, as they say.

The relationship between Dan and Yoav is actually pretty realistic; we don’t often get representations of successful gay men in long-term relationships and even though the one depicted here is crumbling, it certainly doesn’t reflect badly on Dan who is bewildered at his love’s behavior and beyond hurt. Eventually the two split up but it is clear that Dan is very much in love with Yoav. Whether Yoav is in love with anyone besides Yoav is a revelation I’ll save for your viewing – can’t leave too many spoilers, right?

Kudos to Hadadi for portraying gay men with depth and even, in the case of Dan, compassion. I also very much admire that Hadadi never wastes a moment; each scene portrays what it needs to and the n Hadadi moves on to the next one. While there might be a couple of sex scenes that may have been a little bit extraneous, Hadadi also reminds us that not every sexual encounter goes the same way. There are different rhythms, different contexts.

I think if we saw a bit more of what Dan saw in Yoav in the first place the movie would have been more powerful. Nonetheless, this is one of the most powerful pieces of LGBT cinema that I’ve seen in quite a while and it is well worth seeking out if you enjoy the genre or better still, if you just like damn good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Hadadi wastes no time; every scene is efficiently composed and only precisely as long as they need to be.
REASONS TO AVOID: Yoav is so unlikable that after awhile audiences may not be able to identify with him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has to date won three Best Narrative Feature awards at three different Film Festivals, including the Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Junebug
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Until the Birds Return

If Beale Street Could Talk


Love conquers all; even social injustice.

(2018) Drama (AnnapurnaKiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco, Michael Beach, Aurora Collado, Kaden Byrd, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Carl Parker, Shabazz Ray, Bobby Conte Thornton, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Directed by Barry Jenkins

 

James Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, or of any other century for that matter; few authors captured the African-American experience with as much outrage, wit, joy, fury and dispassionate observation as he did. He was passionate and compassionate at once, writing prose that could easily have been poetry; of all the authors I’ve read in my life, only Shakespeare fares as well when read aloud as Baldwin does. He had a command of language that is rare and the fact that few of his books have been adapted for the big screen have almost as much to do with his lyrical prose as it does to the fact that his views were and are incendiary and perhaps unlikely to be embraced by white American audiences.

In this classic film, a pair of lovers – artist Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) are stepping up their long-time relationship to the next level; they plan to get married. But when Tish discovers she is pregnant, the couple have already been separated – Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Rios) who was manipulated into selecting Fonny out of a line-up by a malicious cop (Skrein) who had a bone to pick with Fonny. As is often the case with African-American men, he gets only the representation he can afford and ends up imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, tells the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back from the incarceration of Fonny to their developing relationship as children. Jenkins is becoming known as an actor’s director; if nothing else, he is a genius at extracting the best performances from his actors. Witness here, Regina King, playing Tish’s loving mother; when Tish informs her that she’s in a family way and not yet married, King – who with this movie rightfully took her place as one of the best actresses working today – displays maternal love and support with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of gesture. She’s the mom everyone wishes they had, even those who have a mom like her.

That scene contrasts with Fonny’s hyper-religious mom (Ellis) being formed of her son’s girlfriend’s condition. The acid tongue comes out as she lashes out at the girl her son loves, growing in vitriol until her aghast husband (Beach) abruptly hits her, shocking Tish and her parents, who absolutely can’t believe what they’re seeing. The families are in complete contrast; one loving and supportive, the other judgmental and cold although the dad does his best.

The movie is supported by a stunning soundtrack that highlights the emotional landscapes that Baldwin and Jenkins paint. The result is a powerful portrait that is as timely now as it was then – which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise Baldwin at all, but would undoubtedly sadden him, as it should any thinking, compassionate person.

REASONS TO SEE: A impressive literate and intelligent script. King and Layne deliver high-powered performances. The soundtrack is really terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling is a bit tricky but it does pay off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released on the 94th birthday of author James Baldwin, who wrote the original novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian Banks
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
15 Years

Finding Grace


The picture of teen petulence.

(2020) Faith-Based Drama (VisionParis Warner, Jasen Wade, Kisha Sharon Oglesby, David Keith, Bo Svenson, Erin Gray, Bethany Davenport, London Grace, Braden Balazik, Lucy Harselle, Warren Fast, Gage Maynard, Stacie Fast, Steve Norris, David Raizor, DeeJay Sturdivant, Israel Varela, Barbara Chevalier, Paige Fiser, Lacey Fiser, Avery E. King. Directed by Warren Fast

 

I will admit from the get-go that I’m not a big fan of faith-based films. It isn’t that I don’t believe, or that I don’t think that there isn’t a place for them; clearly there’s a market for them, and I don’t have a problem with Christianity in general. I have to say I’m averse to being preached to, however, and faith-based films have a tendency to be preachy – not all, but most. My biggest problem with Christian films in general, however, is that most of them are awful.

