The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)


“Tell me about your dreams…”

(2018) Drama (MenemshaSimon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Karoline Eichhorn, Michael Fitz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Martin Oberhauser, Christoph Bittenhauer, Gerti Drassi, Rainer Woss, Thomas Mraz, Martin Thaler, David Altman, Tobias Ofenbauer, Erni Mangold, Tom Hanslmaier, Robert Seethaler, Angelika Strahser. Directed by Nikolaus Leytner

 

Figuring out who we are is one of the most difficult tasks that we undertake during our lifetimes. Many of us still haven’t got a clue even into our advanced years – and it’s well-nigh impossible for someone just starting out in life. Life is confusing even for the brightest and most experienced among us.

 

Franz (Morzé) is a bit of a dreamer. He lives in a bucolic Austrian village on the shores of Lake Attersee. It is 1937, and things in Europe are changing rapidly. Franz is 17 years old and lives with his mother (Fritsch). Franz has discovered girls, and spends much of his time swimming in the lake. He particularly likes to see how long he can stay submerged, but one day as he is enjoying the peace and quiet of the bottom of the lake, he sees flashes in the sky and realizes a thunderstorm is approaching. The one place you don’t want to be in a thunderstorm is in a lake, so he quickly emerges from the lake, high-tailing it for home and passing his mother on the way. She’s preoccupied with her lover giving her what-for against a tree; the lover finishes and decides to take a quick dip before the storm arrives. Not a good idea; a chance lightning strike in the lake punches his ticket for the express train to the afterlife.

Mama can no longer afford to feed her growing boy, so she sends him to Vienna to apprentice with another former lover of hers, Otto Trsnjek (Krisch) who lost a leg in the war and currently runs a tobacco store on a side street in the capital. At first, the two guys react to each other warily, but Otto is a kindly sort who is willing to sell his products to anyone – Jews, Communists, everyone – except Nazis, who come in looking for the party newspaper which Otto refuses to sell.

One of his customers is none other than the legendary father of modern psychiatry Sigmund Freud (Ganz) who comes to the shop to get his cigar fix. Franz is fascinated by what he does and determines to have Freud help him overcome his inability to find somebody to love. Freud, for his part, says ruefully that he is as confused about love as Franz is.

Things are going from bad to worse in the Austrian capital, but for Franz there is a saving grace; the beautiful young Bohemian Annezka (Drogunova) who works as a dancer in a cabaret and who seems to have lots of boyfriends. However, she and Franz hook up although when he gets serious, she backs away, leaving him bitter and confused. That’s the least of his worries, though, as the Nazis tighten their hold on Austria, people whose behaviors are disapproved of are whisked off of the streets, never to be seen again and prudent Austrians are finding someone with a swastika arm band to protect them – or make a hasty exit for less fraught environs.

Freud, as a Jew, is particularly vulnerable but he is not eager to leave his home. It falls upon Franz, who has become friends with the aging doctor, to try and convince him to leave before it’s too late. Franz is being forced to grow up quickly as he takes on more responsibility at the store and continues to pursue Annezka. Everyone seems to be doing what they can to get by.

Watching movies about the ascension of Nazi Germany are doubly disturbing in these days of rioting, pandemic and increasingly authoritarian posturing by the current administration. The parallels seem inescapable and it’s likely the filmmakers are fully aware of that. Some may find it extra-disturbing.

This was one of Ganz’ final films (it is the final Ganz film to be released in the United States) and his performance is heart-wrenching. He plays Freud as a gentle man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, not at all the way most of us picture him. Morzé is handsome enough in the lead role, but his performance is pretty bland for most of the film, and by the time the character shows signs of growth the damage is done. Krisch does a good job as the kindly Otto, and Russian actress Drogunova adds a dash of sensuality to the movie.

Freud’s psychological theories are on display throughout the film, as we are treated to Franz’ dreams which are full of symbols; submersion, spiders, isolation, mother bonding, and so on. Some of the dreams have rich imagery, but Leytner relies on them a bit too much. They interrupt the flow of the story and obfuscate what’s going on.

