The Wife

[5 stars]

It is rare to find a near-perfect movie, from the acting to the writing to the directing. The Wife is in that category and you need to see it.

First and foremost, it is brilliantly acted by Glenn Close (Crooked House). Close dominates this film but for a single scene where, by design, Elizabeth McGovern (The Commuter) takes over. Jonathan Pryce (Breaking Glass, Game of Thrones) manages the tricky job of being at the center of the on-screen action, but ceding the focus to Closes’s title character. All around the couple are a host of well cast supporting players. Even the petulant portrayal of the son by Max Irons (Terminal) slots in wonderfully.

And while the performance alone are worth taking the time to see The Wife, that is only part of its worth and power.

Björn  Runge directed this drama wonderfully. He reminds us of what an art form the media really is. For, while Jane Anderson’s (Olive Kitteridge) script is very natural, believable, and subtle, it is Björn Runge’s direction  and choices that make it work. While the dialogue unrolls on screen, it is the small looks, the action in the background, and the slowly building tension that drive the tale, rarely the words themselves. This is a movie of almost pure subtext, delivered through visual cues and great acting. I do, however, give Anderson credit for her adaptation of a book that must have been loaded with internal dialogue and making that work on screen.

And then there is the ephemeral aspect of timing of this move that helps set it apart. Not to confuse things, this film would have been good at any time it was released. However, the themes are also pitch-perfect for the current times in ways that would have been hard to predict and which resonate in wonderful and uncomfortable ways.

Make time for The Wife so you know why you’re going to hear so much about it during awards season. Close is brilliant, a study in subtlety and determination. The movie gripping and inexorable. The results powerful. It approaches cinematic perfection in terms of craft and will leave you breathless through its inexorable and accelerating pace that picks you up and carries you along to the final punch. Now, forget all the hyperbole and just go let it do its thing on screen for you while it is out there to see.

Christopher Robin

[3 stars]

I happen to be a serious Pooh fan. One of my most treasured items from childhood was my father’s copy of Winnie the Pooh, which became mine, which I handed down to my niece. There is something magical about the easiness with which Pooh and his friends approach and survive the world and its day to day joys and disappointments. They are are a blueprint for getting through modern life.

Marc Foster (World War Z) wasn’t an obvious choice as director, though he certainly tackles more emotional material as well. While he found the characters and a sort of balance for his movie between adult and child, it never quite got to magical for me. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t eventually get to a sweet point; but, like a local train can, it sure took its time.

Ewan McGregor (Our Kind of Traitor) hits just the right tone of father, worker, and lost soul to neither scare children nor come across as too unbelievable for adults. And, as his wife, Haley Atwell manages something similar, though she has to stay a bit more bound to the real world by design. The only other major role was Mark Gatiss ( Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time),  who seemed to be in a different movie; something a bit more wacky than realistic. He isn’t bad, he just doesn’t fit.

Part of the challenge with the movie is the story itself, which has to set up a lot of information before it even gets going. Along with that they changed quite a bit of Milne’s history too–you cannot separate Milne’s family from Pooh easily, especially with other flicks out there like Goodbye Christopher Robin released so recently. Admittedly, this was not supposed to be about Milne, but I had a hard time separating the the intention and reality in this case.

The result is ultimately a nice, family-style adventure. Not a brilliant classic, but certainly a nice pass-time film. You can also see Disney rev’ing up to redo Mary Poppins, having stolen a good part of the main spine of that story and overlaying it here.

Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears

[2.5 stars]

Let’s talk horror.

What makes a movie scary? Disturbing sound effects? Gore? Twisted sets? Violence? Creepy music? Dark scenes? Surprises? Sure, all of that can add to the atmosphere, but if you don’t have characters and a story to tell you might as well just make paintings with some ambient sound to accompany it. You also need to be able to identify and engage with the characters. Part of what has brought horror into the mainstream with massive blockbusters like Get Out and It is the characters we could connect with, not just the situations and the events. Even those that rely more on humor, like Cockney’s vs. Zombies and Happy Death Day, or even those that rely simply on cleverness like the Saw or Final Destination series, provide both shock and character with the laughs…but they would fail without the characters.

OK, with all that in mind let’s dive into the last two parts of The Three Mothers trilogy by horror icon Dario Artento (Suspiria).

Inferno

A lot happens in this midsection to the trilogy, but it doesn’t have any real impact. There are no characters to latch onto, no real story to tell, just exposition that explains a bit of Suspiria and what potentially may come. There are some interesting visual moments but the script is painful at times; so is the acting. It is also very much a film of its time, 1980, in look and feel.

