May Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

RBG (PG)
***
Here's everything you wanted to know about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg but were afraid to ask. It's pretty much a by-the-numbers documentary, but filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West have found excellent elements to fit each piece of the template and the result leaves me with no objections. Affectionately known to students young enough to be her great-grandchildren as "The Notorious R.B.G.," the court's liberal voice of dissent is remembered for having argued for the feminist movement when she was just a lawyer, having fought gender bias to get that far. Most of her story is told flashing back from her 1993 confirmation hearing after Bill Clinton nominated her to the high court. She met her late husband Marty, who became a tax attorney, when they were students at Cornell; and theirs is a love story that could fill a movie by itself. Their daughter Jane is quoted as saying "her father did the cooking and her mother did the thinking." Marty also did the joking, as Ruth was - and still is, in her mid-eighties - a quiet, serious woman who loves opera (but we also see her laughing at Kate McKinnon's impression of her on SNL). She's fought cancer twice without missing a day on the bench and was best friends with the court's arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. As the court moved further to the right under G.W. Bush, Ginsberg moved further left and can be counted on for a dissenting opinion on verdicts she disagrees with. To show how the world has changed - with her help - in 1957 Ginsberg was one of nine women at Harvard Law in a class with over 500 men. Her granddaughter was in the first class there with gender parity.
- Steve Warren

ANYTHING (R)
**
Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch) has lived his 55 years in a small Mississippi town (filmed in Georgia), but you'd never know it from listening to him. Oh, Lynch drops about every tenth final "g" and applies a drawl to some word every few minutes; but we quickly figure that authenticity isn't going to be this film's long suit. Later we realize it doesn't have a long suit. Early is depressed after the death of his wife of 26 years and would need to be institutionalized if his controlling sister Laurette (Maura Tierney) didn't move him to L.A. to live with her family. He soon moves into his own apartment in a seedy part of Hollywood. He's still depressed - we get several false alarms (or are they?) about suicide attempt - but finds something to live for when he meets his neighbor, Freda (Matt Bomer), a transgender prostitute. Getting her off opioids becomes his project (though how does he keep her there against her will?), and somewhere along the way he falls in love with her. It's unclear whether he knows she's not a biological female, although the more worldly Laurette and her husband and son can tell right away. While Bomer gives a good performance (controversial because the role didn't go to a real transgender actress), his scenes with other working girls lack the naturalness of those in Tangerine. (See authenticity note above.) Occasional songs, including covers of a Bee Gees classic, are a charming if inexplicable throwback to the "flower power" era. You can see the potential for a Lifetime movie here, but writer-director Timothy McNeil hasn't pulled it off.
- Steve Warren

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (R)
**
It's fine when artistic technique helps to tell a story, but I draw the line when the art competes with the story being told - and wins. Contrary to many esteemed critics, I find that the case here. Lynne Ramsay, who made the wonderful We Need to Talk About Kevin, focuses on the character of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged veteran who earns a living by rescuing underage girls from sex traffickers. In the process he acts as judge, jury and executioner - and sometimes mortician and funeral director - for their captors. He's handy with guns and fists but a hammer and duct tape are his weapons of choice. Brief flashes of memories and fantasies - often indistinguishable from each other - are supposed to offer insight into Joe's past; but the way Ramsay splatters the screen with them they offer too many dots for the viewer to try to connect. It's as if Jackson Pollock tried to paint a portrait. There's minimal dialogue to explain what's going on. Agonizingly slow but creatively photographed scenes are occasionally relieved by (mostly offscreen) violence. Joe, who takes care of his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) and likes green jelly beans, rescues Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who proves to be a pawn in a plot that reaches high in New York politics but leaves more dots for us to connect. The title suggests we shouldn't believe anything we see is really happening, but if we believe the ending, the possibilities of what follows are horrifying.
- Steve Warren

