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Recent Movies: The Square; The Florida Project; Jane

Recent Movies

The Square

A few days are chronicled in the life of Christian (Claes Bang), a curator of a modern art museum in Stockholm. He faces various challenges, the main one being the loss of his wallet and phone and the consequences of what he does to get them back.

The situation mentioned above is the best one in the movie despite an unnecessary over-the-top dramatic scene in a rain-soaked garbage dump. The film’s deepest flaw is that it takes on too many sub-stories that end up just barely touching the surface despite some fascinating scenes in all of them. This takes the viewer in too many directions and leaves a jumbled feeling by the end.

The most renowned scene of the film is one in which a group of wealthy museum patrons are at a dinner and “treated” to a performance artist (Terry Notary) who acts like an ape-human and causes havoc on some of the guests. The scene is brilliantly executed. It is easy for the viewer to feel the fear of the patrons wondering what the beast-man will do next and who his next victim will be. But the major events that took place are never even referred to later on. It’s like this scene was an extra short film on the side and had nothing to do with the general narrative.

In some ways, “The Square” resembles “La Dolce Vita”: an attractive, self-involved man who is very high on the social scale in a cosmopolitan setting feels a soullessness in his surroundings. Writer/director Ruben Ostlund – who did such a great job with “Force Majeure” a few years ago – shows great potential here as well. His occasional jabs against pretense, especially where modern art is concerned, are more than welcome. But overall, “The Square” might have been great if it hadn’t taken on too much.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * 1/2


The Florida Project

The residents of a low-rent motel, near Walt Disney World in the Orlando area, include Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a trouble-making six-year-old who enrolls other kids to do bad things with her; her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), an adult trouble-maker; and Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the hotel manager.

Like the French classic “Forbidden Games” (1952), much of “The Florida Project” is seen through children’s eyes. The children of both films seem oblivious to their difficult circumstances and find fun (mischief and trouble) with whatever is available to them.

The narrative for “The Florida Project” is a series of many small scenes – each telling their own little story while building up to a very powerful dramatic conclusion. While a few scenes could have been cut, the film succeeds in its overall purpose.

“The Florida Project” can also be praised for its fine acting. Dafoe plays against type as he is the most stabilizing force among a community of misfits and troublemakers. In subtle ways, he shows his inner conflict: he is rightly annoyed by the worst behaviours of the residents but he can’t help but have a soft spot for them. He even occasionally falls into the role of surrogate father to the various children especially in a gripping scene when a stranger approaches the kids when they’re playing.

Prince is superb as Moonee, deliberately the total opposite of ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’. Her strong work easily recalls other great recent child performances including those of Millicent Simmonds in “Wonderstruck”, Sunny Pawar in “Lion”, and Jacob Tremblay in “Room”.

Vinaite gives the film’s standout performance as she easily gives the viewer conflicting feelings about Halley.  It’s really easy to hate Halley for the terrible ways she treats people especially a neighbour who is also a single mother. But there are scenes that show her trying as much as possible to give her daughter as good a life as she can despite very limiting circumstances. Credit for this full characterization can also be given to co-writers Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker (the movie’s director).

This fine film can also be credited for putting a spotlight on an ignored but growing population: the poor.

RATING:   * * *


Jane

British Chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall is the subject of this American documentary which includes footage of her early research in Gombe, Tanzania in the 1950s and 1960s plus current interviews and narration made specifically for this film.

The highest praise must go to the film footage preservationists who have maintained perfect prints of the colourful adventures in what was very high risk in unknown territory six decades ago. The superb footage is enhanced with Goodall’s clear narration and a pleasurable score by Philip Glass.

The first half is thrilling as it includes very surprising information of how Goodall was chosen for this mission especially regarding her background. The second half is still engaging but it has less novelty than the beginning. It still provides a lot of fascinating history though, including Goodall’s personal life and the evolution of the chimp community with which she bonds.

As the film evolves, it is easy to see that Goodall’s patience must have been one of the reasons she was selected for the task. Even when the animals stay close to her, she knows to avoid touching them until the right moment.

