Tag Archives: Actor

Luce

[4 stars]

Powerful and tense, this is a challenging film in most of the right ways. It has a good story and some very intelligent plotting to force internal conflicts for the viewer as the plot unfolds. Adapted by Julius Onah and J.C. Lee from Lee’s play, it is also a solid conversion from stage to screen. There is nary a hint of its physical roots other than, perhaps, the level of the language utilized. Onah’s direction is also subtle, keeping the charged situations contained to pressurize them until they are at full steam…and even then it’s a controlled release.

At the center of the film is the young Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves), who navigates the ridiculously layered title character. Octavia Spencer (Instant Family) as his teacher brings it as well; her character is well meaning, misguided, and completely out of her depth. Both are unexpectedly grounded performances in roles that could have easily gotten out of control.

Naomi Watts (The Book of Henry) and Tim Roth (The Hateful Eight) as Luce’s parents are good and evolve through their story. Though, honestly, I had great difficulty buying either of them entirely. Some of that was purposeful on Onah’s part in his direction and casting, but I’m not sure it was compeltely effective.

Luce is also surrounded by a number fellow students in his school. There are some nice turns, but Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience) is the one standout. She not only delivers but manages to remain an intriguing cypher through to the end.

Luce isn’t an easy film to watch at times, but it is beautifully real and subtle, playing with your better angels and quiet devils while setting them to war. And though the story is essentially a small tale of a young student, its reach is much broader than that because of Luce’s history. It isn’t perfectly acted or executed at times, but I forgive all its small flaws for the success of its bigger aims and I suspect most viewers would.

Luce

A Christmas Carol (2019)

[3.5 stars]

Seriously, did we need another Christmas Carol? Well, actually, as it turns out: yes. Steven Knight’s (Serenity) take on Scrooge’s tale is creepy and revelatory, as opposed to rushed and predictable. Guy Pearce (Mary Queen of Scots) embraces the dark and navigates our humbug-spewing character through memories and experiences that finally make it clear why and when he lost his way.

Joe Alwyn (Harriet) provides a solid foil as Crachit, though he is well over-shadowed by his screen-wife Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Robinson drives the true catalyst of change. But these are the characters we always have known. Part of what Knight does is broaden the tale and provide Marley with a voice in Stephen Graham (The Irishman). Marley was always just an excuse to tell Dicken’s story in previous adaptations. In this one, he truly has something at stake.

Even the other Christmas ghosts have a bit more going on in this telling. Andy Serkis (Black Panther) and Charlotte Riley (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), especially, get their own tales.

If, like me, you have always found the saccharine retelling of redemption just a bit too much to stomach, this will give you new appreciation of the story and the message. The experience is probably a lot closer to how Dicken’s audience received the story as well.

Admittedly, you still have to believe someone can utterly change just by seeing the truth, but Knight doesn’t really let anyone completely off the hook in his resolution. It’s messy, like life, but he allows for the nearest thing to a believable change in this classic tale that I’ve seen.

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Harriet

[3 stars]

Cynthia Erivo’s (Widows) award-worthy performance is several steps above the overall execution of this important story. I don’t say that to dissuade you from the movie itself, just to be honest about the effect. Both Kasi Lemmons’s (Eve’s Bayou) direction and her co-written script (with Gregory Allen Howard) are fairly standard, which is to say the film is a simple and straight-forward narrative with few surprises. In addition, the incidental music is heavy-handed and over-used, making it feel more melodramtic than viscerally horrific. There is power in the situation and impactful moments throughout…Lemmons should have trusted that and just let us feel rather than try to force it.

The rest of the cast supporting Erivo is solid, with few standouts by design. Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has one of the more interesting challenges, and Vondie Curtis-Hall and Leslie Odom Jr. each get a few moments of note. But Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) never quite felt right or real. His scenes always came across as forced; he was never allowed to have “normal” moments in this ugly period of history to balance his shrill confrontations.

While the movie is an engaging depiction of Harriet’s life and defining moments, it missed a couple of opportunities as a film. One aspect missing was its reflection on today. It is done purely as an historical with no reflection on the echos and carry-over to present times. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, but it feels like an important gap, especially today. I also think it missed an opportunity at the very end… they should have just flashed a $20 without comment and let it stand. (Certainly one of the more embarrassing and overtly racists acts of our current administration.)

Harriet, as a teaching tool about this titan of a woman certainly succeeds and should be seen, whatever its general flaws. It is time well spent and it will likely endure for a long time as a staple of many educational journeys in the years to come.

Little Women (2019)

[3 stars]

I have to be honest here, I only went to this film because of Greta Gerwig (Isle of Dogs). The reality is that I am not a fan of the original material, even after playing Laurie myself in a production. But I do like Gerwig’s light touch, sense of humor, and her refreshing perspective on the world and was intrigued to see what she could produce.