What Inferno does do is set up an interesting framework for the bigger story of the Three Mothers…and it would take Argento another 27 years to attempt it in The Mother of Tears, but I’ll get to that shortly.

I can tell you that, as a curio, sure you can give Inferno time. Just don’t expect a good movie. Go for the splatter and the explanation. Honestly, some of that information may be in the original Suspiria, but I saw it so many years ago, I can’t recall. I can say that the remake of Suspiria certainly included some of the background supplied in Inferno.

Mother of Tears

This is probably the most polished of the trilogy. That isn’t a complete surprise as it was made in 2007, 27 years after Inferno; you’d hope that Argento had improved his abilities in that amount of time. Mother of Tears does complete the trilogy in much the way you’d expect given the previous two installments. Building on the information in Inferno, but tying it back to Suspiria, we get a suitable climax to it all. 

But no, it isn’t a wonderful film. There are moments and there are surprises (sound familiar?). There is also gratuitous violence at times, as well as story-serving violence at others. The gore gets extreme and characters, such as they exist, are sometimes just, well, stupid. In fact, the entire impetus that frees the Mother of Tears is based on actions that just wouldn’t occur. Sadly, it could have been easily worked around, but Argento simply took the easy way and decided that truth should be as damned as the world he creates.

At least some of the acting was slightly more believable than the other two films. Asia Argento isn’t brilliant in the lead, but Valéria CavalliCristian Solimeno and Adam James added some credibility to the cast (given the direction they were given). And a small role by Udo Kier (American Animals) was a gift to his fans.

Overall, am I glad I completed this sequence? Yes, but more from a filmography point of view rather than feeling entertained. My time could have been spent on better choices. I am not a huge splatter fan, but when it is done well and to a purpose, be it humor or commentary, I can get on board. Argento seems to use violence for no purpose other than to purge his own demons or simply to shock. He has his followers, and if you are one then you certainly should fill in any gaps you have in his opus. For general or casual audiences of horror, or those who prefer the more mature approach, steer clear. There is little meat on the bones and too few moments of entertainment to make it worth your effort.

Love, Gilda

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help thinking, through a good part of this biography, that Love, Gilda is exactly the kind of story Radner would have hated being told about herself. Ultimately, I changed my mind on that point, but she is very clear about how she wants to interact with the public for much of her career, and this kind of tell-all (or a lot) definitely was not her style. At least not when she started.

Much as you’d expect from the title, Lisa Dapolito has created a love letter to Radner from Radner’s own audio tapes, interviews, home movies, and notebooks. With some additional commentary by friends and family, we get a sense of what drove Radner and what, at times, broke her. And, most importantly, also what brought her great joy. It is, by the nature of its telling, also a love letter from Radner to her audience, but that aspect isn’t as clear at first.

Radner was a force in comedy and part of the modern female comedienne movement, even if unwittingly. She was magnetic and intense and, along with the original Saturday Night Live cast, part of an evolution in comedy and comedy history that has defined the industry for over 40 years.  Her life was complex and challenging and a story in its own right. If you’ve read her autobiography you may know a lot of the tale already, but this is now in her own voice and with archival footage to illustrate and explain.

However, while Dapolito did an impressive job of interweaving the various collections of media and molding their presentation into an interesting documentary, it isn’t a very emotionally compelling one. The result feels almost clinical at times, even if intriguing. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for that, honestly. Perhaps it was the pacing or the reliance on frequently having the audience read Radner’s own writing that causes the movie to become more like research than a journey. But the result is that it is empty of some of the emotional impact I would have expected. It is still worth checking out, especially if you like Radner’s work or knew only a little about her.  She was an important figure that influenced many of the big female comedy stars today…some of which are in the documentary to declare just that.

So, give Gilda another 90 minutes of your time for a visit, or just come to get to know her a little better. However, to truly get the message that Radner and Dapolito want to tell you, stay through the credits for the final tag. It’s worth the moment.

Hotel Artemis

[3 stars]

This had so much more potential than it achieved. The idea, an odd mash-up of The Purge and John Wick: Chapter 2, is loaded with talent, just not with a script or director.

The emotional core of the story, such as it is, rests with Jodie Foster (The Beaver). Her characterization and efforts are filled with promise, but don’t fully pay off even if they drive the tale. The fault here is the script, not Foster, who brings a lot of subtlety and physicalization to her Nurse.

Foster is assisted by an oddly devoted Dave Bautista (Escape Plan 2: Hades). There isn’t anything new on screen here from him, but he serves his purpose. Likewise for Jenny Slate (Venom), who swings into the story late, but with nice complications.