The movie is based on a novel by Richard Seethaler, which was a massive best-seller in Germany. There is a literary quality to the film which is a little more common in European films but which mass American audiences tend to shy away from. We are invited to psychoanalyze Franz, although to be honest as the movie starts he’s basically genitals with legs and with not a whole lot of responsibility or ability to see beyond his own immediate needs. That changes as the movie goes along, but the effect is at least at the beginning akin to the emperor not wearing any clothes.

The movie might have benefitted from less time spent on the dreams, although some of the dreams are actually kind of fascinating. Still, they do tend to get in the way of the best part of the movie – the story of Franz’ maturation process as he discovers that the things that were important to him as a boy matter less to him as a man. It’s a lesson that not all of us actually learn.

The movie is currently playing as a Virtual Theatrical Experience. Among the Florida theaters benefitting from this pandemic-centric VOD delivery are the Tampa Theater, the Tropic Cinema (Key West), All Saints Cinema (Tallahassee), Corazon Café (St. Augustine), Pensacola Cinema Art, and the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Click on the link below to buy your tickets to benefit those theaters or others closer to where you might live.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganz is magnificent as Freud. Some interesting dream imagery.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story meanders quite a bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity, sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book Thief
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happy Death Day 2U

Adrift in Soho


Soho is a world of light, and fog and shadow.

(2019) Drama (RandomOwen Drake, Caitlin Harris, Chris Wellington, Emily Seale-Jones, Angus Howard, Lauren Harris, Olly Warrington, William Chubb, William Jessop, Martin Calcroft, Warwick Evans, Anthony Burrows, Hayley Considine, Adei Bundy, Lara Graham, Luke Hicks, Tori Hope, Stella Lock, Mama Manneh, Mogs Morgan, Santiago Mosquera, Sandrea Simons.. Directed by Pablo Behrens

 

Neighborhoods have their own soul, their own character. Often they aren’t easily defined in a sentence or two, but some neighborhoods are remarkably easy to characterize.

Soho in the late 1950s was a place where drunks, dreams and would-be Bohemians hung out. While America was in the throes of the Beat Generation, Soho was London’s own heartbeat. Harry Preston (Drake) has arrived there from the provinces, wet behind the ears, hoping to write the book he knows will Change Everything. Maybe along the way, he might get laid.

He meets all sorts of characters, including the womanizing James Compton-Street (Wellington), the pretty American exchange student Doreen (Harris), radical New Cinema documentarians Jo (Seale-Jones) and Marcus (Howard), and The Count (Chubb), a literary patron. Jo and Marcus are making a documentary about Soho, but whereas Marcus is practical (he finances their efforts by shooting blue movies at local strip clubs), Jo is much more of a purist and leaves him to team up with fellow filmmaker Marty (Warrington).

The novel this is based on is something of a cult novel in the UK from original Angry Young Man Colin Wilson, who lived in Soho during the period depicted in the films. He eventually moved to the country but wrote this novel in 1961 as a kind of farewell to arms. I haven’t read the book myself, but I get the sense that it is not an easy read. So, too, is the movie based on it not an easy watch.

The movie could have used a little more of a budget to give it some scope and a better sense of place and time, but that’s not really something within the control of the filmmakers. The cast does a pretty decent job, particularly Wellington who displays a bonhomie and flair that is missing from the other characters; most of them are kind of flat and uninteresting, although the actors do the best they can. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about a fictional illness called “Soho-itis,” which is never fully explained in the film which is amazing, considering how much time they spend talking about it.

However, this is a gorgeous movie to look at – cinematographer Martin Kobylarz makes wonderful use of light, shadows and fog to give the viewer some compelling images. The mood is augmented by a jazzy score replete with hits from the era that are a bit on the obscure side, but fit the film perfectly.

The movie is actually a rather intelligent one; the problem is that too many of the characters are little more than stick drawings. I would have appreciated less rumination and more character development. Incidentally, viewers who prefer a more linear narrative may have some issues here; the movie is told essentially as a series of vignettes that sometimes don’t connect together well or form a really cohesive story. Still, I found that the movie held my interest for it’s nearly two hour length, which is more than I can say for other movies with higher aspirations than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is exceptional.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit aimless at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Colin Wilson based all of the characters on people he met while he lived in Soho in the 1950s, although their names were all changed with the exception of Ironfoot Jack. The story itself is said to be based on something the author experienced or knew of first-hand.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Postcards from London
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
2040

A Dog’s Way Home


Happiness is the love of a good dog.

