November Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

It's been long enough since the last Saw movie that they should call Jigsaw "Saw: The Next Generation." But like Harrison Ford in Star Wars and Blade Runner, Tobin Bell's Jigsaw lives on. Or does he? We're told early on that "(John) Kramer's been dead for ten years." Yet as the deadly games begin again, we seem to see and hear Kramer (Bell) orchestrating them. He (or another copycat) has trapped five sinners in a barn with plans to act as their judge, jury and executioner. As the police find their bloody bodies one by one with "and then there were..." notes attached, Det. Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) leads the investigation. He's suspicious of medical examiner Logan (Matt Passmore), a PTSD-suffering veteran whose girlfriend maintains a studio and fansite glorifying Kramer. The gory effects are disgusting enough but the script is not so great. The ending challenges you to watch the movie again to see if it holds up, but I'll pass. The original Saw films ushered in the "torture-porn" craze and ran it into the ground. I doubt that Jigsaw will start it up again.

Madea may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the signature creation of Atlanta mogul Tyler Perry could probably be elected president in a fair fight; and the feisty, foul-mouthed grandma would be an improvement over the cartoon character currently occupying the White House. But that's (probably) a subject for a future movie. This one's a lot less interesting, combining tropes from horror movies and teen romcoms without really spoofing them, but expecting us to laugh anyway. On her 18th birthday, Tiffany (Diamond White) drags her friend Gabriella (Inanna Sarkis) to a fraternity Halloween party. Her father, Brian (Perry) isn't happy about it; but it's his mother, Madea (Perry), who packs the rest of the family in the car to try to bring Tiffany home. The party is being held at Lake Derrick, where 14 young people were murdered in 1976; and chainsaw-wielding spirits of '76 appear to be haunting this party, which rapidly drops in attendance from what looks like a rock festival to a handful of campers. Dialogue scenes stretch on interminably until you wish an editor would take a chainsaw to them. Ditto the setup, which takes about half an hour when five minutes would do it. Worst of all, Madea is a relatively minor character this time. Her brother Joe (Perry) gets more laughs, and some are at the expense of Madea's femininity, when taking her gender at face value has been a lynchpin of these films (and Perry's plays before them) from the outset. Perry is being stretched too thin, what with writing, directing and acting in his own movies and TV series plus outside acting jobs. He needs an elected position that will let him relax.

First the 100th episode of The Walking Dead, now the 100th film by boundary-pushing Japanese action director Takashi Miike. If this one's typical it explains why most of them haven't been released in the U.S. If you're going to make a movie that's totally absurd, you may as well make it a comedy. I thought at first this was what Miike was going for, because his protagonist, Manji (Takuya Kimura), strongly resembles Johnny Depp. But Kimura doesn't have a funny bone in his body, and the long scenes between battles are deadly serious and deadly dull. The opening scene of this historical fantasy has Manji fighting singlehandedly (well, doublehandedly until one is chopped off) against a hundred or so warriors. (If you come in late, there will be more scenes like this.) An old woman feeds him bloodworms that heal his wounds and make him immortal. Fifty years later Manji teams with tween heroine Rin (Hana Sugisaki), who reminds him of his murdered sister. She's been orphaned by Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), who is trying to unite the diverse fighting schools under his leadership. Miike gives the film a great epic look, but the close-in photography and rapid editing of the fight scenes doesn't let us appreciate the choreography involved. The writing rather than the fighting determines who wins.

The Square is a love-it-or-hate-it movie that I loved, as did the judges at Cannes who gave it the Palme D'Or. But it's so different, breaking every rule of screenwriting, that I'd hate to suggest improvements because they would move it toward ordinariness. A Swedish film that's about half in English, it begins with Anne (Elisabeth Moss) doing a brief interview with Christian (Claes Bang), the chief curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm. He's the main character; she disappears for an hour, has a few more scenes, then disappears again. But she helps sell the film in America, as does Dominic West, who only has one scene. While the museum begs for money from wealthy donors, people in the streets are begging for money to survive. Classism is definitely a topic here. So is Art, represented by the museum's current exhibit, a room filled with piles of dirt, and its coming attraction, The Square, a safe space in which "we all share equal rights and obligations." A wild man is the guest of honor at a dinner party; after sex a couple argues over possession of the used condom; a statue is damaged in an attempt to move it (how timely!); millennial PR men eschew good taste for viral publicity. These elements and many others have no business in the same screenplay, or perhaps any screenplay, but writer-director Ruben Östlund uses them all and makes them work. You might say The Square is about how we ignore each other and what we do to get each other's attention. It deserves your attention.

