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


Saturday, November 24, 2018

WIDOWS (2018)




Rated : R

STARS: Viola Davis, Colin Farrel, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Cynthia Erivo, Robert Duvall
DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen
GENRE: Drama

Widows starts off with a bang, as four men fleeing from a cash heist they've pulled off get blown up in an explosive shootout with a swat team, and their wives are left behind holding the bag--trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. But there are too many pieces to this overly long puzzle and it seems like director Steve McQueen is trying to force them all together. It's not a good fit.

The widows, played by Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez, are being threatened by a local thug who is also a politician (now that IS a good fit) to come up with millions in ill-gotten loot that was stolen from him, or come to a bad end. The ladies (supposedly)  have no choice but to formulate a big heist plan of their own so they can pay him off and make a tidy profit for themselves in the process. 

There's a subplot about local Chicago politics that is supposed to make a statement about something, which might have made a decent film by itself, instead of being tacked onto a violent, mean-spirited, cynical, and totally unrealistic movie where there are no identifiable good guys that you can root for--suggesting that everyone is corrupt in some way, and that money and power are somehow worth risking your life over. But you go girls--no matter how crazy, misguided, or illegal your actions may be--because we live in the age of female empowerment! 

Ridiculous.

An impressive ensemble cast cannot pardon this Thanksgiving turkey.

Grade:  D
   
JILL'S TAKE

The only good thing about this 'turkey' is that I got to see it with Tim. (As most of you know, we now live in different states—me in California, Tim in Arizona.) I should have known something was fishy when right before the film started the director, with the same name as Steve McQueen only black, spoke on screen to the audience, saying how this particular movie has meant so much to him, how it had been his pet project for years, etc. (Was he begging me to like it before it even began?)

The opening sequence—fast edits between Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in bed trading steamy kisses, and Liam Neeson driving a getaway car; cut to other shady spouses kissing their wives goodbye and joining him—was enough to blow my mind. And not in a good way. I mumbled my confusion to Tim who was equally befuddled.

The only authentic moments came when one of my all time favorite actors, Robert Duvall, graced the screen with his fiery presence. He played a corrupt politician (what other kind is there?) who wanted his son—ably played by Colin Farrell—to follow in his smarmy footsteps. I had a helluva time trying to figure out what this secondary plot had to do with the first. And by the time I did, I didn't care.

This is the perfect film for people with ADHD. But if, like me, your a tad anally retentive avoid Widows at all costs.


Grade: D -

Thursday, November 8, 2018

BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Amy Ryan, Maura Tierney
DIRECTOR: Felix Van Groeningen
GENRE:  Drama

It's dark, man. I mean literally, due to the deliberate low light camera settings that were employed to create a bleak and brooding mood for Beautiful Boy--based on the best-selling memoirs of David and Nic Sheff.  (The title is a play on the John Lennon song, which gave us the immortal line: Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans). So even in the outdoor shots, there's never a presence of sunlight. A bit heavy-handed to make a point, I thought, but then the story is about the ravages of drug addiction and the devastating toll it can take on a family.

Young Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) gets addicted to crystal meth, gets clean for a while with the aid of support groups and rehab, then relapses...over and over again. It's a pattern that is slowly driving his dad, David (Steve Carell), up the wall with feelings of helplessness and bewilderment. Because he's tried everything he can think of. Like most addicts, Nic is in denial as to the magnitude of his problem, and David confronts him at every turn, trying to be the loving, concerned parent while dealing to his son a dose of reality. To no avail.

And then the epiphany...you can't heal another person. And just as David throws his hands up and opts for the hands-off approach, he is reminded by the boy's mother and his ex-spouse, Vicki (Amy Ryan), that no, you can't help another person if they're not willing to do it themselves--but you can be there for them when they need you. 

I found Beautiful Boy to be a little slow in the first half, but it builds into something that is so powerful and poignant, I'm declaring the film a MUST SEE! 

Carell and Chalamet give two blockbuster performances. The young Chalamet is already a shining star, especially after his work in Call Me By Your Name (reviewed here), and Carell is making his mark as a serious actor in a way that now outshines his affable comedy persona of the past.     

I'd give Beautiful Boy an "A" rating were it not for the low-level lighting that makes even a couple of the daytime scenes iffy to make out what's going on. But the film's message--that there is light at the end of the tunnel--is a meaningful one for anyone who has been, or is currently a member of a family.

Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

The thing that impressed me about Beautiful Boy was the emphasis placed on how addiction is a family disease. How everybody—not just the addict—is sucked into the insanity. The lies, the broken promises, the hopelessness. In the past, films about addiction have mainly focused on the alcoholic (The Lost WeekendLeaving Los Vegas, etc.) or the addict (The Man with the Golden Arm, Requiem for a Dream, etc.). This film, however, pays equal attention to how it can destroy families.

