Category Archives: Reviews

Review: A Fantastic Woman


Winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman is pretty fantastic, but is also on the cutting edge of changes in society, as it is about a transgender woman, starring a transgender woman.

From Chile, it concerns Marina (Daniela Vega) a waitress and singer, who has moved in with an older man (Francisco Reyes). He is fully aware of her past, but they have a sweet relationship. He takes her out for her birthday, they tie one on, and go home to bed.

But he awakes in the middle of the night feeling strange, and will die of a brain aneurysm. Vega is not technically family, so is pushed aside by his ex-wife and son, who state in no uncertain terms that she is not to attend the memorial or funeral, and to leave them alone.

This echoes a problem that longtime partners had in the U.S. before recent court decisions–someone who had been with someone for fifty years or more couldn’t make health decisions, requiring a family member who may have been estranged for years. As far as we have come in recent years, there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by bathroom laws in North Carolina and this film, which shows a shocking level of ignorance about transgender people (she is assaulted by her lover’s son’s friends, calling her a “faggot.”)

More than that, A Fantastic Woman is about identity, and how much we invest in sexual parts to define who someone is. Vega is often seen looking into reflective surfaces, and in one striking moment is naked in bed, a mirror between her legs. In another clever scene, she must masquerade as a man to get into Reyes’ gym so she can open his locker. She was born a man, but her awkwardness pretending to be one is palpable.

A Fantastic Woman was directed by Sebastian Lelio with some restraint. Vega, a nonprofessional actor, brings the qualities that sometimes only amateurs can bring, as at no point do we see overacting–we just see truth. This is a very fine film. I haven’t seen all five nominees yet but I’m fine with this one winning.


Review: Thoroughbreds


I don’t know if I’ll see a more unsettling film this year than Thoroughbreds. A lot of people are comparing it to Heathers, but they’re off the mark in that Heathers was intentionally funny. Thoroughbreds is as about as serious as an autopsy, which one character will require.

I was amazed I was watching it in a multiplex, as it is certainly not a crowd pleaser. It doesn’t seem to have a CinemaScore grade, but it did manage to make over a million dollars last weekend. I have a feeling it will drop precipitously, and that’s not because the film doesn’t have merit.

Two affluent Connecticut high school age girls (Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke) used to be friends. Taylor-Joy went on to be popular and go to Andover, while Cooke is a sociopath (she admits she has no emotions) has been removed from school while being charged with killing a horse, but if I heard the film right, she performed a mercy killing (which doesn’t make sense if she has no feelings). Cooke’s mom hires Taylor-Joy to tutor her daughter for the SATs, and the girls forge a new friendship based on Taylor-Joy’s hatred of her step-father (a very good Paul Sparks).

What’s unnerving about the film, which was written and directed by Cory Finley, is the vacuum in which the film takes place. We see the girls’ mothers, and Sparks, but that’s about it. Taylor-Joy’s spacious mansion serves as a kind of heated bubble in which no air escapes. There seems to be no outside world. The use of music is just one example of this–there are long stretches of no ambient music, but when the score does kick in, it’s very eerie (it’s by Eric Friedlander).

Also, Cooke’s performance is scary good, so good that I don’t know if I’ll be able to shake it when I see her next (probably in Ready Player One). At one rare instance away from Taylor-Joy’s house, Taylor-Joy visits Cooke’s house. Her new friend is standing in the backyard, staring into space. There’s also a wonderful scene in which Taylor-Joy and Cooke are talking while Cooke plays herself in a game of chess with very large pieces. I’ll admit I found myself paying attention to her moves, which were all correct.

Thoroughbreds does have some humor. Taylor-Joy impulsively loosens the wheel on her step-father’s bike. The film cuts to him in bandages, which is drolly funny until he abusively dresses down his wife for asking about his welfare.

The movie’s ending is not completely satisfactory, as it doesn’t add up, but it will stick with you. Whether you want that or not is another question.

Review: Red Sparrow


Red Sparrow is a hot mess, a lurid adolescent boy’s fantasy, dressed up as a feminist empowerment statement. Manohla Dargis called it “preposterously entertaining,” I just call it preposterous.

Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina who, after an injury, is desperate to keep her frail mother in good health. Her uncle, a deputy minister of some sort of secret service, offers her a chance to become a Sparrow, a spy who is trained in the art of seduction and assassination. She accepts, and is assigned to get to know an American CIA agent in Budapest (Joel Edgerton), who is being given information by a Russian mole. Her mission: find out who the mole is.

