Resistance (2020)


The path of least resistance.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCJesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, Edgar Ramirez, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Karl Marcovics, Félix Moati, Alicia von Rittberg, Vica Kerekes, Tobias Gareth Elman, Kue Lawrence, Christian Clarke, Aurélie Bancilhon, Karina Beuthe Orr, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Ryan Hadaller, Phillip Lenkowsky, Louise Morell. Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz

 

Marcel Marceau is a name that likely many Americans under the age of 40 are unfamiliar with, other than perhaps in broad, general terms. He is considered perhaps the greatest mime who ever lived; certainly, the greatest of the 20th century. Few Americans – myself included – know much more than that. But did you know he was also a war hero?

Marcel (Eisenberg) is an aspiring actor working in a cabaret. His disapproving father (Marcovics) would prefer that his young son follow him in his trade – a Kosher butcher. However, both their plans are put into disarray with the Nazi invasion of France. Dad gets shipped off to Auschwitz while his son joins the French underground, mainly in order to protect a group of Jewish orphans but also to stay close to the comely Emma (Poésy), but also because the charismatic Georges (Röhrig) insists on it.

Opposing them will be Klaus Barbie (Schweighöfer), one of the most vicious and sadistic Nazis in history. Moving the orphans from occupied France to neutral Switzerland will take heroic measures – and the mime, who has heretofore not been too fond of children until recently and has served mainly as a forger, will find reserves of strength he didn’t know he had.

Eisenberg is kind of an odd choice to play Marceau, although his eternal boyish looks stood him in good stead when he was playing the 16-year-old Marcel. His French accent was kind of an on-again, off-again affair which was fairly annoying after a while. Still, Eisenberg manages to churn out perhaps his most likable characterization ever. He’s always played guys with a bit of a neurotic edge, but this is much more of a straightforward portrayal. Besides, I think the entire French nation would have risen up in protest had Eisenberg played him neurotic.

The last third is more in the suspense genre and Jakubowicz does a good job with maintaining a bit of an edge-of-the-seat tone, although to be honest since we know Marceau would go on to be an entertainer for another sixty years after the war, it is a bit anti-climactic – we know he’ll survive. Sadly, the movie is a good 20 minutes too long and terribly uneven; there are some good moments, as we’ve mentioned but there are nearly as many that don’t work. Jakubowicz makes some odd choices like having Ed Harris as General George S. Patton (!) show up in the beginning, and the end. While it’s true that Marceau did work as a liaison to Patton at the conclusion of the war, the insertion of the colorful general (who is subdued here) seemed a bit like name-dropping and didn’t particularly add anything to the story. Besides, even Harris would admit that nobody is ever going to equal George C. Scott’s performance as Patton.

This is a story that needed to be told, but it also needed to be told better. Marceau was undoubtedly a hero and few people outside of France are aware of it. The movie is sadly uneven and a bit self-indulgent but the heart is in the right place. Those willing to take a chance on it will be treated to a movie that’s worth the effort to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: Eisenberg is at his most likable. The suspense elements work well.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit of a slow-moving jumble.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough violence to garner a restricted rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film takes place in Strasbourg, France, it was largely filmed in Prague.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews, Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Terminus
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clover

The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You

A Private War


War is actually hell.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Aviron) Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Jérémie Laheurte, Alexandra Moen, Amada Drew, Corey Johnson, Hilton McRae, Greg Wise, Mo’ath Sharif, Raad Rawi, Diana Mohammad, Pano Masti, Ahmad Yassin, Maha Al-Tamar, Rami Delshad, Bassam Hanna Touma, Fady Elsayed, Natasha Jayetileke.  Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Marie Colvin was, in every sense of the word, a hero. She brought to light the atrocities of war, putting her life at risk by going to some of the most hellish places on Earth – Kosovo, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria – until it finally caught up with her.

Colvin (Pike) didn’t go unscathed by what she saw; she suffered from nightmares and PTSD and relied on binge drinking and chain-smoking to dull the pain. She lost an eye covering the Tamil Tigers but gained a trademark – the distinctive eye patch she wore for the rest of her life. The incident is shown early on in the film.

Pike delivers here; her intensity is palpable as is her despair. This is not an iron-jawed war correspondent who is after the scoop more than speaking for the voiceless; this is a fragile, sometimes caustic woman who paid the price for her daring, eventually paying the ultimate price in Homs, Syria in 2012.

