September Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

CRAZY RICH ASIANS (PG-13)
***
By the time I saw Crazy Rich Asians it had already become a surprise summer hit, earned a Rotten Tomatoes rating in the mid-90s and been credited with reviving the romantic comedy genre. My expectations were too high. Oh, it's good; but while it's got funny moments, it's far more rom than com. The best thing about it is the way it brings back the slick, glossy look of old Hollywood movies, before they all started trying to look like music videos. There's some Asian culture and a cast that's all Asian or of Asian descent, but the plot is more about difference in class than ethnicity. Nick Young (Henry Golding) is expected to take over his fabulously wealthy Chinese family's business empire in Singapore, but he's been in New York too long and Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), the Chinese-American woman he's been dating for a year, knows nothing about his status. When his best friend is getting married in Singapore, Nick invites Rachel along to the wedding to meet his family and friends. Who knows? He might even propose to her while they're there. Wu does a surprising 180 from her character on Fresh Off the Boat, who is more like Michelle Yeoh's controlling Eleanor, Nick's mother. Rachel is an economics professor at NYU with an unusual specialty. She knows more about money than the people who have a lot of it, and she's in for a rough time. This is more like Yellowstone and Succession than anything you've seen about Asians. Even with the requisite romantic ending, the basic conflict may be unresolvable. I guess we'll find out in the announced sequel.

PAPILLON (R)
***
Papillon may float like a butterfly (the English translation of the title, the main character's nickname) but it doesn't stink like a B-movie. It does, however, fall into the category I call unnecessary remakes. It adds nothing to the 1973 version but F-words and more violence. That doesn't mean it's worse than the original - it doesn't substitute women for men like the recent Ghostbusters and Ocean's Eight – just that it doesn't offer anything you can't get from rewatching the old version, except younger actors in the same old roles. Charlie Hunnam is a solid substitute for Steve McQueen in the title role of Henri Charrière, a safecracker in 1931 Paris who's framed for murder and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana. Enroute he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek, no match for Dustin Hoffman), a wealthy, white collar counterfeiter who needs Papillon's protection to survive in prison; and Papi needs Dega's money to escape. The warden's welcome speech outlines the rest of the movie: The first escape attempt will get you two years in solitary, the second five years in solitary followed by life on Devil's Island, from which there is no escape – well, hardly any. The inhumane treatment of prisoners is stressed along the way. It's the closest the film comes to a political statement but I'm not sure if it's saying that things are still bad today or that they've improved in the last near-century. Danish director Michael Noer does a nice job but doesn't improve on Franklin J. Schaffner's original.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (R)
**
Here's a movie that begins promisingly and goes downhill fast. For about 20 minutes it revives the '40s film noir detective genre, with former police detective Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) driving around a more modern L.A., exchanging wisecracks with his secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), and picking up a sexy new client, Sandra (Dorien Davies). Another modern touch is that a new minority group is being attacked by bullies and cops alike: puppets. (Did I mention that Phil's a puppet?) There are also mildly amusing bits about puppets saying and doing dirty things, especially when the first murder takes place in a puppet porn palace. As others follow, most of the victims, including Phil's brother, are members of the cast of an old kiddie puppet show, The Happytime Gang, which is still big in syndication. Phil, who left the force 12 or 20 years ago, depending on which line of dialogue you believe, is pulled into the investigation as a consultant and reteamed with his old partner, Det. Edwards (Melissa McCarthy, operating at about 60 percent of her usual energy). By now the jokes have all but stopped (or stopped being funny) and the serious plot is less engaging than it should be. You may as well take a nap for an hour until the credits, when they give some quick illustrations of how some of the scenes mixing puppets with humans were done; but if you're interested in that you should watch it on TV where you can slow it down to absorb it. Otherwise, there's a lot of wasted potential here.

