Diane


Mary Kay Place knows she won’t get an Oscar for her performance here, even though she deserves one.

(2018) Drama (IFC) Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Deidre O’Connell, Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce an Patten, Kerry Flanagan, Phyllis Somerville, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Ray Iannicelli, David Tuttle, Marcia Haufrecht, Mike Hartman, Cara Yeates, Gabriella Rhodeen, Charles Weldon, Paul McIsaac, Laura Knight, Teri Gibson, Ann Osmond, Dierdre Friel. Directed by Kent Jones

The movies that often affect us the most deeply are the ones that are quiet little slices of life. So, that would describe Diane to a “T.” Set in rural Massachusetts, Diane (Place) is a retired widow who spends most of her days caring for others – her cousin (O’Connell) dying of cervical hospital in a sterile hospital, her son Brian (Lacy), killing himself with a drug habit, her aging friends and the homeless, to whom she serves food at the local shelter.

We see Diane driving around the area down beautiful, snow-covered roads that look like a cinematic Currier and Ives Christmas card, but as we watch her go through her appointed rounds we begin to unravel the fact that despite the veneer of caring and compassion, Diane is a broken soul, carrying around burdens of guilt that any Catholic would understand.

Place gives the kind of performance that wins awards although, sadly, she was overlooed for most of the major ones. 70 years old at the time of filming, Place gives the kind of dogged characterization that we unwrap layer by layer until we are left with the core of the woman as the film comes to a breathtaking end. While the movie never got the acclaim it was due in many ways, you can happily rectify that situation by giving it a watch yourself. This is a gem of a movie that should be on every cinema buff’s radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Despite the sometimes-painful subject matter, the film is nevertheless full of warmth. Place gives a career-best performance. Strong interpersonal dynamics throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally a bit too stark.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and drug use here.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jones, a film critic of note, wrote the title role with Place specifically in mind for it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC Plus, AppleTV, Curia, DirecTV, Google Play, Hulu, Roku Channel, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Time Out of Mind
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Uppercase Print

The Novice


Practice makes perfect.

(2021) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Fuhrmann, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop, Jeni Ross, Nikki Duval, Eve Kanyo, Al Bernstein, Robert Ifedi, David Guthrie. Directed by Lauren Hadaway

 

There is a fine line between determination to attain a goal, and obsession. Determination is to be admired; it requires discipline and self-sacrifice. Obsession, though, is terrifying to behold; all logic and reason go out the window in a single-minded quest to achieve that goal, regardless of the cost.

Alex Dall (Fuhrmann) is a college freshman in an unnamed Northeastern university who is majoring in physics – which is not only not her best subject but it is, in fact, her worst. She is on a full ride scholarship, but she works like a demon, taking tests over and over (and sometimes, over) again in a  quest to be the very best. On apparent impulse, she signs up to try out for the novice rowing team.

Alex has absolutely no experience in rowing, nor does she have any in any sport at all. Her body is soft and non-muscular; this would seem to be a lark – except Alex is determined not only to make the novice team but also the varsity. Only two novices are selected by the easygoing Coach Pete (Cherry) to try out for the varsity; naturally gifted athlete Jamie Brill (Forsyth) and Alex.

There she is greeted by derisive and often profane criticisms, and overhears the praise given to Jamie, which inspires her to work harder. On the ERG (stationary rowing) machines, she takes the instructions given to her by Coach Pete – “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs” – as a kind of a mantra, working out often to the point of retching. She develops sores on her hands, ribs and thighs – some self-inflicted – from her workouts. Her work ethic impresses Head Coach Edwards (Drummond) but her manic attitude serves to turn off most of her fellow rowers, although Jamie and pretty teachers assistant Dani (fashion model turned actress Dilone) who try to figure out the complicated Alex, who perhaps doesn’t know herself what drives her, although later evidence proves that she does and it is revealed to the audience, although I won’t get into it here. But as Alex’s drive descends into mania, her body and mind begin to show dangerous signs of cracking.

