Menashe: an engaging story about a father and his son. The film takes place in Brooklyn. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widower whose wife died about 11 months ago. Although the wife is frequently part of the film’s conversation, she never makes an appearance; we’re not even shown a photo of her with one brief exception, a cell phone picture. Menashe’s son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), is about 11 years old. When the film opens, Rieven is living with his uncle and his family because the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) believes a child should live with a family and Menashe is not interested in remarrying. Menashe and almost all the characters in this film are Hasidic Jews. As such, the Rabbi’s Talmud perspective that a good man should have “ a good wife, a good home, nice dishes” is the governing principal that drives this 82 minute film. Menashe is directed and co-written by Joshua Z. Weinstein and the film is about Menashe’s attempts to regain custody of his son without remarrying. There is only one date scene in the movie and I doubt it lasted even five minutes. Scenes of females speaking total less than 5 minutes. The story is authentic; it is based upon the actor Menashe Lustig’s own life and is about the Hasidic life style as much as it is about Menashe and Rieven. Most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with very readable English subtitles. Menashe is an ordinary guy working in a supermarket, but because he is an appealing person, the film works. If you are interested in seeing a slice of Hasidic life, you should see this film.
Saturday, August 12, 2017
Maudie: a film based on the Canadian artist Maud Lewis. The film commences during the mid-1930’s. The location is Nova Scotia. Maud (Sally Hawkins) is in her early 30’s and lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) but wants to return to the family home. Maud sees her brother and only sibling, Charles (Zachary Bennett), speaking with Ida. She begins pestering Charles about returning home. We learn from Charles’ remarks that Maud has a disability which, in Charles’ view, renders Maud incapable of caring for herself. Charles tells Maud he sold the family home and leaves. As the film unfolds, we learn more details about Maud. Contrary to the impression we’re given by Charles, Maud’s disability is physical, not mental; she has rheumatoid arthritis. To escape from the control of Aunt Ida, Maud takes a job as a housekeeper to a loner named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). Everett grew up in a male orphanage. He has a temper and lacks basic social skills. With these two very different characters, director Aisling Walsh weaves an entertaining and surprisingly romantic tale based upon the screenplay by Sherry White. The 116- minute film works because of the Oscar quality performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. From the outset, it is obvious that Maud has grit and will somehow prevail. Everett grows on you. Based upon very quick and selected shots of the real Maud and Everett at the end of the film, you learn that Maud was far more handicapped than she is portrayed, which makes her success as a painter that much more remarkable. The film shows Maud painting for the sheer pleasure it brings her. The postcard size pictures are noticed by a summer resident from New York named Sandra (Kari Matchett). Although the film does not offer details, we learn that Maud’s drawings are becoming well known, presumably through Sandra. Maud’s fame explodes. Even Vice President Richard Nixon contacts Maud by mail asking to purchase one of her pictures. The film takes you up to the time of Maud’s death in 1970. As the film credits run, her paintings are shown. The characters’ lives are hard but they endure. The film may treat Everett more kindly than he actually was, but as you watch the relationship between Everett and Maud grow, the story becomes inspirational. The opening of the film is a bit weak, however, if you stay with it, you will be rewarded. This film has no special effects and can easily be enjoyed at home with a bottle of wine.
Monday, July 31, 2017
Churchill & Orwell, The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks: a book I read one week prior to seeing Dunkirk. If you’re a fan of either Winston Churchill or George Orwell, I think you will enjoy this book. It is a very readable 270 page account of these two men. Although both made their historic marks during the 1940’s, Churchill and Orwell never met. The book devotes a short chapter to each man’s life prior to the 1930’s. We then pick up with Churchill being politically ignored prior to 1939 and Orwell’s education by way of his brief participation in the Spanish Civil War. Each man is given separate chapters as world events leading up to WW II unfold and the subsequent fight for freedom. The author points out the commonalities that existed in Churchill and Orwell’s lives, notwithstanding the fact that they had completely different upbringings. Both men were capable of looking directly at reality; both were seekers of the facts. The chapter relating to Orwell’s experience during the Spanish Civil War and his reaction to what actually occurred versus Hemingway’s version, is reason enough to read this book. The chapter about the German air blitz and the reaction of the British people, including Orwell’s personal observations, is excellent. There are 50 pages of notes and citations at the end of the book. A recurring theme throughout the book is the importance of language and the fact that words truly mattered to both men. Ricks was a journalist for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal; Ricks is not an academic. His account of two of the most famous British men of the 20th century is presented in a very engaging manner. I highly recommend this book.
