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Liam Neeson, Leslie Manville

“ORDINARY LOVE” My rating: B+

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In an era of caped escapism, an intimate cancer drama like “Ordinary Love” has about as much chance as a penguin in the shark pool.

But those daring enough to take the risk will discover an acting tour de force saturated in pain and beauty, a drama that effectively tells a universal story precisely because its characters are largely unremarkable.

The challenge facing writer Owen McCafferty, directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn and their principal players (Liam Neeson and Leslie Manville) is to make their yarn compelling without resorting to heroics, histrionics or bigger-than-life characterizations.

They succeed to a degree I didn’t think possible.

Tom and Joan (Neeson, Manville) are a retired couple living in Belfast (we never do learn anything about their careers). At first glance their marriage seems more or less ideal. He’s charmingly irascible, a guy who goes for long walks with the Missus, then claims that entitles him to one more beer.

She’s no shrinking violet, apparently relishing the banter that has them dueling with gentle witticisms.

They’ve got a nice house and apparently no money woes. Their mantel feature a framed photo of a pretty young woman, obviously their daughter.  Only much later do we realize that the subject, their only child, died some years before.

The unremarkable patterns of Tom and Joan’s life are upended when she discovers a lump in her breast.

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Julia Garner

“THE ASSISTANT”  My rating: B+

87 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Just another day at the office becomes a moment of moral reckoning for the title character of “The Assistant,” a minimalist drama that only grows in potency the more you think about it.

Jane (Julia Garner) is a recent college graduate neck deep in her new job in the Lower Manhattan office of an independent film company. She gets up before dawn, naps during the Uber ride from Queens, and is the first person on site, turning on the lights, firing up the computers, brewing coffee.

Many a viewer will find the monotony all too familiar.

As the low man on the office totem pole, Jane is determined to keep her head down and establish a rep for quiet competence. She wants to be a producer some day.

A good chunk of Kitty Green’s film finds our protagonist doing both movie-related chores (Xeroxing spec scripts) and scutwork (donning rubber gloves to clean stains off the upholstery).

But the biggest chunk of her day is devoted to the Boss, a never-seen mogul (his muffled voice — heard through walls, open doorways and the telephone — is provided by Jay O. Sanders) of unassailable power.

Stationed outside the Boss’s private sanctum, Jane greets and ushers in guests, guards the door when the Boss doesn’t want to be disturbed, and fields phone calls.  She also is in charge of arranging transportation and lodging for the Boss’s frequent trips to the West Coast.

Writer/director Green is so good at nailing both Jane’s daily grind and the moments of gut-twisting anxiety (periodically she finds herself caught between the imperious Boss and his angry wife; more than once she endures a verbal chewing out from the executive suite) that the film’s true subject matter only slowly sneaks up on us.

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Juan Pablo Olyslager, Mauricio Armas Zebadua

“TEMBLORES” My rating: B-

107 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Temblores (Tremors)” begins with an intervention.

Returning home one rainy night, Guatemalan businessman Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) discovers his entire family gathered in the living room of his posh domicile.  They’ve learned that Pablo is having an affair with another man and are determined to put an end to this abomination.

Their approaches differ.  Pablo’s sister cradles her sobbing sibling and insists that his gayness must be the result of childhood trauma. Her alpha male husband is sneeringly contemptuous.  Pablo’s mother finds a religious lesson: “This is a trial.” Dad is a denier: “It’ll blow over.”

Meanwhile Pablo’s model-pretty wife Isa (Diane Bathen) sits silently, wrapped up in her own cocoon of humiliation.

Their deliberations are interrupted by one of the small earthquakes that regularly wrack their region of Central America.  “God’s punishment,” asserts Mom.

Jayro Bustamente’s “Tremblores” follows Pablo as he moves into a shabby apartment with his lover, the good-natured Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua), who works as a masseuse at a local clinic.  But almost immediately the repressive society around him kicks into high gear.

Pablo is fired from his high-paying  job as a consultant — the company adheres to a strict morality policy.  Isa goes to court where a judge declares Pedro a pedophile (he isn’t) and forbids him from seeing his two young children; the ruling also makes finding a new job impossible.

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“PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE” My rating: B 

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Looking like a period painting and moving with graceful deliberateness, Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” delivers a lesbian love story of aching delicacy.

But it’s more than that.

Set in the 1770s, the film follows a young woman painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), to an French island where she is deposited soaking wet on the beach. She’s been hired to paint another  young woman’s portrait…though she’s been warned it won’t be easy.