And Gerwig did draw out some great and award-worthy performances, particularly from Saoirse Ronan (Mary Queen of Scots), Florence Pugh (Fighting With My Family), and Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy). Each of these characters had nicely crafted arcs and at least one scene that is truly great. Unfortunately, most of these have been shown over and over during interviews and trailers which sucked a bit of the power out of them when finally seen on screen.

There is also the amusing addition of Tracy Letts (Ford v Ferrari) and Larua Dern (Marriage Story) to the cast. Each are notable for their other performances this season, but they are playing quite different characters in this movie for some interesting dissonance as you burn through the awards nominated fims this year.

However, despite being inventive and engaging, Little Women is an uneven whole. There are some great scenes, but they are knitted together by far more lesser ones. The anachronistic is mixed with the period in dialogue, but without a lot of purpose. And in this epic, the young protagonists themselves don’t believably appear as girls so they can grow up. In addition, the time frames aren’t crisp as we bounce back and forth in the narrative.

In other words, it felt just a bit beyond the scope of Gerwig to control. I almost wish Gerwig and co-directed and co-written this with Sofia Coppola, who tackled a lot of these same problems with her Marie Antoinette rather more successfully and bravely.

What I will grant Gerwig and this production is that her love of the characters is clear. Her rework of the ending, inspired. And her ability to make many of the muddier choices of the book more believable, well done. It is an enjoyable movie, if not brilliant. And it didn’t make me feel ashamed to be without ovaries while sitting in the audience, nor to be male at the end. Clearly, however, the more you are enamored of the book, the more you will enjoy her offering.

Marriage Story

[4 stars]

Noah Baumbach’s (While We’re Young) latest film is a wonderful example of what a unique eye can bring to a common situation in order to defy expectations, and how framing is everything.

Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die) and Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit) are riding high as actors this year with multiple roles receiving multiple awards nods. This effort is no disappointment. Together they create a wonderful and subtle story of a family weathering divorce while trying to remember how they got there, who they are, and what they really want.

This sounds depressing as hell, doesn’t it? And I won’t lie, it has its moments, especially thanks to Laura Dern’s (Wilson) and Ray Liotta’s (Pawn) portrayl of evil-incarnate divorce attorneys who assume all divorces must be blood baths. However, this isn’t Kramer v Kramer...because of how Baumbach framed the film. The overall effect he creates, and even much of the journey, is one of relief and hope rather than depression and anger.

Marriage Story is an homage to the institution and to love, while recognizing that it doesn’t always work out. But, as the story tells, that doesn’t mean it has to be a permanent disaster nor unending strife. Life goes on and, especially when kids are involved, a bond remains as a reminder of what was, even if the deepest emotions that created that life no longer apply.

Judy

[3.5 stars]

Like the near-mythic star she portrays, Renée Zellweger (Same Kind of Different as Me) rises above Tom Edge’s (Strike) rather bad adaptation, to breathe life into Judy Garland. In fact, until the final few moments of the film, the story, and good part of the dialogue, doesn’t come close to providing the superstructure her performance and energy have on screen. Simply put, Zellweger makes this movie.

There are a few nice supporting roles. Jessie Buckley, also in contention for Best Actress this year for her Wild Rose performance, is probably the most notable. The rest, even such big names as Michael Gambon (Fearless) and Rufus Sewell (I’ll Follow You Down), rightly vanish in her bright light.

Whether you subscribe to the cult that surrounds her persona or love her for the luster of Hollywood she embodied, Judy Garland’s story is affecting and important. And Zellweger sells it with all the tragic verve that icon has ever mustered.

Judy

Bombshell

[4 stars]

When Rupert Murchoch comes off as the good guy in a story, you really have to wonder about the base you’re starting from. There is a lot of surprising and disturbing information in this film, much of which was already known, but it is given life and context by director Jay Roach (Trumbo) and Big Short writer Charles Randolph with a frenetic energy and tight-lipped humor.

The most surprising aspect of this (as a movie), to me was that though the events are driven by Gretchen Carlson’s story, in the guise of Nicole Kidman (The Upside), and the core thread is pulled through by Margot Robbie’s (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) fictional Kayla Popisil, it is Charlize Theron’s (Destroyer) Megyn Kelly who owns this movie. That isn’t just because she frames the story narratively, it is because she uttlerly disappears into the character in a terrifying way and owns the energy of it all.