Unfortunately, I knew Beautiful Boy was dragging when I started thinking about scenes I would cut: a miniscule cameo by Timothy Hutton (OrdinaryPeople) as a tell-it-like-it-is addictions doc; the endless father/son flashbacks, reminding us what a beautiful boy Nic was as a child; the incessant relapses.... By the end of the film, I was actually hoping the kid would overdose! (Which is probably the way director Felix van Groeningen wanted the audience to feel.)

My biggest gripe about Beautiful Boy was the score. Loud. Insistent at the wrong moments. The story was powerful enough to carry the film without any music at all. But we've all had some experience with an addicted family member, or friend, or boss. And for that reason alone, it's definitely worth seeing.

GRADE:  B

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, 
Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman, Jon Hamm
DIRECTOR: Drew Goddard
GENRE: Mystery/Suspense

Bad Times At The El Royale is one wild-ass ride of a movie--if I may speak in the vernacular--a jigsaw puzzle that slowly assembles itself into what becomes a clear picture only near the end. It's not going to be for everyone, as evidenced by the older couple I saw getting up and walking out of the theater half way through...you could tell they just didn't get it, and didn't want to wait any longer to see if the pieces were eventually going to fit together.

It's the late sixties. Four strangers show up at a seedy and otherwise deserted Lake Tahoe hotel. The shaggy priest (Jeff Bridges), a cheeky vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), a soul singing soul sister (Cynthia Erivo), a bored and uppity mystery woman (Dakota Johnson), and the slacker desk clerk (Lewis Pullman) make up our principal players. It doesn't take long to realize that none of them are really what they appear to be outwardly (including the hotel itself).  These are the surprises that develop along the way. And when what you think is going to be a major character gets taken out fairly early on, it's a wake up call that jolts you out of any notion of getting in a short catnap, and you say...ooookay... what's next???  Which is good because it carries you through a lot of backstory and some scenes that go on too long, most of which serve only to showcase the singing talents of Cynthia Erivo. It's what stretches the film to its bloated two hours and twenty minutes.

 The more Bad Times At The El Royale goes on the more you can see it's getting ready to jump the tracks, and I was trying to think of another flick that gave me those same vibes and flashed on Dusk Til Dawn, a movie that had its moments but then got too crazy and went on for too long. Way too long. 

Still, I've got to admire the effort of a film that shoots for the moon in a quirky art house kind of way, even if it falls short and ends up crashing back into the lake. Three quarters of the way through we're still pretty clueless as to where director Drew Goddard will ultimately lead us, until a villain (Chris Hemsworth) from outside the core group appears, and it's game on for a bloody Tarentino-esque climax. Through it all there's a message about killing that emerges--it's wrong no matter what the context or justification (as in war)--which has to be brought out, of course, through a lot of the same.

Jeff Bridges is the reason why we are here in the first place (I'm a fan) and he doesn't disappoint with his portrayal of the dissipated, hard drinking priest.

Dakota Johnson, who's made her name of late in the world of soft-core kink with the Fifty Shades franchise, tries for a step up in class here and accomplishes at least that much--after all she's in a Jeff Bridges film--and opted for a part where she keeps her clothes on the whole time!  .

Bad Times At The El Royale is fascinating in the way that a train wreck is fascinating. You can't look away. But that doesn't make it any less of a disaster.

Grade:  C +

JILL'S TAKE

I'm with the older couple who left early, Tim. Only I've never, in my life, left a movie before it's over. On principle. I kept musing all through this turkey that last week I saw 'the best film of 2018' (A Star Is Born) and now I'm watching 'the worst film of 2018.' There has to be another word for slow to describe this puzzling piece of cinematic drivel.... Sluggish? Stagnant? Snail like? Those synonyms don't begin to describe Bad Times at the El Royale.

The only thing I kept asking myself throughout was "What the hell is this movie about?" (I had to read Tim's review to get the jist of what director/writer Drew Goddard was trying to convey.) The descriptive blurb on IMDb also helped "Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption - before everything goes to hell."

The only thing I really dug about this movie were the wonderful closeups of that vintage Wurlitzer jukebox. Made me miss the days when those music machines were housed in every restaurant and bar across America.

I also liked Cynthia Erivo's chops. Who is she, anyway? According to Wikipedia, she's a Brit who won a Tony (Best Actress in a Musical) in the Broadway revival of "The Color Purple." What a voice! Still. It wasn't worth the reduced price I paid. In my view, 'a bad time is what you'll get if you go to this mawkish mystery."

Grade: F

Thursday, October 4, 2018

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Michael Moore, America
DIRECTOR: Michael Moore
GENRE: Documentary

You pretty much know what you're going to get with a Michael Moore film. Hard hitting, wickedly humorous satire that will bite you on the ass if you're the butt of it. That's what I was expecting in his new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9 (not to be confused with his earlier film, Fahrenheit 9/11...11/9/17 being the date when it was confirmed that Donald Trump had been elected president). And as Moore states so directly at the beginning, this film attempts to answer the question: How in the f**k did we get here?

