Bliss (2021)


Skating through life.

(2021) Science Fiction (Amazon Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Landeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Zizek, DeRon Horton, Eugene Young, Dayne Catalano, Adam William Zastrow, Lora Lee, Darin Cooper, Roberto Montesinos, Kosah Rukavina, Tanya Alexander, Debbie Fan. Directed by Mike Cahill

In a speech in 1977, science fiction author Philip K. Dick posited the idea that the world we live in is not reality but a computer simulation, predating The Matrix by more than a decade. But what is reality, exactly? If our senses can be manipulated, who’s to say that what reality is may not necessarily be what we perceive it to be?

The reality that Greg Whittle (Wilson) lives in isn’t too appealing. He works in a phone bank whose drones endlessly apologize to callers for whatever technical difficulties they may be experiencing without offering any sort of solution to fix it. Greg is a professional apologist and he’s not even that good at it; much of his time is spent daydreaming, doodling a beautiful palatial mansion that he could never possibly afford to live in unless he had a rich trillionaire uncle that he didn’t know about.

His doodling hasn’t gone unnoticed and he is called into his boss’ office where his employment is terminated. However, when Greg accidentally kills his boss, he panics, hiding the body and running across the street to a bar for a cocktail to calm his nerves. There he meets Isabel (Hayek), an apparently  homeless woman with a fantastic story; the reality that Greg is in is a computer construct and most of the people, including Greg’s boss, aren’t real. Because Isabel is real, she can manipulate the computer program by ingesting yellow crystals through the nose, and to prove it to him, manipulates reality to make it appear as if what happened to Greg’s boss was a suicide.

At last, Isabel takes Greg into the real world, accessed by means of ingesting the much rarer blue crystals – so rare that they are unable to get the full dosage needed for both of them to remain in the real world. There, Greg finds a Utopia where poverty has been eradicated, labor is done mainly by mechanical means and most people live a life of leisure devoted to artistic and scientific pursuits. The home that Greg has been doodling turns out to be the place where he lives. But because they were unable to get the full dose of blue crystals, Isabel and Greg need to return into the computer-generated world to acquire a full dosage – plus there’s the matter of Greg’s daughter Emily (Cooper) who isn’t real, but whom Greg is devoted to nonetheless. In the end, Isabel and Greg are only able to gather enough blue crystals to send one of them back to Utopia. Which one will stay?

Bliss is meant to be a 103 minute mindfuck, meant to make you try to figure out which reality was real and which was the simulation – or maybe both of them are simulations. Or maybe both of them are real. You can get a real headache trying to keep it straight.

It’s a great premise, but unfortunately the execution is weak. For one thing, there seems to have been some fudging on the science and the economics; for example, one of the reasons poverty has been eliminated was that asteroid mining brought an influx of new wealth into the global economy, but if you study economic history (as in 17th century Spain, for example) you will realize that kind of influx of wealth tends to bring ruinous inflation that actually wrecks the economy. And the likelihood that those who made trillions of dollars from the ining enterprise would then donate an annual salary of half a million dollars a year to every living adult is so unlikely to occur as to be virtually impossible.

Also, while Wilson and Hayek are both talented individually, they don’t mesh well together here. Wilson’s laid-back persona almost necessitates some kind of balancing counter-performance and so Hayek seems compelled to get almost shrill in order to bring some energy to the proceedings. And considering that they are supposed to be soulmates, you never feel any sort of attraction between the two of them. I give points for Wilson doing the type of role he doesn’t take on very often, but unfortunately it isn’t enough here.

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, also feels largely unearned and unsatisfying. This is a movie with plenty of good ideas, but they don’t seem to have been thought out very well. Cahill has a tendency to overexplain (we spend an inordinate amount of time hearing about the various efficacies of the crystals and why they need to be snorted and not eaten) and at times it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes, it’s better to just say “this is the way things are in this world” and let the audience fill in the blanks.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson tackles a role outside his comfort zone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science doesn’t appear to have been very well thought-out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill studied economics at Georgetown; while a student there he struck up a friendship with future actress Brit Marling.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews; Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cowboys

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Blow the Man Down


Taking out the trash, Maine-style.

