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Non-Fiction

18 May

‘Non-Fiction’: Léonard writes what he knows, which is philandering and a great deal of chat

 

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Ah, a baguette, warm and chewy and oh so very French. You can feel and taste it, and that’s how “Non-Fiction,” the latest from Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Summer Hours”) goes down, with copious crumbs of provocative dialogue falling from the lips of a few not so discreet but very charming members of the bourgeoisie.

Those under Assayas’ lens are not your typical ilk. Bearded, wild-haired Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) pens the happenings in his life – just ask his ex-wife – under the guise of fiction, pouring sauce on it the way Bukowski and Mailer did. He’s not so much the macho brute those other two postured to be, but he does pursue sensual pleasure at others’ expense; for years he’s been bedding Selena (Juliette Binoche), the wife of his publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet). Selena’s no bored “Belle de Jour,” as in her day job she plays a policewoman (more like Frances McDormand from “Fargo” than Angie Dickinson) in a popular TV series. Then there’s Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), Léonard’s live-in girlfriend who’s a political aide. And, not to complicate matters, but Alain’s carrying on with Laure (Christa Théret), a fresh young face in the office who’s also the face of the future; she’s been brought in to take the publisher boldly into the digital age.

Beyond that tangled web of sexual allegiances (which is plenty), there’s not a lot of rising dramatic tension. The four mains mostly consume wine and talk with banal disregard about life, the increasing allure and power of social media and, as Carver would have it, love. There does come a point in the film when Selena realizes that Leonard, who can’t help but pour himself outward onto a page, might share some of their (not so) private moments – take the public sexcapade in a movie theater – with his readership. Along the way, a political scandal and the films of Michael Haneke and Luchino Visconti find their way into the mix, and Binoche get a smartly imbedded meta moment that Robin Wright in her “The Congress” endeavor (2013) would surely appreciate.

If there’s one thing nearly all of the quartet seem concerned with, it’s straight-up change, fearing or embracing it and what it means for their futures. At one point a character pulls a line from Visconti’s “Leopard” (“Things must change in order to remain the same.”) to put it all into context. The film itself does exactly that, never waning, not even during the long awkward pauses. It’s a French film loaded with cinematic references that will serve as a double feast for cineastes. Assayas may have gone a touch off course with his last film, a ghost story starring Kristen Stewart, “Personal Shopper,” but it’s good to see him back. Not enough can be said about the cast – Binoche and Théret provide the most to chew on, but this is an ensemble effort. Talking in circles like this hasn’t been this much fun since “My Dinner With Andre” (1981).

Aniara

18 May

‘Aniara’: Another trip to deep space goes awry, a getting away from it all that demands escape

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Much of this sleek Swedish sci-fi flick may feel borrowed from the recent, grim “High Life” from the unlikely source of Claire Denis, but its roots go back to the similarly named 1956 poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Like Denis’ contemplation on loneliness, lust and what constitutes law and righteousness beyond the outer limits, “Aniara” dumps us aboard an outer space cruise ship occupied by souls from wildly varying social strata. The vast voyager comes replete with discos and gourmet eateries, but it is not a vacation, not by any means. Those aboard are en route to a Martian colony because Earth has become uninhabitable.

Not long into the journey something goes bump, and The Aniara gets knocked off course and on a trajectory out of the solar system and into deep space. The initial projection of two years to get the engines back to full capacity and get back on course comes as a bit of a bummer – it was supposed to take three weeks to get to Mars – but hey, they have unlimited algae, so all’s good, right? No. Plans don’t go accordingly, timelines shift, cults form and society devolves into chaotic semi-lawfulness. Think Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel “High-Rise” (2016) and you’d have the right idea.

It’s a piquant setup and something of an existential exercise, pitting hope against the torturous throes of not knowing. As adapted by first-time feature filmmakers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, the time-hopping narrative orbits around a strawberry-haired woman blessed with the gender opposite moniker of MR (Emelie Jonsson). MR proves quite the gravitational point; she’s the tech who runs the mental relaxation room known as Mima. The small, seatless amphitheater’s something like your favorite bar and bartender without the hangover – kind of: While resting in an inverted yogi Savasana pose, waves of flame shoot across the ceiling of Mima while visitors in their hyper-relaxed state take walks along the beach or a stroll through a verdant forest. In short, they get to go to their happy place. As the reality of return becomes increasingly glum, the demand for Mima spikes. And even there, the prospect for virtual escapism begins to become something of a shop of horrors.

