DECEMBER 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

BY Steve Warren

In the 1950s, reported UFO sightings were often dismissed as "weather balloons." The Aeronauts, "inspired by true events," is the story, nearly a century earlier, of a real weather balloon, possibly the first. In London in 1862 James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is an astronomer who's trying to establish meteorology as a viable science. Considering how often modern weather forecasters are wrong, it's understandable that he's widely scoffed at. James wants to go into the air to study the air and recruits balloonist Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) to take him there, in what's said to be "the strongest and largest" balloon ever. They have a shot at breaking the previous altitude record of 23,000 feet (although the altimeter wouldn't be invented for 15 more years, so I don't know how they measured it). Amelia lost her husband two years ago on a balloon flight, but since this is a movie, she may find a new one on this flight - if they survive. They pass through a storm early on - so much for his predictions - but keep going. The ride is not without incident, but not enough for a movie; so there are frequent flashbacks to fill in the backstories of both characters. Numerous literary quotes and pontifications about the significance of science give the film an air of self-importance; so does the failure to translate the Latin inscription on Amelia's husband's headstone ("Caelum certe patet"). (Hint: The film's closing line is a variation of the English version.) There are some impressive visuals – how often do you get to see 19th-century England from the air? - and tense moments, especially when Amelia climbs to the top of the balloon; but most of the screenplay is - appropriately, you might say - full of hot air.

Here's a cross between Almost Famous, in which a journalist toured with a rock band to write about them, and Won't You Be My Neighbor? last year's documentary about Mister Rogers. It's the ultimate in no-brainer casting to have Tom Hanks, who would still be thought of as the nicest guy in Hollywood if you videoed him beating his wife, play the late Fred Rogers (1928-2003), of whom the same was true in television. Lost in the advertising, publicity and billing is the idea that (at least for award purposes) Hanks is a supporting actor in this film, which is actually the story of journalist Tom Junod, who is renamed Lloyd Vogel and played by The Americans' Matthew Rhys. A cynic with serious daddy issues, Lloyd interviews Fred Rogers for Esquire magazine and is converted by the man's pathological optimism. He'd better be, as his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and mother of their infant son, warns him, "Don't ruin my childhood." My interest waned during some scenes without Rogers, but the idea comes across, and you'd have to be even more jaded than Lloyd not to be persuaded that Rogers could sell anyone on anything. Chris Cooper has a good role as Lloyd's father, with whom he gets into a fistfight at his sister's umpteenth wedding before ultimately forgiving him on his deathbed. For director Marielle Heller it's a good follow-up to Can You Ever Forgive Me? but the combination might get her typecast as the "forgiveness director." A neat touch is the use of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood-type miniatures for establishing shots, from a modest house to the New York skyline.

As protestors chant outside the prison, Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) goes through the motions to prepare for an execution, her twelfth. The execution - by lethal injection - doesn't go smoothly, but it goes. Not all the warden's duties involve death row inmates, but they cause her a disproportionate amount of mental stress. She can't sleep and her marriage (to Wendell Pierce) is strained. The next one scheduled to be executed is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who was convicted - probably wrongly - 15 years ago of shooting a cop during a robbery. His lawyer (Richard Schiff) plans to retire after this case, however it turns out. Bernadine's husband, a teacher, also wants to retire and wishes she would too. It's not clear whether our heroine has doubts about the death penalty in general or just certain cases, but it's pretty obvious where writer-director Chinonye Chukwu stands on the subject. (She's definitely in favor of retirement, as the prison chaplain also announces his departure.) Clemency is well made, low key and leisurely paced. That allows the camera to linger on closeups of the star, making the film an acting showcase shamelessly designed to get Woodard some long-deserved award love. Perhaps Hodge as well, as he is even more impressive in his smaller role. He doesn't talk much but his final speech is practically a filibuster, and both actors cry on camera. The film works in spite of, if not because of, the blatant grandstanding; but maybe they could be a little subtler next time.