Staying in the hotel are an unsurprisingly motley crew. Sterling K. Brown (Predator) leads that list, continuing his breaking out onto the big screen by leveraging what he does best. Brown’s intensity combined with his ability to remain vulnerable always makes him interesting to watch and relate to. He helps anchor Foster’s storyline with his own. Brown is joined by a lithe, bitingly cold, but not particularly surprising, Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond), and an absurd Charlie Day (Pacific Rim: Uprising). Each has aspects to add to the overall plot, but neither feels entirely grounded or real (by choice or presentation).

And then there were the smaller, but linchpin roles by Jeff Goldblum (Le Week-End), Zachary Quinto (Hitman: Agent 47), and Brian Tyree Henry (Widows). Each one is a domino to fall in the interlaced tales that drive the Artemis. None is particularly believable, though Henry doesn’t really misstep so much as not have as much to work from in the script as the other two. They all try to wring what they can from their characters and situations despite the shortcomings.

Like I said, loaded with talent. So what went wrong? Director and writer Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3) never quite gets the pacing right, nor was he able to balance the emotions in a way that sells the situation and the characters. From the outset, the movie is off on the wrong foot with stupid choices made by supposedly practiced criminals. Setting it against a city-wide uprising was an interesting choice, but that reality was a story convenience that never did more than force the plot rather than enrich the tale or issues. When you start with something as obvious as naming the hotel for the goddess of the hunt (and, to a degree, chastity), you sort of know where you’re headed and where you’re not.

I’m not saying this is entirely a waste of time. Some of the performances, Foster for instance, are interesting to watch. There are some good fight scenes. The cinematography and production design are engaging. It just isn’t what it could be and it isn’t particularly good. Depending on your mood and what you’re looking for, it may work better for you than it did for me.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

[3.5 stars]

Before you dive into this semi-salacious documentary, be aware that if you want to protect the fantasy version of Hollywood sold by the magazines and interviews, don’t watch this film.

That said, this many years on you’ve probably hear the rumors and the whispers about the stars from the early and middle years of Hollywood. At the center of the truth for a lot them was Scotty Bowers. As a companion to his memoir, Full Service, this documentary looks at the man behind the stories in a frank and, at times, explicit way.

Scotty Bowers appears to have no boundaries and fewer regrets. The stories he relates are both fascinating and sad, both for him and for the people involved. It is a reminder of what happens in the world when people aren’t allowed to be themselves. It is also a reminder that the picture of the world a lot of people hold up as the ideal, that mythical perfect America of the 40s and 50s, is built of utter falsehoods and hypocrites.

This isn’t a typical docu. There isn’t a real thread holding it all together, except a tenuous one around Bowers’ life and motivations. It is more exposè than narrative. But it is an interesting story that peels back layer upon layer, often in uncompromising ways. Identifying how you feel about both Bowers’ life and the fact that he is revealing all, outing the dead, and at least one of the living (watch for that), is far from simple moral math.

Director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emporer) has captured glaringly honest, often shocking conversations with Bowers that, over the course of 90 minutes, provide answers, hope…or just simply some interesting yellow press, depending on who you are, what you know, and how you think. If you’re easily offended or don’t really want to know what your icons were up to, walk away and embrace the fantasy. If you’re at all curious about at least one aspect of the truth and why silence is never the answer, give it a spin. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is a fascinating one.

Mandy

[1.5 stars]

Often when I use the tag and term “unique” I mean it as a compliment. This is not one of those times. This is a misguided, lost, often laughable attempt at horror surrealism, with a nod to gaming, anime, and heavy metal cultures. In fact, it does come across as an uncomfortable mashup of Hellraiser, Heavy Metal, and Reefer Madness. It is not a pretty result.

While Nicolas Cage (Snowden) is a love him or hate him kind of actor, he certainly put his all into an impossible role. So did the rest of the cast. Andrea Riseborough (Disconnect) and Linus Roache (Non-Stop) are of the better heeled talents in this outing that try to do what they can with their scripts.

Director and co-writer Panos Cosmato had a vision. He probably got it on shrooms, or some similar hallucinogen. And that’s fine and has worked for plenty of artists in various media. However, if the result isn’t something that a greater audience can follow or connect to, they have failed. Admittedly, this film has a following, it is what got me to watch it and stick with it to the end…I had to see why it had such strong supporters. I still don’t know. It is, quite frankly, juvenile, predictable, absurd, and full of issues in plot and logic. Even the surreal has rules and awareness; this did not.