An unfulfilled curiosity is the lives and personalities of local Tanzanians who assist the mission. But the star attraction and the fabulous footage make this viewing worthwhile. What is most amazing is how Jane Goodall looks really very similar to how she did sixty years ago despite the inevitable effects of aging.  Waiter, I’ll have what she’s having.

RATING:   * * *


Upcoming Reviews:  Victoria and Abdul;  Human Flow;  Loving Vincent;  Lady Bird;  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri;  The Breadwinner;  The Disaster Artist;  The Shape of Water

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Recent Movies: mother!; Battle of the Sexes; Wonderstruck

Recent Movies

mother!

In a large, old, unfinished house in a secluded area somewhere in the U.S., a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) has her life and sanity unraveled as her poet husband (Javier Bardem) allows several inconsiderate people into their home because of his insatiable need for attention. Chaos ensues including that of the supernatural.

When I had previously told a fellow cinephile of my intention to see “mother!”, he said he thought the movie was “batshit crazy”. At the time, I thought this comment was a warning. In the end, it turned out to be an understatement.

How do I hate this movie? Let me count the ways:

1) It is so bad that even Jennifer Lawrence cannot save it.
2) Ditto for Javier Bardem.
3) When it became clear that the movie’s end would be soon, I felt an elation like I have for films I truly loved. In those other films’ cases, the conclusion was a grand culmination of the greatness that preceded them. In the case of “mother!”, the joy was felt knowing that the mental/spiritual torture would soon end and the two-hour term of purgatory would finally be complete.
4) Catholic priests ought to consider recommending this film when they must issue penance at the end of confessions. But in fairness, this should be only for the most terrible of sinners.

The “story” is reminiscent of the most repugnant of terrible sitcom episodes which take sadistic joy in tormenting a main character. This film is four times the length of such episodes; thus the sadism is extended to the viewers. While the viewer would most sympathize with the Lawrence character, there were times I wanted to see someone give her a Cher/Moonstruck/“Snap out of it”/double-slap followed by “leave your idiotic, pathological, egomaniac husband NOW!!!!” (As an aside, there are also equally horrible cartoon comedy sketches that also follow the mean-spirited sadism mentioned above. As they take place in a much shorter period of time, their vile repugnance is more concentrated.)

Director/writer Darren Aranofsky has done fine work in the past (“The Wrestler” (2008) , “Black Swan” (2010)) as a director and superb work (“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)) as a writer/director. Those other films also took very unconventional directions but there always seemed to be compassion for the main characters rather than a twisted sadism as in the case of “Mother!”.

There is no shortage of pretentious social climbers who would likely declare that one should keep an ‘open mind’ when approaching films like this as well as other forms of ‘artistic expression’. To that, I would respond with a memorable quote I saw on a billboard many years ago: “A great many open minds should be closed for repairs.”

The best summary of the film would best be expressed by yet another quote – this one from the late, great Dorothy Parker: “What fresh hell is this?”

Appalling. Truly appalling.

RATING (out of four stars): 1/2


Battle of the Sexes  

Based on a true story: leading up to the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the lives of each player are revealed. King fights to improve the status and pay of women tennis players while hiding from her husband an affair she is having with another woman. Riggs struggles with a gambling addiction which jeopardizes his marriage.

One of the many successes of this film is its ability to recreate that fun, light-hearted era known as the early 1970s including terms not used for a long time (“women’s lib”, “male chauvinist pig”), glimpses of the wonderful “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and coin-operated televisions in airport lounges among other public places. It also reflects some early emancipation movements of that great era: the aforementioned women’s liberation movement (expressed outwardly) and gay/lesbian liberation (expressed secretly).

Another great point of the film is its compassion for everyone. During the grand match, the viewer sees the viewpoints of all involved. It’s not a hero(ine) vs. villain situation. And speaking of the match, there is a wonderful build-up to it created by directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris. Even though the eventual outcome is known, there was tension and excitement leading to it.

Another area of compassion is in regard to the love triangle. One particular scene seems to begin as a comical “oh oh, you’re going to get caught” adultery moment but has a very surprising shift that ends, in a subtle way, with deep sympathy and sadness.