Heineman, who previously directed the Florida Film Festival entry Cartel Land, delivers footage that looks authentic; many of the locations may as well have been on the moon, so desolate are they. These feel like war zones, or at least how you’d imagine a war zone to be like. On the flip side, he also shows Colvin as a woman coping as best she can with the things she’s seen and not always succeeding. At an awards banquet, Colvin is dressed to the nines in a cocktail dress and heels but still she stomps through the venue like she’s marching through Fallujah. It is a telling moment.

I’m not sure that this is the definitive biography of Colvin. There is a bit too much attention paid to her sexual liaisons for my taste, which I found to be unnecessary. Nevertheless, this is a powerful film that gives you at least the spirit of Colvin, although you might want to check out the documentaries on her to get to know her public persona better.

REASONS TO SEE: Pike gives an intense portrayal as Colvin. Gritty and realistic depictions of war.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit too much prurient material for my liking.
FAMILY VALUES: There are violent images, some sexuality and brief nudity, as well as profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taron Egerton was originally scheduled to play Paul Conroy, but dropped out of the production. Jamie Dornan was hired to replace him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Under the Wire
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Standing Up, Falling Down

The Old Man & The Gun


A couple of screen veterans doing their thing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Ari Elizabeth Johnson, Teagan Johnson, Gene Jones, John David Washington, Barlow Jacobs, Augustine Frizzell, Jennifer Joplin, Lisa DeRoberts, Carter Bratton, Mike Dennis, Tomas “Dutch” Dekaj, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Patrick Newall, Daniel Britt, Leah Roberts, Elizabeth Moss.  Directed by David Lowery

 

The benefits to having a real, honest-to-goodness movie star in your film is that no matter what, there will be something positive about your film because in the case of stars like Redford and Spacek, they have enough screen presence and expertise on how to best utilize it to make any film they’re in just that much better.

 

Forrest Tucker (Redford) is a man getting on in years, but like others his age still shows up at work. Of course, Tucker’s job is robbing banks and he gets a big kick out of getting away with it. Tucker is not the kind of bank robber who terrorizes folks in the bank and thinks nothing of shooting unarmed people; he’s a gentleman who gives an implicit threat, remarks on gee whiz what a shame it would be if he were forced to resort to violence and he really doesn’t want to shoot you because, for goodness sakes, he really likes you. What bank teller or bank manager would not be charmed?

Decidedly charmed is Jewel (Spacek), a widowed horse rancher whose pickup truck breaks down at the side of the road just as Forrest is trying to get away from the cops after a bank job. Spotting the opportunity for misdirection, he pulls over and assists her while the cops go whizzing by. However, the decoy turns into a romance and Forrest feels comfortable enough with her to tell her what he really does for a living over pie and coffee, although she doesn’t believe him at first.

Decided not charmed is Detective John Hunt (Affleck) who is in the bank while it’s being robbed with his two daughters. Burned out on his job to the point where he’s considering leaving the force, the robbery under his very nose gives him motivation to go after Tucker full throttle. Talk about lighting a fire under one’s butt.

The movie rests on the charm of its actors and Redford, Spacek and Affleck have plenty of charm to go around. They also have plenty of talent at their craft – all of them have Oscar nominations (and wins, in some cases) – to sustain the fairly light-tempered movie. Although the running time is only 93 minutes, it seems a bit longer because the story moves along so slowly and is filled with quite a bit of unnecessary material. Still, it is enjoyable to watch old pros (extending down into the supporting cast) do what they do best, even if what they’re doing essentially is a bit of fluff, despite the opportunity for social commentary – Lowery chooses to simply tell his story simply. I can’t really fault him for that.

REASONS TO SEE: Redford, Affleck and Spacek all deliver excellent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; could be argued that it’s too low-key as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening credits are written in the same font as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) which Redford also starred in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bonnie and Clyde
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Senior Escort Service

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

Quezon’s Game


Another scene of indifferent dramatic tension.

(2018) Biographical Drama (ABS-CBNRaymond Batagsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Ray Gallion, David Bianco, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Tony Ahn, James Paoleli, Jeremy Domingo, Ross Barnaby McLeod. Directed by Matthew E. Rosen

 

It is to the world’s shame that when the unfolding horrors of the Holocaust were taking place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the world – including the United States – largely turned a blind eye. There were, however, some individuals who saw what was coming and took commendable action to save as many as they could.

One such was the President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon (Batagsing). A young, charismatic leader, he would be forever remembered in his home country as the man who negotiated his country’s freedom from being an American protectorate. His role in the Holocaust is a story that isn’t often told, not even in his native land.