The catch with “Aniara” becomes its overly ambitious scope, which begs for the razor eye of a master (say Kubrick or Tarkovsky); Kågerman and Lilja get the grandness and wonderment of the universe beyond right, but their chapter-esque jumps in time tend to break apart what came before. MR ultimately pairs up with fellow female crew member Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), so there’s something at risk emotionally and we’re reassured that true human companionship bears more value than a visit to Mima – phew. Years out, as prospects gray and the suicide rate skyrockets, folk still party like its 1999, engage in ritualistic orgies and even bear babies. Is it sustainable? It turns out space is a very cold place to contemplate time.

Trail by Fire

17 May

‘Trial by Fire’: On death row after arson trial, but he finds a new hope (if not a new story)

 

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Anti-death penalty films tend to land far and wide. There are hits (“Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile”) and misses (“The Life of David Gale”), much of it hinging on degree of subtlety vs. preachy, manipulative overtones. Sure, the talent involved matters, but so do tenor and posture. “Trial by Fire,” from Edward Zwick (“Glory” and “The Last Samurai”) lands closer to the “Dead Man Walking” side of the field than sermonic foul territory. It’s something of a nifty crime drama too.

Adapted from David Grann’s haunting 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” plays us for our stereotypes the way a courtroom might. Two days before Christmas 1991, in a poor Texas ’burb, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a man with a bedraggled mullet, pentagram tattoos, no job, no education and several run-ins with the law on his record, watches his house go up in flames with his three baby girls inside. Later that night he’s drinking at the bar and playing darts, reveling in all the donations that have rolled in. 

It’s not pretty, and next comes sordid details of his marriage (wife Stacy, played by Emily Meade, was at work at the time of the fire). It all comes out in the courtroom after investigators examining the remains of the charred house – one expert articulating, “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence. Fire creates evidence” – deem it an arson-engineered death trap and charge Willingham with the crime. 

As the film sets it (or us) up, Willingham’s guilty as hell – and just like that, off to death row he goes. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher plays with time and our sensibilities as it goes along. Willingham’s trial lawyer seems competent during the initial defense, but not so in a rewind, and then there are the shifting accounts from eyewitnesses (we saw what they saw, and they tell it differently on the stand). It’s enough to cast doubt but not enough for a retrial. Willingham and the film get a big boost when Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert (not the “Eat, Pray, Love” author), a compassionate single mother with two teens, embarks on a letter-writing relationship with Willingham and jumps in on his defense. 

O’Connell, a British actor (“Unbroken”) whose stock should rise in the wake of “Trial by Fire,”  does an affectingly palpable job of selling us on his transformation into a more educated and balanced person behind bars. Meade and Dern are likewise commendable. It’s a heavy film with a heavy agenda that lets us know that Texas executes five times as many death row inmates as the next death penalty state, and Project Innocence gets rolled in too. It’s not overtly (and unnecessarily) manipulative until late in the game. Its points about the weaknesses of the justice system are provocative and real considerations to deliberate. 

Rafiki

10 May

‘Rafiki’: Kenyan love story is rife with politics, including a true-life oppression of gay culture

 

There’s a lot of stuff to talk about before getting to the cinematic merits of “Rafiki.” The film, about two lovers from opposing political families, is reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the Swahili title translates to something innocuous and good (“friend”); neither are the reason for the film’s notoriety. “Rafiki,” directed by Wanuri Kahiu, was the first film out of Kenya to make the lineup at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival – and on the uglier side, was banned in that country, Kahiu’s homeland, which still has (but is debating repealing) colonial-era laws making homosexuality illegal, punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

The reason for the film ban wasn’t explicitly those antiquated and oppressive laws, but because it portrayed a same-sex couple in a positive light. “Homosexuality is a reality,” a film board member said regarding the decision, “What we are against is the endeavor to show that as a way of life in Kenya.” Kahiu was asked to alter the ending – but refused and sued. A judge ultimately flipped the decision, writing, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society whose moral foundation will be shaken by watching a film depicting a gay theme.” 

Beyond the courtroom brouhaha, the film still serves as badge of courage and perseverance for the Kenyan LGBTQ community for residing under such duress. At the heart of Kahiu’s film, which is based on the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, are two young women with different ideals. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) has plans to go to nursing school, while Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a wide-eyed free spirit blessed with cool, colorful dreads, wants to break out and explore the world. In their first encounter Ziki pooh-poohs Kena’s mundane aspirations and encourages her to raise the bar. It’s love at first witty barb, but if the inherently hostile nature of the social climate doesn’t provide a big enough obstacle, their fathers’ political rivalry jockeying over a council seat threatens their blissful budding even more.

