MARCH 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (PG-13)
***
Since they started showing trailers for Alita: Battle Angel - seems like it was 2014 - I've been haunted by those CG eyes. They made me think this tempting innocent - or innocent temptress - should be named Lolita rather than Alita. The eyes aren't as big a distraction in the actual movie, or maybe I'm just used to them. It's 2563, 300 years after The Fall. The planet Zalem hovers as a Heaven-like goal over the still-inhabited rubble of Iron City. Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), who's a little bit Frankensteinian, trolls the junkyard seeking prosthetic body parts he can recycle onto his patients. He finds scraps of a cyborg he can mesh with the remains of his dead daughter to make Alita (Rosa Salazar), who has a functioning brain but no memory of her past. That will come back in fragments as she integrates herself into local activities, including deadly motorball games, discovers her superior warrior skills, and attracts Hugo (Keean Johnson), a hot "meat boy" (human). There are enough plots for three movies (a trilogy was probably planned until this one underperformed) and enough villains, including Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, for even more. It's got the pluses and minuses of most YASF (Young Adult Science-Fiction), but under Robert Rodriguez' direction it surpasses many of its competitors.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (PG-13)
***
With so few wrestling movies out there, fans should flock to this true dramedy about the rise of the wrestler known as Paige. The question is whether those of us with zero interest in wrestling should want to see it, and the answer is probably yes, if you have an interest in people. The hardly-working-class Knight family survives by giving wrestling lessons at the local gym in Norwich, England. Their classes could be mistaken for an acting school, as the film has no illusions about the honesty of the "sport." Saraya is less enthusiastic about the family business than her parents and brothers until she reaches her teens. A few years later she (now Florence Pugh) and brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have a chance to audition in London for the WWE. Saraya takes the "wrestling name" of Paige after a character in Charmed, and is the only one chosen to go to Florida to train for what's essentially the WWE farm team, under coach Vince Vaughn. Zak, who wanted it more, is heartbroken. Homesick Paige, with her Goth look, doesn't fit in with the American model and cheerleader types, and often comes close to giving up or being eliminated. But they don't make sports movies about losers. There's plenty of bawdy (but PG-13) humor, while the performances of Pugh and Lowden make the film keep one foot on the serious side of the line. Pugh appears to take some pretty rough treatment, diving into wrestling as Rami Malek did rock music. Speaking of Rock, Dwayne Johnson, one of the film's many producers, returns to the wrestling world for a couple scenes, most of which are in the trailer. I still wouldn't cross the street or change the channel to watch wrestling, but I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of wrestlers.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (PG)
***
I can't cite chapter and verse in the Constitution but I know there's a law that says cartoon characters can't age. Bart Simpson will always be 10 years old. The generation that's grown up with Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) from early teens to adulthood in the last nine years is guilty of aiding and abetting a crime, but this conclusion of the trilogy will leave them happy and remorseless. It's only "one year since Drago's defeat" in the last film, and the Viking village of Berk is overrun with rescue dragons. The crowding, and their exposure to outside enemies, make Hiccup, who's inherited the position of chief from his late father, want to move the village to the legendary land "at the end of the world" where dragons live in peace (and would presumably welcome these humans in addition to more of their own species). While Hiccup is on the verge of marrying his longtime girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), his dragon buddy Toothless also finds a female to fall for, causing conflicted loyalties. (Hiccup can love two but Toothless has to choose?) Hiccup even plays Cyrano, coaching Toothless through a sweetly funny scene of courtship. But Toothless is targeted by villainous Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who's determined to wipe out his breed; and our heroes must come to the dragon's rescue. Writer-director Dean DeBlois juggles the stories, the by-now-familiar Viking characters and the by-now-expected widescreen spectacle (3D doesn't add much) to end the trilogy with a victory lap.

FINDING STEVE McQUEEN (R)
***
If I were totally objective I'd probably be rougher on this unpretentious indie caper flick which I really enjoyed subjectively. "Inspired by true events" but mostly filmed in Georgia instead of the real locations, it's the story of what's called the biggest bank robbery in U.S. history. It's told in flashback from 1980, when Harry James Barber (Travis Fimmel), Steve McQueen's biggest fan, is having what sounds like his last date with Molly Murphy (Rachael Taylor). He wants her to know the truth he's been hiding for years, starting with his real name and why he's on the FBI's most wanted list. He was living in Youngstown, Ohio in 1972, when his crooked Uncle Enzo (William Fichtner) got a tip that Richard Nixon, embroiled in Watergate revelations during his reelection campaign, had $30 million in illegal campaign funds stashed in a Southern California bank. While jumping between past and present and between the heist and Harry and Molly's love story, we also meet Forest Whitaker as the FBI agent who was/will be assigned to the case. Considering the background the movie is surprisingly apolitical, so rare in this day and age. Except for some standard car stunts as Harry lets his McQueen flag fly, director Mark Steven Johnson doesn't do anything fancy. He just has fun so that we do too.

