AUGUST 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

When I forget my birthday I remember it's the anniversary of two historical events: Nixon's resignation (the best present I ever got) in 1973 and the first half of the Tate-LaBianca murders by Charles Manson's "Family" in 1969. Quentin Tarantino's new film leads up to the latter but most of it takes place six months earlier, establishing real and fictional characters who will figure in the climax. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor on the verge of obsolescence who bought a home in the Hollywood Hills in better days. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his longtime stunt double and now his driver, since DUIs cost Rick his license. Rick happens to live next door to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski. Cliff picks up hitchhiking hippie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and gives her a ride to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where he'd worked years ago, which is now home to Manson and company. I've been a Tarantino fan since Day One (Reservoir Dogs) but I don't think he's ever sucked me in and held me spellbound from first frame to last as he does here, whether he's being lighthearted or heavy-handed, and even in scenes which would be boring under the guidance of other writer-directors. Actors from well-known to unknown make cameo appearances as (mostly real) figures of the day, my favorites being Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen, Bruce Dern as George Spahn and Julia Bitters as a precocious eight-year-old who works with Rick. There's plenty of nostalgia from the currently overworked 1969, including songs, movies, commercials and scenery, looking authentic even when we know CGI work was necessary. I wasn't in Hollywood in 1969 but now I feel like I have been. I'll have to watch this and Pulp Fiction again before I declare one to be Tarantino's best; but Quentin, please don't stop making movies!

Wow! Two of my favorite actresses in one movie? Sign me up! When will I ever learn? This has to be my biggest disappointment of the year, if not the decade. The problem is the plot, which requires more suspension of disbelief than a Star Wars movie. It's a soap opera built around a series of revelations. I won't reveal them, but the first big one seems to involve the Biggest. Coincidence. Ever. Or maybe it was orchestrated, in which case someone had information that was nearly impossible to obtain and that they had no reason to think existed. Isabel (Michelle Williams) is a do-gooder who runs a struggling orphanage in India. She's offered a $2 million donation by a media placement company founded and run by Theresa (Julianne Moore), but she has to go to New York to make a pitch for it. The company pays her expenses, including a penthouse suite that must cost one of those millions as Isabel's stay is extended. Theresa is distracted by the wedding that weekend of her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn, whose role requires the widest range of the three lead actresses; plus she sings her own song behind the credits), and by selling her company. Hey, New Yorkers keep busy. Moore's husband, Bart Freundlich adapted the script from an Oscar-nominated Danish film and directed it, giving his wife a Big Scene near the end to attract award attention. The actresses are all fine but they couldn't sell this story to me.

Even in this polarized age, it's rare for film critics to be as sharply divided about a major release as we are about Jon Favreau's reanimated remake of The Lion King. As the rating suggests, I'm on the Pro side. I'm so impressed with the visual technique that I can ignore some minor flaws, including the extra time taken to show off the photorealistic, computer-generated landscapes and creatures that inhabit them. It's half an hour longer than the 1994 version, even though it tells the same beloved story with many of the same words and songs. That stretching is one reason it's not recommended for very young viewers. Many in the audience I saw it with failed the restlessness test, talking aloud or having to be taken to the bathroom. If they wouldn't appreciate a visit to the High Museum, they're probably too young for this movie. There's also the beast-on-beast violence, including Scar causing the death of his brother, King Mufasa, to usurp the throne from Mufasa's son, Simba. When King Scar forms an alliance with evil hyenas against his own subjects, I couldn't help wondering if a political metaphor was intended. Simba hooks up with Timon the Meerkat and Pumbaa the Warthog, a carefree pair who raise him to lionhood. Eventually he's reunited with his inevitable queen, Nala, who he kept in the friend zone as a cub, and he assumes his natural place. Though the animals talk and sing with all-star human voices and have expressive eyes, most of the visuals could come from a nature documentary. This animated film looks like an arc in the Circle of Live-Action.

Back in the day there was a different kind of "fake news." Interviews on radio and then television were almost always friendly, even condescending, to the interviewee. That's still the case on talk shows, where guests come to sell themselves and their latest products; but news can now have a harder edge. Avi Belkin's documentary gives most of the credit to Mike Wallace; deserved or not, he makes a strong case. Wallace, who was nearly 94 when he died in 2012, tells much of his own story through interviews where he was on the other side of the table; but we also see him in his more comfortable position, asking "questions that had never been asked before" of newsmakers (Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Malcolm X, Eleanor Roosevelt and a much younger Donald Trump) and celebrities (Oprah, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand) - 41 are identified during the credits, but there are more, and you'll wish some had been ID'd earlier. "Everybody...sued us for libel," Wallace says of his time at ABC in the late '50s. They dropped him and he did commercials and frivolous stuff until he rebuilt his respect after CBS hired him as a correspondent in 1963, then had him contribute to 60 Minutes when it began in 1968. Watergate is said to have made the show the hit it remains to this day. A libel suit from Gen. William Westmoreland made Wallace depressed and CBS more cautious, even though it was eventually dropped. Bill O'Reilly calls Wallace a "dinosaur." Streisand calls him a "sonofabitch." Morley Safer calls him a "prick." They may not all be (entirely) serious. Since Wallace went everywhere and talked to everyone, this film does an amazing job of compressing 50 or so years of world history and American journalism into his personal story.

