February Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

HAPPY END (R)
**1/2
If you don't like "art" films you'll really hate this one; and while I'm generally a fan of writer-director Michael Haneke (Cache, Amour, Funny Games), I've got to side with the haters. The Laurent family made their fortune in construction but construction is the problem with this script. Haneke throws scenes at you, some apparently randomly, and lets you assemble them in your own mind in some hopefully coherent fashion. Isabelle Huppert gets top billing in the ensemble but doesn't do much heavy lifting. She's one of the few family members who doesn't attempt suicide or assist in someone else's - with or without being asked - but she rarely smiles. She's taken over the business from her dementia-addled father (Jean-Louis Trintignant) but can't trust her grown son to take it over from her. Her brother the surgeon (Mathieu Kassovitz), who's cheating on his second wife, assumes custody of his adolescent daughter (Fantine Harduin the film's real star) when his first wife dies. There's an industrial accident and a lot of irrational behavior to move - things along, plus scenes shot from so far away you may miss - or be unable to guess - what's happening. Some are held for so long you not only can't tell how they connect to the rest of the story, but you forget the rest of the story by the time they're over. That's Art, dammit. You figure it out!
- Steve Warren

THE INSULT (R)
***
You don't have to be Lebanese or Palestinian, Christian or Muslim, Republican or Democrat, or Hatfield or McCoy to understand and perhaps relate to the stubbornness and the hatred behind it that escalate a fairly simple disagreement into an uncivil war in Lebanon's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a Palestinian refugee working for a construction company in Beirut. When the gutter outside Tony's (Adel Karam) apartment drips on him in the street, Yasser tries to repair it as part of his job. Tony, a Lebanese Christian who watches anti-Palestinian TV all day, refuses the repairs and destroys them. Name-calling leads to hate speech, which leads to physical violence, despite the efforts of Yasser's boss and their wives to broker peace between the men. Tony only wants an apology, which Yasser is too proud to give him; but once lawyers get involved the stakes are raised significantly. Much of the film takes place in courtrooms, but it's far more than a legal drama. At one point there's an almost thrown-away indication that the squabblers share a distrust of Chinese-made products, a point of agreement that could be built upon but isn't. It's a subtle hint that many problems can be resolved or avoided if we focus on our commonalities rather than our differences. Director and co-writer Ziad Doueiri isn't so simplistic but suggests we can get beyond irrational hatred, even if there's a rational reason for it. His film is at once timely and timeless, and hardly ever predictable, even when it's being obvious. See it before you get into your next argument.
- Steve Warren

MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE (PG-13)
**1/2
The Maze Runner films haven't reached the trending status of YA (Young Adult) blockbusters like Twilight and The Hunger Games, but the first two were slickly made dystopian action dramas. The third offers more of the same – perhaps too much more, at 140 minutes. It opens with an illogical but exciting action sequence that's given no context (unless you know the characters and their situation) until afterward, when Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) reminds a hundred or so young people who have just been rescued that they were being sacrificed as guinea pigs because they're "immune to a plague that could wipe out the human race." Their captors were WCKD (World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department), run by Janson (Aiden Gillen) and Ava (Patricia Clarkson). Everyone wants to save humanity but WCKD, like Big Pharma, has selfish motives and evil methods. Our hero, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) leads a mission to rescue his friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from WCKD headquarters, inside a newly-walled city. Gally (Will Poulter) rejoins them after being left for dead at the end of the first film. Mainly it's two-plus hours of chases, fights and shootouts. There's a hint of a romantic triangle with Thomas, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar), but more emphasis on the bromances between the male buddies. It's all pretty generic, like a grand-scale TV event - fun enough while you're watching it but quickly forgotten.
- Steve Warren

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: ANIMATED (NR)
***
It hardly seems fair for students from the University of Lyon to have to compete with Pixar and the BBC. In a just world the pros wouldn’t stand a chance! The student film, Garden Party goes beyond photorealism in its depiction of frogs frolicking in a deserted mansion. There’s not much plot - though more than it seems initially - but the visuals are amazing! The Pixartists weigh in with LOU, which showed in theaters with Cars 3. It’s a typical, well-crafted crowd-pleaser about a bully who’s taught a lesson by animated inanimate objects. The BBC entry, Revolting Rhymes, is more than three times as long as any of the others. Based on a book by Roald Dahl, it’s a witty mashup of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and The Three Little Pigs. Take notes during the first minute of Negative Space, a good lesson in packing a suitcase. The rest is a man’s tribute to his late father. Clever but hardly award-worthy. The weakest entry, Kobe Bryant’s Dear Basketball is an ode to the game by one of its greatest players, which should inspire some young viewers. But this being 2018, it has also been trashed as an attempt to sanitize the legacy of a man who was accused of rape in 2004. Three un-nominated (and unpreviewed) toons are added to stretch the program to feature length. There’s no rating but the nominees should get a mild PG-13, even though most will appeal to adults more than kids.
- Steve Warren


OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: LIVE ACTION
(NR)
*** 1/2
This may be the best quintuple feature you’ll ever see, and the “features” run 20 minutes or less. Three are based on true stories, including DeKalb Elementary, about an armed man invading the Decatur school and the Nobel Prizeworthy secretary who talks him down. It’s more like good TV (it would fit right into an episode of 9-1-1) than a film, but skillful for any medium. My Nephew Emmett looks at the 1955 Till lynching from the perspective of the Mississippi uncle the Chicago teen was visiting. My favorite is Watu Wote: All of Us, made by the Hamburg Media School. It’s a hopeful look at the Christian-Muslim conflict in Africa that clearly differentiates between terrorists and everyday followers of Islam. The Silent Child has so many elements it must have been intended as a feature but has been brilliantly condensed. Waving a flag for sign language in public schools, it shows a mother too busy to tend to her pre-school daughter’s special needs, and a tutor (writer Rachel Shenton) who tries to help. Amid all this seriousness you’ll welcome the comic relief of The Eleven O’Clock, a hilarious duel between a psychiatrist and a delusional patient who thinks he’s a psychiatrist. For my money they can split this Oscar five ways! The program’s not rated but would merit an R for language and violence.
- Steve Warren

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