(2019) Suspense Comedy (AmazonSophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Marceline Hugot, Meredith Holzman, Will Brittain, Skipp Suddath, Gayle Rankin, Owen Burke, Neil Odoms, Thomas Kee, Marv Coombs, Kat Palardy, David Coffin, David Pridemore, Adam Mayerson, Mark Cartier, Kendrey Rodriguez. Directed by Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole

 

You have to love a movie that opens with a group of salty fishermen singing sea chanteys in graceful harmonies. It’s one of those instances that just tells you right off the bat that you’re I for a treat in this debut feature by co-directors Krudy and Savage.

In the coastal town of Easter Cove, sisters Priscilla (Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Saylor) are hosting a funeral at their mother’s house. The funeral is for their mother; Mary Beth is bitter at having to delay going to college to help care for her mom in her final days. Now she and her sister are stuck running her mom’s fish shop and the house is about to be foreclosed upon. Heap upon that mess the fact that Mary Beth can’t wait to get out of her small village. Priscilla, whom everyone calls Pris, loves the town and is happy to try and make a go of it.

After the funeral, Mary Beth goes to a local bar after a fight with her sister. As is her wont, she finds herself attracted to the biggest douchebag in New England (Bachrach) and goes home with him. It turns out, though, that he’s a lot worse than a douchebag; there’s a gun in his glove compartment and blood in his trunk. He’s plastered and is getting violent, so she tries to get away from him. He chases her into the docks and eventually she has to defend herself – with a harpoon. Things don’t go well for him.

However, Senor Douchebag had an affiliation with Enid Nora Devlin (Martindale), who runs a B&B called the Ocean View which happens to be the town brothel. One of her girls has gone missing and some of the town busybodies (Squibb, O’Toole, Hugot) want to run Enid out of town on a rail. The late Mary Margaret Connolly had protected Enid but now that she’s gone, the vultures are circling. Meanwhile the town constabulary are investigating the missing girl, there’s a matter of some missing cash and the sisters have their hands full trying to continue to live their lives without, you know, ending up in jail.

This is the type of movie that really floats my boat, which is kind of apropos here. It’s quirky enough to stand out but not enough to be annoying. The plot has lots of twists and turns but all of them make sense within the context of the story. Nothing really comes out of left field; this is well-written and told in a business-like manner, while leaving room for some magnificent performances.

And no performance is more magnificent than the one Martindale turns in. Enid is iron-willed with a vulnerable side that surfaces late in the film, but she’s crafty, a survivor who knows where all the bodies are buried having put a few in the ground herself. Martindale gives a performance that is incendiary, dominating the screen which considering that she has an Oscar-nominated actress (Squibb) in the mix, is no easy feat.

The New England fishing town in winter is far from a Hallmark card but it’s still beautifully photographed. Also a stand-out here is the soundtrack – there are chanteys scattered throughout the movie and there are some other eclectic choices as well, such as Greg Kihn being played during a barroom scene. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore, as you know.

For those of you looking for something new during our enforced housebound days, this one’s a winner. It comes included with Prime, so if you subscribe to that service, you get the extra added bonus of being able to watch it for free. If you don’t, you can still rent it on Amazon and it is well worth the fee.

REASONS TO SEE: Martindale gives a spectacular performance. Has just the right amount of black humor. Awesome soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story gets a bit unfocused in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a wicked amount of profanity, some violence, brief drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Declan’s line “He went and vanished like a fart in the wind” is identical to a line spoken by Bob Gunton as Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption which was also set in Maine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knives Out
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Resistance

Beautiful Boy (2018)


A father and child reunion.

(2018) Biographical Drama (AmazonSteve Carrell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Amy Aquino, Timothy Hutton, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, LisaGay Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Oakley Bull, Christian Convery, Carlton Wilborn, Stefanie Scott, Marypat Ferrell, Amy Forsyth, Kue Lawrence, Brandon Cienfuegos, Cheska Corona, Mandeiya Flory, Martha T. Newman. Directed by Felix van Groeningen

 

Drug addiction remains a problem for humankind; as a species we seem driven to do things we know are bad for us because they feel good. Nic Sheff (Chalamet) is a white, upper middle-class teen who seems to have everything; a loving family, particularly his father and two half-siblings he adores. He’s super-bright, having been accepted at every college he has applied to. His future looks exceedingly bright.

