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Dark Waters (2019)
Gripping and Fascinating Glimpse into Evil, Virtue, and Our Own Bodies
Hey! I want you to see a movie about toxic waste and a deadly, manmade chemical that is, right now, inside your body, like a timebomb, and will possibly someday cause you or your loved ones to contract cancer or endocrine disorders!
No, really, it's a good movie. "Dark Waters" had my attention throughout, and it wasn't depressing as one might think. That's because the center of the film is a real hero, Robert Bilott, a high-priced lawyer who sacrificed much of his personal and professional life, and his health, to researching the deadly chemical, DuPont's manipulation of the public, and to getting some financial compensation for victims.
Bilott's own book is titled "Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer's Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont." That title offers a good plot summary.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a dairy farmer from Bilott's grandmother's West Virginia hometown, asks Bilott to discover why his cows are dying horrible deaths. Another lawyer might walk away, But Bilott, urged on by Tennant, does research and discovers that DuPont, as part of the manufacture of Teflon pans, produces a chemical that harms and kills humans, that never breaks down, and that is found, now, in the bodies of virtually all living things on earth, including humans.
DuPont knew this but hid the information. Bilott's research uncovered DuPont's own extensive reports that detailed exactly how the chemical damaged human bodies. Bilott is shown meeting with DuPont employees who talk frankly about working on Teflon and giving birth to defective babies and needing to have hysterectomies.
A few of the real people involved in this horror show appear in the film. These include William "Bucky" Bailey who was born with one nostril and a deformed eye. He had over thirty surgeries during his childhood. In a YouTube video, Bucky talks about his fears of fathering his own children. He was told he might pass his deformities on.
I grew up near DuPont sites in New Jersey. Higher rates of cancer are reported there. Four members of my immediate family died from cancer and I've had cancer twice. Even so, I was compelled by and appreciated this movie. Watching the dedication of Robert Bilott and his tireless efforts was refreshing. The script and direction maintain a fast pace and I was never bored. In fact the film is a fascinating glimpse into power, the legal system, the rigors of research, evil, and virtue. I didn't have time to sink into despair.
Last Christmas (2019)
Funny, Heartwarming, Profound
"Last Christmas" is a funny, heartwarming, ultimately profound movie. It's being marketed as a romantic comedy but it's more of a dramedy. There are funny lines throughout, but "Last Christmas" deals with some tough issues, and towards the end it sends a beautiful message.
Emma Thompson co-wrote the script. Thompson previously won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for "Sense and Sensibility." "Last Christmas" traffics in unflattering stereotypes of Eastern Europeans and it tries to hard to be politically correct, but its wit, warmth, and the chemistry of its stars, Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, won me over.
The movie opens in the former Yugoslavia, in an Orthodox church, of all places. Petra (Emma Thompson) is watching her daughter Katrina sing a George Michael song.
Fast forward decades later, and move to London. Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an unlikable mess. She works as an elf / clerk in a year-round Christmas store run by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate is homeless and couch surfs, sleeping with friends and one-night stands. She dresses in clothes that are a little bit slob and a little bit tramp. She's hard to like.
One day she looks out the window of her Christmas store and sees Tom (Henry Golding.) He's a very nice guy. Charming, handsome, and kind. Kate is suspicious.
Eventually Kate and Tom get close enough that Kate confesses her dark secret to him. She had been ill for a long time. Her mother seemed to enjoy too much having a chronically ill daughter, so Kate had to move out of the house. A year earlier, Kate had had a heart transplant, and she hasn't felt like herself since. Tom encourages Kate to get her life together.
Kate returns to her natal family, now living in London. Petra, Kate's mother, is a stereotypical Eastern European. She is always sad, she sings mournful songs, she uses outlandish curses - "I will nail you to my p----" - and she refers to a dessert brought by a gay guest as "lesbian pudding."
The TV broadcasts coverage of Brexit protests and Petra bemoans that people dislike her because she is an immigrant. But she is a bigot herself, albeit a comical one. "I blame the Poles," she says, about current anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK. All this is played for laughs. Otherwise, the movie bends over backward to be politically correct. Four relationships are highlighted in the film, and all four are biracial, and one is a lesbian couple. The one group this politically correct film recognizes it is okay to make fun of is Eastern Europeans. Even so, I loved the movie.
There are no spoilers in this review, so I can't tell you how the movie handles Kate's transformation, from a total mess at the beginning of the film, to someone we can take to heart at the end, but I found the plot device to be quite poignant, and I left the theater with tears rolling down my face. The critics who have given this film a low score need to have their credentials revoked and their minds and hearts opened. Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding have terrific chemistry, and I'd love to see them reunite in a more traditional romantic comedy.
The Movie America Needs Right Now
"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is the movie America needs right now. Just go see it and don't even bother reading the rest of this review. It's okay if you have no idea what the movie is about. Really. Believe me.
In "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," Tom Hanks gives the performance of a lifetime as Mr. Rogers, a beloved American children's TV icon. Hanks inhales and exhales Rogers, and somehow manages to ice the cake with his own unique Hanksian genius. Fred Rogers was a devout Christian. He demonstrated, rather than preached, Christianity. The Mr. Rogers of ABDITN is a saint, in the very best way. He brings joy and hope to those around him, often in surprising ways. And, yes, that is why you should see "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." That part of the movie earns a 10 out of 10.
The rest of the movie is standard-issue soap opera, and it's more of a 7 out of 10. Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, a cynical, muckraking journalist who is assigned to profile Mr. Rogers. I don't know if Rhys is a good actor. Maybe director Marielle Heller told him to mope so that the viewer would know that Lloyd is a tortured soul. In any case, Rhys mopes. He looks sad and unkempt. He is abrupt with others.
In real life, people who have hidden wounds often do not look sad all the time. Rhys' one-note performance doesn't open any windows of insight into what it's like to have had an abusive parent.
Susan Kelechi Watson plays Lloyd's wife Andrea. These two never convey the chemistry of a married couple in a complicated relationship. Watson looks picture-perfect in every scene. Her makeup is perfect; her clothes are pristine. She's supposed to be playing an attorney and new mother. Totally not believable to anyone who has spent any time with a new, working mother.
Watson's and Rhys' shared scenes left me cold and confused. What are they to each other?
Chris Cooper plays Lloyd's abusive dad, Jerry, who comes back into Lloyd's life. Again, I just didn't feel that anything real was at stake in these scenes.
The domestic strife scenes in this movie struck me as paint-by-numbers, as someone writing in a writing class, someone who hasn't really lived or felt the material but knew that a thrown fist and an illness diagnosis would get paint-by-numbers reactions from the audience.
My other concern is more about substance than style. The movie sends the message that if you are nice to people, even people who have proven themselves to be unreliable, those people will be nice to you back.
In fact in real life one of the key lessons of being abused is "Don't allow yourself to be vulnerable to abusive people, and yes sometimes you have to walk away and not look back."
So, no, the rest of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" does not live up to Tom Hanks' terrific performance, or Mr. Rogers living out of Christian values. But that's okay. Go see the movie anyway. And bring a hankie.
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Just Go See "Jojo Rabbit." It's Wonderful
I love movies and I love writing movie reviews. I'm not going to write a review of "Jojo Rabbit." I'm just going to say, "Go see Jojo Rabbit." This movie made me and the person I saw it with laugh, cry, and think. It's the best theatrical-release movie I've seen in 2019, and 2019 is almost over. It's audacious, courageous, moving, unforgettable, original, deeply human, and it gets under your skin. Reward this kind of filmmaking with your ticket-buying dollars.
"Jojo Rabbit" is about a ten-year-old Hitler Youth member living in a German city during the waning days of World War II. He's just a child so he has swallowed Nazi ideology whole. He has an imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Jojo lives with his mother, and he attends Hitler Youth meetings.
Making a comedy about Nazism is a tough task. Many have tried and failed. One false move and this movie would be splat all over the floor. There are no false moves. "Jojo Rabbit" is supremely confident. It moves like a well-oiled machine. I don't want to say much more because I want you to be surprised and delighted as I was.
I can say the performances are terrific. I found Sam Rockwell, as a Hitler Youth commander, to be particularly compelling. His final scene in this film is one that will stay with me for a long time.
Scarlett Johansson as Jojo's mother ripped my heart right out of my chest. Rebel Wilson is hysterically funny. Thomasin McKenzie has the gravity of a veteran performer twice her age, and when she finally smiles an innocent, little girl smile it tugs at your heart. Archie Yates, as Jojo's fat friend, is adorable. The tall, thin, pale man who played the Gestapo commander is appropriately terrifying and also funny.