 (2019) Family (ColumbiaAshley Judd, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Alexandra Shipp, Barry Watson, Chris Bauer, Tammy Gillis, Jonah Hauer-King, Farrah Aviva, Patrick Gallagher, Lucia Walters, Lane Edwards, John Cassini, Darcy Laurie, Benjamin Ratner, Motell Foster, Brian Markinson, Patrick Gallagher, Broadus Mattison, Christine Willes. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

 

Another in a recent spate of movies told from a canine point of view, this is also based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote A Dog’s Purpose which, perhaps not coincidentally, got the sequel treatment in 2019 as well.

Here, kind-hearted med student Lucas (Hauer-King) finds and rescues a pit bull puppy living in a condemned property that an unscrupulous developer (Markinson) is trying to tear down. He and fellow VA intern Olivia (Shipp) who would look favorably on Lucas as boyfriend material, decide to keep the pup over the objections of Lucas’ PTSD-afflicted veteran mom (Judd) who gradually warms to the dog, whom they name Bella (Howard) whose thoughts we get to hear.

Lucas’ efforts to keep the developer from…umm, developing leads to him calling a favor from an equally unscrupulous animal control officer (Cassini) who is enforcing a Denver law banning pit bulls. Knowing that if Bella is captured by animal control she’ll be put to sleep, Lucas reluctantly arranges to give his dog to a family in New Mexico to care for, only to see Bella run home to her one true master. Along the way she meets people (good and bad), critters (good and bad) and tugs at the heartstrings at just about every available opportunity.

Being a dog nut myself, I tend to be overly lenient to such films and will be the first to admit that the ending had tears streaming down my jaded critical face. There are even moments for cat lovers – baby Bella is raised by Mother Cat, and along the road back home Bella meets a cougar kitten whom she dubs “Big Kitten,” turning into a not-so-good CGI apparition.

This is more-or-less harmless family viewing material with a nice sucker punch for dog lovers like me. It doesn’t really push any boundaries nor is it essential viewing even for kids, but it does make a nice hour and a half babysitter for parents and children alike during these stay-at-home days.

REASONS TO SEE: Ends up being heartwarming, but you would expect that..
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really Jack London, is it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some dog peril and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog that plays the adult Bella, Shelby the Dog, was a rescue dog found liiving in a Tennessee junkyard.

BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic:  50100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Call of the Wild
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Grey Fox

How to Build a Girl


Johanna Morrigan contemplates a boring future.

(2019) Dramedy (IFCBeanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Arinzé Kene, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Joanna Scanlon, Sharon Horgan, Patsy Ferran, Ziggy Heath, Bobby Schofield, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins. Directed by Coky Giedroyc

 

When it comes right down to it, adolescence is a process in which we invent ourselves. The trouble is, we rarely know what it is we want to be. We often reach for the stars only to realize that our arms just aren’t that long. But as anybody who knows England will tell you, it’s almost impossible to reach the heights from Wolverhampton.

And it is from that dowdy suburban landscape that teen dreamer Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) finds herself. Socially awkward but possessed of a talent for writing, she feels trapped in a place that doesn’t hold enough interest for her. An entry into a poetry contest ends up causing her even more humiliation and embarrassment than ever.

Her home life isn’t much better. She lives in a cramped household flat with her mother (Solemani) who suffers from post-partum depression after an unexpected birth of twins, her cheerful father (Considine) who dreams of the rock and roll stardom that he has thus far failed to find and her brother Krissi (Kynaston) who has the same frustrations she does and channels it into a fanzine. In her loneliness, she carries on conversations with photos of her heroes which she keeps on her wall; Sigmund Freud (Sheen), Maria von Trapp (Arterton), Sylvia Plath (Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (L. Allen), among others.