First-time feature director Hadaway turns to the director’s chair after a fine career as a sound editor, and bases her debut on her own experiences as a collegiate rower, which lends a good deal of realism and authenticity to the film. There have been films about rowing before – Varsity Blues comes to mind – but few films on obsessive goal-seeking have reached the heights of this one.

Part of the reason is Fuhrmann, who turns in a performance that is already attracting attention. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing her up for major roles in important movies in the next couple of years; she absolutely dominates the screen and has some really nice chemistry with Forsyth. Cinematographer Todd Martin also does some innovative work here, although from time to time Hadaway tends to get a bit cutesy with her framing and camera effects, a sin that first-time directors often commit. When those things happen, we are drawn out of the story and aware that there is someone directing – and there’s no better way to kill a cinematic mood than that.

The Novice has already been nominated for five Independent Spirit awards and Fuhrmann has an outside shot at an Oscar nomination, although she’ll have an uphill battle to get one. This is one of those indie films that isn’t always a pleasure to watch – but when the end credits begin, you are left with the realization you have just watched a terrific movie. This is one you won’t want to miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Fuhrmann gives a career-establishing performance. The cinematography is innovative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to temptation to get too artsy, pulling us out of the story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won best American Narrative Feature at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
8-Bit Christmas

The Beta Test


Jim Cummings promises that he’s not a douchenozzle like Jordan.

(2021) Mystery (IFC) Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Applegate, Jacqueline Doke, Christian Hillborg, Jessie Barr, Malin Barr, Wilky Lau, Keith Powell, Lya Yanne, Jackie Michele Johnson, Brayden Reeves, Dustin Hahn, Ammar Alderi, Joy Sunday, Julio Trinidad, Bryan Casserly, Jeffrey Markle, Cheri Chen Julian. Directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe

 

Hollywood is not a place for the faint of heart. It is full of rampaging egos and cutthroat businessfolk who chew up and spit out the gentler souls. It is a place that needs thick skins and a cold heart in order to survive.

Jordan (Cummings) is an agent for a three-letter talent agency (Hollywood insider junkies can likely figure out which one it’s supposed to be) who is pretty much a douchebag. He makes deals of questionable legality and unquestionable immorality, treats assistants like cannon fodder, and outwardly dotes on his fiancé Caroline (Newcomb) while viewing her as essentially a stepping stone on the way to real power.

He receives a strange invitation in a purple envelope, promising him a one-time no-strings-attached sexual encounter if he shows up to such-and-such a hotel room at such-and-such a time. He barely gives it a second thought and shows up, where he is blindfolded and has passionate sex with a similarly blindfolded partner.

But paranoia runs deep in the heart of an agent, and Jordan begins to suspect that he’s been set up. He confides in his partner PJ (McCabe) who launches a quiet investigation; in the meantime, Angelinos are dropping like flies, being murdered by their partners for their infidelity. Is that what’s in store for Jordan?

There’s a lot going on here; multiple layers of different genres, from a whodunit, to a Hollywood insider satire, to a dark comedy and to an erotic thriller. The movie tilts at windmills like Big Tech, misogynistic Hollywood culture, toxic masculinity and infidelity. Some might even see it as a parable about modern society and morals; I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but I can see where the idea might germinate. In the first two acts, the various elements are interwoven deftly, although co-directors (and co-writers) seem to lose the threads in the final act when the violence begins to accelerate.

One of the big problems here is that Jordan is a walking talking bag of feces, and the longer you spend with him, the more unclean you’ll feel. There comes a point where you begin hoping that Caroline will find out what’s going on and attatch a bomb to his testicles; at least that might give the audience a sense of satisfaction, but alas, that’s not to be. Does Jordan get what’s coming to him? I’m not telling, but suffice to say that you may or may not leave the film’s final credits feeling vindicated.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of different layers going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lead character is such a jerk you don’t want to spend another minute with him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the dialogue is repeated verbatim from testimony given the filmmakers by eleven agents, former agents and assistants at the four largest talent agencies in Hollywood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time


Filmmaker (left) and author, out for a stroll on the beach.