I think that's the only time I even grinned during this movie. Moore strikes a deliberately somber tone here, and there is dirge-like music that seems ever present in the background, so you'll make no mistake where he is coming from. Because his message is that time is running out. That would be the time we have left to save our democracy--or what passes for one here in the USA--before we slide down that slippery slope into fascism. 

You're expecting it to be a full-blown hit piece on Trump, which it starts out to be, and then the road takes a detour to Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan and it becomes a hit piece on Governor Rick Snyder, whom Moore holds ultimately responsible for the polluted water crisis there.  He makes a compelling case, and it makes you wonder how this man stayed in office. 

The democrats don't go unscathed either, earning Moore's scorn primarily for how the Hillary Clinton forces rigged the nomination process in her favor. There is plenty of blame to go around for how and why we got to where we are today. 

Before he's done, Moore will hit on racism, gun violence, the loss of civil liberties, freedom of the press and more, while tying it all in with Trump again. But the juxtaposition of a Trump rally with a Hitler rally will add fuel to his critics who have branded and dismissed him as a radical.

 We revisit the enormous march on Washington that resulted from the Parkland high school shootings, and the ballsy kids who organized it and spoke so eloquently at the rally. It's a powerful thing to watch on the big screen, and it strikes the hopeful tone (there's always one near the end of a Michael Moore film) of people power in action. But this time it comes with a dire caveat: Time is running out.

Grade:  B + 

JILL'S TAKE

Let me start out by saying I'm apolitical to a fault. I'm also a big Michael Moore fan. I heard him speak once a few years back at a film festival in Sedona, AZ and love his acerbic wit. That being said, my biggest complaint with Fahrenheit 11/9 is its length. Come on, Michael... Two hours and eight minutes of dire warnings would make even the most rabid anti Trumpster squirm. I realize he had a lot of territory to cover. But audiences get weary after awhile....

Still, I must give this Michigan native high marks for his use of background music. My favorite bit (and this won't ruin the movie for you) was at the beginning. The music he chose for Hillary awaiting victory was uplifting, hip and high-spirited. Then, as Election Night progressed, we cut to Donald Trump somberly walking out on stage, accompanied by an equally somber family, to give his acceptance speech. What music did Michael choose for this moment? The famous aria from Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." A brilliant move on his part!

But the movie is misleading. Even the poster with with a pudgy Trump hitting a golf ball and the subtitle "Tyrant, Liar, Racist, A Hole In One" makes you think it's going to be a hatchet job on our 45th president. Far from it. Instead, it's a hatchet job on the state of our country. Not a message that lends itself to humor. And I sorely missed that aspect of Michael's personality.

I also felt the ending was weak. I won't go into detail (out of respect for those folks who want to react in their own way) but for me it ended with a whimper rather than a bang.



Grade: B -

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

LIFE ITSELF (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa
DIRECTOR: Dan Fogelman
GENRE: Drama

If I had to distill Life Itself down to one sentence, I'd say: It's a big, ambitious film filled with the small moments of life. A multi-generational saga that can seem, at times, like it's abandoned the entire narrative you were following and started up a different film altogether. Then just when you think what movie am I watching, anyway...what does this have to do with anything?...it connects the dots and there you have your AHA! moment.

Brilliant.

The plot revolves around Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), a mentally unstable screenwriter and his young and very pregnant wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde). Will had been committed to an institution, but he's out now and trying to piece his reality back together with the  help of his therapist (Annette Bening). Twists and turns and unanticipated moments of high drama ensue as we are placed on alert to expect the unexpected, journeying through the multiple spin-off lives that follow. To give you more would reveal too many spoilers.

I never quote Rotten Tomatoes, but I had a feeling that Life Itself was going to get panned by a lot of critics, and I was right. When I checked  the site, the film had an approval rating of just 12 percent among critics. But get this--it had a full 80 percent audience approval rating! Well, that tells you that critics are pretty much full of shit, aren't they? Yes, I said it. Why? Because critics are cynics. They think their job is to dissect something and tear it apart, when oftentimes it would serve them better just to get in touch with some genuine human emotion. And that is just what Life Itself is imploring you to do. 

Director Dan Fogelman has gotten his impressive cast to buy into this one all the way--as evidenced by the many sincere and powerful performances.

So the question is, can you handle a film that is unabashedly saying something to you in a straightforward manner without couching the message in cryptic terms that are supposed to make you scratch your head to try and figure it out?  For those who answer in the affirmative, Life Itself is a full box of tissue movie. You know what that means. Bring one or you'll be sorry.

Whether your response to Life Itself is positive or negative...whether you think it's brilliant or corny as hell...I'm betting you'll come away thinking, like I did, that you've never seen anything quite like it.

Grade: A