Wednesday, January 16, 2019

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins
GENRE: Drama/ Romance

It's a rare thing when we can cite the music as being the transformative element in a film, but Nicholas Britell's exquisite and mesmerizing score is what turns If Beale Street Could Talk from what might have been just a good, hard-hitting, and poignant drama into a poetic work of art. And when we use poetic to describe a film, we're ascending into the rarefied air. 

Yes, there's a love story at the heart of this film, but it's no fairy tale. Far from it. If Beale Street Could Talk--based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin-- dramatizes the endemic injustice in America of blacks being railroaded and locked up for crimes they didn't commit.

Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) are a young unmarried couple living in Harlem during the early seventies who are clearly in love, and seemingly have been since childhood. The opening scene of the film, which slam-bang portends its overall brilliance, is a doozy. Tish's family invites Fonny's family over to hear the announcement that Tish is going to have    Fonny's baby. Director Barry Jenkins uses the ebb and flow of circumstances and emotion effectively not only in this scene but throughout the entire film--as what starts out as a celebratory occasion suddenly turns ugly. 

But love will carry this couple through, as flashbacks and flash forwards show them in their first intimate encounter (tastefully done yet quite realistic), the joy of searching for and finding their first apartment together, and finally the incident which leads to Fonny being misidentified by a rape victim and put behind bars. 

How does a family with limited means work to reverse a miscarriage of justice in a climate of racism in America that has never been eradicated but just keeps morphing into new forms like a virus? That's  your central theme, and it's played out in heartbreaking fashion as we hope against hope along with Tish, who never gives up hope, and the two families, who will resort to doing whatever it takes to obtain the finances to support their effort.   

Here is where Regina King as Tish's mother shines, as she tracks down the elusive rape victim and tries to get her to recant her story. It's high drama, but it never feels melodramatic. It just feels achingly real.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the one glaring turn off for me, and that's the incessant cigarette smoking by nearly all the central characters. It's almost as annoying watching it as it would be to be in the presence of someone blowing smoke in your face. I don't know if director Jenkins was thinking this would enhance the grittiness or the authenticity of his story--but I looked up some stats and the smoking rate among whites and blacks in the U.S. is essentially the same, at around 15 percent, so having all these prolific puffers seemed like overkill. If you want to engender sympathy for a character, don't give him dirty habits. That aside, I think If Beale Street Could Talk has a good shot at being one of the nominees for Best Picture at The Oscars in February.    

Grade:  A -

JILL'S TAKE
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Well, well, well. I never quite know how Tim will react to a film we choose to review. And since it is his blog, I always read his opinions before adding my own so we don't repeat ourselves. All I can say about this film is "I concur." It felt so real that I often thought I was watching a documentary. Forget about Romeo and Juliet or Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, this couple's love for one another was brilliantly acted and completely believable.

It is not an easy tale to watch. The injustices of being black in America dominate If Beale Street Could Talk and force the viewer to look at how little has changed since Baldwin wrote this story. 

I too loved that family scene Tim mentioned at the beginning of the film, as it showed how intolerant blacks can be toward each other. (Intolerance doesn't choose sides.)

My two gripes (very minor ones):  I was confused by the title since the story takes place in Harlem not Beale Street; and Fonny getting a life sentence for allegedly raping a Puerto Rican girl seemed like overkill.   

If Stephan James and Kiki Layne, the two star-crossed lovers, don't earn Oscar nods, I'll rip up my ticket to the Academy Awards Ceremony. (Not that I actually have one!)

Grade: B++




Thursday, January 10, 2019

ROMA (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron
GENRE: Drama

Before viewing Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971--where Mexican government agents murdered 120 student protesters. Otherwise you will see what's going on, but you won't know the reasons behind it.

Roma--based on director Cuaron's childhood memories--follows the daily life of Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker for an upper middle class family in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood. It will require some patience on your part during the first half of the film, because it's slow, but the payoff is in spades later on. There are kids running around being kids, a grandmother, and a neglected spouse (Marina De Tavira) pining for her husband who is off enjoying the company of his mistress while telling the family he's on a business trip. 

What is remarkable here is that this family seems so utterly real...in fact it's hard to believe that any of the kids cavorting and jousting with one another, Cleo going about her daily chores, and a spirited dog who craps all over the place were rehearsed. For good reason, as Cuaron acknowledges that for many of the scenes, nobody had scripts (especially the dog.)

Cleo has a very scary boyfriend (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a radical martial arts enthusiast who gets her pregnant and then disappears, though he will figure in prominently during the latter portion of the film's recreation of the turbulent student revolt and the government's violent criminal reaction. The climactic scene, where Cleo is called upon to be the heroine, is jaw-droppingly powerful.  

