May Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

Reading about The Circle made me remember The Giver, which was very forgettable. Both have legendary starpower sucking millennials into the brave – but horrible – new world they've created. There the similarity ends. The Circle, which is infinitely better, isn't set so far in the future. It may even be current, or one public announcement from a tech company away. Emma Watson plays Mae, who is thrilled to get a job at The Circle, which is like Facebook on steroids. It's run by Tom Hanks, assisted by Patton Oswalt. A major figure, John Boyega, has withdrawn but still hangs around, and Mae happens to make his acquaintance. She's dealing with other things, like her parents (Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton) and an analog almost-boyfriend (Ellar Coltrane); but she gets caught up in the 24/7 world of The Circle, where being social is part of the job. Of course things get darker until someone has to decide how much privacy a person should sacrifice, even if all we have today is the illusion of privacy. Brilliantly written by director James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers from Eggers' novel, edited without a wasted moment and reportedly made for a frugal $18 million, The Circle will draw you in and should rate at least a smile, if not a thumbs-up. It made me so paranoid about social media I couldn't wait to tell my Facebook friends to see it.

Last month Michelle Rodriguez had three films open in the first two weekends. This month Richard Gere has two. First Gere is more of an ensemble piece that's actually dominated by Steve Coogan. As a Coogan fan I didn't know whether to be more shocked by his perfect American accent or his excellent performance in a rare serious role, but by the time the movie catches fire they're both the new normal. Though his end justifies his means, I hate the way director Oren Moverman, who adapted Herman Koch's novel, has structured The Dinner. I don't insist on linear storytelling, but Moverman jumps unnecessarily between the present, various past times and other distractions. We see teenagers partying and then, in bits and pieces, what happened to two of them afterward. They're the 16-year-old sons of brothers Paul (Steve Coogan) and Stan Lohman (Gere), the latter a congressman running for governor. Paul is a former high school teacher who lectures us, as he did his students, interminably about history, especially the Battle of Gettysburg. Stan and his wife Kate (Rebecca Hall) have invited Paul and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) to dinner at a restaurant that looks like Trump couldn't afford it. This allows for a lot of foodie scenes, even though we rarely see anyone eating and the serious conversation is saved for after the meal. This concerns what happened to those boys as their scene played out and what their parents are going to do about it. That the politician displays the highest principles of the four could get this drama classified as a fantasy, but their electric argument will continue among audience members long after they leave the theater. It did in my house.

How easily the fine line between drama and melodrama can be crossed by fine filmmaking is ably demonstrated in Graduation. Enough happens to keep a soap opera busy for a month, yet the actors never go over the top. Cristian Mungiu frames his shots tighter than most directors would for a sense of intimacy that brings you into the action, but without the extreme closeups that encourage overacting. I don't know how to say "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" in Romanian, but that's the way of life in the city of Cluj. It's natural, it's normal, it's illegal; but it works – to a point - for Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni, a younger Tom Wilkinson type) and his friends, who include police and educators. His daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is preparing for final exams that will determine whether she gets a scholarship to Cambridge. A good father, Romeo wants a better life for his daughter after his generation failed to solve the country's post-Communism problems. The aptly-named Romeo is having an affair with Sandra (Malina Manovici), who works at Eliza's school. There's not much love left between him and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). Meanwhile someone is breaking Romeo's windows, there are escaped convicts in the area, and then Eliza is assaulted in a failed rape attempt on the way to school. And that's just the beginning. It's a full plate and a tasty one.

This review could have gone either way, depending on my mood when I saw the movie. It has enough negative factors that I could imagine tearing it to shreds, if I didn't enjoy it so damn much. It would probably help to watch it in an altered state, and a trippy climactic sequence can put you in one if you're not there already. Basically this crudely animated feature, with drawings that make South Park look like Rembrandt against sometimes psychedelic acrylic backgrounds, is The Breakfast Club meets Titanic; but writer-director Dash Shaw throws all kinds of other things at the screen to see what will stick. Voiced by Jason Schwarzman, Dash is also the main character, an unlikable sophomore at Tides High (I waited in vain for the Blondie song). He writes for the school paper with his only friend, Assaf (Reggie Watts), but their editor (Maya Rudolph) comes between them. Just as Dash learns the school is in danger from being built on a fault line, an earthquake strikes and the disaster movie begins. Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) becomes an action hero and at times seems to be leaning toward an intergenerational relationship with Dash; but he's also getting signals from popular Mary (Lena Dunham). While we're rooting for a handful to survive, a thousand or so are dying around them, pointing up the absurdity of the genre. The animation style has the people and some inanimate objects constantly twitching annoyingly, further raising the odds that you'll hate the movie; but if you think you might like it, it's worth the risk. As Assaf says, "I like the idea. It has the logic of a dream."

