November 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

Black and Blue gives reason for optimism about ending alleged racism in police departments. It shows black and white cops working together and cooperating, albeit with drug dealers, in trying to kill another (black) cop who threatens to expose them. Alicia West (Naomie Harris) moved back to New Orleans after serving in Afghanistan and took a job with the police. In her third week the "rookie" is still learning how things have changed. The police don't respond to calls from her rundown old neighborhood, where regardless of skin color they're considered "blues" and hated accordingly. Even former friends consider Alicia an enemy. She stumbles on some cops murdering a young drug dealer with big connections and captures it on her bodycam. Soon the bad cops put out the word that she's the killer, and she has a big drug gang, most of the black community, and a large part of the police force trying to kill her. The only person she seems able to trust is neighborhood grocer Milo "Mouse" Jackson (Tyrese Gibson), who begrudgingly helps her. The chase leads to one suspenseful situation after another, with Harris displaying a record number of expressions to show fear and determination. Not every detail is believable - hey, it's a movie - but the story provides a solid basis for a solid, socially conscious thriller.

If you've ever said, "I could watch Isabelle Huppert in anything," here's your acid test. Frankie has the melodrama and illogic of a soap opera without the passion. With credits that make the UN seem nationalistic by comparison, this French-Portuguese co-production was directed by American Ira Sachs, who co-wrote it with Brazil-born, USC-educated Mauricio Zacharias. The majority of the dialogue is in English but there's a good bit of French and a little Portuguese. Frankie (Huppert) is an international film star who's French but lives in London with her husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson). She gathers her extended family for a vacation in Sintra, Portugal. They include Jimmy's daughter from a previous marriage with her husband and their daughter; and Frankie's bachelor son, whom she hopes to hook up with her hair stylist friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei). The good news is that Ilene happens to be on a break from working on a Star Wars film in Spain. The bad news: She brings along her current lover (Greg Kinnear), a cinematographer on the same film. A bigger coincidence: Frankie's previous husband from decades ago just happens to be in Sintra at the same time. The reason for the family reunion gradually becomes painfully obvious but little of what happens is of much interest. The only reason for seeing Frankie is the beauty of Sintra. If only those pesky people didn't keep getting in the way.

No matter how compassionate you are, you can't really feel what someone else is going through unless you go (or have gone) through it yourself. The Lighthouse does everything a movie can to make you share the experience of "Ephraim Winslow" (Robert Pattinson) when he takes a job sharing lighthouse staffing duties with Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). It's supposed to be a four-week gig but bad weather extends it indefinitely. Wake has been doing this forever and leaves no doubt who's in charge. "The light is mine," he insists, assigning his assistant all the crap chores on the small island that holds the lighthouse and adjacent living quarters. The isolation gradually takes its toll on the younger man, whose predecessor is said to have "gone mad." He's mocked and attacked by a seagull his partner warns it would be bad luck to kill. On the 28th night Winslow gets drunk with Wake and they finally bond, exchanging personal information, including Winslow's real name. Director and co-writer Robert Eggers (The Witch, which I was less enthusiastic about) shoots the film in black-and-white on a narrow screen, helping you feel the men's claustrophobia. It's endlessly fascinating - not always interesting, but that's part of the experience. The two actors have the film to themselves about 99 percent of the time and acquit themselves marvelously. The only problem is Pattinson's inconsistent accent. Sometimes he seems to be adopting Dafoe's ol' salty talk, but not incrementally; in one scene he sounds like a modern New Englander while in another he has no accent. All other aspects of his performance are so good that I thought of Tom Cruise working with and learning from Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson early in his career. The Lighthouse is not for everyone but it's awesome for those who can appreciate it.

Some fans of Pedro Almodóvar will want to pick apart his latest film - one of his best - for its autobiographical elements. Does it tell us more about his mother than All About My Mother? Does it reveal more about his dark habits than Dark Habits? Who cares? It shows us more of what he's done to deserve his reputation as Spain's greatest living filmmaker than What Have I Done to Deserve This? And it does it in a novel way, with a fictional aging filmmaker, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), looking back on his life in dreams, memories, notes for possible future screenplays, and encounters with people from his past. When a cinematheque restores a 32-year-old film of his and asks him to present it, he asks the film's star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), to appear with him. They clashed on the set and haven't spoken since the film wrapped, but now Alberto becomes his closest friend - and heroin supplier. The usual opiates aren't enough to dull the pain of Salvador's headaches, backaches and other ailments. He lives to make films but doesn't feel strong enough to make another one. This explains the swimming pool scene that opens the film like an homage to Sunset Boulevard. Flashbacks show Salvador at nine (Asier Flores), already a wunderkind, with his mother (Penelope Cruz), as he teaches an illiterate adult (César Vicente), his first gay crush, to read and write. What seem like unrelated fragments come together in sometimes surprising ways in Almodóvar's brilliant screenplay. Banderas does his career-best work and the artwork on his walls is like a trip to a museum - icing on this multilayered cake.