It is Cuaron's masterful touch with both the scenes of mundane family activity and the events occurring on a grand scale with a "cast of thousands" that sets Roma apart not only in the foreign movie category at The Golden Globes-- where it won for Best Director and Best Foreign Film--but I dare say against any other film out there. 

Expect more recognition for Roma at The Oscars. It's currently playing in theaters and streaming on Netflix. See it on the big screen if you can!

Grade: A
  

JILL'S TAKE 

My advice? Never see a movie after watching an awards show. Your expectations are bound to cause disappointment. Such was the case with me and Roma. After so much high praise from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), I assumed I'd be seeing the likes of La Dolce Vita or The Bicycle Thief. Well at least it was in black and white.

A second piece of advice? Never watch a movie with subtitles on a 41" TV. (Especially after you've had a big dinner and are feeling sleepy!)

I was not awed by Roma. Noisy kids and shitting dogs do not, for me, make a cinematic masterpiece. Granted, the scene where Cleo rescues her charges from drowning is worth the price of admission. As is the frontal nude scene of her worthless boyfriend demonstrating his skill as a martial artist. But lordy, lordy. This movie has the speed of a somnolent sloth!  It was all I could do to stay awake until the end credits. Of course, I should have known Roma would be slow-moving based on the endless water-splashing opening credits.

Sorry, folk. Not my cup of pulque.

Grade: C -
  

Thursday, January 3, 2019

VICE (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrel
DIRECTOR: Adam McKay
GENRE: Biopic

Dick Cheney still stands as one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history. He championed the invasion of Iraq, the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp where prisoners classified as enemy combatants had no legal rights to prove their guilt or innocence, and the form of torture known as waterboarding, which was illegal under international law. For starters. He never met a situation where the end didn't justify the means. 

It's all covered, and so much more ad nauseam, in Vice, Adam McKay's overly long biopic on the life and times of our purportedly most influential vice president. I don't think it will win him any new converts.

We start with Cheney's wild days as a hard drinking youth and follow his rise to power as a congressional intern, White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, and as "shadow president" in the second Bush administration. A straight retelling of factual events can be pretty dry stuff, and Vice is cleverly constructed enough to make that more palatable, with a false ending in the middle and a mysterious narrator whose identity is shockingly revealed in the latter part of the film.

It kicks into another gear with the dramatic and jarring events of 9-ll, with just enough actual news footage inserted to make it uncomfortably real again. Illustrating how Cheney was allegedly calling 
a lot of the shots on that day, with a hapless George W. Bush doing what we remember him best for--deferring to greater minds to take him firmly by the shoulders and steer him in the right direction, like a kid playing pin the tail on the donkey.

Christian Bale, as the younger and the older Cheney, has the voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms down to a T...but it's carried to the point of where it becomes more of a caricature than an acceptably believable portrayal. Sam Rockwell, on the other hand, totally nails George Bush in all of his clueless glory. Steve Carrel, who doesn't look anything like then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is always fun to watch, regardless. Amy Adams gives the strongest performance of the bunch as Cheney's no-nonsense wife, Lynn.

Watching Vice is like reliving a bad dream you had at the turn of the millennium. A cast of good actors making you forget, but only for a short moment, the bad political actors and the scary dream we are living through at the turn of a new year. 

Grade :  B -


JILL'S TAKE

Here we go again....I feel like the Movie Grinch of 2018. (Oops, I meant 2019.) Yet another film that I really didn't enjoy. In fact, I detested it.  Granted the subject matter calls for more talk than action.  And the main character isn't exactly warm and fuzzy.  (I kept wondering how the real Dick Cheney feels about this less-than-flattering biopic.) But the script was a mishmash of fast forwards and flashbacks that made my head spin.  Yes, it covers many many years of political shenanigans--if war and 9-11 can be described as such. But unless you are a history buff, it gets tiresome.  I was far more intrigued by how the Cheneys reacted to their daughter being gay than how corrupt our political leaders are.  

I only wish I could have edited this overly long, overly tedious film.  It's being touted as a sure-fire Oscar contender but I have my doubts.  Maybe for Christian Bale's makeover. Or Steve Carrel's. And Sam Rockwell not only looks like George Dubya, he captures his aww shucks personality perfectly.    

I admit that writing a movie about such an unemotional character isn't easy. We already know about Dick Cheney and his misdeeds.  So keeping the audience engaged in his life story is next to impossible.  And whether the writer tries to distract us with bombs blowing up bodies, or Lynn and Dickie cuddling up in bed, reciting lines from Shakespeare, I felt totally manipulated.