(2021) Documentary (IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston (voice), John Irving, Edie Vonnegut, Kurt Adams, Jerome Klinkowitz, Morley Safer, Sidney Offit, Nanny Vonnegut, Dan Simon, Steve Adams, Valerie Stevenson, Gregory Sumner, Rodney Allen, Mark Vonnegut, Jim Adams, Joe Bleifuss, Dan Wakefield, Peter Adams, Ginger Strand. Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott

Very often before writing a review of a film I’ve recently seen, I like to read the reviews written by other critics. Not because I want to steal their prose, although once in a while I find that we’re thining along the same lines. It’s mainly curiosity that motivates me; why did this critic rate the movie so highly, or so low? What did they see that I didn’t? When it comes to documentaries, I am often surprised that critics seem to write negative reviews because a documentary didn’t meet their expectations of what they thought it should cover. I suppose that I’ve probably been guilty of the same sin myself – it’s extraordinarily, brutally hard to evaluate one’s own work – but I at least try to review what’s up there on the screen rather than what I think should be up there. That just seems logical to me.

So I suppose that those who love the work of Kurt Vonnegut – author of classics like Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions – might well be disappointed because the movie, shot over a forty year period by his close friend Robert B. Weide (an Emmy winner for Curb Your Enthusiasm), doesn’t dwell very much on literary analysis. This is a biography, told in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, much as Vonnegut’s best works are written.

It does spend a lot of time examining the facts of his life; how he served in World War II, eventually being taken prisoner and housed in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden where he witnessed firsthand the terrifying firebombing of that city, and was afterwards forced to dig out corpses from the smoldering ruins. The events were chronicled in his most famous book that was also his commercial breakthrough, Slaughterhouse Five,

Weide and co-director Don Argott go through the main highlights of his life, from his upbringing in Indianapolis to his marriage to Jane Marie Cox, his adoption of his sister Alice’s four sons after she died of cancer (and likely a broken heart) just two days after her husband perished in a horrific train accident, adding her children to the three he and Jane already had (one of her sister’s children would eventually move out after a year to be raised by relatives on his paternal side). It also reports on how he divorced Jane, leaving her for the photographer he was having an affair with, which did alienate him from his children for many years.

Weide talks to a lot of people, from his children (Jane, who passed away in 1986, is not heard from, curiously) to academics and admirers, biographers and people who also knew the author. We see him at personal appearances, reading from his books; he is an engaging speaker, as funny in person as his prose is on the printed page.

But it’s his relationship with Weide that really takes center stage in the movie. We see informal footage of the two chatting together, hear answering machine messages from the author that Weide saved, and hear him talk about anecdotes that Vonnegut shared with him. We learn, poignantly, that Weide keeps a dictionary above his desk that was published before the author’s death in 2007. The entry reads “Kurt Vonnegut (1922-    ), American author.” In that way, there was a source at Weide’s desk that lists his friend as still being alive. At the end of the film, Weide gently pencils in the date into the author’s entry, perhaps signifying that the completion of the documentary, which took Weide forty years to complete, is the appropriate place to let go.

The film is engaging and sometimes sentimental. For those unfamiliar with the details of Vonnegut’s life, there is a lot here to unpack – although nothing that doesn’t appear on his Wikipedia page, so from that standpoint, it’s not going to surprise those who are more familiar with the author’s life. And for those looking for insight into the author’s work, there’s really not a lot here that you wouldn’t find in your average 10th grade American literature course. Like all authors, Vonnegut was a product of his times. His experiences at Dresden made him passionately anti-war, and in the Seventies he became something of a counterculture figure for a brief time. There is something almost professorial about Vonnegut, from his bushy moustache to his corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows, to the ever-present cigarettes – one thing that annoyed me about the movie that in still photos in which Vonnegut is smoking (and there are MANY of those) Weide adds digital smoke to the point it becomes distracting.