Singer-songwriter-musician David Crosby shows a lot more personality in his own biopic than he did as one of several witnesses in Echo in the Canyon. It may help that he's being interviewed by filmmaker Cameron Crowe, who once almost famously wrote for Rolling Stone, as they're chauffeured around Los Angeles and Laurel Canyon, where Crosby can comment on what happened in this club or that house ("Our House" in song). After several heart attacks, diabetes and heroin and cocaine addiction, Crosby suffers from survivor's guilt and talks so much about his imminent death that I'm compelled to point out he's still alive - as I write this - and turns 78 this month - if he lives that long. One feels the film was made to be his memorial. But there are good times too, some echoing ...Canyon, as in the mutual admiration society between the Byrds and the Beatles; and a slightly different perspective on why he left the Byrds, still putting the blame - which he accepts - on Crosby. He also cops to alienating musical partners Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, most of whom discuss him in interviews from better days. His love life is covered too, from the promiscuity of the high times of his early fame to getting serious about Joni Mitchell (his story of the song she wrote about their breakup left me dying to know which song it was); then Christine Hinton, who died at 21; and finally Jan, his wife since 1987, whom he hates to leave but he can't resist touring to make music. The second half of the film includes clips from Crosby's 2017 U.S. tour, which he followed with another album. It's been a great summer at the movies for fans of the music of the '60s!

If you're a white male who's had trouble feeling guilty about his privilege, here's another chance. Of course you weren't in the English army colonizing Australia in 1825, so you're not personally responsible for what they did to women and indigenous black people. I don't know all the historical context but writer-producer-director Jennifer Kent, following her impressive work on The Babadook, shows us all we need to know about the people involved in this story. She begins with horrific crimes and makes us wait for most of the punishment, immersing us in the Australian wilderness of the day. Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year-old Irish lass, was imprisoned by the English for seven years for a teenage indiscretion, probably stealing to survive. She was allowed to marry and have a daughter while under sentence but Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin) won't release her now that she's served her time because he wants to keep her as his personal (unwilling) whore. He's also bitter about not being promoted to captain. Eventually he goes too far and Clare winds up tracking him for revenge on a northward journey. Both have native guides. Clare's is Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who she hires for two shillings and treats like a slave – at first. As they start to realize how much oppression they have in common this almost becomes a buddy movie, but certainly not a comedy. Like a well-tuned orchestra, Kent's film strikes all the right notes.

It's not in the same league but Them That Follow is probably the most Southern movie since Winter's Bone. The most remarkable thing about it is that Olivia Colman is as convincing as a Dixie belle as she was in her Oscar-winning role of England's Queen Anne. She runs probably the only store in a small Appalachian community. Her son Augie (Thomas Mann) loves Mara (Alice Englert), and we soon learn he's gotten her pregnant. But Augie is a nonbeliever and Mara is the daughter of Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins), the pastor of a small Pentecostal church that practices snake handling. His protégé and intended husband for Mara is Garret (Lewis Pullman), a decent guy who just doesn't do it for her. Her best friend, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), seems to be around as a consolation prize for the fellow who doesn't get Mara. As you might guess, sex and sects don't mix; and poisonous snakes cause problems, both legal and medical. I suppose churches like Lemuel's still exist, and while the film doesn't treat it disrespectfully, I would think watching it could turn the Pope into an atheist. Goggins and Colman are terrific, the younger actors less so. Englert has the leading role and fails to draw the viewer in, perhaps because writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage keep her mildly depressed all the time, and that gets old fast. There's a lot to praise here but it doesn't reach the heights it should for a story set in the mountains.