I was really looking forward to seeing Vice which made the actual experience that much more disappointing.  But maybe you won't feel that way....


Grade: D

Thursday, December 27, 2018

WELCOME TO MARWEN (2018)





Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Steve Carrell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Weaver, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzales, Gwendoline Christie
DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis
GENRE; Drama/ Fantasy

Mark Hogancamp's story is the stuff that movies are made of. And that brings us to Welcome To Marwen. Mark, an artist in upstate New York, goes out drinking one night at a local bar where he meets some guys who seem friendly. They yuck it up for a while, and then the  tipsy Hogancamp reveals that he is a cross-dresser--he likes to wear women's clothing--with a special fascination for shoes, of which he has a closet full. As he's leaving the bar, he is attacked by the men--who turn out to be neo-Nazis--and beaten to within an inch of  his life. 

When he emerges from a coma, a good chunk of Hogancamp's memory is wiped out. He reverts to an almost childlike emotional state, reacting to his  PTSD by creating a fantasy art installation--a village set in World War 2 Belgium where he is the fighter pilot hero--with a bevy of fetching dolls who are counterparts for some of the real women in his life--played by Leslie Mann, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzales, Merritt Weaver and others. Together they set about kicking some Nazi butt. This is his therapy.

Steve Carrell--and you'd be hard-pressed to name a finer thespian today--is Hogancamp in the flesh, and director Robert Zemeckis brings the village and the dolls to life in animated sequences that will blow you (as well as the Nazis) away! Welcome To Marwen has to be commended on its sheer inventiveness alone. The back and forth from Mark's fantasy world to his real life where he is avoiding a court date to face his attackers has come under fire (I'm using a lot of puns here) from critics. They say: it's not quite a comedy and not quite a drama;  gooey dreck;  it's disjointed...  
   
If there's one thing you can count on from film critics, it's a tendency to over analyze. Because they think that's their job. (I've touched on this in previous reviews.) So they seize upon it and dissect it in a cold and calculating way. As if there were ever a perfect film. (Last Tango In Paris notwithstanding!) 

I operate on a more human level. I like what touches me. Sometimes that's difficult to define. I like scenes where I'm going OH WOW--as in when Mark's dolls are marching in lockstep toward the Nazis...looking seductive...with machine guns tucked behind their backs...to the thumping beat of Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love." That's worth the price of admission right there. 

I liked Welcome to Marwen.  Because I so respect the sincere artistic effort and vision that goes into the making of any film, especially one that takes the chances and flat out goes for broke as this one does. But everyone isn't going to look at a painting and see the same thing. And that's the beauty of movies. You read one review. You read another that's totally different. Someone saw something or got something out of it that you didn't, or vice-versa. Just like real life. 

Grade : B +  

JILL'S TAKE

Call me just another nasty critic but Welcome To Marwen left me colder than a nazi-killing doll. Aside from those other reviewers' quotes that Tim already mentioned, I'd add 'meandering, even meaningless' – unless you find dolls easier to communicate with than humans. But while I'm on the subject of dolls, I must give tremendous credit to those doll designers and digital artists that made these imaginary figures come to life. (Too many names and categories to mention.)

Still, the story was hard to understand and even harder to relate to. And Steve Carrell's performance often reminded me of the character he played in Dinner For Schmucks. He is such a gifted actor, I'm sorry he chose to appear in this movie. Especially since he was so good in another film out this year called Beautiful Boy. Ironically, both films focused on the destructive effects of alcohol. Only in different ways.

If any of you are Nurse Jackie fans (Showtime) or Godless (Netflix) followers, you will no doubt recognize Merritt Weaver in this film as the owner of the doll boutique. I'm impressed with the range of her acting. But I'd rather watch 20 reruns of Nurse Jackie or Godless than be subjected to visiting Marwen again. Once is one time too many!


Grade: D

Friday, December 21, 2018

THE MULE (2018)


STARS: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
GENRE: Drama/ Dark Comedy

Clint Eastwood is Earl Stone, a 90 year-old (the man himself is 88) horticulturist and Korean war vet who's been estranged from his family for some time. We're not sure why he missed his daughter's wedding in favor of the bottle. Maybe he just likes his space. When he falls on hard times and his business is foreclosed upon, Earl must seek an alternate income. Stepping in to fill the void is a Mexican drug cartel. They see he has a clean driving record and would potentially make a good "mule,"or drug courier. Soon Earl is transporting mega-bucks worth of cocaine in his truck--initially not even aware of what his cargo is, until he gets curious and checks it out in his trunk. 

