Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen

“PALMER”  My rating: B (Apple +)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An paroled con returns to his Louisiana hometown and becomes the best friend and protector of a 10-year-old trans kid.

That’s the plot of “Palmer,” a film that pretty much delivers exactly what you expect.  Once it sets up its  premise the screenplay (by Cheryl Guerriero) really hasn’t any surprises up its sleeve.  It proceeds along the anticipated lines.

But if “Palmer” carries a high degree of predictability, that in no way limits its pleasures.  As directed by Fisher Stevens and performed by a first-rate cast the film is low-keyed, sincere, humanistic and occasionally shockingly tough.

One-time local football hero Palmer (Justin Timberlake) has spent a decade in stir for a beating up a man during a home burglary.  Despite the violence of his crime, he’s now something of a gentle soul — though he still likes the occasional bender.

Anyway, he moves in with the grandma (June Squibb) who reared him, eventually finds a job as a grade school custodian, and little by little is drawn into the life of Sam (Ryder Allen), a kid living in a doublewide adjacent to Granny’s place.

Sam has a drug-addled floozie Mama (Juno Temple).  He’s also obsessed with fairy princesses, wears a beret in his  hair, favors  shorts and cowboy boots and views the world through bottle-bottom spectacles.

The kid, Palmer announces, is weird. Doesn’t he know he’s a boy?

When Sam’s mom vanishes on one of her month-long benders, Sam washes up on Palmer’s doorstep. Reluctantly the parolee becomes the kids’ ex-officio guardian. A bond grows.

Like I said, predictable.

Nevertheless, the film succeeds. Timberlake delivers what may be his most nuanced and heartfelt work yet. Meanwhile young Allen seems to be simultaneously channeling Jonathan Lipnicki from “Jerry Maguire” and Abigail Breslin from “Little Miss Sunshine.”  The kid’s blend of unaffected innocence and preternatural braininess sticks with you.

While “Palmer” touches upon anti-trans prejudice, that really isn’t the film’s driving force.  This is a sort of love story between a needy boy and an equally needy man.

| Robert W. Butler

Robin Wright

“LAND” My rating: B- (Select theaters)

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Who hasn’t harbored a dream of retreating to a mountainside home far from the hassles, fears and frustrations of civilization?

Americans seem particularly prone to this Thoreau-esque  fantasy; undoubtedly it has something to do with our shared consciousness of pioneers coming to terms with the wilderness.

It’s all very romantic…until it isn’t.

“Land,” actress Robin Wright’s film directing debut, unfolds in a primitive cabin  where a city dweller, working through an unnamed grief, has taken up residence.

It’s a minimalist effort — very little dialogue, no plot to speak of — that attempts to compensate for its dramatic thinness with gorgeous outdoor cinematography (the d.p. is Bobby Bukowski). If it sometimes seems there’s actually less here than meets the eye…well, at least the eye candy is first class.

Early on we see Edee (Wright) consulting a psychologist and arguing with a woman (Kim Dickens) — her sister? — about her desperate need to get away.

Next thing you know she’s rented a car and a trailer, loaded up on foodstuffs and essentials, thrown away her cell phone and relocated to rural Wyoming.  Basically she’s bought a property — no electricity, no running water — about as far away from other humans as she can get.

To ensure her isolation she hires someone to return the rental car…that way she can’t bail at the first sign of trouble.

As Edee gets used to her new environment she is subjected to visions of a man and young boy (her late husband and son, we assume).  Occasionally, in the midst of breathtaking beauty, she breaks down in helpless tears.

Continue Reading »

Foreground: Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Fred Hampton; background: LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal

“JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH”  My rating: B (HBO Max)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title of “Judas and the Black Messiah” smacks of folklorish hyperbole, but then Shaka King’s film about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton is positively overflowing with Biblical  allegory.

The Black Messiah, of course, is Hampton, a rising star in black activism who was targeted for elimination by the FBI and shot to death in his bed during a raid in Chicago in 1969. Hampton is here given the hagiographic treatment…after this you half expect the Catholic Church to start stamping out medallions with his likeness.

Whether Hampton was the sinless knight errant portrayed here is a matter for the historians to parse; what’s not in doubt is that Brit actor Daniel Kaluuya sells this interpretation with such conviction and certainty that — while you’re watching the movie, anyway — you absolutely buy into its premise that this guy could really have become the black messiah. Comparisons to Bobby Kennedy seem apt.

Of course, saints aren’t nearly as interesting as devils.  The Judas of this yarn is Bill O’Neal, a crook and con artist recruited by the feds to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, rise within its ranks, report on what he saw and eventually set up the circumstances under which Hampton would be murdered.

O’Neal is played by LaKeith Stanfield as a man of few or no moral convictions, a survive-at-any-cost scrambler blackmailed into informing and, once in place, perfectly willing to reap the perks of his position.  Does he feel guilt? Remorse?

