February Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

THE COMEDIAN (R)
**1/2
Four writers are credited with the screenplay of The Comedian. It’s unlikely that any of them knew what the others were doing, from the looks of this crazy quilt of a movie that in some ways isn’t crazy enough. Sometimes it’s apparent that as director Taylor Hackford cast another actor from the “I Thought They Were Dead” list, he had someone write a scene or two for them and worked it into the plot. Still it’s great to see Cloris Leachman, Charles Grodin, Brett Butler, Billy Crystal and others, including Jimmie Walker, who plays a comedy clubowner and may have inspired Robert De Niro’s character, Jackie Burke. Jackie’s a comic whose manager (Edie Falco) can only get him minor gigs. His fans, who know him from a sitcom that ended its run 30 years ago, just want to hear his old catchphrase, not his thoughts on life or current events. Even older than the cast is the device of giving the protagonist a potential love interest (Leslie Mann) young enough to be his daughter. They “meet cute” by doing court-ordered community service in the same soup kitchen. The comic bits are attributed to Jeff Ross, who didn’t waste his A material (if he has any) on this movie. The best aspects are the cinematography, which finds new angles in New York City, and especially Terence Blanchard’s jazz score, featured in too-small doses in breaks between scenes.
–Steve Warren

A DOG’S PURPOSE (PG)
***
I’m not a dog person but if I were I think A Dog’s Purpose would be one of my favorite movies ever. It’s not quite as sappy as the trailer, which made my teeth itch the dozens of times I saw it. Josh Gad gives voice to the thoughts of the dog who ponders the meaning of life while going through almost as many lives as a cat. For about half the movie he’s a red retriever named Bailey, the pet/companion of young (Bryce Gheisar), then teenage Ethan (K.J. Apa). It’s a great life but it can’t last forever, and Bailey is reincarnated as a German shepherd and a corgi before – as the trailer reveals – being miraculously reunited with the adult Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Doggie deaths and adult human problems may get a little intense for very young viewers, but the film’s negative publicity has been generated by PETA’s call for a boycott after the release of a video purportedly showing a dog being mistreated on the set. While you could try to ban all movies from using live animals and shut them down like the circus because bad stuff happens (people are mistreated and endangered on movie sets too), I can only imagine an upsurge in the adoption of rescue dogs by people who have seen A Dog’s Purpose and been inspired to own one. That amount of good in exchange for a little harm is as good an exchange as we can hope for in this less than perfect world.
–Steve Warren

THE FOUNDER (PG-13)
***
There’s hardly an empty calorie in “The Founder,” a nutritious and fascinating origin story about the McDonald’s chain. It’s 1954 and two brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) have essentially invented the concept of fast food with an assembly line and walk-up windows at their little restaurant in San Bernardino, California. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton in a role he was born to play) is a struggling traveling salesman with a neglected wife (Laura Dern) back home. When he discovers McDonald’s he’s immediately aware of the expansion possibilities and goes into business with the brothers. They lock him into a bad deal at first, but when he breaks out of it he gets far more than even. Kroc is portrayed as an anti-hero, sometimes likable but not a very nice guy. The movie goes a bit too far in showing him drinking in nearly every scene without accusing him of alcoholism or indicating any negative effects on his health or behavior. It’s the ‘50s so everyone is happy with quick, cheap, tasty food; there’s no hint of how these undersized burgers will lead to oversized Americans decades later. Partially filmed in Georgia, the excellent production design benefits from the work of local craftspeople, including the period hairstyles of Atlanta’s Monty Schuth.
–Steve Warren

