September 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

The Peanut Butter Falcon proves that "predictable" and "formulaic" are not always negative descriptors. Being "tried and true" means something has worked before and can work again, especially with a little imagination behind it. Hitchcock could have made this suspenseful, but all Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz want to do is introduce us to some more or less likable characters and take us on the road with them to a fairly inevitable conclusion. It's not a spoiler to say they don't develop superpowers or get attacked by zombies. Tyler (Shia LaBoeuf) lives in a South Carolina fishing community. Since his brother's death he's been depressed and survives by stealing from his neighbors' crab traps. Zak (Zack Gottsagen), 22, is a self-described "Down Syndrome person." Apparently abandoned by his family, he's been dumped by the state in a nearby nursing home where he's looked after by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). A designated "flight risk," Zak escapes in his tighty-whities and hides on a boat. Having alienated any friends he had, Tyler sets the dock on fire and leaves - via the same boat, of course. Two tough guys follow Tyler and Eleanor goes hunting for Zak. Tyler hopes to resettle in Florida and Zak wants to go to a wrestling school advertised on a VHS tape that's his prize (read "only") possession. Maybe The Peanut Butter Falcon makes it look too easy for an odd couple of kindred spirits to find each other, but the real problem is that it makes it look too easy to make a movie that just about everyone can enjoy.

Most documentaries show us things we may not have seen before and tell us what they are or offer a point of view about them. Aquarela has some awesome nature photography but without context it's just a cure for insomnia. Filming was done in about a dozen countries and the oceans between them. First we're on a partially frozen lake (in Russia, I think). Four men are walking around, kneeling down to peer through the ice. With no explanation for several minutes, what begins as a mystery becomes boring before they finally spot a car and go through a lengthy salvage process. Driving through ice into water appears to be a popular local sport, until some of the few words in the film explain that the ice melted three weeks earlier than usual this year. This film about climate change is all over the map. It's just one unexplained shot after another, first of icy locales, then of the sometimes rough open ocean as we move southward. Aquarela has been praised by more patient critics, but I'm sure this is not what my doctor meant in telling me, "Stay hydrated."

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles offers nostalgia for the millions around the world who have loved Fiddler on the Roof since it premiered in 1964; but it also provides revelations and anecdotes from the show's creators and many who have appeared in it over the years – including Topol, Harvey Fierstein, Danny Burstein and the late Zero Mostel. They've all starred as Tevye, the "Tradition"-bound man whose daughters defy him by choosing their own husbands as their Jewish community suffers a pogrom and is driven from their Ukraine home in 1905. The film connects the latter to historical incidents of discrimination that have occurred since and keep the story relevant today. One of the show's biggest fans is the current Mr. Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who shares its surprising relevance to his own culture. When you see the Temptations' version of "If I Were a Rich Man" you will agree.

You may not know who Anton Yelchin was on the way in, or you may just remember him from Star Trek and Terminator reboots; but after seeing Garret Price's biographical film, you'll miss him almost as much as the many friends, directors (J.J. Abrams, Jodie Foster, David Duchovny) and co-stars (Chris Pine, Kristin Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Jon Cho, Simon Pegg, etc.) who offer remembrances. Anton was born in Leningrad in 1989 to a pair of professional figure skaters who emigrated to the U.S. six months later because anti-Semitism was on the rise in Russia. He showed an early interest in acting, or at least being a showoff, as illustrated by countless photos and home video clips. His professional career, other than commercials, began in 2000 with an ER episode. Most of his films were little-seen independents, which may explain why he never became a megastar. (An interviewer rudely notes, "You've been a rising star for the longest time.") But Anton worked harder than most, perhaps because he knew his time was limited. He was diagnosed at an early age with Cystic Fibrosis, and made the most of the time he had. He taught himself guitar and played with a band, the Hammerheads. He took kinky photographs, wrote and directed short videos and was ready to start his own feature film when he died three years ago at the age of 27. Anton's parents are interviewed extensively and his mother proudly displays the stack of notes her loving son sent her, starting when he could barely write, all signed with her pet name for him: Love, Antosha."