GIANT LITTLE ONES (R)
**1/2
Maybe Love, Simon made it look too easy to come out as gay in high school. If so, Giant Little Ones rectifies that error, making things far more difficult and confusing, for the audience as well as the characters. It provides more questions than answers. Longtime besties Franky (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas (Darren Mann) are different types. Ballas is more extroverted and hypersexual (six times in one night with his girlfriend!). Franky is on the verge of losing his virginity with the girl he's been dating, but doesn't show much enthusiasm for anything beyond kissing. After Franky's 17th birthday party the guys wind up sharing a bed, probably not their first innocent sleepover. Something happens - the brief, murkily photographed scene offers few clues - and Ballas gets up and goes home. Soon Franky is an outcast at school because of rumors that he's gay. It gets more complicated but begs the question of how they could have been friends for so long if Ballas could do that to Franky. If uncertain about his own desires, Franky is somewhat homophobic because his father (Kyle MacLachlan) came out as gay and left Franky and his mother (Maria Bello). Franky finds new support from Ballas' sister (Taylor Hickson) and a girl, apparently a lesbian, who isn't properly introduced, just appears like a genie or something. Written and directed by Canadian Keith Behrman, this is a movie that can be appreciated for scenes and moments that provide sharp insights into the lives of today's teens; or maybe it's the weakness of the rest of the screenplay that makes them stand out.

RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR (R)
***
You've never seen anything like this! To me, "Hungarian" used to connote goulash and the Gabors, but this piece of Hungarianimation, written, designed and directed by Slovenia-born Milorad Krstic, changes everything. If you're thinking an animated feature will let you turn off your mind and relax, forget it. But if you can't decide between a heist movie, a film noir, a psychological thriller and an advanced course in Art Appreciation - Bingo! This is all of those and more. With characters who may have three eyes, two faces or other surreal characteristics, it tells the story of Mimi, whose circus skills make her a perfect cat burglar; but she also suffers from kleptomania. She consults Ruben Brandt, a psychologist who specializes in art therapy but has problems of his own: he's attacked in his dreams by figures from famous paintings. To help himself, Mimi and three other patients, he forms a gang to steal the art works that have been haunting him from galleries all over the world. Meanwhile Mimi is being pursued somewhat flirtatiously by an American detective, Mike Kowalski. The dialogue is in English, with an occasional bit of subtitled French and some visual French that's not translated. There are almost as many references to classic cinema as art, including ice in the shape of Alfred Hitchcock. Krstic is a genius the world may be ready for someday. In the meantime, he opens with a quote that gives you an idea of what you're in for: "In my dream I was two cats and I was playing with each other." If you can't appreciate that on some level, you're not ready for Ruben Brandt, Collector.

TO DUST (R)
**1/2
Direct from the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Shawn Snyder's darkly comic tale of a widower dealing with grief held my interest, made me laugh a few times, and left me confused. Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) is a middle-aged Hasidic cantor whose wife has just died of cancer. We all have questions about what happens to us and our loved ones when we die, more often regarding our souls than our bodies. Shmuel starts obsessing over his wife's body, having nightmares about decomposing parts. Unable to find answers in Judaism he consults Albert (Matthew Broderick), a community college biology professor he practically forces to help him. They conduct bizarre experiments on pig bodies to estimate the rate of decay of a human corpse. The soul only gets involved when Shmuel's sons think their mother has become a dybbuk, possessing their father. I love movies that immerse me in other cultures and help me learn about them, but To Dust makes it hard to separate Shmuel's madness from his Jewishness. Could a grief-stricken Christian, Muslim or atheist not react the same way? How will the answers to his questions bring Shmuel solace? And how does his final act resolve anything? If it were a lesser film I wouldn't care, but if it were better I wouldn't have to ask.