This may have been a low-budget movie but the production values are high. The interiors send you back in time eighty years. Scarlett Johansson wears a green art-deco sweater I wanted to reach through the screen and borrow, and maybe never return.
Taika Waititi as Hitler is, at first, simply funny. But then there's a scene where he really unleashes, and it's terrifying. It's clear that Waititi has watched video of Hitler giving speeches and managed to mimic every crazed, hate-mongering gesture.
Go see this movie. Please. And you're welcome.
Heartbreaking Portrait of a Goddess in Decline
"Judy" is a heartbreaking portrait of a goddess in decline. It depicts the final year in the life of film icon Judy Garland, during her performance at the London nightclub The Talk of the Town in 1969. And there isn't much more to say about this movie than that. It's heartbreaking. You see Judy fall on stage. You see concert-goers throw their bread at her in contempt. You see her, a woman who had been addicted to pills by MGM when she was just a teenager, struggling to sleep at night. You see her grabbing for booze, cigarettes, and pills just to get through the day.
She marries Mickey Deans, a much younger, starstruck man she barely knows, whom the viewer decides is not good for her. She is unceremoniously kicked out of her residence, where she lives with her two children, Lorna and Joe Luft. She can't pay the bills. She's broke. She hands her kids over to ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Sewell's scenes are brief but he communicates that he's been around the block, the hard way, with Judy, and he no longer views her through a gauzy lens. Luft informs Judy in brusque, no-nonsense words that he wants custody of the kids. They want and deserve stability and friends, not the peripatetic, hand-to-mouth show business life Judy offers them.
All of this heartbreaking material would be easier to take, and would add up to a better movie, if there were a plot that allowed for Aristotelian pity, fear, and catharsis. Instead I'll remember this movie most for seeing Judy fallen on the stage, disgusted and betrayed fans throwing their bread at her.
The problem is, of course, is that this is a true story, a story that most people who will attend this movie know all too well. We can't change the details of the plot, so the plot has no place to go but down.
Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm, was one of the singular talents of the Golden Age of Hollywood. You can experience Judy's gift with a short visit to a YouTube video. Watch, for example, her televised rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." She delivered this soul-stirring, powerhouse performance just after JFK was assassinated. That's more than a movie star. That's a supernova.
Judy was born to a mother who didn't want her and looked into aborting her. Abortion was illegal and so Judy drew breath. Her father was gay and the family had to leave town after he faced morals charges. They moved to California. Her talent fell into the hands of Louis B. Mayer. Mayer, in photos, looks like a plump, elderly city councilman. If what we hear about his treatment of Judy is true, there is a special place in Hell for Louis B. Mayer.
He was - allegedly - a drug peddler and greedy exploiter. Mayer recognized that Judy had talent, but he also recognized that she was not attractive. When Judy was just a child, Mayer starved her, plied her with drugs, and, allegedly, called Judy "My little hunchback" because she was short and had curvature of the spine. At the same time, this - alleged - greedy perv used to molest Judy. He would, repeatedly, put his hand on his child star's breast. Finally, when Judy grew up, she told him never to do it again. We see all this in "Judy" in flashbacks. You just want to jump up onto the screen and rescue that child.
There are a couple of great scenes in "Judy." Late one night, she greets two gay fans at the stage door. They take her home for a meal. What happens in their apartment, and, again, close to the end of the movie, is very touching. I don't want to describe it here because I don't want to ruin it for you.
Another provocative aspect of the film is its treatment of performance, and the life of a performer or any creative person. "Judy" shows Judy in performance mode, in mask-is-off mode, and in performance mode even though she's not onstage. All of this is handled very deftly. You realize what incredibly hard work performing is.
I love Judy Garland. I see her as a martyr. I can't say that I've ever seen any other performer give so much, so consistently, in one performance after another, over the course of decades. Her rendition of "The Man that Got Away" in "A Star is Born," that sums up impossible sexual yearning, her dreamy, wistful, melancholy, defiant, resigned, ever-hopeful "Friendly Star" from "Summer Stock," her "Get Happy" from that same movie that feels like taking a bath in unadulterated sunshine, "Mack the Black" from "The Pirate," a performance both sexy and witty - no one else has racked up that depth and breadth of material. Watching her suffer through this new movie made me cry.
There's much talk about Renee Zellweger's performance. Zellweger is a fine actress and she gives a fine performance. The thing is, we already have Judy onscreen. Maybe what we need is a documentary. A question I'd really like to see answered is, by physicians, psychiatrists, accountants, Hollywood historians, did it really have to end the way it did?
I'm a woman and a feminist and "Hustlers," a movie that wants to be a girl power anthem, disgusted me. It's a well-made film with strong performances and high production values. The main characters, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu) are strippers who drug men with ketamine and MDMA and then rob them. "Hustlers" is based on real events. The real madame of the real-life Hustlers gang was Samantha Barbash. She and her former partners have publicly stated that the men they robbed deserved it. One said, "It sounds so bad to say that we were, like, drugging people. But it was, like, normal." These are not nice people.
The film works hard to convince us that these gals are sweethearts, that America offered them no economic opportunities other than sex work and theft, and that the men deserved to be drugged and robbed. Yes there is a lot of naked female flesh in "Hustlers." Viewers who want to see a porn show involving two women fondling each other to entertain a man in a private room, pole dancers, and naked boobs, this is the movie for you. The film also celebrates greed. There are long sequences that consist of nothing but the thieves purchasing and fondling chinchilla jackets, high-heeled shoes, and luxury automobiles. There are also lengthy scenes where the extended network of thieves Ramona has organized get together and give each other expensive presents, dance and laugh together.
What's not to like? A couple of things. For some people, and no doubt Jennifer Lopez is among them, women are valuable to the extent that they are sexual objects for men. "Hustlers" is for and about that narrow slice of a woman's experience. There is scant attention paid to women as family members, thinkers, creators. Yes, yes, there are exploitative, tacked-on scenes of the women with their kids, but it's clear that babysitters are raising those kids, not their mothers. One of the characters spends about sixty seconds pretending to read a book in order to study for a GED. Wow, a scholar.
What's really despicable about "Hustlers" is its utter dishonesty. Lopez worked really hard to make her pole stripping authentic. She didn't care about being honest about the women she was bringing to the screen. The film insists that these women had to strip and they had to steal because America is an economic wasteland that provides no other employment opportunities to women. The film also constantly waves around the strippers' daughters as justification. I have a daughter at home! I have to strip and steal from men!
Destiny goes to a high-end department store to apply for a job as a clerk. Destiny is impeccably courteous and obviously desperate. The boss treats Destiny with exaggerated contempt and refuses to hire her. It's a ridiculous, unbelievable scene.
By insisting that sex work and theft are the only ways a woman can survive, by celebrating greed with lustful close-ups of chinchilla jackets, "Hustlers" insults every woman who doesn't do sex work and who doesn't steal. My mother brought up six kids while working full time in factories and cleaning houses. Jennifer Lopez would have to work hard, and not on a pole, to be the woman my mother was.
Ad Astra (2019)
Beautiful, Suspenseful, Cerebral
"Ad Astra" is a beautiful, suspenseful, cerebral movie. Action fans are giving "Ad Astra" terrible reviews. There is a solution to this problem. Action fans should not go see "Ad Astra"
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent to the edges of the solar system to save life on planet Earth. That's pretty much the entire plot. Brad Pitt in space is almost the whole show. There is a terrific supporting cast: Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones, but most of these actors are given precious little to do.
The film places a great deal of emphasis on the physical fitness required for successful space travel. Brad Pitt's vital signs are constantly being monitored. And yet we are supposed to believe that the US government sent Donald Sutherland, looking every minute of his 84 years, into space. In fact Sutherland's part could be lifted out of the movie and the movie wouldn't change. I wondered what Sutherland was doing there and thought perhaps it was to make 55 year old Brad Pitt look young, but Pitt doesn't need it. That man hit the gene jackpot.
"Ad Astra" is suspenseful. There is the "Houston, we have a problem" surge scene, that one can see in trailers. There is the space pirates scene, the bad space monkeys scene, the "Uh oh, I've inadvertently killed a bunch of people" scene, and a surprising scene involving travel under water that may or may not be a reference to the birth canal. These scenes are episodic. They don't build to a larger point. Characters come and go, but they are not developed. That aspect of the script was disappointing, but perhaps inevitable. "Ad Astra" is about the loneliness of an astronaut, and all people's loneliness. It's about an astronaut's vulnerability, and all of ours. It's about trying to find meaning in lives that can feel meaningless.