Dunkirk: the film expertly depicts what occurred at Dunkirk in late May 1940. The city of Dunkirk is located on the coast of Northwestern France approximately 10 kilometers from the Belgium border. A significant portion of the film takes place on the beach where as many as 400,000 British and French troops were stranded as a consequence of Germany’s successful blitzkrieg through France. Rather than having his tank force continue their push to the sea, Hitler chose to have his air force finish the campaign. This allowed Britain time to evacuate approximately 300,000 men. Had Hilter chosen to continue the push westward using his ground troops, the allied forces at Dunkirk would have been decimated. This film by Christopher Nolan tells of the British evacuation. At the beginning of the film, we are told that “The Mole” (the jetty protruding into the Atlantic Ocean from the beach) lasted for one week, “The Sea” (the military ships and civilian boats involved in the evacuation) lasted for one day, and “The Air” (the aerial battle between British and German planes) lasted for one hour. During the course of its 106 minutes, the film weaves these three campaign narratives into a single cohesive tale about the evacuation of Dunkirk. Most of the characters remain nameless, and you never see a German soldier until the closing scene. The aerial sequences are outstanding, starting with the three British spitfires and their subsequent confrontations with German fighters. Tom Hardy does a magnificent job as the lead pilot. The British soldier who has the most on-screen time is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) but you learn his name only by looking at the credits at the end of film. The major character who is clearly identified is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the officer in charge of the embarkation. The evacuation was successful due to participation by British civilian boaters who answered the call for assistance in rescuing the Dunkirk soldiers. Of the civilian boaters, the film highlights a father (Mark Rylance ), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the son’s schoolmate (Barry Keoghan) who happened to be at the dock when the call for help came. Of the film’s large cast, these three characters are among the most developed. Because the film stays tightly focused on the goal of getting the men off the beach and back home, there is no back story for any of the individual characters. From the opening scene, it is clear that you are at war and war’s consequences are constantly present. The typical scene of war room strategizing is omitted. Instead you are shown men waiting on the beach, men struggling to across the channel, and the superb aerial scenes. My father refused to attend war movies because he said they never showed the horror of what was truly occurring. This film, with its three pronged narrative, is one of the rare exceptions. Dunkirk concludes with a reading of a portion of Churchill’s famous speech that rallied the British people once the majority of the soldiers were safely back home. Most films would have included a shot of Churchill speaking but, to the end, Nolan remains true to his storyline. Dunkirk is a film about how one saves lives in war. With its expert cinematography, this is a film that should be seen on the big screen with full capacity audio. The film’s musical score by Hans Zimmer also deserves praise. The major Oscar winners are usually films released towards the end of the year. Dunkirk should prove to be the exception.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Beatriz at Dinner: an entertaining movie that speaks to the present social, economic and lifestyle divisions within American society. Beatriz (Salma Hayek), who was born in Mexico, is a massage therapist. In the opening scene, she is dreaming about rowing a boat through a mangrove swamp where she encounters a white goat on the shore. In the next scene, Beatriz is caring for her animals, including a goat, before going to work. Although she treats most of her clients at a medical center, Beatriz also does house visits. One of her house clients is Kathy (Connie Britton), a very wealthy woman with an elaborate home in Orange County, California. During the massage session, we learn that Beatriz and Kathy became close while Beatriz was providing massage therapy to Kathy’s daughter to help the daughter regain her strength following cancer treatments. We also learn that Beatriz’s neighbor killed one of her goats simply because it was making too much noise. Upon leaving, Beatriz learns that her car won’t start and she needs to wait for a friend to pick her up. Kathy invites Beatriz to join her for a dinner party at the residence. The guests are Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), Grant’s boss Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), Doug’s third wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny). Alex scored a major political lobbying victory, which will produce a substantial income for Doug’s company. The dinner is in celebration of Alex’s success. This 83 minute film becomes truly interesting when Doug, a Trump-like entrepreneur, and Beatriz start interacting. Doug is a multi-millionaire with a history of legal entanglements and is often in the news. Lithgow’s performance is excellent, and part of the reason this film works is because Lithgow’s character is presented as a complex person with a humorous side. The first hour has some very funny scenes, especially when Doug and Beatriz are involved. Miguel Arteta is the film’s director and Mike White wrote the screenplay. None of the main characters are stereotypes and the dialogue has a very entertaining edge to it. The downside of the film is that once the issues of class, wealth and life style are laid out via the dinner dialogue, it seems that Arteta and White are at a loss as to what to do with the characters and how to finish the story. As is my policy, I will not reveal the ending. I would categorize the ending as “artsy” but it left me feeling very unsatisfied. There are no special effects in this film, just excellent acting. This is a film to see at home to take advantage of the ability to rewind and re-watch the interactions between Doug and Beatriz, two people with very different backgrounds. Except for the inadequate and unsatisfying conclusion, Beatriz at Dinner has a significant level of positive energy and is worthwhile seeing.
Saturday, June 24, 2017
My Cousin Rachel: a gothic drama based upon the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name. The story takes place in the 1830’s primarily on a estate in Cornwall. The principal male character is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), who was orphaned as a child and raised by his older cousin, Ambrose Ashley (also played by Claflin). A key to the unfolding story is that Philip is raised without the significant presence of any women. Following a brief foray into the characters’ background, we meet Philip as a man in his early 20’s. We learn that he is entitled to receive his inheritance on his 25th birthday. Due to health concerns, guardian/cousin Ambrose is residing in sunny Italy. Through Ambrose’s letters to Philip, we are introduced to Rachel (Rachel Weisz), whom Ambrose has met in Italy, and learn that Ambrose and Rachel have married. After the marriage occurs Ambrose’s correspondence with regards to Rachel turns dark. Ambrose summons Philip to Italy, however, by the time Philip arrives, Ambrose is dead. The Italian lawyer advises Philip that Rachel has left the villa and given the lawyer instructions to liquidate the Italian assets. Philip, in anger, returns to Cornwall. Then Rachel arrives. The film hints that Rachel is a “Black Widow” but, as the tale unfolds, ambiguity takes center stage. Almost upon first sight, Philip’s anger towards Rachel melts as he falls in love with her. Rachel’s feelings are far more complex. There are other people at Cornwall – house and field servants - but they are clearly secondary characters. The cinematography is outstanding and brought to mind another British period drama, Barry Lyndon. The directorial talent of Robert Michell, Weisz’s excellent performance and the spectacular camera shots make this 106 minute film worth seeing. The degree to which you enjoy the film will depend, I think, on your reaction to Philip. Personally, I could not relate to him. He is an upper class man-child of 1830’s England whose world and lifestyle is totally foreign to present day sensibilities. While I understand that Philip is smitten by Rachel, it is hard to empathize with his behavior. I note that my comments are shared in the context of Weisz dominating every scene in which she appears. It is admittedly a bit early in the year, but Weisz’s performance is definitely Oscar worthy. In fact, both Weisz and the film’s cinematographer are deserving of nominations. This version of My Cousin Rachel is a remake of the 1952 movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton who, I understand, played Philip with a touch of madness. I’ve not seen the 1952 film, but seeing a deeper, more complex version of Philip would have elevated this film’s rating to four stars.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Megan Leavey: not your typical soldier flick. This one is for dog lovers. The film is based upon the actual experiences of a Marine corporal who was deployed to Iraq with a bomb sniffing dog named Rex. At the beginning of the film, we meet Megan (Kate Mara) and get a glimpse of what her life was like prior to joining the Marines. She is living with her mother (Edie Falco, who is probably quite unhappy with her one dimensional portrait) and stepfather (Will Patton, whose scenes are brief). Once the film makes its point that pre-Marines Megan was adrift and having problems connecting with people, the story moves forward to boot camp. Because Megan continues to mess up, she is assigned to kennel cleaning duty. When we first meet Rex, he is an aggressive German Shepherd. Rex is assigned to Megan after he disables his handler. The storyline then progresses to Iraq. The war scenes are well done and the film remains on track as to standard war storytelling. If you’ve seen The Hurt Locker, this film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, offers a similar perspective on a very dangerous job. However, the focus of this movie is on the developing relationship between Rex and Megan and their work together seeking out improvised explosive devices (IED). It tracks Megan’s efforts to have Rex retired and transferred to her care following an incident in which Rex saves Megan’s life but Rex is also injured. While Megan gets to retire, Rex is shipped to Afghanistan with a new handler. It is the second half of this 116 minute movie that makes it worth your time to see this film. Kate Mara is excellent throughout the film and is particularly believable in her pursuit of saving Rex. Woven into the storyline is Megan’s relationship with a fellow dog handler (Ramon Rodriguez). At the film’s conclusion there are snapshots of the real Megan and Rex. An interesting side note is that in 2011, Rex’s first handler , Marine Corps Sgt. Mike Dowling, wrote Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog. Throughout the film, the primary focus remains on Megan and Rex as one of the first female led canine IED seeking teams in Iraq. This is a well done tear jerker with a true story happy ending.