Honestly, if you are looking for a head-trip horror, see Suspiria (either version) or Hereditary. Or, if you’re looking for a movie about cults or charismatics, try MarthaMarcyMayMarlene. Otherwise, skip this ham-handed effort.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

[4 stars]

This is one of those rare occasions when the sequel is better than the original. Wreck-It Ralph was amusing, but was mostly a nostalgia run with some laughs. This follow-up, by returning directors and co-writers Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, actually has some meat on its bones, even if they gave away some of it in the trailers. Most importantly, the Zootopia duo remembered they had adults in the audience this time around, which really helped.

John C. Reilly (The Little Hours) and Sarah Silverman (The Book of Henry) re-deliver nicely on their characters. Helping them are a host of guest voices, including Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Taraji P. Henson (Proud Mary) in pivotal roles, not to mention just about every princess voice known to Disney. There are no brilliant stand-outs, but everyone hits their marks nicely to support the story.

This is clearly a juggernaut so there is no point in trying to sell you on it. Every kid is going to want to see this movie over the holiday. I can just promise you that adults, particularly those that game or know Disney flicks, won’t be bored. There are also two tags during the credits…in fact one of the funniest moments of the movie is the first extra scene, so stick around if you go.

Creed II

[3.5 stars]

Creed II picks up nicely from the first film. But, like the first, it is impossible to leave the Rocky legacy behind. In fact, the Creed series seems to be repackaging the “best of” Rocky moments to create something both satisfying and new. And, you know what? That’s OK. It works. The rise and fall and risks of a boxer with heart is just as engrossing now as it was 40+ years ago. That we have an actual storyline that reaches back that far just enriches it.

Steven Caple Jr., with few big credits behind him, managed to take this complicated reflection across the finish line without it feeling like a cheap copy or tripping over its baggage.

Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) and Tessa Thompson (Sorry to Bother You) make a great couple and have a real sense of growth from the first film. And, of course, seeing Sylvester Stallone (Escape Plan 2: Hades) and Dolph Lundgren (The Expendables 3) reprise their Rocky IV roles was a kick, even if aspects were a little cliche.

The truth is that this is an engaging film with triumphs and tragedy paced perfectly to pull you along. Like Creed, the film surprises in quality and doesn’t stumble up the sequel step, despite clearly being both a sequel and remake at the same time. And credit to Stallone and co-writer Juel Taylor for looking back at the Rocky films and pulling that off so well.

There is room for the Creed story to continue, and given its success it probably will, but it would be fine to just let it end before it stumbles. In fact, I’d love to just have Creed retire and allow these movies to stand as a testament to what Stallone and his cast could create. But I’m sure greed will trump Creed eventually…it is the standard story in Hollywood and, just as often, aging boxers.

Green Book

[5 stars]

I know it is tempting to just head to the big tentpole movies this time of year. We all need and want distraction, not to mention transportation to something that is just fun. But you need to make time for this small but wonderful gem of a flick.

You may be worried that this is just another biopic about race relations, and it is to a degree. Or that is is manipulative or preachy; it isn’t, though it certainly exposes uncomfortable truths. But what this film is really about is the friendship of two men who know little about each other, but assume a great deal. It is full of humor as well as pathos.

In fact, if you had told me that Peter Farrelly, the director of Three Stooges and Dumb and Dumber To could be responsible for such an affecting and effective piece of humor and history, I’d have guffawed. And not in an ironic way. But Farraelly did a brilliant job directing the subject, writing the script (along with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie), and in casting the actors.

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)  and Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)  both turn in brilliant and effortless performances. Along with Linda Cardellini (A Simple Favor), Iqbal Theba, and a host of smaller performances, the era, cultures, and story come into sharp relief. And, yes, it is predictable at times, but in a satisfying way; more like delayed gratification than cliché.

Green Book has already started to accrue awards, and I can guarantee you’ll be hearing about it come Oscar time. It is beautifully crafted, balanced, and just honest enough to make its points. More importantly, it stays focused on the relationships rather than the politics (though those come through clearly too).

This is a must see film for its entertainment…the reminder of how little time has passed, and how much still needs to change is just a bonus.

Addendum:  Watching Ali play piano (or fake-play it, as the case is) is a wonder. You honestly can’t tell he isn’t playing. Not just because he spent hours learning the movements with the composer so he could get it right, but because he also nailed the posture and movements both on and off the bench. Unlike Moore’s Bel Canto, Ali’s performance is utterly complete in this respect. That he didn’t pull a La La Land like Gosling doesn’t detract from the performance because it is seamless in every respect.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…