Her subject is Heloise (Adele Haenel), a wan beauty who, in the wake of the suicide of her older sister, has been brought home from the convent where she was raised so that she can marry the Milanese prince who was her dead sibling’s finance. His wealth will turn around the fortunes of Heloise’s financially strapped family. (Indeed, the clan’s castle has an eerie, half-empty feel that suggests they’ve been selling off furniture and fixtures to stay afloat.)

Thing is, the young man wants to know what this second sister looks like before committing to the the marriage.  Thus the portrait.

But as Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) notes, her daughter is waging a passive/aggressive war against the betrothal. Heloise refuses to pose, so Marianne will be introduced merely as a companion; she’ll have to observe Heloise, then make sketches of her subject once she returns to the privacy of her room. (more…)

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“DOWNHILL”  My rating: C 

89 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s a chill in the air of “Downhill,” and it’s only partly the result of five feet of perfect white powder.

Set in an Austrian ski resort, the latest from directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Way Way Back”) offers Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as vacationing Yanks who see the fissures in their relationship only widened by their high-altitude visit.

Billie and Pete seem pretty average.  She’s an attorney and appropriately self-assertive.

He’s some kind of executive who cannot put down his cel phone and tends to plan things out for his family — they have two tweener sons (Julian Gray, Ammon Jacob Ford) — without asking for their input. He maintains a Father-knows-best attitude behind his doofus-y exterior.

This is how they end up at a high-end resort at which the boys are the only kids in sight and the hot tubs tolerate only nude soaking.

Things come to a head when an outdoor lunch is interrupted by a controlled avalanche. The resort operators routinely set off blasts to loosen dangerous snowpack; this time the boiling wall of white comes shooting down the mountain and directly toward the diners.

Billie instinctively grabs her sons and hunkers down behind the table.  Pete grabs his phone and hightails it out of there. Turns out it’s a false alarm — just a cloud of mist reaches the visitors — but Pete’s act of cowardice will haunt him ever after.

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Issa Perica

“LES MISERABLES” My rating: B+

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

From its first shot Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated (for best international feature) “Les Miserables” informs us that, no, this is not yet another remake of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century tale.

The first thing we see is the face of young Issa (Issa Perica), a 14-year-old African immigrant living in a crime-riddled Paris suburb (ironically, the same burg in which Hugo wrote his masterpiece).  Issa is wrapped in the flag — literally — to attend a rally celebrating the French national soccer team’s recent victory. With thousands of other sports-mad Parisians he stands in the Champs-Élysées  singing “The Marseillais” and letting loose with victory roars.

For one glorious, transcendent moment Issa feels genuinely French.  It won’t last.

Ly’s film is a rapidly percolating thriller that views life in an immigrant enclave from several perspectives.

As with “Training Day,” our guide to this world of crime and social upheaval is a cop new to the scene. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has just come to this seething ‘burb from a cozy provincial post. He’s assigned to a three-man team to learn the ropes…and is less than comforted by what he observes.

His new partners are Chris (Alexis Manenti), a cocky casual racist who relishes every opportunity to bully and bend the rules, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a long-time resident of the neighborhood who’s regarded by his fellow citizens as a traitor for becoming a cop.

The police are only one element of the neighborhood’s ever-changing social order.  The place is run by the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), a former gangster who now serves as the town’s fixer; he’s like an old-fashioned ward heeler who wins votes by dishing favors, and he’s not above turning to violence to enforce his will.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, bearded dudes trying to coax the local kids into more-or-less civilized behavior, have little but contempt for both the Mayor and the police.

Meanwhile the gypsy operators of a traveling circus are on the warpath because some black teen has stolen the owner’s beloved lion cub.

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2019 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ 

“A SISTER” (Belgium, 16 minutes)  My rating: B  

It would be hard to find a more tension-filled 15 minutes of screen time than is delivered in Delphine Girard’s “A Sister.”

A car heading down the highway at night. At the wheel is a man; beside him a woman using her cel phone to call her sister to check in on her kids. We view them from the back seat, so we don’t really get a good look.

On the other end of the line is a police emergency dispatcher (Veerie Baetens) who quickly deduces that a kidnapping is in progress, asks carefully-posed questions (all “yes” or “no” answers, lest the driver catch on) and dispatches patrol cars to intervene.

It’s very well done, but here’s the catch:  It’s almost like a condensed remake of “The Guilty,” a 2018 Danish film with almost precisely the same premise.

“BROTHERHOOD” (Tunisia, 25 minutes) My rating: B

Family issues and sociopolitical concerns permeate Maryam Joobeur’s “Brotherhood,” in which a son’s return from fighting in Syria for Isis triggers upheaval in a family of Tunisian goat ranchers.