SAINT JUDY (PG-13)
***
It's easier to oppose "immigrants" than people with names, faces and stories. The law keeps things simple by specifying "protected classes," so judges can rule without considering individual cases. This is the true story of a woman who made some changes with regard to granting asylum to victims of persecution in other countries. Michelle Monaghan stars as Judy Wood, who becomes an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles after ten years as a public defender in Albuquerque. She moves to share custody of their son with her ex-husband (Peter Krause). Her first job is at the firm of Ray Hernandez (Alfred Molina), who does a volume business, taking immigrants' money and recommending "voluntary removal" (self-deportation). For this they need a lawyer? Judy doesn't fit in because she gets involved in the first case she handles, that of Asefa Ashwari (Leem Lubany), an Afghan woman who suffered under the Taliban for educating girls and was overmedicated in a U.S. detention center when she sought asylum. Once all the facts come out the answer is obvious, but the law is not; and Judy has a fight on her hands. Written and directed by men, Saint Judy often feels like a Lifetime movie - but a very good one. Monaghan gives a low-key portrayal that's convincing but leaves the situations to arouse the audience's emotions. As America's immigration policy continues to evolve, it's useful to learn this surprising bit of history.

BIRDS OF PASSAGE (NR)
***
Here's something different: a Colombian Greek tragedy. Although we're told it's based on events of 1960-80, the opening scenes could take place in another century. Few elements mark it as late as the early 20th, and if you miss them it could be hundreds of years earlier. The indigenous Wayuu people live as they always have, far from civilization. Per tradition, Zaida (Natalia Reyes) emerges from a year of isolation and is now a woman. Rapayet (Jose Acosta), who has been living among alijunas - outsiders - returns and wants to marry her. He sees a chance to raise her hefty dowry by selling marijuana to some Peace Corps workers. Oh, it's 1968. By 1971 Rapayet has a thriving weed business going. It's far from the violent cartels of Medellin, but just as far from the customs, rituals and superstitions of the tradition-bound Wayuu. Then the killing starts. But the Wayuu adjust to the new normal (not to be confused with NORML) and several years of prosperity pass before the old and new ways reach an impasse. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra do an excellent job of immersing us in an ancient culture as they build the story gradually. The violence is shocking but they don't revel in it the way Hollywood would; this is not an action movie. It's more about the stubborn elders resisting centuries of evolution occurring in a single decade. Acosta is rather expressionless but the people around him make up for it. Besides, if this were really a Greek tragedy they'd all be wearing masks.

COMBAT OBSCURA (NR)
***
For a study in contrasts, make a double feature of Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old and Miles Lagoze's Combat Obscura. The former features authorized footage - at least it's from the archives of the Imperial War Museum - of British soldiers in and out of combat during WWI (1914-18). The latter is mostly unauthorized footage of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan (2011-12). There's a CNN report with about a minute of the stuff Lagoze, a Marine himself at the time, was supposed to shoot. The rest is outtakes and b.t.s. (behind the scenes) b.s., much of which makes the men more relatable, if less poster boy material. I couldn't help wondering if they could be court martialed for being filmed smoking illegal substances. One even describes Afghanistan as "a hash farm." The guys don't say "shucks" or "phooey," but talk like real Marines as they fight, relax, relate to locals in positive and negative ways, get wounded, let off steam, stay alert for possible bombs and suspected terrorists, and record messages to be sent home. It's all pretty random, without structure or continuity, which makes us feel more like flies on the wall than an audience watching a formal presentation. That's part of its charm, though it makes it a less likely award contender. Perhaps unintentionally, Combat Obscura reminds us, in this age when everyone with a cell phone is a potential filmmaker, to mind our words and actions in public and some private places.

THE INVISIBLES (NR)
***
Four Jews who remained in Germany during World War II and survived tell their stories (two of them in archival interviews) in The Invisibles, and moving stories they are. Following them is worth the effort, but far more difficult than it needs to be, especially for non-German-speakers. Your first clue comes when Cioma Schönhaus starts telling his story in subtitled German, and a box appears identifying him and providing biographical details. This is also subtitled – briefly – while he continues talking. After a few minutes the process repeats for Ruth Gumpul, then Hanni Lévy and Eugen Friede. Each of these teenagers (played by actors) is introduced with their families, friends and later, a variety of people who give them shelter, some for only a day or two. That's a lot to keep track of, especially when we keep cutting from one story to another (and the storytellers then and now) every few minutes. The events span nearly three years and it's not always clear which year we're in as we jump around. If I could re-edit the film I'd tell one person's story at a time, or perhaps make four 30-minute episodes for television. If it's too subtle, the point is emphasized at the end that there were good Germans, some in government positions, who took substantial risks to help Jews who stayed in the country, living in constant fear of exposure. (We also meet one bad Jew who informed on her people.) This largely overlooked aspect of the Holocaust is worth learning about and The Invisibles is a good teaching tool, but you may have to see it more than once to sort out the details.

