Friday, April 12, 2019

THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019)


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson, Anne Heche, Bill Riddick
DIRECTOR: Robin Bissell
GENRE: Drama


As the slow march toward summer movie mediocrity begins (as evidenced by the previews of upcoming films I just sat through), The Best Of Enemies is something of a find. It's based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson)--as unlikely of an odd couple as you're ever going to find.

Ellis was a white racist and leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Atwater was a housing activist for black folks. They were chosen to co-chair a committee on school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. The committee was charged with giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to allowing children from a black school to integrate with a white school after the former's building was gutted by fire. Representatives from the KKK and the black community formed a panel that would make the decision after two weeks of public hearings. Something like that would be unheard of today in our climate of nasty political polarization.

As you can imagine, the two leads despised each other in the beginning. But a funny thing happens when circumstances dictate that you must interact with people you hate due to fear and ignorance. Their humanity begins to emerge. Your humanity begins to emerge. Because it's in there. Though it may be buried deep down in some of us and need to be dredged up with heavy equipment.

The Best Of Enemies is the inspiring story of how two people from polar opposites met in the middle and became friends. And it's mostly true to the facts (though if you read the book by Osha Gray Davidson you'd be able to nitpick some things from what I understand). 

The film builds skillfully to a climactic moment that may have you cheering or grabbing for your box of tissue. I didn't know the story of this movie going in, but it wasn't hard to figure out halfway through how it was all going to come down. It's predictability doesn't make it any less of a stirring film. We all figured that The Italian Stallion was going to triumph in Rocky II, but it was still a helluva movie.   

The Best Of Enemies is overly long, but I always forgive that if the payoff packs a punch in the end. Good turns from Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson, and a story that allows us to root for the triumph of love over hate. The Best Of Enemies should probably be in the Oscar conversation, but having come out so early in the year, it may not be well remembered by then. In the same way that the spirit of brotherhood is not so well remembered in America these days. 

 Grade:  A -


JILL'S TAKE

Here's a personal antonym, that describes (for me) The Best Of Enemies. Outstanding,Superb, Captivating, Awesome, Relevant. (But despite both leads definitely deserving Academy Awards, the film's early release will probably kill any chance of that happening.) I was familiar with the story beforehand and, ever a fan of built-in conflicts, I couldn't wait to see the movie. I wasn't disappointed.  Neither was the the audience, applauding as the ends credits rolled.

So many great things about this movie!  But since Tim didn't mention the musical score—the irony of what we were seeing on screen as opposed to what we were hearing—I will start by heaping tons of praise on Marcelo Zarvos. Well done!

I hate to use this term, considering the subject matter, but if there's one thing The Best Of Enemies proves it's that nothing in this world is black and white. C.P. Ellis may have been a devoted Klansman but early on we see his tender side when he comforts his mentally challenged son. Sam Rockwell plays bigots so well. His cocky strut, his sneer. Since he's originally from San Mateo, California, I doubt he's had much white-sheet experience. Still, if I was in the same elevator with him, I'd feel slightly unnerved....

Yes, the movie was long and with all those town meeting scenes it could have felt endless but it didn't. If I had to find something to criticize—and, believe me, I'm seriously nitpicking here—I'd say the final turn around seemed a bit too sudden and unbelievable. Still, if you don't seen another movie all year, do not miss this one!

Grade: A+





Tuesday, March 26, 2019

GLORIA BELL (2019)



Rated:  R

STARS:  Julianne Moore, John Turturro
DIRECTOR: Sebastian Lelio
GENRE: Drama, Comedy, Romance

There are plot driven films and there are character studies. Plot driven films typically don't have much character development. Character studies are not heavy on plot. Gloria Bell, a remake of the 2013 Spanish language film, Gloria, is a character study. So the whole thing rests upon the likability and the nuance that Julianne Moore brings to her role as Gloria--a middle-aged woman with two grown kids who is putting herself out there again and is looking for love--a bit too eagerly--in all the wrong places.

In this case it's a Los Angeles area disco she likes to frequent--which gives us the opportunity to groove on some good dance tunes--and where she gets picked up by Arnold (John Turturro), an ex-marine and as unlikely a guy that a still hot woman such as Gloria is likely to go home and jump into bed with as you'll find. But that's what they do. The sex seems okay, but not earth-shattering from what we can see.    

Both Arnold and Gloria have this wistful look in their eye throughout the whole movie. They seem haunted by their pasts and somewhat baffled by the present. Gloria feels dissed when Arnold repeatedly takes calls from his ex or his kids while he is with her and doesn't give them the scoop about his new relationship. He has reasons for not acknowledging her to others, but it' s the kind of stuff guys always give out as a smoke screen when they like you but they're not totally committed. And Arnold has a baffling and frustrating habit of disappearing on her at odd times, ostensibly to get his head together. 

