Archive | Review RSS feed for this section

Little Women

24 Dec

‘Little Women’: The Alcott classic updated, richer in themes of feminism and family

 

tmp-lw2

The updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical classic may prompt many to question the need, as there’s been multiple versions (TV included) of “Little Women” across the decades. But in execution, Greta Gerwig’s reworking makes good sense on many levels. First off, there’s a subtle layering in of female gaze and modern take one the era’s chauvinism. Then there’s answering the questions: Can Gerwig really make films, or was her autobiographical debut, “Lady Bird” (2017), a one-off? (A resounding yes to the first, no to the second.) And finally, this is one of the better-cast takes on Alcott’s tale. The 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong also boasted an amazing cast, led by Winona Ryder; the George Cukor 1933 and Mervyn LeRoy 1949 versions starring Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson respectively as Alcott’s alter ego, Jo March, hung it all on their leads. And might I add, this updating was shot here, with scenes in Alcott’s real Concord abode (Orchard House); the others were mostly local sites posing as Concord, shot on sound stages or north of the border, in Canada.

When we first catch up with Jo (Saoirse Ronan, so affecting as Gerwig’s alter ego in “Lady Bird”) she’s barely eking out a living in New York selling women-themed serials to a publisher (Tracy Letts, perfectly intimidating here, as he is in “Ford v Ferrari”) who demands endings that place the female character in a happy marriage and/or domestic servitude. We then wind back to her days in Concord where her father (Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”), a pastor and an idealist, and mother (Laura Dern, having a banner year with a warm turn here to pair with her edgy go in “Marriage Story”) have turned the house into something of an artists’ colony for their daughters’ bohemian pursuits; Jo, the writer, Amy (Florence Pugh, from “Midsommar” who crushes it here walking a fine line between vanity and vulnerability), the artist, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), a pianist and the oldest, Meg (Emma Watson) fancying the stage. Pretty rad for the time, while across the way are the well-to-do Laurences (Chris Cooper as the staunch patriarch) whose son Theodore (a passable Timothée Chalamet, who feels a long way off from his Oscar nominated “Call Me By Your Name” turn), referred to as “Laurie,” creates something of a love triangle with Jo and Amy. When younger, he and Jo were close, and the prospect of a rekindling is ever present despite Amy lurking about when young Laurence comes by to visit.

If not for financial ills and affairs of the heart, let alone the tucking under of women – offset by Jo and the March ladies’ irrepressible spirit – “Little Women” might come off simply as first-world problems. Gerwig, who scripted as well, adds a nuanced, feminist spin that renders a new essence while embracing Alcott’s work and classic context. In her treatment, Gerwig also expands the autobiographical aspect of the material – namely about money and the unconventional pursuits of her parents and the family. Alcott’s father, Amos, was an abolitionist, radical education reformer, founder of the ill-fated Fruitlands colony in Harvard, Massachusetts, and part of the Transcendentalist movement. It was Louisa May and her tales that helped hold onto and pay for the grand Orchard House. Beyond the fine direction and performances, folks will revel in the periodization of local spots (the Crane Estate, the Colonial Theatre, Arnold Arboretum and even the Fruitlands Museum) and seeing parts of Boston and Lawrence stand in for 19th century New York.

Uncut Gems

24 Dec

‘Uncut Gems’: Scheming knows no bounds, but walls, and Kevin Garnett, are closing in

 

tmp-uncut

Fraught with edge-of-your-seat tension, “Uncut Gems,” the latest from Boston University-educated brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, stars Adam Sandler as a shady New York City jeweler in deep with the mob for a gambling addiction that knows no limits. The brothers’ last film, “Good Time” (2017) rode a similar arc with a protagonist (Robert Pattinson) living on the criminal fringe, making unwise choices that only amped up a sideways situation. The poor decisions there felt earnest; here, as Sandler’s Howard Ratner teeters atop the tip of a needle 24/7 and so routinely choses the most cataclysmically loaded option at hand, the orchestration of edginess feels calculated and engineered for the sake of taking it up one more notch. That heavy foot takes something away, but still the film remains a scalding-hot sizzle from frame one to the surprising last shot.

Much will be made about the choice to cast Sandler in a dramatic lead – he’s known mostly for slack, sophomoric fare such as “Happy Gilmore” (1996) and “The Waterboy” (1998) – but folks can all take a deep breath; the New Hampshire native is more than fine, and feels minted for the part of an overly intense New York Jew with big ambitions, self-destructive addictions and a penchant for bad life choices.