"Ad Astra" also depicts the inevitable Big Brother aspect of space travel. Here on earth, you can breathe and eat without too much government intervention. Not so in space. Astronauts are dependent on the government for the very air they breathe. If a spaceman runs afoul of what the government wants him to do, he has few options. He can't manufacture his own air.
Set after set shows McBride isolated in punishing landscapes. Either he is driving around the grey, lifeless moon, or sitting in a soundproof booth facing the most sinister sound engineers and radio operators in movie history. There's an environment that is designed to be comfortable and reassuring, and it's one of the creepiest sets of all. I love the wrinkles in the wallpaper.
"Ad Astra" depicts an unflattering view of space travel. This isn't "Star Wars" or even "Star Trek." It's closer to, but more coherent than, "2001, A Space Odyssey." Hal isn't a mistake here. Hal is a necessary part of the system. Humans trash space just as they trash the earth. Everything that is cheap and tacky on earth ends up in space, as well.
Unlike most other space movies, "Ad Astra" mentions earth-bound religious practice. An astronaut prays to St Christopher. What becomes of him can be taken as a statement about Catholic faith by the filmmaker, James Gray, who comes from a Ukrainian Jewish background.
Even though some will see "Ad Astra" as a cold movie, there is a scene where Brad Pitt cries. It's one of the most moving crying scenes I've ever seen. "Luke, I am your father" is one unforgettable space movie scene involving fathers and sons. For my money, this scene in "Ad Astra" is more powerful. Max Richter's score is one of the best film scores I've heard.
Long Shot (2019)
Lousy Script, Obnoxious Character, Zero Chemistry
2019's "Long Shot" starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron is an attempt at a romantic comedy crossed with a gross-out schlub movie. Average guy Fred Flarsky meets and falls in love with presidential candidate Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron). We've seen similar movies before, like "The American President" with Michael Douglas and Annette Benning, and "Dave" with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. Those movies were mildly pleasant. "Long Shot" is wretched.
I feel as if the eff word was used in every sentence spoken by every character, from the first scene to the last. My memory is probably exaggerating but that's how it felt. Why did the screenwriters use the eff word so much? Did they think it would attract cool viewers? Dunno. It's really just lazy writing, meant to replace a real script with real characters, emotions, charm, and laughs, none of which the movie has.
Being the schlub who scores the hot girl has been Seth Rogen's calling card since "Knocked Up." Me, I just don't get it. It's not just that he is overweight, out of shape, and minimally groomed. He plays drug-addicted, arrogant, narcissistic, immature slackers so convincingly that it's hard to believe that that is not his real personality. In "Long Shot" his Fred Flarsky is unbearably obnoxious. He has an exaggerated sense of his own self-importance as a guy who writes left-wing articles for a small newspaper. The rest of the world is corrupt but he is pure and righteous. At least that's what he thinks.
Charlize Theron doesn't help. In her scenes, all I kept thinking was "Wow. She's 43. Her face looks picture perfect." And that's *it*. When I watch Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year," another movie about a hyper-achieving woman mating with a schlubby guy, I get into the emotions of her character and the challenges of any such relationship. Theron's icy, flat performance just made me focus on how picture perfect her face is. There's no chemistry between Rogen and Theron.
The script never offers a clue as to why these two people are together, not for a one-night stand, not to consider a long-term relationship. The limitations of a script that consists mostly of the eff word.
The closest the movie comes to any complexity is to have Charlotte (Theron) ask Flarsky (Rogen) for the drug MDMA. They get high together, and, thanks to the drug, Charlotte is able to solve a world crisis. That's not how MDMA works. MDMA sometimes kills people. Just saying.
High achieving women like Charlotte deserve so much better than to be depicted as flawed and in need of a schlubby guy with a drug stash to rescue them from their own high achievement. Oh, and by the way, the title "Long Shot" is not just a reference to the chances of Fred and Charlotte becoming a happy couple. It's also a reference to Fred having an intimate encounter with his own right hand, an encounter that ends up staining his face. And you get to watch that, if you are foolish enough to buy a ticket to this movie.
The Best of Enemies (2019)
Rich, Substantive, Moving. Go See It!
"Best of Enemies" is a great movie and you should go see it. It's getting mediocre reviews, and that's disgusting. So many of us yearn for thoughtful, substantive, adult films. "Best of Enemies" is just that, and critics are attacking it because it isn't radical enough for them. Defy these losers. Go see "Best of Enemies."
It's 1971 in Durham, North Carolina. C. P. (Claiborne Paul) Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is the Exalted Cyclops of the local KKK. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a black activist trying to get decent housing for black people. A black school burns and blacks petition to attend the local, white school. Black activist Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) comes to town to organize a charrette. No, I'd never heard of a charrette, either. It's a French thing. People with opposing viewpoints are organized into discussion groups with a strictly imposed deadline. They must vote in a supermajority to approve any proposal.
C. P. Ellis' Klan is shown violently menacing white women. This is interesting because one justification offered for the Klan's existence was its purported protection of white women from black men. Ellis and his crew shoot up a house inhabited by a woman with a black boyfriend. In another scene, Klan members threaten a white female charrette participant to make sure that she won't vote for blacks to enter the white school.
Ellis' change is subtle and slow. There are no crashing music epiphany scenes. The movie is grounded in gritty day-to-day interactions, like Riddick compelling Atwater and Ellis to eat a school cafeteria meal together.
The entire cast is excellent. The production values are high. Clothes, cars, the songs on the soundtrack, evoke 1971 in the South. One drawback. Making a charrette dynamic drama is a challenge, one the director doesn't quite rise to. Some exposition scenes do drag. "1776" made the writing of the Declaration of Independence very dramatic, and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Twelve Angry Men" made a filibuster and jury deliberations dramatic. I wish director Robin Bissell had taken a cue from these films.
The African Americans in the film are all saintly; most of the whites are sweat-stained, racist wretches or too cowardly to live up to their anti-segregation beliefs. It's patronizing to depict African Americans as flawless. We know that that era included hate and violence on all sides, including white-on-white (Viola Liuzzo and Jim Zwerg) and black-on-black (The Black Panthers and Malcolm X).
Further, the film fudges Ellis' Road-to-Damascus moment. "Best of Enemies" depicts Atwater showing small kindnesses to Ellis. The cinematic Ellis concludes that blacks are not inferior. In fact, though, Ellis' own memoir, he talks about growing up poor and being ashamed of being poor. He worked hard and could not get ahead. He was bitter and resentful and looking for someone to blame. The Klan encouraged him to blame blacks, not rich whites. As a Klansman, Ellis rubbed shoulders with wealthier whites. Outside of Klan meetings, though, those rich whites would cross the street to avoid him. Ellis concluded that desegregation would ultimately be best for poor and working class whites. None of Ellis' class struggle makes it into the movie. Hollywood has a hard time talking about poor whites.
There is a very handsome, very scary Klansman in a small part. I didn't remember seeing that actor in anything before "Best of Enemies." I made a mental note to google him. Darned if it isn't Wes Bentley, who made such a splash in 1999's "American Beauty." After that success, Bentley became a heroin addict. He's back to acting now. We wish him all the best. He has the star power to fill the screen. I found his Klansman genuinely scary.
Not as Funny or Light as Reviewers Promised
Reviewers say that "Shazam" is light and funny, that it gets to the heart of being a bullied child and yearning for power, and that it did not display the boring pomposity of so many recent comic book movies. The main character, Billy Batson, is an adolescent boy in the body of a superhero. "Shazam," reviewers promised, is the superhero version of "Big," the 1988 Penny Marshall hit about a boy who magically enters an adult body. The reviewers were only partially telling the truth. "Shazam" contains too many scenes that are pompous, hateful, violent, and just plain weird in a movie that suddenly switches into cute, crippled child mode. Zachary Levi, a 38 year old actor who plays Billy Batson, is very good, sweet, funny, and believable as a child in an adult's body, and he deserved a better movie. But he and the producers are raking the bucks.
"Shazam" opens with an assault on those most evil of villains, white, Christian, wealthy, heterosexual, American men. Three males are traveling in a car at Christmas time. Bing Crosby is singing "Do You Hear What I Hear," over the car radio. The father is a vicious creep who mocks his youngest son, sitting in the backseat. His prized first-born is up front with him.