The pair’s palpably felt companionship – the realization of that rare human connection with someone who gets you, thoroughly and intimately – is the heart and soul of the endeavor, and what makes it such a joy. Given the glum setting in “the Slopes,” a term for the seedy outskirts of Kenya’s capital,“Rafiki” would be an entirely different film without this notion of hope. Perhaps it would be as moving (unlikely), but sadly so, as only a reminder of barren prospects and the pointlessness of dreaming. 

It’s a good thing Kahiu didn’t back down on her principles. For Westerners, her portrait affords a look inside a culture and a country we’re not normally exposed to. To all, it’s a potent reminder that such practices of open oppression still exist. And inside that country, it’s most definitely a demand for progress.

Shadow

10 May

‘Shadow’: Things aren’t just black and white for dynasties preparing a bloody red rematch

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Before Chinese director Zhang Yimou got into wuxia-infused dynasty dramas (“House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero”) he wove provocative, intimate tales of personal struggle (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Story of Qui Ju” and “Not One Less”) that edged into the political (one, “To Live” was banned in China). In 2016, perhaps rattled by the ascent of Trump in American politics, he jumped the shark with the “The Great Wall” a cockamamie actioner with Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe checking in as Western avengers of sorts saving China from a horde of ravaging monsters. Yeah. The good news – and it’s relative, mind you – is that Zhang’s latest, “Shadow,” marks a return to form, even if the plot is something of writhing nest of snake to untangle.

Somewhere in an ancient “great walled” country (clearly China, but fictitious, nonetheless) two clans remain at uneasy odds after ganging up to conquer a vying third. The Yan and Pei dynasties decide to settle who rules the lands by setting forth their best warrior in a winner-take-all contest. During that cage match the great legionary for the Pei, Zi Yu (Chao Deng) is wounded severely, but all the Yan take in victory is an impregnable mountainside city.

If that already feels like a lot to chew on, it’s just the backstory. In the now, the Pei king (Ryan Zheng, serving up a wonderful rendering of feverish instability) is something of a delusional fop who favors political appeasement by marrying off his sister (Xiaotong Guan) to the young Yan prince (Lei Wu). It’s an idea she despises, and with cause. To make matters more complicated (can they be?), there’s a more central thread about the Pei king and his “shadow,” a double named Jing Zhou (also played by Chao, pulling off the double duty with aplomb). That’s right, quicker than you can say Jean-Claude Van Damme or “Double Impact,” in a dank subterranean cave, the wounded warlord – slender, hobbled and disheveled, also with a dash of madness – trains his doppelgänger for a grudge match with the victorious Yan warrior. Then there’s the matter of Zi Yu’s wife, Madam (Li Sun) and the budding of a romantic triangle. More plots within plots.

It takes nearly half the film before Zhang delivers the anticipated hyperkinetic goods as the Pei, armed with razor-barbed umbrellas, literally slide into the Yan city and duke it out with their halberd-wielding rivals. What’s most noticeable throughout the film is the palette Zhang and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao choose: Everything’s dank and drab, black or white or some washed out shade of gray – I’m not sure there’s ever an outside scene when it’s not raining – except for gratuitous spurts of crimson blood. Part of that choice is clearly thematic, most visually obvious when the two warriors fight atop a black and white, yin-yang symbol. The obvious representations of the forces of light and darkness are not, in this case, explicitly just good and evil, but more the nuanced contemplation of madness and corruption versus loyalty and a just rule.

Zhang has cited Kurosawa as major influence, and you can see it clearly on display in “Shadow.” It’s also got Shakespearean bones, but it’s no “Ran.” (Few films are.) While it’s better than an also-ran, the serpentining plots within might give you a touch of head spins before the gorgeous, grand spectacle of battle, dueling zithers and venomous final bow.

 

Long Shot

3 May

‘Long Shot’: She’s testing a run for president, he’s that strange bedfellow you hear about

 

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Without Charlize Theron, “Long Shot” would likely have no shot. The capable and statuesque actress has time and time again demonstrated her versatility, bouncing seamlessly from action (“Atomic Blonde”and “Mad Max: Fury Road”) to comedy (“Young Adult”) and of course, dark drama, namely playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (2003), for which she won Oscar gold. Here she’s in rom-com mode as Secretary of State Charlotte Field looking to push a green initiative worldwide and launch a run for the Oval Office.