Hard to say.  What’s obvious, though, is that Stanfield perfectly captures the desperation and creative scheming of a lowlife being squeezed from both directions.  The authorities will send him to prison if he fails to cooperate; his Panther colleagues would no doubt kill him if they knew of his betrayals.

In a weird way we find ourselves rooting for him to squirm his way through this minefield of treachery.

Continue Reading »

Lars Mikkelsen

“HERRENS VEJE (RIDE UPON THE STORM” (Netflix)

Being a member of the  clergy is a 24/7 tightrope walking act. Worshipers  expect their holy leaders to be fully human without exhibiting the usual human screwups.

The family of priests in the Danish series “Herrrens Veje” (it translates as “The Lord’s Ways” but Netflix is calling it “Ride Upon the Storm”) have screwups galore.  But, boy, they are truly human. And then some.

Lars Mikkelsen (older brother of fellow actor Mads) stars in this two-season drama as Johannes, a ninth-generation vicar serving a congregation in Copenhagen.

Johannes is outwardly a man at peace with his life and work.  After all, he is fulfilling the important role assigned his family over several centuries, and he’s determined that his own sons carry on the tradition.

Inside though, Johannes carries the scars of his own strict and borderline abusive upbringing. As the series begins (it’s from the same folks who gave us the brilliant “Borgen” about Danish politics) he loses an election for bishop to a female priest, who embodies all the wishywashy qualities which, in his mind, have set the Church of Denmark on the road to obscurity.

Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Lars Mikkelsen

Johannes’ bitterness at this rejection drives him to alcohol abuse and an affair with a member of his staff…although the more we get to know him the more we’re convinced that his particular brand of toxic masculinity eventually would have taken him down those dark paths.

Yeah, this is a troublesome character.  But Mikkelsen brings so much charisma and inner fire to the proceedings that we understand why Johannes’ parishioners and his employees stick with him. At his best he’s a genuinely dynamic leader. (BTW: Mikkelsen won the 2018 International Emmy for his performance here.)

Continue Reading »

Jamal Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz

“THE DISSIDENT” My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

By now the world is pretty unanimous in its conviction that on Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered while visiting his country’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey.

Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the execution was carried out at the behest of Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was furious at Khashoggi’s criticism of his regime in stories in The Washington Post and other news outlets.

Given all this, it’s doubtful that Bryan Fogel’s scathing documentary “The Dissident” is going to change many minds.  Most of us are already on board.

And yet here’s the thing:  This documentary is still capable of setting us back on our heels with gut-clutching revelations.

There is, for example, a transcript of the sound recording (uncovered by Turkish police) of Khashoggi’s real-time murder (he was strangled and suffocated in an embassy meeting room).  Earlier on the same tape a member of the hit squad imported from Saudi Arabia — a forensics expert — jokes that he’s never had to dismember a body on the floor before.  Even hunters, he notes, hang their prey upright for butchering.

And how about the revelation that in the days before the murder the embassy purchased 80 pounds of meat,  meat that investigators believe was barbecued to cover the smell of burning human flesh?

Continue Reading »

At top:  Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes; below: Ralph Fiennes

“THE DIG” My rating: B- (Netflix)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“The Dig” may be little more than motion picture comfort food…but right now comfort food is what we want.

Though inspired by real events — the discovery in 1939 of the Sutton Hoo site, a 6th-century Anglo-Saxon boat and priceless burial artifacts found  in an English pasture — this Masterpiece-ish effort from director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini gets most of its momentum from the  melodrama (much of it made up) surrounding the enterprise.

I mean, excavating ancient treasures one tiny trowel scoop at a time isn’t exactly scintillating cinema. Bring on the heavy breathing.

Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is a self-taught “excavator” (he wouldn’t presume to call himself an archaeologist) whose nose for buried wonders has been proven on various sites around his native Suffolk.  He’s crusty and cranky — in large part because his efforts are undervalued by the hoity-toity academic types with whom he must often work. (This was an era when archaeologists wore neckties and tweed jackets to dig.)

Now he’s been invited to the estate of widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan); she has an ancient mound out in the north forty she’d like to excavate. Basil would actually get to be the boss of the dig.

Along the way the childless fellow will become a father figure to Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes) and befriend Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), who is brought in to help with some of the heavy lifting.  All this warm fuzzy stuff later will become important when it’s revealed that Edith has major health issues.

Continue Reading »

Denzel Washington, Rami Malek

“THE LITTLE THINGS” My rating C (HBO Max on Jan. 29)

Running time:  127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Were there an Oscar for frustrated expectations, John Lee Hancock’s agonizingly moody “The Little Things” would clearly take home a statuette.

I mean, the elements audiences expect from a police-hunt-a-serial-killer drama are not only denied us in this instance, but obfuscated in a haze of existential navel-gazing.

Good thing the film features three — count ’em, three — Oscar-wining actors. The star power provided by Denzel Washington, Rami Malik and Jared Leto keeps us watching long after that nagging voice kicks in wondering where this sucker is going.