Long story short: the youngest son, who is being picked on, is offered power by a wizard, but he blows it because the eye of Sauron offers him the ring of power - no, wait, sorry, wrong fantasy. Basically Satanic beings offer the kid power. This motif is ultimately ripped off from the New Testament's "Temptation of Christ" narrative. It's ironic that schlocky Hollywood movies rip off the Bible even as they bash Christianity. Get used to the bashing and the cultural appropriation. There are Christmas trees throughout this movie. The superheroes are all pseudo Messiahs. Nothing new here.
The youngest son grows up to be Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). He's obsessed with gaining the power he couldn't receive when he was a greedy little brat. Eventually Sivana will get that power and use it to murder his abusive brother and father. He walks into a boardroom full of rich, white, Americans. Using demons, he violently murders them all. A couple of observations. Hollywood would never produce a big budget movie that included such a violent, hateful scene where a church or restaurant full of black people were violently murdered. And what the heck is this scene doing in a movie that is supposed to be for little kids? Mark Strong's performance as a man focused on the coldblooded destruction of human life belongs in a serious treatment of some historic atrocity.
Anyway. Billy Batson, a foster child, gains superpowers and fights Sivana. You've seen it all before. There are funny, light, "Big"-like scenes. Their placement in the movie served to make this viewer conscious that this movie could have been different, it could have been thoroughly light, funny, and innovative, and instead it is a mishmash of styles, tone, and agendas.
Please See This Beautiful Film
Please go see "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word," the 2018 documentary by Wim Wenders. Just by going to a theater to see this film, you will be making the world a better place. Why? Because this is a beautiful, moving, engaging film about life's big questions. It turns its camera on people so poor they live in garbage dumps, on pollution, mass migration, on victims of natural disasters, and asks how to respond to all this in an ethical way.
About how many other movies can you say that? If you financially reward the makers of this film, more filmmakers will produce more beautiful, deep movies. And the world will be a better place.
Almost from the first moments of this film to the last, I had tears running down my face. I'm a movie lover and I loved this movie, not just because it is good in a moral sense, but because it is well made. Wim Wenders, the filmmaker as well as the narrator, is an award-winning director who gave us "Wings of Desire" and "The Buena Vista Social Club."
The film opens, in a sense, in heaven. Wenders turns his camera on heavenly clouds. Wenders' voiceover lists all that is wrong with the world, and asks how we can go on. The clouds break, and Wenders shows us an ancient Italian town, and invokes another Francis, St. Francis of Assisi. Wenders uses mention of the medieval St. Francis to highlight the life of the current Pope Francis.
Francis is shown carrying out his day-to-day life. He visits with very poor people in places like Brazil, the Philippines, and the Central African Republic. He has intimate contact with the sick, those disposed by hurricanes, and the aged. Those he visits tremble during their encounters. Their eyes glow. They weep. They exult.
Francis also visits the wealthy and powerful: Vladimir Putin, the Trumps, and congress. American legislators John Boehner, Marco Rubio, and others are shown helplessly wiping away tears as Francis speaks.
In other scenes, Francis looks directly into Wenders' camera and speaks from his heart. He teaches with confidence and authority, but in a kindly, not a didactic or superior, way.
You don't have to agree with everything Francis says to cherish this movie. I certainly don't. On the one hand, as I watched, my rational mind developed arguments against some of Francis' positions. But my heart was still moved, because Francis is so obviously a well-meaning person trying to make his way through a very challenging world.
I disagree with Francis most on two related points. First, he says that one should never assume an attitude of proselytizing. I disagree. Christians must proselytize. Maybe there is a nuance here I am missing. If so, the film never clarifies.
Francis appears to endorse the mass migration of unvetted, military-age Muslims into Europe while, in the film, in any case, ignoring the real-world problems caused by that migration. And Francis romanticizes poverty, in my opinion.
Rather than romanticizing poverty, Francis should endorse efforts to end poverty. If women's status were elevated, and if women controlled their own fertility, their societies would advance and there would be fewer people living in abject poverty. Further, capitalism and even greed should not be demonized. Jesus had warm relations with rich people, and he spoke of the necessity to build on investments.
Francis says kind things about women and homosexuals without advancing any change in policy that would communicate the official church recognition of the full humanity of women and homosexuals, not just heterosexual men.
Even when I was disagreeing with Francis, I was loving this movie.
Now, to the naysayers. In "The Federalist," Maureen Mullarkey called the film "religious pornography" and identified Pope Francis as analogous to Hitler. Movie reviews don't get any weirder than that. Mullarkey hates Francis' kind words about homosexuals. She trashes the film.
This hateful review is followed by comments by hundreds of hateful people, some identifying as Catholic, who are utterly comfortable comparing Pope Francis to Hitler.
For that reason alone, you need to see this movie.
Book Club (2018)
Like Eating Plastic Fruit
I am the demographic for whom "Book Club" was made and I hated this movie. There's a fine line between "This is so fake swallowing it would be like swallowing plastic fruit" and "This is fake, but its artistry seduced me and I have been swept up in an alternate world thanks to my willing suspension of disbelief." "Book Club" is "eating plastic fruit" level fake.
"Book Club" stars four actresses who've been around for a while. Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen are both 72, Jane Fonda is 80, and Mary Steenburgen is 65. Steenburgen and Bergen both look like mature women you might meet in real life. Rich enough to be well taken care of, but not unreal.
Diane Keaton is clinging to her la dee da Annie Hall flibbertigibbet routine. I found it grating. If you've made it to 72 and you don't know how to handle life's little challenges, like making small talk with stranger on an airplane, then why should I care about you? A young woman's confusion can be endearing. An old woman's confusion suggests that she should wear one of those "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up" alarm systems.
Jane Fonda has clearly signed a pact with the devil. Either that or her various beauty regimens, which have ranged, over the years, from bulimia to punishing feel-the-burn calisthenics, really do keep you young. Her eyes are huge, blue, and clear, her face is smooth, her body, clad in skin-tight clothing, is shapely. Fonda is also one heck of an actress. She brings her whole game to this silly little movie.
Everything about this movie is fake, starting from the main premise. All four of these ladies are rich, happy, successful, live in perfect homes, wear perfect clothes, and have been friends for their entire lives. They meet in person regularly and are sweetly supportive of each other. If you can find four such women, and such a friendship, in real life, I'll take back this review.
Friendships with other women are precious and rare. They don't last like this. When you've had a bad day, you don't get to phone three people you've known all your life and have them drop everything they are doing and come to your house to hold your hand and buck you up. The friendship in this movie is as unbelievable as the sex.
But then there's the unbelievable sex. Time does do things to women's bodies that make it more difficult to do the kind of things the characters in this film are shown doing. A movie that really loved women would address that.
And then there's the romance. The four stars read "Fifty Shades of Grey," a trashy hit, and decide that they are going to go out and get some love. They do, with Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfus and Craig T. Nelson.
The most unbelievable pairing is 62-year-old Andy Garcia and 72-year-old Diane Keaton. Garcia plays a pilot and self-made millionaire who owns a home looking out on the magnificent rock formations of Sedona, Arizona. For no discernable reason, he falls in love with Diane Keaton, who plays a woman so flakey she can't make conversation without a pratfall. If you believe their love story, I have a bridge I can sell you.
Old age has its gifts that youth cannot provide. Why not make a movie that capitalizes on that? Women who realize that they have nothing to lose and are suddenly freed up to be outspoken, not to hide their intelligence, as Keaton insists on doing, and who are no longer bedroom athletes but can offer wit and depth? I'd go see that movie. Heck, I was desperate enough to go see this one.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Its Okayness Is Its Problem
"Solo: A Star Wars Story" is okay. There are double-crosses, surprises, a bad, scary villain or two or three, and adventures. "Solo"'s okayness is its biggest problem. Harrison Ford had megawatt star power and his Han Solo immediately became an immortal screen hero. "Solo" can't fill those shoes or meet those expectations. The motto for a Han Solo movie must be "Go big or go home." In this case, moviegoers are staying home.
Alden Ehrenreich is okay. He doesn't have the larger than life quality the role and the genre demands. You have to wonder why he was tapped for the part.
You may be thinking, "They don't make stars like that anymore," but they do. Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian; Woody Harrelson, as Han's mentor; Paul Bettany as a very scary villain; and Emilia Clark as a pretty girl with some surprises up her sleeve all appear to be the right cast member in the right film handing in the right performance. I'm not saying Ehrenreich is a bad actor. I'm saying he's in the wrong movie.