Before you say Hillary Clinton, “Long Shot” is set against a different political climate than the one we find ourselves in today – not that it doesn’t parody and poke at it. In this parallel political universe, the sitting president (Bob Odenkirk) is a former actor who has let it quietly be known he isn’t going to seek reelection because he’s got a series (Netflix, Amazon?), which triggers Field’s ambition. Along her test-the-waters tour there’s an early stop at a swanky Manhattan cocktail party where Boyz II Men happen to be the centerpiece of the all-white event. It’s there in the haughty suffocating stuffiness that she recognizes Seth Rogen’s Fred Flarsky, not because he’s in an electric blue windbreaker at a black tie event – one of many long running gags that goes on perhaps a bit too long – but because she babysat him when he was in his pre-teens, ending in an awkward moment when the young Flarsky winds up sporting a very visible erection.

Yes, that’s how “Long Shot” rolls. The script by Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling has the uproarious irreverence of “Something About Mary” (1998) and some sharp political spoofs too, especially Andy Serkis as the Rupert Murdoch-styled tycoon who just fired Flarsky’s ultra critical journalist (penning pieces such as “Why the Two-Party System Can Suck a Dick”) or Alexander Skarsgård as the Justin Trudeau-esque Canadian prime minister being pushed by handlers, the diplomatically community at large and the press on Charlotte as a romantic possibility.The saucy send-ups of Fox News and CNN are bitingly hysterical, and sadly spot-on.

Plot-wise, Flarsky gets brought aboard as Charlotte’s speechwriter, and romantic seeds begin to take hold along a trip through Europe. That’s also when “Long Shot” becomes its least effective. Theron registers her best when Charlotte’s charming a room with her confidence and style or talking about the limitations of being a woman in politics: “If I am angry, I’m hysterical. If I raise my voice, I’m a bitch.” Not enough can be said about Theron’s presence and poise, and director Jonathan Levine seems to be well aware of the fact, as nearly every frame hangs from his star’s gravitational pull. Comedy star June Diane Raphael adds to the potpourri, playing it straight and sassy as Charlotte’s senior staffer, but the real big winner in this Theron tour de force (as well as carrying the film, she’s also devilishly funny) is O’Shea Jackson Jr., so good in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015, where he played his father, Ice Cube) and “Ingrid Goes West” (2017), and even more scene-grabbing here as Flasky’s bestie, a closeted GOP pragmatist. For O’Shea the future should be rife with opportunity, for Theron, there are no limits.

Ask Dr. Ruth

3 May

‘Ask Dr. Ruth’: Sex therapist of decades past has always had a lot going on – and still does

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Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer was everywhere, including on her own radio show and frequent appearances with the likes of Howard Stern and Johnny Carson. The diminutive sex therapist (she’s 4-foot-7) was Dr. Phil and more, as Ryan White’s adoring but deep-delving documentary reveals.

“She was America’s sex therapist during the AIDS crisis,” one talking head inserts before a cut to footage of Westheimer taking a hot potato insinuation about that disease from an audience member; the eternally grandmotherly woman calmly urges no blame or accusation, but a coming together of minds to avert a wider public health crisis and find a cure.

Recollections from that time may have her rendered as something of a caricature, but White’s dial-back reveals a keen, caring soul, and ever quick-witted (even at 90, as this documentary was shooting). He goes all the way back to when Westheimer, a German Jew, was put on a train to Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport program at the outbreak of World War II. Her parents perished in the Holocaust, and there’s a deeply heartfelt moment in the film as she looks them up at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It gives her pause, but the the stoic Westheimer stiffens a bit and remarks to the camera,“I will cry later when no one else is around. German Jews don’t cry in public.”

There’s some fun it the telling too, which includes a pleasant blend of animation and old black-and-white images in importing tales such as Westheimer’s first sexual experience – in a hayloft in Israel after the war (where she was to meet her parents) with the brother of a young man she was dating. And it’s revealed that Westheimer was a killer shot: She served as a sniper in the Israel Defense Forces. Yup, little Dr. Ruth could pick apart a titan with her finger as well as she could with her words.

Married three times and something of an enigma to her children and grandchildren, Westheimer remains in perpetual motion, always acting and moving as if her life and the world depended on it. In one scene she shows White’s camera crew just how fast she can skedaddle. Along with getting a deeper look into Westheimer’s alluring persona and career, not to mention the dark corners of her childhood, the thing you realize is the absolute infectiousness of her charm and her care and compassion for fellow human beings. Ryan captures her winning personality with caring deference, and we all win.