Other than that, this is a well-made look at the author’s life through the lens of his friend’s eyes. From that standpoint, there is nothing remotely impartial about the film. In fact, the fact that the filmmaker obviously had a great deal of affection for his subject actually makes the movie a lot more enjoyable than something else that would have been dry and insufferable – the very antithesis of what Vonnegut was as a writer.

REASONS TO SEE: A moving tribute from one friend to another. Some insight into one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, particularly for those not familiar with the details of his life.
=REASONS TO AVOID: The digital smoke from the cigarettes is overused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vonnegut introduced the character of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. The character would recur in many of Vonnegut’s works.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28), Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; =Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

Tesla


Genius at work.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCEthan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Hannah Gross, Michael Mastro, Ian Lithgow, Jim Gaffigan, Blake DeLong, Lois Smith, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan, Josh Hamilton, Lucy Walters, Dan Bittner, David Kallaway, Karl Geary, James Urbaniak, Steven Gurewitz, Rick Zahn, Emma O’Connor. Directed by Michael Almareyda

If anyone deserves to have a biography that breaks all the rules, it’s Nikola Tesla. One of the great inventors and brilliant minds of his time, Tesla spent most of his life exploring ideas that other men never dared dream.

This biopic by Experimenter director Michael Almareyda has the kind of whimsy the notoriously introverted and taciturn inventor likely wouldn’t have approved of. The film is narrated by Mary Morgan (Hewson), the daughter of robber baron financier J.P (Keshawarz) who sits behind a laptop in all her Gilded Age finery and invites us to “Google” Tesla (Hawke).

We see most of the highlights of Tesla’s adult life, from his apprenticeship to Thomas Edison (MacLachlan) to his partnership with George Westinghouse (Gaffigan) in a rivalry with Edison to have his alternating current become the dominant electricity delivery method over Edison’s direct current.

Hawke plays Tesla without the Eastern European accent that the actual Tesla had in life (he was Serbian by birth) in kind of a hoarse whisper as if he has a chest cold in a public library. We get the sense that Tesla lived in a whole other universe than the rest of us; whereas most people, myself included, can only focus in on the here and now, Tesla’s eyes were focused on a more distant subject – the future.

Most of the time, deliberate anachronisms annoy me. They take you out of the film and put your focus on the director, and to an extent that’s true here, particularly when Edison whips out an iPhone but never more so than the final scene, in which Ethan Hawke does something that I don’t think Ethan Hawke has ever done in a movie before (and with good reason, as it turns out). However, I suppose that it could be argued that Tesla himself was an anachronism, a man born far too soon.

Biopics need to do two things; inform and entertain. And they don’t necessarily need to be overzealous on the informing aspect, but inspire a desire in the viewer to want to learn more about the subject. I’m not sure that Tesla is successful there; I will say that you are likely to learn more about the inventor by doing one of those Google searches (or to continue the theme, read his Wikipedia entry) than by watching this movie.

The movie is more successful in the latter category. Even though Hawke seriously underplays the role, he still is a magnificent presence, prowling the screen like a caged lion. Hewson makes a spritely counterpoint, all feminine charm but able to hold her own as an intellectual equal to Tesla, something not very easy to do for anyone.

