March 2020 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

In this age, there must be someone protesting the use of a CGI dog in the leading role of Buck in the latest adaptation of Jack London's novel, for depriving a real dog of employment. Had a live dog been used, others would have protested the stress and dangers it was subjected to during the filming. It makes me want to get away from it all, like John Thornton (Harrison Ford), in the last years of the 19th century, after his son died and he and his wife drifted apart. He goes to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, even though he's not looking for gold. Ford's only appearance in the first third of the movie is a brief one, when he encounters Buck on the way. Big and strong, though not yet a team player, Buck has been dognapped and sold as a sled dog. After helping deliver the mail for a time, Buck teams up with Thornton instead, relieving the loneliness of his remote cabin. Eventually Buck will find romance and companionship with other animals and Thornton will find gold he wasn't looking for. It's not exactly the bromance of the year but it's not awful, and the (presumably real) scenery of British Columbia is nice. As one of the minority of critics who applauded last year's Lion King remake for its realistic animals, I find Buck a tad less believable; but he has to interact with humans as well as other creatures, like Roger Rabbit or Sonic the Hedgehog, while not appearing to be a cartoon. It gives me new appreciation for what E.T. was able to achieve 38 years earlier in the technological revolution.

If you thought Adam Sandler's character in Uncut Gems was unlikable, he's Santa Claus compared to Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan) in Greed. But while Sandler played it straight, Coogan is hilarious, working again with Michael Winterbottom, the director behind his "Trip" series. "Greedy McCreadie," as he was already known in his school days, is one of the world's richest men, and may have hurt the most people to get that way. A gambler and dealmaker, he came up in the world of retail fashion, outsourcing production to Sri Lanka, where virtual slave labor makes clothes he can sell cheaply. He's bought stores and chains, working their eventual bankruptcy to his advantage and avoiding taxes by funneling profits through his Monacan wife (Isla Fisher). About to celebrate his 60th birthday, Richard is having an amphitheater built on a Mykonos beach to recreate a scene from Gladiator for the party, despite trouble shooing Syrian refugees who spoil his view by camping there. He's rented a lethargic lion for the occasion, and can't imagine adding fireworks to the mix will be a problem. That's our first hint things won't end well. The film is an embarrassment of riches. I wanted to watch it at half-speed so I could process all the characters, some played by different actors at different ages; try to understand the financial details rattled off by Richard's accusers; and catch all the celebrity names dropped (a couple even make self-deprecating appearances) in rapid-fire dialogue. Some will assume Richard is loosely based on the one celebrity who isn't mentioned, but he shows no desire to get into politics so that couldn't be the case...could it? In case you miss the seriousness behind the satire, Winterbottom leads into the credits with a few facts and statistics about wealth inequality, tax evasion, refugee issues and more. Greed has to be the most serious funny movie of the year or the funniest serious one.

In his most successful films, Liam Neeson has been able to defend family members or the planet against malevolent entities with deadly intentions. In this one he may have met an adversary he can't beat: cancer. Tom (Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville) are an old married couple in Northern Ireland, comfortable in life and with each other. In the course of nearly a year (the end of one Christmas season to the beginning of the next - at home, not in a mall), Joan notices a lump, is diagnosed with breast cancer, has it surgically removed, endures chemotherapy, and has a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, never knowing for sure how things will go. In their time at the hospital (where they have to pay for parking - so much for socialized medicine!) - they become acquainted with a male couple, one of whom has a less optimistic prognosis than Joan. Tom and Joan have their little arguments like any longtime relationshipmates, but he is 100 percent supportive through her struggle. The one flaw in Owen McCafferty's screenplay is its handling of the couple's previous crisis, the death of their young daughter. Instead of putting the information out there, McCafferty spreads it out teasingly as if leading to a surprise that never comes. Directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn tell the story briskly and efficiently without seeming to rush. They make it look so deceptively simple the film may not get the recognition it deserves. As the title suggests, the actors are natural without big dramatic moments to call attention to themselves. Ordinary Love might have been marketed as an instructional video: "You've Got Cancer. Now What?" It's neither sugar-coated nor traumatizing in depicting how the situation plays out for someone lucky enough to have a partner to go through it with them.

Not being a young African American woman, I should recuse myself from reviewing Premature; but of course I won't. The target audience will get caught up in the love story (and hopefully learn a lesson about birth control) and ignore minor details that bothered me, like why there's no pattern to when the heroine wears glasses and when she doesn't. That's Ayanna (Zora Howard), who's in the summer between high school and college when she meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a "producer-composer type" musician with a fondness for jazz. I may share his musical tastes more than young romantic viewers, but they should appreciate what Ayanna writes in her journal and reads to us on the soundtrack. (Example: "What did I know of my heart before you came and gave it shape?") They're obviously destined to make beautiful music, and maybe a baby, together. The script, by Howard and director Rashaad Ernesto Green, hits the usual points of a young adult romance; and if you don't know Howard's resume you'll believe she's 17 years old. If it's your first time seeing a movie like this you'll be blown away; if it's your hundredth, well, here you go again.