With some corporations polluting our sources of fresh water and others buying up the water so they can sell it back to us at ridiculous prices, dehydration seems the only affordable way to survive. Dark Waters tells how one of the biggest companies, DuPont, was exposed. What they did was shocking enough, but if it makes you consider what else may be going on that hasn't been uncovered yet, you can classify this as a horror movie. In 1998 Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just become a partner in a big Cincinnati law firm that defends corporations like DuPont (but not DuPont itself, although Rob's friendly with a big executive there). A farmer (Bill Camp) from Parkersburg, West Virginia, who knows his grandmother, asks Rob for help. He says 190 of his cows have died horribly and he suspects a nearby landfill is responsible. Years of exhausting research put a strain on Rob's marriage (to Anne Hathaway) and his job, but he discovers DuPont knew shortly after the 1961 debut of Teflon that it contains a toxic chemical that isn't regulated because the EPA doesn't know about it. It's been responsible for countless deaths, illnesses and birth defects, and no one outside the company suspected. Because DuPont is the biggest employer in Parkersburg, whistleblowers become pariahs in their community. As DuPont reconciles killing people with its chemicals while making a billion dollars a year from Teflon, director Todd Haynes balances the entertainment value of this very human story with presenting enough facts for the viewer to understand without being overwhelmed. I'd tell you more but I want to go throw out half the pots and pans in my kitchen.

When Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film ever, you knew they wouldn't just let it go. So here's the inevitable sequel, not as good as the first but not terrible. As an early song assures us, "Some Things Never Change." Frozen II begins with a flashback to when Arendelle Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) were children and their parents told them about an Enchanted Forest. Their father gave a dam to the people there to protect their land, but there was a fight between the forest people and Arendelle soldiers that ended with the forest shrouded in mist and no one able to enter or leave. A Frozen movie needs a road trip, so the grownup girls head for the forest with their entourage of Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who's trying to propose to Anna, his trusty reindeer Sven, and Olaf the Snowman (Josh Gad). Elsa has to go further, to Ahtohollan, to find a rumored spirit that links humans to nature. Visually, nature is more interesting than the humans here, with all the ice creations Elsa makes with her magical powers, plus a sort-of surfing scene, a toonado, and scenery for days. There's no end to the ways Olaf can fall apart and come together again, but there should be; still he gets most of the laughs, including a post-credits scene. Kristoff scores a few too. But it seems every time the story slows to a crawl, a song comes along to slow it further. That won't stop "Into the Unknown" from getting an Oscar nomination and possibly winning, but I could have done without most of the others. I could have done without Frozen II for that matter, but judging from the grosses, I'd better get ready for Frozen III, IV and V.

Spoiler alert: I didn't do it. Just kidding – I'm not really a suspect, but enough people are that eliminating one shouldn't make much difference. Writer-director Rian Johnson does a great job of setting this up as a modern whodunit before sending it down a different path. It takes place in an old house that looks like someone should be murdered in it, but includes some contemporary political arguments appropriate for its Thanksgiving Eve release date. The body of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is discovered the morning after his 85th birthday party. It's ruled a suicide but the police still come by a few days later to question the family and staff, along with a private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with an accent that roams all over the South), who was hired by an anonymous someone. The suspects include two generations of Thrombeys (three if you count Harlan's ancient mother). His descendants, their spouses and children include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Chris Evans, most of whom get too little screen time. Much of the focus is on Harlan's caregiver, an RN named Marta (Ana de Armas). She tells us her story rather early on, and she can't lie because she vomits when she does; but she can omit some details and be unaware of others. Rather than leading to a standard "The murderer is in this room" denouement, the plot twists around with a fair number of surprises. I'll admit I was hoping for something more traditional to make up for Kenneth Branagh's botched remake of Murder on the Orient Express, but this is fun too. It's not a comedy but if its tongue isn't in its cheek, it's certainly pointed toward it.