We haven’t had a good old fashioned cat and mouse spy thriller in a while, and we still don’t have one. I put the fault mostly on the director, Francis Lawrence, who doesn’t seem to have a point of view. If the film had stuck to being completely over the top, it might have been fun, but instead takes itself too seriously and becomes deadly boring at times. He might have followed the lead of his star, who gives a performance of strength and cunning, but I fear Francis Lawrence doesn’t have the chops that Jennifer does.

It’s interesting that the Russians are bad again (we can probably have Trump to thank for that), and I never noticed before how much Matthias Schoenaerts looks like Vladimir Putin. Other Russians are played by distinctly non-Russians such as Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons, and thankfully they don’t sound like Boris Badanov (the use of language in Hollywood films is always oddly done–these characters are presumably speaking in Russian when they speak amongst themselves, but also speak English, but they do in a Russian accent).

Charlotte Rampling plays the “Matron,” who is the head of the Sparrow training, what Jennifer Lawrence calls “whore school.” It is very similar to the school shown in The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are trained to leave all their individuality behind.

Most of the second half of the film is wondering whether Jennifer Lawrence has become a double agent or not. I’ll admit this makes for good suspense, especially in a scene in which Edgerton is being tortured by a guy who likes to peel the skin off of people.

Red Sparrow is ludicrous. For one thing, great ballerinas don’t have the build that Jennifer Lawrence does. And much of the Twitter-verse is complaining about a scene in which she dyes her hair platinum blonde without using gloves and then goes swimming in a chlorinated pool.

The film is also extremely violent. I usually don’t care, but the violence was too much for even me.

I found Red Sparrow to be mostly unpleasant and unfortunate.

Review: Annihilation


Annihilation is an okay sci-fi movie; it just happens to remind a viewer of other movies of the genre, mostly the Alien films, but also a touch of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Based on the first book of a trilogy that I haven’t read, I have a feeling that there’s much more to the story than what we see here.

The film focuses on Natalie Portman as ex-Army and a professor of biology. She’s married to Oscar Isaac, who has undergone a secret mission and has been gone for a year. One day he shows up at the house, very well groomed. The reunion quickly goes haywire, though, when he starts spitting up blood.

On the way to the hospital, his ambulance is shanghaied by the military. Portman wakes up in the same facility, and a psychologist, Jennifer Jason Leigh, is free and easy with explaining that there is a large area (I think it’s supposed to be Louisiana) that is been encircled by what they call the “shimmer,” but looks like a huge shower curtain. Many things and people have been sent in, but nothing has come back, until Isaac.

Leigh and three others are mounting another another mission. Because she’s ex-military and a biologist, Portman goes along, although it does seem odd that the others have been training for months and she just tags along. They find that mutations are rampantly growing inside, among other weird things, and it all looks like a refrigerator that hasn’t been cleaned out in a while.

The story is told in flashback, as Portman is interviewed by a guy wearing a full hazmat suit. He takes precautions, but in Annihilation we have the old movie problem of stupid scientists. One of them, a brilliant physicist (Tessa Thompson), isn’t so brilliant that she does reach a bare hand into water to pick up an object. They scientists have packed up a lot of stuff, but apparently no rubber gloves.

Annihilation raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer. Portman is shown lecturing about cells, and talks about they divide, which seems below college level, but what do I know. Apparently the Shimmer acts to refract DNA, whatever that means. The scientists are curious about what it all is, but we know it’s alien, because at the beginning of the film it comes out of the sky, whether as a crash landing or an invasion, we’re not sure.

The ending of the film is trippy, recalling the Star Child sequence of 2001, but on a much smaller scale (instead of stars, we’re talking about cells). A shot of Portman’s eyes at the end of the film suggests she’s an unreliable narrator, but I don’t know if we’re getting a sequel. Based on the box office, probably not.

Annihilation does make the audacious step of having all five scientists as woman, but did get slammed for turning Portman’s character from Asian to Caucasian.

I don’t think I’ve ever commented about sound design in a film before, but here goes–Annihilation’s is great. At one point the sound and the score, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, converge. I just wish I could have figured out what was going on.

The film was directed by Alex Garland, who directed the much better Ex Machina. 

Review: Black Panther


It seems that superhero movies are now doing the work of social justice (why not–baseball did it seventy years ago). Last year Wonder Woman struck a note for female empowerment, and now Black Panther has given the sub-Saharan African diaspora a movie that is about them, with people who look like them. There have been plenty of movies made by and starring black casts, but none of them made 200 million dollars in a weekend.

What is common to Wonder Woman and Black Panther is that they are extremely well made and intelligent. It helps to make history with a film when it’s actually good. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler takes a fifty-year-old comic book character and makes him fresh and interesting.

In a short prologue, we learn that the nation of Wakanda has benefited from two things–an meteorite full of vibranium, the world’s hardest metal (that’s what Captain America’s shield is made of) and a flower that, when consumed, gives one the power and speed of a panther. For a thousand years they have remained shut off from the rest of the world, and even have put up a force field that hides their technological advances.