Sunday, June 11, 2017
Wonder Woman: the DC Comics character is brought successfully to the big screen. For a movie based on a comic book character to succeed, the person portraying the super hero must be believable. In far too many of the recent comic based films, that has simply not been the case. Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, the Wonder Woman, is the exception. The success of the Wonder Woman character, coupled with the directing skills of Patty Jenkins, results in an enjoyable 141 minute movie. Notwithstanding these positive comments, the film’s opening scenes are weak; you become leery that the same tired format used by most of the recent DC/Marvel-based character movies will be repeated. The opening includes scenes of Diana as a child, then moves to her training as a warrior while simultaneously telling the Amazon Greek mythology storyline. Allan Heinberg’s story becomes more interesting upon the crash landing of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) near Themyscira, the Amazons’ island home, and Diana showing up to save him. This opening sequences could have shortened. By the time the real action begins it is 1917 when Diana and Steve depart Themyscira to fight the Germans in WW I. From this point forward, the film is interesting and entertaining. The Germans seem to be derived from some campy propaganda film about “The Enemy”. However, due to a good supporting cast and a healthy helping of “suspension of reality”, the film keeps you entwined. Ewen Bremner as a singing Scottish sharpshooter, Said Taghmaoui as a fixer and Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American trader are all wonderful. These three characters play off superbly against each other and with Steve and Diana. There are some light comedic moments reminiscent of 1930’s film making where jokes are made about Wonder Woman’s clothing and there having been no men in Diana’s life prior to meeting Steve. Most importantly, the action scenes work because they remain focused on the individual characters. The Wonder Woman character is refreshing and a pleasant contrast to the male comedic characters. She is an optimistic person with a positive viewpoint despite the horrors of war and mankind’s bad behavior. In Gal Gadot, we are seeing a super star. In this current political atmosphere, this film’s outlook is refreshing. The movie offers an enjoyable escapism and that is a definite positive.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Alien: Covenant: Successful sequels are the exception. Typically, when a studio pops out a sequel, it is attempting to cash in on prior success but usually ends up tarnishing the brand. This is the sixth time the creatures from Alien have appeared, excluding the two wasted films that combined the Alien and Predator franchises. The original 1979 Alien was Ridley Scott’s creation. I still remember being shocked when the creature appeared. I don’t recall having jumped in my seat at a movie theatre before or since. The three Alien films that followed the original were not directed by Scott and lacked that unique edge. In 2012, Scott released Prometheus, a prequel. If you watched Prometheus and enjoyed it, you’ll find Alien: Covenant to be a worthy successor. However, if you did not like the original Alien, then stay away from this movie. Ridley Scott recreates that intense edge from his original film. This is due in part to a strong performance by the film’s female lead, Katherine Waterston. No one is going to duplicate Sigourney Weaver’s performance in the original Alien, but Waterston, as Dany Branson, is excellent. Most of the commentary on this film has focused on Michael Fassbender’s dual-role performance as the humanesque robots, David and Walter. While Fassbender’s performance is superb, the film would be a failure without Waterson. During the opening scenes of this 122 minute movie, we learn that Dany is married to Covenant’s airship captain, Jake Branson (James Franco). Covenant is on a journey to a remote planet. Jake is killed off very early in the film during an unexpected neutrino storm burst that damages the ship. Following the storm, Covenant picks up a radio transmission from an unknown planet in the vicinity. The new captain, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate. At this point, we meet David from Prometheus and are reintroduced to the aliens. Unfortunately, to move the storyline forward, most of the film’s characters do stupid things, which is particularly true of the Captain Oram character. The film makes a point of presenting Oram as a man of faith when, in actuality, faith clearly has nothing to do with his decisions. Also, Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride), chief pilot of the Covenant, is not an endearing character. Spock would be extremely disappointed with the decisions made by both Faris and Oram. A number of the crew are married couples and this dynamic is intended to provide a rationale for some of the decision-making. However, in reality, the crew would not have achieved their positions if their decisions had been so closely bound to their emotions. The editing could have been tighter, and some of the characters could have been endowed with a bit more intelligence. Despite my criticisms, if Fassbender and Waterston are cast in a seventh film in this franchise and if the film is directed by Scott, I will buy a ticket. Having been hooked in 1979, I will sign up for another ride. For those of us intrigued by Scott’s original creation, Alien: Covenant is a worthy successor. Ridley Scott has kept me interested.