Unless you can't tell the March Sisters from the Marx Brothers, you've probably seen or read some version of Little Women sometime. Writer-director Greta Gerwig's film is about the writing of the novel, with Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) living the story that will be published IRL under the name Louisa May Alcott. The opening briefly introduces the four sisters. Jo is selling a story to a magazine publisher in New York. Amy (Florence Pugh), studying painting, is in Paris with their aunt (Meryl Streep), where she runs into longtime neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and flirts, despite his being Jo's reject. (We won't get that full backstory until much later.) Meg (Emma Watson) is married to a "penniless tutor" and has two daughters. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) plays piano. Then we cut to seven years ago at the March home in Concord, Massachusetts. Dad is off fighting in the Civil War, leaving his wife, Marmie (Laura Dern), in charge of the girls, who are seven years younger, even if they don't all look it. From then on the movie jumps around, not only between Then and Now but within each period so characters appear to be in two places (or alive and dead) at the same time. Feminist elements of the novel aren't totally irrelevant today but plot points have been rearranged so if you're familiar with the book you'll be even more confused. There's a lot of good acting and filmmaking on display here, and at a less hectic time of year when I'm not watching at least three award contenders a day I might have more patience with the storytelling and just enjoy it.

Two great Welsh actors play a German and an Argentinian in a slice of recent history from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. As good as it is, it will not appeal to most people whose interest in the Catholic church doesn't go beyond its sex scandals, which are referenced only fleetingly here, despite their significance to the plot. The film begins in 2005 with the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) to be Pope Benedict XVI and ends eight years later after his unexpected retirement, with the installation of his chosen successor, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), known as Pope Francis I. Because the former was one of the most conservative of recent popes and the latter one of the most liberal, thereby hangs a tale. Anthony McCarten's screenplay is largely speculative, of course, focusing primarily on private conversations between the two men; but it also fills in Bergoglio's biography with flashbacks that show him as the man of the people he has remained, eschewing many of the luxurious trappings of the papacy. Otherwise it's surprisingly light in tone and doesn't make clear whether Benedict's choice of Francis is an act of penance or practicality, when it's clear he can no longer lead the church himself. If the subject doesn't interest you it's understandable, but sad, because you'll be missing one of the year's best films.

A routine Cleveland, Ohio, driving-while-black traffic stop escalates into a cop-killing that spoils but extends the first date of Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya). She's a lawyer who's used to defending clients in cases like this - and losing. But she likes to control the things she can, and her more spiritual partner, who's only experienced such events in his nightmares, is generally compliant and lets her coordinate their escape. They head south to get help from her uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) in New Orleans. Director Melina Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe take a chance by downplaying the underlying sense of urgency in favor of a leisurely road trip in which the characters get to know each other and learn that they've become heroes to much of the black community, "the black Bonnie and Clyde" (and we all know how the white version ended). They don't go on a crime spree, but break as few laws as possible while hoping to find asylum in Cuba. We don't learn their real names until the very end and if the nicknames of the title are used I missed it, so they're basically just He and She to us as they become more than that to each other. For the most part, it works - unless you were hoping for an action movie and hate the mention of racial politics. Legacy - what we'll be remembered for - is a key theme of Queen & Slim. This example, not the best or worst of a sadly relevant genre, leaves you something to think about.

