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First Man (2018)
One dimensional supporting characters coupled with unemotional protagonist undermine otherwise technically proficient tale of first lunar landing
I was a bit surprised when I saw the director of a film about the first man on the moon was Damien Chazelle. His prior films were quite different. There was that turgid melodrama, Whiplash, about an angry music teacher; and then La La Land, a musical with a mediocre script but some great music which almost won the Academy Award for best picture. Chazelle helped his cause here by again employing Justin Hurwitz to write the score which probably saved the film from complete oblivion.
Chazelle seeks to humanize his protagonist, astronaut Neil Armstrong, flatly played by Ryan Gosling. Unfortunately, attempting to turn Armstrong into a multi-dimensional character is a tall order indeed. The problem is that Armstrong was a very dry, unemotional individual, a character who doesn't lend himself to great drama.
Chazelle suggests that the death of his two year old daughter in 1962 from a brain tumor drove him into a deep emotional shell which he never completely emerged. Chazelle repeatedly reminds us of the emotional toll Armstrong's daughter's death had on him throughout the film. Armstrong's first wife Janet (Claire Foy) ends up feeling beleaguered due to her husband's emotional distancing (one notable scene occurs when Janet orders a reluctant Armstrong to sit down with his two young sons and warn them that he may not be coming back from his moon mission).
But aside from Armstrong's reticence to display much emotion and his wife's compulsion to push back at that, there is little discernible human conflict in First Man. This extends to the other characters Armstrong comes in contact with throughout the film who remain one-dimensional and underdeveloped. Had Chazelle's screenwriter, Josh Singer, been able to flesh out some of these characters more effectively, First Man probably wouldn't feel as slow moving, already hampered by its 141 minute running time.
Chazelle on the other hand shines in the technical department. The early scenes of Armstrong as a test pilot are engaging and even better is how he shows just how flawed the space program was until finally perfected when the moon landing was accomplished. Particularly harrowing is the scene in which a flash fire kills three astronauts during a cockpit simulation for Apollo 1. There's also the early Gemini 8 mission in which Armstrong almost lost his life when he and his crew almost lose control of their malfunctioning spaceship.
In the end, Chazelle can't avoid hagiography. With a better script, his aim of presenting the events leading up to the first lunar landing may have ended successfully.
Knives Out (2019)
Standard update of Agatha Christie-like murder mystery featuring solid performances by an all-star cast
Writer/Director Rian Johnson is best known for his last 2017 effort, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," which did very well on both Metacritic (85%) and Rotten Tomatoes (91%). Less successful in my opinion was Johnson's 2012 Looper, which was quite successful at the box office but featured a rather convoluted sci-fi narrative that didn't work very well. Here with Knives Out, he's decided to channel Agatha Christie, in a contemporary murder mystery with an all-star cast.
Knives Out is virtually "all plot" with stock character types typical of the genre. Case in point is the main character, private detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig who sports a notable southern accent. Craig does well in the part but just about any other marquee star could have taken on the role and done an equally decent job as Craig.
As the story unfolds, Blanc is called into investigate the murder of famed mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (winningly played by Christopher Plummer), following his 85th birthday party celebration at the Thrombey mansion.
The quirky family members all soon learn they've been cut out of Harlan's will. They include Harlan's daughter: Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul initially bankrolled by her father; her husband Richard (Don Johnson), Harlan's son-in-law, who's having an affair which Harlan was about to expose, and Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), an arrogant, spoiled playboy who proves to be the principal antagonist.
Also in mix are: Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), Harlan's youngest son who runs his publishing empire; Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), Harlan's daughter-in-law, who was married to Harlan's deceased son Neil; and Meg Thrombey, Joni's daughter (Katherine Langford). There are other characters here, mostly too numerous to list.
The other principal character is Harlan's nurse and caretaker, Marta Cabrera (a very solid Ana de Armas) who is implicated in Harlan's murder after she accidentally gives him a fatal dose of morphine. Instead of rehashing the plot, suffice it to say Johnson wisely keeps us guessing for a while as to who is responsible for Harlan's death.
The actual circumstances of the murder are well thought out, as Marta actually gives him the correct dose of medication through instinct but then comes to believe otherwise after the murderer switches labels on the bottle. Later it's revealed through a toxicology report that Harlan did not receive a fatal overdose, but following Marta's unintentional but false confession to him that she mistakenly gave him the wrong dose, he promptly commits suicide by slashing his throat.
The rest of Knives Out involves only a modicum of suspense with Blanc following Marta around the mansion (upon his orders), as she continues to dispose of any clues that might implicate her.
The basic problem with the narrative once we break into the Second Act (SPOILERS AHEAD) is that the most unsavory character here turns out to be the prime suspect and ultimately the guilty party. Without revealing who that character is, I can only say that I was expecting a little bit more of a twist ending, given the already evident presence of such an unsavory antagonist.
The question remains, do we need another one of these updated Agatha Christie-like murder mysteries? I say, why not? This one, however, is rather standard but it does contain a few moments of suspense coupled with solid performances all-around, from an all-star cast.
Apollo 11 (2019)
New footage proves what a vast enterprise the Apollo 11 mission was, but lacks the human perspective
Director Todd Douglas Miller got a hold of previously unreleased 70mm footage of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission and put together this grand opus which almost feels like it's in real time (well not quite). There is no narration except for some periodic news reports of the time including those from Walter Cronkite, whose familiar voice elicited a great deal of nostalgic feeling for me (as I was a mere babe of 16 years at the time of this historic event).
Miller's expert editing will undoubtedly remind those of us with dim memories what a vast enterprise the Apollo 11 mission turned out to be. Miller's documentary certainly has its moments-from the giant equipment utilized to propel the Apollo 11 rocket into space, the incredible power of the launch itself, the excitement of the first moonwalk and the tension at Mission Control, as the lunar capsule may or may not successfully navigate its way back to earth in those startling scenes of re-entry.
Despite Miller's technical triumph, not only is Apollo 11 way too long, it lacks the a human perspective-there are simply no interviews (including with the Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins) which might add some suspense and excitement to the story. The camera pans through Mission Control numerous times but despite catching a glimpse of all those people who contributed to the incredible effort, we never get to hear from any of them!
Fifty years has now come and gone, and flights to the moon have stopped. I wonder why that is. Could it be that there was nothing really to discover there in the first place? What was the big revelation when Armstrong brought back his soil samples and rocks? Indeed, there is no question of the bravery of the three astronauts in completing the mission-but ultimately perhaps the planners should have consulted Ecclesiastes 1:9: "there is nothing new under the sun."
The Laundromat (2019)
Complicated offshore money laundering scam could work better as a documentary
Veteran filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has ventured into the realm of black comedy here in this true life story based on the nefarious exploits of Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, who were ultimately convicted of crimes related to money laundering, while operating the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, a provider of offshore financial services.
Unfortunately, Soderbergh has bit off way more than he can chew here in presenting such a narrative, as it's so complicated and convoluted, that one finds oneself immediately consulting the plot summary in Wikipedia, to figure out exactly what went on from scene to scene. I can tell you right now that The Laundromat would have worked much better as a documentary than a feature film, which attempts to mine laughs from unfortunate dupes who fell prey to the machinations of professional con artists.
The story is wryly narrated by comic versions of Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), as they explain the intricacies of money laundering. Their idea is to create a plethora of shell companies, which insulate them from ever being discovered. Their first mark is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who attempts to recover insurance money after her husband drowns when a pleasure boat capsizes during an excursion on Lake George.
To her chagrin, Ellen soon discovers that she'll be unable to collect any money from the reinsurance company as it's actually a trust (as Wikipedia informs) to one of Mossack's shell companies, now being investigated by the IRS for fraud.
In addition to Ellen's story, two other plotlines involve victims of the Mossack Fonseca scheme: one the daughter of an African billionaire, in which the father gives her bearer bonds (which turn out to be worthless as they are part of a shell company), in order to buy her silence over an affair he's been having with another woman. And a second story involving an intermediary for a wealthy Chinese family who ends up murdered while laundering money for the family through another one of Mossack's shell companies.
Streep as Ellen goes undercover to expose the partners and they eventually are arrested, serve a short time in prison, with the firm ultimately dissolved. Soderbergh gets preachy at film's end as Streep rips off her disguise (including a wig) and pontificates about the pervasiveness of these notorious offshore financial services which lead to enormous profits on behalf of criminals who rarely are caught, or pay any kind of price.
Soderbergh's point is that crimes such as this have a Kafkaesque quality that are more deserving of sad laughter than unmitigated outrage (he saves the outrage for the last few minutes and the shift in tone doesn't work at all). If you can follow what's going on here in terms of plot, more power to you. But The Laundromat is one of those rare cases where the complicated nature of the story puts a big damper on actually enjoying it.
Les misérables (2019)
Hard-hitting police procedural chronicles unrest in French inner city housing projects
Les Misérables is Ladj Ly's hard-hitting police procedural set in Montfermeil, the eastern suburb of Paris where the Thénardiers' inn from Victor Hugo's famed novel is also located.
Ly grew up in this area, marked by housing projects populated by minority residents chiefly of North African (Muslim) origin. He follows a squad of three police officers who patrol the area in their squad car. When we first meet them, Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a transfer apparently from a more middle-class precinct, has joined the team, led by Chris (Alexis Manenti), a tough, no-nonsense officer of Caucasian extraction along with Gwada (Djibril Zonga), his equally hardened North African streetwise subordinate.
From the outset, Ruiz obviously is uncomfortable with Chris's willingness to skirt the law in order to bend the residents of Montfermeil to his will. Chris must deal with the "Mayor" of the neighborhood, who appears to receive bribes from local merchants in a large neighborhood flea market and acts as a quasi-mentor of the teenagers, most of whom engage in acting-out behavior. There is also Salah, a former criminal turned Iman, who provides spiritual counsel to the community but represents a more militant voice among the Muslim population, who are quite resentful of authority in general.