Saturday, May 13, 2017
The Dinner: a family drama. Despite its title, this is not a film for foodies nor is it a kin to My Dinner with Andre. This movie is for mental health professionals who are jonesing for a challenge. Two brothers, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), a former history teacher, and Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a congressman now running for governor, meet for dinner at an elite restaurant. The brothers are accompanied by their wives; Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s young second wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). The performances by all four actors are excellent. The premise of the film is that through the vehicle of the five course formal dinner, various elements of the family are revealed. An incident has occurred and Stan has interrupted his campaign to meet with his brother and sister-in-law. It is clear upon our introduction to Paul that he has issues, as noted by his running internal dialogue. As the courses are served, someone is always getting up and walking away. Each course is described by the presenters and, although each course sounds elaborate and expensive, most due not sound appetizing. But the problem is not the food or the overly elegant and affected service. Colored in part by my personal biases, I believe the problem rests with the film’s director and screenwriter, Oren Moverman. Those of you who are longtime readers know I am not a fan of flashbacks. In this particular film, the characters are discussing various family incidents and suddenly we are launched into a flashback. This tactic is used far too frequently. By the time you reach the halfway mark of this 120 minute movie, you start to question the point of this seemingly disjointed film and wonder where it is this going; the storyline feels to be aimlessly rambling. Up to this point, the information has been sufficient to establish that this story has to do with three teenage boys who are connected to the two families. Then you are smacked with the horrendous deed that two of the teenagers have committed. The rest of the film deals with how the parents handle what their children have done. Spoiler alert: only Stan, the politician, takes the high ground. A further Spoiler Alert: because the film addresses a significant moral question, I will be discussing the deed involving two of the boys. What do you do when your child commits a heinous crime, in this case firebombing a homeless person, and the police do not know the identity of the perpetrator? Do you protect your child or do you report the truth? Presumably, by making the crime so hideous, the viewer must also make a choice. The film’s ending is ambiguous, including the action taken by Paul as to Stan’s second son, an adopted African-American teenager who did not participate in the crime but who did post the incident on-line. Personally, I don’t know how one can truly hide such action. It is clear that Paul’s son has psychological issues and, in light of the family’s history of mental issues, the decision should not be difficult. Other questions are how is it possible for the mothers be so oblivious as to what’s going on with their children, and why? This film presents a serious subject without any comic relief, with the possible exception of the restaurant’s absurd pretentiousness. As noted, the acting throughout is excellent. This film, based upon the 2009 novel by Dutch writer Herman Koch, deserved a better script.
Sunday, May 7, 2017
Their Finest: a movie within a movie. The year is 1940 and the place is Britain’s Ministry of Information following the British military disaster at Dunkirk. The basic storyline of this 117-minute movie: Britain’s propaganda office needs to create an uplifting film to boost the morale of the British people and, as it turns out, to also encourage the United States to join Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany. The screenplay by Gaby Chiappe is based on Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half. The film is directed by Lone Scherfig. The story opens with Catrin Cole (Gemma Artenton) being summoned for an interview at the Ministry of Information. She assumes the position is secretarial but, as she learns, her assignment is to write “the slop”, a reference to women’s dialogue, for a Ministry sponsored war propaganda film. Their Finest pointedly emphasizes the extent of sexism that was present in 1940’s work environments and personal relationships. In fact, the role of Phyl (Rachael Stirling) appears to have been created specifically to offer a feminist viewpoint. After being hired and following a run-in with actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin is assigned to research a news story about twin sisters who supposedly successfully sailed their father’s boat to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation. It turns out that the twins’ real story was not as presented in the newspaper, nevertheless, Catrin chooses to run with the newspaper’s version of the story and the film making beings. As the tale unfolds, a love story, which was not obvious from the introduction of the primary characters, develops. The English cast, including Jeremy Irons, Helen McCrory and Richard Grant, is excellent. To amplify the film’s appeal to Americans, the Jeremy Irons character orders that a handsome American war hero pilot character be added to the film’s story. The pilot is played by Jake Lacey, who is excellent in his role as a person having no acting ability. Bill Nighy offers a star performance as Ambrose Hilliard, an elderly actor who has never grown beyond seeing himself as the young detective who starred in pre-WW II films. The combination of an excellent script and actors giving superb performances make for a most enjoyable film. There is more comedy, primarily through Nighy, and tenderness than you would have expected based on the film’s opening scenes. The Artenton character, Catrin Cole, grows on you as do her co-workers. Their Finest is an intelligent and fun film.
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Gifted: a family drama. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), a seven year old living with Frank (Chris Evans), her uncle, in Tampa. As the story unfolds, we learn that Mary’s mother, a math genius, committed suicide and left instructions that her brother, Frank, was to raise Mary. At the time of Mary’s suicide, Frank was a college professor; his current profession is boat repairman. We only know Mary’s mother through photographs and comments by Frank and others. Her biological father makes a single brief appearance more than halfway through this 101 minute film. We learn that Mary has been home schooled by Frank, but now, over her objections, is to start attending public school. It is during the public school sequence that we learn Mary has inherited her mother’s gift for mathematics. Her teacher (Jenny Slate) and the school’s principal recognize Mary’s brilliance and recommend to Frank that Mary attend an elite private school. When Frank says no the principal contacts Mary’s maternal grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who also happens to have the math genius gene. The tone of the film changes dramatically once the grandmother comes on board. Appearing at various times throughout the movie is Frank’s neighbor (Octavia Spencer). The neighbor might be Frank’s landlord but, at a minimum, she is the property manager for the bungalow complex where Frank and Mary reside. Octavia Spencer’s character is underutilized in this film and seeing more of Octavia and her character would have resulted in a better film. The chemistry between Mary’s teacher and Frank does not come across as realistic. All the actors, however, rise above Tom Flynn’s script. This film may be Evans’ best performance. The director, Marc Webb, presents a very enjoyable family drama. The primary key to the success of this film is the performance of McKenna Grace as Mary and her interactions with Frank. I also liked their one eye cat. The grandmother character is too one dimensional. Nevertheless, this is a pleasurable film with an excellent cast.