That isn’t to say that Robbie isn’t, yet again, brilliant nor that Kidman isn’t believable and effective (though less so for me). It is simply to say that Theron has turned in another career setting performance that proves again her abilities. To be fair, part of the reason for this focus is likely because Carlson is still under a gag order and wasn’t even allowed to talk with the filmakers, so they had to be rather circumspect in their portrayal.

Sprinkled liberally throughout the movie are other good performances, such as Brigette Lundy-Paine’s (Atypical) assitant, Allison Janney’s (I, Tonya) NYC laywer, Kate McKinnon’s (Yesterday) liberal-out-of-water reporter, and, of course, John Lithgow’s (The Tomorrow Man) repugnant but self-righteous Roger Ailes. But these are all supporting roles to Theron’s drive.

And now a confession: I had no interest in seeing this movie. I didn’t want to support Fox in any way or provide it attention. OK, I was wrong. Though the subject matter is challenging, the message is important and the delivery entertaining. Whether you like the women involved, this story is universal (particularly for women, but also for more men than will ever admit it). I still don’t respect the on-air personalities of these people, but Bombshell makes them more into people and lifts the veil of entertainment from their public personas.

Bombshell should be seen by everyone…but by women and young girls in particular.

The Irishman

[4.5 stars]

Some films are good by themselves and some acquire additional greatness in the context of an entire opus. Martin Scrosese’s Irishman is definitely in the latter group; a masterpiece of epic storytelling that stands alone, but is also a reflection of his entire past. It presents a huge canvas and expansive story that is, at its heart (and to its success), a very simple tale. But as a piece of his entire canon, Irishman resonates both with humor and across time. It takes the harsh and frenetic world of Goodfellas and blends it with with tense normality of Raging Bull to come up with charged banality that occasionally explodes with moments, but is simply a tale of life.

Scorsese’s shaping and moulding of Steven Zaillian’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) script is a wonder to watch. The script disappears and the story, though it crosses decades, reamains easy and interesting to follow through its 3.5 hours. There are many clever milemarkers across the years, from fashion to historic events to movie titles. And, through it all, the growth and shift of the characters.

Robert De Niro (Joker) is at the center of it all. It is his story we experience; the world through his eyes. Joe Pesci (Love Ranch) and Al Pacino (Danny Collins) create the additional focal points of the tension in the story as the three men each exert influence. There are dozens of other great smaller roles, some nearly silent such as Anna Paquin’s (Furlough) powerful turn as De Niro’s daughter.

This is definitely in contention for Scorsese’s best so far. His control of the scope, the handling of the performances, and the execution of the final edit are all lessons in brilliance. He manages to infer much more than is ever there, avoiding a lot (though not all) of the extreme violence in his previous movies about organized crime. And that is probably its greatest aspect of success. All of those issues and ideas are there, but they aren’t the focus despite the purile allure it might have exerted on lesser directors.

Irishman is also a showcase for technology, particularly de-aging, in a way that is jaw-dropping. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci evolve through decades, though often in counter to their current realities. But, if you didn’t know that, you’d never spot the fantasy the digital work and make-up have wrought.

The Irishman, despite all the hoopla and arguments over its theatrical release versus streaming, or Scorsese’s narrow minded thinking about modern stories, such as superheroes, and despite its lack of diverstity (in large part due to the realities of the subjects and era), is a new and instant classic. Find a day to carve out the hours needed and tuck in for a great ride.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

[4.5 stars]

Fred Rogers was a unique man, and one that touched a huge swath of hearts over his years in his Neighborhood. The recent and wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was a great reminder of that. This story, which may be about him, is centered more on his legacy and effect than it is a dramatization of his life. In fact, what director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) managed to accomplish with writing duo Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script is just short of glorious.

Now, before this becomes overhype, let me be clear. It isn’t so much an in-your-face brilliant piece of cinema. It is simply structured so perfectly for its purpose, and so delightful despite the depth of its material as to transport you back to those days as a child sitting with Rogers and his crew as they helped you navigate the world.

Tom Hanks (The Post) isn’t a perfect visual fit for his role, but he exudes compassion and honesty in a way that makes you forget he isn’t the real thing. We learn about the man, but mostly through his actions and the comments of others.

The story really focuses on Matthew Rhys (Death Comes to Pemberly) and his family. Susan Kelechi Watson (This is Us) as his wife and, in particular, Chris Cooper as his father deliver amazing supporting roles.

The movie is just shy of perfect due to one extended fantasy sequence that, frankly, could have been much shorter or excised. I know why it was there, and it was amusing, but I think it was unnecessary. The rest was handled, performed, designed, and acted wonderfully. Look for this to get a slew of nominations and even, possibly, suprise in a few categories. It is an unassuming film, but it manages to be as magical as the subject it wishes to expose on screen. It is a must see for everyone, especially in these stressful times.