Father Mohammed (Mohamed Grayaa) is suspicious when his oldest boy Malek mysteriously appears with his new wife in tow. She’s covered from head to toe in black — all you can see are her eyes — and this display of fundamentalist piety only infuriates Mohammed, who views Isis fighters as murderers. His wife Salha, though, is thrilled to have her boy back in the fold.

Tensions percolate until Mohammed does something that can never be taken back, and which will probably mean the breakup of his family.

“THE NEIGHBOR’S WINDOW” (USA, 20 minutes) My rating: A

Marshall Curry’s “The Neighbor’s Window” is not only the best movie about voyeurism since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,”  it’s one of the best movies of the year, period.

Brooklyn thirtysomethings Alli and Jacob (Maria Dizzia, Greg Keller) find themselves obsessed with the new neighbors across the street — a young couple who are forever having sex in front of their curtainless apartment windows.

For Alli and Jacob this is both titillation and a rebuke…she’s pregnant, they have two toddlers, and their sex life is nonexistent.

Curry’s script starts out darkly humorous as the couple watch their neighbors’ sexual shenanigans (“Disgraceful.” “Stop drooling.” “Whoa, that’s a new one.”) They even get a pair of binoculars to better catch the show. (“They’re like a car crash you can’t look away from.”  “Do they have jobs…or clothes?”)

But all this leads to jealousy and anger…our protagonists are too exhausted to even think about that sort of unbridled passion.

And then Curry’s film shifts effortlessly from comedy to tragedy, becoming a humanistic triumph that will leave viewers dealing with killer throat-lumps.

“SARIA” (USA, 23 minutes) My rating: B+

Set in a Guatemalan “orphanage” that feels uncomfortably like a Nazi work camp, Bryan Buckley’s “Saria” tells the true story of rebellion and mass escape by the teenage inmates.

It’s all seen through the eyes of Saria (Estefania Tellez), who dreams of making her way to the United States and, perhaps, making a little whoopee with Green Shirt, a resident of the boys’ dormitory.

These are kids who’ve been left to fend for themselves, first on the crime-riddled streets and now in an institution where they awaken each day to a matron banging on the bunkbeds and screaming, “Time to get up, bitches!”

No sense giving away the film’s tragic denouement…let’s just say “Saria” gives us reason to hope before having it all crash down on our heads.

“NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB”  (Tunisia/France, 17 minutes) My rating: B

A couple of soccer-crazed Tunisian brothers (Eltayef Dhaoul, Mohamed Ali Ayari) are puzzled when they come across a headphone-wearing mule in the mountainous desert that separates Tunisia from Algeria.  Searching the baskets on the animal’s back, the older boy discovers a fortune in heroin. He tells is younger sibling that it’s laundry detergent and makes plans to sell the drugs.

Meanwhile two smugglers (Lyes Salem and Zichem Mesbah) wonder what has happened to the mule they trained to carry contraband across the border (it’s a drug mule, literally).  Turns out the animal is guided  by an Adele song that plays on the headphones.  But somehow the wrong song got played and now the animal is in the wind.

Yves Piat’s film is an extended joke, but a satisfying one featuring an ironic conclusion worthy of O. Henry.

| Robert W. Butler

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2019 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ 

“LIFE OVERTAKES” (Sweden/USA, 39 minutes) My rating: B+

In recent years Sweden has become a haven for refugees fleeing unrest in the Balkans and some of the former Soviet republics. But the children of these displaced families are paying a price.

Resignation Syndrome is a previously undiagnosed condition in which young children retreat from the insecurities of their world by going into a sort of coma. We meet youngsters like Daria, Karen and Leyla who gradually slipped into a dream world. Now they must be bathed and exercised by their parents; most are nourished through feeding tubes.

Horrifying and heartbreaking, John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s film shows what these families have gone through.  Daria’s parents were targeted by death squads for running an internet system independent of the government. Both were tortured and imprisoned; the mother was raped.
But in Sweden they are uninvited guests who must repeatedly apply for political asylum, and it is that uncertainty about the future — especially the possibility of deportation back to a country that wants to kill them — that triggers Resignation Syndrome in these youngsters.
But get this…once the family is granted permanent asylum in Sweden, the children start improving.  As one doctor observes, the parents’ almost mystical sense of hope is somehow transmitted to the sleeping child.
“LEARNING TO SKATEBOARD IN A WARZONE (IF YOU’RE A GIRL)”  (UK, 39 minutes) My rating: B
For more than a decade a private school in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan, has quietly defied that country’s conventional thinking about the role of women by educating girls.
Here girls  get the expected instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as daily lessons in personal courage and standing up for one’s rights.
But as Carol Designer’s doc reveals, there’s more.  The girls are taught to skateboard in a large gymnasium outfitted with ramps and platforms for various stunts.  Yeah, they still wear head scarves and are pretty much covered from head to foot, but now they also sport helmets and knee pads.
All this is done on the QT.  Some of the instructors refused to have their faces shown in the film…they live in a dangerous world.  Others, like the tough lady in charge of the school, introduces a bit of swagger into their lives: “I’m not afraid of anything except God.”
“IN THE ABSENCE” (South Korea, 28 minutes) My rating: B
Yi Seung-Jun’s riveting and saddening film focuses on the 2014 sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol; more than half its nearly 500 passengers died.
This doc — which combines news footage, cel phone videos shot by the victims (most of the dead were high school students) and interviews with survivors and rescuers — is essentially a scream of rage.
The Korean Coast Guard was patently unprepared to deal with the disaster, the captain abandoned the ship early on, and passengers were told to stay in their rooms instead of going to the deck where they might have a chance pop rescue.