The idea that an African country can be technologically advanced is so audacious considering the world we live in today. A country like this would be called a shithole by Donald Trump (or was it shithouse?) so I can only assume how proud it must be for those of African descent to see a country with brilliant people.

Anyway, the king of Wakanda (one thing I’m wondering about is whether a monarchy is the best form of government) takes on the role of the Black Panther. The previous king died in Captain America: Civil War, so in this film the new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is coronated. However, in a long-observed ritual, he has to take on any challenger by fighting in a pool water overlooking a waterfall.

Boseman goes around the world doing superhero things, like rescuing young girls from a group that looks like Boko Harum. There we meet his ex-girlfriend, Lupito Nyong’o, who is a spy for Wakanda. Here’s something else wonderful about Black Panther, it is very forward thinking about gender. Nyong’o and one of a squad of tall, bald women, Danai Gurira, kick butt every bit as much as a man, and Boseman’s sister, Letitia Wright, is some kind of scientific genius. Girls, white or black, can get behind this movie.

Black Panther also has the best villain of the MCU, Killmonger. Played wonderfully by Michael B. Jordan (an early Oscar contender, I hope), he hasn’t been zapped with radiation or fallen into a tank of electric eels. He is a self-made man on a mission. He is Boseman’s cousin, though he grew up in the U.S., and comes back to challenge for the throne. He wants Wakanda to reveal its success to the world, and use to it to take over. Part of his argument actually makes sense, which makes him so complicated.

There are only two white characters in the film. One them, Andy Serkis (nice to see him play a human being) is pure evil, and the other, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, is kind of useless except when he shows off his video game skills. This is a film that dares to presume that a movie can be about black people, and that black people can solve their own problems. There is no white savior.

Black Panther is not perfect. The structure is a bit creaky, as we have to be shown something so we can see the same thing later. Also, a character makes an about-face at the end of the film that is unexplained, and makes for a cliched “here comes the cavalry” moment. Though this is a long film, I would have liked a few seconds for someone to ask, “What changed your mind?”

That’s just quibbling, though, as Black Panther transcends the superhero genre. Believe the hype.

Review: High Anxiety (1977)


high_anxietyMel Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock comedy spoof ‘High Anxiety’ is one of the films I watched in my childhood that stands out as one of the most vivid, but not because of the expected comedic reasons.

It has to do with a scene where a person is driving in his car is trapped in it because the door/window handles have been tampered with and he can’t turn off the radio which is playing increasingly loud music; eventually the car crashes and he dies with blood coming from his burst eardrums. Of course now I see it as a comic spoof on a typical Hitchcock setup but back as a kid the scene seriously creeped me out.

I hadn’t watched ‘High Anxiety’ for several decades and it seems to have been largely forgotten except by Brooks fans and completists; certainly it never obtained the reputation that Brooks’ most acclaimed works like The Producers & Young Frankenstein did. My memories of it (car scene aside) was that it was a pretty decent comedy so I was interested to see how it held up after not seeing it for several decades.

The narrative centres around psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) whose career is on the rise (despite a fear of heights) as he about to take over as the head of a prestigious psychiatric facility (called the ‘Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous’!). However it soon becomes clear that the facility is run by corrupt employees (played by Harvey Korman & Cloris Leachman) who are exploiting the patients there and will stop at nothing to prevent Thorndyke from exposing it.

Watching ‘High Anxiety’ after all this years, it generally holds up well. Brooks’ ability to stage gags in his patented brash style was still close to his peak and he makes good use of the many opportunities for Hitchcock homages. The best one is where Thorndyke constant pestering of a deranged bellboy (the film’s co-writer and future director Barry Levinson) leads to an inspired parody of the famous shower scene from ‘Psycho’.

Brooks always enjoyed mocking and undercutting the clichés and conventions of filmmaking whether it be a scene in a car where suspenseful music suddenly is heard and it turns out to be from a nearby bus containing a practising orchestra or a camera zooming into a dinner scene crashing through the window. My favourite one in this film is where the camera is shooting two people having a conversation from below a glass coffee table and it has to constantly move whenever they place cups and containers on different sections of the table so we can still see the people.

The performances are generally fine, with the standout being Cloris Leachman as the devious Nurse Diesel. In a deliciously over-the-top hilarious performance, Leachman is clearly having the time of the life playing the role, especially in how every word she says is enunciated in such a way as if it is chewed and then spat out.