MAPPLETHORPE (NR)
***
Your grandmother will love the flower photos taken by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89). Buy her a book of them. Do not let her see this movie! Mapplethorpe is aptly described as "the Jekyll and Hyde of photography." While he took beautiful photos of flowers and distinctive pictures of celebrities, he is best remembered for his graphic images of gay men, mostly in the leather scene. Director Ondi Timoner shares these too, the originals and recreations showing how they were taken. The most novel aspect of the film is how it doesn't try to paint its subject as a saint. There are a few moments when you can hate him and many in which you see he's not a very nice person, yet Matt Smith (The Crown, Dr. Who) makes him largely likable; and his talent is indisputable, even if you don't care for some of the subject matter. Mapplethorpe's early years are covered in a montage behind the opening credits before the film focuses on his last two decades. In 1969 he drops out of the college his conservative, "like, really Catholic" father has sent him to and heads for New York City to embrace the hippie lifestyle. Soon he's living in the Chelsea hotel with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), a future singer-songwriter who was then focused on the visual arts. Robert's sexual appetites lead him in other directions and Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), a man twice his age, becomes his lover and patron. It's Sam's idea to showcase Robert's diverse work in simultaneous exhibitions uptown and downtown, so both types can be appreciated. Then come the '80s and the AIDS epidemic. You were expecting a happy ending? Like Mapplethorpe's work, this film about him is not for everyone; but those who can appreciate it will do so very much.

WOMAN AT WAR (NR)
***
If Iceland still exists at the end of this century, it will have been renamed Waterland and will consist of a few patches of earth struggling to stay above the surface. If not, that is, for the work of environmental activists like Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), a middle-aged choir director with a mission. With a bow and arrow, she brings down lines supplying power to large polluting industries. She hasn't claimed responsibility yet and the police keep arresting a brown-skinned tourist for her crimes. With efforts to catch the real saboteur intensifying, Halla gets word that her old application to adopt a child has finally borne fruit: an adorable four-year-old girl is waiting for her in the Ukraine. So far this movie could have been made 30 years ago with Jane Fonda, but it's from Iceland so things have to get weird. Halla has a twin sister, Asa (played by the same actress with seamless editing), a yoga instructor; and wherever Halla goes her background music is provided by a visible (to us) male instrumental trio and/or female vocal trio. They pop up unexpectedly so often we come to expect them. Between these trios and Halla's choir, the film is almost a musical; and yet it isn't. It's not quite a comedy either, but the tone remains remarkably light considering the seriousness of the content. Climate change deniers will hate the movie, except when they get a chance to agree with the government that "The Mountain Woman" is hurting the economy. Those of us on Halla's side can enjoy it, even love it, if we can get on its rare wavelength.

YARDIE (NR)
***
"Yardie" is something Jamaicans call each other away from the Caribbean, something like "Homie." Yardie the movie is about Jamaica's top exports: music and drugs. It begins in Jamaica in 1973 with 13-year-old "D for Dennis" talking about his choice between paths of righteousness and the damned. He'll keep one foot on each path for the next ten years, after his older brother is killed trying to make peace between rival gangs. One of the gang leaders, King Fox, who also runs a music studio, adopts D and puts him to work in the studio; but six years later D (Aml Ameen) is old enough to carry a gun and be involved in other business. His girlfriend and their child move to London. In 1983 D has to move there too, a move financed by King Fox in exchange for delivering some cocaine when he arrives. D takes an immediate dislike to the London kingpin, Rico, and runs for his life instead of making the delivery. Things get even more complicated when he learns his brother's killer is in town. It looks like there will be more than one showdown on the night of the climactic "sound clash" between DJs. Directing his first theatrical feature, Idris Elba, with the help of his lead actor, keeps us on D's side in spite of his many unwise choices. We want him to wise up but not to be killed. I was bothered by possible anachronisms: D rapping in 1973, CDs in Jamaica and the phrase "driving while black" in England in 1983; and the subtitles are largely unnecessary, except for Jamaican slang, mostly for curse words. Less finicky drama lovers will take the right path - to see Yardie.

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