"It wasn't a long affair but it was a good one/We let it run along as long as it could run/But our time limit was there/It was a five-day affair." That's the chorus of an experience-based song I wrote many years ago. I thought of it a few hours after seeing Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, when I was still wondering why this highly-acclaimed film had left me so cold. Although the specifics are vastly different, my song told the same story in two minutes that Sciamma spreads over two hours. (The "Portrait" in the film's title should be a clue that it's like watching paint dry, though many critics have called it a masterpiece instead.) Her version is set in France in the 18th century and involves two women. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint Heloise (Adele Haenel) before her wedding. Héloïse was pulled out of convent school to substitute for her sister, who committed suicide rather than marry the wealthy Italian businessman their mother (Valeria Golino) had arranged for her to wed. Héloïse is shy about being painted so Marianne has to pose as a companion, sketching and painting her in secret. When the mother goes away for five days, the "companionship" quickly becomes something else. If you can't figure out how it ends, see the movie or request the rest of the lyrics to "Five-Day Affair."

I'd have thought the generation that played Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog videogame in 1991 would be too old to enjoy a juvenile movie adaptation, but the boxoffice has proved me wrong. That's why I'm a film critic, not an investment counselor. (Besides, my idea of a hedgehog is Monty Python's Spiny Norman.) Though aimed at children, the movie's not as adult-alienating as I expected. Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz), who is really superSonic, leads with his origin story, which leaves him stranded in Green Hills, Montana. He observes everyone but can't let them see him because he's been warned his superpowers would make him a target. When they cause a blackout of the entire Pacific Northwest instead, Sonic hooks up with his favorite person in town, Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), who is about to move to San Francisco with his accommodating wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). Sonic quickly evolves from being Tom's pet to his friend. Investigating the blackout, U.S. Intelligence has called on the superior brainpower of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), whose brilliance justifies his ego but whose evil intent should have kept him from getting a security clearance. So you've got a road trip and a chase and lots of special effects, the special-est being the impossibly speedy CG animal of the title. (Everyone else is live.) Of course the trick is to defeat Dr. Robotnik without eliminating him, lest he be needed for a sequel. The result should be at least some fun for anyone of any age.

"Traitor" can be a positive or negative word, depending on who's being betrayed and which side you're on. In this true story the Mafia is betrayed, so it's probably a good thing. Writer-director Marco Bellocchio, internationally respected for over half a century, tells the story of Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favini) in epic fashion. It runs an hour less than The Irishman and rarely fails to command your attention, but might have worked better as a four-hour miniseries. The pace seems rushed to us non-Italian-speakers who have to read subtitles. Titles also introduce us in the opening sequence, in 1980, to a ton of characters, most of whom will soon be killed. Buscetta and Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), the most beautiful wife money can buy, are attending a party celebrating what will be a short-lived truce between the Palermo Mafia and the Corleone family. Sensing the slaughter to come, the Buscettas move to Brazil; but within a few years he's arrested, tortured and extradited to Italy. There a kindly judge bonds with Tommaso (too easily, as shown here) and persuades him to narc on hundreds of his associates in what he prefers to call the Cosa Nostra ("Mafia is an invention of the press"), testifying openly at their trials. Cristina moves to the U.S. and Tommaso joins her, living in constant paranoia. I've never done this before but I'd recommend leaving 15 minutes before the movie ends, right after Buscetta's 68th birthday party in 1996. It's followed by two intercut scenes, one of Buscetta in what's supposed to be Miami but looks as hilly as Rome, the other a flashback involving a character we've seen before but I have no idea who he is. Overall The Traitor is entertaining and enlightening; it's too bad all that's well ends badly.

If we want to see people as boring as ourselves, we need mirrors, not movies. Olympic Dreams is the story of two such people who may or may not fall in love during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeong Chang, Korea. The most interesting thing is that it was actually filmed on location during the Olympics and takes us behind the scenes in the Athletes Village, with mostly brief appearances by many actual Olympians. This has its limitations. To avoid distraction or disruption, access was granted to the cafeteria at mealtime and other locations when there was little or no activity. It's like being in the room where it happens when it's not happening. Director/cinematographer Jeremy Teicher cast his wife, Alexi Pappas, as Penelope, a 22-year-old cross-country skier in her first Olympics. Hers is one of the first events, and she doesn't win; so while waiting for the closing ceremony she has time to get better acquainted with Ezra (Nick Kroll), who's there as a volunteer dentist while "on a break" from his fiancée back home. Most of the film's dialogue is improvised, so the director and stars share writing credit; but it just proves a good screenwriter deserves their pay. I could imagine the film having been made 30 years ago with Jeff Goldblum and Renée Zellweger in the leads. Pappas has a similar kind of whiny face, which Teicher goes out of his way to capture in a range of expressions, even if they're not all called for. I won't reveal what ultimately does or doesn't happen, but moviegoers looking for a hot romance will be teased beyond endurance before finding out.