The fun part here for Boston peeps is that old friend Kevin Garnett pops up in the cast, playing himself (KG!). If you’re thinking it’s his latter Brooklyn Nets years, think again – he’s with the Green, as the year (we’re told during a colonoscopy) is 2012, and the Cs are playing the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semis (the LeBron-led Miami Heat would win the title that year) with KG winding his way through New York between road games with Philly. What’s KG got to do with a two-bit hustler? He’s buds with a streetwise operator named Demany (LaKeith Stanfield, so good in “Sorry to Bother You”) who stores his Rolex stash at Howard’s cramped showroom in New York’s jewelry district. Meanwhile Howard gets a covert shipment (in a fish belly) of Ethiopian opals, all glommed together in a two-fist mass. Garnett catches a glimmer of the stone, feels a mystical emanation and decides he wants to hold onto it for good luck during the next game. His collateral? The 2008 NBA championship ring he won with the Cs, which Howard pawns immediately, putting the whole enchilada on Garnett and the Celtics to take down Philly, playing home court.

Howard’s an impulsive sort. Did I mention he’s big into a loan shark (Eric Bogosian, excellent) who has close family ties with Howard (they do Passover together, which is awkward, to say the least)? Then there’s Howard’s discerning wife (Idina Menzel), hot and onto it all, and the kept woman he puts up in a posh pad (Julia Fox, who should ride a breakthrough wave after this) and the two sons he hardly ever sees as he bounces from one dicey situation to the next, buying just enough time to make the next poor choice, ever adding to a mounting shitstorm of lies and imminent retribution. Continue reading

Bombshell

19 Dec

‘Bombshell’: Trio has news for Fox and Ailes, coming in form that seems fair and balanced

 

tmp-bomb

We’ve already had “The Loudest Voice” miniseries on Showtime to show us just how full of hubris and sexual entitlement was Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, so why do we need “Bombshell”? Well for one, we get the sordid tale primarily from the perspective of the women who were bellowed at and belittled into accepting the media honcho’s sexual overtures, lest their careers be canceled (“You gotta give a little head to get ahead”). Also too, there’s some pretty amazing performances, most notably Charlize Theron as Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who went to war with Donald Trump (“blood coming out of everywhere”) during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, who after being kicked down the ladder by Ailes for her age and liberal leanings on assault weapons (by conservative standards), decides to kick back. Margot Robbie, so good in “I, Tonya” (2017), is also in the mix lower down the chain as newscaster, as is SNL’s Kate McKinnon, doing well in a serious role. But this is really Theron and Kidman’s show, with a major contribution from John Lithgow, charged with the unsavory task of portraying the conservative news prick who helped get Nixon and Reagan elected by manipulating the media (Trump too, some would argue).

The high-wire act that “Bombshell” performs is its ability to humanize Ailes without letting him off the hook (vs., let’s say, “Vice,” which hung Dick Cheney up as a nefarious puppet master from start to end). Lithgow should be given a medal for wallowing in such muck. He shares a scene with Robbie’s Kayla (a composite character) that should make anyone with a shred of humanity very uncomfortable, if not outraged, as she pushes for and gets a one-on-one meeting with Ailes (through his secret backdoor entrance to his office suite) in which she’s asked to stand and show him her form (“news is a visual medium”), hiking her skirt higher and higher. In the end you feel that there’s so much more tawdriness, let alone criminality, that doesn’t get splashed across the screen. Much of what Kelly does in the film is strategize with Ailes on Trump, and once Ailes is under investigation by the Murdochs (Malcolm McDowell as Rupert) wrestles with how to roll with the swirling storm against the man who made her. Carlson is more of a clear-cut matter, the fired newscaster portrayed by Kidman not self-righteously or as an outright victim, but as conflicted and seeking respect in the wake of long-endured indignities. It’s a nuanced performance that many will overlook, whereas Theron’s Kelly, makes tart asides to the audience (think “The Big Short,” which is no coincidence; see below) that gives us the inside scoop on how things operate at Fox, but not on what’s in her head. Theron’s emulation of Kelly, her voice and mannerisms, is off-the-charts uncanny

Much will likely be made about what’s not on the screen in “Bombshell” though the script by Charles Randolph, who penned “The Big Short” (2015), gets to delve into the lurid now that Ailes has conveniently departed us. Like “The Irishman” and “Richard Jewell,” for that matter, “Bombshell” makes for a compelling fact-based narrative, but is it a bona fide testimonial or a skewed version of the truth? In terms of balance, Kelly isn’t let off the hook for silence in the face of accusations against her mentor, or poor judgment in calling out the notion of a “black Santa” on air and sticking with it. It makes her human, flawed and endearing. These are not heroic actions. Carlson’s the real hero, putting it on the line and against all odds. 