63 UP (PG-13)
"Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." With those words director/interviewer Michael Apted began 7 Up, the first film in a series that has continued every seven years since 1963. Made originally for British television, some of the installments have had very limited availability in the U.S.; but the latest devotes much of its time to sketching in the backstories of the 13 participants. One has dropped out this time after a long history of reluctance, and another has died. While the class system remains in effect in England, the poor have more opportunity to go to university and improve their lives than when the series started, as some of the subjects have done. The theatrical version, over 40 minutes shorter than the version shown on Britain's ITV, devotes anywhere from two to 17 minutes to each subject. Apted fills in their work histories, marriages, children and grandchildren; and asks each of them if they are indeed the same person they were at the age of seven. A surprising number say yes. He also asks a few where they stand on Brexit, and all are opposed. (Perhaps the ones he doesn't ask are all for it, so this can't be taken as a fair poll.) The years from 56 to 63 aren't usually the most eventful in people's lives, so it's good that this isn't just an updating of 56 Up. Think of it as a dozen short stories, mini-biographies of ordinary people you never heard of – although some say the series has made them celebrities and some have taken up performing, though they don't actually say it's because they were introduced to it at the age of seven.

These pages from the Williams family album show that a middle-class black family may not have all the same problems as their poorer counterparts, but that doesn't mean they don't have problems. Teenagers are the focus of each of the film's halves. First is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whose world falls apart when a serious shoulder injury casts doubt on his future as a wrestler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) learns she's pregnant. Tyler's younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) finds her world coming together in the second half when she starts dating another wrestler, Luke (Lucas Hedges, looking like his high school days are far behind him). The Williams' stern, well-meaning father (Sterling K. Brown), a self-made man, has been ignoring Emily while pushing Tyler beyond his limits. Their stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) has done what she could in the male-dominated household. Obviously they all have things to work out as a family as well as individuals, and they give viewers an emotional workout along the way. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults gets a bit arty for my taste with abstract montages between scenes, but I was definitely impressed with the soundtrack that combines an eclectic mix of songs with sound effects and original music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Waves may open some real families' wounds in the holiday season, but if it helps heal them it's worth the trouble.

Dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham is quoted early in Alla Kovgan's - well, it's more of an appreciation than a biography – as saying that dancing "is what it is. It's that whole visual experience." In his 70-year career, which ended with his death at 90 in 2009, Cunningham didn't want his work described as "avant-garde" or "modern dance." He said his dancers had the leg movements of classical ballet and the torso movements of modern dance. I don't know what ballets he had seen but I'll leave that debate to someone more knowledgeable. He made a niche for himself and topped a very short list. It's an acquired taste and this film offers at least excerpts - archival footage, new stagings or both - of more than two dozen of Cunningham's dances from 1942-72. I will say many are more watchable than the music his life partner, John Cage, composed for some of them are listenable. But if you're curious about Cunningham or just adventurous, this film and another recent release, If the Dancer Dances, will help you make up your own mind. The new material is shot in 3D in settings that emphasize depth – even in 2D, as I saw it. It certainly heightens "that whole visual experience"; but if you're no fonder than I of the dances, it is what it is.

Vegans who were upset by the killer plant in Little Shop of Horrors won't be much happier about the new species developed by Alice (Emily Beecham), who names it Little Joe after her young teenage son (Kit Connor). Through "extremely complex genetic engineering" Alice has created "the first mood-lifting, anti-depressant, happy plant." For commercial reasons it's kept infertile so it has to be bought from its producer. Little Joe is described as "a living being. It needs attention and affection." It's said to respond to being talked to, yet no one in the greenhouse/lab says a word to the hundreds of plants growing there (and no music is piped in, which would seem a logical part of growing an emotionally responsive plant). The first hint that things may not be so happy all around comes when a co-worker's service dog spends some time with the plants and emerges with a new personality (though not a very happy one). Another co-worker, Chris (Ben Whishaw) stops wooing Alice, though they both defend Little Joe against the accusations of others. Big Joe changes too, as boys his age will, suddenly deciding he'd rather live with his Dad than custody-hogging Mum. Most of the changes in people are subtle, the arguments scientific and psychological, and there's not much action; so the scariest thing about the film is the musical score, which gets really creepy. Austrian director and co-writer Jessica Hausner has obviously tried to create a thinking person's horror movie, when most horror movie fans prefer not to think. She hasn't thought it through quite enough, so Little Joe didn't make me as happy as it was supposed to.



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