To more advanced cultures, And Then We Danced will look like a trip back in time, until someone pulls out a cell phone. It takes place in Georgia. The other Georgia, the country that broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 and became a democracy. We soon learn that doesn't include the acceptance of homosexuality, even in the world of classical dance. "Georgian dance is based on masculinity," Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is told, because he's too light in the ballet slippers. He's been training for the National Georgian Ensemble and partnered with the same girl - now a young woman - since they were ten. He and Mary are a couple off the dance floor too, but he keeps putting off "the first time" when she wants to have sex. Enter Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a more macho dancer who threatens Merab professionally but triggers other feelings in him personally. Irakli mentions his girl back home, but this is a gay love story so "Boy gets boy in the end" before "Boy loses boy" or whatever finally happens. It's hard to tell whether Gelbakhiani is an actor who dances or a dancer who acts, because he's excellent at both. Even within the limits of Georgian dancing, which is more folk than ballet, he has more moves than Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Lest you think the homophobia the film shows is fictional, the credits tell us the person who choreographed Merab's dances has to remain anonymous. Writer-director Levan Akin is Swedish, of Georgian descent, and the film won Sweden's Oscar equivalent for Best Film. Akin filmed in Georgia but tried to keep the storyline secret to avoid trouble. He has said in interviews the response of young Georgians who have only seen the film's trailer gives him hope their generation will turn things around so future Merabs won't have to choose between love and career.

Everything I've read about Balloon, which is based on a true story, gives away the ending; but I won't. You'll probably guess it anyway, but that won't keep you from biting your nails for the two hours leading up to it. In East Germany in the summer of 1979, two families, each with two children, plan to escape to the West in a DIY hot-air balloon. They've been working on it for years but miscalculated. At the last minute they realize the balloon won't support all eight of them, and one family bows out. The other clan almost makes it, but crashes 200 meters short of the border. The Strelzyks live across the street from a high-ranking member of the Stasi, or State Security Service, which finds the balloon and launches an investigation. Realizing they're going to need a bigger balloon, the Strelzyks and Wetzels go back to work on an accelerated basis, with the Stasi getting closer all the time. Director and co-writer Michael Bully Herbig uses a few cheap editing tricks to scare us, but the basic plot is all he needs. We get a sense of what life was like in the German Democratic Republic, with everyone seeming to be spying on everyone else. It's clear why people want to leave and how difficult it is to do so - almost as difficult as it is to tear your eyes from the screen until you find out whether our families make it.

At best, life moves at half-speed in Beanpole, when it moves at all. Not to be confused with Fleabag, the title is the affectionate nickname of the main character, a tall, thin woman prone to fits of standing and staring. In Leningrad after World War II, Iya/Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is working as an attendant in a veterans hospital and mothering a young boy whom she literally smothers with affection. The boy's real mother, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) returns from the war. Closer than lovers, she and Iya were comrades-in-arms until Iya's post-concussion syndrome got her sent home. Masha forgives Iya for killing her child but, unable to have another one herself, asks Iya to do it for her. Russian director Kantemir Balagov, still under 30, was lauded at Cannes for his work here; and there is some excellent filmmaking on view. But he's obviously of the school that believes the longer you can drag out a scene the more artistic it is. I obviously am not of that school. The most interesting plot elements - and there are some in the script Balagov co-wrote - are treated like needles in a haystack. A viewer with a short or even average attention span will suffer from hayfever waiting for each Big Reveal. Perelygina does the heavy lifting in the acting department, making me want to see more of her. Miroshnichenko doesn't have to do much more than stand out in a crowd, and there are few crowd scenes here. She seems destined for a career as a novelty act.

In the early scenes of Poland's recent Oscar nominee, it's hard to tell whether the closely supervised young men being forced to work and pray are in prison or Catholic school. Well, it's juvie, and Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), an intense youth who prays hard and parties hard, is being released. He'd like to go to seminary, even has a shirt with a clerical collar, but they won't take ex-cons; so he goes to a small town to work in a sawmill. Through an almost comic series of events Daniel is accepted as a priest and replaces the town's vicar on a temporary basis that keeps being extended. The town is still in mourning over a head-on collision the previous year that took seven lives, and Daniel - or "Father Tomasz" - starts looking into some mysterious aspects of the event that powerful people are covering up. Brilliantly developed for an hour-plus, the film seems in danger of being wrapped up too neatly and sweetly. Instead it swings too wildly in the other direction, leaving the ending less satisfying than most of what preceded it. There's still more than enough to appreciate here, especially the performance of Bielenia. He unifies the divergent aspects of Daniel's character, who might appear bipolar in less accomplished hands.



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