The score by John Paesano is haunting, with a touch of Sigur Ros to it and Sean Price Williams’ cinematography has the kind of warmth of a magic lantern slide show that’s charming. The trouble with Tesla is also the trouble with Tesla; the man was brilliant but not very interesting. He was far too preoccupied with his ideas for unlimited energy available for all people to bother with things like human relationships. At the end of the film, I sort of doubt you’ll know Tesla any better than you would reading the log line of the movie. His place in posterity demands that maybe a different take on the legendary inventor needs to be made.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous soundtrack. Hewson and Hawke are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels less of a biography and more of a “based on” type of thing. Might be a little bit too esoteric for general audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as artwork depicting nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tesla died in 1943 at age 86, outliving both Edison and Westinghouse. He was virtually penniless when he died.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Current War
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Words on a Bathroom Wall

Made in Italy


The love between father and son withstands all obstacles.

(2020) Dramedy (IFC) Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle, Marco Quaglia, Gian Marco Tavani, Helena Antonio, Lavinia Biagi, Gabriele Tozzi, Souad Faress, Claire Dyson, Costanza Amati, Eileen Walsh, Julian Ovenden, Chelsea Fitgerald, Deborah Vale, Flaminia Cinque. Directed by James D’Arcy

I have come to a conclusion about my film critic colleagues: they really, really hate (in general) movies that make you feel. They much prefer (again, in general) movies that make you think. There’s nothing wrong with having your thoughts provoked, mind you – but not everyone goes to the multiplex to exercise their mind, and learning isn’t always a function of thought and rationality. Sometimes, it’s a process of intuition and emotion.

London-based art gallery manager Jack Foster (Richardson) is going through a painful divorce from his wife (Kettle) whose family, unfortunately for Jack, owns the gallery. Now that the couple is Splitsville, they want to sell the building and turn a tidy profit. Jack, who has worked hard to build the gallery into something, wants to buy it. But how to come up with the cast? Well there’s the house he co-owns with his dad Robert (Neeson) in Tuscany which should be able to provide the funds Jack needs in a quick sale.

Robert was once one of those artists who were the talk of the art world, whose artwork commanded astronomical sums in auctions and sales. But after the death of his wife (Jack’s mother) in a tragic accident twenty years prior, he’s stopped painting and has opted for the life of a ladies man, hopping into bed with young women whose names he can scarcely remember, much to the disgust of his son.

The trip to Tuscany is awkward and when they arrive at the house, the decades of neglect is very much evident – a family of weasels has taken up residence and they’re not willing to give up their squatters’ rights. Drill sergeant-like realtor Kate (Duncan) has a laundry list of must-dos in order to sell the house, although the plumbing is pretty good (that matters a lot, according to Kate) and so Jack, who is much more gung-ho about selling the place than his dad, gets to fixing the place up. Robert seems to be dragging his feet, even though he wants his son to have the cash, at the same time he is having trouble letting go. Jack is having trouble letting go of his anger towards his dad, who shipped him off to school just when Jack needed support the most.

Jack finds romance with a local trattoria owner named Natalia (Bilello) who is undergoing marital troubles of her own. However even as Kate finds a couple of boorish American boobs who are willing to buy the house that they clearly could never appreciate properly, the gulf between Robert and Jack reaches a boiling point with perhaps surprising results (or perhaps not).

If the renovation of a house belonging to a beloved deceased relative in one of the loveliest places on Earth sounds like the plot to another movie, that’s because it is – remember Russell Crowe extolling the charms of Provence in A Good Year? Just as that film activated many dream vacations to France, so too this one may give you the yen to visit Florence and environs.

This couldn’t have been an easy movie for Neeson and Richardson to make. Neeson’s wife – actress Natasha Richardson – and Michael’s mother, passed away far too young in 2009. I couldn’t say if the father and son in real life mirrored the strained relations that they portray onscreen, but the pain of loss that both men surely feel hangs over the production like smog on a hot summer day. There is a scene where the two confront each other over the death of the mom/wife that is especially poignant when you realize that the two have an emotional connection to the material.

Nonetheless, both men have some truly powerful scenes together and those alone are worth the price of admission (or rental in these days of pandemic). So, too, are the lovely golden-hued shots of the Tuscan countryside that has been long a favorite of filmmakers ever since cameras were invented.