Ly cleverly breaks into his second act when Issa, a teenager steals a lion cub from a local circus run by a bunch of hothead gypsy racists, who drive into the projects carrying bats and threaten to attack the residents if the cub isn't returned to them immediately.
Chris and his squad break up the fight between the two groups. Ly pulls no punches in his depiction of the police officers, who engage in questionable, illegal tactics but remain devoted to resolving the burgeoning violent confrontation between the right and left wing militants. If they are unsuccessful, a full-scale riot may ensue.
Ly raises the stakes in his story when Gwada shoots Issa in the face with a flash gun after he and his pals surround the police and throw rocks at them. Meanwhile, a nerdy kid from the project has been filming the entire incident overhead with a drone and Chris races to confiscate the video card before it can be posted on the internet.
A climactic chase culminates in Chris allowing Ruiz to negotiate with Salah, who ultimately hands over the video card to ensure the riot doesn't take place. The lion cub is returned to the gypsies, but the owner of the circus punishes Issa by dragging him into a lion's cage as a warning not to steal any of their property again.
Ly's plot is clever as he both entertains and edifies, chronicling the explosive societal tensions that exist in French society today. Only the denouement, which features a riot by the teenagers as they trap the hapless three officers in the narrow confines of a hallway in one of the buildings, proves to be cinematic overkill. Ironically, it's the reasonable Ruiz, who stands pointing his firearm at Issa while he stands at the bottom of a stairwell, as the out of control teenager menacingly stands a flight above, brandishing a Molotov cocktail.
Eighty percent of the actors Ly employed here were local kids who had never acted in a film before. Ly's direction of them is masterful. At a recent Q&A, Ly confirmed that a good deal of the film's style was influenced by American films. I wouldn't be surprised if some US production houses came calling, offering loads of cash to adapt this for an English speaking audience, primarily for the US market.
Allegory of inner city house squatter remains ambiguous
The Last Black Man in San Francisco stars Jimmie Fails as a poetic, allegorical version of himself. Jimmie plays opposite Montgomery "Mont" Allen (Jonathan Majors) who is his best friend. At first, one might speculate that the two might have a thing for one another-but as the story proceeds, it becomes clear that there is no hint of a sexual relationship between them.
Indeed, Jimmie's sexuality is completely ignored by screenwriters Joe Talbot and Rob Richert. Instead, Jimmie is cast as a sort of black everyman, almost child-like in tone, and a clear victim of gentrification. We find out that Jimmie had a tough childhood, spending some time in foster care. We meet his father, James Sr. (a street vendor who sells bootleg DVDs) who's obviously been tough on his son for his entire life. It also appears the relationship with his mother was distant.
The break into the Second Act occurs when Jimmie and Mont discover that the old Victorian house he grew up in, is now vacant, due to a dispute between warring sisters. Jimmie has somehow deluded himself into believing that this apparent 19th century structure, was built in 1946 by his grandfather. He visits a sleazy realtor and bitterly reacts to the asking price which is over a million dollars.
Rather unrealistically, Jimmie begs the unsympathetic realtor to allow him to buy the residence and he promises to make good on all the installment payments. The realtor ends up laughing in his face so Jimmy decides to move in anyway, after calling on his aunt, who has housed all of the grandfather's old possessions in her garage.
The scenarists here argue somewhat ambiguously that Jimmy's grievances may be justified-that gentrification is the result of the haves taking advantage of the have nots and Jimmie, somehow may have the right to move into the house, solely on the basis of having grown up at that location.
If reality intrudes at all in this allegorical story, it revolves around Jimmie's childhood friend Kofi, who is part of a group of macho ne'er-do-wells who hang out across the street and disparage both Jimmie and Mont. Kofi is later killed by street thugs as a result of a meaningless exchange of insults, typical of the gang culture in the inner city.
The film concludes right before Jimmie is evicted from the residence. He invites members of the community to hear a play put on by Mont, who at first eulogizes the slain Kofi and later praises Jimmie, only to soon afterward reveal to his friend that he's learned that the house was not built by Jimmie's grandfather and he has been deluding himself all along.
The denouement is ambiguous. Jimmie leaves a farewell note to Mont, thanking him for being a good friend, and then is seen rowing in the waters near the Golden Gate Bridge, as Mont watches him from a dock. Has Jimmie simply decided to make a new life free from illusion? Or has he decided to throw in the towel-for good?
What exactly is the message of The Last Black Man in San Francisco? Is it about a vulnerable man who has had hard knocks in life and is the victim of dark forces (including racism)? Of course there are people who have had "hard knocks" and ended up feeling defeated by forces that they viewed as beyond their control.
Instead of unrealistically harping on and taking possession of his childhood home, why does Jimmie dwell in the past? Why can't Jimmie pro-actively get a job and save money in order to buy a modest place of his own, instead of acting like a child, and moving into a place that does not belong to him? If there are people like that, should we still have sympathy for them? The filmmakers seem to insist that we still must have sympathy for the downtrodden, even if they take no steps to better themselves..
Somehow there is a suggestion here that there are two types of victims of racism. The one represented by Kofi, whose macho posturing led tragically to his death. On the other hand there's Jimmie, who takes refuge in self-delusion after falling victim to the forces of racism (represented by the forces of gentrification in the neighborhood). Lost in all this is the issue of self-responsibility. Did Jimmie finally get himself together at film's end-did he finally become responsible for his own actions?
The Last Black Man in San Francisco has some remarkable cinematography with an extremely engaging score. But the child-like, allegorical tone of the screenplay ultimately rings false. Jimmie has no one else to blame but himself as he is an adult, not a child. And the ambiguous ending does little to instill the need for a positive message, which appears to remain elusive throughout the entire film.
American Factory (2019)
Culture clash superbly chronicled as Chinese take over American Factory
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's splendid new documentary begins with footage from 2008, with the closing of the last General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. Flash forward to 2015, and the factory is now re-opening as a new auto-glass factory. The twist is that a Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, has bought the place and promised to hire 2,000 American workers (alongside a couple of hundred Chinese workers, transported from Fujian province in mainland China).
The film is a fascinating study in culture clash. At first, the American workers are grateful that the plant is re-opening and they at least have a job (given the preceding years of mass unemployment in Dayton). They realize soon that they'll be making less than half than what they made when they were employed at GM (the starting salary is $12.84 per hour).
The Americans also soon discover that the Chinese are disappointed in their work performance and ethic. In contrast, the Chinese at the plant, are extremely gung-ho about the work, are willing to work 12 hours per day and also on Saturday (without overtime).
A few selected American managers at the plant are flown to company headquarters in China and shown the military-like precision of the Chinese workers-a New Year's celebration features a gaggle of dancers and singers, extolling the Chinese work ethic. The managers appear overwhelmed but also express being impressed.
Back home, cracks emerge in the optimistic message the Chinese workers present. Some admit missing their family, whom they may see only once a year. They also appear to be in denial about the lack of concern for safety in the plant. One American worker indicates that he never had an injury while working for 15 years at the GM plant; and only after a short time at Fuchao (the parent company name), he sustained a serious injury to his foot, causing him to go on disability.
The issue of safety, as well as the demands that the Americans work harder, lead to a call to unionize. The boss at first threatens to pack up shop if unions are allowed to materialize; later, anti-union labor consultants are brought in and American workers are forced to attend classes that attempt to convince them not to join a union. As it turns out, the vote to unionize is roundly defeated.
Despite the cultural differences, Bognar and Reichert also focus on some of the positive things that come out of the interaction of two distinct cultures. A Chinese and American worker end up becoming good friends and spend time with one another outside of work.
Even the big boss, Dewang, proves to be more than a hard-nosed, no-nonsense businessman. Toward the end, Dewang yearns for the days of his childhood, when there was a bond with nature. Ultimately, however, Dewang argues that only through work can men find some meaning in life.
American Factory also has a warning for all of us in the future: the boss is seen discussing the introduction of robotics in the workplace in a year or two, which would eliminate at least four positions. The filmmakers ask what can be done to stem the tide of automation-what are the alternatives when machines take over men's positions?
With its emphasis on individuality, the American worker can never approach the enthusiasm and lock-step approach of his Chinese counterparts. Nonetheless, they probably can learn a thing or two from the Chinese (slimming down and keeping in shape might be a good suggestion to start with).
On the other hand, the Chinese could perhaps learn something from the Americans-a little less pushing and desire to conform, could ease some of the pressures they must undergo, as they navigate the demands of their overlords to constantly produce a profit.
Mildly interesting, low-rent saga of exotic dancers turned date rape drug scammers
Hustlers is based on a 2015 NY Magazine article entitled, "The Hustlers at Scores." It stars Jennifer Lopez as Ramona Vega, a veteran stripper who takes the younger Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wings, prior to the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Ramona and Destiny are both employed at a strip club, "Moves," based on the real-life "Scores." Before the financial crisis, the women make quite a bit of money performing before mostly drunk Wall Street types, for whom they both have contempt, due to the businessmen's boorish treatment of the women at the club.
There's quite a bit of exposition establishing the friendship between Destiny and her mentor, Ramona, who basically shows her the ropes in explaining how to butter the men up so they'll throw as much money their way as possible.
It's actually the financial crash that represents the inciting incident in the film. Destiny and Ramona are now faced with a general loss of clientele at the club due to the crash and new girls (of mostly Russian extraction) are now working there offering their services as virtual prostitutes.
As Destiny and Ramona can't countenance selling their bodies, they develop a scheme in which they drug their former clients with a mixture of MDMA (ecstasy) and Ketamine, and then induce them to run up enormous amounts on their credit cards at clubs they bring them to while these men are virtually incapacitated (the women end up making a tremendous amount of cash from the credit card purchases and give a cut to the clubs).