Don't Go Near the Water
"Overboard" 2018 is one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and I've seen "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." You go to see a film like this, and as you gaze at the boring, leaden, absurd, lifeless train wreck up on the screen, you think, "This was made by Hollywood professionals who are all multimillionaires" and you think about your own bank account and nothing adds up and you decide you need to try absinthe.
The premise is utterly implausible. A nice, pretty blonde single mother, studying to be a nurse, kidnaps a very wealthy, obnoxious man who suffers from amnesia, tells him he is her husband, makes him sleep in the backyard, and do all her housework and child-care chores. He, thanks to amnesia, morphs into a SNAG - a sensitive, New Age guy who loves her children better than she does, who never complains, and who eventually makes sweet love to her.
Well, look. "The Ghost and Mrs Muir" was about a woman falling in love with a dead sea captain. "The Wizard of Oz" is about ... well you know what it's about. An artist can take any premise and turn it into a classic film.
When I went to see "Overboard," the matinee theater was almost full. A lot of people handed over money to see this. It's a comedy. I heard no laughter. Nothing. No sounds. It's as if everyone had been battered into silence by the epic crappiness of the entire enterprise.
Eugenio Derbez, who plays the rich and obnoxious / poor, wonderful amnesiac, is said to be Mexico's biggest star. Maybe we DO need to build a wall. I've seen household pets with more sex appeal. Even cats, and I'm a dog person. You never root for romance between 56-year-old Derbez and his costar, creepily skinny Anna Faris, who looks and is young enough to be Derbez's daughter.
The movie tries for some relevance by tossing in some Spanish dialogue. Guess they're trying to make a point about the contributions the rising Latino population is making to society, and how happy Anglos and Latinos can be as they blend families. If "Overboard" is the shape of things to come, "Todos estamos en problemas." "We are all in trouble."
"Chappaquiddick" immediately does something I never thought it would do. It aroused in me empathy for its main character. Before the film even gets going, it reminds the viewer of something I'd never spent much time thinking about: Ted Kennedy lost four of his siblings when he and they were relatively young. Joseph Kennedy Jr died a hero's death in WW II when Ted was just a child; Kathleen died four years later in a plane crash. JFK was shot to death in 1963, and Robert was shot to death in 1968, less than a year before the Chappaquiddick incident.
I know what it is to lose young siblings when one is young oneself. It's a pain that receives too little attention. Everyone goes on and on about how hard it is for the parents to lose a child. The brother or sister stands there, ignored, and stumbling through something that the world tells you is not supposed to hurt so much. After my most recent sibling died, I made bad decisions I now regret. This reflection enters into my assessment of Ted Kennedy's behavior at Chappaquiddick.
The film reminds us, too, that Chappaquiddick was simultaneous with the moon landing. America's attention was on this fruition of JFK's call to go to the moon. In the film, Ted is shown as the runt of the litter, not his father's favorite, and constantly compared, in an unfavorable way, to Jack. The lowest point of his life coincides with a celebration of how inspirational and visionary his brother was. Ted squirms onscreen, and the viewer squirms with him.
"Chappaquiddick" is set in 1969, and the sets, cars, and hairdos are authentic, but the viewer doesn't get to bask in retro fun as one can in other films. The opening of the film, leading up to the accident, is very grim and sad. The film accepts one theory, that Mary Jo Kopechne did not drown, but rather asphyxiated in an air pocket in the car. The film shows this, and it's hard to watch.
After the accident, Ted reports to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, and is confronted with a Camelot brain trust, including Robert McNamara and Ted Sorensen, there to help finesse him out of the hell he has gotten himself into. Their Machiavellian machinations and Ted's fumbling are inadvertently funny.
The onscreen version of events is largely the one told by Joe Gargan, a disaffected Kennedy cousin. The viewer is at times utterly baffled by Kennedy's behavior. It never even attempts to answer the key question, why did Kennedy not report the accident sooner? His hesitation can't be explained away as selfish calculation, because Kennedy's delay damaged him irreparably.
At times the film invites the viewer to feel for Kennedy. Father Joseph, incapacitated by a stroke, unforgettably played by Bruce Dern, is demanding and unloving. He manages, even from his wheelchair, to push Ted around. Ted struggles to do the right thing.
The film could have been deeper had it been more universal. Ted Kennedy is not the only person who has done a very bad thing. We have all done very bad things. The question becomes, how does one continue living after doing a very bad thing? Must a human life be thrown away after a person does a bad thing? Or is there any chance for redemption? The film hints at that theme, but does not develop it. It's more of a docudrama than a sweeping tragedy.
The second question that is hinted at, but not fully explored by the film. People who want to serve the public must be, to some extent, showmen. They must make rabbits spring from empty hats. One can have all the best ideas in the world, but without charisma, those ideas can never reach fruition.
Ted Kennedy put 47 years into the Senate, making him the fourth-longest continuously serving senator. He had plenty of money. He could have spent his life on beaches and golf courses. Instead he spent it trying to better the lives of those less fortunate than he, through legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and children's health insurance. It takes work to pass as much legislation as Kennedy passed. No one can doubt his commitment to service.
So, yes, call his behavior after the accident inexplicable and selfish. But recognize that part of what he and his team were doing was what the public needs in its leaders. We the people want show business, and that Camelot brain trust gave it to us.
Seeking insight into Kennedy's character, I listened, again, to his eulogy for his brother, Bobby. In this eulogy, Kennedy is stoic. He references idealism, public service, and the Ancient Greeks.
Some obsess on Chappaquiddick. They insist that this event forever damns Ted Kennedy. They refuse to hear of his life of service. It's no surprise that those who take this position are hostile to Kennedy's Democratic politics. It's cheap to exploit Mary Jo Kopechne's death to agitate against health insurance for poor children and accessibility for handicapped people.
A Quiet Place (2018)
A Praise Song to Parenting; Not Very Scary
"A Quiet Place" has received very enthusiastic reviews. I thought it was merely okay. I was not scared for one second, and one goes to films like this to be frightened. "A Quiet Place" is a praise song to parents and parenting, and that may be why the film was not able to work its magic on me.
Monsters stalk the land, in the case, a rural corn farm in upstate New York. Few survivors remain. The Abbott family - a mother, father, and three children - are eking out their existence the only way they can: quietly. The monsters are blind and hunt by sound.
The word "abbot" means "father." Remember Jesus calling his father "abba." "A Quiet Place" is a praise song to John Krasinski's role as Lee Abbott, the father in this film, and to fathers in general. Lee does everything for his family, and I do mean everything. If you want to see a movie that deeply respects fathers and fatherhood, go see "A Quiet Place."
Evelyn Abbott is very maternal. Her status as a mother is emphasized in the most biological of ways. Regan Abbott is their deaf daughter. Just like Regan in "King Lear," this Regan has daddy issues. The family drama plays out with monsters arriving every now and then to attempt to eat someone.
The film is a series of set pieces, showing a survivalist family trying to outwit fate with jerry-rigged gizmos. Just imagine what a Mr Fixit Dad would do to your home and property if he were trying to defeat blind monsters that hear well. I wish more use had been made of duct tape, every do-it-yourselfer's best friend.
Quite a few of the set-pieces are rather sadistic. The filmmakers do whatever it takes to place each character in unique peril, pain, and agony. One scene was highly reminiscent of a frequently repeated motif, involving sound and those humans most likely to make noise, from Holocaust movies. I was alienated by this sadism. It began to feel manipulative and, at one point at least, completely unbelievable.
Isle of Dogs (2018)
Cute but Cold and Insubstantial; Unnecessarily Convoluted and Violent Plot
"Isle of Dogs" is cute, as its trailer promises, but it is cold and insubstantial. There's a scene on the eponymous Isle of Dogs where the main characters stumble upon the canine skeleton of a beloved household pet who starved to death in a locked cage. I love dogs and just the thought of that scene should reduce me to tears. I felt nothing, and that was my reaction to the entire movie. I didn't laugh or cry. I just didn't care. Cute dog puppets? Check. Anything else? Not much.
I did love the taiko drum soundtrack, and hope to buy it. But taiko drumming has nothing to do with dogs. I also really liked the voice talent, including Bryan Cranston, who is just terrific and memorable as the voice of a tough stray dog, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, and Edward Norton.