If I'm higher than some critics on Ms. Purple, it may be because I saw it before The Farewell, the other film about Asian-Americans dealing with the impending death of a family member. Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and her older brother Carey (Teddy Lee) were abandoned in childhood by their mother. Their father was so partial to Kasie that Carey couldn't wait to get out. The siblings have an on-again, off-again relationship; he goes a long time without answering her calls. Now Dad's on his deathbed and Kasie's trying to take care of him at home with her earnings as a Koreatown (L.A.) prostitute. Having nothing else to do, Carey moves in to help care for comatose Dad in his own way, which includes pushing his bed around town. One of Kasie's clients becomes a regular and gets semi-serious about her. There's more romantic, less lucrative potential in the interest of Octavio, a valet parker at the club where she works. There's a lot of plot, including childhood flashbacks, yet it all fits easily into a brisk 87 minutes. Director and co-writer Justin Chon has a style that takes a minute to get used to, alternating between slow, quiet mood-setters and rapid-fire montages that set their own moods. The dialogue is mostly in English but when it switches to Korean or Spanish, subtitles only kick in when we really need to know what's being said. Ordinarily this would frustrate me but Chon does it so judiciously I may have to rethink my preferences. Even seeing The Farewell didn't lessen my admiration for Ms. Purple, which is very different and in some ways at least as good.

The ironic thing about This Is Not Berlin is that the film it most resembles is Cabaret, which of course was Berlin. This one takes place more than 50 years later, in 1986, in Mexico City, where the Olympics were held in 1968. (They were in Berlin in 1936.) The Olympics figure in a protest scene during another international sporting event, but that has little to do with the plot. It's really about a 17-year-old, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Léon), discovering a divinely decadent world of sex, drugs, and music that's about a decade out of date. The characters are younger than those of Cabaret because kids grew up faster in the '80s than the '30s. Carlos has a crush on Rita (Ximena Romo), the sister of his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano), that's unrequited but gets the boys admitted to a club where Rita's band sometimes plays and a sexually fluid crowd of pretentious artists hang out. It's called the Aztec but it might as well be the Rabbit Hole, the way the guys fall into it. Carlos is hesitant about sexual exploration but doesn't mind being involved in artistic nudity. The new distractions cause problems for him with family, friends and at school. Things happen fast for Carlos but seem a lot slower to us watching him. Director Hari Sama, who must have half a dozen other credits (writing, acting, editing, etc.) on this film, emulated his characters by passing up commercial blockbuster potential in favor of expressing his own artistic vision. There's something here for fans of nostalgic coming-of-age stories but it could have been so much more.

Here's one to get you over your interest in kinky celebrity sex revelations. These revelations are nearly a century old, but polite people didn't discuss them in public then. "She makes me feel as if language is miserably insufficient," Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) says of Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), while she's falling in love with the more successful but less intellectual writer. Vita and her husband, diplomat Harold Nicolson, have an open marriage and lovers of both sexes. Virginia's husband Leonard is also her publisher and becomes Vita's too. Their marriage is more traditional but her sister Vanessa is in a ménage à trois that includes a gay artist. Much of what we hear comes from love letters the authors wrote to each other, but even their smallest talk is delivered as if it should not only be published but carved in stone. It may be very readable, if you're into that kind of thing, but is - yes, Virginia - miserably insufficient as movie dialogue. Visually the film captures the upper-class settings with the skill we expect of English period films, but none of the actors show a lot of emotion, so why should we? Debicki plays Virginia with a blank expression as if she thinks we can't see her body, only her soul. She has the upper hand while Vita pursues her ("Her friendship is never untinged with desire") and she's "utterly unattainable," but once she gives in ("You have as much of me as I have to give") she becomes another item on Vita's sexual buffet. Director Chanya Button co-wrote the screenplay with Eileen Atkins from the latter's play, which was probably even duller.



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