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2019 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ 

Once upon a time animated shorts were simple amusements.  No longer…at least not if this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts are any yardstick.
Here we have five brief films. A couple are charming. Cute, even.  You might get a chuckle or two.
But none of them are overtly comic, and in fact most deal with dead-serious issues. A common theme is familial relationships (parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings). Three of these movies have no dialogue at all; the remaining two are in foreign languages.  What this means is that viewers have to pay attention…no falling back on words to explain what’s going on.
But here’s the thing…on one level or another each of these nominees is an emotional workout.  You will cry.  I repeat: You WILL Cry.
You’ve been warned.

“HAIR LOVE” (USA, 7 minutes)  My rating: B+

Childlike yearning, parental concern and family crisis merge effortlessly in Matthew A. Cherry’s “Hair Love,” which finds a young African American girl coming to terms (well, sort of) with her unruly head of hair.

It starts out almost like a classic Disney cartoon with our little heroine interacting with her cat, a fussy creature who seems utterly disdainful of her mistress’ issues. But some sort of big day is approaching, and our girl is determined to look her best.  To that end she goes into the bathroom and —  armed with a sheet of photos of current Afro-centric hair styles, scissors, combs, brushes and unguents — attempts to do her ‘do.

It’s a disaster. When her father discovers what’s going on he intervenes. But let’s face it…dads are rarely great at their little girls’ hair, and this dad is combatting an unruly Afro that seems to engulf him in an explosion of ever-expanding follicle. After some comic confrontations, though, the father-and- daughter team get the job done, just in time for an emotional reunion.

“DCERA  (DAUGHTER)”   (Czech Republic, 15 minutes) My rating: B

“Daughter” opens with the beeping of a medical monitor; we find ourselves in a bedroom where a man lies dying. His adult daughter stands at the foot of his bed.

 Daria Kashcheeva’s film is rendered with what appears to be classic stop-action animation. The man and his daughter have been very roughly rendered — it’s almost as if their heads were carved from blocks of wood — and they move through a detailed environment.

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Bradley Whitford, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins

“THREE CHRISTS”  My rating: C-

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title “Three Christs” suggests the possibility of blasphemy.

If only.

Jon Avnet’s film — shot in 2017 and on ice since then — is an adaptation of psychiatrist Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, about his experiences working in a mental institution outside Detroit in the late 1950s.  The three Christs of the title are schizophrenics  suffering from the delusion that they are, well, Jesus.

Going in there’s reason for optimism.  Stone, the physician handling their cases, is played by Richard Gere, who in recent years has enjoyed a late-stage career resurgence (“Arbitrage,” “Norman,” “The Dinner”).

His three “holy” patients are played by heavy hitters Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins and Bradley Whitford.  Even the supporting cast has depth: Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, Jane Alexander.

So why does this feel like a waste of time?

Richard Gere

Neither Avnet nor his screenwriter, Eric Nazarian, seem to have a clue as to how to proceed with this yarn.  We get the basic setup — Dr. Stone attempts a revolutionary new therapy by putting his three “Christs” together in isolation; it’s an experiment to see if each can be cured of his delusion by observing his fellow’s delusions.

But what ensues doesn’t play like drama, comedy, or anything in between.

There are digressions into Stone’s personal life — the Missus (Margulies) is developing a drinking problem and he must  perennially steel himself against viewing his pretty young assistant (Charlotte Hope) as anything more than a professional colleague.

But the three Christs themselves remain ciphers. We should be feeling for these seemingly hopeless cases, but while the players are occasionally amusing, they never really engage our emotions.  The characters’ manias are too extreme to seem like anything but a sideshow. They are — I hate to say it — cardboard crazy men.

| Robert W. Butler

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