Yes, it’s the 90s and Britpop is coming into its glory. Johanna manages to wrangle and interview with a Melody Maker-like British rock rag called D&ME but discovers when she travels to London that the somewhat snarky editorial staff thought that her submitted review of the soundtrack of Annie was a joke.

Utterly defeated, she ends up crying in a loo where a poster of Bjork (Ferrari) gives her a pep talk. Heartened, she storms back into the office and demands an opportunity. Taken aback, they assign her to review a Manic Street Preachers concert in Manchester.

She does okay and manages to convince them to give her an opportunity at a feature, an interview with up and coming rocker John Kite (A. Allen) whom she promptly falls head over heels over and he in turn opens up about his demons. Her piece, though, is a gushing, fawning puff piece that the snarky folks at D&ME don’t have any use for.

Stung, she resolves to be the biggest bitch she can possibly be and that turns out to be considerable. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a flame-haired, top hat-wearing libertine vixen who writes with poison pen and has as much casual sex as she can possibly get. But her persona begins to take over as she alienates everyone close to her, from John Kite whose trust she breaks, to her parents whom she humiliates by throwing in their face that she’s paying the rent. When she realizes that the people she’s trying to impress aren’t worth impressing, she is forced to re-examine who she is and who she wants to be.

Some have compared this to a distaff version of Almost Famous which isn’t too far off the mark; like that film, this story is based on writer Caitlin Moran’s own experiences as a teen rock critic for Melody Maker in the 90s. Make that very loosely based. There is an air of fantasy to this; the lifestyle depicted for the writers for the rag aren’t realistic; I can tell you as a not-so-teenaged rock critic in the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area that all music critics are notoriously low-paid. That’s because there are far more people who want the job than there are jobs available; it’s the law of supply and demand.

Feldstein though takes a character who isn’t always lovable and makes her root-worthy. For the most part she has an endearing joie de vivre that permeates the film and makes it a pleasurable viewing. Even when she’s being a cast-iron jerk the audience knows that really isn’t Johanna.

There are literally dozens of cameos, including Emma Thompson as an encouraging editor late in the film to the ones mentioned earlier playing pictures on the wall. Particularly fun is Chris O’Dowd as a somewhat bewildered host of a local arts show.

\The soundtrack is full of a goodly amount of righteous period music, including tracks by Bikini Kill during a fun thrift store transformation sequence. Even if the story falls into cliché near the end, the good nature at the heart of the film coupled with the good will that Feldstein’s performance earns from the audience are enough to carry it through.

REASONS TO SEE: The film has a sweetness at its core. Feldstein is a star in the making.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some teen sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alfie Allen, who plays a singer, is the younger brother of Lily Allen, an actual singer who has a role here as one of the Bronte sisters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Almost Famous
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

Widows (2018)


Dangerous deeds discussed in dark places.

(2018) Crime (20th Century) Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Daniel Kaluuya, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Lukas Haas, Coburn Goss, Alejandro Verdin, Molly Kunz, James Vincent Meredith, Patrese McClain. Directed by Steve McQueen

Viola Davis is one of America’s most underrated actresses and that considering that she has been nominated for an Oscar three times and won once (for Fences). So when I tell you that this might be the best performance of her career, and it wasn’t even one of the three nominated films on her resume, that might speak volumes about how the system

She plays Veronica, the widow of Harry (Neeson) who was butchered along with his crew after a job. As it turns out though, he stole two million bucks from a ruthless gangster (Henry) who happens to be running for Chicago alderman as the opponent of Jack Mulligan (Farrell), the son of a politician who together have been essentially running the Ward for decades. Now, with the gangster’s psychopathic brother (Kaluuya) hot on her trail, she knows she must resort tto literally using her husband’s playbook to pull off a much larger heist that will pay his debts in full and set her up for life, but she’ll need help. She figures the widows of Harry’s crew have both the motivation and the skills.

Oscar-winning director McQueen has assembled a cast that is without parallel. In fact, he might have done his job too well; the film is crammed full of interesting characters who all need more screen time than they got, so we end up with scenes that run too long and characters that overstay their record. A little less focus on the other characters would have made this a better film.