Take Finding Grace, for example. Alaska Rose (Warner) has been acting out ever since her mother left the family, leaving the hard-working Dad (Wade) to raise Alaska and her little brother (Balazik). Alaska is “out of control,” as the judge (Gray) in the film-opening courtroom scene remarks; she has been caught holding a fake I.D. and an alcoholic drink. As she is 18 years old, that means adult jail but the judge decides to be lenient, even though Alaska has enough attitude for ten teens. She ends up with 150 hours of community service. Note: how does one get sentenced to an adult jail for something that isn’t a crime for adults? I….err…umm…

Alaska is assigned to a residential care facility for the elderly. Alaska is assigned to the difficult Mrs. Foster (Oglesby) which works out about how you’d expect; she is also given charge of the talent show, which she is completely disinterested in. In the meantime, Dad’s business is failing and he is only barely holding his head above water; it would take only a small wave to drown the family. They haven’t been going to church recently, either, not since Mom left. Still, Alaska has a good heart and maybe something might click when she lets others in, particularly if she lets God in.

There are a few recognizable names here, mainly in blink and you missed them parts but the talent here is for the most part pretty unknown. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; I’ve seen unknown casts deliver powerhouse movies in the past, but to do that you need a script that doesn’t feel like it was patched together from fifty other movies, and this one certainly has that feel.

The real issue for me is that the movie doesn’t go anywhere that hasn’t been gone before, many times. It doesn’t add anything particularly fresh, or new. I’ll be honest; I think that Christian audiences have been given short shrift by filmmakers in the genre; they can be just as discerning as secular audiences, and they deserve movies that are interesting and well-acted. This feels more like a sermon based on an Afterschool Special that lasts two hours, and even on my best days I couldn’t last two hours for a sermon. I believe – and maybe I’m wrong – but Christian audiences need more than a message in their movies. They need believable characters. They need actions that make sense. They need a plot that isn’t as predictable as Sunday falling the day after Saturday. I think the time has come to hold Christian filmmakers to higher standards.

REASONS TO SEE: Panama Beach looks like a pretty nice place.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot. Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot entirely on location in Panama City, Florida; shortly after filming was completed, the town was devastated by a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, so reshoots were not possible.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let There Be Light
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
If Beale Street Could Talk

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)


Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

(2018) Biographical Drama (FocusSaoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, Maria Dragus, Eileen O’Higgins, Ian Hallard, Kandiff Kirwan, Adam Bond, Angela Bain, Izuka Hoyle, Liah O’Prey, Katherine O’Donnelly. Directed by Josie Rourke

 

You would think that history is immutable, written in stone; this event happened to these people on this date. History is, however, very much subject to interpretation and particularly to revision. If we don’t like what we know about history, we extrapolate what we don’t know; in trying to give context we often rob history of its own truth.

The rivalry between Elizabeth Tudor (Robbie), Queen of England, and Mary Stuart (Ronan), Queen of Scotland, was largely a political one, made personal because the two were cousins. In this revisionist version of that rivalry, both queens are manipulated by the venal and fragile egos of the men at court as well as by the tides of religious fervor that was sweeping both nations. Mary was a devout Catholic and was despised by the largely Protestant population of her country, the most outspoken of whom was John Knox (Tenant), founder of the Presbyterian Church. Also whereas Elizabeth chose to forego marriage and children and concentrate on ruling her country, Mary chose to strengthen her grip on the thrown through marriage leading to a series of romances that may have done more to harm her standing than help.

Elizabeth is portrayed here as sympathetic and admiring of her cousin Mary, but forced into a rivalry reluctantly, even though there’s absolutely no evidence in that regard; screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards) even dreams up a face to face meeting between the two monarchs even though that never happened in actuality; I suppose it makes for good drama but then again, Hollywood has never been the place to go to for history lessons and generally, I have been okay with that unless the “dramatic license” becomes egregious.

Both actresses do very well with their roles, and why would they not; Ronan and Robbie are two of the most talented actresses in the business and they are given two compelling historical figures to work with. Sadly, both of the women here are portrayed as victims of their time rather than as shapers of it. Often, progressives have a tendency to passively denigrate that which they are trying to portray as worthy; the truth is that Elizabeth was one of the most politically savvy figures of her time or any other time, for that matter. If she was manipulated, it was no more so than any other male political figure including her father Henry VIII; chief of state manipulation has been a human tradition ever since we started putting people in charge.