Director Sebastian Lelio obviously thinks if a little of something is good, then a lot more of it is better. So we get multiple scenes of Gloria singing off key while she's driving. We get multiple scenes of Gloria moving to the beat on a crowded dance floor. We get multiple scenes of Gloria's unclothed body (which Moore still likes to show off a la Boogie Nights) before, during, or after sex with Arnold. (I'm not complaining, mind you, about the latter.)

On the up side, there are multiple chuckles in Gloria Bell as well, as two damaged people try to figure out what love is all about when love is no longer as simple as a white picket fence and 2.3 kids running around in the yard beating the crap out of each other. It's a film about the melancholy state of people who are constantly searching for something or someone outside themselves to heal them. They never find it. But that doesn't stop them from looking.

With any luck, Gloria may find herself in the end.

Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

Readers of our reviews often tell me they much prefer when Tim and I disagree. Well, get ready, folks! The two best things about this dreary, seemingly endless film are the music and the trailer. (That was what made me want to see it in the first place!) My mistake. I know I've made this point before but I strongly believe movie-goers must either love or hate the characters they're watching on screen. Or at the very least feel something about them. But both Gloria and Arnold are so...uninteresting, really. And the story, so predictable.

Okay, I've had my rant. As Tim already mentioned, Julianne Moore has—at age 58—well-maintained breasts. And she's been in some first-rate films. One for which she won a well-deserved Oscar. (Still Alice, 2015). But this role wasn't worthy of her. And while I'm on actors, John Turturro was terrific in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink. In Gloria Bell? Not so much. His sad-eyed, creepy performance was pretty much the same throughout. As the end credits rolled, I was amazed how many well-known actors participated in this movie: Sean Astin, Jean Tripplehorn, Michael Cera, Brad Garrett.

I did love the score, though. It was consistently disco and, for me, the saving grace of Gloria Bell. (The only bell that rang true for me!)



Grade: D

  

Sunday, February 17, 2019

COLD WAR (2018)


Rated:  R

STARS: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
DIRECTOR: Pawel Pawlikowski
GENRE: Drama/ Romance


With border crossers being the hot button topic of the day, we get a film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski that crosses more borders--physical, political, and musical--than you can shake a stick at.

Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a performer in a song and dance troupe showcasing traditional Polish music and culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the director who quickly falls for his lovely young ingenue, who is on probation for stabbing her father. (She's got real spunk and spirit, this one.)  She is also attracted to Wiktor, and they will do their thing with each other, and it will be good for a while. Until the commies want them to start injecting some Stalinist propaganda into their performances. Wiktor defects to France and Zula is supposed to follow suit--but she balks, and this is where the complications set in for the star-crossed lovers. But they manage to hook up improbably in Paris, Prague, and Warsaw amidst the changing circumstances of their lives. 

Pawlikowski reportedly based the lead characters on his own parents. But since his father was a doctor and his mother a literature professor, Cold War is not their story--though perhaps the seeds of it were sown when his mother removed him from communist Poland to a permanent exile in the west.

Music, the universal language, is what ties the disparate elements of Cold War together. The traditional folk music of Poland gives way to the jazzy film noir atmosphere of Parisian night clubs. The only constant is that the two leads remain hot for each other through a period spanning the decades of the fifties and sixties. (Only thing is they don't seem to age that much...but regular sex will keep you young looking...or so I hear!)

Joanna Kulig, who does her own singing and dancing, is immensely talented--an alluring and captivating presence who carries the film, which is something of a flawed masterpiece. I say flawed because of the ending. Without giving it away, I'll just say that it doesn't fit the characters. It's a lazy, deus ex machina way to end a film. Points deducted accordingly.

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE
For those of you who've gone to see movies with me, you already know my 'bottom line' litmus test. As we exit the theater, I always ask, "What one thing did you like most about this movie? And what one thing did you like least?" (It saves me from listening to long, disjointed cinematic opinions!) Then it's my turn. In the case of Cold War, my favorite thing was definitely the music. No matter what rhythm, language or how a song was presented, it reiterated to me how universal and powerful music is.

My least favorite thing? The editing. Cold War leapt from scene to scene faster than those high-kicking Polish dancers. Whatever happened to subtle transitions in movies? I realize life is often an emotional roller coaster but does art always have to imitate it?

