movie reviews May 2018


mountainthe Death of StalintullyUn Beau soleil interieur (Let the Sunshine IN)Solo: A Star Wars Storyrbg i feel pretty

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I Feel Pretty
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For their directorial debut, writing partners Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (Never Been Kissed, He's Just Not That Into You) stick to a familiar theme. A woman's insecurity, bordering on neurosis, forces her to accept a ridiculous challenge that inevitably leads to humiliation. Although it's played for laughs, this scenario often results in a victory of sorts, likely of the romantic variety, for the woman. But this time around there's a mean twist.

When the movie starts, Renee (Amy Schumer) is so convinced of her inadequacy that she's given up on any ambitions save one: transforming herself to conform to conventional beauty standards. To do this she screws up the courage to step into the modern equivalent of Cinderella's slippers — spin class cleats. Just as Renee is getting into the groove in the middle of the second class (the first ends even before it begins when Renee is put through the timeworn gag of splitting her exercise tights with the added abuse of impaling her crotch on the saddle) her cleat slips and she falls off the bike, hitting her head.

The concussion causes an inverse body dysmorphia. Albeit no change to her physical appearance, Renee now believes she's beautiful, much to the amusement or chagrin of everyone around her. And what's a woman who suddenly believes she's desirable finally desire? The receptionist job at a cosmetics company, a date with the guy standing behind her at the dry cleaners (Rory Scovel) and to win a Coney Island bikini contest.

The sad fact is, despite the big speech Renee gives at the end, the messages being conveyed by this movie are that confidence can go a long way to the realization of goals so long as the bar for those goals is exceptionally low and, for anyone but the rarefied good-looking, possessing confidence is a form of cognitive dissonance; a mental illness.

Having made a successful career in defiance of conventional standards — beauty and otherwise — for women, Schumer isn't convincing in the least as the unconfident Renee. There is one authentic moment, unsurprisingly, the one not meant to be humorous, when she stands in front of a mirror in Spanx and ill-fitting bra. Her performance is livelier after Renee is inflicted with the head injury but unlike with her own material, she's not in on the jokes. The audience is encouraged to mock her overreach and laugh at every jiggle of her belly. The movie collapses under its own humor, which reinforces the status quo; not challenging it. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 05/29/18)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West make clear in its title the editorial perspective of this biographical documentary. The acronym RBG, a nod to the late combative rap legend Notorious B.I.G., suggests the filmmakers view Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the pop cultural icon she has become over the last 15 of her 85 years, the subject of Internet memes, SNL impersonations, bobbleheads, T-shirts, and other merchandise (many featuring the justice's head grafted to Wonder Woman's body). This is Ginsburg the Dissenter, the "notorious" voice of liberal dissent to the decisions of our highest court's increasingly conservative majority.

The film uses that notoriety as a jumping-off point, opening with audio of detractors labeling Ginsburg  "a disgrace to the court," "a vile human being," even "a monster."

Except for a late mention of Ginsburg's roundly rebuked public criticism of then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump, however, RBG generally steers clear of controversy (or criticism), instead celebrating its subject's career-long crusade for gender equality.

The directors have constructed the film around footage of Ginsburg delivering a brief autobiography as part of her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing and find a lifelong theme for her career and personal life in advice she received at a young age from her mother: to be a lady and to be independent, which Ginsburg explains she interpreted as meaning to avoid wasting energy on distracting emotions such as anger and resentment, and to be able to fend for herself, ([i.e.] without depending on a man to survive).

What unfolds over the following hour and a half outlines little more than the highlights of Ginsburg's career, yet even these basic facts are impressive. In a series of interviews, childhood friends, relatives and colleagues describe Ginsburg as a young woman indefatigable in her pursuit of excellence in the field of law despite numerous obstacles, some the product of circumstance, others the result of systemic gender bias.

As a student at Harvard Law School in the Fifties (one of nine women in a class of 500), she was also caring for her husband Marty as he battled (successfully) cancer, taking notes for the classes he was missing, typing up his class papers as he dictated them, raising a year-old baby, and completing her own classwork so successfully that she became the first woman named to the Harvard Law Review.

Unable to find work in New York upon graduation (most firms would not deign to even interview a woman, despite glowing recommendations from classmates), Ginsburg joined the ACLU's Women's Rights Project and, as general counsel, argued a series of successful gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. While the filmmakers deserve credit for attempting to emphasize the power of Ginsburg's arguments by featuring key passages on screen as she intones the words, the film moves at such a pace that there is little time to reflect on the influence of these cases. Ginsburg, herself, reflecting on these years, un-ironically compares her patient, diplomatic delivery of basic principles of equality before an all-male Supreme Court bench to being “a kindergarten teacher" because the justices just "didn’t get gender laws."