But for whatever reason Nic turns to drugs; what drives him there is never really explored in the film. Perhaps it was the divorce of his dad David (Carrell) – a respected journalist who was one of the last to interview John Lennon before his untimely death – from his mom (Ryan) who lives in L.A. David is remarried to Karen (Tierney) who struggles to understand her stepson.

Nic’s addiction takes the family on a roller coaster ride of disappearances, binge drug use, periods of sobriety, then repeating the cycle again. David grows more desperate, trying to figure out what is driving his son; the two fight a lot but David is fiercely protective of his son, refusing to give up on him. This puts strain on his marriage as his wife begins to feel that he’s neglecting his current family for his ailing son. At last, with Nic fast approaching rock bottom, David is forced to make a terrible choice.

The movie is based on two books – one written by David, the other by Nic – and uses both to get the viewpoints of both characters. Van Groeningen seems pretty even-handed here; he doesn’t make amy judgements but presents the behaviors for the audience to come to their own conclusions. It’s hard at times not to get angry with Nic, who at times seems to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. There is a wrenching scene in a diner when Nic, who is showing signs of relapsing, asks his father for money so he can move to New York. David begs him to stay in Northern California but Nic doesn’t like the vibe. Things escalate and it ends badly for both men. There is also a scene very late in the movie where David, following a phone call from Nic, finally accepts that he can’t help his son. After giving Nic some tough love, David breaks down and slowly starts taking the pictures of his son down from his office. It’s a heart-wrenching moment that families of addicts may well identify with.

I can’t say enough about the performances of both Carrell and Chalamet. Carrell, like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks before him, has morphed from a zany comic actor to an outstanding dramatic actor. I think he’s a role or two away from being a regular part of the Oscar conversation. As for Chalamet, after an unforgettable performance in Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the brightest young actors in Hollywood. He may well be the best young actor since Pacino.

The movie also benefits by one of the most fascinating and most diverse soundtracks I’ve ever seen. It has everything from opera to punk to ambient pop to jazz to classic rock to folk to easy listening. On the negative side, the movie from time to time (albeit rarely) descends into maudlin territory. Van Groeningen also likes to employ flashbacks to help explain the actions going on.

This can be very hard to watch at times; nearly unbearable. There are also some moments that are incredibly tender. Father-son relationships often get the shaft when it comes to Hollywood; dads are often portrayed as lovable but befuddled buffoons who have no clue what’s going on. This is a very real and very touching portrayal of a close father-son relationship that is put to the most torturous test imaginable.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling performances by Carrell and Chalamet. A fascinating and diverse soundtrack enhances the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The flashbacks are sometimes intrusive and hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly straightforward drug content, plenty of profanity and some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Royo, who plays Nic’s AA sponsor, also played a drug addict himself on The wire.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ben is Back
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Camp Cold Brook

Suspiria (2018)


Even the graceful may be made to look grotesque.

(2018) Horror (AmazonChloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Alek Wek, Jessica Harper, Renée Soutendijk, Malgosia Bela, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Fabrizia Sacchi, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Vincenza Modica, Halla Thordardottir. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Those expecting to see a remake of the legendary Dario Argento 1977 horror classic of the same name will be very disappointed. Sure, there are a lot of elements in common with that film here.  But, as Guadagnino himself has said, this is more of an homage than a remake.

Susie (Johnson) is an American dancer, come to Berlin in 1977 to try out for a prestigious modern dance academy. The air in Berlin at the time is vibrant and terrifying; it is the era of the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang, of the still-fresh scars of the Nazi regime, of the still-in-place Wall dividing the city and where David Bowie prowls around getting ready to record some of the most compelling work of his career.