This is the second black and white film I've seen this season. The first being Roma. (Both have received 3 Oscar nominations for Cinematography, Directing and Best Foreign Film). I wasn't killed with either. But forced to choose, I'd go with Cold War. For me, the black and white movie that truly deserved it's many, many Oscar wins was The Artist (2011).

Unlike Tim, I found the ending realistic. But then I'm less of a romantic than my co-reviewer!
Grade: C

Monday, February 11, 2019

FREE SOLO (2018)


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless
DIRECTOR: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
GENRE: Documentary

Some folks need to risk death to feel truly alive. I have no need of such drastic measures. Falling out of bed in the morning is enough to jolt me awake and be fully present in the moment. But some people need more. Much more.

Enter Alex Honnold, rock climbing enthusiast. Ascending to mountaintops the normal way, with ropes and harnesses, isn't good enough for him. He wants to be the first person to inch all the way up the 3000 foot sheer granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any of that "sissy" equipment that normally provides the difference between life and death in such endeavors. Alex isn't like the rest of us. He needs a higher level of stimulation, as a telling MRI of his brain reveals.

Free Solo is the documentary that follows him from the planning stages of the climb through the actual attempt itself. Along the way we learn quite a bit about the young man, a healthy eating vegetarian who lives in his van and travels around practicing his "upwardly mobile" lifestyle. It is clearly the most important thing in his life because he indicates that when push comes to shove, he prefers a rock face over a pretty face.  

Enter Sanni McCandless, a young woman he met at one of his book signings. They hit it off...one thing leads to another...and now she's become a part of his life as they cohabitate in the van--and though she's not a professional climber, she's getting more and more into it with him.

There's an undercurrent of how their ongoing romance may affect his concentration and dedication to his sport. (I flash on Burgess Meredith telling Sylvester Stallone in Rocky: women weaken legs!) Any lack of concentration or attention to detail during such a harrowing free solo climb could easily result in it being curtains, and to drive home the point we are shown a lengthy list of climbers who perished during such attempts. 

Free Solo is as gripping and compelling as any suspense thriller I've ever watched. With dizzying and breathtaking cinematography that we get from every angle. I purposely did not do research on the film before seeing it, so I didn't know what the ultimate outcome of Honnold's foolhardy El Capitan adventure would be, and found myself with sweaty palms throughout the second half of the film. And yes, I say foolhardy, because the guy has a girlfriend who looks like a model and his whole life ahead of him. 

For most of us, that would be enough. Unless getting into the record books means more to you than life itself.

Grade:  A


JILL'S TAKE

A nail-biter for sure. And like one of the camera men filming this inconceivable adventure, I had to look away during the final ropeless climb. I went to an evening show and the audience was filled with young people who were vicariously climbing along with Alex Honnold. I was not. But I was admiring his single focus, his dedication and his passion.

If Free Solo wasn't based on an actual event (nominated this year for a Best Documentary Feature award), I'd find it hard to believe that any mom or girlfriend would be so supportive. I sure wouldn't be!

Some of the photography looked like abstract art. And the majesty of El Capitan, as captured so beautifully on film by co-director, cinematographer and co-producer Jimmy Chin, took my breath way. (When I remembered to breathe!)

Tim McGraw's song "Gravity" plays as the end credits roll. As I end my review, I'd like to quote some of them: "Look what you have overcome to get here...Look at the distance you've run...The doubt that you push down...Fear you have drawn out when they said it couldn't be done..."

PS – If you suffer from vertigo, avoid this film at all costs.


Grade: B +

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

THE UPSIDE (2019)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies
DIRECTOR:  Neil Burger
GENRE: Comedy/ Drama

There are multiple factors to consider when evaluating a film: story line...acting... cinematography...soundtrack. Sometimes one stands out and makes up for weaknesses in the other areas. In The Upside, a remake of the hit French film from 2011--The Intouchables (reviewed here)--it's the personnel on hand. The quality cast. 

To wit: Bryan Cranston, who plays Phillip, a quadriplegic billionaire (a paragliding accident has him permanently confined to the chair). Cranston does all of his acting from the neck up. No easy feat.

Kevin Hart brings his comedic instincts to the part of Dell, the man who gets hired as Phillip's caretaker and companion. Dell is totally unqualified for the position. He lives on the fringes of the law and he's way behind on his child support payments. He doesn't even want the job--he's just out collecting signatures  to appease his parole officer--until he learns how much it pays. Phillip sees something in him that represents rebellion. Freedom. Adventure. It will happen.

