May 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (PG-13)
***
Wow. Simply wow. The three-hour (including 13 minutes of credits with no extra scenes) marathon that concludes what we now know to have been a twenty-twology (Is there another word for it?) shouldn't work, but it does. It has too many characters, too much history, too many subplots; and yet most of it can be followed by the most casual fan of the series. The more avid fans will be rewarded by catching more of the inside jokes and subtle references. The haters are still gonna hate and I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to the Marvel Comics Universe, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have done the impossible in weaving all this together in a coherent form and working in virtually every actor (or their character, if the actors changed along the way) who had a major role in the first 21 films, if only for a photo or one-liner. Most importantly, the late Stan Lee, father of it all, has his cameo. Five years after the end of Infinity War, when Thanos (Josh Brolin) destroyed half the life on Earth, the remaining Avengers reassemble, mostly using their mortal names instead of their superhero names. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) still bicker a little but they're on the same side. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) comes up with the idea of time-traveling (You'll have to pardon the blasphemous Back to the Future jokes) through the Quantum Realm to collect the infinity stones before Thanos can use them, thereby reversing the damage he did. This requires going to New Jersey and other remote parts of the universe before a climactic battle that's almost anticlimactic and an epilogue that goes on too long when the only question most viewers will have at this point is, When can I go to the bathroom? One spoiler: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is out of shape. Now that's acting!

ALL IS TRUE (PG-13)
**1/2
Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, almost as great as he thinks he is. When he directs himself, as he does here, we see an ego display of Trumpian proportions. (I still can't believe they've greenlit his Death on the Nile remake after what he did to Murder on the Orient Express.) William Shakespeare (Branagh) retires in 1613 after the Old Globe Theatre burns down in a scene eerily reminiscent of the recent fire at Notre Dame. This is the story of the last nearly-three years of the playwright's life, and it affirms why no one in the last 400 years has cared what he did when he wasn't writing. The plot puts Shakespeare in the soap sphere as he returns to Stratford-on-Avon and his neglected family – wife Anne (Judi Dench, who can do no wrong but isn't given enough to do right); unhappily married daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson), and unhappily unmarried daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), whose twin brother Hamnet died 17 years ago at the age of 11. Women being even more undervalued then than they are now, Hamnet was his father's favorite, and the man devotes himself to creating a memorial garden for the boy. Various scandals erupt within and around the family; and there's a sidebar in which Will receives a visit from the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), on whom he had a possibly unrequited crush, and they offer dueling recitations of Sonnet XXIX. Visually, All Is True will make you feel like you've gone back four centuries in a time machine; but what's happening there will make you eager to return to the present.

ANIARA (R)
**1/2
Where are Sandra Bullock and George Clooney when we need them? That must be what some passengers on the Aniara are thinking as they drift aimlessly in space, after being knocked off course and jettisoning their fuel while they were emigrating to Mars. I love old-school science-fiction that doesn't involve the Star Wars universe (although those are good too), but this Swedish effort gave me too many reasons to temper my affection. It borrows elements from such greats as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Gravity, not to mention Lost in Space and Titanic, and adds some original concepts (most notably the Mima Room, where a computer relieves people's stress by flooding them with their most peaceful memories of "Earth as it once was"); but the screenplay, based on a 1956 epic poem by Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinsson, glosses over too many details. We're told the ship contains an algae farm which produces enough oxygen and food for the desperate passengers as well as a water purification plant; but how, after several years of a voyage that was supposed to last three weeks, is the bar still fully stocked with liquor? Is there no way to communicate with whatever's left of Earth? How did these people get aboard? Are they wealthier than they look or was there a lottery? Whatever becomes of what was hoped to be a rescue probe? There's no time to sweat the small stuff when there's a lesbian romance with bisexual wanderings to deal with and we have to watch the captain grow facial hair. Despite many good points, including the implied need to take care of the planet we have, if I were lost in space with only one movie to watch for the rest of my life, I wouldn't want it to be Aniara.