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (PG-13)
***1/2
One of the most important voices in the American conversation about race belongs to a writer who died almost 30 years ago: James Baldwin. This documentary by Haitian-born Raoul Peck is partly taken from notes Baldwin wrote before his death for a book about three 1960s civil rights martyrs he knew personally: Medgar Evers (died 1963), Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). They had me at “Samuel L. Jackson reads James Baldwin,” but the film’s first surprise is that Jackson’s voice is so low-key as to be almost unrecognizable. Like the great actor he is, he totally becomes Baldwin, even though we never see him. Jackson, that is. We see plenty of Baldwin, especially in a 1968 Dick Cavett interview. I thought I was pretty well informed about the Civil Rights movement for a white dude, having marched on Washington in 1963 and read the news of MLK’s death over WGKA Radio; but reliving it through Baldwin’s filter gave me some totally new perspectives. There are clips from the movies of the ‘30s that shaped his views as he was growing up in New York, and comments about how Sidney Poitier’s films were viewed differently by blacks and whites; how Malcolm and Martin grew closer together after Malcolm had called Martin a modern Uncle Tom; and how Hoover’s FBI branded Baldwin “a dangerous individual.” There are fly-on-the-wall descriptions of Lorraine Hansberry’s meeting with Bobby Kennedy, the first time Baldwin saw Malcolm and the last time he saw Medgar. Sometimes Baldwin’s words are heard over images of events that occurred after his death, reinforcing his words, “History is not the past. It is the present.” This film should be required viewing in schools, but post-schoolers can learn a lot from it too.
–Steve Warren

THE RED TURTLE (PG)
**1/2
With all the violence in the world today, the term “target audience” sounds too ominous; but sometimes I have to wonder who a film is intended for. Except for the occasional Sausage Party, animated films are usually considered kid stuff, although the best of them will have some content to appeal to all ages. Then there’s The Red Turtle. At a brief 81 minutes it’s too slow for children to sit through. Its “Circle of Life” plot spans several decades, sometimes in what feels like real time. The mostly muted color palette and absence of dialogue (other than a few screams, grunts and giggles) further limit its appeal, though it’s technically well made in a retro animation style. A swimmer battered by huge waves is washed up on an island, where he doesn’t even have a volleyball to talk to. His attempts to escape on a raft are foiled by a large red turtle, but the turtle’s shell finally cracks to reveal a beautiful woman inside. Soon there’s a third inhabitant on the island, a young boy who grows to the age where he needs a “turtle” of his own. Aside from an occasional tsunami, life goes on as slowly and uneventfully as it would on a real, predator-free island. The movie’s not bad but I don’t know who would enjoy it.
–Steve Warren

THE SALESMAN (PG-13)
**1/2
This is a minority opinion of the latest widely-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film by Iranian Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (A Separation). If you go in hopes of increasing your understanding of the Iranian people, you’re find they’re just as screwed up as we are; but too many of their specific actions and reactions are left to your imagination. After a credit sequence that shows a stage set being lit, we’re introduced to the main characters in a hectic scene as they and their neighbors escape from an apartment building that may be crumbling. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a married couple, will also be performing on the stage set as the leads in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But in the midst of rehearsals they have to find a new place to live. Another actor helps them relocate, but doesn’t mention that the previous tenant was a prostitute. One of her clients comes calling and leaves Rana injured. We don’t see the event and Rana is sparing with the few details she remembers, but she is left traumatized. She doesn’t want Emad to go to the police, she’s paranoid about being left alone in the apartment, and she makes life hell for her supportive husband, who has to go off to teach literature every day. Suspense builds slowly – I mean very s-l-o-w-l-y – as Emad plays amateur detective and stumbles on a prime suspect. What he does and doesn’t do after that makes for an intriguing final half-hour, after a long 90-minute slog to get there. I have no complaints about the acting and other technical aspects, only Farhadi’s pacing and his script that answers too few questions too slowly.
–Steve Warren

SPLIT (PG-13)
**1/2
Split may be M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie in over a decade, but its screenplay is nearly as disjointed as the brain of its main character(s). James McAvoy has fun portraying nine of the 23 or more personalities in the body of Kevin. [If you’re keeping score, that puts him ahead of Norman Bates (2), Eve (3 faces) and even Sybil (16).] It begins as three high school girls are kidnapped after a birthday party and imprisoned somewhere near downtown Philadelphia. We don’t get to know much about Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) or Marcia (Jessica Sula). The third, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch), is a loner who becomes more mysterious the more we learn about her. Flashbacks show her younger self getting hunting lessons from her father and uncle, if only to make her a credible threat in the climax. “The Horde,” as Kevin’s personae are known collectively, make frequent visits to their therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who provides us with a textbook’s worth of information about her specialty, Dissociative Identity Disorder. She senses a lot about The Horde but misses the big stuff, leaving the girls in jeopardy. As our understanding increases, the script makes less and less sense; but by then we’re too caught up in it to care. Even though I’m of (at least) two minds about the movie as a whole, McAvoy’s performance(s) and a gratuitous final surprise make “Split” worth seeing.
–Steve Warren