Hart plays Dell as a hapless slacker. In the original film, Dell's counterpart, "Driss," is portrayed by Omar Sy. He's more of a thuggish, straight-ahead tough guy. So there's a different tone to the character. There are laughs in both versions, but in The Upside Hart is spoon-feeding them to us (like he haphazardly spoon feeds Philip).  But every film should stand on its own, and as we all know, movies that are"based" on a book or a true story or another film often fiddle with the particulars.

Nicole Kidman is Phil's gal Friday, who is staunchly opposed to the hiring of Dell in the beginning. I think of Kidman as our finest living actress. I came to this mindset after viewing her fiery performance in Eyes Wide Shut. Since then I've examined her work with a more critical eye, and she is the real deal. Here she is looking radiant and almost school-girlish, belying her 51 years on the planet. 

The exquisite Julianna Margulies as Phil's pen pal rounds out the cast. Their dinner meeting together is  bittersweet, and marks the turning point in the film. 

All that and you get Aretha Franklin singing opera in the background! That's different.

I gave The Intouchables an "A" grade. I like the remake almost as much as the original.

Grade: B +

JILL'S TAKE


When I went to see The Upside, I had some pro and con prejudices about the actors. Con Kevin Hart (too attention-grabbing) and pro Bryan Cranston (AKA William White in "Breaking Bad"). By the end, my preconceived opinions were eradicated.

This seems to be the year of movies featuring totally opposite characters who become bosom buddies, i.e. Green Book and now The Upside. (It all began with Stanley Kramer's 1958 classic The Defiant Ones with convicts Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, eventually learning to trust, even like each another.)

There have been some great films about quadriplegics. To name two of my favorites,The Sea Inside (2004, Javier Bardem) and The Sessions (2012, Helen Hunt). I will now add The Upside to this list. It's a totally engrossing film with more humor, much more, than those other two....

Sure, there are some unbelievable moments but once you buy into the premise, it's a fun ride. When Hart's character earns a $50,000 check for a painting and spends it on a fancy automobile and two apartments in NYC my practical side scoffed. (I kept thinking of my niece's daughter who pays $2500 a month for a 500 sq. ft. studio in lower Manhattan.) And some of the antics (car chases, paragliding, etc.) seemed a bit hard to imagine for someone as physically compromised as Cranston's character. But imagine them I did – and was much the happier for the experience.

Emotionally, I'd like to give The Upside an A. But a small part of me feels it was too happy and upside-ish for the actual situation. I'd love to know how a quadriplegic viewer would react.

Grade: B +

Monday, January 28, 2019

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Malello, Lucy Boynton
DIRECTOR: Bryan Singer/ Dexter Fletcher
GENRE: Biopic

I have to admit I've never been a huge Queen fan. A lot of their stuff seemed to straddle the line between pop/rock and pretentiousness. Rock and opera should avoid each other like any two people named Trump and Pelosi. But there's no denying that "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," and a few of Queen's other songs are forever classics. 

I also knew the story of Freddie Mercury would be an intriguing one, and as a music connoisseur it was one I should familiarize myself with. So even if I didn't care for the movie, I'd at least come away a little more knowledgeable. As it turns out, I was lifted and uplifted by the film's driving energy.

What Bohemian Rhapsody may lack as far as compelling story telling is made up for by the pounding tsunami of sound as the Queen classics are sprinkled liberally throughout (the hits just keep on comin!)--and, of course, the character study of Freddie Mercury--their guiding star--that is at the heart of the film.   

We see a little bit of Freddie's humble beginnings. He was born into a poor family from India. There is the developing conflict with his straight-laced father, who urges him to embrace good thoughts, good words, good deeds. Some quick shots of Mercury working as an airport baggage handler, and then its on to the pivotal moment of his life--being at the right place at the right time when he encounters a band that had just lost its lead singer. He is able to sell himself enough for them to give him a shot. 

As this is a PG-13 rated film, I knew that Freddie's bisexuality would be treated more or less with kid gloves. Indeed, it's his heterosexuality which is emphasized in the beginning, the ongoing love of his life being Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). A few discreet male on male kisses later in the film, and the rest is pretty much left for us to fill in the blanks.

Rami Malek gives a virtuoso performance. He has all of Mercury's strutting moves down pat. There is one little thing. In the first half of the film he's got long hair, and his appearance and mannerisms make him more of a dead ringer for Mick Jagger than Freddie Mercury. (See if you notice it.) Later, when his locks are shorn and the mustache is added, he is an uncanny double for his subject.

What we come away with in the end is a portrait of a sensitive soul lost between two worlds, who never feels that he quite fits in anywhere. And of course the music. The climax is a faithful recreation of Queen's triumphant appearance at Live Aid in 1985, and it will knock your support stockings off. 