McQueen uses the city of Chicago perfect effect, whether in the mansion of Jack’s dad (Duvall) or in Veronica’s beautiful apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, or in the poorest corners of the largely African-American Ward, the movie is always interesting in a visual sense. The movie doesn’t have the humor that is usually found in heist films nor does it have that clever “we outsmarted you” gotcha that most heist films possess. This is far more brutal and direct. It works as a heist film, but it works even better as  a commentary on how wide the gulf between haves and have-nots has become.

REASONS TO SEE: A tremendous cast with Davis standing out particularly. McQueen has a great visual sense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long and a few too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Olivia the dog, who is heavily featured in the film, also appeared in Game Night.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 84/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kitchen
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Himalayan Ice

The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

(2018) Dramedy (Sony ClassicsHelen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriela Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Helen Abell, Joshua Mikel, Robert Walker Branchaud, Denita Isler, Chelle Ramos, Danielle Deadwyler. Directed by Paolo Virzi

 

Growing old is hell. I’m finding that out first hand, and I’m not even 60 yet. The older we get, the more we have to lose, including our independence. There’s something about that which is almost unthinkable, but it often happens to our parents long before it happens to us.

John (Sutherland) and Ella Spencer (Mirren) are an aged couple in the twilight of their years. John is a retired literature professor; Ella is a wife and mother but also a very smart and tough cookie. One day, she and John set out in their old Winnebago for one last adventure.

The trouble is though that John is suffering from dementia and his lucid moments are getting further and farther between. Ella is also having some serious health problems and the strain of being John’s caregiver is wearing on her to the point where she isn’t sure she can continue. Their children Will (McKay) and Jane (Moloney) are frantic with worry – their parents left without telling them their plans, which are to drive down from New England to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house – Hemingway is a hero to John, and one of the things he can remember more clearly more often – one last time.

There is definitely an elegiac feel to the movie, even though there is a sense of humor to it. John’s antics aren’t necessarily played for laughs; he soils himself and some of his memory lapses are downright dangerous. Still, Ella faces a good deal of her husband’s illness with a cheerful sense of humor, even if she is at the end of her rope. The love between the two of them is heartwarming.

Part of the reason it is so is because Sutherland and Mirren are both excellent actors and the chemistry between them is genuine. Virzi gives them a real sense of being on a road trip, which helps the actors express being comfortable together. The Winnebago isn’t in the best of shape but with a bit of tender loving care, it will get them where they’re going, which is pretty much true for life.

The problem here is mainly that the plot is pretty predictable and there aren’t a lot of surprises, although feisty Ella faces down a pair of would-be robbers with a shotgun but that is one of the few moments where I thought that the movie was playing down to the elderly – oh, look, isn’t she cute, she’s got a gun. For the most part, these are real people with real issues that face millions of our elderly day in and day out. That’s one of the main takeaways I had from the movie and I thought both Sutherland and Mirren gave their characters dignity, from the first frame to the last.

Although there are some fairly funny moments and some fairly sweet ones, this isn’t something you should look to for some light entertainment. The issues being portrayed here are very real and they may remind you of someone in your own life going through similar challenges – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers. It may hit a little too close to home. I’m very fortunate that my mom (my father passed away more than thirty years ago) still has full possession of her faculties, even though her memory isn’t what it once was and she walks a lot slower than she used to, but she is the first to squawk when she feels pandered to. I don’t think this movie would give her reason to squawk.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Mirren and Sutherland. Kind of a nice travelogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English language movie for Virzi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
First Man

A Simple Favor


Cocktails and besties, the perfect combination.

(2018) Suspense (Lionsgate) Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Eric Johnson, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Gia Sandhu, Kelly McCormack, Glenda Braganza, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Glenda Braganza, Danielle Bourgon, Andrew Moodie, Bashir Salahuddin, Aparna Nancheria, Gia Sandhu, Katherine Cullen. Directed by Paul Feig

Da Queen will tell you that I love a good whodunit. Da Queen will also tell you I despise a lazy one. A Simple Favor falls somewhere in between; I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a suburban supermom who has a mommy vlog full of life hacks for moms and so on. Her son (Satine) is a school chum of the son (Ho) of Emily (Lively), a high-powered public relations VP for a high-powered New York fashion firm led by the aptly named Dennis Nylon (Friend) who never met a wardrobe he couldn’t insult, especially if it didn’t involve his own clothing line.