There's little room for character development here and we're mainly interested in learning the fate of the two principals along with their confederates, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who round out the group of scammers.
The stakes escalate when Ramona and Destiny run out of clients from their tried and true list, cut ties with the clubs and begin dealing with strangers in hotel rooms and at the victims' own homes. In one semi-comical scene, a client has a heart attack and the women must drop him off at the hospital while he's buck naked.
Ramona and Destiny's undoing begins with the hiring of dubious girls who have criminal pasts and drug addictions. Destiny eventually has a falling out with Ramona after developing guilt feelings about scamming a particular mark, who has lost his life savings along with his home.
Hustlers is a mildly interesting story and I won't give away what happens to the women after they're arrested. Some have praised Jennifer Lopez in the role as Ramona but I beg to differ-she's just too identifiable as a celebrity to be very convincing and her acting is of a one-note variety.
In contrast, Constance Wu as Destiny feels like the Real McCoy as the younger partner in crime. Wu strikes the right balance between a craven materialist and sympathetic mother of a young daughter.
It's no surprise that Lopez and Wu's real-life counterparts justify their criminal activities as they argue that their victims deserved whatever came their way, given their lack of guilt in regards to their own role in exploiting women.
Fanon's dictum of the "oppressed becoming the oppressors," appears to have become applicable here too, as for a brief period of time, these female hustlers took their revenge on a select group of rather callous members of the male sex.
Marriage Story (2019)
Baumbach's chronicle of escalating stakes in divorce war hits the mark!
With Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach has cemented his reputation as one of the more sophisticated screenwriters in Hollywood today. His film however should be more appropriately titled, "Divorce Story," as his narrative is basically a distillation of the unraveling of a marriage. The couple in question is Nicole and Charlie, played with subtlety by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Their battle is over where their 8 year-old son Henry should be growing up-east or west coast, as it turns out.
The film begins on a deliciously ironic note. We're treated to sets of voice overs from each of the principals, extolling the virtues of each others' personalities. On the surface it appears the marriage has not unraveled at all-yet.
But as the camera pulls back, Nicole and Charlie are in a marriage counselor's office, reading off their assignments from the counselor-to praise each other, in an attempt to find common ground. But it's also immediately made clear that each party feels the marriage is irretrievably lost, despite the positive pronouncements in these essays they've been reading, in the opening sequence.
We soon learn that Nicole, a talented actress, has supported Charlie, an up and coming director who runs his own theater company.in New York City. When Nicole has the opportunity to work on a pilot for a new TV show in Los Angeles, Charlie is under the impression that she and Henry will be returning to New York, after the TV opportunity wraps up-soon he discovers his assumption was incorrect (to put it mildly).
Baumbach's focus is not primarily on the warring couple and their disagreement-that no doubt would not work for an entire movie. He draws the battle lines clearly, however: Nicole wants Charlie to recognize her quest for independence-and she ultimately intends to remain in LA with their child, where she has the opportunity to flower. Charlie can't countenance her demand, as his burgeoning career is wrapped up in everything New York City.
It's how Baumbach chronicles the growing animus between them and the escalating conflict which proves so successful--coupled with how the deteriorating conflict proceeds in gripping increments, At first, the couple has agreed that they'll work the divorce out amicably-without attorneys present.
All bets are off however when Nicole is introduced to Nora (a deliriously fine Laura Dern), as the ball-busting divorce attorney, who's an expert at representing female clients. Charlie, still hesitant about enlisting an attorney, briefly flirts with hiring Jay (a thoroughly believable Ray Liotta), the attack-dog attorney who charges over $900 per hour. Soon after learning from Nora he's in jeopardy of losing custody of Henry and most of his earnings, Charlie finally conscripts Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), who urges him to cut his losses and allow Nicole to keep Henry in LA.
The stakes are exacerbated when Charlie drops Spitz and takes on Jay, who, in one of the best scenes in the film, duels with Nora in court, over Henry's fate. The judge ends up appointing an evaluator who will observe both parties in their interactions with Henry.
The family court evaluation ends up in disaster for Charlie, who ends up cutting himself (and bleeding profusely) with his small pocketknife which he carries around habitually on a key chain (it doesn't help that the female evaluator is completely unemotional). This probably leads to Charlie throwing in the towel at film's end and agreeing to Nicole's demand to keep their child on the west coast.
We can only conclude that Baumbach has done a bravura job in researching the vagaries of the divorce system-his superb characterizations of the attorneys involved are what ultimately give the film its compelling impetus.
Marriage Story is also a character study-not only the chronicle of Nicole's quest for independence but Charlie finally realizing that his demand to have Nicole and Henry return to NYC was tied to narcissistic careerism (Charlie eventually ends up in LA anyway, working as a university lecturer).
Baumbach also insightfully presents Nicole and Charlie's conflict as not entirely hateful. Even in Charlie's worst moment, when he has a meltdown in which he expresses his unbridled hatred for Nicole-there are still tender moments between them (as Charlie falls to his knees sobbing, Nicole cradles his head in her arms).
Baumbach's direction is so good due to his all-star cast. Some of the scenes could have moved a little quicker and one wonders why he inserted such a self-indulgent scene where he has Driver sing that entire Sondheim song from Company at the nightclub.. But these are minor peccadillos, as Marriage Story turns out to be one of the top films of 2019, certainly worthy of a best picture Oscar nomination, at the very least.
Born in China (2019)
Informative doc proves there are no easy answers in solving Chinese overpopulation problem
Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang's informative documentary on the now-defunct Chinese one child policy between 1979 and 2015, fails to answer an inherent question regarding the necessity of implementing such a policy. It's Wang's own family members who lived through that time, who maintain that if the one child policy had not been implemented, the overpopulation problem would have resulted in outright cannibalism, as food stocks would no longer be available to meet even minimal demand.
The filmmakers argue however, that the implementation of the policy was a disaster and they chronicle, in scenes of horror, why this was so. Late term abortions occurred everywhere (particularly in rural areas); a now exiled photographer took photos of hundreds of fetuses discarded in dumpsters which Wang and Zhang have no hesitation in showing on screen.
There is an interview with a woman who conducted thousands of these abortions and mass sterilizations during the time the policy was in effect. A male government official recounts how he observed women being beaten who resisted the mass sterilizations.
Even more troubling is the cultural bias against the female child which the filmmakers depict. Even Wang's own uncle confesses how he left a newborn daughter to die in a marketplace. Exceptions were made to allow for a second child in the event that the first child was female-in the hope that the mother would produce a son on the second try (Wang's own enlightened brother expresses grief over his favored status).
Soon child traffickers got the idea it would be more profitable to scoop up abandoned infants (particularly females) and drop them off at orphanages for cash, as they could then be sold on the international adoption market for prices ranging from $10K to $25K. The trafficking occurred with the full collusion of the Chinese government, whose minions profited greatly.
One Child Nation ends with a Chinese-American couple attempting to reunite adopted children in the US with their biological parents in China through DNA analysis. Their efforts have been stymied by quite a number of children (now largely young adults) who have no interest in learning the nature of their origins.
This is a fascinating film but again is the filmmakers' outrage misplaced? If China had no choice in implementing the policy, it would only be natural that there would be resistance from a populace used to thousands of years of cultural practice. Could the Chinese government have handled things better? Without a doubt. But one can extrapolate from the film, that there are no easy answers in solving such an explosive societal conundrum.
Midnight Traveler (2019)
Afghan family's brave, harrowing journey chronicled with cell phones as they flee Taliban oppressors
After watching the new documentary Midnight Traveler by Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his wife Fatima Hussaini, one feels lucky to live in a free country. Fazili had already fled his native Afghanistan to Tajikistan after the Taliban put a price on his head but they were unable to obtain asylum in that country and were deported back to Afghanistan. It was then that Fazili and his wife made the momentous decision to emigrate to Europe along with their two young children. Utilizing three cell phone cameras, they documented their journey which lasted about three years.
Often with the aid of smugglers (who rip them off), they make their way from Iran to Turkey and eventually to refugee camps in Bulgaria and Serbia. Later they find themselves stuck in a Hungarian transit camp where they wait without word for many months before they're allowed to emigrate to Germany (the family currently remain there and have applied for citizenship).
In between the time they're living in these refugee camps and before arriving there, the family is in transit, trudging through forests, sleeping on the side of the road and in "safe houses," crowded with many migrants from different countries. The film not only sheds light on the migrant problem currently afflicting Europe and other parts of the world but refutes the notion that the majority of these people are dangerous.
In contrast to the anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by Trump and his supporters in this country, it becomes quite clear that Fazili and his family's motive for leaving their native land is political persecution. The other motive is of course purely economic but unfortunately this matters little to those who have demonized these unfortunate individuals. Violence toward migrants is made clear during Midnight Traveler, in some harrowing scenes where mobs of racists in Bulgaria are shown attacking migrants in the streets, while police either look the other way or participate in various beatings.
While Midnight Traveler has its decided moments of high drama (toward the end, one of Fazili's daughters goes missing for a day) most of the narrative depicts how the family copes with the daily drudgery of living in often difficult, cramped conditions. Some of the most touching moments occur when the camera follows the activities of Nargis and Zahra, Fazili and Fatima's cute and sagacious children.
Credit should also be given to Emelie Mahdavian, who edited and produced the film. Mahdavian would often visit Fazili in the refugee camps, obtain the footage and edit it back in Germany. Later Fazili would make his suggestions, adding to the final, artistic product.
One wonders where Fazili can go from here. Certainly with such an auspicious debut, we can expect many good things to come from this husband and wife team who so bravely fled their native land, and stood up to murderous oppressors.