Stone gives a strong, full-range performance of a living legend. There are moments of great vulnerability as well as fierce determination and courage when King is willing to take great risks to do the right thing. Stone’s great work is really no surprise considering her superb work in last year’s magnificent “La La Land”.

One area where the film could have been more transparent is in the allegations that Riggs threw the match as a way to pay off some of his gambling debts. Even if this is false (there is more evidence against this belief than in its favour), it ought to have been mentioned in the disclaimers at the end including the various claims against the allegations. But this does not spoil this fine film which is entertaining in its own right while recounting many important histories…. or is that herstories?

RATING:   * * *


Wonderstruck

Two stories run concurrently – each involving a hearing-impaired, misfit child searching for someone in New York City. The first, taking place in New Jersey in 1927, features Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who is born deaf and has difficulty living with her strict father. The second, taking place in Minnesota in 1977, features Ben (Oakes Fegley) who has recently lost his hearing due to an accident and is grieving a recent death.

At the beginning, the parallel stories are utterly fascinating. The 1927 story is in a format similar to films of that era – in black-and-white and silent (the silence also reflecting Rose’s outlook). Simmonds is also very adept as a silent performer with a perfectly expressive face reminding one of the great success of the full silent “The Artist” back in 2011. Her story is also surrounded by a stunningly elegant Manhattan.

The 1977 story shows another era of Manhattan whose visuals were loud and colourful to reflect that expressive decade. Like the earlier story, it makes one nostalgic for an era when crowded sidewalks were filled with a diverse group of people and none of them was holding an electronic device – but I do digress as I’m sure I’ve done before on this point.

The amazing energy of the beginning is somewhat maintained by the middle but it begins to sag. While the audience remains curious for certain mysteries to be solved, a few scenes take too long. Also, a few elements in the story are far-fetched but this is mostly forgiven as the story veers into the realm of fantasy.

When the loose ends are tied at the end, some of them are foreseen so the element of surprise is less impactful. But the concluding scene, anchored by the wonderful Julianne Moore, is superbly executed – leaving the viewer with much empathy for the many outcasts who rarely “fit in”.

RATING:   * * *

Recent Movies: Faces, Places; Blade Runner 2049; God’s Own Country; Travel Notes: Philadelphia

Recent Movies  

Faces Places  (Visages, Villages)  

Director Agnès Varda co-stars in her own documentary with photographer/artist JR. The two travel together to various locations in rural France, meet various locals, and arrange to have some locals’ photographs enlarged and pasted on houses and buildings. Aspects of each of the pair’s personal lives are also explored.

At the age of eighty-nine, it is a victory that Varda is still living well let alone still making movies let alone still making movies of high quality.

The project of this unlikely pair is very unique and engaging. Not only do they show great differences in height and size; they are two generations apart.

As the structure of the film’s episodes is similar, there is an occasional feeling of repetition but this is slight as the various people have different stories. The people involved are average folks of working-class background. It’s a noble attribute to put the spotlight on those considered “ordinary” who still exude a certain charm with their modesty.

The movie’s final segments are the best as they focus on the starring couple. JR’s 100-year-old grandmother, like the movie’s other subjects, exudes a modest charm that is heart-warming. Varda’s recall of the people of her past is intriguing as well as moving especially when she slips out her thoughts on mortality.

The final scene is truly a grand finale as it culminates so much especially the bonding of JR and Varda. Without revealing too much (only to say that it involves another French cinema legend), it easily takes in the viewer with that most familiar of emotions: disappointment. It also reminds one of how new disappointments sadly make one recall old ones.

There are many directors who direct themselves for movies but in nearly all cases, those films are fictional. In directing herself in documentaries (other fine ones include “The Gleaners and I” (2000) and “The Beaches of Agnès (2008)), Varda shows not only courage in revealing in what most international cinema legends would want to keep private, she also gives viewers yet another delightful documentary subject: herself. And JR too, of course.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Blade Runner 2049

Following its predecessor “Blade Runner” (1982): In a futuristic Los Angeles, K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant  i.e. a bioengineered human. His job is to exterminate fellow replicants who are rebellious and refuse to accept their status as servants and slaves. He is sent on a mission to resolve a mystery of a birth many years ago.

