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Recent Movies: The Last Jedi; The Shape of Water; Darkest Hour

Recent Movies 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In part eight of the nine segments of the super-franchise, various sub-stories occur simultaneously:  General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) is leading the resistance against the destructive First Order while her son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a member of the enemy force; Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to coax self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join resistance; and other characters on both sides infiltrate the other.

As always, this film – like the others in the series – is a brilliant collaboration of visual effects, editing, production design, location choices, other technical aspects and a fine cast. In addition to those mentioned above, the film also stars Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Laura Dern, Frank Oz, and Benicio del Toro.

Despite a few false endings, “The Last Jedi” succeeds well with the difficult task of at least four narratives happening simultaneously – all of them intriguing. While not fully up to the level of its predecessor in the series, “The Force Awakens” (who could ever forget that superbly dramatic ending), it is light years ahead of last year’s “Force One”: an out-of-sequence sidebar story that was released last year.

All in all, “The Last Jedi” is quite entertaining especially when seen in IMAX-3D.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


The Shape of Water

Baltimore, 1962:  In the midst of the Cold War, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a young mute woman who works as a janitor in a government laboratory. At her workplace, she becomes intrigued and fascinated by a recently captured man-like sea creature that is confined in a water tank.

This film is courageous in its combining a historical era with fantasy science-fiction. It is occasionally far-fetched (during that paranoid time/place, it’s hard to believe Elisa would have such easy, unsupervised access to the lab with the sea-creature) but it is mostly believable within its bizarre, unusual universe.

While it may not live fully up to the awards-hype it is getting, it is still praiseworthy in many ways. Director Guillermo del Toro works with a great team to draw the viewer into his fascinating world especially in two thrilling scenes – one of which is the finale. The cinematography (by Dan Laustsen), the music (by Alexandre Desplat), and the set design team work superbly to recreate a long-ago era through a unique lens. And the cast is equally amazing.

Though Hawkins’ performance has many similarities to her recent work in “Maudie”, she succeeds greatly in the current film to show passion and determination despite her limits in being able to communicate verbally. The other characters and their respective performers are more than noteworthy: Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbour – an underemployed homosexual who has trouble with aging and finding work as an illustrator (his personal story could have been even more elaborated); Michael Shannon as a high-ranking official in Elisa’s workplace – he’s even more monstrous than the sea creature he regards with indifferent contempt; Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist whose own story provides plot twists; and Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s sharp-talking co-worker and loyal friend.

One thing is for certain: “The Shape of Water” is in a category of its own.

RATING:   * * *


Darkest Hour  

In May 1940, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) has just been appointed by his party to become Britain’s Prime Minister, thus facing the daunting situation of Adolf Hitler’s growing dominance of Europe.

“Darkest Hour” is a beautiful, historical period piece that could also be a companion piece to “Dunkirk” which was also released in 2017. A good chunk of “Darkest Hour” covers the events of “Dunkirk” though more at the behind-the-scenes level.

Oldman is superb in the lead role and lives up to the current awards hype – winning numerous awards and likely to receive more. Under all that make-up, he is very convincing as a legendary renegade – one who never travels with the pack; one who could only lead the pack or go on his own.

Oldman is given many chances to show his talents as the film focuses almost exclusively on Churchill. Unfortunately, this is also a flaw. He is over-exposed. Thus the finale – which was likely intended to be rousing and succeeds to a high degree – loses some of its impact due to the over-exposure. Many scenes last too long and the movie, by the end, also seems too long. But “Darkest Hour” is still worth seeing for its lead performance.

RATING:   * * 1/2

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Recent Movies: The Other Side of Hope; The Disaster Artist; Call Me By Your Name; Books: Furiously Happy

Recent Movies

The Other Side of Hope

In modern-day Helsinki, the lives of two characters are followed: Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen) is beginning a new life as a single man and opening a new restaurant; and Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a refugee from Allepo, Syria seeking asylum in Finland.