The film is directed by Jay Roach, who’s known mostly for his light “Meet the Fockers” romps. It’s a bold step out for Roach, much like Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” films did this year with “Joker.” Sometimes stories of such sordid and heinous happenings require a droll, dark comedic hand to pack it all into a digestible pill.

Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker

19 Dec

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’: Full galaxy of goings-on packed in a 42-year escapism pod

 

tmp-rey2

More than 40 years in the making, the “Star Wars” trilogy of trilogies finds its way to the end – kind of. Not that we (those who saw the original “Star Wars” in theaters in the days before Fandango or the Internet) ever thought it would really be made into the extended triple trilogy envisioned by George Lucas. But with Disney managing the final three of “The Force Awakens” (2015), “The Last Jedi” (2017) and now “The Rise of Skywalker,” there’s been a revival of excitement that went missing when the inert, Lucas-helmed prequel series of the late ’90s and early 2000s neutered the frenetic fandom of the original “Star Wars” (1977) and the enterprise’s crowning jewel, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Continue reading

Richard Jewell

14 Dec

‘Richard Jewell’: Stopping ’96 Olympics bomb put do-gooder in the crosshairs of FBI, media

By Tom Meek

tmp-r-jewell

In talking with a friend about “Two Popes,” the excellently acted and well-shot papal bore-fest, one point that came up about films dealing with “true events” was that flawed characters and quirky happenings on the fringe often made for a more compelling narrative. Take “Sully” (2016) or “I, Tonya” (2017). The former did an end run around on Miracle on the Hudson pilot Chesley Sullenberger, chronicling the hero’s personal hell while being investigated and under suspicion by the Federal Aviation Administration, while the latter peeled back the mask of villainy on the scorned figure skater for her husband’s misguided hit on a publicly adored rival.

Clint Eastwood directed “Sully” and Paul Walter Hauser played one of the goons who took a lead pipe to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee in “I, Tonya,” so it’s fitting that the two pair up for “Richard Jewell,” about the surreal ordeal surrounding the portly security guard of the title, once under investigation for a bombing in Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Nicely, the story bookends with the relationship between Jewell (Hauser) and Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a snippy, dismissive lapdog of an attorney. It’s at his law firm that we first meet Jewell as a mail delivery clerk, before he moves on to pursuing his dream of being a law enforcement officer and ends up at Centennial Park.

Up to the bombing – which comes midway through – the character illustration of Jewell is quite something. Sure he’s got the countenance of a rube, lives at home with mom (Kathy Bates, perfectly understated) and has buddies with mullets who look like white supremacists, but his expressed desire to serve and protect comes off as genuine. It’s hard to fault a man with ambitions – that is, until you learn that as a college campus security officer, Jewell’s something of an overreaching megalomaniac, pulling over students on the highway outside campus when suspected of drinking and driving and barging in for dorm room searches. At once, you pity Jewell and see the seeds of George Zimmerman. Continue reading

Knives Out

27 Nov

 

tmp-knives

“Knives Out” is a good, old-fashioned whodunnit with a healthy serving of droll comedy. Yes, comparison to classics such as “Murder by Death” (1976) and “Clue” (1985) are apt. That first film had Truman Capote, Peter Sellers and Peter Falk (not to mention the voice of Fay Wray) among its eye-grabbing cast; here we have Chris Evans trading his “Captain America” duds for J.Crew gear as a slack, spoiled preppy, as well as Michael Shannon – who, as General Zod in another universe, could have been Cap’s foe, Jamie Lee Curtis, dandy Don Johnson, Toni Collette and the impeccable Christopher Plummer. The real centerpiece, however is Bond boy Daniel Craig as a private gumshoe named Benoit Blanc who, while not quite Clouseau wacky, is imbued with scads of quirk, overconfidence and a twangy, near-Southern drawl. It’s such a radical departure, you can’t stop gawking at Craig in every scene he’s in.

The film, shot in and around Boston, marks something of a changeup too for director Rian Johnson, who’s done everything from quirky indie (“Brick” and “Looper”) to big budget blockbuster (“Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi”). Living in a quaint New England manse, renowned murder-mystery scribe Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) celebrates his 85th birthday and then dies when his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling’s comely virtual love interest in “Blade Runner 2049”) gets his medications mixed up. Is it suicide, an accident, Harlan acting out one of his plots or something more nefarious? 