Alas, ‘High Anxiety’ doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Brooks’ films and there are a few reasons for this. The second half falls a bit with several Hitchcock homages (such as a parody of ‘The Birds’ with a bunch of pigeons pooping on Thorndyke) falling flat. The funniest characters in the movie (played by Leachman and Korman) largely disappear from the halfway mark, Madeline Khan’s character is brought in too late so while she does have some bright moments she is somewhat wasted. And there are some later on such as  an extended scene with Khan & Brooks pretending to be elderly couple to get through airport security and Brooks singing the title tune that feel a bit self-indulgent.

And while Brooks does a decent job in the lead, it was a role crying out for Gene Wilder. Indeed, Brooks said in an interview many years later that he started taking major acting roles in his films only because his main muse in Gene Wilder stopped appearing in his films to write and direct his own films.

Despite these issues, ‘High Anxiety’ holds up well and was an enjoyable rewatch… even the car scene!

Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool


Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has one major thing going for it: Annette Bening. Not only does she look like Gloria Grahame, the actress whom she is playing, but she has every bit of her down pat. Grahame, who was a star that almost no one but fans of old movies like me remembers, usually played the “bad girl,” (or, as referenced in this film, the “tart”) and won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (but if you want to check out her best work, I suggest The Big Heat, when she played Lee Marvin’s moll). She was also in It’s a Wonderful Life, as a girl named Violet, who makes men stop and stare at her as she walks down the street.

Based on a book by Peter Turner, who was her lover near the end of her life, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is about faded glamour and the pursuit of youth. Grahame was about sixty when she met Turner (Jamie Bell) and started an affair. He was an aspiring actor in London, while she was doing a play. There was about a thirty-year age difference. This is only mentioned once in the film, when back in California she introduces him to her sister, who brings up the fact that she once married her ex-stepson.

Grahame is suffering from breast cancer when she calls Turner from Manchester. He is back in Liverpool, the two having broken up (the why of this is not revealed until the end, although the savvy moviegoer may guess). She tells him it’s bad indigestion and wants to recover at his house, where his mother (Julie Walters) can take care of him. He doesn’t find out its cancer until after he phones her doctor (in an egregious example of violating patient privacy).

There are two parallel stories here: the relationship and the dying. Bening is about the same age as Grahame was then, so it’s not hard to see how Bell was attracted to her. There haven’t been a lot of films about May-December romances with the woman being older, so this is welcome to show one as being relatively healthy. Walters and her husband, Kenneth Cranham, are extremely non-judgmental. Bell’s brother, Stephen Graham, is only upset because Grahame has upset the order of his mother’s house, but when the chips are down, he’s there for his younger brother.

What does’t work about this film is that it’s structured as a standard disease-of-the-week weepie. I think if I were a screenwriter or a director I would never want to make a movie about someone dying, because it’s been done to death (pun intended). Why are we so fascinated with watching people, usually vital, die? Is it to comfort ourselves that we’re not going through it? Is it simply morbid curiosity? I’ll admit I got a little choked up and the end of this film, but it didn’t hit me on a gut level. Grahame’s life was a history of sad moments, but they deserve a better story than this.

I’ll say again that Bening sure looks like her, which enables director Peter McGuigan to use actual footage of Grahame without it being a shock to the system. The film closes with her winning the Oscar, and her almost dazed walk up to the podium, where she grabs the statuette, says only, “Thanks very much,” and goes off stage, almost in one movement.

Review: A Futile and Stupid Gesture


A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix, is perfectly grooved for someone of my generation, who laughed like Beavis and Butt-Head at National Lampoon, who can quote whole passages of Animal House or Caddyshack, and steadfastly maintain that the original cast of Saturday Night Live is the best (it is). It is the story of Doug Kenney, who is toasted as being the founder of modern comedy. I don’t know if that’s true, because the film tells me that but doesn’t show it.

Directed by David Wain, the film is meta, with constant breaking of fourth walls and much self-reference. The narrator is Kenney today, played by Martin Mull. If you’re knowledgeable about this, it may bother you, because Kenney died in 1980, falling off a mountain in Hawaii when he was 33. Mull, later in the film, describes himself as a “narrative device.”

Aside from a scene of Kenney attending his brother’s funeral (the dead brother was the good one) starts with him at Harvard, where he and his best friend Henry Beard (Domnhall Gleason) working at the Harvard Lampoon. After graduation, reluctant to actually have to work, he suggests that he and Henry continue the Lampoon. They go around pitching to publishers, and finally connect with Matty Simmons, who is the publisher of Weight Watcher’s.

Eventually they are a huge success, spawning a radio show, and a live show, giving jobs to comedy legends like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray (these actors are played by people who don’t look like them, which the film gleefully admits). The writing staff includes Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra, and Ann Beatts, who also went on to success in television (Hendra played the manager of Spinal Tap in that film). A black couple intrudes to wonder why they have no blacks on the staff, and Mull tells them, “If it’s any consolation, there were very few Jews.”