The plot is unnecessarily convoluted and violent, and told rather than shown. There is endless voiceover narration. "And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened." Everything is so exaggerated and divorced from any real dogginess that I could not relate.
Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018)
So Inept It Insults Its Christian Audience
"Paul, Apostle of Christ" is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in a theater. I'm a Christian, I love movies, and I adore Jim Caviezel. It's a sin to tell a lie, so I must tell you that this film is so bad I have to wonder if someone decided that Christian movie fans are so desperate that we will support badly-made films. Movies offer many features: soundtrack, script, costumes, setting, star-power. If you are in a not-great movie, often you can focus on one aspect if another aspect is lacking. Nothing in "Paul, Apostle of Christ" works.
The script is barely there. Paul languishes in a Roman dungeon. Romans torture Christians. Christians wonder how they should respond. Paul and Luke chat about the old days. And that's about it. At one point, a lovable Christian is sent on a mission, and given all the attention being paid to him, you *know* he's not coming back. The foreshadowing is painfully obvious.
Paul's captor, Olivier Martinez, has a French accent so thick you could spread it on brioche. Every time he opens his mouth you have to struggle to understand what he is saying, and to stifle a giggle. No one else in this film has a French accent.
The film was shot in Malta, among ancient ruins that look like ancient ruins. The marble is overrun with ivy and foliage growing out of cracks. People in Ancient Rome did not live in "ancient" Rome, they lived in a Rome that was modern at the time. The ruined look of the place takes the viewer out of the picture.
Rembrandt, Bach, and Cecil B. DeMille gave us rousing and inspirational art that treated Biblical themes. We need to embrace that full-blooded tradition and jettison false piety, which makes for bad art.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
A Documentary on Falling in Love
"Call Me By Your Name" is a documentary record of two beautiful, privileged young people falling in love during an idyllic summer in a seventeenth-century villa in out-of-the-way Crema, Italy. There are lots of slow, quiet scenes of eyes peeking above a book, furtive attempts to make fingers touch flesh, kids playing volleyball, riding bikes and swimming, and an old man showing up with a freshly caught fish for dinner.
Burgeoning nature is omnipresent. The fish, though caught, is still alive. The air is full of the sounds of birdsong, songs that will be evocative to anyone who has spent a summer in Europe when young. The grass is lush. The water is clear and blue green. Clouds are puffy. Everyone, from the young to the old, is half naked. The men are bare chested much of the time. Days stretch forever and the highlight of a day might be pondering the meaning of a quote from a knight in a medieval poem.
I did start becoming a bit bored, but at the end of the movie I felt pressure in my chest, churning in my gut, and moisture in my eyes, and I was rethinking my own lost youth. Give this film the time and patience it demands. It will sneak up on you.
One of the two young, beautiful, privileged people who fall in love is Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old virgin, and the cosmopolitan and multilingual son of Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his beautiful wife. The other half of the couple is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American graduate student who is rooming at the Perlman's villa.
When Oliver first arrives, he is arrogant and pedantic yet casual and Elio is snotty - Oliver is taking over his room for the summer. He, Elio, must sleep in a smaller, adjacent storage room. Elio is put off by Oliver's arrogance, and he continues to pursue his attempt to seduce a local, Mariza (Esther Garrel). Eventually Elio and Mariza do have sex.
Almost imperceptively, attraction builds between Elio and Oliver. Finally, one day, during a bike ride, Elio kisses Oliver. Oliver says, no, we shouldn't do this. Later, though, Oliver and Elio kiss and more. Read further only if you want to know how the movie ends.
Oliver and Elio become lovers. Before Oliver returns to America, they take a hike in the Alps. Oliver boards a train and Elio returns to Crema. There his father tells him that he is very lucky, and that few experience the kind of bond he has experienced with Oliver. The father also appears to come out to Elio, announcing either that he is gay or that he is unhappily married. "Does mom know?" Elio asks. No, dad replies.
Later, the villa is surrounded by snow. The Perlman family has returned to celebrate Chanukah. The phone rings. It is Oliver. He announces that he is engaged to be married. "I remember everything," he tells Elio. Elio goes and sits in front of the fire, his eyes brimming with tears, a fly crawling around on his shirt.
Both Elio and Oliver lead on girls whose feelings they could never reciprocate. The girls are tossed aside by the movie just as Elio and Oliver toss them aside in real life. After Elio has sex with Mariza, he shouts, "That felt so good." "That." She's a thing. Later, on the same mattress he used when having sex with Mariza, he has sex with a peach. A peach, a woman, both things to be tossed aside. Even Elio's mother, who is given very little to do in the movie, is made to be cluelessly living a lie.
More importantly, I resented the film trying to force me, in the father's speech scene and in the final seven minutes of Elio staring at the fire and crying while a fly crawled around on his shirt, to believe that the movie was about something other than what it was really about. I just don't believe, based on what I saw, that Elio and Oliver are a love affair for the ages. These are two gorgeous, horny young men in an idyllic setting, privileged enough that getting up and going to work every day is not an issue. Rather, they get up and loll in the grass while thinking erotic thoughts. Nice work if you can get it.
If these two had truly loved each other, they would not have tossed each other aside at the end of the summer. With the fly on Elio's shirt, and an infected cut Oliver sustained while bike riding, the film seems to be telling us that decay is the enemy of love. Some people love each other even as they age, sicken, and even after they die. *That's* love for the ages.
Some object to this film because it depicts a homosexual relationship. There's no talking to such people. Others object because Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24. The actors were 21 and 30 when the film was made. But Chalamet looks about 16 in the movie. He is very thin and pale with no chest hair. Armie Hammer is 6'5" with the body of an Aryan god. In their scenes, Hammer does look very much the older man. We know, though, that some of the folks who object to this relationship were entirely supportive of Judge Roy Moore, when he was a district attorney in his 30s, abusing young teen girls in powerless positions.
I, Tonya (2017)
Funny, Heartbreaking, Revelatory
Do you want to be shocked? Here goes: "I, Tonya" is a great movie. That's right. A film about a tabloid scandal in the world of women's figure skating is not just a good movie, it's a great one. I cannot think of any other film that made me laugh out loud and cry so hard, and to do both at once, in reaction to the same scene.
"I, Tonya" is as frightening and heartbreaking a depiction of child abuse as I have ever seen. It is as profound a meditation on class. Its depiction of "white trash, redneck, trailer trash" loves, lifestyles, dreams, delusions, smeared kitchens, underdone bedrooms, and dimly-lit living rooms ripped my heart right out of my chest. If you love movies and you care about social class in America, and how the 24/7 news cycle brainwashes gullible audiences and destroys lives, you owe it to yourself to see "I, Tonya."
Allison Janney just won the Golden Globe for her portrayal of LaVona Fay "Sandy" Golden, Tonya Harding's mother. Janney's performance is one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen in any movie. When Janney is onscreen, you can't take your eyes off her. There is something very compelling about a mother who abuses her own daughter. You want to understand. You want to find the mechanism that runs this monster. You search for some sign of humanity, of redemption, of love. Though "I, Tonya," is sometimes a campy movie, Janney is never campy. She is a force of nature, like a scorpion or Bubonic plague. There is a scene in "I, Tonya," where Tonya's mother performs an act of betrayal of her daughter so severe that it took my breath away. This betrayal, the real Tonya Harding says, took place in real life. What a lousy "mother."
There is a special hatred for white trash in America. This hatred has no easy name like "racism." We all know that racism is evil, but Americans are always eager to mock and denigrate working-class whites, especially poor white women. The 24/7 tabloid news cycle bashed Tonya Harding far harder, and for far longer, than Gillooly's goons bashed Nancy Kerrigan's knee.
Tabloids told gullible audiences too lazy to think for themselves that Tonya Harding herself planned the attack. The legal record, and the film "I, Tonya," tell a different story. Teenaged Tonya married the first man she dated. He beat her, as did her mom. It was he, and his delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt, court records say, who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan. Tonya learned of this after the attack and did not turn him in. She was punished for that. Though she had no means of earning a livelihood outside of skating, she was forced out of skating for life.
In fact, the world of women's figure skating never much liked Tonya Harding. She was a superior athletic skater, but she wasn't pretty, patrician and ethereal as the judges preferred. Tonya Harding has been screwed over by many for a long time, and for all the wrong reasons. I'm glad she has this film to tell another side to her story.