This film deserves credit for taking on a subject that continues to grab headlines and personalizes it. The Finns in this movie are mostly portrayed as generous and fair-minded with a few exceptions: some are seen as idiotic government bureaucrats (an international problem), and others are seen as downright nasty thugs (a bigger international problem).

The directing style by Aki Kaurismaki is in his usual style of being deliberately austere and distant with moments of dry humour. It works well mostly but there could have been room for a few moments of deeper emotion considering the subject matter.

A shocking twist at the end does give the film some jolt but the ambiguity of the situation (which is also far-fetched to a degree) is unsatisfying. Despite this, “The Other Side of Hope” is a fine film. As it focuses mostly on Khaled, Haji comes off as a very fine anchor for the movie.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


The Disaster Artist

Based on a true story: In a San Francisco acting class around 2003, Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) befriends the younger Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). They move to Los Angeles and eventually create “The Room” which is considered one of the worst movies ever made and presently has a cult following.

The story leaves Greg with a very difficult moral dilemma. He owes much to Tommy for providing him a place to live in Los Angles as well as a major role in his movie. But Tommy – who is a total nutcase with a mysteriously, infinite source of money – has no social graces and becomes a tyrant on the movie set where he is the producer, director, and star. It’s easy to see why Greg is so conflicted internally.

Much praise can be given to James Franco on the fronts of both director and actor. As a director, he keeps the tension levels varied with moments of craziness, sympathy, and the occasional blow-ups on the movie set. As an actor, he is fully believable as an other-worldly eccentric who is hilarious most of the time in both subtle and bombastic ways, always oblivious to the world around him. He also shows a vulnerable side when he feels betrayed and humiliated.

More praise can be given to all actors especially those who come off as bad actors in acting classes and auditions. This is not easy.

“The Disaster Artist” proves, yet again, that truth is stranger than fiction. It also follows “La La Land” in a hopefully new revival of Hollywood playing itself.

RATING:   * * *


Call Me By Your Name

The setting is rural northern Italy in 1983. Oliver (Armie Hammer) is an American graduate student visiting the Perlman family for the summer to work on an internship with the family patriarch (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeology and art professor who used to live and work in the U.S. Professor Perlman has a seventeen-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who is infatuated with Oliver.

A great film is one that succeeds in getting past early hurdles and leaves one with an exhilarated feeling by the end. Here are the early hurdles for “Call Me By Your Name”:

1) The atmosphere was one of such super-privilege that it seemed inaccessible to more than 95% of the population. To have enough wealth to live in beautiful large home in northern Italy while being paid for working in the arts and archeology (with plenty of free time) seems like a dream for most of us. And when the family and their guest casually change languages (English, Italian and French with occasional German) while discussing all forms of the arts, it sometimes seemed rather lah-dee-dah.

2) It took a while to get past the fact that the two young lead actors both looked like younger versions of other famous people. Chalamet resembles what could be a young Justin Trudeau. Even more so, Hammer could easily pass as a young version of the TV character “Frasier” played by Kelsey Grammer. Not only does he look, sound, and act like “Frasier”, being a wealthy art-lover is the icing on the cake.

The film not only passes these hurdles but the viewer even gets over the initial dislike of Oliver who, in the beginning, comes off as pompous and presumptuous (like I mentioned: “Frasier”). But in the second half, Hammer succeeds in showing the genuine vulnerability of Oliver to the point the viewer can feel compassion for him.

Chalamet is even more powerful in subtly putting Elio’s feelings on display after initially succeeding in reminding viewers of the frustration and insecurity of a teen falling in love with a young adult who seems so worldly.

The character of Professor Perlman seems ornamental for most of the film but at the end, he delivers a monologue that is the movie’s highlight – in addition to being one of the best scenes of movies released in 2017. It not only provides a shocking twist (and subtly at that), it gives a lecture on life that might seem to be addressed to young Elio; but no doubt it is the writer addressing members of the audience of all ages about our deepest feelings, memories, and life choices. Kudos to Stuhlbarg for his delivery, screenwriter James Ivory, and his source – the book by André Aciman.