His naivete about the whole thing is hard for us to buy. But maybe he doesn't want to know. It's a job, and his employers aren't encouraging him to be nosy. The wads of cash he starts raking in may allow him to buy his way back into the good graces of his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and his daughter and grand daughter, who's impending wedding may give him a chance to redeem himself.

When I walk into a Clint Eastwood film, I'm always wondering how he's going to politicize this one. He does, of course, in The Mule, but he seems to have softened since the likes of his jingoistic American Sniper. He's got a sense of humor, and it's on display in spades, as he pokes playful fun at lesbians, millennials, and minorities, among others.  

Much like Woody Allen, Eastwood is speaking through his characters, but the Jewish humor is replaced by what you'd expect from a curmudgeonly old white guy who leans so far to the right you wonder when he's going to tip over. But he let's his characters throw it right back at him as they grow increasingly frustrated and bewildered by Earl's erratic and unpredictable ways. The one-liners and the zingers fall in all the right places, and the theater audience eats it up. 

Eastwood has learned his lesson since surrounding himself with non-actors in the disastrous Gran Torino, and The 15:17 To Paris (less disastrous). His Latino cartel guys are authentically bad-ass, and the rest of the cast, including Bradley Cooper as a DEA agent who is on Earl's tail, is well-seasoned. Also on board are Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, and Alison Eastwood--Clint's real life daughter--playing his movie daughter. There's some type-casting for you.

The Mule is a breezy ride, in a darkly comedic sort of way--there's even some boobs and gyrating booty thrown in for the younger set. Fun for the whole family! And Eastwood still gets his message across--that the world has taken some pretty strange turns since he and his peers were coming up. On that, I'll have to agree.

Grade:  B

JILL'S TAKE

To quote Will Rogers, "A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries." And, boy, do Tim and I differ on this one. Yes, given Mr. Eastwood's advanced age, his acting skills (remembering lines, walking briskly, the nuances of his facial expressions, etc.) is impressive. But so is Christopher Plummer's on screen presence. (And he's 89!)

My main beef with The Mule is its repetitiveness. Do we really need to see old Clint make 12 drug deliveries? And how many singing-in-the-car scenes are necessary? Because this film juggles three separate storylines—drug trafficking, family estrangements and cops chasing after Clint—I got tired of having to switch my focus. Granted the writers Sam Dolnick and Nick Schenk had to stick to the facts presented in the New York Times Magazine Article "The Sinaloa Cartel's 90-year-old Drug Mule." But it got confusing at times. And annoying.

But Clint Easwood's body of work is nothing to scoff at. Unlike Tim, my favorite old curmudgeon role of his was in Gran Torino. And my all-time favorite role was his portrayal of Dave in the 1971 classic Play Misty For Me. The very fact that everyone has a "favorite Clint Eastwood film" is testament to his overall talent and durability.

Sadly, this one left me wishing I could partake of some of that cocaine so I'd enjoy The Mule more....

Grade: C



Wednesday, December 12, 2018

THE WIFE (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Annie Starke, Harry Lloyd
DIRECTOR: Bjorn Runge
GENRE: Drama

Oh, our films do so reflect the times we live in! Our #MeToo times. And The Wife falls right into politically correct lockstep with all of it.

Renown author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), his wife Joan (Glenn Close), and their son David (Max Irons), are on their way to Stockholm where Joe will accept the Nobel Prize for literature. Nice happy family on the surface. Except Joe is a womanizer and Joan is the long suffering wife--the "wind beneath his wings" as it were. David, an aspiring writer himself, desperately seeks his father's approval, which Castleman gives only half-heartedly. The son has resentment. The wife has resentment. This is a film about resentment.

Through flashbacks we look in on the younger versions of Joe and Joan (Harry Lloyd/Annie Starke) as a young couple in the mid nineteen-fifties. It turns out that Joan is the more talented writer, and she agrees to help Joe revise the first draft of his first novel. The nature and the scope of this "assistance" is at the crux of The Wife. Let's just say he wouldn't be where he is today without her. 

The reason Joan agrees to sublimate her own literary ambitions and pour herself into all of her husband's subsequent works--essentially becoming his ghost writer--is due to the assumption (that the movie wants us to buy into) that women writers couldn't get published at the time. Old Boy Network domination. And that's the major flaw of the movie...fake news!

Rachel Carson, Flannery O'Conner, Iris Murdoch, Ayn Rand--and the list goes on--were all making names for themselves during the fifties. But let's be generous and agree that the glass ceiling for women existed to a great extent in the literary world as it did in most other occupations. Those damn men.