RED JOAN (R)
***
Directed by Trevor Nunn, better known for his stage work, Red Joan is old-fashioned in a good way. Its style will appeal to fans of TCM, not MCU. With a minor cleanup it could have been one of the best pictures of – I don't know, maybe 1948. Most of it takes place in the decade preceding that year, in flashbacks from 2000, when octogenarian Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is arrested for treason. Interrogated by the police, she recalls her days at Cambridge when Joan (Sophie Cookson), a shy, virginal physics major, is befriended by Sonya (Tereza Srbova), a vivacious, Russian-born Jew. Sonya happens to have a hot cousin, Leon (Tom Hughes). So much for the virginal part. Joan gets involved in Communist rallies on campus, but upon graduation she still qualifies for top secret work with a government organization that's trying to develop an atomic bomb – collaborating with Canada but racing against the U.S. and U.S.S.R., even though all are Britain's allies. She becomes romantically involved with her boss, Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man who appreciates her intelligence. As Sonya says in recruiting Joan, "No one would suspect us. We're women." The title and her arrest in the opening scene leave little doubt that Joan will pass atomic secrets to the Russians. What's interesting is that she does it for the sake of mutual deterrence, the idea that if all the countries have nuclear weapons, none will dare use them against each other, a concept that would help the planet survive the Cold War. Cookson probably has five or six times as much screen time as Dench, and as fine as both are, it would be fair to say they make an equal impression. Let she or he who wasn't radicalized in college watch Avengers. This is a true-ish story the rest of us can relate to to some extent.

STOCKHOLM (R)
**1/2
If you don't know Stockholm is supposed to be a comedy, you may think the humor is unintentional and it's just a poorly made drama/thriller destined for camp status. Apparently the true story it's based on was just as strange, although the people involved didn't see the humor at the time. An opening bookend explains that the incident we're about to see gave birth to the term "Stockholm Syndrome," in which a hostage/kidnap victim bonds with their captor. In Stockholm in 1973 we meet Lars (Ethan Hawke) as he prepares to singlehandedly rob Kreditbanken, "the biggest bank in Sweden." He's dressed in leather with a longhaired wig, as if he were attending the nearby rock festival. The action is unconvincing for several reasons as Lars quickly takes over the bank, letting most of the employees and customers go but holding two secretaries, Bianca (Noomi Rapace) and Klara, as hostages. The bank manager and chief of police are cooperative, the latter releasing Lars' mentor and friend, bank robber/killer Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong), from prison to join him in the bank; but the Swedish prime minister essentially refuses to negotiate with terrorists. A third hostage is taken, a man who is such a cipher we anticipate a big reveal about him that never comes. The siege goes on for 24 hours or so, time enough for Bianca, a wife and mother of two, to become romantically involved with Lars because she can see his tender side. Lars was born in Sweden but raised in the States. Fortunately for him (and us), everyone he encounters speaks fluent English. Writer-director Robert Budreau is sloppy about details but keeps Stockholm generally diverting, though not on a par with the Steve McQueen movies Lars favors.

THE WHITE CROW (R)
**1/2
Rudolf Nureyev defected from the USSR to the West on June 16, 1961, while Leningrad's Kirov Ballet was in Paris for five weeks on their first postwar Western tour. That historical fact is one of the few things I found believable in this film about the events leading up to that Event. Even in his teens Nureyev is portrayed as a diva who puts the "rude" in Rudolf, whose ego and temperament developed faster than his talent. "I'd rather die than live under the rules," he says. From what little I know of the Soviet Union in that period (the mid-1950s), I would think a child who behaved that way would have been sent to a labor camp, rather than allowed to stay in a prestigious dance academy. I also question why a Russian boy in that era would have wanted to learn English, even if his teacher was a German fellow dancer/friend with benefits. Rudi keeps his secret service escorts busy in Paris, but if he was gay and was going to break rules about curfews and associating with locals, why did he spend all his spare time with a platonic female friend, Chilean heiress Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos)? I suppose you'll have to ask screenwriter David Hare (The Reader, The Hours) or director Ralph Fiennes, who also appears as Rudi's preferred instructor. The film begins with the dancer's birth on a train in 1938 and includes frequent flashbacks to his childhood, shown in near-monochrome. From 1955 on Nureyev is played by Ukranian dancer-actor Oleg Ivenko, who does a good job of making him unlikable, if that was the intent. Though no Nureyev, his dancing is admirable, down to showing his subtle flaws as a teenager. The film's technically well made but left me feeling I didn't know the whole story.