The film touches on the dynamic between Ginsburg and late husband Marty, a successful lawyer in his own right who stepped aside to support her ambitions. Also apparent in interviews with her adult daughter Jane, with whom the justice seems to have a close relationship, is a degree of ambivalence about that ambition (asked to describe the justice as a mother, Jane simply replies, "Exigent").

Interestingly, one begins to get a clearer sense of the justice's personality as she shows off her collection (a closet-full) of jabots (the decorative collars she is known for wearing in court), including the "dissent jabot," made of stylish black velvet with gold and silver studs, and the "majority opinion jabot," a gift from her clerks, crocheted in tones of gold, brown, and yellow.

Despite a parade of talking heads, including Orin Hatch, who acknowledges a grudging admiration, and longtime friend and fellow opera-lover, the late uber-conservative justice Antonin Scalia, the film is most revealing when it lets its retiring subject speak for herself, something at which she has always excelled. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/29/18)

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

The greatest burden that the current Star Wars cinematic product bear is the subtitle it shares with its Disney-produced predecessor, Rogue One--"A Star Wars Story."

Like the addition of "for Target" to designer brands such as Missoni, Michael Graves, Lilly Pulitzer, and Hunter Boots, the subtitle makes clear that what is being offered is not the real deal, but a mass-produced, lower-quality facsimile, trading on the reputation of the original.

For designers, a mass-market line may have value because it is aimed at consumers unfamiliar with the original product. The "Star Wars Story" line, however, is aimed precisely at consumers intimately familiar with the core Star Wars saga who bring to the theater relatively high expectations (not to say that Star Wars is to cinema what artisan designers are to fashion, but you get the idea).

And so there is Solo, the second in a series of scheduled stand-alone Star Wars Stories, this one centered on one of the most iconic and beloved characters in the LucasFilm universe.

Star Wars fans may love Han Solo, the brash, arrogant outlaw-with-a-conscience portrayed by Harrison Ford in the original trilogy. But have Han Solo fans spent the past 40 years wondering about the origin of his surname? Where he got his blaster pistol? What exactly the Kessel Run is (which Solo bragged the Millenium Falcon made "in less than 12 parsecs")?

Well, Solo is here to answer these questions anyway, by way of an origin story.

Written by Lawrence Kasdan, who has been crafting the Star Wars story-arc since The Return of the Jedi, and his son Jonathan, Solo benefits from telling a much smaller tale in a galaxy only tangentially related to The Saga. Hence, no Death Star, no Force, no lightsabers, and only a smattering of the Empire (stormtroopers, and a familiar cameo by an Imperial Cruiser). What results is an enjoyable, if unremarkable, adventure yarn that might have fared relatively well at the box office even without its Star Wars affiliation.

After a slow start on the slave planet Corellia, bogged down by endless exposition, murky cinematography by the usually excellent Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Arrival), and a surprisingly static Landspeeder chase, the action jumps planets and time (three years) to an actual plot.

Fighting as an Imperial infantryman (after being expelled from the Flight Academy), Han falls in with space pirates led by the amoral Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), is introduced to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in a perilous and hilarious meet-cute, and gets roped into the film's central action, an intergalactic Great Train Robbery in service of Beckett's crime-lord boss, Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who comes off more unctuous Bond villain than viable counterpart to Jabba the Hutt.  Along the way, he wins the iconic Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in the fabled game of sabacc.

As Solo, Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, Hail, Caesar!) is sufficiently swaggering and sarcastic, even if we're never in doubt that this Han will ultimately do the right thing. Better is Donald Glover's take on the 70s-smooth Lando, a performance with enough charm (and capes) to rival Billy Dee Williams'. And both are overshadowed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando's companion (in every sense of the word, it seems), the droid L3-37. With a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement, L3-37 is a droid-rights activist who takes the heist as an opportunity to act on her rhetoric by fomenting a droid revolution amidst the confusion of the operation.

It's a moment with resonances beyond the confines of the screen, a moment frustratingly unique in a film more interested in simply keeping the action and the Easter Eggs coming. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/29/18)

Un Beau Soleil Interieur (Let the Sunshine In)
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Etta James and her signature song "At Last" provide a counterpoint to the trysts that pass for love in Un Beau Soleil Interieur, what may be best labeled a very black romantic comedy by French director Claire Denis (Chocolat, White Material).

James's hit plays in a rural bar as Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), recovering from a falling out with some friends at a nearby artists' retreat, sways alone to the swooning string lines and romantic lyrics: "At last, my love has come along, My lonely days are over, and life is like a song." From the back of the room, a rough-looking workingman approaches, and the two sway together, connected in a moment and movement that transcends words and worlds, far removed from the complications of real life.

The scene embodies a romantic ideal. But Isabelle (and Denis and co-writer, novelist Christine Angot) knows that such moments are fleeting at best. Perhaps that's why James gazes down (in judgment? sympathy? amusement?) from an album cover on Isabelle's apartment wall as various men come and go, seldom providing the satisfaction she seeks.

A middle-aged divorced mother and successful painter living in Paris, Isabelle seems to have no problem attracting men. In fact, the film is essentially built around a series of liaisons with lovers, old and new, that flares up but inevitably sputters.

It would be easy to blame her disappointments on the men, most of whom are married and looking for a reprieve from their wives (at least one of whom goes out of his way to clarify that he will not leave his wife for Isabelle: “You’re charming, but my wife is extraordinary.”

It would be easy to attribute her troubled love life to the limited pool of men available to a middle-aged woman.

And as we watch her make attempt after attempt to connect, it becomes tempting to blame Isabelle, herself, for her problems. At some moments, as she verbally spars with lovers or endures their vapid seductions and excuses, one wants to shake her and scream, "Dump him!"

But at her core, Isabelle is a very human knot of contradictions. Her sexual confidence, signified by the too-young pair of thigh-high, stiletto-heel boots she dons for nearly every date, is replaced by tears as she staggers down the hall later that night, awkwardly pulling them off and leaving them where they drop. She mentions a 10-year-old daughter, but we only catch a glimpse of her through a car window. In a single scene, she can move from demanding to end the date to begging her companion to come up.

And Denis keeps those conflicts front and center, the camera fixed closely on Binoche — on her darting eyes, her nervous fingers, her grip on a car armrest as she and a date verbally spar as a form of foreplay.

Against the film's closing credits, the voice of hope reappears, this time in the form of a charlatan psychic (Gerard Depardieu) who implores Isabelle to remain open to the light (hence, the title), to possibility, to the man who is coming.

A message of love, or another come-on? (NR) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/29/18)

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For their latest release, director Jason Reitman and writer by Diablo Cody, the duo behind Young Adult,have once again teamed up with Charlize Theron. For the role, Theron padded her svelte frame with as much as 50 extra pounds. It should be noted that the last time the actor put on noticeable weight for a role was for her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos. This time she portrays a different kind of monster: a bad mom.

Theron is Marlo, who, when first introduced, is pregnant with her third child — a mid-life surprise. Husband Drew (Ron Livingston), when not traveling for work, helps their oldest, Sarah (Lia Frankland), with her homework but does little else around the house, leaving Marlo to deal with Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) whose undiagnosable sensory sensitivities cause teachers and relatives to repeatedly describe him as "quirky," much to Marlo's irritation. "Do I have a kid or a f—ing ukulele?" she eventually snaps at his school's principal (Gameela Wright).

To be fair, it's not that Marlo is abusive or even that neglectful. She's smart-alecky and standoffish. “I have my own personal hug-buffer now,” she says of her pregnant belly, and Drew confirms she may prefer to navigate the world that way were she not aware that her mammoth belly, beyond mere baby bump, is considered obscene to some. But Marlo's biggest problem isn't that she doesn't live up to the unforgiving standards of perfection for privileged mothers; it's that she actually wants to, despite her contempt.

A chance meeting with a former roommate at the beginning of the movie informs us that a lifetime ago Marlo possessed a creative, adventurous identity that she traded for a dull, settled suburban life without much thought about the casualties of her safe choices. "Women don't heal," she laments later. They just cover the scars with makeup.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the night nanny. She's an energetic, flat-bellied sprite who offers comfort through sibylline scientific facts and philosophical conundrums. She has the assured wisdom only one so young can possess; an attitude as pacifying, if not more, to Marlo as it is to new baby Mia. The two women have much in common, save for where they are in the chronology of their lives.

Under Tully's spell, cupcakes are baked for treats to bring to school, balanced meals are put on the table on time, and flowers are arranged on the breakfast table. More important, Marlo is happier, if not exactly happy. But then the obvious, inevitable final twist — played out in a repeat of the film's pivotal scenes edited for any viewer who as yet didn't see it coming — takes it all away. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 5/14/2018)

The Death of Stalin
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

It's almost impossible to anticipate the whims of tyrants. One may demand a second scoop of ice cream while his guests receive just the one, or another violates his own travel ban on Westerners to bring in a championship basketball player in the waning days of his celebrity.

In British political satirist Armando Iannucci's second feature, adapted from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), just home from a drunken evening around Joseph Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) table, gives a play-by-play recap to his yawning wife (Sylvestra Le Touzel) for her to write it all down so that the next morning he may more soberly study which jokes made the General Secretary laugh. Khruschev is like a comedian perfecting a bit, except it's for an audience of one person who has the authority to send him to the gulag.

But not even Khrushchev, with his detailed notes and the tomatoes he carries in his pockets should the need arise for a prop gag, can predict Stalin's next yen. Radio Moscow is wrapping up a live broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, when a call comes into the booth. The architect of the Great Terror wants a recording of the performance brought to his dacha that night. After an alarmed realization that no recording has been made, the station director (Paddy Considine) implores the musicians and conductor for a repeat performance. For crowd sounds, they drag in people off the street. “Don’t worry,” he reassures the fearful new audience. “Nobody’s going to get killed.”

The statement isn't exactly true. Stalin, after reading a seditious note slipped into the sleeve of the recording by the orchestra's pianist (Olga Kurylenko), succumbs to a stroke. In the morning a hushed alarm is sounded and soon Stalin's prone body, lying on the urine-soaked carpet, is surrounded by the members of his Central Committee, to a man, too cowardly to declare him alive or dead, and no doctor can be called because the man in need of one had them all either exiled or killed.

The members of the Central Committee are played by a roster of distinguished British and American actors — Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Michael Palin and Buscemi — eschewing Russian accents for exaggerated versions of their own dialect. A stroke of comedic genius if there ever was one, and Jason Isaacs letting loose his Yorkshire accent for the celebrated WWII general Georgy Zhukov is the pinnacle of inventiveness. “I fooked Germany," he deadpans. "I think I can take a flesh lump in a fookin’ waistcoat.”

There's not a decent guy in the lot, and though there seems to be no end to the bald-faced irony that turns the biggest laughs into guilty ones, the movie begins to sag a bit under the weight of their scheming. A literal shoving match almost comes to blows mere feet from the open casket where Stalin's body lies in state. Eventually, the maneuvering boils down to who can get Tambor's Georgy Malenkov, the titular leader of the Soviet Union, to waffle their way — the worst of the worst or just the least worst of the worst. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 5/14/18)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

A whiff of pretentiousness fills the air as Mountain opens with black-and-white footage of a stage tech tuning a piano in a concert hall, a musician warming up a cello, and narrator Willem Dafoe, sporting headphones, settling behind a microphone. Against a dissonant tremolo, a stark black screen displays the unattributed epigraph; "Those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear the music."

Not a good sign.

But then come the mountains.

Against a washed-out, monochromatic mountainside, a red dot is visible, presumably a climber. The camera slowly glides in, and then suddenly cuts to a shot from almost directly above the figure, peering down, past his head and shoulders, toward the vast chasm beneath as he slowly reaches out, feeling for a grip in the sheer rock. No ropes. No harness. Just a pair of athletic shoes and a thin layer of chalk on his bare hands.

It's a stunning, vertiginous minute and a half, and nothing else in the film will match it. But several moments will come close.

Australian director Jennifer Peedom, whose 2015 Sherpa documented the commoditization and exploitation of indigenous peoples in service of the Everest trade, here teams up with the Australian Chamber Orchestra for something more akin to a tone poem than a standard documentary. Set to a range of classical chestnuts (Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King") as well as brief original passages by ACO conductor/composer Richard Tognetti, Peedom offers impressive footage of intrepid mountain climbers, as well as base jumpers, freestyle skiers, snowboarders, and para-bikers.

The real star of this effort, however, is cinematographer and professional climber Renan Ozturk (Sherpa), who makes impressive use of the most current drone and helicopter cam technology to obtain truly remarkable footage of activities never before captured so closely or vividly. Frustratingly, Peedom eschews subtitles identifying the peaks, locales, and climbers on screen, inadvertently creating a distraction in her determination to avoid them.

Dafoe's brief narrative interjections suggest the film's historical and philosophical focus: When, and why, did we stop fearing these foreboding regions and find ourselves, instead, drawn to conquer them?

The narration is drawn from British writer Robert Macfarlane's 2003 historical reflection “Mountains of the Mind” and includes such blanket statements as, "Three centuries ago, risking one's life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy," and, "During the second half of the 1700s, however, people started for the first time to travel to mountains."

It quickly becomes clear that "we" and "people" refer solely to westerners, certainly not the ancient cultures that have inhabited mountainous regions the world over for centuries. Despite the occasional shot of a Sherpa village or eastern religious temple for color, the film's focus stays firmly on the western interlopers.

Even at a brief 74 minutes, an overreliance on time-lapse shots of nightfall and slow zooms from wide vistas to a tiny human figure pinned, like an insect, to a cliff face suggest that the filmmakers have run out of new things to show. And Dafoe's florid pronouncements, such as, “They watched us arrive. They will watch us leave," suggest that no real answers to the film's ruminative questions will be forthcoming. NR Rating: 3 (Posted on 5/14/18)

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