Stephanie and Emily bond over martinis and quickly become besties, sharing their deep dirty secrets – Emily’s marriage to struggling writer Sean (Golding) is crumbling. Emily’s job is demanding more and more of her time and Stephanie is only too happy to pick up both boys from school, but then one night, Emily doesn’t come to pick up her boy – nor does she show up the next day. Stephanie fears the worst.

But Stephanie is a bit of an amateur sleuth and when the police don’t seem to have any leads on the whereabouts of Emily, Stephanie takes over looking for the lost item as any proper mom would. And what she finds…isn’t what she expects.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, isn’t afraid to inject some humor – okay, a lot of humor – into the neo-noir thriller. Sometimes, the movie seems almost schizophrenic at times. The tone varies from light to dark and sometimes in between. The chemistry between Lively and Kendrick absolutely works; they both look like polar opposites but it isn’t hard to see what draws the two characters together. The humor works well, but surprisingly it’s the thriller portion that’s less successful; the denouement isn’t hard to figure out in advance and the movie definitely loses narrative steam during the last third. Still, the things that work in A Simple Favor work very well; the things that don’t can be overlooked.

REASONS TO SEE: Kendrick and Lively have excellent chemistry.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less mindless entertainment, appearances to the contrary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content and some graphic nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the character of Emily is a heavy drinker, Blake Lively (who plays her) has been a teetotaler all her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu. YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Girl
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Searching

Crazy Rich Asians


Love, Singaporean style.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Warner BrothersConstance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng. Directed by Jon M. Chu

Fairy tales are powerful things. Doesn’t every little girl want to marry the prince and go riding off into the sunset together, preferably in the direction of a beautiful castle? Trust me, men have their fairy tales as well but we won’t get into those here.

Rachel Chu (Wu) is an economics professor at NYU and she’s been dating handsome Nick Young (Golding), a fellow academic, for more than a year. She’s headed to Singapore with him to attend his cousin (and best friend’s) wedding. When they get first class tickets on the airplane, she asks him how wealthy his family is. “We’re comfortable,” he says modestly. Yeah, they’re comfortable in the same way that Bill Gates is comfortable.

Nick’s mom (Yeoh), the imperious matriarch of the family, is none too pleased to see Rachel who even though her son is crazy about her is still nonetheless not even close to the kind of match that she had in mind for her son. Rachel will have to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of Nick’s family, aided by her college bestie Peik Lin (Awkwafina), if she is going to keep the man she loves.

America loves its rich folks and that helps the movie out a great deal. The fact that this is a largely Asian-American cast and crew is a big deal, and the movie gives us some insight into Chinese (primarily) culture and customs, and those are some of the more endearing moments of the film.

I can’t say enough about Constance Wu, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat. She has tons of charisma and likability; she has a big future ahead of her and not only as a romantic leading lady. She has the kind of presence that Awkwafina (who would break out this year in The Farewell) has, but with a touch more self-assuredness. Golding also has a ton of leading man appeal.

Although there are a few rom-com tropes here, they don’t necessarily get in the way of the enjoyment of this movie. After an over-profusion of the genre over the last 20 years, romantic comedies have fallen somewhat out of favor. With a fresh take on them as this one has and particularly after the kind of success it enjoyed (the highest box office for any romantic comedy in more than a decade), you can bet we’ll be seeing more of them in the near future. If they’re this good, I wouldn’t mind at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Constance Wu is a find. Culturally informative. Escapes most rom-com clichés.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sends some mixed messages about the institution of marriage.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Netflix offered to produce the movie at a substantially larger budget, but producer Kevin Kwan felt that it was important to prove to the studios that Asian-American movies were commercially viable. Netflix ended up producing Always Be My Maybe instead.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft,  Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pretty Woman
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A.X.L.