And the greatest kudos go to director Luca Guadagnino for putting this brilliant work together. He uses the beauty of northern Italy to mix with the film’s deeper themes of love, compassion, and the willingness to risk and be vulnerable to more fully experience life. This goes way beyond any class differences that seemed so apparent at the film’s beginning. And Guadagnino takes the viewer in so slowly, it’s impossible to see how he did it – we’re too caught up in our own feelings.

RATING:   * * * *

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:

1) Directing by Luca Guadagnino

2) Acting Ensemble


Books

“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson

***   THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS   ***

The author, who resides in Texas, is someone who has serious mental health problems and finds humour in absolutely everything – including her serious mental health problems. As her husband is a type-A workaholic control freak (at least according to the author), their transcribed conversations are among the many hilarious delights of the this very enjoyable book whose chapters are separate entities making the book like a series of short stories.

Where to begin? There were so many times I laughed out loud that it’s hard to know what to highlight. Lawson’s writing style is so matter-of-fact out-there with zero pretense and plenty of irreverence that it’s no wonder she has such a great following. Among the many highlights: a small chapter called “Voodoo Vagina” (the title says it all); the unusual placing of the appendix (and its content, of course); a meeting with her husband and their financial advisor; her opinions on people at airports; other transcribed conversations including those with her sister, her therapist, and her best friend; her brief thoughts on wasabi; challenging the unrealistic ideals about body size; the unrealistic smallness of the actress who played “Amélie”; her trip to Australia; being around other parents who have enrolled their children in extracurricular activities; and on and on.

There is a serious side (but not not annoyingly serious) that comes at the end that left a gulp in my throat as it addresses the very real and massive problem of mental illness. It reignites Lawson’s early mention of the fact that we’re all at least a bit insane but some of us are better at hiding it than others. (She prefers to eliminate the word “hiding” from that phrase.) The unity she creates by her blog and books make her not only a savior for healing so many with her gift of creating so much laughter; some lives have been given the encouragement to continue as a result of knowing they are not alone in this mess of a world. May God bless her for that alone.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


Upcoming Movie Reviews:   The Last Jedi;  The Shape of Water;  Darkest Hour;  I, Tonya;  The Post;  Paddington 2;  Phantom Thread

 

Dennis Bowman

Recent Movies: Loving Vincent; Lady Bird; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Recent Movies

Loving Vincent

Based on true events: In southern France, a year after the death of painter Vincent Van Gogh, Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) is assigned to send a letter written by the late Vincent to his brother Theo. During this venture, he discovers many details leading to Vincent’s death.

“Loving Vincent” is a Polish-UK animated production and is in the English language.

This movie joins many other films and other works on a man who continues to endlessly fascinate many. It is also a very compassionate film that focuses on life’s deeper timeless challenges including mental health, concerns of the vulnerable of being a burden to those who are kind, career choices made against one’s heart, and the great harm caused by bad parenting. While there remain many stigmas today around mental health, this movie leaves the question: how would Vincent’s life have ended up if the society around him knew as much about mental health was we know today?

The most praiseworthy aspect of the film is the animated frames which are all oil-painted in Van Gogh’s unique style by over a hundred artists. The colours and images are as stunning as the paintings they emulate.

While the viewer may never know all of the true details of this part of history, “Loving Vincent” provides a wonderful possibility of it. It’s an enjoyable mystery as Armand discoveries more clues about the fascinating painter and a very moving film about life as well.