He faced an uphill battle. In attempting to grant visas for 10,000 Jews trapped in the ghettos of Austria and Germany, he ran into all kinds of American red tape and resistance. He would be aided in his quest by Jewish-American businessman Alexander Frieder (Gallion), British diplomat Paul McNutt (Paoleli) and future American president Dwight D. Eisenhower (Bianco). He was also supported by his wife Aurora (Alejandro), despite whispers of an extramarital affair with a torch singer (for which there is little historical corroboration). He also did this while negotiating with the Americans for the independence of his nation – and battling the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him six years later.

This Filipino production has a bit of irony to it, considering the anti-immigration stance that has resurfaced in the United States in the lat few years. The current President of the Philippines also suffers in comparison to Quezon, not just in his hagiographic portrayal here but to the historical figure who did so much for his people. That the kind of political forces that Quezon fought have reared their ugly heads 80 years after the fact is not so much terrifying as it is disappointing.

Quezon’s story deserves to be told in a grand way, but the production is hampered by budgetary constraints. While the locations do a good job of presenting 1938 Manila, the script tends to have characters describing events rather than showing them onscreen. I’m not sure if this was a budgetary thing, but the color is often washed out to being nearly black and white, then reverting to full color without any rhyme or reason. It’s annoying and unnecessary.

With the exception of Batagsing who gives a decent performance as the late Filipino President, the acting is often stiff and uneven. It doesn’t help that the subplot of the affair that Aurora suspects her husband is having is shoehorned in and seems at odds with the rest of the film; the more than two hour length could well have been trimmed somewhat.

On the positive side, Dean Rosen’s Philip Glass-inspired score is quite haunting and serves the film well, but there is a bit too much speechifying and posturing to make this truly entertaining. It’s a real shame too, because this is a story that deserves to be told, especially in these times. I hope someday someone tells it a bit better than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Tells a story not often told in the West. The score is beautiful and seems to be inspired by Philip Glass. The actors resemble their historic counterparts keenly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Uneven performances throughout. The black and white and color imagery seems to be too arbitrarily done. Overly long and overly sudsy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quezon City, at one time the capitol of the Philippines, was partially designed by Quezon and bears his name.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
After Parkland

First Man (2018)


One small step for a man…

(2018) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg, Gavin Warren, Luke Winters, Connor Colton Blodgett, Lucy Brooke Stafford. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

One of America’s most triumphant moments – right there alongside VJ Day – was the landing on the moon. It was a triumph of ingenuity, courage and will. Most know the name of the first man to walk on the moon – Neil Armstrong. Most don’t know much more than that about him.

Armstrong (Gosling) was in many ways the perfect test pilot; smart, cool under pressure, tightly focused on the mission. He wasn’t the sort for hi-jinx. He suffered the death of his two-year-old daughter to cancer and appears to have shut down emotionally at that point; unable to grieve with his wife Janet (Foy), he throws himself into work and the business of getting Americans on the moon.

Chazelle is a highly visual director and he really knows how to insert the audience into a place and time, and he does so here, exceeding his own excellence in that department. The scenes in aircraft that threaten to rattle themselves apart, or on spacecraft where the force of gravity is crushing to the point of near-death, has that you-are-there feel. However, the use of handheld cameras becomes an issue after the third or fourth instance of vertigo-inducing cinematography.

One of the reasons Armstrong hasn’t had a biopic done on him, despite his status as a national hero, is that he was an intensely private man who rarely granted interviews or discussed his feelings or observations with anyone. In life he was a quiet man, stoic to the point of stoniness and Gosling plays him here as a man unwilling to deal with his own emotions which makes it extremely difficult for audiences to identify with the character, but that was the way Armstrong was.

His wife Janet was a different matter and she was an extraordinarily strong woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. She rarely puts up with NASA’s bullshit and certainly takes her husband to task for leaving her holding the bag while he is off turning his attention to other heavenly bodies. For my money, Foy’s performance here was the best of the year and should have gotten an Oscar nomination (she didn’t).

The film is augmented with an amazing score utilizing period-correct instruments like the theremin (an electric instrument that Armstrong apparently was extremely fond of) and period recording techniques, making the movie feel even more like a product of the Sixties. The lunar landing sequence is also magnificent in its visuals, even more so than the test flights and spaceflight sequences.

I think it would have been a difficult proposition to make a movie about Neil Armstrong to begin with. While there’s no doubt he was courageous, a hero to his very core, he was the kind of hero who was uncomfortable with adulation and preferred to keep to himself  We will probably never know much about the inner Neil Armstrong and certainly if you are looking for it here, you won’t find it. I suspect that this film is as close as we ever will come.

REASONS TO SEE: Foy delivers a powerhouse performance that deserved a Best Actress nomination (but didn’t get one). Beautiful score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too much shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Chazelle has directed in which he didn’t write the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From the Earth to the Moon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Children Act