Kenney is played by Will Forte, who is depicted as a mellow guy who constantly speaks in one liners. Would a comic historian gather anything about him that indicates he was a comic genius? Hard to say. Mostly he sits at a typewriter and is shown as the creator of the food fight. We also see that he can’t sustain a relationship, with either women or his friends, and is one to bolt when the going gets tough.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (the title is a line from Animal House, but you knew that) is more interesting than entertaining. I did learn a few things, such as that Chevy Chase actually cared about Kenney, which belies his current image as a first-class jerk (he’s played, in a bit of irony, by Joel McHale, his one-time Community co-star). A lot of recognizable characters fly by, like P.J. O’Rourke, Lorne Michaels, Ed Helms as Tom Snyder, Chris Miller, Harold Ramis (who, addressing whether Kenney committed suicide or not, says, “He fell when he was looking for a place to jump”) and Ivan Reitman.

This only goes so far, as the script crams so many characters in but doesn’t really give us any insight, and the result is too airy. But I recommend it for nostalgic Baby Boomers.

Review: Hostiles


I’m up for any Western these days, and Hostiles, per the genre, is a solid effort. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, it is firmly in the post-modern Western category, where Indians are seen sympathetically. But, it is too long and lugubrious, and may remind you of better Westerns.

The first images are of a family of settlers in New Mexico in 1892. By that date, according to my own knowledge, the Indian Wars were over, but the family is wiped out by a band of Comanches. There is only one survivor, the mother, Rosamund Pike, clutching her bloodied dead baby in her arms.

Meanwhile, a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has petitioned for release from prison. It has been granted, and he and his family are to be escorted back to their homeland. Escorting him will be Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who does so reluctantly. Blocker hates Indians, referring to them as savages, and especially Studi, who butchered three of his friends.

But Bale is ordered to do, or lose his pension. He assembles a small detail, including his old friend Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), who is suffering from what they called melancholia, but now is known as PTSD; a West Point lieutenant (Jesse Plemons); a black corporal (Jonathan Majors); and a French private (the suddenly ubiquitous Timothee Chalamet). Of course, one by one these men will die or otherwise leave the film. They will also add others, as Bale picks up a murderous soldier (Ben Foster) in Colorado.

The premise of the movie is that we’re all people under the skin, a kind of Kumbaya message. Of course, Bale will come to rethink his opinion of Yellow Hawk. But after all his years in the Army, this never occurred to him? It’s sort of like A Christmas Carol in the mountains, but without three ghosts.

Cooper has clearly seen a lot of Westerns, because he lifts from some. There’s the scene of lightning during a march, as from John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (which was an accidental bit of good fortune), a shot with a man outside a cabin, shot from inside (like the end of The Searchers) and two speeches that may not be word for word but are certainly familiar in tone to one from Unforgiven and another from Lonesome Dove. That, as well as being similar in message to films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves.

The pacing of the film is uneven, and only Bale’s performance holds it together. Though it seems simplistic to think he just needs to be around an Indian in order to respect one, Bale sells it.

As any movie set in the Old West should be, Hostiles is gorgeous, with some spectacular footage of the outdoors, from New Mexico to Colorado to Montana. We can only be glad that land is still not been commercialized.

Review: Coco


In checking the list of Pixar films, it seems like there has a been a diminishment in quality. I didn’t bother seeing the Cars sequels or The Good Dinosaur, and Monsters University and Finding Dory were a step down. Coco, by dint of its reviews, seemed to right the ship, and after seeing it I would agree.

However, the film starts slowly and only really finds its groove about halfway through. The story centers around Miguel, a boy who lives in a family that has banned music, because his errant great-grandfather abandoned the family to find success as  a musician. But Miguel has music in his blood, and likes to go into the square where all the Mariachis play, getting him into constant trouble.

The big hero of the town is Ernesto de la Cruz, a popular singer. Miguel worships him, and when he plucks his guitar from his memorial on Dia de Muertas, the Day of the Dead, he ends up in the land of the dead, where he runs across his deceased ancestors. He also meets Hector, a trickster who is running out of time–you see, when the last person alive forgets you, you know longer exist, even as a dead person.

This is not the first film to delve into the colorful world of the Mexican Day of the Dead (The Book of Life) and much of that first film contains the same ideas. In reading over my review of that first film, it wasn’t as good as Coco, because Pixar just seems to do everything better.

Anyway, both films are an example of the embrace of Hispanic culture. Unlike The Book of Life, all of the actors in this film are Hispanic. Gael Garcia Banal voices Hector, and Benjamin Bratt is the voice of Ernesto (who, of course, is not quite what he seems).

