FEBRUARY 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

Had I seen Capernaum before the end of 2018 it would have placed high on my Ten Best list and been named Best Foreign Language Film. It contains elements of the higher-profile Roma (an outsider acting as a parent) and Shoplifters (a poor family doing what it takes to survive) but does more to leave your mouth gaping in awe while tears stream down your cheeks. In Lebanon, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is "about 12" - his birth was never officially recorded. He works for a grocer so his family can live rent-free in a tiny apartment where Zain shares a bed with more sisters than you can count. When his oldest sister is sold in marriage as soon as she starts having periods, Zain strikes out on his own. He winds up living with a single mother, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant, and caring for her year-old son. The story is told in flashback from a courtroom where Zain, serving five years in juvie for "stabbing a sonofabitch," is suing his parents "because I was born." As Zain takes on adult responsibilities in the world, the young actor playing him exhibits a broad range that would be challenging for an actor of any age, and does so convincingly. Much of the praise must go to director and co-writer Nadine Labaki, who gets exactly what she needs, not only from Zain but also his infant co-star. Few directors would be foolish enough to rely on an adolescent and a baby to carry their film, and far fewer still would get such excellent results. Labaki sets the bar high and soars over it!

Didja hear the one about three guys from two different movies who walk into an asylum? It may have been an afterthought (telegraphed at the end of Split) but M. Night Shyamalan has created his own screen universe by completing a trilogy that began 18-plus years ago with Unbreakable. The result is less like the DC and Marvel universes and more like if James Cameron had put characters from Titanic and Avatar together in a joint sequel. When Philadelphia mastervigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) rescues four about-to-be-murdered girls from the 24 personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the police deliver both men to the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in cases of delusions of grandeur, at Raven Hill, a palatial psych hospital where apparently the only other patient is brittle-boned, seemingly catatonic Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who once caused mass disasters in hopes of finding a sole survivor who must be a superhero. That's how he met Dunn. The three patients become a crowd with the help of Kevin's multiple personalities, known collectively as The Horde and protected by the super-strong Beast. (McAvoy has fun again but the novelty has worn off.) This is mostly backstory because Glass is pathetically short on frontstory. Not much happens but things seem to be leading to a planned catastrophe at the grand opening of the city's tallest building. Instead Shyamalan shifts gears and tosses his fans a couple of twists that make little sense - or maybe I had found the setup so boring I hadn't paid enough attention. Don't be surprised if you feel the same way.

This Arthurian sequel, set in the dystopian present, isn't intended for anyone much older than its 12-year-old protagonist, but it may not be dumbed down enough for its intended audience - at least until it gets to the action and loses those of us who have been trying to take it seriously. How many times can you watch flaming monsters on horseback attack our heroes without hurting anyone (it's PG) and still worry about possible consequences when they return? An animated opening serves as a refresher course on the legend. Then in the present we meet Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, a bland young actor who's the son of motion capture king Andy Serkis), a nice kid who tries to defend his best friend against the school bullies. History repeats itself as Alex pulls a sword from a stone and sure enough, it's Excalibur. The new kid at school, "Merton" (Angus Imrie, who brings the movie to life when he's in it), turns out to be Merlin, who's been aging backwards, as he proves by occasionally turning into Patrick Stewart when authority and overacting are required. He's here to help Alex and his knights because King Arthur's wicked half-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) is coming to destroy the earth during a solar eclipse. Alex has an incidental quest to find or find out about his long-gone father. Writer-director Joe Cornish throws in a not-so-subtle message about how to mend a polarized world. If viewers who aren't as sharp as Excalibur don't get the point, hopefully they can learn from it anyway.

Serenity (not to be confused with Nathan Fillion's Firefly spinoff) is a game and the viewer is It (not to be confused with the Stephen King adaptation). I'm trying to keep you from being confused because writer-director Steven Knight does everything he can to confuse you. On Plymouth Island, Mauritius, Iraq veteran Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) has a fishing boat, the Serenity. He gives rides to tourists but is obsessed with catching a large tuna he's named Justice. Business isn't too good but he's got a sugar mommy in Diane Lane. Then his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives to ask Baker to kill the abusive husband (Jason Clarke) she left him for, taking their son Patrick with her. It sounds like a simple film noir, but who is this dork (Jeremy Strong) who keeps chasing Baker but missing him everywhere? (Why not try the bar where he spends hours at a time?) And we learn that Patrick has invented a video game and thinks he can communicate with his dad through it. The climactic revelation provides more questions than answers. Maybe Serenity is not a simple film noir, but what the hell is it? By the end that question changes from "What?" to "Why?" as in "Why did Knight make it?" and "Why did I waste my time and money watching it?"