The academy is cut off from all of that. Presided over by the icy Madame Blanc (Swinton), an acclaimed choreographer of modern dance who is preparing to present one of her most important postwar works, Volk and with her lead dancer, Patricia (Moretz) having had apparently a mental breakdown and disappeared, apparently into one of the radical groups floating around Berlin, Susie falls into that role. However, Patricia’s psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (also played by Swinton, nearly unrecognizable under layers of latex and make-up) suspects that her delusions of magic and witchcraft are hiding something else just as sinister and goes about investigating her disappearance like an aging Ellery Queen.

Occasionally horror films come along with many layers designed to make you think and this is one of those films. It has polarized audiences and critics alike; there were several perfect scores given to the film on Metacritic and at least one zero. There is a definitely feminine viewpoint here; there are almost no male roles and the main one is played by a woman (Dr. Klemperer). The academy is a microcosm of divided Berlin, with two distinct camps – one led by Madame Blanc, the other by the equally mysterious Madame Markos (Swinton, again) with divergent points of view of how things ought to be run. The movie may be perceived to be feminist by some, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but the feminism is less overt than you might think. Female bodies are not ogled over here and the movie is virtually sexless other than a few odd comments here and there. However, there is no mistaking the stance the film takes on the violence (both physical and otherwise) forced upon women by society, and the objectification of them in general.

There is violence here and some of it is intense. There is a scene in which Susie is rehearsing a scene from the piece while in another room, her movements are visited upon a dancer who has fallen out of favor (Fokina) in nauseating extremes; bones crack, tendons rip, organs are perforated. The sequence goes on for awhile and may be found to be excessive or even unendurable for those who are sensitive to such things.

There are some real nice touches here. Thom Yorke’s score is absolutely superb, one of the best I’ve heard in quite a while. The production design is also quite impressive, diametrically opposed to the original film, eschewing the vibrant color palate of the 1977 film for a more muted, almost drab and cold look. It works nicely given the tone of the film. There is also a cameo by Jessica Harper, star of the 1977 film, as the psychiatrist’s wife near the end of the film that adds a touch of grace.

However, the 2018 version is almost exactly an hour longer than the original and I really can’t find a justification for it. It also begins to go off the rails a bit in the third act although I suspect that many who would be offended by the arthouse aspect of it might have switched off long before then. That would be a shame though; this is a movie that looks at the experience of being a woman in an unflinching and sometimes brutal manner; it’s the kind of movie I would expect that someone like Rose McGowan would make. And maybe, should.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous set design. Thom Yorke’s autumnal score is incredible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit artsy-fartsy towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and ritualistic violence including one death scene that is nauseatingly graphic, as well as some profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yorke becomes the third member of Radiohead to segue into film scoring, following Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Uninvited
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Toxic Beauty

Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls

The Aeronauts


Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon…

(2019) Adventure (AmazonFelicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Courtenay, Himesh Patel, Phoebe Fox, Lewin Lloyd, Vincent Perez, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front, Anne Reid, Robert Glenister, Julian Ferro, Gian Kalch, Mia Hemmerling, Kamil Lemieszewski, Thomas Arnold, Steve Saunders, John Taylor, James Daniel Wilson, Guy Samuels, Fran Targ, Zander James, Elsa Alili. Directed by Tom Harper

 

We sometimes envy the birds, soaring free above the bounds of the ground, winging their way on the currents of the atmosphere, seeing our planet from a perspective we could never really understand. We have sought to control the air, learning to fly with balloons before eventually creating the airplane and consequently shrinking our planet.

In 1862 that was far away. While balloonists regularly performed exhibitions, aeronauts (as they were referred to as back then) were not taken too seriously as much more than performers. James Glaisher (Redmayne), who believed that studying the upper atmosphere would allow us to better understand weather patterns and eventually allow us to predict the weather, wants to go up higher than any other balloonist ever has. The Royal Science Academy basically thinks he’s cracked but he does find a taker in Amy Wren (Jones).

Wren is about as unconventional as a woman could get in the Victorian era. She makes grand entrances riding on the top of carriages, stuns her onlookers by throwing her beloved Jack Russell terrier out of the balloon (don’t worry folks – the pup has a parachute) and is apt to do cartwheels on the stage. Glaisher finds all of this distasteful and distracting from the scientific endeavor he is undertaking, but he needs a pilot and Wren is, like it or not, his bird.