Who taught Donald Trump everything he knows? Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer makes a strong case for the answer being Roy Cohn. Born in 1927, the boy genius graduated law school at the age of 20. He made a name for himself as a prosecutor in the espionage trial that convicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s witch hunts that targeted Communists and homosexuals. Cohn was one of the latter, though he went to his grave in 1986 without admitting it publicly; nor did he admit that he was dying of AIDS. Leaving Washington for private practice in New York, he had a successful firm whose clients included key Mafia families and the Trumps; but some of his shady practices caught up with Cohn and he was disbarred about a month before he died. It's an interesting enough story that Tyrnauer doesn't have to spice it up for the screen. Several of the unfamiliar people who tell the story are identified too briefly for me to tell you who they are. Some state simple facts without comment, but no one has anything good to say about Cohn (although several friends, including Trump and Barbara Walters, spoke on his behalf at his disbarment trial). He's variously described as "a self-hating Jew," "beyond Machiavellian," and a power-hungry "political puppeteer." He learned early (and apparently passed on to Trump) how to use the press to his advantage, how to distract the public and how to attack his attackers. The McCarthy era exemplified the politics of fear that we're seeing now. Another documentary on Cohn has been produced by HBO, so there will soon be no excuse for asking "Roy Who?"

Brilliant French filmmaker François Ozon puts plenty of drama in this docudrama about men seeking justice for the pedophile priest who molested them as boys, decades ago. Between June 2014 and the end of 2016, one man's quest for an apology from the priest and appropriate action by the Catholic church grows into a movement involving dozens of the priest's victims. Three individual stories are fleshed out, one at a time, as events develop. We see why they've suppressed memories in some cases, and how the early trauma has affected their lives and relationships. After decades of cover-ups and transferring priests to new parishes instead of turning them over to civil authorities, the church still says the right things but does very little. Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), who is 40 and has five children, contacts the church about having been abused by Fr. Preynat at scout camp between the ages of 9 and 12. Cardinal Barbarin arranges a meeting between them, where the priest admits his guilt but doesn't apologize. François (Denis Ménochet), another victim who's now an atheist, is motivated to start the group Lift the Burden of Silence, which Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) eventually joins. Each man's story is artfully sketched in, including reactions of the people closest to them, then and now. An ironic scene in catechism class shows young students reading about Jesus touching little children. Melodrama is largely avoided, including negative reactions that must have come from defenders of the church. The latter won't like this film but anyone else with an interest in the subject will give it a hearty "Amen!" (Christian for "Thumbs up").

The seeds for Greener Grass were planted in a 2015 short made by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe of Upright Citizens Brigade to showcase their skills as writers and actors. It attracted enough positive attention that they were able to expand it into this feature, which they also directed. It's set in a pastel community (much like the one in the animated Addams Family) where every adult wears braces and drives golf carts. They stay busy with soccer games, yoga classes and birthday parties. At a soccer game Lisa (Luebbe) compliments her friend Jill (DeBoer) on her new baby, and Jill gives her to Lisa – for keeps, although she later regrets it and tries to get her back. This sets the tone for a script in which, theoretically, weird = funny and funny and serious intermingle randomly. A running subplot involves the hunt for a grocery bagger who allegedly murdered a yoga instructor. DeBoer and Luebbe attempt to duplicate the brunette/blonde formula of AbFab's Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, and more recently Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome; but those teams had better material and better chemistry. Greener Grass is obviously intended for a cult, not a mass audience. I'm surprised at some of the critics who have praised it, including this year's Atlanta Film Festival grand jury, who named it Best Narrative Feature. Maybe they were just rooting for the home team because it was filmed in Peachtree City. If I had to join a cult and it was between Greener Grass' and Jim Jones', I'd pick the one for this movie because the other isn't accepting new members. You probably don't think that's funny. Fine. You may not think Greener Grass is funny either. I didn't.

An opening montage of sleepy Smoky Mountains landscapes sets the pace for a maybe ghost story that needs some ghosts to bring life to it because the living characters might as well be dead. Sheila (Marin Ireland) is a paranormal investigator who earns a living working for a car rental agency. She has prophetic dreams but they hardly figure into this plot. She's like an amateur version of the Warrens from the Conjuring series; and this film, written and directed by Paul Harrill, is like an amateur version of one of those. Sheila's teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins) is having a hard time keeping classmate Lucy (Atheena Frizzell) in the friend zone. A priest hears Sheila interviewed on the radio and asks her to talk to Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a widower whose house may be haunted. Richard's wife died in a plane crash a year ago and Sheila is between husbands, so there's a possibility of romance developing there. If nothing else, they have some of the longest, slowest conversations in screen history. The potential love stories create more suspense than the supernatural aspects; but everyone's emotions are held so tightly in check, you can barely tell if they're awake, let alone in love or in terror. In addition, Light from Light, filmed in Knoxville, is the latest in what's becoming a subgenre about people who have lived their lives in the South without developing a trace of a drawl.