I can remember my first reaction when I saw the classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” decades ago: I couldn’t understand much of it but what I did understand, I found fascinating. I also thought the work of director of Stanley Kubrick was astounding even in the sections I did not understand. I would later appreciate “2001” in a greater way in subsequent viewings – even though some parts remain incomprehensible.

It is possible that I may feel the same about “Blade Runner 2049” some time in the future (though hopefully before 2049). Although it is more incomprehensible as a whole than “2001”, each of its scenes were amazing as separate entities. This is mainly due to the film-noir vision superbly executed by director Denis Villeneuve who successfully creates a very bleak and nihilistic universe. He is greatly aided by topnotch work in cinematography, background music and especially a brilliant production design by Dennis Gassner. (It helped to have seen the film on the giant IMAX screen.)

Gosling does a fine job in the lead role. He is convincing as an emotionless being who slips occasionally into the emotional human form. But the screen is truly lit up when Harrison Ford enters the picture in the second half. He is often riveting and this might possibly be his best performance.

RATING:   * * *


God’s Own Country

In the Yorkshire region of England, Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a young gay man burdened with most of the work on his family farm which he shares with his ailing father and his grandmother. The family hires Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker to help with the farming. Sparks ignite.

It’s not totally unfair to criticize “God’s Own Country” for borrowing heavily from “Brokeback Mountain”: two outcast ranchers get it on and fall in love while surrounded by sheep. But in fairness, the newer film takes very different directions as it takes place in a more advanced time period around LGBT acceptance. In “Brokeback Mountain”, like many other LGBT films, homophobia had an uncredited starring role. The only homophobia in “God’s Own Country” is internal – expressed as part of Johnny’s inner torment.

Writer/director Francis Lee has created a very rich story where so much is said in the silence and minimal words of his fine cast – especially O’Connor.

In the beginning, it’s easy to despise Johnny as we see a lot of alcoholic and inconsiderate behavior. But in time, we sympathize with him more as we see how overworked and underappreciated he is at home. His transition is mainly the result of Georghe who shows him a much more gentle and warm version of lovemaking unlike the hardcore sex that is the only kind of sex Johnny has known until then.

Georghe is such a stable influence compared to Johnny. One might wonder how he could have been this way as he would have had similar hardships plus another – he’s of the Roma race and had the extra burden of racism. One answer is in a brief, comical scene that shows how radically different the two men are in their consumption of alcohol. Both men had similar burdens but Johnny reacted in self-destructive ways while Georghe seems to have handled life’s difficulties with more grace.

In the end, “God’s Own Country” is more than a love story and more than a gay story. It’s also a story about farming life and dealing with an ailing parent. It is also a story about the transition of a tormented individual perfectly performed by O’Connor. His chemistry with Secareanu is also amazing.

Yes, some of the regional accents are occasionally difficult to understand. But in the end, this film packs a very strong emotional punch.

RATING:   * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   Acting by Josh O’Connor


Travel Notes 

Philadelphia

I had a little less than a week to see the great sights of this wonderful city. While I got to see most of it, I could see that another vacation is needed to see the rest in the old, historical city region.

In that area, I had the pleasure of seeing the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The latter was lead by a very enthusiastic and informative guide who took us through each room and the great histories that took place within them.

The City Center  was amazing in so many ways. Ultimately, the historical City Hall was truly a highlight. It’s an uplifting experience just to walk around its exterior and through its many archways that reach to a central courtyard. The interior tour was very much worth the money spent.

Visits to the Masonic Temple and the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul were also beautiful highlights to the City Center tour. The former involved an organized tour which was also very informative regarding Masonry in general. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was also enjoyable.

What most intrigued about the City Center was that there were so many beautiful historical buildings still in use and in wonderful shape. It was invigorating just to walk around and take it in.

Along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, there were two highlights. The Barnes Exhibit had many great works of art – possibly the biggest collection of Renoir paintings than I have ever seen. And of course, the outstanding Philadelphia Museum of Art was well worth the long walk on the parkway to get there (during which I couldn’t stop hearing the “Rocky” theme in my head). The grandeur of the building’s exterior appearance was worth a visit alone. But the works of art truly astound. The highlights included great works of European and Asian art. In some of the galleries, historical sculptured archways were integrated with the archways of the rooms.