Once they get airborne, they realize that their task is going to be much more difficult than they first thought, particularly since they manage to soar right into a thunderstorm. They have already overcome much adversity to begin with – Amy dealing with the awful death of her husband, Glaisher with the deteriorating mental state of his father and the ridicule of his peers. If they can learn to rely on each other they might just figure out that they have the skills to survive.

This is (very) loosely based on real events – not a single ascent, but rather several ascents. However, a great deal of liberty has been taken with history, although that’s nothing new for the movies. While I love Felicity Jones as an actress, her character is extremely improbable for the times she lives in. On the way to the record-breaking ascent, she orders the carriage to stop and gets out, plopping her butt down on the curb with ankles and calves on full display – and nobody pays attention. In 1862, the sight of a woman’s calf would have been scandalous. Felicity accentuates the girl’s spunk, but she certainly doesn’t seem a product of her times which I suppose fits right in with modern narratives.

Redmayne, who the last time he was paired with Jones won an Oscar, is curiously restrained here. I realize he’s supposed to be a stuffy scientist but he’s almost inert. Given his usual on-screen charm, it’s almost shocking how leaden his performance is here. This is not the Eddie Redmayne that we usually get to see. I suppose everyone is entitled to an off-film.

The action sequences are for the most part well-staged and Jones holds her own as an action hero, just as she did in Rogue One. This is the kind of adventure movie that went out of vogue with the advent of the anti-hero 70s, and has never really come back. However, before you classic movie fans begin to celebrate, this isn’t nearly as good as some of the films you remember. However, this is a solid piece of entertainment that while it doesn’t hold a candle to such films as The African Queen, for example, it nonetheless should hold even a casual movie fan’s interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelously staged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nonsensical and anachronistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences of extreme peril as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although James Glaisher was a real person who was a pioneer in meteorology, Amelia Wren is a fictional character albeit one based on actual women. Glaisher did indeed set a record for highest ascent in a balloon in 1862 but his partner, Henry Coxwell, was decidedly male.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Around the World in 80 Days
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
22-July

The Report


Going through millions of pages in government reports could turn anybody into Kylo Ren.

(2019) True Life Drama (AmazonAdam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Victor Slezak, Guy Boyd, Alexander Chaplin, Joanne Tucker, Ian Blackman, Tim Blake Nelson, Fajer Kaisi, Scott Shepherd, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan, April Rogalski. Directed by Scott Z. Burns

 

As Americans, we have always held ourselves to certain standards. We are strong, true and follow the law. We do the right thing. There came a time though, that our self-image took a pounding.

Young Daniel Jones (Driver) is ambitious, ready to keep America safe after 9/11. He was anxious to make a difference the best way he could – behind the scenes as a Congressional aide. When Senator Diane Feinstein (Bening) asks him to look into recordings of interrogations that the CIA had reportedly destroyed, he uncovered something terrible; evidence that the CIA was torturing prisoners for information.

Calling the effort “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” or EIT, the program was put in place by a pair of contractors with backgrounds in psychology and the military. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that the two men had never conducted an interrogation before, or that evidence was strong that torture almost never yielded any actionable intelligence. The program went on and keeping it covered up seemed to be the main focus.

Jones and a small team of researchers worked in a basement office in a CIA satellite office for five years, working crazy hours going through more than six million pages of documents. Despite reluctance by the CIA and certain segments of Congress, Jones pressed and pressed until he uncovered the shocking truth.

The story is an important one, one that is especially relevant these days. Not every important story makes a good movie, however; much of what happened involved researchers sitting in front of a computer screen in a jail cell-like atmosphere. The dramatic tension here is not very strong. It doesn’t help that Burns doesn’t really develop Jones much as a character; we never see much of his personality except for that he’s driven and almost obsessive. He’s passionate about what he’s looking for and sometimes gets frustrated when others don’t share his outrage.

Bening and Driver are both outstanding actors and they don’t disappoint here. Driver is definitely in a much more different kind of role than we’re used to from him and it’s a good fit. I’m impressed by his versatility as an actor and he really stretches himself here. Bening is an actress who doesn’t always get the due she deserves; she probably won’t get a ton of accolades for her performance here but she really brings Feinstein’s personality to the forefront; that’s not surprising considering the two are friends in real life. Good casting is important in any cinematic endeavor.