“Loving Vincent” joins a list of other fascinating animated, international co-productions that include “The Breadwinner”, “The Red Turtle”, and “The Illusionist”.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   animation


 

Lady Bird

Christine McPherson aka “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan) is in her senior year in a Catholic school in Sacramento, California and desperately wants to go to a liberal college in the northeastern US. This causes conflict with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Lady Bird is someone who can be inconsiderate, selfish, insecure, good-hearted, ambitious beyond her abilities, naïve, fun, and able to redeem herself. In other words, she is a confused teenager on the cusp of adulthood and Ronan plays the part superbly.

Like the recent “Florida Project”, “Lady Bird” is a series of short scenes that collectively make a fine film. It has sharp directing by Greta Gerwig who also wrote the screenplay. There are also engaging sidebar stories including other characters that add greatly to the main mother-daughter conflict: the despair of losing a job later in life; financial burdens; periodic depression; the inner-conflict of being young, gay, and Catholic; the futility of social climbing; the belief that “there” is better than “here”.

The coming-of-age genre is so common that it’s difficult to raise the bar. “Lady Bird” at least meets the standard and then some though it could have been more. In fairness, the two lead performances do stand out especially that of Metcalf. She shows so much push-pull with her daughter while trying to come to grips that her daughter will soon leave home. She also has the brilliant ability to let the emotions build gradually and then attempt (as we do in real life) to resist them until the attempt is futile. No wonder Metcalf is winning so many awards and award nominations. While she gives a rich performance, I believe the film would have been greater if she had been given even more screen time.

RATING: * * *


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

***   THIS REVIEW CONTAINS A SPOILER   ***

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) grieves the death of her daughter who was murdered seven months ago. She expresses her dismay of the unsolved murder using the eponymous billboards implicitly placing blame on Ebbing’s police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). As Willoughby is having serious personal troubles, the townspeople are not amused.

The screenplay by Martin McDonagh (also the film’s director) has flaws but it is also fascinating with unexpected twists and developments with an open-ended conclusion. The flaws include an unexpected redemption with great sacrifices from a character who shows the worst possible characteristics in film’s first half. But the narrative is praiseworthy for its various conflicts plus taking the viewer in directions that one would not expect in a “redneck” story. It is also rich for the ambiguity in all characters.

This is especially apparent in Hayes. There are moments that might have been cheap you-go-girl cheerleading chants but McDonagh and McDormand (the McDo team, perhaps) are too smart for that. It is often easy to sympathize with Mildred but there are times when her actions and words either go too far or deliberately cause undue harm to others. But for the times that are easy to sympathize, McDormand has a delivery that is so powerful that one is left too aghast to cheer.

While many elements of the film are praiseworthy (the script, the performances of McDormand and Harrelson as well as Sam Rockwell), the standout work comes from McDonagh as the director who connects it all together superbly. Regardless of what is happening, there is rarely a moment that feels false and never one that doesn’t feel intense.

RATING: * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Directing by Martin McDonagh


Upcoming movie reviews:   The Other Side of Hope;   The Disaster Artist;  The Shape of Water;  Call Me by Your Name;  I, Tonya;  The Last Jedi;  Phantom Thread;  The Post

Recent Movies: Victoria and Abdul; Human Flow; The Breadwinner

Recent Movies

Victoria and Abdul

Based on true events: in 1887, celebrations mark the golden jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is an Indian working as a clerk in a prison in Agra. He and a fellow  Indian are assigned to travel to London to be part of the celebration and present the queen with a ceremonial coin as a sign of India’s “appreciation” of being occupied by Great Britain. An unexpected kinship develops between Victoria and Abdul – one that endures for years as Abdul is part of the royal staff – much to the chagrin and contempt of many others.

A narrative of two main characters needs three items to develop from beginning to end: that of each of the two characters as well as their connection. In “Victoria and Abdul”, only one of these feels developed by the end: Victoria’s character.

This is partly due to the fine performance of the always-reliable Dench who is regal in her own right as a performer and artist. While some of Victoria’s beliefs and convictions are questionable (was she really the ‘good white liberal’ among a bunch of Neanderthals), the characterization does feel complete by the end.