TONI ERDMANN (R)
***
If you’re going to watch Toni Erdmann I suggest you not make it your third film of the day from a stack of last-minute screeners in the final week of voting for year-end awards. That may be why I didn’t share the enthusiasm of many of my fellow critics for this nearly-three-hour German film, which feels more like binge-watching episodic TV or a webseries than a feature. It may also explain why I wouldn’t describe it as a comedy as many have. Yes, the main character, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), is a kidder. He jokes with everyone – not just one-liners but sometimes involving wigs, makeup, costumes and creating alternate personae – and most of them don’t get it. He’s a sad, lonely man who’s about to become moreso as his mother and dog are near death and his ex-wife has a new family. His last hope is his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), but she’s an all-business corporate consultant currently living in Bucharest and traveling the world. She has no time for her father – or, it would seem until mid-film when she has a session with her lover, any kind of personal life. Most of the film concerns Winfried’s attempts to get Ines to lighten up, including paying her a surprise visit as “Toni Erdmann,” a life coach or whatever fiction comes out of his mouth. Why he thinks the constant fear of embarrassment would relieve his daughter’s stress is a mystery, though he does have a positive impact with some businessmen who don’t take a woman seriously. As I watched I couldn’t help imagining an American remake starring Billy Bob Thornton and perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow; but when it got to the message about life passing us by while we’re busy doing things, I had to wonder what I missed in the time I spent watching Toni Erdmann.
–Steve Warren

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: ANIMATED (NR)
** ½
The competition hardly seems fair, when Pear Cider and Cigarettes is an epic, running longer than the other four films combined. On the other hand, Disney/Pixar’s brief Piper is remarkable for a style that approaches photorealism. If it looked any more real it could pass for a documentary, but it’s just a few amazing minutes with a baby sandpiper playing on the beach. Pear Cider, which is being shown last so parents can usher their children out before the adult content, looks like the graphic novels it’s based on – except that they’re not really novels but the true story of writer-artist-director Robert Valley’s friendship with someone known here as Techno. We’re told at the outset that Techno died, then go through the guys’ lives since they met at age 12. Techno was a hard-living daredevil who liked to drink and fight, wore out his liver and went to China where he had a better chance of getting a transplant. Robert followed to make him stop drinking and bring him home to Vancouver. At 35 minutes the film feels too long and too short at the same time, if that’s possible. The other nominees, Borrowed Time, Blind Vaysha and Pearl, are unexceptional; and I haven’t seen the three non-nominees added to bring the program to a respectable length.
- Steve Warren

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: LIVE ACTION (NR)
***
After seeing all the nominees I’d like to change my Oscar prediction to the French film, Ennemis intérieurs, in which an Algerian applying for French citizenship is extremely vetted by an interrogator and threatened with deportation because he attended meetings with some Muslim neighbors. Incidentally, all five entries are from European countries, only one of which also has a horse in the Best Foreign Language Film race. That’s Denmark, and I liked their entry, Silent Nights, the least of the lot because it shows too much sympathy for an immigrant from Ghana whose bad behavior makes him unworthy of it. La Femme et la TGV (Switzerland) is one of those showcases for an aging actress – in this case Jane Birkin – that usually click. She plays a grumpy old woman who waves every morning at the high-speed train that passes her house. After years of this the engineer initiates a correspondence with her that could be leading to something else. Timecode (Spain) is another potential romance, as well as the year’s second-best musical. Two parking lot attendants, Luna and Diego (Were they named for Diego Luna?), flirt with each other through dance moves captured on security cameras. Sing (Hungary) should not be confused with the animated feature of the same name, but it could almost be a prequel to the Pitch Perfects. It’s about a primary school choir led by a teacher who cares more about winning competitions than her students’ self-esteem.
- Steve Warren

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