Monday, April 17, 2017
After the Storm: a family drama. This Japanese film was written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. We are introduced to Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) shortly after his father’s death and several years after the publication of his award winning novel. The film is contemporary but its exact time frame is not specified. Ryota is divorced and delinquent on his child support payments. Despite his talent as a writer, Ryota works as a private detective. Like his father, Ryota has a gambling addiction. He is also still in love with his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), who has a boyfriend. Ryota’s visitation rights with his son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), are limited to once a month. A significant portion of the film takes place over one long weekend, which includes Shingo’s visit with Ryota. The other principal characters are Ryota’s mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), and his sister, Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi). When the mother is on screen, she frequently dominates the screen and provides the only comic lines. Chinatsu is employed and has a daughter. She is protective of the mother and her actions frustrate Ryota. He interprets Chinatsu’s action as taking advantage of their mother but, in reality, it is Ryota who’s the sponge. As the story unfolds, we hear radio reports about the imminent arrival of a typhoon. By the time the typhoon hits, most of this 117-minute movie has played out. A less philosophical writer might have dubbed the film “Before the Storm”. Hiroshi Abe’s excellent acting carries parts of the film. This film does not offer any major dramatic scenes; it simply focuses on the reality of human dynamics within a family structure and how some people cope with life. There are no special effects. Instead, the drama and action are subtle, but for days afterwards, individual scenes will emerge and linger among your thoughts. Superb acting by all the characters. Subtitled
Saturday, April 8, 2017
The Zookeeper’s Wife: based upon Diane Ackerman’s superb non-fiction book bearing the same title. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the film is true to the tale told in the book. The film opens in Warsaw in 1939. It starts shortly before Nazi Germany’s invasion of the city. The Zookeeper is Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife is Antonina (Jessica Chastain). In an otherwise excellent performance, the accent adopted by Chastain is an odd Polish/Russian blend. Although you become accustomed to her accent, it remains a slight distraction. The opening scenes present an overly idealistic relationship between Antonina and the Zoo’s animals, but they serve to set the stage for the Zabinskis’ story after Warsaw is overrun by the Nazis. During the initial invasion, the Zoo is heavily bombed and many of the animals are lost. We are introduced to Hitler’s zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), initially at a pre-invasion cocktail party. Dr. Heck is central to the storyline. Unwittingly, he becomes the key in the Zabinskis’ scheme to rescue Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto: Dr. Heck’s approval is needed to keep the Zoo operating. To maintain a viable escape route, the Zabinskis offer Dr. Heck the Zoo’s facilities to use as a hog farm to provide meat for the Nazi soldiers; to feed the hogs, garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto is needed. When the waste is transported from the Ghetto to the Zoo, escaping Jews are hidden in the garbage. Later, the Zookeeper obtains additional access to the Ghetto resulting in additional Jews leaving the Ghetto. The film does an excellent job of showing how these two schemes operated and Antonina’s involvement in the process. A total of 300 Jews were able to leave the Ghetto and only 2 were subsequently found by the Nazis. Dr. Zabinski also becomes very involved in the fight against the Nazis but his story is not the focal point. The focus of this 126 minute film is the Zookeeper’s wife, Antonina. The screenplay is written by Angela Workman and the director is Niki Caro. They keep the film’s focus on showing how two individuals worked to save lives and use Hitler’s zoologist to illustrate the idiocy and sickness of Nazi ideology. I think most of you are fully aware of the Holocaust and do not need further film education on the horrors inflicted by Hitler. I make this comment because after writing the first draft of this commentary, I read a number of reviews which attacked the film for being too light on depicting what was occurring outside the gates of the Zoo. I don’t think this film is light on the Holocaust nor do I think it reflects a particularly feminist perspective of the Holocaust. Rather, the film and the book depict the righteous acts of two individuals by keeping the focus on these individuals, particularly the wife. The book is superb and this film is worth seeing. Jan and Antonina were amazing people and this film gives them the just praise they deserve.