"I, Tonya" does not whitewash or glamorize her. She is shown fighting and breaking up with Gillooly, and then going back to this man she knows is bad for her. Tonya is foul-mouthed and she gets angry at judges who cheat her on scores. She sabotages her own training by drinking, smoking, and partying. Margot Robbie is terrific. She does almost all of her own skating, after months of training. The had to CGI the triple axel, because only Tonya Harding, and a handful of other women, could do that.
"I, Tonya"'s depiction of Jeff Gillooly and his bizarre goons is both hysterically funny and dreadful. Sebastian Stan plays Gillooly. Though he is repeatedly shown beating Tonya, I never lost sympathy for him. I loathed him as a loser, but I could see his skewed humanity. He acknowledges, with regret, destroying his wife's exceptional skating career. The real Jeff Gillooly acknowledged the same thing, and also expressed regret.
Shawn Eckhardt, who was happy to identify himself as the attack mastermind, may have been mentally ill. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he claimed to be a terrorism expert. In fact, he was a loser who lived at home with his parents. He died young. Both Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt changed their names after the attack. Gillooly, now Jeff Stone, has had repeated run-ins with the law. His second wife committed suicide.
Tonya Harding has worked hard to keep her head above water. That, after all she'd been through, she did not become a criminal, is testimony to her inner strength. That so many people gave in to bread-and-circuses demonization of her, without knowing all the facts of the case, says nothing good about people's eagerness to hate, and the tabloid press' eagerness to profit from hate.
The Post (2017)
So Good I Cried Tears of Joy
"The Post" is so darn good I cried tears of joy and applauded as the film ended. I didn't much want to go to "The Post." I knew how The Post's publishing of the Pentagon Papers played out and I assumed the film would create no suspense. Post editor Katherine Graham, played in the film by Meryl Streep, lived in a different world from my own. She was a wealthy heiress who, until her mentally ill and unfaithful husband committed suicide, had never had to work a day in her life. When I used to see Graham on TV, her silk-and-pearls, hoity toity airs and la-dee-da accent, along with her flat affect, repelled me.
Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, always struck me as an arrogant, swaggering newspaperman, and I didn't want to sit through a movie with him as the lead. Bradlee, like Graham, was also born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was a Boston Brahmin and descendent of royalty. Bradlee's middle name was "Crowninshield."
I thought "The Post" would be one of those fluffy Hollywood exercises in self-congratulation. Aren't we so politically correct. But I loved this movie. My eyes were glued to the screen from the first second to the last. I came to care about and invest in each character. Testimony to the power of Steven Spielberg's filmmaking.
"The Post" is a rich recreation of 1971 America - the cars, the clothes, the music, the speeches. Each character, no matter how minor, is created as three-dimensional. Each significant action, no matter how small, receives focus. One example: The Pentagon Papers were 7000 pages long. How did Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, manage to smuggle 7000 pages to the press? The film shows the workings of a 1971-era photocopy machine. Copying all the pages took Ellsberg and two friends all night. Later, Post reporters must struggle to piece together these thousands of pages that are not numbered and are not in order.
Personnel at the New York Times have criticized "The Post" as focusing too much on the role of the Washington Post in releasing the Pentagon Papers. The Times was the more important paper, they say. The criticism is unfounded. "The Post" acknowledges that the New York Times was the first to carry the story. It was only after the government stopped the Times' publication of the Papers that the Post picked up the baton.
Rather, "The Post" is Katherine Graham's story. She was a shy and insecure woman who was faced with a decision that rocked her world. She was personal friends with Robert McNamara, mastermind of the Vietnam War. Similarly, Ben Bradlee was friendly with John F. Kennedy, a president who escalated the war. Katherine Graham's son Donald served in Vietnam. Streep's intimate and fully realized performance and Spielberg's virtuosic filmmaking made me feel Graham's turmoil as she contemplated whether or not to publish papers that would change her life in several ways.
The Washington Post had just had an IPO. How would investors react? Given that the court had already shut down the NYT, would she be a felon, and would she be sent to prison? Would she lose the company she had inherited from her father and hoped to pass on to her children? How could she publish such damning material about her personal friend, Robert McNamara? How could her personal friend, McNamara, allow her son to risk his life serving in a war that McNamara knew was unwinnable? Streep's performance allowed me to feel as Graham probably felt, and to care about her.
Every role is excellently cast. Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post editor and survivor of the Armenian Holocaust, is every bit as compelling as the major stars. Sarah Paulson is onscreen only briefly as Bradlee's wife Toni, but she is given a key speech where she articulates for Bradlee - and the viewer - exactly how heroic Graham is being.
I love smart movies and "The Post" bristles with intelligence. I love movies that focus, not on fast cars, explosions, or superheroes, but on people, and "The Post" is one of the most human-centric movies I've seen in a while. "The Post" focuses on people, primarily Katherine Graham, but also Ellsberg, Bradlee, Bagdikian and others. It depicts those people not as plaster saints but warts-and-all. It allows the viewer to get close to those people and to see what they see and to care about what they care about.
It goes without saying that a film that celebrates the search for truth and the freedom of the press, and the heroism of a woman who had been told that she wasn't as good as a man for the job she held, is very timely.
I Liked It and I Don't Like Star Wars Movies
I am not a "Star Wars" fan. In fact, I didn't even know the name of this episode when I bought the ticket. Apparently it's "The Last Jedi," but I'm guessing that that is a misleading title - no doubt there will be a "Last Jedi Part Two." Though I'm not a fan, I enjoyed this movie. I don't really know what fans get out of "Star Wars" that causes them to become fanatical, but I can tell you why I enjoyed this one.
I like high production values. I like to see a lot of money on the screen. "The Last Jedi" is a feast for the eyes. I did become fixated on things that fans probably never think about. For example, the evil villain, Snoke, occupies a ultra-campy, red-and-black throne room straight out of a 1950s Vincent Minelli, MGM fantasy sequence. Star Wars fans - that's a compliment. I'm guessing you have probably never heard of Vincent Minelli.
Snoke's throne room's floor is so glossy you could floss your teeth using it as a mirror. During Snoke's scenes, I kept thinking, Gee, Snoke has one heck of a housekeeping crew. It's these implausible aspects of sci-fi and fantasy that distract me from the plot.
But "The Last Jedi" has another thing going for it - good-looking and charismatic star power. It was oh-so-poignant to see Carrie Fisher in one of her final films.
Adam Driver is good looking and his character is thoroughly despicable, an excellent combination. In one scene, he is shown bare-chested, in high-waisted pants. Driver has certainly recovered from the starvation diet he adopted to appear in Martin Scorcese Japanese-torture-Jesuit-priests snuff film, "Silence." Driver, bare-chested in high-waisted pants, has apparently become an internet meme. Anything that encourages well-built men to take off their shirts is A-OK with me.
Daisy Ridley as Rey, perhaps the eponymous last Jedi of the film's title - or maybe not; what do I know? - is perfection. She's gorgeous, earnest, and a real actress. She conveys strength and purpose.
Ridley's costume distracted me no end. She spends much of the film in cold and foggy Ireland, and she's dressed in ace bandages and torn gauze. These textiles are porous and could contribute to hypothermia in such a climate. She really should be wearing Gore-Tex. These people can travel in space ships but they don't have Gore-Tex? These implausibilities are SO distracting.
There is much disturbance in the Force about how "The Last Jedi" treats Luke Skywalker. Me, I love plot and motivation and inner conflict, not static "action" figurines. For me, Mark Hamill became the worthy inheritor of Alec Guinness. Hamill was much more appealing to me in this film than in the previous ones.
Oscar Isaac is gorgeous and I love looking at his face. The movie seemed to be trying to make him another Han Solo, and Isaac is not Harrison Ford. Isaac has too much gravitas and he is more deadpan than eye-popping Ford - Eye-popping both in that he was really good looking, and Ford's eyes pop when he is capital-A acting. But I enjoyed Isaac's scenes. Isaac makes a joke early on and it's funny and smart. I understand that "Star Wars" diehards hate this scene. They don't want funny and smart scenes in their movies. Nuff said.
Domhall Gleeson as General Hux twirled his Snidely Whiplash mustache a bit overmuch for me. This is a metaphor. Gleeson is clean shaven. I'm saying he chews up too much scenery - another metaphor.
In addition to the fantasy's inherent implausibilities distracting me, I was distracted by this film's heavy-handed political correctness. Since Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford are all white, the new films must do penance by having an exactingly calibrated, multicultural cast.
A black guy is in something of a love triangle with a white girl and an Asian girl. Okay, woman. This took me out of the movie. What about Chewbaca? Where's his species-appropriate wookie nookie?