One of the best benefits of this trip was that everything was within walking distance. In addition, the kind and helpful people make Philly one of the truly great American cities to visit. I can hardly wait to go back and see what I missed the first time.

 

Recent Movies: BPM; Wonder Woman; Ex Libris; Travel Notes: Magdalen Islands

Recent Movies

BPM (aka Beats per Minute, 120 Beats per Minute, 120 Battements par Minute)

In Paris in the 1990s, a group of AIDS activists (the Paris chapter of ACT UP) plans regular meetings to set up demonstrations and protests – mainly against drug companies. Two members of the group become involved in a romance: Sean (Nahual Perez Biscayart), a long-time activist who is HIV-positive; and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an activist newcomer who is HIV-negative.

“BPM” lacks a full historical context as to why ACT UP is so angry against the drug companies among other institutions and individuals. While the urgency is understandable for those living with AIDS, there is no perspective given to drug companies on why they and their representatives are so despised. They (of the drug companies) are given too little exposure for the viewer to understand their perspective. Perhaps a scenario of annoying bureaucracy would have been helpful. During that tragic time period, there was a lot of indifference, denial, and prejudice about AIDS. This is not reflected well enough in the film. Instead, the drug company reps look innocent while some of the ACT UP activists come off as violent and harsh. This should not have been the case.

But the movie truly shines in the relationship between Sean and Nathan. Both actors do a great job especially Perez Biscayart who shows a strong range as Sean’s physical condition gradually deteriorates. The film also excels in a particularly moving death scene. It is very realistic as those grieving share a collective silence and awkwardness among each other. This scene easily reminds viewers of the various losses in our own pasts.  

Despite the film’s flaws, its assets make it a touching experience.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Wonder Woman

The title character aka Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up in the hidden, mythical island of Themyscira which is inhabited only by female warriors whose values are similar to those in Greek mythology. Diana is later brought into the “other world” during World War I and works with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a military captain. The two have similar goals but with very different perceptions of what is happening.

The beginning third of the film is superb. The Amazon island is idyllic and the other-worldly cultural perspective of its inhabitants is fascinating. There is also great amusement and enjoyment when Diana enters the “normal” world where her wiser Amazon outlook is very out-of-place.

The second third of the film is quite good as well but sadly, things deteriorate by the final third. The mythology that was so welcome in the beginning gets jumbled and confusing in the concluding segment. The final disintegration is guaranteed after a major decision is made. It is not just eye-rollingly hoaky and unbelievable; it’s not even comprehensible.

Gadot and Pine are likeable and certainly good-looking but they are not always up to par for lead roles. There are times their performances come off as weak though they are good for most of the movie. Overall, it’s too bad the film’s great beginning went so far downhill by the end.

RATING:   * *


Ex Libris: New York Public Library

New York’s various library branches are visited in all boroughs in this documentary.  It includes various segments highlighting free lectures, job fairs, community gatherings, school classes, help to the needy, and library business meetings.

The variety of the segments and their subjects are as well chosen as are the variety of people in each of them. For those of us who love New York and New Yorkers, the people alone make much of this film an enjoyable experience.

Many of the lectures were fascinating but some seemed intended for the few with either a higher level of academic intellect and/or a great knowledge of the subject at hand. While this might have been something to overlook, it is harder to overlook the movie’s biggest liability: its length of three-and-a-quarter hours. The movie could have been reduced by at least one-third.

Though most of the segments were a reasonable length of time, this was not the case for the library staff meetings that were too frequent and too long – much like staff meetings for those of us in our real lives. While some moments in these scenes were interesting, they had a tendency to remind us of the occasional auditory, mental torture of our own lives – something we’d rather forget when watching a movie.

RATING:   * * 1/2


Travel Notes

Magdalen Islands, Quebec

I had the good fortune of being part of an organized tour (by Executive Cultural Tours) of this beautiful region last August. The islands (also known as Les Iles de La Madeleine) are actually geographically closer to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia than they are to Quebec. While most residents are French-speaking, they also have much in common with the English-speaking Atlantic provinces including a down-to-earth friendliness and the pride of their cultural heritage and history (traits that are also typical in mainland Quebec).