The drugs must have finally worn off, because fans of jazz greats of the '50s and '60s are cranking out films about their idols at a record (pun intended) pace. In just over a year we've seen documentary or narrative biographies about Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and now John Coltrane. John Scheinfeld's Chasing Trane is one of the better ones, tracing John Coltrane's life story while his music plays almost constantly in the background. Jazzy graphics enhance the usual photos, film clips and comments from talking heads (including talking head of state and rival saxophonist Bill Clinton). It begins in the pivotal year of 1957, about midway through Trane's two-decade career. He was coming into his own in the Miles Davis Quintet before Miles fired him – twice – for using drugs, as Dizzy Gillespie had six years earlier. Rather than follow Charlie Parker to the grave, Trane quit cold turkey and stayed clean, developing into a creative force as a musician and composer, peaking with A Love Supreme in 1965 before going too far out even for many fans. Denzel Washington fills some gaps in the narrative with a bland reading of quotes from Trane's interviews and liner notes. If you don't know what to think of the music, a number of people tell you tersely but eloquently what they think, and you'll hear enough to know if you want to hear more. Either way, it's quite a story.

The Richard Gere Film Festival continues with the tale of Norman Oppenheimer (Gere), who may be the real Spider-Man, considering the tangled web he weaves. He knows everyone can be useful to someone, and he knows everyone will need something someday; so he makes it his business to know everyone, their assets and needs, and bring them together to help each other – and himself. A professional schmoozer, he pays favors forward, backward and sideways. Example: Norman's nephew (Michael Sheen), a good Jewish boy, needs a venue for an unorthodox wedding to his Korean fiancée. A rabbi (Steve Buscemi) needs $14 million to save his synagogue. What does Norman have that's worth $14 million to someone who has it? But that comes later. First Norman makes an investment that will pay off, befriending Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), who will later become prime minister of Israel. This will prove problematic for Eshel, minor as Norman's favors are compared to Russia's real-life connections with the current American government: Israel is a smaller country. The film is difficult to get into. The first three scenes are so wordy you'll go crazy if you try to absorb all the details, but they're just there to give you an idea of Norman's modus operandi. The next half-hour feels like a lot of same-old same-old, as Norman continues operating. Then Joseph Cedar gets more creative, both in his writing and directing; and despite the spoiler subtitle, there are plenty of surprises in the remaining 90 minutes.

Even when he's telling someone else's story, there are autobiographical elements in Terence Davies' films. Here he finds points in common with Emily Dickinson, even though they were born over a century apart, he in England and she in New England. From feeling persecuted in religious schools to living a relatively celibate life to having their art underappreciated in their lifetime, they're practically the same person; hence his 2D (Davies and Dickinson) narrative about her life. Julie Harris made the poet somewhat interesting in William Luce's The Belle of Amherst. Cynthia Nixon's performance may be of nearly the same caliber, but she doesn't have such engaging material to work with. Admittedly I'm not a Dickinson fan. My favorite poets of my formative years were Edgar Allen Poe for his storytelling and Ogden Nash for his humor, so I'm not the target audience for this film. It follows Emily from her teens (played by Emma Bell) in the 1840s through her death in 1886. Apparently she had few friends and never left her family's Massachusetts house after dropping out of school. A newspaper published a few of her poems. In a bizarre scene the publisher comes to visit Emily. They spar verbally and he leaves without ever saying why he came. We hear several poems on the soundtrack but almost never see her writing the nearly 1,800 that were discovered and published after her death. Davies depicts the period with his usual meticulousness and the actors do a decent job of reading lines that sound like they were etched in stone; the smallest talk is absurdly profound. You may get into it but I was thoroughly bored.

** ½
It seems like the first phase of urban renewal is building ivory towers for the theorists to work in. I thought this documentary by Matt Tyrnauer, about the history of grassroots activism against aspects of urban development, would give me some ammo to use in the ongoing struggle today. Instead, even though we're on the same side, it left me less convinced of the evil of development because it doesn't explain the alternative well enough to make it sound feasible. It begins by citing the exponential population growth in the world's cities but doesn't present a rational idea for housing the people without destroying existing neighborhoods and greenspaces and building ugly towers in their place. The fight, in the mid-20th century, was between New York city planner Robert Moses, who wanted to raze the old tenements and replace them with high-rise housing projects; and Jane Jacobs, a journalist who liked to write about neighborhoods. She became a hardcore activist when Moses went after her territory, first trying to extend Fifth Avenue through the middle of Washington Square Park, then to tear down the West Village, where Jacobs lived. He had the politicians on his side, as developers will; nevertheless, she persisted, and won those battles. Still projects went up in Harlem (and other cities, many of which demolished them decades later) and an expressway cut up the Bronx. In some ancient footage of the "public realm" Jacobs advocated, the sidewalks look horribly crowded, and that's when the population was much smaller. At least Citizen Jane gets you thinking about the problem, and maybe someone will come up with a solution.