** ½
The sum is better than the parts in Novitiate. It begins as a young woman's journey toward becoming a nun and ends as a feminist diatribe against Vatican II, Pope John XXIII's 1959 attempt to bring the Catholic Church into the 20th century, unfortunately diminishing the influence of nuns. Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is introduced to the church at seven and finds it "peaceful," especially compared to the nagging of her mother (Julianne Nicholson, with the least consistent drawl since Nicole Kidman's in The Beguiled), which drove her father away. At 17 she moves into a convent and after six months as a postulant becomes a novitiate. (The new class is an excuse for a lot of exposition for the sake of us non-Catholics in the audience.) The convent is run by a "Mommie Superior Dearest" type (Melissa Leo, great as always), whose main objection to the Vatican II edicts is they don't let her play dominatrix anymore. Writer-director-producer Margaret Betts pulled off a miracle in getting the cast she has for her first feature, but her inexperience and tight budget show in large ways and small. The focus on the young women leads to a surprise late in the film when the Rev. Mother addresses a group of older nuns who also populate the convent. While a deep South setting is suggested early on, the convent is covered in snow and the actors' breath is visible, even indoors, much of the year. There are visual and verbal anachronisms and simple mistakes that should have been caught. (A girl who's there because she was inspired by The Nun's Story gets the title wrong.) Though it starts out like a "faith-based" film, Novitiate turns out to be more of a negative recruiting tool. The Sound of Music it ain't.

If you like people or chimpanzees, you'll like Jane. If you like both species, you'll love it! If you're scared off by phrases like "octogenarian primatologist," don't worry: it's never uttered in this feelgood documentary about Jane Goodall that combines newly recovered footage from the 1960s with a recent interview with the woman who started studying chimps in her 20s and is still trying to save the planet in her 80s. Goodall's narration covers a checklist of topics from female empowerment to the "Circle of Life." She tells how she was chosen to go to Gombe, Tanzania, in 1957 by Dr. Louis Leakey because, while she hadn't been to university, she had "an open mind, a passion for knowledge, a love of animals and monumental patience." It took five months for the chimps to begin accepting her presence; later they came into her camp to steal bananas, and then everything in sight. Not having been taught the wrong assumptions, she learned by observation, starting with chimps using tools. A National Geographic grant sent photographer Hugo Van Lawick to work with her. Not long after they watched the chimps' mating season, they were married. Coincidence? Soon Jane and the chimp she dubbed Flo were both raising sons. Van Lawick's photography is in a beautiful color process that must have been rendered obsolete because I haven't seen it in decades.

The winner at the recent Out on Film of the Jury Prize for Best Feature and Best Director and the Audience Award for Best Men's Feature, God's Own Country also holds a record for the most birthing scenes in a gay love story – all involving sheep. Johnny (Josh O'Connor) is often the sole laborer on his family's Yorkshire farm. For fun he finds an occasional man at the local pub or a cattle auction. Then his father (Ian Hart) hires Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian immigrant, to help out in lambing season. Johnny soon learns sex can involve the emotions as well as the body. Writer-director Francis Lee, who was raised on a Yorkshire farm, was lucky to find two good actors who could also handle the farm chores depicted; so the film feels authentic. You may wish some supporting actors came with subtitles but missing a few of their words doesn't affect the basic story. Though quite different, God's Own Country has been compared to Brokeback Mountain for being a gay love story with a rural setting. What's important is that they're both good movies.

The official French entry for next year's Foreign Language Oscar and winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, BPM reminds us HIV/AIDS is not a strictly American phenomenon. It's set in the early 1990s among members of the activist group ACT UP Paris. (The name came from New York, where it was an acronym for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power.) As in the U.S. they fought against government indifference and the foot-dragging of pharmaceutical companies, while thousands died. The nontraditional storytelling style of director and co-screenwriter Robin Campillo takes its time establishing characters. While there are frequent internal disagreements, the group as a whole is the main character for much of the film. They have weekly meetings, cause disruption at public and private events, and show up uninvited in schools to lecture about AIDS prevention and distribute condoms. They also dance and make love. Eventually a romance develops between hardcore radical Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is positive, and newbie Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who's negative. A rather sudden death in midfilm is more impactful than an anticipated one that drags out the ending and extends the film beyond its optimal length. Admirers of Angels in America, The Normal Heart and And the Band Played On should appreciate another country's take, which shows we're not so different.

** ½
Can a documentary be made about the Paris Opera without mentioning the Phantom? Swiss filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Bron omits a lot of the things you'd expect to see and hear in his documentary about the venerable French institution, including exterior views of the iconic Palais Garnier, built in 1875, and its 1989 partner, Opéra Bastille. There are very few shots of the lavish public spaces inside because Bron wants to take you behind the scenes. What happens there will be of interest to lovers of opera and ballet, who may be disappointed at not seeing more of the scenes themselves. It's the 2015-16 season, the first as director for Stéphane Lissner. We see him go through one crisis after another, from the withdrawal of a major performer 48 hours before opening to labor problems, including a national strike, to a proposal to lower prices to appear less elitist to the possible departure of ballet director Benjamin Millepied (great name for a dancer!) to the safety factors involved in having a live bull on stage. Rarely do we learn how issues are resolved. A major thread involves the discovery of 21-year-old Russian bass-baritone Mikhail Ti¬mo¬shen¬ko, who looks like the young John Cusack. It's surprising to see in the end credits how many works we've seen/heard excerpts from, many in rehearsals and classes. You'll have to buy tickets to see the real thing, and The Paris Opera whets your appetite to do just that.



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