Following a prelude in which a teenage girl is stalked along a highway by an apparently murderous stranger, the film cuts to a northern California burg where Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) serves as a uniformed deputy.  At the outset he’s sent by his boss down to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence needed for a case.

Deke is reluctant to make the trip. He was once a celebrated detective in the big city, but left five years ago after some sort of breakdown that ended his marriage and his career.  Apparently he went a little bonkers trying to solve the case of a killer preying on young prostitutes.

By some fantastic coincidence, he arrives in LA in the midst of a new murder spree apparently perpetrated by the same never-apprehended fiend. In charge of the case is Jim Baxter (Malek), a dedicated cop and family man who has hit nothing but dead ends.

Figuring the killer Jim is looking for is probably the same one that got away from him years earlier, Deke decides to take a little vacation time to unofficially poke around the investigation.

Continue Reading »

Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth

“SUPERNOVA”  My rating: B+ (Opens Jan. 29 at the Barrywoods, Parkway, Studio and Town Center theaters)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Sam and Tusker (Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci) have been a couple for so long that they talk in shorthand.

Sam, a concert pianist now more-or-less retired, is the fussy, responsible one.

Tusker, a novelist, is a sarcastic wit with little use for propriety; he impishly ridicules his lover’s obsessions.

As Harry Macqueen’s film begins the two are cruising Britain’s back roads in an RV, accompanied by their flatulent dog.

They bicker about travel routes, about what to play on the radio, about Sam’s painfully slow driving. The mood is reasonably light.

Until, that is, they stop for groceries and Tusker wanders off with the pooch.  He manages to perambulate a mile or so down the road before a frantic Sam catches up and gently leads his bewildered best friend back into their ride.

It doesn’t take long for a viewer to grasp the dimensions of Sam and Tusker’s dilemma. Tusker is slipping into early onset dementia; they’re on a sort of farewell tour to visit Sam’s sister and brother-in-law (Pippa Haywood, Peter MacQueen) and other old acquaintances before Tusker’s lights go out altogether.

First, it should be noted that while Firth and Tucci are playing a gay couple, gayness has next to nothing to do with the overall setup.  There’s not a hint of societal disapproval here. no Celtic rednecks to look disapprovingly on the relationship. No stiff-necked family members.

No, these are just two people who have been essential parts of each other’s lives for years trying with varying degrees of of success to cope with a horrible situation.

Problem is, Tusker and Sam aren’t on the same page.

Continue Reading »

Shia LaBeouf, Vanessa Kirby

“PIECES OF A WOMAN” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Pieces of a Woman” announces itself with such an overwhelmingly dramatic and technologically challenging sequence that the rest of the film seems like an afterthought.

For nearly 30 minutes at the very beginning of Komel Mundruczo’s almost unbearable drama we are in the Montreal apartment of a young couple, Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf), as she undergoes childbirth.

The process is captured in one uninterrupted shot, from the first labor pains to the arrival of a midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), and on the the birth of the child.

It is so realistic, so perfectly acted, so audacious in its blend of naturalism and hyper-theatricality that one could end the movie right there and stagger out overwhelmed by the wonder and mystery of one human’s arrival in this world.

Thing is, there are still another 90 minutes to go, and while “Pieces of a Woman” features some impressive acting and soul-scorching angst, the rest of the film falls well short of matching the impact of that brilliant introduction.

There’s only so much one can reveal about the plot (the screenplay is by Kata Weber) without a major spoiler alert.

Let’s just say that the happy event does not long remain in that state, and that in its wake Martha and Sean’s marriage is shaken perhaps beyond repair.  Each party — he’s a construction worker, she occupies a corner office in a major firm — must deal with grief in their own way.

Continue Reading »

Gal Gadot

“WONDER WOMAN 1984” My rating: C (HBO Max)

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Perhaps the most telling commentary on “Wonder Woman 1984” has come from a critic who observed that the only way to enjoy the movie is to imagine that it is actually a relic from 1984.

Yeah, that works.  Kinda.

Had we seen this movie back in the Reagan years we’d have been blown away by the special effects — WW’s sinuous glowing lasso, that suit of golden armor in which she confronts the bad guy at the end, the flying, etc.

Pedro Pascal

And we’d have forgiven its grievous dramatic shortcomings — the utter lack of psychological realism, the plot holes big enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, the ever-meandering and overly complicated narrative — because 30 years ago superhero/comic book movies were, for the most part, pretty awful. We didn’t expect anything better.

(Although, the first Christopher Reeve “Superman” from 1978 remains imminently watchable…not for the eye candy but for its wit, its celebration of a cultural icon and the genuine affection it exudes for its hero and his world.)

Anyway, this latest from director Patty Jenkins is most noteworthy for its utter lack of style.  There’s no edge, no real humor aimed at anything that matters (we’re supposed to get off on Chris Pine’s wardrobe  of ghastly ’80s fashion).

Which comes as a surprise since 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” also helmed by Jenkins, oozed style and attitude.

Continue Reading »