Burning Cane (2019)
Religion and alcohol don't mix in neophyte's failed freshman effort
Burning Cane was created by Phillip Youmans when he was 17, still in high school (he's 19 now). Shot in the style of Cinéma vérité, it's difficult to follow as the film is poorly lit with dialogue that is often difficult to hear. The film won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival and generally has some very positive reviews from the critics who have reviewed it. Youmans has even been likened to Faulkner and Terrence Malik.
The story is set in Louisiana, focusing on church-going African Americans. The main character (who begins the film with a long monologue about finding the right remedies for her dog who's afflicted with some sort of rash), is the grandmother, Helen (Karen Kaia Livers)--she faces an uphill struggle in trying to motivate her son Daniel (Dominique McClennan), who's unemployed and has taken to the bottle.
Also in the home is Daniel's son, the pre-teen Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly), who never says a word during the 77 minute running time of the film. Daniel feeds Jeremiah milk laced with alcohol and one senses that he may have some developmental disabilities. There's also Daniel's wife who we hardly see at all and end's up a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband.
Helen's pastor, Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) who also has a drinking problem, is probably the most interesting character in Youman's short opus. The Reverend plays a prominent role in the proceedings as we end up privy to some of his inspirational and captivating sermons. Youmans, however, has little luck in linking the good reverend's story up with what's happening back at Helen's homestead.
If you like "A Star is Born," you might like Burning Cane. It's a tale about sad sacks. One day perhaps the young Mr. Youmans will discover, that such characters do not make for good drama. I suppose it's supposed to be some kind of revelation that religious people also may be afflicted by addiction to the bottle. That might be okay if you're able to make your characters somewhat likable, or give them some idiosyncrecies.
Unfortunately the incredibly young Mr. Youmans is content to play up the drunkard angle-and you will undoubtedly end up leaving the theater exclaiming, "so what!" His is a film that goes nowhere, with characters that you will not care about.
In order to care, I would advise Mr. Youmans next time to create characters that like themselves-for characters with ego is the path to earning true and DESERVING accolades in the world of cinema. Unfortunately, for various reasons that I will not go into here, he has already received some specious approbation from a coterie of misguided critics.
The best course is perhaps for this young man to start from scratch with a new project, completely unrelated to the heavy handed script that so many have already hailed as the product of an up and coming wunderkind.
Director Phillips' moral equivalence between criminality fueled by mental illness and a one-dimensional corrupt, fascistic society, proves specious
Director Todd Phillips' origin story stars Joaquin Phoenix in a dark, gritty fairy tale as to how the Joker of DC Comics fame, became the number one criminal of Gotham City. Phillips likens Gotham to a New York City of the very early 80s, replete with rampant crime, a garbage strike, rats, Joe Franklin-like TV shows, graffiti laden subway cars and VCRs.
The Joker's decompensation is shown in increments as he devolves into criminality and madness. The main strike against him is that he never moved out of his mother's apartment and takes care of his demented elderly mother, who has a long history of mental health issues. Eventually, in a scene where he's able to illegally extract an old report from the state mental hospital, he learns that his mother used to work for (now) mayoral candidate, Gotham's power broker Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce, who eventually became Batman). It appears that the mother developed the delusion that Wayne impregnated her and that the Joker is actually Wayne's illegitimate son.
The Joker ends up paying a visit to the Wayne mansion where he encounters little Bruce and chokes Alfred the Butler, after not being allowed in to see Thomas Wayne. Soon afterward, he's able to sneak into a concert hall where he punches the elder Wayne who's just finished relieving himself in the bathroom.
Phillips also fills in the backstory of the Joker's daily life in which he constantly finds himself laughing inappropriately in public (it's later brought out he sustained a brain injury after his mother's boyfriend smashed his head in against a radiator when he was a child). The Joker even has a card made up which he gives to strangers whenever he's subject to these laughing outbursts, explaining the origin of this peculiar neurological condition.
There's quite a bit more dark stuff we end up privy to--including how the Joker loses his Rent-a-Clown job after he drops a gun at a hospital where he's entertaining children (a co-worker had given him the gun after a bunch of punks assault him while he's working as a street performer) as well as how he murders three Wall Street types on a subway train after they taunt and beat him up.
The Joker also develops a thing for Sophie, the next door neighbor who has a young daughter. Phillips does well in showing how The Joker deludes himself into believing that he has developed some kind of romantic relationship with her. He even imagines Sophie visiting him and mother at the hospital, after she has a stroke.
For all the imagined scenarios, reality intrudes. There's a scene where Sophie confronts him and asks whether the Joker has been following her. And later he breaks into her apartment and when she comes home, the Joker asks her, "You're Sophie, right?" as if in reality, he hardly knew her. When he leaves the apartment, we're left wondering if he ended up murdering his neighbor but Phillips wisely keeps it a mystery.
All in all, Phillips is intent on portraying a man who is gradually losing his grip on reality and becoming more and more violent. The Joker even ends up suffocating his mother with a pillow, causing her death. But Phillips unfortunately wants it both ways: as much as how he adroitly depicts how the Joker became the master criminal he came to be, he also attempts to evoke sympathy for him by depicting society (both the community and government) besieged by a simplistic, fascistic mentality and morality.
Phillips draws a moral equivalence between the Joker's criminality (perhaps excused by so-called mental illness) and a society motivated by promoting the haves over the have-nots. The Joker is a perennial victim beginning with Thomas Wayne who not only has no toleration for lawlessness and will use any means necessary in cracking down on the disenfranchised but has no sympathy for the Joker (who's convinced that Thomas is his father).
There are no moderates in Phillips' comic book world. The Joker's therapy sessions must be discontinued due to government cuts (they obviously no longer have resources or patience for the disenfranchised). The Joker's co-worker (whom he eventually stabs to death) believes only in vigilante justice and gives him the gun with the proviso that he pay him back out of his salary.
The three upstanding Wall Street guys who end up beating the Joker up on the train, do so without mercy, and he responds by executing them. The Joker's life-long dream of becoming a standup comedian is fulfilled after he's invited on to the Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) Show but this is only after the show's producers utilize earlier clips of the Joker performing at a comedy club, in order to mock him.
The Joker becomes a movement when he executes Murray Franklin on live TV and then is hailed as a hero by criminals who now regard him as some sort of savior. As much as Phillips may abhor the violence of those who advocate class warfare on the basis of income inequality, he also revels in the violence by harping on it and depicting the Joker as some kind of victim.
The denouement is also unsatisfying as Phillips suggests that after The Joker is locked up at the state mental hospital, this whole story might have been a figment of his imagination. That way I suppose Phillips can escape accusations of promoting a moral equivalency between criminality fueled by mental illness and an indifferent, one dimensional fascistic society.
Uncut Gems (2019)
Sandler's frenetic caricature of a compulsive gambler becomes repetitious despite occasional moments of raw entertainment
Adam Sandler finally gets to play a role different than the usual goody two shoes characters we've come to expect and some critics have already declared this is his "breakout" role. Sandler is Howard Ratner, basically a caricature of Jewish entrepreneur who runs a jewelry showroom in the Diamond District in New York City. The Safdie brothers (Joshua and Benjamin) are responsible for both the direction and the screenplay.
Uncut Gems plays out much like an early Scorsese film; and guess what? Scorsese is one of the producers. It's marked by its frenetic style, with the characters' dialogue overlapping one another, and Sandler's manic performance. It's supposed to be "realistic" but has an improvised quality that distracts from the overall verisimilitude.
Sandler as Ratner is cast as not only a businessman, but a compulsive gambler. I say he's a caricature because even some of the worst compulsive gamblers appear to express some fear of people to whom they owe money -in this case, Ratner does not. Even with a gun to his head or scenes in which the threat of imminent harm is clear, Ratner, in his hyper-narcissism, doesn't seem to care. He pushes back against everyone who seeks to do him in.
The Safdies will probably argue, "that's the point." They've exaggerated their protagonist's character in order to highlight his cluelessness. In some respects, Ratner's outrageousness is supposed to be satirical-his behavior is so over the top that it represents what compulsive gambling is all about in high relief. It exposes Ratner's love of money as one might term an "emptiness to the core." Yes we get what the Safdies are trying to say here very early on-and then their Ratner character doubles, triples, quadruples down on it, ad infinitum.
I suppose that one ends up asking is, how far will this ridiculous caricature of a character go? So if we strip away the padding (including all the unclear machinations of the loan sharks who are after Ratner from the start), we're left with a plot that is only mildly interesting.
Indeed the plot concerns some black opal gems (encased in one rock) that Ratner illegally imports from Ethiopia and expects to make a killing of over a million dollars at auction. But before he puts it up for auction, he figures out how to make some additional cash from the stone. When famed NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (well played by himself) walks into Ratner's showroom, he's so enamored with the piece, that he offers to buy it on the spot. Ratner says he'll have to wait for the auction but Garnett wants to walk around with it (why I'm not sure), and then agrees to give Ratner one of his championship rings as collateral and return the next day.
Ratner promptly pawns the ring and uses the cash to bet on the number of shots Garnett makes in a game that night. Although Ratner wins the bet and makes a great deal of money, we later find out that the bet was canceled by the loan sharks who feared Ratner would lose the bet (which he's done many times in the past) and not able to pony up the cash to cover his debts.
There are some sub-plots here involving Ratner's wife Dinah (played by Broadway superstar Idina Menzell) as well as his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who works in the showroom. The female actors here have little to do until the end, when Julia is entrusted with making Ratner's last bet at the Mohegan Sun casino.
The other twist is that much to Ratner's chagrin, the opal is undervalued by an appraiser at the auction house and he's forced to ask an associate to bid up the price against Garnett, who eventually declines to make the purchase, and leaves the associate holding the bag.
Ratner is seemingly saved when another one of his large basketball bets comes through (placed by Julia at the casino), only to have one of the loan sharks end up murdering the debt-ridden jewelry owner, after he and his confederates are temporarily locked in by Ratner, inside the vestibule at the showroom.