The tour took us to various places including those that reflect the working lives of Islanders. They included a salt-mine, a cheese factory, a winery, and a fish smoking house. Not only were such visits informative (and included some wonderful tastings as well) but the various hosts and hostesses displayed warm hospitality with some great humour as well.

La Site d’Autrefois was located in a farming area and was a replica of times gone by as the name implies. It was not only nostalgic to see such recreations of the past; it was wonderfully rare that the environment was that of the working-class. Normally, such historical buildings and objects on display for tourists are only those of the very upper-class. La Musée de la Mer also had many amazing objects of the past with a lot of history behind them.

The most amazing part of the trip was the scenery. There were many open fields and hills dotted with idyllic houses. Best of all were those magnificent cliffs near the water. Whether walking along the beach shores or on top of the cliffs (including one near a lighthouse), taking in this natural beauty was truly the highlight of this wonderful trip.

On top on all this, the food was delicious; the people were awesome; and the hotel had a great view of the sea. What magnificence.


Upcoming Movie Reviews:   Faces Places, Blade Runner 2049, God’s Own Country, Mother, Battle of the Sexes, The Florida Project, Wonderstruck

Recent Movies: Good Time; Beach Rats; An Inconvenient Sequel

Recent Movies

Good Time

Connie (Robert Pattinson) is a New York City criminal who convinces his mentally handicapped brother, Nick (Ben Safdie), to help him in a bank robbery. From then on, as so often happens in this film genre, numerous mishaps pile on top of each other.

Where the film deserves credit: it is fast-paced with more than a few surprises. It also avoids the usual fake glamour of crime films by showing how gritty life truly is for the underclass caught in the cycle of a life of crime. (Safdie and his brother Josh are the film’s directors and they deserve credit for their skills.)

There are films that have a disadvantage where the main character is truly unlikeable. In this sense, “Good Time” is extremely disadvantaged. Connie is an absolutely rancid piece of slime. He is also a hybrid of the extremities of willfulness, stupidity, and pathological narcissism. There are some rare movies that could take this negative situation and twist it into something surprisingly fascinating. “Good Time” is not one of those movies.

RATING (out of four stars): * *


Beach Rats

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is in his late teens and lives at his Brooklyn home with his family. He also lives a double life: he hangs out and does drugs with three macho friends while also living a closeted life of arranging sexual encounters with men (mostly middle-aged) on the Internet.

While “Beach Rats” has a standard tone in its coming-of-age storyline, it can be given credit to going where most films dare not go: its man-to-man encounters are upfront. While this is courageous and rare, the movie suffers like many other recent ones including “Good Time” above: the main character is unlikeable.

Franikie’s gradual descent into drug dependence might have elicited sympathy but he lacks soul and character whether he’s drugging with his friends, having secretive sex with men, trying to go “straight” with a young woman close to his age, or in the few encounters he has with his family.

Some characters in smaller roles do show glimpses of depth but these moments are too few and far between. Director/writer Eliza Hittman uses a cool, distant approach to the characters but as the characters themselves are also cool and distant, there is an empty feeling by the end.

RATING:   * * 1/2


An Inconvenient Sequel

Picking up from the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), Al Gore continues his crusade against global warming.

Like the original film, Gore uses convincing data to explain his case, only occasionally getting too technical for the average non-science-whiz viewer. This sequel uses clips of the original in which predictions were made (and immediately dismissed by climate change deniers) and later proven to be true. The folks behind this film show diplomacy as they do not directly use the phrase “I told you so” even though they have every right to.

“An Inconvenient Sequel” showed promise by beginning with brief audio clips of naysayers believing Gore’s mission to be a false one. It would have benefited by continuing with other viewpoints throughout the film but it concentrates too much on Gore alone. The restriction of one note, even if it is a good one as it is here, limits the impact.

Similarly, some sequences don’t gel well with each other overall and the movie comes off as choppy. Some of them went too far with sentimental, cheesy music during moments of victory and hope.