Glenn Close has an impressive body of work, but here she is guilty of playing her character one-dimensionally. She has seething rage just below the surface, but that opens up more questions about her than it answers. Joan was complicit in her husband's deception for all this time--she benefited from it equally (everything but the recognition), so you may ask yourself is this level of rage justified? Because it makes her a shallow character where a more complex one could have emerged had she appeared a bit more torn emotionally.

And when the poop finally hits the fan, it's shades of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton going toe-to-toe with each other in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

It's just too much. As is the price of a ticket for this one.

Grade:  C -

JILL'S TAKE

For me, The Wife is Big Eyes with a literary twist. Yes, there are differences but the bottom line is the same: the talented one gets used and abused by the untalented one. Unlike Tim, I was impressed with Glenn Close's portrayal of the uber supportive wife. She has such expressive eyes, especially when they're smoldering. And another actor I love, Christian Slater, was appropriately smarmy as a writer eager to pen our philandering prize-winner's biography.

Yes, some of the scenes dragged a bit. The couple's public persona versus their bedroom battles, for example. Still, I found the premise interesting and, as a woman in showbiz myself (songwriter, author, etc.), I could certainly work up some emotional steam over credit not being given where credit was due.

I loved the shots at night of Stockholm, a city I was unfamiliar with. And I had to chuckle inwardly at the idea of Bob Dylan in this very prim and proper setting, bowing to the king as he accepted his Nobel medal!  


Grade: C +

Friday, November 30, 2018

GREEN BOOK (2018)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
DIRECTOR: Peter Farrelly
GENRE:  Drama

Odd couples in film have made for some intriguing pairings. Harold And Maude...Lars And The Real Girl...and Fay Wray in King Kong, perhaps the oddest couple of them all!  Now we have rough-hewn Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen)--a hot tempered Italian nightclub bouncer, paired with the stoic and refined black musician, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), in Green Book--a retelling of how the two of them ventured into the heart of the deep south in 1962, when racial segregation was still alive and rearing its ugly head. 

Vallelonga's son , Nick, who co-wrote the script, indicates that the events portrayed were based on fact. His dad, known as "Tony Lip," was hired to be Shirley's driver and subsequent bodyguard on a concert tour performed by The Don Shirley Trio, a name that may be familiar to music lovers of a certain age. Shirley was the consummate piano virtuoso, his brilliant talent literally shooting from his fingers. And yet he was subjected to the indignity and insanity of being the featured performer at many of these upscale clubs and venues, and not allowed to dine in their restaurant or use the restroom. He had to go somewhere that catered to "colored folk."

Mortensen gives a cliched but nonetheless affable--and in the end endearing--portrayal of Tony Lip, who starts off being prejudiced at the beginning of the film but grows through his adventure of observing the scope of racism in America first-hand, that dirty little chapter of our past that still hasn't all come out in the wash.

Ali's controlled performance, dictated by the character of the man he's portraying, still allows him to shine when the rare moment of letting off steam with Tony comes about. 

My only knock on Green Book is its length--2 hours, 10 minutes--which could have been shortened if not for all the the background stuff on Tony and his family in the beginning. I kept thinking this is a story about the two men and their relationship, so why aren't we getting to it?  But as it winds down, we see the importance of family during the holidays, and the ending is like a modern day It's A Wonderful Life--it's that heartwarming!     

You're going to wonder if it was actually Mahershala Ali playing the piano, because it looks like he is. (And if he were, he'd be in the wrong profession right now!) It's actually the fingers of film composer Kris Bowers "grafted" onto Ali's arms. They do wonders with surgery these days.

Grade:  A -

JILL'S TAKE
I love it when I'm right! And I knew, the minute I saw the previews of Green Book that it would be 'the feel good movie of the year.' (And I'm so glad Tim—who resisted seeing it at first—changed his mind!) The first thing that hit me was how much weight Viggo Mortensen gained in order to be an authentic 'Tony Lip.' (Shades of Robert Di Niro gaining 40 pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.) Both actors in this disparate duo deserve Oscars. Sadly, they'll probably both get nominated and thereby cancel out each other's chances of winning.

I usually can find something to carp about in the movies we review. This one presents a real challenge for me. I loved everything about it. Especially the way each character slowly accepts their obvious differences and a mutual respect—even love—evolves.

My movie companion helped me find a teeny weeny flaw, i.e. too many in-the-car scenes. But some of them were such gems—i.e. sharing Kentucky Fried Chicken—that I forgave the claustrophobic redundancy.

I want to mention one of the Italian family members played by Sebastian Maniscalco.  I highly recommend any of his stand-up specials (Aren't You Embarrassed?) on Netflix. A truly funny fellow.

Grade A