I can see where those who are politically conservative might not like this much; the Conservatives don’t come up covered in glory here. Still, it’s an important story about how easy it is for the way to be lost, and how wanting to preserve our security can sometimes lead to compromising our soul. It’s a chilling tale and one that needs to be committed to memory.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story chilling in its implications. Strong performances by Driver and Bening.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overall the movie is a bit more underwhelming than the story deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing depictions of torture, violence, plenty of profanity and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Daniel J. Jones attended the film’s world premiere at Sundance and received a standing ovation from the audience.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zero Dark Thirty
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Last Color

Brittany Runs a Marathon


You can’t move forward if you’re just standing still.

(2019) Dramedy (AmazonJillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howley, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Erica Hernandez, Adam Sietz, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day, Kate Arrington, Beth Malone, Esteban Benito, Nadia Quinn, Juri Henley-Cohn, Peter Vack, Gene Gabriel, Sarah Bolt, Ian Unterman, Frances Eve. Directed by Paul Downs Collaizo

 

We have become more aware of our health than perhaps ever before. Here in America, despite the epidemic of obesity and its attendant health issues, we have become more aware of what we eat, how we exercise and generally what kind of shape we’re in.

Brittany (Bell) does none of those things. She works taking tickets at an off-Broadway theater and spends her nights drinking, hanging out with her friends and essentially being the fat best friend, to use a movie cliché. She goes to see a doctor (based on his Yelp rating) hoping to get him to prescribe Adderall; instead, he gives her a wake-up call. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are dangerously high as is her Body Mass Index. Her liver is beginning to get enough fatty deposits to be worrisome. In short, her doc (Darragh) advises her to lose 50 pounds pronto and make some serious life style changes.

That’s not necessarily an easy task for Brittany, who is used to making fun of people who exercise. Going to the gym is out of the question; she can’t afford even the most basic gym membership. However, as she notes to an obsequious gym owner, running outside is still free so Brittany digs out a ratty old sports bra and a pair of sneakers that have seen better days and prepares to make a quick run down the block.

She makes friends with fellow runners Catherine (Watkins) who is undergoing an ugly divorce and runs to take her mind off of things, and Seth (Stock), a married gay man who wants to get more fit so he can keep up with his kids. Brittany begins to take to running and gets it into her head that she wants to run the New York City Marathon. She convinces Seth and Catherine to train for it with her.

Brittany begins to transform. She loses weight and feels better physically. She stands up to her former roommate Gretchen (Lee), a bitchy judgmental Instagram influencer who constantly demeans Brittany and moves into the mansion of the couple whom she is dog-sitting for while they are away on an extended vacation. Already moved in is Jern (Ambudkar) – yes you read the name right – a feckless Millennial with all the ambition of a potato and not even of the couch variety. Jern is interested in a maybe romantic relationship but Brittany is not so sure.

As the pounds melt off, something odd happens – all the self-loathing and self-doubt that she has felt most of her life haven’t melted away with it. She resents anyone who wants to help her, distrusting their motivations. Brittany may not be Olympic material as a runner, but she is world-class when it comes to pushing people away. Soon enough she ends up living with her older sister (Arrington) in Philadelphia along with her brother-in-law (Howley) who is more of a father figure to her. Brittany’s dreams of running the New York marathon look to be in jeopardy.

This is most definitely a female empowerment film, although not the usual kind. For one thing, Brittany’s physical changes don’t necessarily coincide with attitude adjustments; she still has all the insecurities she’s always had and her sense of humor can be occasionally cruel. Brittany isn’t always a likable person, but thanks to Bell’s charismatic performance you still end up rooting for her to succeed. As kind of an odd aside, I found myself distracted by Bell’s resemblance to actress Cameron Diaz. I ended up chiding myself for being so shallow when it comes to reviewing a movie which is about inner beauty more than outer but it is noticeable enough that I had to mention it.

