NOVEMBER Movie Reviews

HALLOWEEN (R)
***
Some horror franchises have had more "final chapters" than Cher's had farewell tours. It's comforting to see familiar characters, situations and formulas; but who goes to a horror movie to be comforted? The boxoffice for this new sequel to John Carpenter's 1978 hit answers that: Everybody! While I prefer something original and different, I admire the skill that went into making this one, which should appeal to newbies as well as the generations that have grown up on Halloween movies. The screenplay includes enough backstory that you don't need a Masters in slasher films to follow the simple plot. After 40 years of confinement, serial killer Michael Myers escapes while being transferred to a new mental facility. Of course he goes after Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has devoted her life to preparing for this moment. That includes frequent target practice and building a fallout shelter in the basement of her remote home. It also includes neglecting her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak). A number of other new, mostly young characters are introduced too, but enjoy them while they last - you know the drill. It goes on a bit too long but it would be hard to find something to cut (no pun intended), on the way to the expected mano a womano climax. And of course Michael can't possibly survive...but of course there will be another sequel and he'll be there, as sure as Freddy and Jason are warming up in the bullpen. They went classy, bringing in accomplished and versatile director David Gordon Green, who also co-wrote the screenplay, resulting in what's arguably the most technically proficient slasher movie ever. It's the same old same old with the same - er, formerly young lady in the lead; but damn, it's good!
-Steve Warren

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (PG-13)
***
Bohemian Rhapsody is a foot-stomping celebration of Queen, their music and their extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury. Freddie defied stereotypes and shattered convention to become one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet. The film follows Queen as they rise to stardom, Freddie's move to a failed solo artist and finally Queen's largest performance when the band get back together at Live Aid. Much of the film is focused on his life and doesn't delve into the rest of the band. Rami Malek does an incredible job transforming into character it's as though you are watching Freddie himself. Lucy Boynton Co-stars as Mary, the love of Freddie's life. She delivered a very strong performance as did the rest of the cast. Wonderfully directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men & X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Dexter Fletcher (Wild Bill, Sunshine on Leith & Eddie the Eagle), who replaced Singer due to studio issues midway through. The film doesn't delve into the alternative lifestyle too heavily which has caused some to say that Freddie's life was washed over, but the film provides a highly entertaining look into the band.
-Dani Weiss

WILDLIFE (PG-13)
***
In 1960 a 14-year-old would have grown up loving Lucy and leaving it to Beaver, totally unprepared for life in the real world. That's the situation of Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould, who's Australian but you'd never guess). He and his parents, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) - why are they all J names? - have moved around the Northwestern U.S. a lot and recently settled in Great Falls, Montana. Most of the story is seen through Joe's eyes, which show a mix of confusion and fear as he worries his family is falling apart but isn't sure how to read the signals. When Jerry loses his job the others go to work, Jeanette as a swim instructor at the Y and Joe as a photographer's assistant. It's wildfire season so Jerry goes off (for at least half the movie) to fight fires for a dollar an hour plus room and board. While he's gone Jeanette, who isn't sure what she wants or how to get it, takes up with one of her students, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), an older man with no attraction but his bank account. Then snow puts out the fires and Jerry comes home. Just when you think it's over, a coda provides an ending that's wonderfully strange. Wildlife was directed by Paul Dano, who co-wrote the screenplay (from a novel by Richard Ford), with his life partner Zoe Kazan. Dano probably wishes the role of Joe had been available to him when he was a young teen. Oxenbould is fine but lacks the spark that would have made his one note more interesting. It would have been pointless to try to compete with Mulligan, who lets all the stops out all the time. Intimate dramas like this have become so rare on the big screen that, combined with its period setting, Wildlife could have emerged from a time capsule.
-Steve Warren