The film has sumptuous production values with wonderful costumes (Elizabeth’s wigs alone are worth a gander) but I truly wish the film had portrayed both of these figures as the compelling characters that they are rather than using them to make a political point about an era that neither would have recognized or, likely, approved of.

REASONS TO SEE: Ronan and Robbie give wonderful performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Eschews historical accuracy for woke political messaging.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Tennant plays John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. His father was the Moderator of the General Assembly for that church.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elizabeth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Grace

True History of the Kelly Gang


Ned Kelly, Australian icon.

2019) Historical Drama (IFCGeorge MacKay, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, Josephine Blazier, Thomasin McKenzie, Marlon Williams, Orlando Schwerdt, Ben Corbett, John Murray, Tilly Lawless, Ross Knight, Louis Hewson, Jillian Nguyen, Paul Rochfort, Andrew Wright, Will McNeill, Danzal Baker, Markella Kavenagh. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Ned Kelly is couldn’t be more Australian if he were a kangaroo singing “Waltzing Matilda.” He is the ultimate anti-hero; a horse thief, cattle rustler and murderer who became a symbol of the independent spirit of Australia by standing up against the colonial police who oppressed him. While there are some Aussies who see him as a hardened criminal who got what he deserved, others see him as a heroic martyr.

Young Ned (Schwerdt) lives in the wilds of Victoria in the mid-19th century with his feckless alcoholic Pa (Corbett) and his angry, bitter Ma Ellen Kelly (Davis) who is having sex with Inspector O’Neil (Hunnam) of the Victoria police who is at the same time, harassing Ned’s Dad. When Ned is given an opportunity to go to boarding school, the offer gets his mother’s Irish up and she turns down the offer flat, instead sending young Ned out with bushranger (outlaw) Harry Power (Crowe), who teaches Ned the ways of the bush.

Now grown up, Ned (MacKay) has become a bushranger in his own right. Yet another policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick (Hoult) has taken a liking to Ned’s comely sister Kate (Blazier). However, when Fitzpatrick takes liberties and sneers at Ellen, Ned shoots the Constable in the wrist and is forced to flee into the bush.

There, the legend of Ned Kelly is born and backed by his own gang that slowly grows into an army, he robs banks and shoots coppers whenever the chance arises. However, as corrupt as the police are, they still are better armed and even Ned’s homemade armor won’t save him from falling in a bloody shootout at Glenrowan and a final date with the gallows – cementing his place as a legend.

Giving lie to the title, the opening credits proclaim that “nothing you see here is true.” The connecting tissue of the movie is Ned, awaiting execution in the Old Melbourne Gaol, writing a letter to his daughter, telling her the truth of his life. As he pens the words “May I burn in Hell if I speak false,” screams of torment can be heard in the background. The film is full of clever little touches like that.

The movie is based on the 2000 Man Booker-award winning novel by Peter Carey, and is indeed a fictionalized account of the notorious outlaw, apropos of the title. While the events are essentially true to history, there are a lot of inventions here; I will admit that I’m not fully versed in Australian history, but I didn’t find any references to the Kelly gang wearing women’s dresses during the course of their crimes, as depicted here (Ned’s father is also depicted as a cross-dresser). There is also an encounter between Ned and Fitzpatrick that has homoerotic connotations and there’s no evidence that Kelly swung in that direction, so to speak. Kelly is also depicted as clean-shaven whereas photos of him clearly show a bushy beard, but Mackay was also filming 1917 around that time and may not have had the luxury of growing a beard for this film.

There is also some artistic license; rather than using period music, Kurzel blasts punk rock tracks to shock the audience out of complacency and uses strobe lights in a couple of different places including the climactic gun battle which is well-staged, incidentally. However, there are times that I get the sense that Kurzel is showing off as a director and it does take away focus from his film.

However, Kurzel and his cinematographer Ari Wegner do a magnificent job of capturing the immensity of the Australian bush; the bleakness of the impoverished Kelly home and the terrifying Glenrowan gun battle, in which bullets and beams of light pepper the shed. Kurzel has been watching a few Baz Luhrmann films of late, I suspect.

Kurzel has a good cast, with powerful performances by MacKay who is poised for stardom with this and 1917 under his belt, Davis who was captivating in The Nightingale and Crowe in a supporting role, showing the presence and chops that made him a star in the first place.