There are many songs, by a variety of writers, but the one that threads through the film is “Remember Me,” which was nominated for an Oscar. It could have been the title of the film, as that is the main issue of the film. There is also a heavy emphasis on family. I will admit that during the last ten minutes of the movie I watched through misted eyes. Pixar does family especially well; I think of The Incredibles (before the film was a trailer for the sequel to that film).

Coco (the name of the film comes from Miguel’s ancient great-grandmother, the daughter of the musician who left) isn’t perfect–as I mentioned, the first half is nothing special, and once Miguel gets into the land of the dead there are one too many jokes about skeletons falling apart and coming back together. But it is a beautiful film to look and the touching end more than makes up for any flaws.

Review: All the Money in the World


For whatever its merits, All the Money in the World may be remembered as the movie that Kevin Spacey was erased from. Following numerous accusations of sexual impropriety, Spacey, who played the pivotal role of J. Paul Getty, was replaced by Christopher Plummer just a few weeks before the film was released. I don’t know if the Spacey version will ever see the light of day, so I can’t compare the performances, but I can say this: Plummer deserves his Oscar nomination. He’s terrific, and the best thing about the movie.

Ridley Scott directs a script by David Scarpa that covers the kidnapping of Paul Getty, a teenager living in Rome, by a radical organization. He is the grandson of J. Paul Getty, who, we are told, is not only the richest person in the world, but the richest person in the history of the world (I’m not sure about that), having a fortune of over one billion dollars (which is the equivalent of nine billion today). The old man is kind of a real-life version of Montgomery Burns (or, before that, Ebenezer Scrooge), who has a pay phone in his house and will not pay the ransom, reasoning that all his other grandchildren would be kidnapped if he did.

Of course this frustrates the boy’s mother (Michelle Williams), who works with a kind of fix-it man of Getty’s, played by Mark Wahlberg. They work with the Italian police, who try to find the boy. They do end up raiding the kidnapper’s lair, but the boy has been sold to another group.

Scott is an old hand and knows how to tell a story, but the one major drawback of the film is what it thinks about all this. The score, by Daniel Pemberton, has a touch of whimsy to it, but otherwise there’s nothing funny going on. While Plummer is terrific in the role, there seems to be nothing the script is saying about him except he is a “rapacious old fuck.” We know that he basically abandoned his son, who comes crawling back for a job but yields to drugs. He seems to love his grandson, but won’t pay a ransom until it becomes tax deductible. Is the spine of this film really just that J. Paul Getty was a terrible person?

All the Money in the World is still entertaining. It is not historically accurate–Wahlberg is playing a fictional character, and so are several of the actors playing kidnappers, including one who becomes sympathetic to the boy’s situation. Williams, as usual, is great, particularly when she learns something at the end of the film and a bit of a smile crosses her face. Scott includes a few scenes that have a haunting beauty, such as parallel scenes of groups of people counting the ransom money.

But the best reason to see All the Money in the World is for Plummer. I can only imagine what this is doing to Kevin Spacey.

Review: Star Wars The Last Jedi


I’m late to this party, but I finally got around to seeing the lastest Star Wars episode, subtitled The Last Jedi, even though it is not the last film (one more to go). As these things go, it was okay, nothing transcendent, and not has good as The Force Awakens, which I think is my favorite Star Wars film.

This one was written and directed by Rian Johnson, and follows three main storylines: Rey (Daisy Ridley), tries to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to help the resistance cause; what is left of the resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her last role) tries to outrun the bad guys; and Finn (John Boyega) along with Rose Trico (Kelly Marie Tran) trying to infiltrate a First Order ship to shut down their tracker.

In addition, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Darth-Vader wannabe, is able to contact Ridley through the force. Each of them tries to pull the other over to their side.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a few more tricks up its sleeve, notably the appearance of Benicio Del Toro as a thief whose alliance lies with who’s paying him, and Laura Dern as a mauve-haired admiral of the resistance, who battles with the hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron about strategy. An old friend also appears, in ghost form.

After appearing at the end of The Force Awakens, this is Mark Hamill’s film, as he is given top-billing and dominates the scenes he’s in. He has sequestered himself on a remote island (in reality an island off the coast of Ireland which can be visited, and I want to go there). The end of the film features an epic showdown between Skywalker and Ren, on a salt flat that when touched turns red. There are the requisite light saber battles, spaceship fights, and comic book humor (at one point Boyega, in a flight with Captain Phasma, calls her “chrome dome”). But somehow the script lacks the spark that has made this the most successful franchise in film history. Aside from a bit in the opening moments with Domnhall Gleason as the frustrated General Hux that may recall the “Can you hear me now?” commercials, I found the film to be too sober by half.