After all the aforementioned frenetic machinations, the Safdies leave us with a cautionary conclusion: compulsive gambling is not a good thing! Their final shot focuses on the blood pouring out of the now deceased Ratner's eye-and the camera then travels deep into the darkness of that eye-only to find those opals floating in the darkness. Indeed Ratner's fatal quest is clearly classified as useless and meaningless.
If you can ignore the rather obvious premise and the fact that the Safdies have crafted a rather one-note character for Mr. Sandler, Uncut Gems still is occasionally entertaining, with enough twists and turns in the plot, to prevent the discerning viewer from dismissing this effort outright.
Dynamic, kinetic look at domestic violence in the first half gives way to lugubrious meditation on loss in the second
Trey Edward Shults' certainly has come a long way since Krisha, his low budget debut in which he conscripted family members to craft a well received but rather one note meditation on a family outsider. But here with Waves, his universe has expanded exponentially, to the point where he's now grappling with headier themes including domestic violence and the emotional after effects of loss.
The first half of Waves I think is much better than the second. We're introduced to an upper middle class African-American family living in South Florida. The main focus is on high school senior, Tyler Williams (played by Kevin Harrison Jr, who was so good in the recent "Luce"). Tyler's father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) goes overboard in pushing his son to become a star wrestler.
Soon a series of events cause Tyler to spiral out of control, leading to a terrible tragedy which not only affects the Williams family, but the entire community as well. Tyler's downward trajectory begins when he injures himself while wrestling and receives a dire prognosis from a doctor who informs him that his career as an athlete is over and he should undergo immediate surgery.
Tyler can't stomach the doctor's grim prognosis and ends up continuing to compete in wrestling matches while in complete denial about this dire condition. It makes sense that he would have this attitude because his father has been pushing him to win at any cost.
To make matters worse, Tyler's girlfriend Alexis informs him that she's pregnant and has decided not to have an abortion (after chickening out during a visit to an abortion clinic). Tyler doesn't want her to have the baby and they argue bitterly. After collapsing during a wrestling match, Tyler completely loses it after Alexis blocks him from texting or chatting on her cell phone. In a blind rage, he confronts her at a high school party and ends up striking her in the head, causing her death.
Shults utilizes a heart-pounding score, mixing both electronic and rap music, to chronicle Tyler's meltdown. It's a visceral experience, akin to watching some of the better music videos which grab you from the start. This is precisely how tragedies occur particularly involving teenagers and domestic violence and Shults is completely on the mark, showing how such sad events basically go down.
This part of the film reaches its climax when Tyler is sentenced to 30 to Life. Except for a brief shot of Tyler now as an inmate at film's end, he's no longer part of the story. Shults shifts to Tyler's sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and follows her as she tries to cope with her feelings of rage toward her brother as well as dealing with the now imperiled relationship between her father and stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) who blames her Dad for driving Tyler to commit his insane act. Emily also blames herself for not stopping Tyler from killing Alexis, as she was there when Tyler showed up at the party.
Emily begins to heal when she gets involved with Luke (Lucas Hedges), who also must cope with the imminent loss of his estranged father, now dying of cancer. Encouraging Luke to go and see his dying father helps her to realize that only through forgiveness can true healing take place. It's a heartfelt sentiment, but Shults drags out the relationship between the new lovers, to the point of tediousness. Unfortunately Emily and Luke are not very interesting characters and there's not enough conflict between them to keep our interest.
There are a few sparks between Ronald and Catharine, who now wants nothing to do with him due to the previously alluded to pressure he placed on Tyler growing up. They of course have to find "the road back" too and rather predictably they do, at film's end. All the while, there is little opportunity for character development.
Ultimately Stults is much more attuned to emotional beats than a narrative that appeals to the intellect. Some may find his exploration of how people cope with loss to be quite satisfying but others such as myself don't have the patience to sit through the lugubrious pacing. What's more, characters end up being defined by one external situation (Alexis' murder) and don't develop organically. Simply put, Waves is melodrama incarnate. For some, all the angst may be cathartic but aside from the neat, kinetic machinations up to the midpoint, much of what we see next has been done before and is a bit disappointing.
Stults should reflect on this effort as another learning experience. What worked so well in the first half was the fact that his story was fraught with conflict. In the second half, most of the conflict dried up; in its place was the rather predictable optimistic resolution of characters overcoming loss (Emily even visits her incarcerated brother at film's end!). Fledgling filmmakers still need something more unique and less predictable if they plan to make their mark in the world of cinema.
Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
Norton's attempt at film noir turns out to be a soporific poor man's "Chinatown"
Motherless Brooklyn is based upon the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem of the same name. Edward Norton had been interested in bringing the novel to film for years and ended up writing the screenplay, acting in the lead role and directing. Norton, however, decided to change the novel's contemporary 1999 setting to the 1950s, which he felt it was better suited to film noir as opposed to more of the novel's apparent psychological emphasis.
To his credit, Norton has always eschewed the limelight, preferring to take the subway as opposed to being driven in a limousine. But he also has a reputation as a perfectionist and has had a history of not always getting along with collaborators. Unfortunately here it appears that he got little feedback from others while crafting the screenplay.
Norton used Lethem's main character as his protagonist: Lionel Essrog, a gumshoe posing as a reporter, who happens to have Tourette's syndrome. But Norton invented his own antagonist, Randolph Moses (Alec Baldwin), based on the NY power broker, Robert Moses.
The plot is convoluted and Norton's screenplay is dialogue heavy. Hence, things move along at a glacial pace until the denouement, where things finally get resolved. The inciting incident involves the murder of Lionel's boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who has four private eyes who work for him, all of whom Minna rescued from an abusive orphanage when they were kids (in the novel, there is a much greater emphasis on the relationships with these four).
Norton was probably drawn to his main character given his "interesting" handicap. But it's annoying how the character has to continually explain what Tourette's is to everyone he comes in contact with. What's more I wasn't quite sold on Norton's acting job in depicting an individual afflicted with said neurodevelopmental disorder (let's just say his depiction wasn't natural enough for me).
The bulk of the picture involves Lionel attempting to solve who killed his mentor. This takes him to Harlem where he meets an African-American woman, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who's involved in opposing elements in the city government attempting to gentrify the neighborhood and have black people expelled to less desirable areas.
For quite a long stretch, we don't see how the antagonist is connected to this insidious plot, and various people are either assaulted or killed (including Laura's father, the owner of a Harlem jazz club). Also in the mix is Paul (Willem Dafoe) who has held a grudge against his powerful brother Randolph since childhood.
We finally find out in the final quarter of the film that the villain indeed is Moses Randolph, a humorless baddie who is the opposite of a charming Tony Soprano type of character. In addition to the aforementioned glacial pacing, it's really Norton's heavy-handed depiction of his Robert Moses character that does the film in-he's simply a one note, unlikable straw man that Norton uses to peddle his simplistic good guy vs. bad guy scenario.
In the end, Norton of course wants to be on the good guy side. SPOILERS AHEAD. Without going into too much detail, Lionel brokers a deal with Randolph to ensure no harm comes to Laura-he threatens to release information which reveals Randolph is actually Laura's father-after Randolph forced himself on Laura's mother, while she was working as a housekeeper years earlier. Shades of "Chinatown" but really a poor man's version.
Had Norton left the screenwriting to perhaps a more established professional in the business, this film might not have turned out as the unmitigated long-winded failure it turned out to be.
Where's My Roy Cohn? (2019)
Compelling documentary presents prescient portrait of Donald Trump's mentor
The title of Matt Tyrnauer's incisive and entertaining documentary, "Where's my Roy Cohn," purportedly emanates from the current occupant of the White House, at a time when said occupant began to feel embattled by the current imbroglio over Ukraine. Indeed as Mr. Tyrnaeur makes it clear, Roy Cohn, the conservative wunderkind who once was Senator Joe McCarthy's right hand man, ended up as Donald Trump's mentor, when "The Donald" was attempting to make a name for himself as the new real estate magnate in NYC in the first half of the 1980s.
It seems that Mr. Trump learned just about everything from Roy Cohn, whose "take no prisoners" demeanor served him well, through his early years in Washington during the McCarthy witch hunt era, to his subsequent career as a shady attorney, who managed to master the art of character assassination to the nth degree.
The documentary utilizes archival footage. Roy Cohn first shows up in an interview on a cruise ship in 1951, during the time he was a brash US attorney, bragging about how he was devoted to rooting out Communists who supposedly had infiltrated every aspect of American life.
Then there were his days as lead counsel for McCarthy's committee. When McCarthy went after the Army (and by extension, President Eisenhower), the Republican establishment could no longer tolerate the maverick they once embraced as a savior of their party. It was the Army-McCarthy hearings where there first were insinuations that both McCarthy and Cohn were gay (eyes ended up on Cohen after it was noted how he went gallivanting about Europe, attempting to root out Communist "subversion", while investigating information in State Department libraries, with his good looking, recently drafted personal assistant, G. David Schine).
As Tyrnauer makes clear, Cohn would deny his homosexuality throughout his career. Those of a more liberal persuasion argue this was part of Cohn's inauthenticity, that perhaps he couldn't admit to himself that he was gay. I beg to differ with this assessment as Cohn's sexual predilection had nothing to do with how good (or bad) a person he was. So perhaps on this point-Cohn's constant evasiveness in interviews about his homosexuality-I'm on his side. What business was it of others to hound him on this point? Why was it necessary to extract such a confession out of him?
Picturing him as a hypocrite (a self-hating closeted gay) perhaps was one way of getting back at Cohn. But there were other reasons why people wanted to drag him down-not only was he intellectually brilliant but he was also extremely charming (as attested by the multitude of celebrities who wrote letters of good character for him right before he was disbarred from practicing law in NY State).