That’s the game afoot, and while it’s not particularly grabbing in its own right, there’s a rich potpourri of bloodsuckers who stand to benefit from Harlan’s departure and are thus prime suspects, be it his snarling son, Walt (Shannon), in charge of the publishing empire; his sister, Linda (Curtis), married to the self-righteous Richard (Johnson); their aloof son, Ransom (Evans); or Joni (Collette), wife of Harlan’s late son, who still holds a prominent perch. It’s not the plot providing the fun as much as the rubs of the twee and the entitled coming off with biting satire. Harlan is so dignified and magnanimous you can almost hear him bellowing from his grave as his blood squabbles around the remains.

As the crew stays around to hear the reading of the will, Craig’s Blanc sleuths about with varying degrees of success, but endless dry wit. The script by Johnson does what it needs to,. with just the right amount of red herrings, plot twists and deft humor. The best is the family’s insistence on the inclusion of Marta as “one of them,” yet none can remember if she’s from Colombia, Ecuador or Nicaragua. It underscores the absurdity of the insincerity of the well-off. In consumption, the film may be a touch overbaked – in length, and holding itself a little more grandly than it should – but still, as served, it’s great holiday entertainment if you just want to feast, fill up and let someone else take the wheel.

Dark Waters

27 Nov

‘Dark Waters’: Corporate lawyer finds a cause in redemptive tale you may have heard before

By Tom Meek

tmp-darkwater

Who knew Todd Haynes, the man behind such curios as “I’m Not There” (2007), “Safe” (1995) and “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) would settle down for a by-the-numbers courtroom drama? Sounds improbable, but “Dark Waters” proves it so. Any quirky touch you might hope for or expect from Haynes, check that at the door.

You can think of “Dark Watters” as akin to “A Civil Action” (1998), a serviceable true-life legal chase plumbing the evils of Big Chemical poisoning the residents of a working-class enclave who lack the resources to fight back. That film dramatized the leukemia-linked cases against W.R. Grace not too far north of here in Woburn, back in the early 1980s; “Dark Waters” steps into something deeper and more sinister as the folk of a small West Virginia town raise a fist against DuPont for dumping teflon into their water supply.

“Dark Waters” catches its swell mostly from its impressive cast, namely Mark Ruffalo on point as Robert Bilott, a big time corporate lawyer who one day in 1999 has an incensed farmer (Bill Camp, wonderful in a limited yet pivotal role) show up at his Cincinnati office with a box full of videotapes. Turns out that vociferous aggie, who goes by the name of Wilbur Tennant and knows Bilott’s grandmother, has evidence not only of mad cow disease (literally – cows so on the edge, they go berserk and charge) but a freezer full of frozen mutant organs that would give even David Cronenberg reason for pause. Piqued by Tennant’s pleas and taking it as an opportunity to pop in and see his nana, Bilott takes a drive to Tennant’s farm to see the mass bovine graves and denizens with black-stained teeth. A bigger rub facing Bilott as he begins to dig is the fact his law firm has represented DuPont, and powers begin to amass against him from inside. His higher-up (Tim Robbins) is intoxicated by big dollars but possesses a left-leaning sense of social justice; his pedagogical diatribe in a tightly packed conference room feels so out of place and so over the top that it nearly flips the film on its head. 

As you can assume, “Dark Waters” follows a fairly well-worn path. The David vs. corporate Goliath drama has become something of a cinematic staple. Besides “A Civil Action,” “Silkwood” (1983) and “Erin Brockovich” (2000) told against-all-odds struggles of the little guy against nefarious corporate powers seeking to keep the truth at bay and. Those films were also helmed by competent veterans changing it up (Mike Nichols, Steven Soderbergh) and got knockout performances from their stars (Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts). Ruffalo here is pretty impressive as well. As the case wears on for decades, with seeming victories turned into setbacks, the burden – financial mental and professional – is recorded in Bilott’s face as it grows heavier and chubbier, his hair thinning and edged with gray. The sense of weariness and ruin is palpable, hammered home by Bilott’s dutiful wife (Ann Hathaway, nearly unrecognizable in a Carol Brady bob) trying to hold the family together. The best, however, is Camp’s cantankerous old bull, unrelenting and ready for one more fight. At first his fire-and-brimstone rants seem like that of someone who’s not quite right. He’s not: He’s sick, and one quick scan of Parkersburg, West Virginia, illuminates his righteousness and the evils of loopholes that allow corporate entities to knowingly effect the death of nearby residents.