Despite the flaws, “An Inconvenient Sequel” is still a fine film mainly because of its relevance and the solid character of Al Gore. Like its predecessor, it can cause the viewer despair at the world’s situation but it is also balanced with hope for the good changes that are turning things around. The most unexpected moment of hope is when Gore meets a small-town super-conservative mayor in Republican Texas: Dale Ross of the town of Georgetown. The two men have a wonderful rapport because – are you ready? – the mayor believes in Gore’s cause and implements similar policies for his town, stating that renewable energy is as good for the bottom line as it is for the environment. (Hopefully, this delightful man will have greater influence in his party in the very near future.)

“An Inconvenient Sequel” provides hope in two ways. The obvious one is in the accelerating movement of positive changes going against the negative ones on the issue of climate change. Yet, it also gives a revival to something else that is deteriorating: an expression of liberalism with a solid heart and mind – something that has made this philosophy so appealing for decades. These days, there are many elements of liberalism that have become narrow-minded, mean-spirited, self-serving, hypocritical, and in some cases, violent – in other words, all the traits they accuse their opponents of having. May this movie contribute to the return of a healthy planet and a healthy liberalism.

RATING:   * * *

Recent Movies: The Women’s Balcony; Baby Driver; War for the Planet of the Apes

Recent Movies

The Women’s Balcony

In Jerusalem, an Orthodox congregation is in a quandary following an incident that leaves their synagogue in great need of repair: as the elderly rabbi  is showing gradual signs of mental decline, a younger rabbi (Aviv Alush) helps the congregation in the mean time but his ultra-orthodox fundamentalism rubs the congregants the wrong way – especially the women.

This film has a delightful gathering of characters who show their humanity and quirkiness simultaneously although this might have been enhanced with maybe a little over-the-top characterizations and situations now and then. Among the performers, Evelin Hagoel stands out as a woman who easily refutes the younger rabbi’s forced changes on her community.

“The Women’s Balcony” deals well with that age-old inner conflict among the religious – whatever the religion or denomination: the apparent sense of duty and obedience vs. what people know deep in their hearts to be true. This theme works well up to a point but the film is less effective due to the young rabbi’s harsh, one-dimensional approach.

He easily comes off as a villain. If the film had given a glimpse as to what drives him, the audience could have been left with the inner-debate of whether to sympathize with him despite his odious actions. Despite the film’s good points, this flaw reduces the film to a mixed result.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * 1/2


Baby Driver

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a boyish, young man caught up in Atlanta’s crime scene. As he is indebted to a crime-lord (Kevin Spacey), his expert driving skills are exploited as a getaway driver for various robberies. Baby would eventually like to go “straight” but the crime-lord won’t allow this.

“Baby Driver” is a competent film: the story is consistent and sometimes exciting; the acting is good; the main character is interesting; the car chases and criminal showdowns are well done; and it has a superb soundtrack (Baby has to constantly listen to music due to a traumatic incident in his childhood).

With all the praise in the above paragraph, a rating of at least three stars should be in order. But it goes down a half notch for a couple of reasons. As a film that is dependent on car chases and shoot-‘em-ups, “Baby Driver” would inevitably be compared to the hundreds of others that have already been done in this genre. More unique films that advance this well-worn genre would deserve a three-star rating or higher. While not quite formulaic, “Baby Driver”‘s depth goes only so far. Had it been more substantial, I might have given the film a higher rating.

RATING:   * * 1/2


War for the Planet of the Apes

In the third segment of a trilogy: Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the leader of a tribe of an advanced ape species, fighting against the advances of an insurgent group of human soldiers lead by a renegade colonel (Woody Harrelson).

The locales and photography in the first half of the film leave the viewer with a visual treat especially some wintry scenes during a long journey in the snow. Adding to this excitement are a great musical score and superb visual effects that give the ape characters human-like facial expressions.

When the novelty wears off around the half-way point the film remains good though it is somewhat less exciting as it falls into a standard plot of characters wrongly imprisoned and mistreated while wanting to escape. Followed by a spectacular final half-hour (albeit with a rather emotionally manipulative closing scene), “War of the Planet of the Apes” succeeds as a rarity: a modern, big-budget film with a story that is good, characters that deal with inner-conflict, and – most important – it is understandable.