Every immigrant has a story to tell. Hassan Fazili and his wife Fatima happen to be skilled storytellers, so they were able to document their journey on three iPhones and turn the results into a documentary feature. Marked for death in Afghanistan, they packed up their two young daughters and began what would be a 3500-mile road trip. We observe them for 20 minutes before learning the backstory: Hassan had made a film for Afghan television about a rogue Taliban commander, who was later killed. A good friend despite being his political opposite warned Hassan he was in danger so he could escape in time. The family waits 14 months in Tajikistan before their request for asylum is denied and they're sent back to Afghanistan. They leave again and pass through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria to Serbia, where they have another long wait for permission to enter Hungary. Despite having the basic plot of a thriller, much of Midnight Traveler is focused on the family as the parents give the children as normal a life as possible under the extremely abnormal circumstances. This throws off the balance a bit because most of the real drama is unfilmable, but viewers are able to follow events as they unfold. The specifics may be different for some of the Central American refugees trying to come to the United States, but many have equally compelling stories and are having an equally difficult time finding help. This film may make some people see them differently.

Welcome to the world of WTFilmmaking. "Playing oboe in the local orchestra is as close as can be to growing potatoes." If that doesn't make sense to you, perhaps it loses something in the translation from French; or perhaps it's par for the course of this semi-autobiographical film by Nadav Lapid. Actually the subtitles do a great job with a film that, as the title suggests, is largely about words. At least the protagonist, Yoav (Tom Mercier) spends a lot of time wandering around Paris reciting similar words from his French dictionary. We hear his stream of consciousness, a stream which rivals the Seine. Yoav fled Israel after serving in the army and now refuses to speak Hebrew. Ironically he appears to get a job as a security guard at the Israeli consulate, though this is one of many plot threads and characters that are introduced and dropped without warning. Emile (Quentin Dolmarie) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) find Yoav frozen in a bathtub after his clothes and few belongings are stolen on his first day in Paris. Emile is a would-be author supported by his wealthy father. There seems to be enough attraction all around for a ménage à trois, but Yoav wants to live independently, though two or all three see each other often. Synonyms is weird - pleasantly weird at first but ultimately rather unpleasantly. Lapid appears to take pleasure in confusing his audience. I withheld judgment while things were mostly enjoyable but ultimately decided it wasn't worth the effort. This is a film for very specialized tastes, like the judges at the Berlin Film Festival who gave it their top prize.

Remember when animated features were something you could take kids to and enjoy on the most simplistic level or ignore and let your mind wander? You're old. From its first frame White Snake lets you know you're not in Kansas anymore. The visuals include some of the finest art ever seen in animation, even if some characters become more ordinary CGI figures as the film progresses - when they're not evolving or shape-shifting into snakes that look like dragons or an origami army, among dozens of possibilities. Unless you're well-versed in Chinese culture and mythology, it's easiest to focus on the boy-meets-girl story and absorb what you can of the fact that Blanca is actually a demon (but a good one) with magical powers, while Xuan is a poor human villager who helps catch the snakes they pay as taxes to the evil General who serves the Emperor. Blanca's sister Verta has given her a jade hairpin she's supposed to use to kill the General. She fails but escapes but loses her memory. Xuan saves her and they fall in love, but their adventures are just beginning. The "master" of demons is a female, and they get their supplies from another female at the Precious Jade Workshop. You can't tell all the players, even with a program, but you won't get bored while you're trying. White Snake is being shown in dubbed English and subtitled Mandarin versions, whichever you're more comfortable with. I'd say not to bring children but the plot, which has some similarity to that of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, may be so complex that only they can understand it.

Lovers of theater will appreciate this historical behind-the-scenes comedy about the creation of a classic. Anyone who aspires to write for the stage (or screen) will take inspiration and encouragement from it. Any student or professional who writes on deadline (sorry this was too late for the print edition, boss) will howl at the absurdity of the plot, yet remember it if they score a wishbone this Thanksgiving. In 1895 France is tired of plays in verse, and the latest by young Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) is a big bomb. He struggles for 2+ years to write another, when suddenly elements - available actors, an empty theater, potential backers - fall into place to get a new play produced - if Rostand can provide one. Cyrano de Bergerac practically writes itself as one situation after another gives the playwright ideas or forces him to improvise dialogue. Familiar figures turn up: actress Sarah Bernhardt, hot-playwright-of-the-1890s Georges Feydeau (played by writer-director Alexis Michalik), and a surprise who shows it's nothing new for Russians to influence matters in other countries. I was surprised at how much of the play I remembered, not having seen it since the 1897 Paris premiere (I exaggerate); but an obvious question is whether you can enjoy Cyrano, My Love without being familiar with Cyrano de Bergerac. I think so. The screenplay is pretty clear about how the things that happen to Rostand translate to the stage. You'll enjoy it more if you spot the connections for yourself, but it's terrifically entertaining either way. Curiously, on the evening of the day I watched this film I saw a production of The Fantasticks, which was based on another play by Rostand. What are the odds?



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