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
A United Kingdom: the tale of a true romance. This story begins in 1948. The Prince and future king of Bechuanaland, current day Botswana, is studying in London. The Prince, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), meets a British office worker, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), at a dance sponsored by the Church of England. They learn they have a mutual love of jazz and, from this initial conversation, their relationship grows into a romance and then into a marriage. Placed against the backdrop of the late 1940’s/ 1950’s, the political consequences of this interracial marriage are significant. There is an initial divisiveness within the Botswana tribal community to the interracial marriage. South Africa is implementing apartheid. The law in neighboring Botswana is the equivalent of America’s Jim Crow laws. Although the initial story is about Seretse and Ruth’s courtship, the majority of this 111 minute film reaches far beyond. It addresses the British government’s aggressive attempts to undo the marriage and, when that fails, to evict Seretse from Botswana. It also shows the segregation that the people of Botswana were subjected to in their own country by outsiders. The film is not kind to the British colonial system or to Winston Churchill. The performance by David Oyelowo, presently one of film’s finest actors, is reason enough to see A United Kingdom. Rosamund Pike also gives a strong performance. The British colonialists are somewhat one dimensional, especially Tom Felton, but given the history of the region, the performances may be accurate. Guy Hibbert’s screenplay involves and holds you as it moves beyond an interracial love story. The source material is Colour Bar by Susan Williams. The film is directed by Amma Asante, who also directed Belle, another film with an interracial relationship at its core. At the film’s closing, we see photos of the actual Seretse and Ruth. We learn that they prevailed and that Seretse became President when Botswana won its independence in 1966. As a footnote, Botswana has prospered as an independent country and the current president is Seretse and Ruth’s son. This movie is both enjoyable and a learning experience.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
I Am Not Your Negro: words by James Baldwin and narration by Samuel Jackson. James Baldwin passed away on December 1, 1987. This documentary film, directed by Raoul Peck, is proof that Baldwin’s writings are as valid and insightful today as when they were first penned. At the time of his death, Baldwin had started a manuscript bearing the working title Remember This House. His premise for the book was telling of his interactions with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Peck’s film goes beyond these three individuals and their assassinations; it presents a deeply meaningful exploration of racism in the United States. Part of the brilliance of this 95 minute film, in addition to its wide ranging sound track, is its scene selection from the past through the present, including reactions to Black Lives Matter. I Am Not Your Negro may be the best documentary on the subject of race in the United States. Using Baldwin’s commentary on race relations in America, the film viscerally presents the dialogue that both Clinton and Obama, in their very different styles, tried to begin in this country. The film is organized around thoughts and concepts rather than chronology, and Peck keeps you involved, in part, because you don’t know where he’s going next. The film was deservingly nominated for Best Documentary Feature. While OJ: Made in America won the Oscar and 13 was a strong competitor, my vote remains with I Am Not Your Negro. OJ tells the race story by focusing on an uniquely athletic individual who, as an adult, seemed more comfortable among Whites than Blacks. 13’s focus was on an undeniably important issue, prisons and prisoners. In his film, Peck gives you the full race relations picture without requiring you to invest multiple hours of viewing time as with the OJ documentary. I don’t know many folks who would watch OJ a second time due partly to its length. However, with Baldwin’s dialogue and a run time of less than 2 hours, I think Peck’s film will be viewed more than just once. Peck draws on a wide range of Baldwin’s writings, particularly The Devil Finds Work, a 1976 publication dealing with Baldwin’s Hollywood experience and “white innocence” as to the history of discrimination and racial violence. Both this film and the excellent PBS documentary on Maya Angelou effectively use the scene from “The Dick Cavett Show” wherein Baldwin reacts to Yale professor, Paul Weiss, who scolds Baldwin for dwelling too much on race. The Cavett scene, however, is the exception; Baldwin probably appears more in the Angelou documentary than in the film by Peck. It is the strength of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice speaking Baldwin’s words together with a candid visual presentation that gives this film its awesome power. I will close my comments with a Baldwin quote: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. I’m forced to be an optimist.” Peck’s film is true to James Baldwin’s spirit. Once in a great while, a film appears that I wish every American would go see. This is one of those rare films.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Toni Erdmann: a German comedy. This may be the first time I’ve ever written the words “German” and “comedy” in consecutive order. This film, written and directed by Maren Ade, has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language film category. When I read that Jack Nicholson had signed a contract to do an American version of the film, my curiosity was peaked. The role of Toni Erdmann would be an ideal exit character for Nicholson. Toni Erdmann opens with a FedEx delivery of a package to Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). The person answering the door tells the FedEx person that the package is for his brother who was recently released from prison for bomb making. The person walks away from the door shouting for Winfried then reappears in a different costume with more bomb jokes. We learn that Winfried is a divorced music teacher with a propensity for pranks. A bit later, we meet Winfried’s adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), a businesswoman consumed by her career. There is a palpable tension between Ines and her father. Ines is a business consultant and is currently on assignment in Bucharest. Winfried unexpectedly appears at Ines’ workplace; Ines unexpectedly invites Winfried to join her for a reception at the American Embassy. She tells her father that if she is speaking with a gentleman named Henneberg, he is not to intervene. Henneberg is the CEO of the company with whom Ines’ wants to secure a consulting contract. For Winfried, of course, Ines’ warning is like honey to a bear and Winfried promptly strolls into the conversation remarking that he has hired a replacement daughter because Ines is too busy to spend any time with him. Following is a scene where Winfried is leaving his daughter’s apartment to return home to Germany. We then learn a bit more about Ines and her work and, a few days later, we see Ines with two female friends at a bar. This is when Toni Erdmann appears and presents himself to Ines and her friends. A bizarre conversation among the four ensues followed by a series of events and interactions among Ines, Toni and various third parties. One could never have predicted some of the scenes that occur during this 162 minute movie. It becomes clear that Winfried has adopted the Toni Erdmann character to help his daughter learn to enjoy life. Toni is not merely a prankster, and amidst the comedic routines, important issues concerning familial relationships are addressed. Some of the scenes go on a bit too long and the film could have been more tightly edited. The film works due, in large part, to the strength of Simonischek’s performance. You can clearly see Jack Nicholson as Toni, which is not to diminish Simonischek’s performance. This is the film’s second week in Honolulu and, unless it wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, I suspect it will be gone for good after this week. I am looking forward to Maren Ade’s next movie. Her Toni Erdmann character is truly unique and makes you wonder what’s up next from this very talented writer/director.
Monday, February 13, 2017
The Salesman: Iran’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language film. This is writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s most recent creation, and the story that is told cannot be predicted based upon the opening scenes. The film begins with what appears to be an earthquake. The male lead, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), is awakened by his neighbors yelling to abandon the building. We learn that Emad is married to Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). The building is rendered uninhabitable due to the sustained damage. Emad is a high school teacher. Emad and Tana are also actors and are in rehearsal for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where Emad plays Willy Loman and Rana plays Willy’s wife, Linda. As the film unfolds, the play begins its commercial run. Short clips from the play are shown throughout the film’s 125 minutes. Because this is an Iranian movie, you may seek political connections between the film and the very American Death of a Salesman. However, from what I could surmise, this film appears to be Farhadi’s attempt to show the universality of the story he is presenting, which becomes particularly evident in Linda’s final soliloquy following Willy’s death. In the course of things, an individual connected with the theater tells Emad and Rana of an apartment he owns and available for rent. We learn the former tenant, who we never see, is a prostitute. The story Farhardi is presenting and resulting in numerous awards is revealed more than a third of the way into the film after Rana has been badly beaten, off-screen. Everyone surmises the perpetrator is a former customer of the prostitute. Notwithstanding the extent of the beating the police are never called, which is presumably one of Farhadi’s political commentaries. Being an Iranian movie and not an American one, the film does not morph into a police drama. Rather, it is a tale about family relationships, male chauvinism and the isolation of women in traditional Muslim society. Farhadi won Best Original Screenplay at Cannes. Hosseini won Cannes’ Best Actor award; frankly I was more impressed with Alidoosti’s performance. I have not seen all the nominees for Best Foreign Film but, at a minimum, The Salesman is a strong candidate. Subtitles and there is a lot of dialogue.