RATING:   * * *

Recent Movies: A Ghost Story; The Big Sick; Dunkirk

Recent Movies

A Ghost Story

***  THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS   ***

In a rural area of the U.S., a young man (Casey Affleck) is recently deceased. His ghost (covered in a white sheet with holes for the eyes) lingers in the house he once shared with his wife (Rooney Mara) as she grieves, unaware of his presence.

The first section of the film involves the couple in an intimate way. The directing style by David Lowery (also the film’s writer) is deliberately quiet and attentive. This pays off well especially in this early segment particularly a scene where the woman has a binge-eating scene (all in a single take) as an attempt to cope with her grief.

The conclusion of this segment is the movie’s most powerful moment. The quiet sadness is almost overwhelming as one can feel so much sympathy for both characters. Had the movie began with earlier segments before the death and then finished with this scene, it would have been the perfect ending leaving the audience with a gulp in the throat.

It would be an exaggeration to say the movie goes ‘downhill’ from there. The film’s remainder is still interesting but not nearly as good as the first segment.

As the ghost stays in the house, there is an unnecessary ‘haunted house’ segment against the house’s next inhabitants. The following segment, with different inhabitants, includes a party where a guest blurts a pompous pontification about the uselessness of trying to be remembered after death. Some of the points in this monologue are interesting but it’s just too long. Will Oldham plays this role well if only to remind us of the kind of person many of us have tried to avoid at parties in our past.

Later sequences involve the switching of time periods. While this section is better than the middle, one is still left wondering at the end if it was necessary and how consistent it was with the more powerful beginning.

In the end, “A Ghost Story” is a fine film dealing with the subject of grief – not only for the woman who lost her husband but also for the man’s spirit who sees his loved one getting on in her life without him.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani (who portrays himself) is an aspiring stand-up comic and drives a cab in Chicago. His traditional Muslim Pakistani-American family frequently tries to set him up to date single Pakistani women. In the mean time, Kumail has become involved in an intense, on-again-off-again relationship with a white woman, Emily (Zoe Kazan).

While this movie is highly acclaimed, I’m among the outliers as I had a mixed response to it. I found some sections quite believable as well as enjoyable. Other sections seemed less believable which is disappointing considering that the film is based on a true story.

The more enjoyable scenes are in the beginning. Nanjiani and Kazan are an ideal rom-com pair and they share great comical banter. Also, after a plot twist in the first half, Kumail must bond with Emily’s parents (play by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). While this seemed awkward and unbelievable at first, it eventually worked mainly because of the seasoned skills of Romano and Hunter. The scenes involving aspiring stand-up comics were also quite good.

The film is less credible during the more dramatic and less comical moments. Nanjiani is a fine comical actor but his meltdown scene at a drive-thru burger joint seemed over the top. His eventual falling-out with his family had the chance for deeper feelings but it stayed mainly on the surface. The acting was under par in this segment.

So, the film wins at the comedy but not so much in the dramatic side though it does have warmth.

RATING:   * * 1/2


Dunkirk

Based on a true WW2 story: after the German invasion of France in 1940, thousands of British and Allied soldiers await evacuation to Britain in the northern coastal French town of Dunkirk.

Among war films, “Dunkirk” is unique in that it begins during the aftermath of an invasion rather than before it. The focus of “Dunkirk” is on rescuing several soldiers – too many for the sea vessels available – and preserve their lives.

The main narrative is broken into smaller stories. While all are intriguing action-wise, the characterization is  thin overall. One exception is a story in which a helpful English civilian and ex-sailor (Mark Rylance) takes his own pleasure yacht to Dunkirk along with his young son and his teenage friend. The other stories are good in showing the tension of too many people to be rescued with too few vehicles involved but this tension could have been enhanced.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan has done a superb job in co-ordinating numerous extras and evoking an event that is far from the experience of the average viewer. (Apparently, Dunkirk survivors praised the film’s accuracy.) He is greatly aided by his technical team especially those involving visual and sound effects. Some of the film’s visuals truly stand out.

Although I don’t fully join the almost unanimously high acclaim for this film, I still recommend it – especially on as large a screen as possible.

RATING:   * * *