THE HAPPY PRINCE (R)
**1/2
Aside from a few fleeting moments, the only "happy" in The Happy Prince is in the title. It's the story of the last two or three years in the life of Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett), following his two years at hard labor for "gross indecency." You'd think freedom would be a positive change, but the Irish playwright has to beg, borrow or con the money for food and lodging - not to mention sex, which, considering his taste in young men, rarely comes free. More reviled than revered in London now, Wilde exiles himself to Paris under a fake identity. He wants to go back to his wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their children but she won't have him unless he promises never to see his male lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas (Colin Morgan) again. Wilde agrees for a moment - "That part of my life is behind me" - but melts when Bosie shows up. Two other old friends turn up too: Robbie (Edwin Thomas), the literary executor who thinks he's Bosie's rival for Oscar's affection; and Reggie (Colin Firth), an underdeveloped character belatedly revealed to be an actor but seeming like an afterthought to squeeze Everett's Another Country co-star into the production. Wilde died at 46, not looking as good as Everett does at 59; but the actor, rarely seen in the U.S. in a decade and a half, wears a fat suit and awesome (but not always consistent) prosthetic makeup. He also wrote and directed the film, obviously hoping it would be his "Oscar" role in more ways than one. What bothers me most is how rarely Wilde's wit comes across in the dialogue, even when he's having a good time. It's what he's best remembered for and Everett's script turns him into a bore. A well-acted, brilliantly made-up, beautifully photographed bore, but one often less interesting than what's going on around him.
-Steve Warren

HUNTER KILLER (R)
**1/2
I've never understood why Gerard Butler is a movie star. He's average-looking and his performances are never more than adequate, usually in pictures that don't deserve any better. His latest, named for a class of submarines, is all-thrills, no-frills. Action fans should appreciate the nonstop, not-quite-mindless action, but may be disappointed that the hero is a humanitarian who goes to great lengths to prevent a war between the U.S. and Russia that might wipe out the human race. That doesn't mean there's not plenty of shooting and torpedoing and stuff involved. In the beginning both nations have subs sunk near the Russian coast. Another American sub, the USS Arkansas captained by Joe Glass (Butler), is sent to the area to investigate and retaliate if necessary. A SEAL team is dropped on Russian soil for no apparent reason, but they come in handy when the Russian president is kidnapped in a coup by his Minister of Defense. When the Russian president and the captain of the sunk Russian sub are both "guests" on the American sub, can bipartisanship save the day? The very best of these films develop both characters and situations, but Hunter Killer is far from the best. Only one of the four SEALs even has a name heard more than once, and the U.S. president's name may as well be "Ma'am." The crew of the USS Arkansas is composed of dozens of men and one woman. (Bet she's got some #metoo stories to tell!) When they're entering an area where the Russians have sound sensors, the crew is admonished to be totally silent...by a full-volume announcement on the ship's p.a. system. I don't want to be a buzz killer, but Butler and Hunter Killer deserve each other.
-Steve Warren

VIPER CLUB (R)
**
I watched Viper Club while the Khashoggi story was dominating the headlines, and it was a rare instance when the movies couldn't make a topic more interesting than real life. The journalist in the movie, whose fate is unknown until the end (so no spoilers here), is an all-American boy, Andrew Sterling. When he is apparently kidnapped by terrorists in Syria, his mother, Helen (Susan Sarandon) starts trying to bring him home. She begins by dealing with the FBI, who tell her: a) Don't tell anyone else; and b) No money can change hands; doing business with terrorists is illegal. After two-and-a-half months without progress she's frustrated with the bureaucracy - she talks to the State Department and learns they don't communicate with the FBI. She's had to pretend nothing's wrong at her job as an ER nurse, where one of the doctors she works with is Iranian. A friend of her son's introduces Helen to the Viper Club, a loose organization of journalists and others who work in war zones. She meets Charlotte (Edie Falco), whose journalist son was returned after similar events, and starts raising money for Andrew's ransom. The film seems to exist as an excuse for Sarandon to do some political ranting, including a gratuitous plug for organ donation; but while the message seems to be "Everything the government tells you is a lie," valid points are made on both sides of the argument of how to handle the situation. Part tearjerker (lots of shots of mother and son when he was young) and part high school-level debate about how to deal with terrorists, it has little tension and no action.
-Steve Warren