Indeed for many years, he was like his immediate successor, Teflon Donald Trump. He was actually indicted in NY State and successfully defended himself against the likes of Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau in the late 50s. Then there was his history of taking on unpopular clients, including a slew of clients from the Mafia. Like Trump, he always hit back and virtually never admitted he made a mistake.
Still, there was a dark side to Roy Cohn which he ultimately could not escape. And that of course was how he hurt many people due to his "win at any cost" mentality. We first saw this in his conduct with McCarthy, who smeared anyone he could to advance his career.
Tyrnauer covers lesser known incidents in Cohn's career which suggested that the darling of conservative reactionaries was indeed a shining example of moral turpitude. There was his running into the ground of a family-owned operation, the Lionel Train Company; later the sinking of a yacht he owned, in which a young crewman perished during a fire-which Cohn may have had something to do with. And finally what he was actually disbarred for-forging the signature of an elderly client to gain power of attorney over a victim who was incapacitated.
Perhaps it was Gore Vidal the novelist and witty liberal raconteur, who finally got the better of Cohn after going "toe to toe" with him during a 1977 TV debate hosted by Bill Boggs. It's instructive to watch the entire debate which can be found on Youtube. Vidal won't let up in pointing out that Communism never took hold in the United States but it was used as a base canard by the likes of Cohn and McCarthy. Vidal's attack on Cohn is relentless, exposing him for his unrelenting smear campaigns, which of course served him well in stirring up the mass of reactionaries, who supported him.
Indeed, like Trump, Cohn was prescient in pointing out (and way ahead of his time) that if you leave the liberal bastions of power in the big cities, there is a ground spring of tremendous support in middle America, by those who have no tolerance for so-called "liberal elites."
Cohn's final days were marked by a sad decline due what he termed "liver cancer." Others attributed his illness to AIDS. Again, what he precisely died of is irrelevant. What can be said of Cohn was that he was an extremely bright and charming individual, who used his street smarts to get ahead in the rapacious social world of celebrity. His work persona was completely separate from his private life-in which he probably could have been called a "party animal."
But as with Trump, those who were taken in by him ignored the dark side, in which he profited at the expense of a multitude of innocent victims. Dealing in half-truths or outright lies is the hallmark of a sociopath. This was Roy Cohn as Matt Tyrnauer ably demonstrates in this compelling documentary.
Powerful exploration of the legacy of American slavery despite distracting supernatural elements
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Toni Morrison, Beloved was a box office failure in that it was budgeted at $80 million and only ended up grossing $22 million. Oprah Winfrey, the film's star and one of the producers was depressed over the reception of the film but director Jonathan Demme pointed out that had Disney honored its promise to bring the film back in the theaters at the end of the year after replacing it with an Adam Sandler film, it probably would have done much better.
It's a film that's superior to some of the more recent films that have come out on the subject of slavery as instead of focusing on the direct cruel acts of racists, it concentrates instead on the emotional/psychological after effects on ex-slaves who now had to cope as free men and women.
Beloved takes place in Ohio seven years after the Civil War, an unusual setting as most slavery chronicles deal with what went on before the war and when African-Americans were enslaved and living in the South. The main character is Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), an African-American woman who years earlier escaped from the plantation (ironically named "Sweet Home"). Her husband Halle (whom we never meet) somehow is able to buy the freedom of his mother Baby Suggs, who ends up living in Ohio with three of Sethe's children.
We learn through flashbacks that back at Sweet Home, Sethe was raped and violated by the nephews of the plantation's owner Schoolteacher (also ironically named); not only do the nephews carve up her back with the scars appearing in the shape of a tree but also drink her breast milk while she's pregnant.
Sethe escapes Sweet Home and makes her way through Kentucky, aided by the feral-like Amy Denver, the coarse white woman who has no qualms using the n-word to address Sethe but also helps her give birth to a daughter, whom Sethe promptly names "Denver," after this intrepid white woman who helps her.
Once ensconced in the small house given to Baby Suggs by a benevolent white couple from Cincinnati, and deeded to Sethe following her mother-in-law's passing, we learn that the home is haunted by a poltergeist. Is it an actual poltergeist or perhaps a hallucination? It's this supernatural element however that I think drags the picture down a bit. At the beginning of the story, Sethe's sons run off precisely because of this obnoxious spirit haunting the house. It takes away from the entire verisimilitude of the picture so it might have been better to imply that the supernatural element was simply an aspect of Sethe's memory.
The bulk of the picture revolves around the appearance of Paul G. (Danny Glover), the former slave from Sweet Home who comes back to court Sethe and settle down with her. Right away there's tension between Paul G. and Sethe's daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) who partly resents having to stay at home and help her mother. Things become vastly more complicated when Beloved (Thandie Newton) shows up on Sethe's doorsteps. Beloved clearly has mental health issues and is apparently the reincarnation of Sethe's deceased daughter (whose shocking death we soon find out about as the plot moves along).
I still had trouble with the supernatural element here especially when Beloved is introduced as such a fantastic (unrealistic) character. Again, if we view Beloved as someone who learned something about Sethe before she showed up on her doorstep, she's much more believable as a real person who ends up convincing herself that Sethe is her mother; by the same token, one can view Sethe coming to believe that Beloved's soul has now been inhabited by her deceased daughter.
Paul G eventually learns the true nature of what happened to the deceased daughter when a co-worker shows and reads to him (Paul G is illiterate) a newspaper article which reveals that Sethe murdered her daughter after Schoolteacher and his minions show up in Ohio (prior to the start of the Civil War) and are about to take her back to Sweet Home under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Slavery is so horrible that the thought of returning to Sweet Home with her children propels Sethe to murder her own children. As it turns out, she's stopped from killing the rest of the children and the Sweet Home racists decide not to take her back to the plantation, concluding that she is a mentally ill.
When Paul G. finds out what Sethe did, he leaves her but she insists that she had no other choice but to kill her children so they wouldn't have to be subjected to living a life as a slave. The rest of Beloved deals with Sethe's gradual mental breakdown and the disappearance of Beloved whose earlier machinations (including her seduction of Paul G), led to Sethe's eventual decompensation. Only Denver is able to pull herself together, as she strikes out on her own, gets a job and establishes some sort of independence.
Beloved ends on a hopeful note with the return of Paul G. to help Sethe who may eventually recover from her crushing depression. The community too must recover from the horrors of slavery as their religious convictions help them to overcome their lack of self-esteem and help them to believe in themselves.
Beloved is a powerful indictment of slavery and its effect on African-Americans. It explains how slavery damaged the self-worth of African-Americans but also notes their perseverance in overcoming such a dark legacy. Beloved might have worked a bit better without the supernatural elements but still has many great insights into a very dark chapter in US history.
Noted Korean director's enjoyable grifter family farce devolves into unfunny bloodbath
Bong Joon-Ho, the celebrated Korean director, actually won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Parasite. His "heroes" at the outset are the Kim family, semi-lovable con artists led by dad Kim Ki-taek, mom Choong-sook, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jeong. They live in a dirty semi-basement apartment in a lower middle-class part of town where they barely get by folding pizza boxes. The fun part is that the parents view themselves more as partners in crime with their kids and encourage them to engage in any kind of unsavory activity they can get involved in.
The inciting incident involves Ki-woo's friend Min-hyuk, who informs his buddy that he's going abroad and he'll gladly give Ki-woo his job as tutor to Da-hye, the daughter in the wealthy Park family, whose father is CEO for an extremely successful tech company, provided that he can convince the Parks to take him on.
The fun begins when Ki-yoo cons Mrs. Park into believing he has impressive academic credentials after forging diplomas using some computer software. Ki-yoo goes right to work seducing the impressionable teenager Da-hye and then convinces Mrs. Park to hire his sister Ki-jeong, as an art therapist for their young hyperactive son Da-song.
Before you know it, Ki-jeong (who calls herself "Jessica" in the Park household) plants her panties in the one of the family cars, leading to the firing of Mr. Park's driver, who's now suspected of having a clandestine affair with a girlfriend. Jessica now introduces "Uncle Kim" to Mr. Park as a new potential driver; the "uncle" is of course Jessica's dad and he's immediately hired by the unsuspecting father.
The family has one more hurdle before gaining apparent hegemony over the Parks. Housekeeper Moon-kwang, who has been a fixture there for ages, will not be so easy to get rid of...until it's discovered she's allergic to peaches. So when Jessica applies the smallest of tinctures from a peach brew, poor Moon-kwang is felled by her allergies. When "Uncle Kim" convinces Mrs. Park that Moon-kwang is suffering from tuberculosis, Mrs. Park has no choice to fire the hapless housekeeper.
Parasite takes a dark turn when Moon-kwang later returns to fetch some of her belongings and soon it's revealed that her husband Geun-sae, on the lam from loan sharks, has been hiding for the past four years in the basement where there's a secret bunker (the Park home is a veritable mansion with the secret bunker doubling as a fallout shelter originally designed for protection against North Korean missiles!).
When Moon-kwang discovers the new "hired help" are from the same family, she records footage on her cell phone proving that they're simply a bunch of grifters and threatens to send the clip to Mrs. Park. When the Parks suddenly return early from a camping trip, the Kims scramble to confine the housekeeper and her husband down in the bunker. Choon-sook ends up pushing Moon-kwang down the stairs after she tries to escape and hits her head, suffering a concussion.
As the noted drama critic Eric Bentley once noted, farce is "permitting the outrage without the consequences." The Kims and the Parks can do all these crazy things without any consequences since up until this point, the story is supposed to be a farce. But once Moon-kwang is pushed down the stairs and suffers a grievous head injury, Choon-sook is no longer an amusing character.