BOOM FOR REAL: THE LATE TEENAGE YEARS OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT (NR)
***
In Julian Schnabel's 1996 film Basquiat, a fictitious artist (played by Gary Oldman) tells real artist Jean-Michel (Jeffrey Wright), "Your audience isn't even born yet." I'm not sure if that's changed, especially since much of the work of Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 27 - like a rockstar - was in the form of graffiti and other ephemera, including copy shop collages like a Stone Age Photoshop. But enough of his contemporaries - friends, collaborators and hangers-on - remember him that Sara Driver was able to assemble this documentary with photos, (mostly) home movies and talking heads. If you diagram the subtitle, the artist's name is the object of a preposition. The subject is "Years," which is accurate because the film is about a time and place; Basquiat is a supporting character. It begins in 1978 with President Ford refusing to bail out financially troubled New York City. Punk announces the death of disco and rap puts another nail in the coffin; then uptown and downtown get together and get high. The visual arts are the least interesting part of the scene and are treated accordingly. Since he's not here to speak for himself, Basquiat's role is somewhat diminished by fellow graffitist Lee Quiñones, probably deservedly since Basquiat sprayed words and crude images while Quiñones painted wild murals on walls and subway cars. The film ends when Basquiat sells his first painting, seven years before his death. Driver paints a wide-ranging picture of an era that, as they say, if you remember it you weren't there.
- Steve Warren

THE RIDER (NR)
***
Western movies can be about more than gunfights and Indian wars. I was predisposed to like The Rider because the horse is my favorite animal, and because even though I'm a city boy, the beautifully photographed South Dakota landscapes triggered nostalgia for places I've never been. China-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao has taken some wild chances here and they've paid off handsomely. Her nonprofessional cast plays some version of themselves (something that's difficult for many professional actors to do) in a story partly based on their own lives. Zhao estimates that "40 percent is fake," but all of the story rings true. Brady (Brady Jandreau) is a young horse trainer whose skull was broken when he was thrown from a horse in a rodeo. He has to take a supermarket job during the healing process because his father (Tim Jandreau) drinks and gambles their money away. Brady eventually starts training horses again but medical complications make his rodeo future questionable. His low-key acting makes you feel his sadness instead of seeing it, and I could name a lot of stars who could learn from watching him. He reminds me of the young Keanu Reeves, but with more talent. The rodeo and training scenes are carefully chosen to show as little abuse as possible. Except for one moment the cowboys suffer more than the horses, yet The Rider is unlikely to win PETA's seal of approval. Still, the love between Brady and the horses is palpable; and while I see so many films that most quickly fade from my memory, my affection for The Rider grows stronger as the days go by.
- Steve Warren

GHOST STORIES (NR)
**
When "Monster Mash" played behind the closing credits it occurred to me I may have been taking Ghost Stories too seriously. There hadn't been anything to laugh at, true, but there hadn't been much that scared me or made dramatic sense either. It's written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, based on their 2010 play, and stars Nyman as Prof. Phillip Goodman, who exposes phonies on TV's "Psychic Cheats." One day he's summoned by his role model, the missing and presumed dead Dr. Charles Cameron, who passes on three supernatural cases he's been unable to debunk. They involve Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), an alcoholic night watchman; Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a troubled young man; and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a wealthy financier. Each relates a dull story that takes place in a mostly dark location they wander through at length before something spooky happens to them. Each is alone at the time so their stories can never be proved or disproved; but each somehow makes an emotional connection to something in Goodman's past and makes him question his disbelief. "Why," Priddle asks with glaring obviousness, "is it always the last key that unlocks everything?" Ghost Stories didn't unlock anything for me except a desire for better horror movies.
- Steve Warren

GRACE JONES: BLOODLIGHT AND BAMI (NR)
**
I remember once waiting at Backstreet to see Grace Jones enter - two hours late - on a motorcycle to perform a couple of songs. But I'm not enough of a fan to appreciate Sophie Fiennes' sketchy film about her. Google "bloodlight" and "bami" before you see it, because the title is never explained. Nor is the time frame, which appears to be a decade or more ago; and while we see Jones record and visit family in Jamaica and perform in Paris, locations in five other countries - probably concert venues - are not identified. Last month I complained that a financial documentary threw too much information at us too fast to be absorbed. This one has the opposite problem, revealing too little while sometimes showing a landscape for a full minute or eavesdropping on long conversations of little interest. Even Jones' diva fits, though sometimes amusing, are allowed to go on too long. Watching her perform her greatest hits brings back warm (leatherette) memories, but hearing her mother sing in church recalls the hearing aid sequences in A Quiet Place. Today's concertgoers won't appreciate Jones' staging - minimalist, except for her bizarre wardrobe. The one time she's offered backup dancers she refuses, saying they make her look like the madam in a brothel. "Sometimes you have to be a high-flyin' bitch," Jones explains; but "I never strike without a warning." Hardcore fans will lap it up; as for others - you've been warned.
- Steve Warren

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