Friday, February 3, 2017
Julieta: a Pedro Almodovar film. This film was submitted to the Oscar Academy as Spain’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category. Although it did not reach the Final Five, this drama about life and death is deserving of your attention. The film opens with a middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suarez) packing up her Madrid apartment and moving to Portugal. We then see Julieta walking through town and happening upon a close friend of her daughter from many years ago. We learn that Julieta hasn’t seen or heard from her daughter in a long time. Julieta learns that her daughter has three children. We flashback to Julieta as a 25 year old (Adriana Ugarte) traveling on a train - - - the two actresses who play Julieta look amazingly similar. An older gentleman sits across from Julieta and tries to begin a conversation but she feels uncomfortable and abandons her seat. She walks to the dining car where she meets Xoan (Daniel Grao), a young fisherman. Xoan becomes Julieta’s lover and eventually her husband. Off-screen, the older gentleman commits suicide. Julieta and Xoan have a lovely daughter who is played by Priscilla Delgado when young and by Blanca Pares when 18 years old. At 18, the daughter goes off to a retreat and then disappears from Julieta’s life. During the course of this 96-minute film, the action moves between middle aged Julieta wondering what happened to her daughter and the events which resulted in the daughter’s departure from Julieta’s life. Julieta is a complex individual whose relationships with the significant people in her life bear comparison to her profession, the teaching and the translation of Greek tragedies. The complexities of love, life and death are all presented in a sequence with her father and arguably Julieta’s life has a similarity to that of her father. This film is consistent with many of Almodovar’s prior films, which feature strong and complex women. For anyone who has admired Almodovar’s work, this film is a must see. If you are not yet familiar with his work, Julieta is an excellent introduction. The film is in Spanish and therefore subtitled.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Elle: France’s 2016 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language film. A tour de force performance by Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michele Leblanc, the “elle” in the film’s title. Michele is a divorced businesswoman who owns a video game company. The game currently being developed is violent. Brief scenes of violence appear throughout the film, some of which involve an intermix of human comedy as well as scenes of short sexual violence. The sexuality that runs through the storyline results in a film that is clearly not of American origin. The opening scene is a swift rape viewed from the perspective of Michele’s cat. This 130-minute subtitled film is based upon the novel Oh . . . by Philippe Djian. Paul Verhoeven directed the film and David Birke wrote the screenplay. Violence penetrates Michele’s life from the outset. Her father is in prison because, when Michele was 9 years old, he went on a one day killing spree in their neighborhood. Michele was home when her father returned from his rampage. We learn about her background as the main story unfolds. Most of the people with whom Michele interacts are presented as foolish beings. She remains friends with her ex-husband , Richard (Charles Berling); the marriage we learn ended over a single violent episode. Some of the lighter moments in the film occur between Richard and his much younger girlfriend. The relationship between Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), Michele’s adult son, and his pregnant girlfriend, Josie (Alice Isaaz), is filled with conflict and flows from Josie’s odd behavior. Even the events that occur involving Michele’s rapist (Laurent Lafitte) are bizarre. Michele’s one real friend is her business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny). Nonetheless, Michele has an affair with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel), who is also tagged as a fool. While the film partially explains Michele, it never provides a viable explanation for the rapist’s behavior. There is one more character who deserves comment: Michele’s mother played by Judith Magre. The mother’s scenes are short but when she is on camera, her performance matches that of Huppert’s. Verhoeven, at 78, has created a riveting film. The acting throughout is excellent. Michele’s character and behavior are very unique but Huppert’s talent renders her believable. Huppert’s performance is reason enough to see this film.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Lion: a film based upon the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. A five year old Indian boy is accidentally separated from his family and subsequently adopted by an Australian couple. Then, as a young adult, he begins the search for his birth family. The first part of the film focuses on 5 year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his relationship with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The interaction between the brothers is positive and captivating. The family is poor and live in a poor village. The mother (Priyanka Bose) is a laborer and the two boys work to help the family survive. We never meet the father, who apparently deserted the family. Guddu and Saroo travel to a neighboring town where Guddu thinks there may be work. He tells Saroo to wait for him at the train station. Saroo climbs onto an out-of-service train and falls asleep. When Saroo awakes he is in Calcutta, more than 1,000 miles from his home. The people speak an entirely different language. Saroo’s existence is reminiscent of a Dickensian waif. After a time, Saroo is adopted and moves to Tasmania. The story then jumps to Saroo as a young adult (Dev Patel). The Australian parents are played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman. An event occurs which starts Saroo thinking about his family in India. The rest of the film is a Google map tale and not as interesting as the first third of the movie. Based on the strength of the opening segment with Saroo and his family, you are hooked into the story. Saroo Brierley co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Buttrose and Luke Davies. Garth Davis is the director. The film is on a number of 2016 Ten Best lists. The story is truly amazing and this 2-hour film will keep you involved. But for me it was basically a well done Hallmark Presents movie. Absent today’s Google map technology, it is unlikely the events in this tale could have occurred. And the film’s title, Lion? It has to do with the name Saroo.