I watched Stan & Ollie on the 127th anniversary of the birth of Harlem, Georgia native Oliver Hardy, but I still couldn't pick a favorite between the actors who play Hardy (John C. Reilly) and Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan). Both are excellent at impersonating the men (watch the scenes they've been recreating during the credits) and making them believable human beings. Most of the film takes place in 1953, during what would be the comedy duo's farewell tour in the British Isles. There are flashbacks to 1937, when they split up briefly because Laurel didn't want to re-sign with producer Hal Roach, who had originally paired them. Lest you think theirs is more than a bromance, many scenes include Mrs. Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Mrs. Hardy (Shirley Henderson). At times things get heavier than comedy-lovers would like, but there are wonderful moments when the guys automatically lapse into shtick in real life. I don't know why anyone would want to see Stan & Ollie if they weren't already somewhat familiar with Laurel & Hardy, but if they do there are plenty of opportunities to see the real thing afterward.

It's unlikely that anyone with first-hand recollection of World War I will see Peter Jackson's documentary about it, but it's fortunate that many of them recorded their memories in interviews decades ago, so they can provide the narration. Century-old film footage has been amazingly restored, colorized (mostly in shades of green and brown) and, for some showings, converted to 3D. This isn't the history book version of the war, with the emphasis on big battles. In the 1914-18 period you didn't have photographers crazy enough to be embedded with the troops to capture the action. Besides, camera equipment was so cumbersome it would have created unnecessary risk for the soldiers. So despite occasional gunfire and explosions, this is mainly the day-to-day grind between battles, the personal stories of serving in the war. We see the men at leisure, or as relaxed as they can be when they might be fighting for their lives again at any moment. Sometimes their words tell us more than their faces about what they were thinking. If They Shall Not Grow Old is shown as it was in special engagements, there's a lengthy segment at the end where Jackson himself discusses the film, including how and why he made it. His information about the restoration process may be of more interest to cinephiles than the film itself.

I had two takeaways from Untogether: 1) Relationships are begun, ended and restarted as easily as opening or closing a window, with no consequences; and 2) Everyone in L.A. is Jewish and/or British or Australian. Seemingly level-headed Tara (Lola Kirke) is living with her partner, aging rock star Martin (Ben Mendelsohn), and her sister, Andrea (Jemima Kirke), a recovering alcoholic whose one novel was published when she was Tara's age: 23. Martin wants to get the band back together; Andrea wants to write some more. The sisters are non-practicing Jews until Tara, working in a spa, meets a rabbi (Billy Crystal) and becomes interested in the religion - or is it the rabbi? Andrea has a one-night-stand-with-potential-for-more with Nick (Jamie Dornan), a doctor who published a successful memoir about his wartime experiences. These five characters go through so many changes - some of them believable - they seem like a cast of thousands. There are also '80s songs, '60s clothes (the Kirkes' mother owns a vintage clothing store in New York) and a transgender cat. Mendelsohn is married to debuting writer-director Emma Forrest, who seems to have taken elements from her own life and others' and run them through a blender to create her screenplay. Andrea describes writing as "experience strained through imagination," but I got the impression Forrest has more of the former than the latter.

The weakest batch of nominees I can remember left me wishing the Road Runner would come along and beat them all to the finish line. While the content would probably be rated PG, children won't enjoy it and may well be traumatized by tales with a 3D view of parents: Dead, Dying or Divorced. We're spared those in Animal Behaviour, a Canadian comedy about a dog running an interspecies therapy group. It's much funnier in concept than execution, but it's as close as you'll come to laughing. Bao, the Pixar entry that showed in theaters with Incredibles 2, is one of three nominees with Asian or Asian-American characters, perhaps to compensate for Oscar ignoring Crazy Rich Asians. It's about a dumpling that comes to life, awakening maternal feelings in the woman who cooked it. Late Afternoon is an Irish drama about a woman in the late afternoon of her life, reliving her memories while an apparent caregiver packs up her things. The final twist makes no sense. One Small Step is a sweet, sentimental story of a girl who wants to be an astronaut. They should have shown it in theaters with First Man.  In Weekends a boy is the object of joint custody. He spends ordinary American weekdays with his mother and exciting weekends with his dad in what looks like Chinatown. Things evolve as his parents find new love interests. This is probably the best of the lot. The program includes a couple of other animated shorts that haven’t been previewed or nominated; but if these are the best, spare me the rest.

If you thought the animated films were downers, wait until you see the live-actions; but at least they're good. Some coincidences are too much though. Four of these five nominees involve boys, the oldest perhaps barely adolescent, who are likely to kill or be killed in the course of their films. The fifth involves an old woman and her caregiver, as in one of the animated entries. And couldn't they find more American shorts to nominate? There's one, Skin, which has already been expanded into a feature for release later this year. Of the others, one is Irish, one Spanish, and two French-Canadian. Detainment is based on a true story of two ten-year-olds suspected of kidnapping and killing a two-year-old. In Fauve, which ends with an oddly extended anticlimax, two boys play dangerous games. Marguerite, a touching tale of generational differences (social evolution?), is the one without children. In Madre (another joint custody opus) a six-year-old calls his mother because his father has abandoned him on a beach in another country. Skin is also based on a true story. It's about a skinhead who provokes a racial incident and the punishment that fits his crime. There's not a bad one in this bunch, nor is there any comic relief.



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