THE BOOKSHOP (PG)
***
It's ironic that a book about people who love books should find its ideal incarnation in a film adaptation. I haven't read Penelope Fitzgerald's original novel but I can't imagine a thousand of her words being worth more than the precise pictures cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu has captured under Isabel Coixet's direction. In 1959, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow in early middle-age in a small English town, is about to realize her dream of owning a bookshop. She's acquired a neglected building in the heart of town with room for the shop and her residence. But she faces opposition from Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), the one person no one dares oppose. Wealthy and well-connected, Violet's decided "the old house" would be a better site for an arts center than a bookshop; and what ensues is essentially a class struggle. With hardly anyone but non-readers on her side, Florence opens her shop and hires Christine (Honor Kreafsey), a working-class girl on the verge of womanhood, as her assistant. Two men enter Florence's life, neither a likely romantic interest but it's movie so who knows? Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy) is an old recluse who loves books. Milo North (James Lance) is a flirtatious gadfly who loves women. Success (the publication of Lolita attracts new readers) comes hand-in-hand with escalating pressure as Violet pushes through a law akin to our Eminent Domain and the film heads toward a climax. Though writer-director Coixet is Spanish, The Bookshop exemplifies the kind of film the English do so well. Though her only credit is a discreet "Thank you," Julie Christie reads the witty narration, our first clue that this won't be as boring as you might expect.

THE WIFE (R)
**1/2
It's sad when a beautiful structure is built on a weak foundation that can't support it. In 1992 Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is in bed with his wife Joan (Glenn Close – magnificent, of course) when he gets a call telling him he's won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Joan doesn't look as thrilled as Joe, and thereby hangs a tale. That tale begins in 1958 (though the actors playing the couple then look a lot more than 34 years younger than the stars). She's a student at Smith and he's her lit professor, even though he's yet to publish his first novel. Joan has aspirations of writing, but they're dashed when a woman tells her, "The public can't stomach bold prose from a woman." Joan gets similar discouragement during a menial job at a publishing house. Excuse me, but I believe the biggest-selling work of fiction in the 1950s was Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious; to be followed in the 1960s by Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. And don't forget the '30s and Margaret Mitchell's GWTW. This story would work better set in the 19th century. Though women in the late 20th were still sacrificing their own careers to be supportive of their husbands', this particular premise does not ring true. Also smelling a rat, for different reasons, is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a writer commissioned to pen a biography of Joe Castleman, authorized or not. While trying to suck up to Joe for permission, he's also working Joan, "trolling for nuggets of bitterness." He's the serpent in their Garden of Less-than-Eden. Joan has plenty to be bitter about, we discover gradually, but she's learned to hide it well over three decades. While their daughter is home having a baby, their son (Max Irons) accompanies them to Stockholm for the award ceremony, even though he clearly hates being around his father; so why does he go? The Wife is a very well-made film, as long as you don't think about it.

GOD BLESS THE BROKEN ROAD (PG)
**1/2
Anyone cynical enough to be a critic shouldn't be allowed to review faith-based films, which usually require a tremendous suspension of disbelief, even for believers. That's not so much the case here. There are moments of generic preaching, but the major plot turns aren't specifically blamed on or credited to God, except when the main character has her climactic meltdown. Two years after her husband in killed in Afghanistan, Amber (Lindsay Pulsipher) is raising their eight-year-old daughter Bree (Makenzie Moss) in their small Kentucky (played by Michigan) town, where people leave their houses and cars unlocked. She must not receive any survivor's benefits because their house is being foreclosed on, even though Amber works seven days a week at Rosie's Diner, where Rosie's (Patrika Darbo) attitude should drive customers away. New in town is Cody (Andrew W. Walker), a racecar driver sent there for retraining after a crash. A guy like Cody could have any woman in town, but he only has eyes for Amber, who's not ready to move on. Her other problem is her mother-in-law, Patti (played by Kim Delaney; if she's old enough to have had a son in his mid-30s, her plastic surgeon should be in Beverly Hills, not Kentucky), who always seems on the verge of suing for custody of Bree. It's sheer melodrama, taking place in a world like a '50S sitcom, but more innocent and integrated. There's an audience for movies like this one, which isn't badly made. If you're part of that audience, here it is and God bless you.

LOVE, GILDA (NR)
***
To illustrate the difference a comma makes, the title represents Gilda Radner's autograph; without the comma it says what the movie makes you do, if you don't already: Love Gilda. Director Lisa Dapolito does an amazing job of packing nearly 43 years of a well-documented (via diaries, notes, photo albums, home movies, audio and video tapes) life and almost 30 years of legacy into less than 90 minutes. More than a dozen celebrities talk about Gilda and read from her writings, while dozens more can be glimpsed in clips from her life and work. You'll want to see more of Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Baba Wawa and her other beloved characters, but we have YouTube for that. This goes from her 1946 birth in Detroit through growing up chubby and finding humor a good defense against bullies but later developing an eating disorder to overcompensate; dropping out of college to move to Canada with a boyfriend; working with Martin Short and Paul Shaffer in her first professional gig, a production of Godspell; Second City, National Lampoon, being the first person cast on Saturday Night Live; leaving after five years and starting a movie career, where she and Gene Wilder fell in love on the set of Hanky Panky; fighting ovarian cancer for years, getting some jokes out of it but ultimately losing the battle in 1989. Sorry if there were spoilers in there, but you'll still enjoy seeing and hearing it play out if you love Gilda. Love, Steve.