ASK DR. RUTH (NR)
**1/2
Between RBG and now Ask Dr. Ruth, you might think if you were Jewish in the 1920s and '30s you should have named your daughter Ruth to ensure her success, long life and being the subject of a documentary. But Dr. Westheimer's parents named her Karoly Ruth Siegel. When she entered an Israeli kibbutz she was made to drop the first name because it sounded too German. Born in 1928, she spent her first decade in Germany, her second in a Swiss orphanage and her third in Israel. Since then she's lived in New York, where in her fifth decade she earned her doctorate and had additional training as a sex therapist. In her sixth she started talking about sex on the radio and quickly became one of the most recognizable women on the planet, moving to television and appearing on every talk show in existence. Ryan White's film covers her first nine decades. The Holocaust period - she never saw her parents again after she left Frankfurt - is mostly represented by brilliant, subtly emotional animation. If we don't see her at the gym like RBG, there's no question Dr. Ruth is still active. Her longtime assistant complains he'd like to retire but she won't let him. The Dr. Ruth we know and love - "greatest hits" from her radio/TV appearances - are mostly packed into montages at the beginning and near the end. In between we get to know her a lot better, even if the ordinary parts of her life - three husbands, two children, four grandchildren - are relatively bland. Her granddaughter is frustrated that Dr. Ruth won't accept a feminist label; but while she claims not to discuss politics, it's clear which side she's on when she says, "Two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want in the privacy of their bedroom - or the kitchen floor."

DOGMAN (NR)
***
I coincidentally saw Dogman the same day as Pet Sematary, so the barking dog in the opening scene freaked me out. I recovered in time to appreciate Italy's favorite film of 2018 – it won nine David di Donatello Awards, Italy's Oscars, including Best Picture and Director (Matteo Garrone). Dogman is the pet grooming shop of Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a small man in a small town who shares custody of their young daughter with his ex-wife. That he resembles the legendary Fernandel puts the prospect of comedy on the table, but while there are some near-funny moments, Dogman never really goes for laughs. Marcello is more of a sad clown. He helps pay for diving trips with his daughter by selling some drugs on the side. His best customer – and, oddly, closest friend – is the town bully, Simone (Edoardo Pesce), who takes advantage of Marcello and exploits his misplaced loyalty. Even doing prison time for him and becoming a social outcast doesn't spark Simone's gratitude. This is a situation only violence can settle, and you'll want to see how it does.

MY SON (NR)
**
Is Guillaume Canet French for Liam Neeson? You might think so from a synopsis, which makes My Son sound like an example of the genre Neeson has owned for the last decade, about a hero forced into action to rescue a member of his family. As directed and co-written by Christian Carion, however, its proper place is being shown in screenwriting classes as a negative example. Marie (Mélanie Laurent) calls Julien (Canet), her ex-husband, to say their seven-year-old son Mathys disappeared during the night from a camp where she and her new boyfriend, Grégoire (Olivier de Benoist), left him so they could have some time alone. Violating the film rule of "Show, don't tell," tons of exposition are squeezed into Julien's conversations with Marie and the police. One thing left out is the nature of Julien's mysterious job, which sends him on frequent trips to the Mideast and which he ultimately chose over his family. If he's not a professional badass he certainly has a short temper, as he shows when he nearly kills people in his search for Mathys. Long scenes of driving, walking, running and searching dark buildings might be helped by music, but that's used sparingly as if they had to pay by the note. In the climactic sequence all the violence takes place offscreen, and it ends with a "Who's got the flashlight?" moment that's more confusing than cathartic. So an information overdose leaves us with too many questions that are never answered, and most of what we see is boring. Even Neeson couldn't have saved My Son.

RAMEN SHOP (NR)
***
You don't have to stop at the concession stand to gain weight watching Ramen Shop; the food images are fattening! Not to mention that you'll be hungry for a meal when it's over, even if you ate before you came. Ultra-violent horror films of the Saw/Hostel era were called "torture porn." We need a name for movies like this that eroticize food with mouthwatering closeups. Kitchen porn? Nutrition porn? There's nothing pornographic in the usual sense about this family drama, which would probably be rated PG. Following the deaths of his Chinese mother and Japanese father, Masato (Takumi Saito) travels from Japan to Singapore, where he was born, to track down the recipes and the grandmother he read about in his mother's journal. He gets help from his uncle and a pretty woman whose vlog about cooking he's been following. We learn a lot too, not just about Bak Teh (Pork Rib Soup) but also the lingering animosity of older Singaporeans toward the Japanese who occupied them during World War Two – and their descendants. Numerous flashbacks in less vivid color trace the history of Masato's family. Most of the main characters are professional chefs and everyone has to eat, so director Eric Khoo doesn't have to strain to work images of food into the narrative. Much of the dialogue is in English (but still subtitled) because some people primarily speak Mandarin, others Japanese. The family plot turns out to be a bit of a tearjerker, but there's no use crying over spilt ramen.