A series of events then take us further and further away from the amusing spectacle we were enjoying minutes before. The Kims (minus Choong-sook) manage to flee the mansion after the Parks return home, only to find their apartment flooded during a storm. They're forced to sleep in a gymnasium during the night. Moon-kwang then dies from the head injury. The next day, Mrs. Park throws a birthday party for Da-song and the three Kims return.
Parasite gets more bizarre and unpleasant when Ki-yoo, wielding a rock given to him as a gift by Min-hyuk, goes down in the bunker and attempts to kill Geun-sae, who ambushes and hits him in the head with the rock. The sight of the bleeding Ki-yoo will disappoint all those who were hoping the farcical goings-on will continue.
But it gets worse. Geun-sae goes berserk and stabs Ki-jeong to death, only to be stabbed and killed by Choong-sook with a meat cleaver. Mr. Park, desperately trying to retrieve the car keys so he can take Da-song to the hospital after the child has had a seizure, gets a whiff of the dying Geun-sae, whose smell repulses him (it's been revealed earlier that Park has a revulsion to the smell of certain lower middle-class people). When Ki-taek witnesses Park's reaction to the smell, he goes berserk and stabs Park to death.
Finally, we learn that Ki-yoo survives after undergoing brain surgery. He and his mom, Choong-sook, end up getting probation while Ki-taek takes refuge in the bunker where no one finds him. Ki-yoo fantasizes of the day he'll become rich, buy the now sold Park mansion and reunite with his dad.
Some have said this is some kind of meditation on the class differences in South Korean society. Those differences are highlighted comically through most of the film but with the ensuing bloodbath, the comic tone is lost. The principals all receive their comeuppance which is good I suppose, but without the playful tone established early on, Parasite ends up feeding on the viewer, whose initial high expectations are ultimately left unmet.
Narrow focus on Garland's last year emphasizing the negative fails to highlight her greatness as an iconic entertainer
There was a two hour TV series in 2001, Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, based on Garland's daughter Lorna Luft's recollections, principally starring Judy Davis in the title role. The current film starring Renée Zewellger, did not have the approval of any of Garland's children (including Liza Minnelli) and is based on the stage play, End of the Rainbow, by Peter Quilter.
In director Rupert Goold's current effort, the story only focuses on Garland's last year when she was forced to take on work in London after realizing she was broke and having to send her children back to live with her ex-husband, Sid Luft, in Los Angeles.
On the positive side, Garland's love for her children is not glossed over and there is also a fine fictional scene where Garland meets two of her gay fans after a concert and goes back home with them where they cook a meal for her. The scene is I guess a tribute to her as a gay icon, as she always championed the underdog and those who were considered "outsiders." Indeed Garland's own "outsider" status is emphasized in flashback scenes when she fell victim to the movie studio system while making The Wizard of Oz, as a teenager in 1939.
As the young Judy, Darci Shaw unfortunately is miscast as she fails to convey the Garland mystique, even at her very young age. What the flashbacks do show is how Louis B. Mayer and his minions exploited and abused Garland and basically turned her into a drug addict of prescription pills (which eventually led to her death due to an accidental overdose). The flashbacks (like the rest of the film), only focus on the down side of Garland's career and one wonders while watching these scenes, weren't there ANY enjoyable moments while she was growing up?
Despite, Zellweger's reasonable impression of Garland, there is no insight offered here into why Garland had such an iconic status in the world of entertainment. Thousands of people came out for her funeral but you would never know it by watching this film. Instead all the imperfections are highlighted: the addiction to drugs, passing out during concerts, forgetting her lines, showing up late or refusing to go on, her failed last marriage to the dubious bartender Mickey Deans, as well as generally being highly arrogant and narcissistic with all those trying to make her stay in London a big success (one such ugly scene has Garland meeting the band leader and informing him that she doesn't intend to rehearse before the first performance).
In Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, the complexity of her life is explored in much more detail, particularly her relationship with husband Sid Luft, who gets short shrift here in the current version. Instead of the pathetic character we see here, it probably would have been better to view Garland as she viewed herself: a survivor. Zellweger shows Garland's hard knocks as principally self-inflicted-a glass as half-empty approach. The glass half-full would have been much better. What's more, Garland was far wittier than depicted here-hence, the film's dialogue needed an upgrade in that department.
The other big mistake was not to use Garland's voice as part of the soundtrack. Instead, Zellweger takes a stab at doing all the vocals herself and of course fails considerably in comparison. A bright note is Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder who plays the handler attempting to ensure Garland gets through her performances at The Talk of the Town nightclub in London.
You can go and see Judy (the film) but mainly for purposes of comparison. I would check out Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows which can be found for free on Youtube, a far superior dramatic representation then what we have here.
Ad Astra (2019)
Brad Pitt lethargic near future sci-fi vehicle has its moments but the payoff proves kind of disappointing
The latest Brad Pitt vehicle is directed by James Gray. It's a sci-fi drama much more akin to "Gravity" than "Star Trek," as it's set in the near future without any trace of extraterrestrials. To his credit, Gray presents a much realistic portrait of space travel in the near future. There's no "warp drive" but simply rockets with a little more booster power.
Pitt plays the protagonist, Major Roy McBride, who is the son of the famed astronaut, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared 16 years earlier while at the helm of the Lima Project, a mission searching for our obligatory extraterrestrials, last heard from in the vicinity of Neptune.
Suddenly earth is experiencing terrible power surges in which thousands are killed. Roy is almost killed himself when one of the surges propels him off a launching platform (he's saved by his trusty parachute). The U.S. Space Command (SpaceCom) has discovered that Roy's father may still be alive and may be the source of (and responsible for) these power surges.
Roy accepts the top secret assignment to travel to Mars where he can attempt to communicate with his father (in the event he's still alive). First Roy must stop off on the moon where there are already commercial flights to a lunar landscape replete with massive underground tunnels, run by the US government in this particular sector. To get to where the rocket takes off for Mars, Roy first meets up with his father's old associate, Colonel Pruitt (Bruce Dern) and they are set upon by scavenging pirates in "no man's land," while traveling to the government base in lunar vehicles.
Pruitt is wounded and will later succumb to his injuries. While Gray stages the pirate attack with aplomb, it's a scene that's largely ineffective, since we never find out who these marauders are who are responsible for attacking Roy and his father's old pal. What's more,there's no sense of the nature of the conflict on the moon-Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross merely allude to some kind of friction between competing companies that run the mining interests on the moon.
On the way to Mars in the spaceship Cepheus, Gray throws in another aside obviously designed to ramp up the action where there is little present until Roy's climactic confrontation with his father at film's end. The captain of the ship receives a distress call from a Norwegian biomedical research space station. Turns out that everybody there has been murdered by lab baboons who also kill the Cepheus's captain.
Keep in mind everything here proceeds at a lethargic pace (except for the pirate attack on the moon and the baboons that have run amuck). So on Mars Roy simply sends voice messages to his father in what looks like a small recording studio and is then promptly taken off the mission (presumably because he gets too emotional while sending out one of the messages to his father).
Lantos, an administrator and native to Mars shows Roy a video recording of his father admitting that he was forced to kill the entire crew of the Lima Project after they mutinied, in a futile attempt to return to Earth. Now SpaceCom decides to send a spaceship containing a small nuclear payload to blow up Roy's father and what's left of the Lima Project.
In an unlikely scenario, Roy boards the spaceship headed for Neptune just as it takes off and is forced to kill the crew after they attack him. There's another long-winded scene as Roy travels to Neptune which takes over two months. Here he reflects on his relationship with his father and his estranged wife, Eve.
There's not much more to say about Ad Astra. The climax is a bit disappointing. SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD. It turns out Roy's father was not responsible for the power surges-rather it was some kind of malfunctioning anti-matter power source (whatever that is), damaged during the mutiny. Roy saves earth by blowing up his father's space station along with the errant power source but his father chooses to kill himself by using his power thrusters to drift into deep space after failing to realize his lifelong dream of finding extraterrestrial life.
There's some redemption for the McBride family name (as Roy's father was indeed not responsible for causing the power surges). But somehow the father's big failures,and downbeat decision to do himself in, pegs him as a bit of a futuristic sad sack. Yes I get the idea that Roy has an epiphany about his dad at film's end-that parents don't always prove to live up to the idealistic image we have of them in childhood. But this "bittersweet" revelation and conclusion just isn't all that exciting as is the rest of the film which has its moments but doesn't quite captivate.
The Hate U Give (2018)
Compelling take on Ferguson-like shooting through teenage eyes probably won't satisfy everyone on either side of the racial divide
The Hate U Give is based on a young adult novel by an African-American novelist, Angie Thomas. The screenplay, however, is by the late Audrey Wells, a white screenwriter who died of cancer at the young age of 58. Wells is pretty faithful to Thomas' novel, which tells the story of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a 16 year middle-class African-American teenager living in the fictional black community of Garden Heights, somewhere in the State of Georgia.
Thomas does well in creating an interesting backstory for the Carter family. Her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), who owns a mom and pop grocery store in town, was formerly a King Lords gang member, who did a three year state prison stint so that King (Anthony Mackie), the gang leader, wouldn't have to take the rap. He's the stepfather to Starr's teenage half-siblings: Kenya (who lives with her mother, King's "woman," and Seven, who now lives with the Carters).
The story-loosely based on the Ferguson, MO riots-has Starr getting a ride home with her childhood friend, Khalil, a young man now selling drugs and associated with the King Lords. When the car is stopped by a police officer on the pretext of a broken taillight, Starr (following guidance she learned from her father when she was a child), begs Khalil not to talk back to the police and place his hands on the dashboard so the police officer will know he's cooperating. Khalil, incensed over the officer's harsh treatment of him, talks back and is immediately ordered out of the car. When he reaches back into the car for a hairbrush, the officer mistakes it for a gun and shoots him dead.