MADELINE'S MADELINE (NR)
**
"Look at me – I'm making a movie!" That's my takeaway from Josephine Decker's feature, which shows even more desperation to attract attention than its 16-year-old heroine. The camera goes in and out of focus and moves erratically, grabbing extreme closeups that are often awkwardly framed. The story also moves erratically, sometimes leaving you to guess whether you're seeing reality or a dream. Madeline is played by Helena Howard, who certainly has the power to command the screen without gimmicks. Despite the presence of two actresses I admire greatly, Molly Parker as Evangeline, Madeline's pregnant acting teacher, and Miranda July as Regina, her single mother, the young novice was the only thing that kept me from poking my eyes out – metaphorically, at least. The acting class does the kind of exercises – becoming animals, etc. - that make civilians think all actors are crazy. Decker had her young cast do a lot of improvising, as Evangeline has them do in class; so what we see may be twice removed from reality but it may not be fiction. Madeline has been institutionalized for mental problems and is quite a handful when she's off her meds. Biracial in an ethnically diverse Brooklyn, she doesn't feel like she fits in; but she goes out of her way not to, wearing an olive jacket to class while everyone else is dressed in black. As Decker has perhaps done with Howard, Evangeline co-opts Madeline's story for a class production. This leads to a bizarre climax and a WTF ending. The film has received rave reviews at festivals, probably from critics who are ashamed to admit they don't understand it. I want to see more of Helena Howard, but certainly not in Madeline's Madeline 2.

NICO, 1988 (R)
**1/2
If you have to ask, "Nico Who?" move on to the next review; there's nothing for you here. Those familiar with the model/actress/singer-songwriter, born Christa Päffgen in Germany in 1938 and best remembered for singing with the Velvet Underground and being part of Andy Warhol's crowd, will want to see this biopic for nuggets of information to be gleaned about her final years, and especially for the remarkable vocal impersonation of Trine Dyrholm, the actress who plays Nico. I had to wait for the credits to find out if she did her own singing, lip-synced to original recordings, or some combination of the two. It's all Dyrholm! Most of Nico, 1988 takes place in 1986. Nico's living in Manchester, where a local clubowner, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair) becomes her manager and she starts touring Europe (Prague is the only location identified) with a new band, most of whom she disrespects. She's pushing 50 but won't make it, and lives the sex-drugs-rock'n'roll lifestyle to the end. (OK, she's gone from heroin to methadone near the end.) The film is flatly directed from her own script by Susanna Nicchiarelli, who gives equal weight to dramatic high points and the most banal moments. One of Nico's main concerns in this period is spending time with the son she'd been forced to give up for adoption in 1962. Dyrholm's singing has character, as did Nico's; but the drama in the film would not be of interest if it were fiction, so if you don't know Nico, this won't be your best introduction.

PICK OF THE LITTER (NR)
***
No critic would risk eternal damnation by panning a movie as good-hearted and loaded with cute puppy shots as this one. It's basically a well-made infomercial for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), so much so that I expected someone to come around soliciting donations – and I was watching it at home! But it's so classy there's not even a mention of a website in the credits; they give you credit for knowing how to find them if you want to help. We follow a litter of five pups from birth through their first two years, having been warned that only about 300 of the 800 born at GDB each year make it through the program to become guide dogs. Like a drama with too many characters to keep track of, we're introduced to the "raisers," usually in pairs (husband and wife, mother and son) who take the puppies home at two months to accustom them to living with people and learning simple commands. Sometimes the dogs have to be moved to different raisers when they don't respond well. We also meet some GDB trainers and testers and a couple of visually disabled folks who are waiting for guide dogs. Don't worry about all these people. They mostly fade into the background, except Adam, a veteran whose PTSD is alleviated by having a puppy to train. Focus on the real stars: females Primrose and Poppet and males Patriot, Potomac and Phil. In keeping with the odds, not all of them become guide dogs – the washouts are said to have been "career changed" - but there are no negative outcomes. We're spared most of the arduous, repetitive work of training the dogs, sharing instead their triumphs, failures, and tearful partings from the selfless people who prepare them for a life of service.

SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD (NR)
**½
There are several ways of looking at Matt Tyrnauer's documentary, and several reasons why many won't want to look at it at all. The director follows Scotty Bowers between his 90th and 91st birthday parties and beyond. (He recently turned 95.) In 2012 Bowers published his memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. It details how he settled in L.A. in 1945 after serving as a Marine. He worked at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, where he discovered a lot of famous men were gay and horny. He serviced some himself but arranged for other handsome young men to hang out there and connect with the rich and closeted – for $20. "I never took a dime from anyone," he says; so did he live on his gas station wages and perform his sideline as a charity? He says he waited until the people he exposes were dead "out of respect"; or was he hoping to avoid lawsuits because no one was left to contradict him? Bowers polishes his halo a bit too brightly for offering a needed service. How many incidents of blackmail resulted from his introductions? The bisexual Bowers has had two long-term relationships with women and one with a man. We get to know Lois, his wife since 1984, but we hear of his alleged three-way with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, among many other sexcapades back in the day. The context of a different era is explained: Hollywood was anything-goes until the 1934 Production Code imposed a "morals clause" that could get an actor fired for being gay or lesbian. Public images were carefully crafted, even when the truth was widely known in the industry. The film rehashes well-known formerly secret lives (Charles Laughton, Rock Hudson, George Cukor), confirms widespread rumors (Cary Grant and Randolph Scott weren't just "roommates") and presents new (at least to me) information about Tracy and Hepburn, Walter Pidgeon and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Some film clips are cleverly used but there's too much of the latter-day Bowers and his non-celebrity reminiscences. Still, most gossip hounds will appreciate this marriage of TCM and TMZ.

WE THE ANIMALS (R)
***
The world can seem a little surreal when you're ten years old and the youngest of three brothers. Director/co-writer Jeremiah Zagar and his director of photography Zak Mulligan capture some of that surrealism in the way they shoot ordinary scenes. Jonas (Evan Rosado) gives us a tour of his life through narration and the pictures (some of which become animated) he draws in the diary he keeps under the bed he shares with Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), his older brothers. The biracial trio are the sons of Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand), a loving couple except when his temper kicks in. The brothers also love each other, but being the youngest, Jonah can't always keep up. Sometimes he prefers to hang back with Ma. Some terrible things happen at home – and in the outside world, when the boys have to fend for themselves and resort to shoplifting, then visit a nearby farm where a teenage boy shows them porn. As we progress from a sweltering summer to a snowy winter, the boys grow up a bit and Jonah begins to grow apart from his brothers, following a different road. The screenplay doesn't develop the older boys, who are virtually interchangeable. Jonah's new road, at his tender age, may make the film controversial, especially with viewers who see nothing wrong with Paps beating Ma when "she deserves it." You won't want to take your ten-year-old or young teens to see We the Animals, with its language and sexual content; but you can't deny it's a work of art, from the heart.

A WHALE OF A TALE (NR)
***
I don't know how to say "Mind your own business" in Japanese, but it's a good bet the 3000 citizens of Taiji do. That's the town that was excoriated in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove for the way they round up and slaughter dolphins. Though it's unfashionable these days to consider both sides of a story, that's what this film by Megumi Sasaki tries to do, often successfully. It can be confusing because the sea creatures – cetaceans – are sometimes lumped together as "whales," even though the smaller species (under four meters) are what we call dolphins. At first the film focuses on the Taijians – 400 years of tradition, the town's major source of food and income, and Westerners have no business imposing their standards on another culture. No endangered species are involved and there are legal limits to the number that can be killed. Outside activists are heard from, but their principal spokesperson is rude and aggressive. A local rebuts him: "Do you openly show the slaughter of cows and pigs?" (Ironically, the recent film Eating Animals did just that.) Gradually we hear of voluntary changes that have been made (although when isn't clear): the dolphin killing is swifter and more humane; whale meat consumption is down, lowering the price and hurting the industry; the mayor of Taiji is trying to attract more tourists (other than protestors) with a whaling museum and a whale research center. American journalist Jay Alabaster, who lived in Japan for 18 years and speaks the language, tries to get both sides of the story and serves as our surrogate. Ric O'Barry, who trained the dolphins for TV's Flipper before having a change of heart/attack of conscience, is still fighting the capture/killing of their descendants. If you're willing to keep an open mind, there's a lot to absorb in this absorbing film.

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