Also, the mystery surrounding Rey’s parents is answered anticlimactically, or is it?) and there is some weirdness involving Organa after her apparent death.

Johnson’s task was to set up the last film, which will be directed by J.J. Abrams, which will end the the last trilogy, although as we’ve seen there are also stand-alone Star Wars films that will probably outlast me.

Review: Call Me By Your Name


When I think back on Call Me By Your Name years from now, I think the thing that will stick with me is that everyone should have a house in northern Italy. As directed by Luco Guadagnino and photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, summers there are idyllic. An epilogue showing the same house as if it were in a snow globe is equally appealing.

That’s the travel porn aspect of Call Be Your Name, which is a “coming of age” story about a teenage boy and an older grad student finding love one summer. That’s lovely and all, but it’s also kind of wan. That they are two men makes it a bit radical, but not as much as it would have thirty-four years ago, in 1983, when the film is set. There is so much lounging in this film that it may want you to take a nap.

Timothee Chalamet is Elio, a seventeen-year-old son of an archeology professor and his Italian wife. Every summer the professor gives a residency to a student to help him with his paperwork (it’s odd that he chooses students he does not know–I’m not sure where the professor teaches). This summer the assistant comes in the big, blond form of Armie Hammer. He is self-assured, and at first Chalamet finds him arrogant, particularly in his use of the word “later” as a goodbye. But eventually they grow closer and closer, and Chalamet is sexually attracted to him. Hammer resists, but finally they spend a night together.

The film, I think, is about young love and the sadness involved when it has to end. There have been a lot of films like this about heterosexual love, such as The Summer of ’42. But I wonder if this is really a “gay film,” as the two characters may not actually be gay, or even bisexual. Chalamet, during the same summer, is losing his virginity to a local girl (Esther Garrel, the kind of girl every guy would love to lose his virginity to), so in some respects this is his awesome summer. Hammer has conquered the heart of another local girl, but we’re not sure if he consummates this relationship. In any event, the inclusion of references and pictures of Greek statuary suggests that the two may have a man-man relationship in the manner of the ancient Greeks. Pederasty was an acceptable form of social relationship, and sexual orientation was not an identifier. It was acceptable for two men to have a relationship without any of the stigma that the modern West has attached to it.

In any event, Call Be Your Name is a sweet love story but hardly a great one. The film moves at a very leisurely pace. It seems nobody ever has anything to do (Hammer is hardly ever shown working, so I’m not exactly sure why he is there). They bicycle into town, go swimming, and do a lot of reading. This is what it was like for teenagers before texting.

Call Be Your Name is well acted. I’ve never seen Homeland, so I had no idea who Chalamet was (he did have a supporting role in Lady Bird) but he’s great, perfectly capturing what it’s like to be seventeen and horny, all limbs and hair. There’s a scene in the film that will do for peaches what American Pie did for apple pie, and Chalamet handles the eroticism and the shame perfectly. Hammer kind of takes charge of the film when he arrives, and is dashing, a word you don’t hear much anymore. The way he gets off his bicycle reminds me how cowboy actors used to get off their horses–you can look manly doing that or not, and Hammer is definitely manly.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who may well be in three of the Best Picture nominees this year (the iffy one is The Post, the slam dunk is The Shape of Water, and this one is in the middle) plays the professor as a kind of Jewish mother (he is more enthusiastic about good news at the end of the film than his wife, and he says “Happy Hanukkah!” one too many times). But he nails a speech at the end when he reveals what he knows about his son’s relationship with Hammer, and how he wishes he had that kind of relationship when he was young.

With so much idiocy in the world, I enjoy films with intelligent people. There’s a wonderful scene when a statue by Praxiteles is pulled out of a lake, and the excitement of the archaeologists is catching. There is also a dizzying conversation around the etymology of the word apricot, with words being batted around like shuttlecocks.

I give Call Me By Your Name a mild thumbs up. I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t be interested in seeing it again, except for the images of Italy.

Review: Molly’s Game


If you knew nothing about Molly’s Game going in but knew the work of Aaron Sorkin, you’d put two and two together pretty soon and realize it had his fingerprints all over it. That’s mostly a good thing–nobody writes dialogue like Sorkin, he must be paid by the word–though he can edge into sanctimony. Molly’s Game is mostly free of that–no President Bartlet monologues outlining the progressive viewpoint–and has some terrific acting.

Jessica Chastain, one of our best actors right now, stars as Molly Bloom. For about the first five to ten minutes of the movie, or so it seemed, she contributes voiceover on who she is, a former skiing champion who is injured badly in a fall, who endured an overbearing father (Kevin Costner), and ended up rich running poker games. Some screenwriting books will tell you not to use voiceover, but Sorkin either did not read or ignored those books.