Not so much for Abdul. Considering the negative historical context of being part of an occupied country,  one is left wondering how he could see beyond this and still admire the queen so much. (His fellow Indian who joined him on the initial journey is very clear in his contempt for the situation.) If more time was given to Abdul for his story and background, this might have been more understood. Similarly, both main characters put themselves at great risk in their connection. Though early scenes adequately show the beginning of the kinship, there is too little to follow this to give the viewer an understanding of why they became so close.

It’s impossible to avoid comparing “Victoria and Abdul” to the very similar “Mrs. Brown” released twenty years ago. Both films had Dench portraying Queen Victoria developing a strong platonic friendship with a manservant during her widowhood. “Mrs. Brown” is the stronger film for various reasons including a lack of anachronisms of which there were many in the current film.

But to its credit, “Victoria and Abdul” has a very enjoyable comical beginning as it exposes a ridiculously busy daily schedule for an aging monarch as well as her boredom and contempt for the grovelers that surround her. Might this be the attitude of the current monarch?

RATING (out of four stars):   * * 1/2


Human Flow

*** THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ***

The current global refugee crisis is the focus of this German documentary as the viewer witnesses the lives of migrants in motion, stuck in places they didn’t expect to be, and their overall despair. The areas of migration include the Middle East, central Africa, and Myanmar.

Director Ai Weiwei does a very skillful job in letting the camera do the work to make the most profound statements as silently as possible. This includes superb aerial shots of massive crowds struggling in strange surroundings. Luckily, it’s not all misery in some cases such as children who continue to play – oblivious to their situation; and even a few adults finding optimism.

At two and a third hours, the film is overly long despite its noble efforts in concentrating on as many migrations and refugee camps as possible. It might have reduced some of these sequences and spent extra time on the difficulties some migrants have had fitting into their new countries outside of refugee camps. Similarly, more time could have been spent on the history of migration though that of World War II was mentioned.

Similar documentaries that take on the world’s worst ills finish with at least a smidgen of hope without seeming naïve. Sadly, “Human Flow” cannot as the populations of refugees continue to accelerate. But the film at least succeeds in giving the viewer a human look at what is presently a living hell for many. The only thing that is worse is what not could be filmed safely: the living hell the refugees left behind.

RATING:   * * *


The Breadwinner

In the Taliban-controlled city of Kabul, Afghanistan in the early 2000s, Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) is a pre-teen girl who must disguise herself as a boy in order to earn money for her family. As females are forbidden to appear in public without an adult male, she must also shop for the family as well.

“The Breadwinner” is an animated film co-produced by Canada, Ireland, and Luxembourg and is in the English language.

The story (from the book by Deborah Ellis) can be highly praised for focusing on Parvana’s struggles while also involving related subplots that add richly to the story without ever creating the feeling of overwhelm or confusion. The most fascinating is one that begins as Parvana (as a boy) is approached by an illiterate man who needs to have a letter read to him.

This film pulls no punches in the injustice against females by Taliban zealots. One of the ways this is exposed is when Parvana walks outside for the first time dressed as a boy and the viewer can easily sense her great feeling of freedom.

Two other strengths add to the greatness of this movie. One is unexpected humour. It truly works despite the grim situation overall and is neither facetious nor unbelievable. The other is the beautiful visuals in the animation. This is especially apparent in a parallel mythical story – one that matches the main narrative – which Parvana narrates to her baby brother.

The finale is open-ended leaving the viewer wondering what will happen to Parvana and her family. It’s a rather perfect ending as it gives us just the right amount of information for us to imagine in different ways what could happen next.

Make no mistake: “The Breadwinner” is a winner in many ways.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


Upcoming Movie Reviews:  Loving Vincent;  Lady Bird;  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri;  The Other Side of Hope;  The Disaster Artist;  The Shape of Water;  Call Me By Your Name;  I, Tonya

 

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

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 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.