ANTONIO LOPEZ 1970: SEX FASHION & DISCO (NR)
**1/2
A lot of people have a lot to say about Antonio Lopez (and themselves) in James Crump's documentary, which lets them say it all. You want to learn about Lopez (1943-1987), a Nuyorican fashion illustrator you may never have heard of; but the constant jibber-jabber distracts from the visuals. In editing that's often rapid-fire we see many of Lopez' drawings and many more photographs of the artist himself - alone and with friends and lovers; drawing, partying or just being. "Psychedelic" isn't one of the hundreds of thousands of words on the soundtrack but it's how I'd describe Lopez' style. Likewise you don't hear "hedonist" but it describes his lifestyle. Most of the film takes place in the late '60s and early '70s, a time of rapid social change when many people didn't care who they had sex with as long as they had a lot. Lopez was bisexual but mostly gay, partnered in life and business for years with Juan Ramos in a very open relationship. Fashion designers were becoming celebrities as they expanded from haute couture to ready-to-wear lines. Moving from New York to Paris, which was more open to diversity, Lopez not only drew models but helped discover some, including Jessica Lange, Grace Jones and Jerry Hall. It's hard to keep track of who's who in LopezWorld, if you're not already familiar with them. On the plus side, most of what they say is interesting. This could be a prequel to Studio 54, set a decade earlier, but with wider-ranging content - enough that it could have been a miniseries. I can see why Crump hated to leave anything out, but he should have let it breathe and let Lopez' artwork speak for itself. It's the reason he was worth making a film about in the first place.
-Steve Warren

BURNING (NR)
***
If you're unaware that South Korea gave us two of the best and most unique horror films of this century (The Host and Okja), you may expect Burning to be ordinary, a mashup of Crazy Rich Asians and Searching. If so you'll be surprised, perhaps disappointed. It's not a horror film, but neither does it fit neatly into any other genre. Based on a short story, it's a long movie (2½ hours) about a young man who wants to be a writer but has nothing to write about. This is the story of how he found something, or maybe it's a story he made up. Jongsu (Yoo Ah-In) runs into Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman he once called "ugly" in junior high; but she's had plastic surgery since then. At least that's her story. They become Seoul-mates, even bedmates once - perhaps Jongsu's first time. He's been through military service and college but doesn't have much life experience, and he has to move to his family's rundown farmhouse when his father goes to prison. Jongsu feeds Haemi's invisible cat while she travels to Africa for a couple of weeks. She comes back with Ben (The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun), who confides to Jongsu that his "hobby" is setting abandoned greenhouses afire. Then Haemi disappears and Jongsu starts playing detective to find her. It all develops very slowly, with lots of well-photographed scenery of rural Korea and some of the city, where Ben lives a lavish Gangnam-lifestyle. There's a payoff that doesn't necessarily answer all your questions but makes the wait worthwhile, although American audiences may not have the patience. Burning is South Korea's submission this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
-Steve Warren

CHEF FLYNN (NR)
***
At ten Flynn McGarry was cooking things I couldn't pronounce at that age. He had a "signature dish" at an age when I could barely write my own signature. Meg, his culinary-challenged mother, had just been through a divorce and her kitchen-conscious son took over cooking chores. Mom, a writer/filmmaker, took plenty of home movies as pre-teen Flynn began catering dinner parties in a faux restaurant in their Studio City home. It's not clear when director Cameron Yates got involved, shooting additional footage as Flynn became a media celebrity as the controversial "Teen Chef," supervising pop-up dinners in major restaurants. Serving as his manager and accountant, as well as photo-chronicler, it's uncertain whether Meg sacrificed or ultimately enhanced her own career. She hogs the spotlight a bit too much here, but wait 'til Lady Gaga plays her in a dramatized version of the story. (No, but I wouldn't be surprised.) After being bullied at school, did Flynn's home-schooling include subjects other than cooking, and did he earn a high school diploma or equivalent? No clue. Since Flynn's age is the main point, it's frustrating that we can't always keep track of it as the film jumps around in time. We don't even know how old he is near the end when he moves to New York on his own to fulfill his dream of having his own restaurant. A final update would be nice too, after Flynn says he's raising money for a venue and we see him in a potential space, speculating where to put the tables. The film doesn't tell us everything but it doesn't shun controversy either; and its appealing, one-in-a-million subject makes it definitely worth seeing.
-Steve Warren