Starr, who attends a virtually all-white prep school (and who has a white boyfriend, Chris) must now face pressures from all sides-which includes deciding whether to testify before the grand jury as to the events that led to the shooting of Khalil.
Egged on by an activist lawyer April Ofrah (Issa Rae), Starr finally decides to testify. Thomas' plot features a rather unlikely sub-plot involving King, who threatens Starr, as he feels her grand jury testimony involving Khalil, might bring out some unpleasant facts about his gang and their activities. But in reality, would this really happen? First of all he should know that Starr, an innocent teenager, would know little to nothing about Khalil's activities with the gang-and it's also unlikely she would discuss it during the grand jury testimony (as it turns out, Starr castigates the defense team for attempting to impugn Khalil's character by linking him to the gang).
In addition, failing to support the community's demand for justice for Khalil would be extremely bad publicity for the King Lords-who risk having everyone turn against them for not supporting the case against the police.
Perhaps the best moment in the film is Starr's conversation with Uncle Carlos (rapper Common), her maternal uncle, a police officer, who has sheltered the family after gang members shoot up the family home. Carlos tries to make Starr understand that the police officers are always on edge by the nature of their job; in this case, it's understandable that the officer would "shoot first and ask questions later," as he truly believed the hairbrush Khalil pulled out of the car was actually a gun.
Starr's response is that if Khalil was white, he would not have reacted the same way and not shot the person he had pulled over for a routine traffic stop. Uncle Carlos' response is that "it's complicated," which is probably true. Keep in mind Jesse Jackson's confession that if a man was walking behind him in a black neighborhood, he would be apprehensive, but not in a white one. Note that Thomas' narrative fails to develop the Carlos character nor is the point of view of the police developed either.
There are already some African-American critics and viewers who don't like the idea that the community decides to work with the police to take down King and his gang, in effect giving up on their demand of "justice" for Khalil. The "feel-good" ending ties in with the unlikely idea that King would have threatened Starr in the first place and jeopardized their overall status in the community by ending up firebombing the Carter grocery store, with Starr and her half-brother Seven, inside.
Equally unlikely is the easy way in which the King and his gang are taken down. We learn that testimony by Starr's dad and witnesses at the scene of the firebombing lead to the conviction of the bad guys. But wouldn't they fear retaliation from other gang members who were not apprehended? It's a little too easy of a resolution.
Then there's Thomas' (and Wells') embrace of Starr in her new found militancy following the grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer who killed Khalil. Too many questions remain. Would the taking down of the King and the gang really have happened after the members of the community end up "snitching"? Does Starr deep down feel the riots were justified? Was the police officer really guilty of murder or was Uncle Carlos right when sometimes police make mistakes in making split-second decisions? Do the hard and inflexible actions of police officers in enforcing the law often make the situation much worse than it should be?
Again, Uncle Carlos had the best response: "it's complicated."
Brilliant visuals highlight "Lord of the Flies" update despite questions of the necessity of making such films in the first place
Monos (which translates as "monkeys" in Spanish) is the third feature by director and co-writer Alejandro Landes Echavarria. A Brazilian native, Echavarria filmed Manos in Colombia. It's sort of a modern day update of "Lord of the Flies," with an ensemble cast of teenagers playing a group of commandos supervised by a shadowy group dubbed "The Organization," in an unspecified Latin American country (presumably in the present time).
The group is headed by "Wolf," who is given permission by the company commander "The Messenger" (who only makes periodic visits to the group in the mountains and jungle) to have a sexual relationship with "Lady." The others have neat names including Bigfoot, Rambo, Swede, Smurf, Boom Boom and Dog. The group also holds a hostage, "Doctora," an American engineer played by Julianne Nicholson.
Much of the first part of the second act involves a cow, which the Messenger warns is a "loan" to the group from a benevolent supporter, which must be protected at all costs. During a celebration resembling a bacchanal festival, Dog accidentally kills the cow while firing his automatic weapon. Wolf, as squad leader, kills himself as he realizes he'll be held responsible for the death of the cow. The group radios back to headquarters a false story that Wolf was responsible for killing the cow while drunk.
Much of the rest of Monos cannot be described on paper. It's really a brilliant piece of filmmaking in which the virtually unsupervised group descends into barbarism and emerges as a fractious entity as a result of conflicting needs. The significant plot points involve Doctora's and the female Rambo's escape as well as the murder of the commander, the Messenger, by the newly appointed squad leader, Bigfoot.
As a pure visual, kinetic exercise, Monos manages to convince us that Echavarria is a director to reckon with in years to come. Nonetheless, one wonders what is the entire point of his story? There have already been many sociological studies involving teenagers who have the potential for falling for authoritarian organizations and descending into barbarism (the Hitler Youth being a prime example).
Special mention should be made of Mica Levi's inspired heart-pounding score. Monos is a film that does not rely on dialogue-it is a visual tour de force. As such, you will probably remain glued to your seat as you watch it, despite wondering if the concept was worth developing in the first place.
The Farewell (2019)
Heartfelt Chinese Grandma death watch has nowhere to go
The Farewell is second feature director Lulu Wang's Sundance project which has received almost universal acclaim by the critics. Wang, a Chinese-American, came to the US as a child, and developed her stories based upon her own experiences.
The story involves Billi (based on Wang herself), whose paternal grandmother, Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer back in mainland China where she has always lived. The family, following cultural traditions, decides not to tell her, and creates an elaborate ruse (a wedding for Billi's cousin who resides in Japan) as an opportunity for all the relatives to get together and say their final farewells.
Billi is played by the comedian and rapper Awkwafina, most recently seen in Crazy Rich Asians. When Billi learns of her grandmother's diagnosis, she decides to fly to China from NY on her own after her parents have already arrived there. Awkwafina unfortunately has a thankless role, with Billi portrayed as constantly dour (as well as angry and sad) throughout the narrative.
Despite all-around good performances from the rest of the cast, beautiful cinematography and a welcome peek into Chinese middle class culture, Wang's premise is a one-note idea. Some of the machinations involve the comedy of the family members keeping the diagnosis from the grandmother. After a while, this one note idea of hiding the truth becomes stale.
We do learn from Billi's uncle the reason why the family prefers not to inform the grandmother of her illness (they feel it's more honorable if others shoulder the burden of knowing and not ruining the rest of the time the grandmother has left). There are also some very nice heartfelt expressions of emotion from both Billi and her uncle at the wedding reception, at film's end. All of this is still not enough to save The Farewell which ends up as an exercise in almost continuous sentimentality.
Without giving away the twist at the very end of the film, suffice it to say it's not always a good idea to rely completely on the medical profession's diagnoses.
En man som heter Ove (2015)
Despite sentimental diversions, this tale of a wily curmudgeon has occasional moments of genuine pathos
Released in 2016, A Man Called Ove was the Swedish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2017. Directed by Hannes Holm, it's based on Fredrik Backman's 2012 book of the same name. Rolf Lassgård plays Ove, a curmudgeon in his 60s, the former president of a neighborhood association of townhouses in a Swedish suburb.
The film is a drama with occasional comic moments. Despite patrolling the neighborhood with gusto, constantly looking for transgressors who break the rules (including driving one's car too fast through the development), Ove is actually quite depressed (chiefly linked to the death of his wife six months earlier and more recent loss of his long time job as an engineer).
Each time Ove attempts to commit suicide (whether it's by hanging or asphyxiating himself by turning on the exhaust in his car for example), he's invariably interrupted by others who seek his help. His principal savior is Parvaneh,, an Iranian immigrant who's just moved in next door with her Swedish husband and two young children. She eventually gets Ove to open up after requesting favors of him including asking him to teach her how to drive and also babysit her kids.
Ove the film manages to have a big heart but eventually devolves into sentimentality. It's fairly predictable that the gruff Ove eventually will be able to let out his emotions, aided by Parvaneh, who makes him see that trying to kill himself is a bad idea, especially because he's someone who has much to offer.
The story also chronicles Ove's earlier life in a series of flashbacks-how he lost his mother as a young child and was close to his father who taught him how to repair car engines (one of Ove's life-long interests). Tragedy strikes a second time (the first being the death of his mother), when his father is hit by a passing train while on the job.
The third devastating tragedy is that his schoolteacher wife ends up paralyzed after their tour bus overturns on a vacation trip to Spain. Ida Engvoll is wonderful as Ove's young wife Sonja but has little to do in the part, which appears chiefly designed to evoke additional tears from an audience already inundated with a veritable heaping tablespoon of tragedy.
Ove's good character is made clear when he grudgingly helps others, which (in addition to his next door neighbor) also includes a friend of Sonja's former student who needs a place to stay after he reveals he's gay and is promptly kicked out of the house by an intolerant father.
Ove also saves a man who faints and falls on the train tracks. This leads to the resolution of the second act crisis, where Rune, Ove's rival, who took over as neighborhood association president, but is now semi-comatose after a stroke, is about to be put in a nursing home (against his wife's wishes), by "whiteshirts" (Ove's terms for heartless bureaucrats). A reporter who unsuccessfully attempts to interview Ove after he saved the man at the train station, ends up exposing the whiteshirts for some kind of real estate scam, and they back off sending Rune away.
The sentimental treatment of the handicapped Rune is coupled with additional comic asides which also don't work well at all (Ove's obsession with Saab cars over Volvos is one such example). Nonetheless, director Holm (who also wrote the screenplay), ends the narrative on the right unsentimental note: Ove initially appears to reach the end after collapsing and being diagnosed with an enlarged heart but manages to pull through, only to be found dead in his bed a few months later by his neighbors.
A Man called Ove features a top-notch performance by noted actor Rolf Lassgård as the wily curmudgeon. Despite its sentimental moments, there's enough pathos here to sway even a critical film goer such as myself toward a modicum of approbation.