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Hidden Figures: the largely untold story of three African-American women who were instrumental in NASA’s early success. The three women are Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), who is still alive at age 98, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). We meet the women when their car stalls on the way to work. This scene, presented with a sense of humor, sets the tone of the film and reveals the women’s individual characteristics. It also touches on the theme of sex discrimination, which is present throughout the film. One of the more memorable scenes is that of Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician, being denied attendance at a NASA meeting for purely misogynistic reasons. Johnson is the person who, at the specific request of John Glenn (Glen Powell), did the final calculation checks prior to Glenn’s launch into space. He wanted the “smart one” to verify the IBM calculations before boarding the ship. Glenn is presented in an extremely positive light. Dorothy Vaughan is the individual who headed the “colored computer” (mathematicians crunching numbers) section but was denied the supervisory title due to her race and gender. Vaughn is instrumental in getting the IBM machine operating and is also the one who knows what the people under her supervision have to do to retain their positions at NASA in the new age of IBM technology. Mary Jackson, a member of the engineering team, plays a key role in developing the ship’s heat shield. Part of the reason this NASA based film works is that it is placed in the context of 1960 American society where sexism and Jim Crow laws were alive and well. Further, the movie presents the well established home lives these three brilliant women lived. Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the book upon which the film is based. The screenplay was written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi and it is Oscar quality. Melfi also directed this excellent 127 minute movie. It’s the small scenes that make this film work particularly well. For example, Melfi’s handling of the race-based bathroom issue shows his skills as a writer and as a director. Kevin Costner, as Al Harrison, is also excellent. Harrison is the director of the Space Task Group and is someone who focuses on completing the task at hand and not an employee’s skin color or sex. The only weak character is Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford. He is the only person who comes across as stereotypic. Mahershala Ali from Moonlight has a small role as Johnson’s suitor and eventual husband. The contrast between his two movie roles is astonishing. This film speaks of the blatant racism and sexism in 1960’s American society, however, when you leave the cinema, you do so with an optimistic view that hurdles can be overcome. Hidden Figures is quite entertaining and one of the best movies of 2016.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Rogue One: the latest Star Wars installment. There are very few films that I distinctly remember viewing for the first time. Star Wars: A New Hope aka Episode IV is among the few. The theatre where the original Star Wars played in 1977 no longer exists; I think the building is now an auto parts store. I was hooked from its opening scene. The main question I’ve asked myself with respect to the subsequent episodes has been, “Would I have enjoyed this film if I wasn’t already a fan?” As for Rogue One, the answer is “yes”. Felicity Jones is excellent in the lead role of Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the scientist responsible for creating the Death Star. The storyline presented by writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy explains the events that led to one of the key scenes in the original Star Wars, the Death Star’s destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet. Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards and has a panorama of the required characters: renegade imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed); tough minded resistance player (Diego Luna), bearded warrior (Wen Jiang); and blind Force-chanting monk (Donnie Yen). I would like to have seen more of the militant warrior played by Forest Whitaker. Perhaps a short fall of Rogue One is its lack of the inventive and original special effects that so captured me back in 1977. The battle scenes during this 133 minute film, though good, are somewhat old hat. One thing that is quite inventive is casting actor Guy Henry, who has a build and voice similar to Peter Cushing and, through technology, imposing on him Cushing’s face to re-create the Death Star Captain. The same technology is used in the Princess Leia scene using Norwegian actor Ingvild Deila. I was also pleased that James Earl Jones once again voiced Darth Vader in his limited appearances. Bottom line: for anyone who is a Star Wars fan, you should definitely see this film on the big screen. Conversely, if you are not already a fan, this film will not be your moment of conversion.
Monday, January 2, 2017
Fences: one of the ten August Wilson Pittsburgh Cycle stories. This one takes place in the 1950’s. Wilson penned a play for each decade of the 20th century. Each play portrays an African-American family’s experience while telling the larger story of what was occurring in America during that decade. If you haven’t seen an August Wilson play, you’ve missed experiencing the work of one of America’s greatest artists. When you see this movie, you will understand why Wilson is compared to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neil. Wilson, who died in 2005, is given sole credit for the screenplay. Tony Kushner, who is only listed as a co-producer, wrote additional dialogue. The play itself runs more than 3 hours. The film, directed and starring Denzel Washington, runs 139 minutes. I usually don’t spend a great deal of time discussing a film’s script but seldom will you experience dialogue as realistic and as strong and powerful as is present in Fences. The cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures and provides an excellent sense of what life looked like for a Negro blue collar worker in Pittsburg during the mid-1950s. Washington’s direction at times is stagy, still camerawork that used to be common, but allowing the dialogue to dominate. Troy Maxson (Denzel) is a garbage collector with a past. Early on we learn that Troy was a successful baseball player in the Negro League but is bitter about not having had the opportunity to play in the White Major League before he turned 40. Later we learn that prior to his baseball career, Troy was in prison for killing a man during a robbery. Denzel’s performance is Oscar quality, which is matched by Viola Davis who plays his wife, Rose. I will be quite disappointed if Davis does not receive an Oscar nomination for her performance. The actor who is truly brilliant is Mykelti Williamson. He portrays Troy’s WW II damaged brother Gabriel, who believes he is a messenger of God and needs to play his trumpet to open the pearly gates. Believably portraying a mentally injured individual is never an easy task but Williamson’s performance allows us to fully consume Gabriel’s reality. The three other principal characters are Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy and Rose’s son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s adult son from a previous marriage, and Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Troy’s best friend who he met in prison and with whom he now works on the garbage truck. All are all excellent. The principal actors all appeared as the same characters in the Tony award winning 2010 revival of Wilson’s play. As in Wilson’s other Pittsburgh Cycle stories, Fences focuses on family relationships while also commenting on what was happening in general society during the story’s decade. The baseball references are not simply sports talk. They speak to Troy’s unfulfilled dreams, which significantly impact on how he reacts to his Cory’s goal to obtain a football scholarship. Throughout this story Wilson never loses sight of Rose, who has some of the strongest dialogue. This is a remarkable film. It tells a real story with actors who truly deliver. I strongly recommend this film.