First-time writer-director D’Arcy gets few points for originality here; much of the script is predictable and while the movie hits all the right feels, there are times that it comes off as derivative and not terribly original. However, wonderful performances from the leads (and Bilello is absolutely delightful as well), some magnificent cinematography and some nice foodie moments make this a movie guaranteed to make you want to head off to Tuscany yourself – or at least indulge in a really good bowl of risotto.

REASONS TO SEE: Lovely Tuscan vistas on display. Some very good work between father and son.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable and occasionally bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neeson and Richardson are father and son in real life. This is the second time they’ve appeared in the same movie together (the first was Cold Pursuit).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 54/100, Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Shine Your Eyes

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

Charlie Says (2018)


Charlie says “kill the rich.”

(2018) True Life Drama (IFC) Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Farris, Kimmy Shields, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Tracy Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLeod, Julia Schlaepfer, Bryan Adrian, Cameron Gellman, James Trevena-Brown, Jackie Joyner. Directed by Mary Harron

 

Perhaps one of the most notorious crimes in American history is the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family cult in August, 1969. It was all the more horrifying because several of the perpetrators were young women who by all accounts sweet-natured, good-hearted girls before they met Manson. How they journeyed from that background to become vicious mass murderers has always been a subject of speculation.

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) takes on the task of looking at three of the most notorious women – Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Rendón) – three years after the crimes were committed and after they’d been sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.

Mostly we see this through Van Houten’s eyes; how she was brought over to the cult by her friends Krenwinkle and Bobby Beausoleil (Gellman) and how she eventually fell under the spell of the charismatic wannabe rock star Charlie Manson (Smith). Charlie gave them purpose and in the era of free love, all the love they wanted. In return, he told them what to think, how to act and who to have sex with. He often exhorted them to “kill their egos,” erasing their sense of self. Under his tutelage, they became blank slates willing to love him, screw him, die for him and kill for him.

While in prison graduate student Karlene Faith (Wever) is assigned to teach the girls while they are being held separate from the rest of the general population at the California Correctional Institute for Women. Karlene is disturbed by the extent the women have been brainwashed (they still believe that Manson was an absolute God three years into their prison sentence) and hopes to bring them out of his control by using feminist theory. Of course, once that is accomplished the ladies will have to deal with the horror of what they have done.

The film doesn’t really cover any ground we haven’t been over before – anyone who saw the landmark television miniseries Helter Skelter will be more than familiar with the story. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the story through the eyes of the Manson women. Van Houten of the three makes a memorable impression but then that was the primary subject of Faith’s book on which the movie is partially based (several other sources were also used). It helps that Murray captures the innocence, longing and naivete of Van Houten; she becomes a sympathetic character, a victim of Manson before the murders even occurred.

Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, is magnificent as Manson. In what I believe to be the best portrayal of the late cult leader since Steve Railsback in the Helter Skelter miniseries in 1971. Smith shows a man becoming more paranoid and vicious as his delusions become more pronounced. The hippie movement was meant to be one of peace and love; Manson was the dark distorted reflection of that ethic. It served to terrify middle America and cast a pall on what the young people of the time were trying to accomplish. I lived in the San Fernando Valley in 1969 not all that far from Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family was headquartered; I remember the era well.

While the murders aren’t the centerpiece of the film, they are shown in some graphic detail. This may be off-putting for those who are sensitive or squeamish. The movie is creepy from the beginning but the longer it goes, the creepier it gets. It does show how even decent, ordinary human beings can be changed into homicidal monsters. It is not comforting to know that it could happen to any one of us given the wrong circumstances.

There are some great period songs on the soundtrack and a nice recreation of Spahn Ranch (the real one burned to the ground in 1975 and is part of a state park now with nary a sign the Family was ever there). I don’t know that the world needed another movie about the Manson family – and apparently the murders play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – but certainly it is interesting to see things from the viewpoint of the women who were in on crimes that were so mindblowingly awful that most of us couldn’t possibly conceive of them, let alone carry them out. This is truly a chilling film.