SAUVAGE/WILD (NR)
***
It would be a mistake to dismiss Sauvage as "gay porn." Most of its characters are gay and engage in a lot of sexual activity, but of the many organs displayed by the nameless, homeless protagonist (Félix Maritaud), his heart is the most memorable. Named Leo in the credits but not in the film, he's 22 and has self-destructive tendencies. He smokes constantly (usually drugs) despite a chronic cough that could indicate serious lung problems, and usually sleeps outdoors despite having access to a communal crash pad. Leo is part of an informal brotherhood of male prostitutes in Paris. Unlike some who are strictly business, he doesn't mind kissing his clients if they want it. He'd like to get involved with Ahd (Eric Bernard), a fellow hustler who is straight and advises Leo to "find an old guy (to take care of you). It's the best that can happen to us." Despite some happy detours, Leo appears to be in a downward spiral. There's suspense to the end as to whether he will be able to come back up once he reaches bottom. However it ends, your heart will break for Leo along the way. Sauvage is one of the best films about the life of a prostitute of any gender, showing the ugliness and dangers of the profession but also moments of relative beauty when they bring happiness to the desperately lonely.

SAVAGE (R)
**
Remember when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats so we could tell them apart? Savage will make you long for those days, especially during an extended standoff between two men wearing identical white coats in the snow. One is Officer Wang (Chang Chen), who's been addressed informally up to now as Kanghao. I'm not sure the other's name is ever mentioned. I hope it's not racist – I'm sure it's not politically correct – to use the "inscrutable" stereotype in describing an Asian film; but these and other details, plus a cast of actors I'm not familiar with playing underdeveloped characters, made the movie hard for me to follow. The opening sequence, a gold robbery facilitated by an avalanche of logs, is confusing enough. The showdown that resolves that case a year later, on the day leading to "the fiercest blizzard in recent years," occupies most of the film; but the ending, which leaves a bit too much to the imagination, suggests that the love story was the most important thing all along. Didn't I mention the love story? Kanghao and his police partner both desire Dr. Sun (Ni Ni), but they're such good friends they each want the other to have her. The apparent removal of this obstacle doesn't change things for a year, so why should we care? There's enough snow on the screen to keep you cool without air conditioning, but that's the only reason I can think of for seeing Savage.

SHADOW (NR)
**1/2
Shadow is probably the most visually intriguing film you can see this year. The backgrounds and costumes are mostly black, white and more than 50 shades of grey, with an occasional hint of tint; so almost the only things you see in color are flesh and blood. The art direction – something I rarely pay much attention to – is amazing. The story, not so much. In this regard it's a disappointment from Zhang Yimou, who made some of the best Chinese films of the last three decades (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern, etc.). Opening title cards that fill in the historical background (but don't mention it's the 3rd century) require rapid reading and faster processing; then it's hard to connect them to the action we're dropped into. The first shot is actually the last shot but there's no indication that what's between is all flashback. Two kingdoms, led by Yang and Pei, fought over a walled city. Yang won. King Pei is averse to war, more from cowardice than pacifism. The commander of his army recently went to the other city, Jing, and challenged Yang to a duel a few days hence. Supposedly unknown to Pei and everyone else, the "commander" isn't the real commander, but a "shadow," or doppelganger, his family adopted as a boy to serve as his decoy when needed. Recently the commander got sick and aged suddenly, leaving his shadow to represent him everywhere, except with his wife, Madam. Just past the 2/3 mark things seem to be wrapping up, after confusingly edited scenes of two duels and a battle for Jing leave several major characters dead. But thanks to one person being more invulnerable than Superman, there's still enough left for more twists and a bigger bloodbath. I couldn't understand how the two versions of the commander could fool anyone when they look so little alike, so I was surprised to learn they're played by the same actor, Deng Chao. Open your eyes and turn off your brain and you can appreciate the assets of Shadow.

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