Some interesting stories are buried among the layers of this cinematic onion. Danish writer-director Mads Brügger warns us at the outset, "This could either be the world's biggest murder mystery or the world's biggest conspiracy theory." His six years-and-counting investigation with Swedish detective Goran Bjorkdahl makes a lot of discoveries but any synopsis must insert "allegedly" before every verb. UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold died in a plane crash in Ndola, Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1961, while working to support newly independent African nations. Pilot error was initially blamed but suspicions arose when natives reported seeing a fire in the sky before the plane crashed. Much of the suspicion falls on the South African Institute for Maritime Research, which (allegedly, of course) hired mercenaries to ensure white control of the country during and after apartheid, and allegedly had connections to the CIA and MI6. The testimony of one defector accuses them of a major genocidal effort decades after the alleged Hammarskjold assassination. Like any prolonged investigation, there are red herrings galore to confuse things; but the main problem here is that filmmaker Brugger makes the story all about himself. There are countless hotel room scenes where he's bouncing ideas off and dictating narration to one of two African secretaries, who both use a typewriter. He and sometimes Bjorkdahl are shown traveling, following leads and interviewing alleged witnesses. Should any of the information they uncover prove useful to the official investigation, Brugger wants to be sure to get credit for it. His onscreen dominance, which makes Michael Moore seem reticent by comparison, lessens the watchability of this often fascinating detective story.

Regular readers know I like movies that take me convincingly to another place and/or time - unless it's somewhere I'd rather not be. I've never yearned for rural Wales in the early 19th-century, but I wouldn't mind going there for a good story. Gwen is not a good story, despite the fine work of writer/director William McGregor in making the unchanged landscape look like it hasn't changed. Occasional shots of ghostly presences seem more related to the boxoffice than the plot. This is a horror story, but it's about the horrible things men do to women and the rich do to the poor, not anything supernatural. With her husband "away in the fighting" (or not), Elen (Maxine Peake) has to be the man of the house on the little farm where she lives with her daughters, teenage Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) and little sister Mari (Jodie Innes), who's so underwritten she's more of a prop than a character. The two main actresses are excellent, which made me wish all the more the film had been worthy of them. It's not clear whether the things that scare Gwen are dreams, hallucinations, or the dastardly work of "The Quarry," the mining company that employs most of the community and has bought up all the farms but that of our heroines. All their sheep are killed and Mum starts having seizures. If you watch the news you know there's nothing industries won't do to increase profits, so it's not surprising to learn this dates back to the Industrial Revolution. However, trying to forcibly combine this with hints of more commercial horror serves neither side well.

If you've been wanting to go to Ireland but lack the time, money or both, seeing Lost & Found is the next-best thing. Maybe better, and certainly cheaper. By the time it's over you'll think you know many of the 8000+ population of Portarlington, County Laois, and have feelings – positive or negative – about each of them. "Inspired by true stories," this dramedy was written and directed by its star, Liam O Mochain. He plays Daniel, whose mum helps him get a job in the Lost & Found office at the local railroad station, where he takes in a lost baby and an artificial leg on the first day. His customer relations skills are such that he'd fit in anywhere in America – yes, that bad! A series of stories and vignettes features recurring characters because everyone in town knows each other. We hear about Daniel's girlfriend Zoe long before we meet her. Gabriel and Síle are a more romantic, if mismatched, couple. There are deaths, business struggles, foreign travel, speed dating and whatever else life offers. The storytelling style reminded me of NBC's Superstore, but with less outright comedy. We're totally immersed in this Irish town and I was surprised at how easy the heavily-accented actors are to understand without subtitles. I don't want to oversell it, but Lost & Found is one of the year's most pleasant, delightful surprises.

This Italian drama about a group of 15-year-olds becoming a gang and getting involved in organized crime chose an unfortunate title for release in America, since it's opening between the gators of Crawl and the sharks of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged. Actually it should have been a different kind of horror movie for parents of teenage boys, but director and co-writer Claudio Giovannesi strikes the wrong tone. Although the screenplay won an award at this year's Berlin Film Festival, it feels like a Hollywood teen sex comedy – without the comedy. It should have been a cautionary tale but there's too much about the rewards of crime and too little about the consequences. We see these poor boys spending a lot more money than we see them earning. This is a real problem because young viewers will be inclined to emulate lead actor Francesco Di Napoli, a teen idol type who can't keep his clothes on and looks innocent, even when he's killing someone. He's Nicola, "the dry cleaner's son," and one of his reasons for dragging his friends into crime is to keep his mother and other local merchants from having to pay for protection; though at one point the boys collect the protection money themselves. They get involved with various kingpins and fight for their own turf as they navigate the ever-changing criminal landscape of Naples. There's also a girl Nicola wants to impress, and she is as easily obtained as guns and the skill to use them. If I'd seen Piranhas when I was in high school, I'd be a wealthy gangster today; or more likely dead or in prison. It's really irresponsible filmmaking.



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