Molly’s Game is Sorkin’s directorial debut, and he has the same flair for that as he does for writing. This is a very busy film, requiring some deal of attention (there is no real spot to go to the bathroom, and it’s a long movie), with all sorts of graphics showing poker hands and how a skier prepares. It’s sometimes dizzyingly brilliant, if not tiring.

Chastain’s Molly (who is a real person) gets a job with an obnoxious realtor (Jeremy Strong) who has a weekly poker game with high rollers (one of them is only known as Player X, played by Michael Cera, who is supposed to a composite of movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Toby Maguire. Which one said, “I like to destroy people?” Maguire, right?). Chastain is smart, smarter than most of them, and ends up stealing the players for her own game. It’s all perfectly legal, as she takes no cut of the winnings, only buy-ins and tips. But she gets arrested anyway, and hires Idris Elba as her lawyer, who accepts the case reluctantly.

Sorkin must really love depositions (The Social Network had two) as there is one here, plus a lot of other legalese. But at its heart Molly’s Game is the story of a woman with daddy issues. A scene late in the film, when she and Costner have it out on a park bench, is sharply written and tremendously acted. I kind of like what Costner has done with his career–he’s taking roles that befit his age (62) and are not necessarily the lead. When he pops in one (I had no idea he was in this) he’s a pleasure to watch. Other aging stars could follow his example.

But this is Chastain’s show. She is both regal and vulnerable, a woman in the world of rich and powerful men who is ready to break. It’s a crowded field for Oscar contenders this year; it will be interesting to see if Chastain can nudge her way in.

Review: I, Tonya


I, Tonya gets a thumbs-up from me for basically two reasons: Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. There are also some laughs based on other characters’ stupidity, which are pretty easy to get, but Robbie shakes the role of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding like a dog with a bone. It’s a bravura performance, and may get her an Oscar.

Also an Oscar contender is Allison Janney as her mother, the stage mother from hell. There have been a lot of scary mothers in film history, from Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate to Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Janney joins the list of the best/worst.

However, I have reservations about the film, mostly about the haphazard direction by Craig Gillespie. I took a look at his filmography and there’s nothing there to suggest he could handle the complicated script by Steven Rogers (Lars and the Real Girl is his most well-known film). I, Tonya is a black comedy, reminiscent of meta-films like The Big Short and Thank You For Smoking, with characters breaking the fourth wall, and Gillespie can’t manage to make the tone consistent. At times I felt the film wearying.

For those too young, Harding was one of America’s best figure skaters but she didn’t fit the classic mold of the figure skater–the princess on ice. She was unapologetically an athlete–of course all skaters are athletes but they hide it under frills and bangles–and came from the wrong side of the tracks, whereas most skaters come from affluent families. She smoked, swore, and was a rebel, skating to music that wasn’t classical.

She married Jeff Gillooly (who rightly says in the film that for a while he became a verb), who according to Harding beat her regularly (he denies it). But the epicenter of the idiocy surrounding Harding is Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt, a loser who assumes the role of her bodyguard and dreams up the idea to sabotage her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, by having a stooge kneecap her.

That was just about the biggest, most bizarre story of 1994, and the screenplay handles it amusingly and effectively. Despite the nefariousness it is unavoidably funny, as Eckhardt, played by newcomer Paul Walter Hauser, is a classic character–fat, stupid, and delusional (he tells a newswoman that he is an international terrorism consultant, which she points out isn’t true). Harding, according to this film, did not know what was going to happen (she assumed they were going to send death threats to Kerrigan) and the script and Robbie play her as mostly a victim, although one who never takes responsibility for the mistakes she does make.

The relationship between Robbie and Janney is chilling. Harding’s mother had five children, Harding belonging to husband number four. When he leaves a young Harding screams “Don’t leave me!” meaning don’t leave me with her. Janney is cold and cruel, and says her sacrifice has been to make Harding hate her to make her a champion. She’s a psychologist’s dream patient.

Also good are Sebastian Stan as Gillooly and Bobby Canavale as a Hard Copy reporter, who rightly points out that Hard Copy was once put down by the hard news organizations who now do exactly what they did.

In the hands of a more competent director I, Tonya could have been a classic rather than an okay movie. One thing Gillespie does that I hate is use pop songs as transitions: scene, pop song introduces next scene, repeat. Also, given that the bulk of the movie takes place in the 1990s, it’s odd that the soundtrack is mostly from the ’70s.

I recommend I, Tonya for the performances and the amazing story (did I mention that after the Kerrigan incident Harding did go to the Olympics, but had to restart her program because her laces broke?).