The film works hard to make women warriors, and for women to put men in their place. This is all well and good, but I like it that women are less eager to crush, kill, and destroy life, and more eager to nurture it. Oh, wait. There's a scene where a woman warrior lectures a man, "We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!" That was just sooooo didactic. And you wonder what the roots of male rage are.
Anyway, I've come to the end of everything I can say about a "Star Wars" movie.
Darkest Hour (2017)
Good not Great
"Darkest Hour" 2017 is a good movie. I enjoyed it and I'm glad I saw it. I don't understand, though, the rapturous reviews it has received. For me it never transcended from "good" to "great." "Darkest Hour" is about noble Brits behaving heroically during World War II. It's the third movie in 2017 to feature the Dunkirk evacuation. It's one of a few films in which major stars have donned prostheses to depict Winston Churchill. In other words, there's nothing new here.
Gary Oldman does a good job, but I was never able to overcome my fixation on his superb prostheses and focus on the person beneath the makeup. I think he should have done it without all that makeup so we could focus on the person, not the cosmetician's skill.
The folksy, comic, and tear-jerking scenes between Churchill and his typist, played by Lily James, struck me as manipulative and a tad maudlin. James does nothing for me as an actress and for me she brought nothing but her young and pretty face to the film.
Interspersed with quirky Winston, close-up-and-personal, are the politics, and the horrors, of war. Neville Chamberlin and Viscount Halifax push Churchill to reach a truce with Hitler, rather than enter into an unwinnable war.
Churchill, pathetically and unsuccessfully, phones Roosevelt to beg for help. Roosevelt turns Churchill down. There were reasons Americans were slow to go to war in WW II. Main reason: the recent, pointless carnage of WW I, which was, of course, Europe's, not America's, war. Americans had been told just twenty years earlier, that they were fighting "the war to end all wars." Roosevelt, behind the scenes, was quietly preparing the US for inevitable war, and helping his future Allies as best he could. The phone call scene struck me as petty America-bashing.
In a couple of scenes, Director Joe Wright brings the cost of war home to the viewer. In one scene, the camera is inside a field hospital with soldiers injured during the controversial Siege of Calais. The camera pans upward to plane height. A bomb is dropped. All those soldiers we had come to care about, we assume, were just killed. In another scene, a battlefield is shown from high above. It looks almost like a map. As the camera pans, we see the face of a victim of war. It's very powerful.
Gorgeous, Adorable, and Anti-Christian
"Coco" is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. It's a feast for the eyes. I don't think there is a single scene where fluorescent orange, purple, and lime green are not onscreen at once, complementing each other beautifully. The songs are enjoyable and well sung. Each character is fully realized. Miguel Rivera, a little boy, is the lead. He is adorable to look at and charmingly played by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez.
The plot is a bit complicated and I'm not sure that children would understand it. The theme is an adult one: how do you balance love of family and tradition with innovation and self-actualization? I'm not sure kids would fully grasp that, either. But there is enough onscreen business - chases, animals, and costumes - to keep children entertained. The plot has much in common with "The Wizard of Oz." A child travels to an otherworldly realm, and is accompanied by an earthly companion who is transformed into a magical creature in that realm. The child faces dangers and learns lessons he can apply once he returns to normal life.
I was deeply moved by the movie. I had tears running down my face during the final segment. The plot twists astounded and gratified me. This film had more of a plot than many an adult movie I've seen recently.
Yes, "Coco" is an anti-Christian movie. Though it takes place in Mexico, I could not find any vestige of Catholicism in the film. I may have blinked and missed it. "Coco" creates both life in a Mexican village and a Mexican afterlife, and I saw no churches. There was a place named "Santo" something - that was the only sign of Catholicism I caught.
There are many signs of Aztec belief. Skulls are everywhere, as they were in monumental Aztec architecture and in images of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess. Chrysanthemums, the Aztec flower of the dead, are also omnipresent. A very bad character has a very Christian name. I can't say more so as not to reveal any plot twists. And "Coco" presents its own, pagan-inspired afterlife. Spirits remain "alive" as long as someone on earth places their photograph on a pagan altar called an "ofrenda." After that, they really die. And spirits are accompanied by alebrijes, brightly colored chimeras. Aunt Imelda's alebrije is a winged, horned, jaguar.
Christian parents should allow their children to see this beautiful film, and should discuss it with their children afterward.
The Book of Henry (2017)
Live Girl is Less Verbal than a Male Ghost
"The Book of Henry" has the potential to become a cult classic. There's a subset of people for whom the shambolic plot of this film will scratch their itch. Underneath all the autumn leaf clutter and heartwarming kitchen scenes, there's an unfortunate message about girls and about sexual assault victims.
Warning: this review will reveal the ending of "The Book of Henry."
TBOH starts out in one of those idyllic towns you only see in middlebrow American films. No one has a regional accent. There are wooded hillsides all around, and scenic waterfalls, and quilts on couches. You can tell that characters are meant to be coded "poor" or "working class" because they are wearing Goodwill clothing, but they manage to live in big Victorians on lots of wooded property. If this were a real town in contemporary America, I'm afraid it would be one of those places with a high opiate abuse rate.
Susan (Naomi Watts) is a single mom of two adorable boys, Henry and Peter. Susan is a waitress, she drinks too much, and she is addicted to video games. Susan's best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman) is a sharp-tongued lush with a heart of gold and cleavage so low we can see her heart beating.
Henry is a genius and has the personality, not just of a mature man, but actually of a saint or a Bodhisattva or Cary Grant, the angel character in "The Bishop's Wife." Henry spends his time hanging out in a treehouse designed by Norman Rockwell on acid, creating Rube Goldberg machines, and amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars – and he talks to his broker on a pay phone. Where are there still pay phones? Wouldn't a boy genius have a cell phone?
At first you think, okay, this is going to be like a Steven Spielberg boy's true adventure film. An "ET" crossed with a tad of homebound Thelma and Louise. But no.
Henry looks out his window and concludes, from what he sees, that the next-door neighbor, Glenn, is sexually molesting his step-daughter, Christina. Uh, oh. This has just turned into an educational film about the horrors of child abuse and incest. Or maybe a Eugene O'Neill style family horror story. Well, there's a fleeting few seconds of that, but then Henry is hiding in a gun store, learning how to buy illegal weapons. Okay, this is quite the roller coaster ride. You don't even have time to make sure you have fastened the safety latch when Henry suddenly develops a bad headache and worse vision.
Henry goes into seizures. It's a disease of the week movie! No, wait! A handsome surgeon steps in to operate, and to make eyes at Naomi Watts who, yes, is still in the movie. Is this going to be a romance film? Where does this train stop?
Henry dies. Just like that. The titular character is dead, halfway into this PG family story / unsuitable for children incest story / true crime story. His death is so quick and so subtle I didn't realize he was dead until Susan is shown mourning by obsessively baking brownies while wearing a chocolate-stained apron.
This is where the "Book of Henry" of the title comes in. Note that "Book of Henry" sounds like a Biblical book. That's because Henry is now dead and doing good deeds from the afterlife. Susan discovers that Henry left a notebook with a detailed plan for her to murder her next- door neighbor, Glenn. So now we are back to this being a Hitchcockian story. But it never goes there. It never does what suspense or true crime or horror films do. It continues to play as if it were a wholesome, small town Americana comedy. The sight of Naomi Watts going from chocolate-stained apron to staring down the sights of an illegal automatic weapon with a silencer in a PG movie chilled my blood.
Susan comes within seconds of following her dead son's macabre / wholesome plan to its final, murderous / humanitarian end, but then she can't bring herself to pull – or as Henry would have it – squeeze the trigger. She merely informs Glenn that she is on his tail, and Glenn kills himself.
Susan then adopts Christina and puts Christina in the same bedroom that Henry had previously occupied – with her other son, Peter. No doubt there will be a sequel on how one of these two needs to be killed for a subsequent incest flare-up.
And the whole thing is meant to be heartwarming and kind of funny.
It's hard to talk about this train wreck of a film in any serious way, but. Christina, the incest victim, says almost nothing in the movie. She is silent. The obvious thing for Susan to do, even before buying a high-powered rifle, would be to get Christina alone, away from her stepfather, with an authority figure and encourage her to tell her own story. In this Hollywood movie, a dead boy is the master puppeteer for his adult mother, who is merely a marionette, and that dead boy is more verbal than a live girl. And that's a disgusting and dangerous message.