The script does a lot to humanize Kelly, making him a victim of poverty and of police prejudices against Irish convicts who were sent to the penal colony. He is no saint, but he really had no other options at his disposal other than to turn to a life of crime; essentially, he was just fulfilling expectations. If you’re looking for, as the title suggests, the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang, you have the wrong movie but there is insight to be had here. The true history is a tragedy, as it turns out.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a mythological feel to it, even as the filmmakers seek to humanize Kelly. Needs to be seen on the big screen.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is a lot of violence, much of it bloody and graphic; there is also plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Earl Cave, who played Ned’s brother Dan, is the son of Australian rock legend Nick Cave who grew up less than 10 km from where Kelly’s last shootout with the police took place in Glenrowan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mary Queen of Scots

Robert the Bruce


The once and future King.

(2019) Historical Drama (Screen Media)  Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Zach McGowan, Gabriel Bateman, Talitha Bateman, Brandon Lessard, Diarmaid Murtagh, Emma Kenney, Patrick Fugit, Melora Walters, Shane Coffey, Daniel Portman, Seoras Wallace, Kevin McNally, Jared Harris, Nick Farnell, Gianni Capaldi, Mhairi Calvey.  Directed by Richard Gray

 

In Scotland Robert the Bruce is a national hero, able to do what William Wallace could not – give the Scots their freedom from English rule – but it didn’t come easy.

Some ten years after the execution of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce (Macfadyen) is King of Scotland, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. That’s because other Scottish nobles, particularly the clan of John Comyn (Harris), also are claimants to the throne of Scotland. After an ambush at Greyfriars’s Church leads to the death of Comyn, Scotland is in chaos. The English, with whom Comyn had allied, have put a price on Robert’s head of 50 gold pieces. The unceasing wars against the English have led to a divided country; some support their King who is promising freedom, other weary of war that has claimed so many husbands, sons and brothers.

Pretty Morag (Hutchison) has lost a husband to the wars and a brother as well. Raising her own son Scot (Bateman) as well as her nephew Carney (Lessard) and niece Iver (Bateman), they live on a remote farm in the mountains. Robert, hounded by foes on every side, is ready to give up. He dismisses his few loyal remaining men, including his best warrior James Douglas (Murtagh) who thinks it is folly for Robert to be without protection. He is soon proven right as Robert is attacked by three of his own men, including treacherous Will (Fugit) and badly wounded. Scot finds him in the woods and the family of Morag bring him to their farmhouse to tend to him, much to the displeasure of Scot who blames Robert for his father’s death.

They know they are risking death and their uncle Brandubh (McGowan) is sniffing around the farm – he is looking for Robert, who he has discovered is in the vicinity, but he is also hoping to woo Morag who had married his brother. Even as Robert gets better, the king knows he is in dire peril and dragging this good family in with him. Can he escape and take the family who saved his life to safety?

In all honesty, I don’t know how apocryphal the story is. It could be pure fiction, or based on folk tales, or based on fact. I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I do know Macfadyen – who played the role memorably in Braveheart previous to this and co-wrote the script – has been trying to get this movie made for more than a decade. The 56-year-old actor is playing the King in a period when he was in his mid-30s; this Robert is more world-weary than the one he played in Braveheart and less fiery-eyed. There are moments, particularly near the end of the film, where we see the old Robert the Bruce and thse moments are welcome.

The elephant in the room is Mel Gibson, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be too pleased to be called an elephant. One of the things that made Braveheart such a classic, beloved film was the presence of Gibson, who was at the time at the top of his game and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and possessed of enormous charisma before later events derailed his career. Macfadyen is a terrific actor and he has plenty of screen presence, but I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he’s no Mel Gibson and the movie feels the lack of that kind of star power.

It also feels a lack of Scotland in it. The movie was largely filmed in Montana which is a beautiful state, but it doesn’t have the same look as the Scottish Highlands. The largely American cast also has difficulty with the hard-to-master Scottish accent. Either it’s laid on too thick or not thick enough. Mostly, though, actors drop in and out of it willy-nilly.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this film that are worth waiting for. There isn’t a ton of action here in the two-hour film, and American audiences may have a hard time with that. It is not a fast-paced film either and American audiences will REALLY have a hard time with that. Still, if you are patient, there are some scenes that come close to recapturing the magic of the Oscar-winning Braveheart but it never quite does. This isn’t a sequel so much as a spin-off and it doesn’t have the budget to recapture the battle sequences of that film, so Robert the Bruce doesn’t have the epic scope of the previous movie. Still, the character is a big part of Scottish history and proud Scots will not want to miss this, nor will those who love that craggy land.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that are pure magic.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced for this type of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mhairi Calvey, who played the wife of Robert the Bruce here, played a young Murron, the eventual wife of William Wallace, in Braveheart.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
True History of the Kelly Gang