** ½
Have you ever seen a rom-com in which the lovers-to-be never so much as kiss? True to its title, This Is Not What I Expected leaves you wondering how China got such a large population. It's also a foodie movie, in which the cuisine brings people together, making them more like stomachmates than soulmates. Billionaire Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose company buys hotels, is such an egotistical a-hole he could be China's first president. (There's an idea for a sequel!) He meets Gu Shengnam (Zhou Dongyu) as she's vandalizing his car. She's getting revenge on her bestie's behalf, but she has the wrong vehicle. It turns out Gu is a chef at the hotel Lu is exploring with intent to buy. He rejects all the food room service brings him until Gu prepares a Spaghetti alla Strega that bewitches him. It takes some time before each realizes who the other is, but he only eats food she prepares; and when she takes a day off he practically moves into her apartment so she can cook for him. He rarely smiles, she often giggles; but opposites attract when a woman finds the way to a man's heart...and all those rom-com clichés. They're all here – the jealousy, the near-parting and the Grand Romantic Gesture to bring them together. There's also a final line, well into the credits, that might have been written by one of Trump's science advisors, because it implies the sun rises and sets in the same place. Derek Hui's film is amiable but oh, so silly.

"Sweet" is not a word usually applied to boxing movies, but this is at least as much a love story as a boxing movie. Yes, there's a Big Bout near the end, but it's not such a big deal, even if the whole story has been leading up to it. It's the true story of the day in 1962 the World Featherweight title was decided in Helsinki. Competing with American champion Davey Moore is far less experienced Finnish boxer/baker Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti). His manager/trainer Elis (Eero Milonoff) books him as a featherweight, even though Olli is still too heavy two weeks before the fight, when he arrives in Helsinki for his final intense training combined with a publicity circus. Elis doesn't like that Olli brings along his girlfriend Raija (Oona Airola) because she might be a distraction. It turns out to be more distracting when she takes Elis' hint and goes home, because Olli has just realized he loves her. Before you can say "Yo, Adrian!" the fight has been downgraded to the second most important thing in Olli's life. If you want a really happy ending, watch the credits to see who cameos in the final scene. I've missed seeing Finland on screen since the days when the Kaurismäkis had films released regularly in the U.S. This isn't as quirky as their work but it's just off-center enough to be interesting, besides being in black and white, which wouldn't have been unusual in 1962. It's certainly a promising debut for director/co-writer Juho Kuosmanen, who is ready to battle an American for the title.

** ½
If Jeremiah Tower made food the way Lydia Tenaglia makes movies, he would never have become one of America's first superstar chefs. There's plenty of interest here but the vague, erratic timeline makes you dig for it. There are dozens of quick cuts of food preparation but no dish followed from start to finish. Likewise there are short cuts of Tower wandering around Mexico, climbing pyramids and walking the streets of Mérida, sometimes while people are speculating that he might have gone to Mexico after vanishing from San Francisco in the '90s. After setting up the mystery we spend considerable time reliving Jeremiah's childhood in home movies and recreations (three actors play him at different ages). His parents took him traveling first class all over the world, but neglected him, leaving him to be molested at an early age by a fisherman and a ship's steward. Studying architecture at Harvard didn't go well so Tower took up his real love, cooking, in 1972 as chef at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He put the hippie hangout on the map, experimenting with French cuisine and then developing California cuisine using local ingredients. He fell out with Waters after she took credit for his recipes in her cookbook. A few years later he became a restaurateur with Stars in San Francisco. This was a great success for a few years, then it closed for reasons the film bounces back and forth explaining. After almost two decades Tower makes a comeback with a brief stint at New York's Tavern on the Green in 2014. From the evidence here, his cooking is far better than his personality.

It sounds like something that would be written on a dare: a comedy about a couple whose child just died.  The debut feature by American-born and -trained, Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky begins at the end of a weeklong period of shiva (mourning).  Ronnie, the 25-year-old son of Eyal (Shai Avivi) and Vicky Spivak (Evgenia Dodina), died in hospice after an unspecified illness.  As they resume their lives, Vicky is quiet and morose but reports for her teaching job, only to find a substitute in her place.  Eyal, aggressive and argumentative, visits the hospice, supposedly looking for a blanket that was left behind; but he leaves with a bag of Ronnie’s medical marijuana.  Never having tried, he’s unable to roll a joint.  He seeks help from Zooler (Tomer Kapon, who steals the movie), the son of their estranged neighbors, who is three years Ronnie’s senior.  The day goes on, with Vicky trying to get back to normal and Eyal trying to escape reality.  You might hang with Zooler in real life but you’d want to avoid most of the other characters, even if their disagreeable ways are amusing to watch on screen.  While most of the film is surprisingly light, though rarely laugh-out-loud funny, Polonsky gets serious in a bizarre climax that brings Eyal back down to earth by attending another funeral where someone else’s shiva begins.  You might call it the Circle of Death.  I’m not sure the film, in Hebrew with subtitles, would be therapeutic for someone dealing with a recent loss, but it’s entertaining for anyone else.



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