GARRY WINOGRAND: ALL THINGS ARE PHOTOGRAPHABLE (NR)
**1/2
Some of my favorite documentaries have given me an interest in subjects I knew nothing about; others have given me new insight into someone or something I already cared about. The people who will appreciate this one have such a deep interest in photography that they're familiar with Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) and his work. While seeing it on the screen made me appreciate some of his "street photography," hearing details about his life and theories about his work did nothing to enhance my appreciation. Raised in the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants, Winogrand spent most of the 1950s taking pictures for magazines to illustrate their stories; but he wanted his pictures to tell their own stories, so he became an artist with a camera. He took over a million pictures in his lifetime. (It was before cell phones. Today people exceed that in a week.) Someone compares the odds of some being masterpieces to the thing about monkeys at typewriters. Winogrand left thousands of rolls of film unprocessed when he died. Having to go through all of them for a retrospective, his mentor and strongest advocate, MoMA's photography curator John Szarkowski declared he had lost his touch near the end of his life. Everything is overanalyzed in this film, with most of the talking heads being photographers and curators - and Winogrand himself, from a 1982 address he gave. I think it's safe to say if you're not interested in the man going in, you won't be on the way out.
-Steve Warren

THE GREAT BUDDHA+ (NR)
***
There's a scene in Taiwan's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar where the statue of the title (and don't ask me what the plus sign means) is shown to a small group as a work-in-progress. A woman criticizes some of the Buddha's facial features and is essentially dismissed because art needn't be bound by conventional standards. I can imagine director Huang Hsin-Yao taking the same stand to deflect criticism of his unconventional film. It reminds me of the early works of iconoclastic game-changers like Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Richard Linklater. The Taiwan where it takes place could be in an alternate universe; yet wealthy people there can literally get away with murder while the poor are lucky to eat three times a day, and that seems vaguely familiar. In this tragicomic story, Pickle works as a night watchman in the factory that produces the statue. With little to do he's often visited at work by his friend Belly Button, a scavenger. One night they discover they can watch clips from the dashcam of the boss' Mercedes. The visuals are ordinary streets where the car drives and dark alleys where it parks, but the soundtrack from the latter locations is audio porn, as boss Kevin liaises with his various mistresses. Most of The Great Buddha+ is in black-and-white, the way the poor see the world, but the dashcam footage is in the color only the rich can afford. This is a film for adventurous moviegoers. One could point out inconsistencies in the pacing and tone, but one would feel intimidated (to the extent of resorting to writing in the third person) by the fear of failing to recognize the Next Big Thing+
-Steve Warren

THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION (NR)
***
Although I admire the artistry involved, I've never been a big fan of silent comedies, probably because words are my business. But I certainly don't mind spending 102 minutes reviewing the highlights of Buster Keaton's career and learning more about the man known as "The Great Stone Face." As assembled by Peter Bogdanovich, it's more than a tribute to Keaton himself; with only a couple of clips showing their age, it's a tribute to the art of film preservation. Keaton was born in 1894 and made his performing debut before he was a year old, in his parents' vaudeville act. He soon became the star of the show, where he got tossed around so much his parents were accused of child abuse. This may have prepared him for the punishing physical stunts he would do in films. The word "masochist" is never mentioned but it's said that Buster took the blame for failures that were clearly the fault of others. It's also said that he broke his neck on one set but didn't know about it until years later. This film's first hour-plus summarizes Keaton's life and career, ending with a retrospective at the Venice Film Festival in 1965, the year before his death. The last half-hour examines the ten features he wrote, directed and starred in in the 1920s, the peak of his career, including local favorite The General, which wasn't appreciated in 1926 but was Keaton's favorite. Several funny people (Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, etc.) pay tribute to Keaton and I had a Duh! moment when Johnny Knoxville cited him as an inspiration for the filming of his own Jackass gags. The "Great" in the title is no exaggeration, and if you don't know why you should see this film to find out.
-Steve Warren

MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (NR)
**1/2
There's a really good story at the heart of this documentary, which should be remade as a docudrama, probably starring the subject herself. That way it wouldn't have to rely on 22 years of amateurish video for most of its visuals. And for a movie about a popstar, there's relatively little of the music her fans will come to hear – often just a few seconds of some of her biggest hits. Matangi Arulpragasam was born in Sri Lanka in 1976. Her father's activities with a revolutionary Tamil group endangered the family, so they left him behind in 1985 and emigrated to London, where the girl was known as Maya. She grew up with stories she wanted to tell and went to film school to become a documentarian. Instead, after befriending ‎Justine Frischmann of the rock group Elastica, she began writing songs. Her hip-hop influence didn't mesh with her friend's style so she recorded them herself, as M.I.A. (not to be confused with Mýa), and has been successful. She's also been controversial, trying to educate the world about alleged genocide in Sri Lanka, but being mocked by some of the media as "radical chic" for speaking from a position of privilege; and being sued by the NFL for giving the crowd the finger while performing with Madonna at the Super Bowl. After a disposable hour of setup this film becomes as good as the eventual dramatization of M.I.A.'s story should be. While filming everybody else in her younger days, Maya managed to get in front of the camera herself quite a bit; so while her film school buddy Steve Loveridge is credited as director, most of the material is her own, including an often vague narration that leaves too many questions unanswered.
-Steve Warren

MONSTER PARTY (NR)
***
Monster Party is the most fun I've had wallowing in cheap, bloody thrills in a long time - and that includes the new Halloween, because it's not so cheap. The trouble with being a Malibullionaire is that someone always wants a piece of what you've got. Sometimes you have to fight back, maybe even overreact. Iris (Virginia Gardner) and Dodge (Brandon Micheal Hall) are expecting a baby. Their techie friend Casper (Sam Strike), with whom they burgle houses, needs some quick money to save his father's life by paying off his gambling debt. These are the good guys. Iris has a cater-waiter gig at the home of the Dawsons (Julian McMahon, Robin Tunney, Erin Moriarty, Kian Lawley), so she brings the guys along to assist her and rob the place. The dinner party, for the third anniversary of something, involves a support group featuring older, wiser Milo (Lance Reddick) and his reluctant arm candy Becca (Sofia Castro), plus three young men who look like current or reformed thugs. Oh, and "Mickey's in the basement." The first murder occurs about halfway through the movie, and hardly anyone is left to cross the finish line. I'm not saying writer-director Chris von Hoffmann will ever win an Oscar - certainly not for this; but he delivers exactly what you want when you're in the mood for pure putrid sleaze, if you know what I mean. If you don't, Monster Party's not for you.
-Steve Warren

RAMPANT (NR)
**½
Watching a South Korean zombie movie I can't help wondering if I'm missing some political subtext. Rampant has no one called Little Rocket Zombie, but scenes where the undead, here called "demons," invade a walled city by climbing over rooftops could be metaphors for illegal immigration. The story is set in ancient times so it's a little hard to sort out the Korean locations and characters. It's during the Qing Dynasty but the people of Joseon Province are at odds with the administration. The Joseon King is afraid his two sons have turned against him, but his real enemy is his War Minister, Kim (Jang Dong-gun). One son dies but the other, a Qing prisoner for several years, is heading home. He's our hero, Prince Ganglim (Hyun Bin), a man who wouldn't be king. He's a studly swashbuckler with a funny sidekick (imagine if Lou Costello played Sancho Panza). En route they discover the village of Jemulpo is besieged by bloodsucking demons who turn the people they bite into demons too. Sound familiar? Like any Asian action hero Prince Ganglim is invincible, whether surrounded by a dozen swordsmen or a thousand demons. He survives his visit to Jemulpo (and even picks up a potential love interest) but finds the demons are headed to Joseon too. There are plenty of demon attacks and more major-ish characters are killed off in two hours than in a whole season of The Walking Dead. Speaking of which, with fans leaving that show in droves, one might hope Rampant could take its place in the zeitgeist. I don't think it's up to that task, even though the happy ending leaves things wide open for sequels.
-Steve Warren

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