Writer-director Collaizo based the story on his experiences with his own best friend who underwent a similar transformation. I don’t know what the real Brittany thought of the movie – it isn’t always flattering to her – but she does end up kind of heroic and inspirational in spite of that. You can sense the affection Collaizo holds for the real Brittany throughout. He also wisely keeps the audience guessing as to where the movie is going to go up until the end, but sadly finishes with a pure Hollywood ending that is disappointing but not enough to affect the rating too much.

Brittany’s journey isn’t always an easy one and thus neither is it always for the audience either. Still, the movie has an abundance of charm going for it, a star performance by Bell and some nice skewering of our self-indulgent, self-centered society. There’s definitely some meat on the bones here, but with enough entertainment value to make for a pleasant meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Was never sure where this was going to lead us. You wind up rooting for Brittany despite her occasional bitchiness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug content and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bell lost 40 pounds during the course of filming the movie, just as her character does in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Run, Fatboy, Run
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chained For Life

One Child Nation (Born in China)]


This is NOT a wanted poster!

(2018) Documentary (Amazon) Nanfu Wang, Zaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang, Tunde Wang, Xianven Liu, Huaru Yuan, Jiaoming Pang, Shuangjie Xeng, Brian Stuy, Long Lan Stuy, Shuquin Jiang, Peng Wang, Zaou, Yang. Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

China is the most populous nation on Earth with over a billion people and counting. Back in 1979, they sought to address their overpopulation problem by setting a “one child” policy, limiting families to only one child. It sounds sensible on paper but things rarely work out in reality the way they do on paper.

For one thing, Chinese tradition values male children over female; many families would have a female baby and then abandon the baby so that they could try again to have a male child. Other female babies would be put up for adoption, with the adoptive parents being led to believe that the children were orphans when in fact their parents were alive and well.

As policing the policy became more problematic, enforcement became a little more brutal. Families that had second children would receive visits from government agents who would forcibly take the additional children out of the home. Women would be sterilized following the birth of their first child. Forced abortions were performed, to the tune of 40 to 50 thousand of them according to Huaru Yuan, a Chinese midwife from that period.

American filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang were both born under the one child policy, although their parents had emigrated to the United States afterwards. Wang was unusual in that her parents received dispensation to have a second child, something that was highly unusual at the time so Wang was often teased at school because she had a little brother.

For the film, Wang traveled back to the rural Chinese village where her family was from. She interviewed family and neighbors about the policy which was finally rescinded in 2015 although now the official policy is a two-child restriction. She reviews the propaganda (which was relentless) and the stories go from heartbreaking to horrifying.

The power of the movie develops in kind of a slow burn despite initial images of aborted fetuses and of Chinese military might; as to the latter, I think the ability to wage war is far less impressive than the ability to make peace but what do I know – but then again, the Chinese have not known war in 60 years. Certainly America, which has only known peace for a total of sixteen years of its entire existence doesn’t know much about making peace it would seem.

I was aware of the policy before watching the film and I always felt somewhat uneasy about it – how is something like that enforced? I remember hearing that the Chinese government was having a tough time enforcing the policy in rural parts of their vast country and the movie seems to bear that out. However, the human toll of enforcement is what this film is all about and at times it is staggering.

The ripples continue to be felt today. American adoptees are not eager to meet their Chinese families, sometimes refusing altogether and their American adoptive parents are understandably nervous that the children they raised will be forcibly returned to China. In the case of twin sisters separated by this cruel policy they were very wary when an agency discovered their Chinese family. Both agreed to communicate but at the moment there’s no question of them meeting. The Chinese half of the siblings wants a normal relationship with her sister but her twin isn’t ready for it. It makes the situation awkward but it’s hard not to feel for the American sister who suddenly has to come to terms that she has a twin while the Chinese sister was aware that there was once a twin. Politicians are never that concerned with the human fallout from their whims, caprices and policies but even those meant with the best of intentions can end up with devastating consequences to those affected.

REASONS TO SEE: It starts slowly but grows more powerful during the course of the film. The human cost of the one child policy is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The evolution from a highly personal family movie to a more general issue film isn’t a smooth one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Florida Film Festival regulars will remember Nanfu Wang’s first film Hooligan Sparrow which received great acclaim during its festival run and later on a limited release.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in China
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Princess of the Row