Sooo...unlike The Favourite...and unlike Vice...and maybe one or two others...Bohemian Rhapsody actually deserves it's Oscar nomination for Best Picture. 

Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

...And Rami Malek deserves his Best Actor nomination. I was unfamiliar with this 37-year-old from Los Angeles, who won an Emmy in 2016 for his role in the hit TV series "Mister Robot." Wow. Was I ever impressed with Malek's portrayal of music superstar Freddy Mercury. His cavorting on and off stage was painfully real. So were his lonely moments. And I applaud the casting of his bandmates who looked amazing like the real ones – as seen during the end credits.

This movie left me feeling high. Almost as if I'd actually attended Bob Geldof's Live Aid concert. I clapped my hands and stamped my feet, sang along with "We Are The Champions." (And I wasn't the only one in the movie theater doing it, either.) It's so refreshing in this season of slow-moving (Roma), politically charged (Vice), comic bookish (Black Panther) films to be swept away by a musical blast from the past. I had no idea how many hits this legendary group had produced. And I have to give high marks to screenwriter Anthony McCarten who let us see how "Queen" (or any rock group, really) handled their rise to fame – from a tight knit family to four separate egos vying for creative control.

Did Malek do his own vocals? Because lip-synching is always on some level noticeable,Malek's voice is mixed with Canadian singer Marc Martel (a well known impersonator of Freddy Mercury) to create Mercury's incredible vocal range. So it is Malek, but not entirely. In all the concert sequences, it's pure unadulterated (newly-released) Queen.

I really enjoyed this one.

Grade: A
  

Friday, January 25, 2019

THE FAVOURITE (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS:  Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman
DIRECTOR: Yorgos Lanthimos
GENRE: Drama/ Dark Comedy

It's the early 18th century. England's Queen Anne, in declining health--mentally and physically--reigns during the time of the War of the Spanish Succession. Against this backdrop, we have the story of three women: The queen (Olivia Colman), her close friend and confidante Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), Sarah's cousin who has fallen on hard times and is looking to land a gig as a nanny or a maid at the palace. 

Sarah starts out as the queen's favourite (I'll stick with the British spelling!) She calls a lot of the shots for the ailing monarch (think Dick Cheney in the Bush White House). But Abigail isn't the sweet thing she comes off as in the beginning. Her ambition is to take over Sarah's position as teacher's pet, and that involves servicing the queen in every way you can imagine. 

 Thus begins the subtle skulduggery and behind the scenes machinations as the two women try to undermine and discredit one another, and they will stop at nothing. The wigged-out (pardon the pun) men of the royal court, who pop up here and there, ineffectively attempting to advise the capriciously cranky queen on affairs of state, are essentially props here as the gals take center stage.

The Favourite could alternately be entitled Lifestyles Of The Rich And The Severely Overdressed. It does nothing to disprove my theory that British period dramas exist only to keep costume designers from starving. But don't let the era and all the pretentious get-ups fool you into thinking this is some kind of stuffy historical drama. It's a bawdy and strangely savage movie. The women have ducks thrown into the air and then they shoot them,   just for target practice. Not in one but in multiple scenes. In another scene a pet rabbit is nearly crushed underfoot, deliberately, by one of the petulant primary characters. (What's the point? To reinforce in our minds that these women are cold-hearted and essentially dead inside? We don't need to be hit over the head with the obvious). There are multiple instances of people puking. Boobs, butts, and bitchery. This is what gets nominated for Best Picture at The Oscars in 2019. 

And though The Favourite is set in the 1700s, it effectively gets its contemporary feminist slant of strong women and subservient men across. That's the ticket these days. 

This too shall pass.

 Are commendable performances from Colman, Weisz and Stone, along with some gorgeous cinematography enough on their own to make The Favourite a great film? I think not, old chap. 

Grade:  C

JILL'S TAKE

The best thing about The Favourite are the myriad bunny rabbits hopping about, pooping on every lavish carpet in the Queen's chambers. I kept pitying the film crew having to clean up after them. Yes the sets were breath-takingly opulent and, yes, the women were bona fide bitches. But "Downtown Abbey" it ain't. (I happened to love that series!)

I can't understand why this piece of British history (did the Queen really keep pet rabbits?) has garnered such favor with The Academy. Then, again, I disagree with all the nominations Roma has received, too. It felt painfully long and drawn out. And the woo-woo rabbit-ridden ending left me cold.

Since all three female actresses have been nominated, I guess I'll have to credit them with good performances. Especially Olivia Colman who played the demanding and demented queen to screechy perfection. But who needs to be yelled at for one hour and fifty-nine minutes? Not me.

Grade: D -