REASONS TO SEE: The longer it goes, the creepier it gets. Smith makes the best Manson since Steve Railsback. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little too lurid for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, drug use, violence, sex and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The songs performed by Smith as Charles Manson in the film were actually written by Manson himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Helter Skelter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
All is True

Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

Out of Blue


Questions in a world of blue.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Mamie Gummer, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Gary Grubbs, Alysha Ochse, Yolonda Ross, Thomas Francis Murphy, Tenea Intriago, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Lawrence Turner, Carol Sutton, Brenda Currin, Deneen Tyler, Devyn A. Tyler, Elizabeth Elkins, Garrett Kruithof, Elizabeth Pan. Directed by Carol Morley

 

As this film begins, we see the quote “We are not in the universe. Rather, the universe is in us.” When you consider that the make-up of our bodies is essentially created from the same elements that stars emit, that’s not far from the literal truth.

Detective Mike Hoolihan (Clarkson), a recovering alcoholic lesbian whose one of the better practitioners of detection, is called to an observatory to a homicide. Pretty astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer), the daughter of a prominent New Orleans family, has been shot dead. She can’t help but notice that the modus operandi of the killer is eerily similar to a slate of unsolved murders from decades earlier known as the .38 Caliber Killings. She also can’t help but notice a vintage shoe, a discarded sock and an open jar of a face cream popular decades earlier.

She has no shortage of suspects. Jennifer’s colleague Professor Ian Strammi (Jones) is a bundle of nerves and shows signs of having been in a struggle. Jennifer’s boyfriend (and also a colleague) Duncan J. Reynolds (Majors) is also behaving a bit oddly. Then there’s her grieving father, Colonel Tom Rockwell (Caan), a Vietnam War hero, local politician and electronics company proprietor who seems a bit tightly wound. Only Jennifer’s mother Miriam (Weaver) seems remotely grief-stricken and even she is showing signs of dementia.

Hoolihan is dogged in her pursuit of the truth but the case haunts her in unexpected ways. Jennifer, a vocal proponent of the “we are stardust” school of thought, is an expert on black holes and posits that we all exist because a star died somewhere billions of years ago. Jennifer’s own sense of wonder and relentless pursuit of her own scientific truth touches Hoolihan, perhaps reminds her of herself as she navigates the twists and turns of the case.

Based on a Martin Amis novel, the film has more than a little noir element to it. There is very much a literary feel to the movie; some of the dialogue is probably a better read than it sounds spoken aloud. That’s a shame because the cast which has some pretty impressive names in it is essentially left to trying to say some of these lines with a straight face and not always succeeding, as when Weaver’s character chides Hoolihan “Have you thought about dressing like a woman, dear?” There are plenty of references to the scientific quandary Schrodinger’s cat which makes the film esoteric to the point of either pretentiousness or brilliance – I’ll leave it to you to decide which.

The soundtrack is also reasonably impressive although it leans a bit too much on Brenda Lee’s version of I’ll Be Seeing You.” Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score is also a definite plus. What isn’t a plus is the overuse of incidental imagery used as linking devices between scenes. It makes the movie feel a bit too busy, a bit too pretentious (there’s that word again).

All in all, the movie comes off as a particularly uninspiring episode of C.S.I. Despite the best efforts of Clarkson and cast, the movie feels somewhat tired and somewhat lost. While I don’t mind the concept of the film and I like Amis as an author very much, the movie doesn’t do Amis’ source novel (Night Train) much justice which is pretty much par for the course for adaptions of his work.

REASONS TO SEE: Clarkson and Weaver deliver fine performances. The soundtrack is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is stretched out too much. There are far too many unnecessary incidental shots; the filmmakers don’t overburden themselves with self-restraint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigerland