movie reviews November 2018

 

the happy princebohemian rhapsodycan you ever forgive me?suspiriaboy erasedwidowswildlifegreen book

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Green Book
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Green Book tells the story, "based on real events," of a trip made by Tony "Lip" Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, as driver and bodyguard for classically influenced black jazz pianist Don Shirley on a 1962 tour through America's segregated South, a politically charged topic to say the least. Yet in its eagerness to offer a tonic for our nation's increasingly fraught racial environment, the film tones down its politically charged subject until it's little more than an odd-couple road movie. The result is a 21st century film about race with a viewpoint that doesn't appear to have evolved since the period in which it's set, a time of quaint, self-congratulatory portrayals of racial relations like The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

The film's greatest strengths and weaknesses come via its central characters. To play "Tony Lip," Viggo Mortensen has bulked-up considerably and delivers a larger-than-life caricature of the big galoot-with-a-heart-of gold: a loud, chain-smoking self-proclaimed "bullshit artist." Oh — and he's racist to the point that he tosses drinking glasses in the trash because they were used by blacks.

Mahershala Ali's (Moonlight, Hidden Figures) portrayal of the refined and affluent Dr. Shirley is less broad but still frustratingly shallow, largely due to a failure on the part of the screenwriters to view him as more than a foil by which to measure Tony's personal growth. The screenplay, written by Tony's son Nick Vallelonga with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly, presents Tony, despite his blatant racism and loutish behavior, as more relatable than the punctilious, demanding Shirley. And it is through Tony's eyes that we view their relationship.

So it should come as no surprise that in this telling, Tony introduces Shirley to black culture by way of musical artists such as Chubby Checkers and Aretha Franklin ("These are your people, Doc!" he scolds) and fried chicken, because to a racist, fried chicken epitomizes black culture. It is Tony, too, who acquires the titular Green Book, the guide to African American-friendly food and shelter in the States despite the fact that any black American of Shirley's education and experience would have been well aware of it.

As the pair makes their way through the Jim Crow South, they come upon the sort of casual and violent bigotry to which Tony's pales in comparison. And more than once, Tony rescues Shirley from the dangers that surround him. And for his trouble, besides being paid, Tony gets Shirley's help composing, in Cyrano Cyrano de Bergerac fashion, love letters to his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini).

Still, Ali captures the intelligence, wit, and frustration of a man desperately trying to maintain his dignity in a world that overtly denies it. Some of Ali's most powerful scenes are those that unfold as Shirley sits alone, silently reflecting on doubts, regrets, and fears that this movie, frankly, can't be bothered with (a scene revealing Shirley's homosexuality is introduced purely as another threat from which Tony can play savior).

That's not to say that director Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly Brothers of Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary fame, doesn't mine some genuinely amusing moments from this mismatched pair. But these laughs, like the Tony's “wokeness,” come far too easily, creating the dangerous illusion that American racism is little more than an amusing relic from a distant, less enlightened time. PG-13 Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/29/18)


Wildlife
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For his directorial debut actor Paul Dano (Love & Mercy, There Will Be Blood) took on the challenging task of adapting Richard Ford's 1990 novel of the same name. As could be expected from an attempt to visually represent Ford's endogenous storytelling, the screenplay, which Dano co-wrote with his partner, actor Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, The Big Sick), doesn't adequately convey the interior of the characters in this domestic drama, making their actions seem overhasty and implausible.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jerry Brinson, an overly personable golf pro that has moved his family from the Pacific Northwest to Montana in 1960. His wife, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), are reluctantly settling in to the small town, anxiously trying to keep up the pretense of optimism.


Despite his family's support, Jerry gets fired for betting with members of the golf club where he works, and instead of finding a comparable job or accepting the job back, he joins up with the oddballs and drifters, “the deadbeats,” as Jeanette calls them, who are trundled to the mountains to fight the wildfires burning the adjacent landscape.

For all her steely resolve to buoy her family in the first 20 minutes of the movie, including taking a job teaching some of the adult townsfolk to swim, Jeanette transforms almost instantly in Jerry's absence. Mulligan, whose expressive face conveyed the character's latent dread, which is all the more affecting because of its understatement, in these early scenes, explodes into a stagy stereotype; a Tennessee Williams' vamp without the Southern charm or caged-up edge. And because Dano shoots her from outsider her own point of view, we have no understanding of her feelings beyond wild, unfocused desperation.

When Ford granted Dano the rights to his novel, he told the aspiring director, “My book’s my book, and your picture’s your picture.” Still, some of the alterations he and Kazan wrote into the script are unjustifiable. Take, for example, the first line of the novel: "In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him." It's a concise cause and effect that's missing entirely from Dano and Kazan's script.

Where Ford also has the advantage is in the age and perspective of his narrator. On-screen, Joe is limited to his age at the time of the events, 14, and this choice restricts his understanding of them. But it doesn't seem to matter to Dano, who shoots this immature perspective through the unnatural, self-conscious angles of a first-time director. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/26/18)


Widows
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For his latest release, director Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) adapted a 1983 British TV crime drama based on a novel by Lynda La Plante, best known for creating the Prime Suspect television crime series starring Helen Mirren. McQueen's script, which he wrote with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) offers the same star turn for Viola Davis, whose performance as the bereaved Veronica Rawlings could have merited a change in the movie's title from the plural to the singular.

But Veronica isn't the only widow here. Her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is the leader of a gang whose last heist — $2 million cash stolen from the campaign of crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) in his bid to go legit as Chicago alderman (a move taken from The Wire's Stringer Bell's playbook) — ends in a fiery confrontation with the Chicago police, killing the husbands of Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon).


With Jamal and his brother Jatemme, played by a scarily unblinking Daniel Kaluuya, demanding their money back from Veronica, she uses Harry's notebook, his only bequest to her, to go ahead with his next job — $5 million stashed in a safe room of Jamal's established political opponent, the legacy ward boss Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) — and threatens to give up the other women if they don't help her.

As a heist movie, Widows is a bungling wreck. Its twists are easily anticipated and the characters make frustratingly stupid decisions, such as not showing up to a meeting or using a known gathering spot. Additionally, there are subplots, including Amanda's reasons for not showing up to meetings, which could have been expanded. This seems to be the hallmark of Flynn's projects.

Beyond the film's problems with logistics are the back-stories. Some are more successful than others. Watching Jacki Weaver as Alice's overbearing mother is to witness dysfunction leading to continued corruption, and Debicki excels at smoothing over Alice's desperation. Its parallel, one supposes is Tom Mulligan's (Robert Duvall) bullying of his son Jack, but his forthright views on nepotism, graft and bigotry is unnecessary. He's the one character not being squeezed by anything but his own hate and greed.

Need, more than avarice, is the driving force behind the movie. While some are being extorted others are fighting disenfranchisement; none more so than Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a casualty of the gig economy, and the only other character who can measure up to Davis' widow. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/26/18)


Boy Erased
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Those of a more liberal persuasion may wonder if the story presented in Boy Erased belongs in some earlier film era. Not true. Even though there have been strides in equality for LBGT individuals, there’s plenty of room for more enlightenment and accompanying legal protections. Legalism aside, this film seeks to tell a story of change and acceptance through the powerful convention of family.

Boy Erased, based on a memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, recounts his personal struggles and participation in a fundamentalist Christian-based gay conversion program. On the surface of this film there appears to be many villains yet, as shown from all sides, the only real malefactor is ignorance.

Actor Lucas Hedges is Jared Eamons the only child of homemaker Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and pastor, businessman and father Marshall (Russell Crowe). Theirs is a solidly Christian household. Belief in the ways of their church and the bible govern the response to anything not defined by their beliefs.

As a teenager, Jared struggles with his sexual identity. It’s a lonely battle, his love for his parents keep turning him away from seeking help. In college, another gay student, also grappling with his identity, brings Jared’s dilemma to the forefront. Jared admits to his parents his attraction to men. They are stunned and confused. Marshall declares that Jared’s admission “goes against the grain of our beliefs.” He seeks the counsel of the elders of his church. They recommend, to the unarticulated misgivings of Nancy, a gay conversion therapy program headed by Victor Sykes played by Joel Edgerton. Edgerton also directed the film and wrote the screenplay based on the memoir.

Since the turmoil Jared faces is internalized, Hedges has to convey that disquiet in his acting. It’s not completely successful. It’s only when Jared rebels against the psychological torture inherent with this pseudoscientific brainwashing and his emotions explode does the film create the conflict on screen that existed all along. It is then also that Kidman comes out of her dutiful role as go-along wife and her role becomes interesting. She chooses her son, leaving her husband to decide if he will accept his gay son. Crowe openly presents his pastoral struggle as a tentative change in faith, knowing he would not only lose his son but also his wife if he remained peremptory in his beliefs.

Boy Erased lacks an intenseness expected in a story that breeches the practices established by the beliefs held by the characters. Lucas Hedges should have, but did not, carry this film enough to bring possible change beyond the screen. In an interview after the film was released, Garrard Conley estimated that some 77,000 boys and girls are in gay conversion programs around the country, and to date only 14 states banned the programs being leveled on minors. Obviously, more has to be done beyond just one film. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/25/19)


Suspiria
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Moviegoers expecting more of the tasteful pleasures of the sea, the Italian landscape, and the male form, which propelled director Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name to global acclaim, may well emerge from his latest release feeling traumatized, the recipient of a nasty little Halloween trick. Even those who hold Dario Argento's original film in high regard are likely to be offended at the liberties Guadagnino takes with the source material. But for those with strong stomachs, open minds and a modicum of patience, this new Suspiria delivers a shocking, ambitious, and ultimately haunting meditation on female power.

Little of Argento's film makes the transition besides its slim premise: American dancer Susie Bannion travels to a mysterious dance academy in Germany.

Gone is Argento's expressive palette of garish primary colors. Guadagnino unambiguously sets his film in 1977 Berlin — the year Argento's film was released — against the industrial grays of post-war Berlin in the midst of the German Autumn. Reports of RAF bombings and the Lufthansa hijacking drift from televisions and radios, and the Berlin Wall looms over the academy from across the street.

Gone, too, is Argento's central plot development: Susie's climactic discovery that the academy is a front for a coven. The screenplay by Guadagnino and David Kajganich (The Invasion, Blood Creek, A Bigger Splash) makes it clear early on that these are, indeed, witches. The focus, instead, is on Susie's personal transformation and empowerment under the tutelage of this matriarchy.

Susie Bannion (Fifty Shades' Dakota Johnson) arrives at the Helen Markos Academy for Dance unannounced and uninvited in the wake of the sudden disappearance of another dancer. Despite a strict Mennonite upbringing in Ohio and the lack of any formal training, Susie's intuitive, primal improvisation convinces the school's head choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to accept her into the school.

Providing pupils free room and board, the academy represents a refuge from the division and violence of the largely male-dominated world just outside its doors. The coven's power appears to be generated through dance as a kind of ritual magic, and the dance sequences, choreographed by Damien Jalet and captured by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, are convulsive yet beautiful, a convincing manifestation of power embodied in women.

This all-female refuge, however, is no paradise, and tapping into its power comes at a price. Susie begins to have nightmares, which she soon discovers are endemic among her fellow students. One of the instructors cuts her throat. And when lead dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) challenges one of the instructors, she feels the wrath of the school's entrenched matriarchy.

Dancing for Madame Blanc, Susie's movements take control of Olga, who is trapped in a rehearsal room below. In a brutally violent sequence, each of Susie's gestures is inflicted on Olga. Walter Fasano's editing draws a convincing connection between the two women until Olga's bent and broken body lies inert in a pool of blood and urine.

As she has been prone to doing in recent years, Swinton plays multiple roles. But here, as opposed to, say, Snowpiercer, she demonstrates great restraint. As Madame Blanc, she's a sashaying, chain-smoking taskmistress, deadly serious about the art she is creating. In the film's opening scene, Patricia, the missing dancer (Chloë Grace Moretz), in hysterics, seeks protection from the coven at the office of her therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer, also Swinton under layers of clothes and convincing prosthetic makeup. One of the few men who make an appearance in the film, Klemperer is kind and indulgent, and utterly useless, attributing her fear to paranoid delusions. For her part, Dakota Johnson also underplays her part, reserving the fireworks for the dances.

As the bond between Madame Blanc and Susie grows, it becomes clear what the coven has in mind for its new star, but nothing is likely to prepare viewers for the climactic ceremony, which conjures both Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and the visceral extremes of David Cronenberg.

Despite the film's epilogue, Guadagnino does not attempt resolution, for his viewers or his subject. The varied themes of creation and destruction, patriarchy and national guilt, art and suffering, are embraced in all their messy contradictions, and the film is ultimately stronger for it. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/12/18)


Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

From 1991 to 1993 celebrity biographer Lee Israel forged more than 400 literary letters, attributing her own bons mots to the likes of Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. She sold these, along with bona fide specimens she smuggled out of library and university archives, to appreciative booksellers and dealers who then resold them to collectors. Two of Israel's fakes even found their way into the first edition of The Letters of Noël Coward, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2007. With this publication, Israel's career, needless to say, had come full circle.

For her second feature film, director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) took over production from writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing, Enough Said), who rewrote Jeff Whitty's script based on Israel's 2008 autobiography. While it's tempting to wonder what Holofcener's version, starring Julianne Moore and Chris O'Dowd, would have been like, irreconcilable "creative differences" with the former conspired to hand Melissa McCarthy a role that's truly worthy of her full dramatic range.

Heller offers a magical look back at New York and the fringes of its publishing world a full decade before the likes of Gawker put its navel-gazing online, and McCarthy's portrayal of Israel fits right in. She's sharp, well read and much too scruffy and irreverent for polite society, embodied by her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who answers Israel's calls only when she impersonates Nora Ephron —another great period detail — on the other end.


McCarthy's portrayal of Israel is as ribald as some of the characters for which she has become well known. Yet, she's grounded in reality — an important distinction. She's still just as foul-mouthed, but her talent in stringing together descriptive adjectives and nouns in surprising combinations isn't the only thing about her. For instance, Israel has a genuine affection for favorite gay dive bar, vaudevillian Fanny Brice and her sick cat, whose vet bills spur her crimes. In other words, there are things to know and like about her; it's just that she doesn't seem to like herself all that much.

This psychological perspective isn't all that unusual. There have been plenty of movies starring cranky misanthropes, but they're men (Jack Nicholson has made a late-stage career out of playing them) who find redemption through a younger woman. Israel's foil isn't another woman, though there is both an ex-girlfriend (Anna Deavere Smith) and an ill-fated love interest (Dolly Wells), but another moth-eaten alcoholic misfit, Jack, played mischievously by Richard E. Grant.

The two inhabit the tatty interiors of a Manhattan not yet completely overtaken by shiny corporations, finding joy in mutual animus and bottles of whiskey. It's impossible to resist their chemistry or the pull of nostalgia one can feel for book-filled apartments. So, when Heller, in the final scene between the two, brings the camera in for too many close-ups, making it a surprisingly standard bittersweet ending, you must forgive her. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/12/18)


Bohemian Rhapsody
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Near the end of the film Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), lead singer for the band Queen, feels the life in thousands before him at Wembley Stadium in London, even as his is being taken away by HIV. Together, they sing “We Are the Champions” and Freddie seems to pull the throngs into himself, and though bounded by a sense of invincibility, they are unaware of his fate. Freddie punches the air upward, euphoric for a moment, seemingly pushing back against the deadly disease.

Queen touched multitudes across the globe at the Live Aid concert. The event portrayed in the film is striking in its duplication of the real 1985 event, down to the soft drink cups and beer glasses on Freddie’s piano, and the prancing movements of Malek as Freddie on stage. It’s the emotional high of the film, one incredible facsimile when comparing Malek to the Freddie Mercury that day (www.youtube.com/watch?v=A22oy8dFjqc) And inconceivably, it was the first scene filmed in the movie.

Despite the lukewarm reviews from some critics and the indignation from others about facts twisted or ignored, leaving holes in giving context to Freddie’s life, Bohemian Rhapsody is a near perfect rock movie. That it cover’s only Freddie’s life from 1970 when he joined the bar band Smile to him with Queen at the Live Aid concert, is the film’s strength. We see a man living his experiences in love, tragedy and joy, peeks and valleys of emotion that only music can bring into the heart. This film reinforces the notion that musical greatness, especially rock, is grand and short-lived.

Malek is wondrous in his Freddie Mercury depiction, an evocation of a man who dazzled the world with his talent and left behind a kind of timelessness and generosity of spirit that most every Queen song delivers. Every member of the cast gives into such a vivacity. The band, Brian May, guitar (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon, bass (Joseph Mazzetto) and Roger Taylor, drums (Ben Hardy) present themselves as uncannily grounded in their collective ability to create with a clear-eyed recognition that Queen was not singular in its fecundity. Freddie is but one, though special, and as he notes in the film at one point, “There’s only room in this band for one hysterical queen.”

There’s a delicate balance in this film in getting enough of band members to establish themselves as being more than props for Freddie. For the most part it works. With Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), Freddie’s early love and life-long friend, that balance titters. She serves more as a reminder to Freddie of his confusion and disappointments at various points in his life, correctly noting of his coming turmoil until he returns back to what he knows of himself.

All the elements are there — the embrace of love, the disappointments of love, the falseness of those using love, the criticism and doubts of those who think they know more, the backstabbing and consoling, and the triumph of knowing your art is touching people. Freddie says in the film, “I’m only a performer.”

But as the film demonstrates, people loving your performance makes you a performer loved. The music in Bohemian Rhapsody will delight — and rock you — and the film does what good cinema should do: Give hope to those with doubts. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/5/18)


The Happy Prince
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

It will come as a surprise to exactly no one that for his directorial debut Rupert Everett has written himself into the role of the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Everett has been aging into the portrayal since his famous turn as the waggish best friend in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding and has been working to bring this story to the screen for the last 10 years. Still, his first performance as Wilde only recently came about in the 2016 revival of David Hare’s two-act play, The Judas Kiss, as a replacement for the miscast Liam Neeson from the original 1998 production.

Everett's screenplay picks up where Hare's play leaves off: Wilde's last years in exile after serving a sentence of two years' hard labor for "gross indecency.” For this portrayal Everett undertakes a distracting physical transformation that lands him somewhere between Alfred Molina and Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman Returns.

Much of the story is based on mostly true accounts of Wilde's escape to France, with his literary executor and former lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and friend and fellow aesthete Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) loyally re-creating the salons of happier days in the rented rooms of a Paris hotel — when not having to fend off assaults from their less-forgiving countrymen abroad.

   

Wilde could have lived in relative comfort this way, but the man who wrote the infamous line about being able to resist everything but temptation is enticed to reconcile with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as "Bosie” (Colin Morgan), his golden-haired companion in indulgence and imprudence. (Bosie encouraged a libel suit against Bosie's father, the Marques of Queensbury, which led to Wilde's imprisonment.)

They abscond to Naples, Italy, where they live beyond their respective allowances, doled out by the long-suffering women in their life; for Wilde it's his wife, Constance (Emily Watson). They befriend a handsome waiter and stage elaborate gentlemen's parties, at one belittling the waiter's Catholic mother as she searches for the harlots she assumes must be in hiding at one of the parties.

Hearing of his reunion with Bosie, Constance cuts off his stipend and any chance of a reunion with his two sons. But soon enough Wilde finds substitutes in a young Paris rent boy and his cheeky kid brother, products of Everett's imaginings, to whom he tells the story of "The Happy Prince," his story of a statue that allows a swallow to take his gold covering to feed the poor.

Everett, reaching for but failing to secure a poetic parallel, seems oblivious to the implications of showing Wilde narrating the story for his own sons at bedtime versus offering a story to a young boy with whom he has sex. This deafness to tone pervades more than one scene in the film, as if in his decade-long desire to bring the story to screen to play Wilde and provide a showcase for the famous quips, Everett has overlooked the actual story. “For each man kills the thing he loves," wrote Wilde in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. That sentiment has never been truer. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 11/5/18)

 



Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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