Film Review – “Cold War”

COLD WAR
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 HR 29 mins
Amazon Studios 


Nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography), “Cold War” is an engaging yet tragic period drama that is much deserving of all its accolades.
Shot entirely in black-and-white with English subtitles,
writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida”) deftly captures the
brutal essence of communist-controlled Eastern Europe while putting us
on a complicated, 15-year odyssey of obsession.
 
The story begins in 1949 Poland where the scars of a world war
are still fresh. A soft-spoken music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, “Gods”)
is tapped to co-helm a school that’s intended to create a group of
talented young people to stage traditional, Polish folk dances. It is during
auditions at the bullet-ridden school that a crafty blonde singer named
Zula (Joanna Kulig, “Pitbull: Tough Women”) catches his eye.  Despite a warning about her troubled past, Wiktor and Zula develop a
secret, passionate love affair.
 
Two years later they have an opportunity to escape their communist
oppressors by crossing into West Berlin, but Zula chickens out while
the brooding Wiktor leaves her behind anyway to go carve out a life as
a jazz pianist in Paris. Even though lovers come and go as the years
pass by, Wiktor still regards Zula as the love of his life. His devotion to
her is so strong that he even risks being sent to a Polish prison when he
travels to Yugoslavia to watch Zula perform.
 
They only reunite when Zula marries an Italian man so she can get out
from behind the Iron Curtain to be with Wiktor. A successful singing
career begins to take shape with Wiktor accompanying her on piano.
However, her jealousy towards other women and her desire to be the
center of attention, especially Wiktor’s, leads Zula to run back to
communist Poland. Wiktor is desperate to follow her but he knows he
will be arrested if he does. It proves to be a fateful test of his devotion to
her.
 
Pawlikowski’s endeavor has all the feel of a film straight out of 1957 as
he channels the bleak repression the peoples of Eastern Europe faced
under Soviet dominance. There is a paranoid sense that there are eyes
everywhere, and in some instances its true. It’s this omnipresent fear he
generates with his script that gives Zula and Wiktor’s relationship a
palpable edginess. Their romance is so much like a careening roller
coaster that it makes it difficult to accurately predict its outcome.
 
Kulig is brilliant as she infuses a sense of instability into Zula. In a
way, you want to yell out in vain to Wiktor to stay away from her,
but his devotion runs so deep that he is beyond help. This obsession is
played with expert subtlety by Kot and skillful direction by Pawlikowski
who keeps the pacing brisk with a short running time. Never mind the
critical darling that is “Roma.” Instead, go see “Cold War.” Trust me,
there’s nothing cold about it.

Film Review – “On the Basis of Sex”



ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Starring:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer
Directed by: Mimi Leder
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs
Focus Features

In the era of the Me Too movement, the biographical drama “On the Basis of Sex” has the appearance of fitting in with the times as it highlights the early struggles against oppressive sexism by current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While it contains all the necessary components of a story that you know will be uplifting in the end, it often feels like it should come with shiny wrapping paper and big red bow. While the story makes it clear how difficult it was for Ginsburg to launch her legal career simply because of her gender, the film is too generic for its own good. Inspiring? Yes. Different from a myriad of other inspirational, biographical dramas? Not so much. 

It’s 1956 and director Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact,” “The Peacemaker”) does a great job with the first shot of the film by having a sidewalk crammed with emotionless male law students and professors walking to class clad in drab suits. In the middle of it all there is a singular woman in a blue dress standing out from the nameless crowd. The talented Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) generates a sense of wide-eyed excitement as Ruth, but she also manages to show us there is a determined confidence within the aspiring attorney. 

Ruth not only has to force reluctant Harvard professors to pay her any serious attention, embodied by a law dean (Sam Waterston) with a paternalistic attitude towards his few female students, but she also has to balance being newly married to aspiring tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and being a new mother. Further complications arise when Martin is given a grim diagnosis of testicular cancer with less than a 10% chance to survive. Ruth’s resolve is such that she attends Martin’s classes as well as her own as he battles his illness. 

Ultimately, Martin recovers and becomes a rising star at a law firm while Ruth is unable to get any jobs because of her gender. She relents her pursuit and by 1970 has established herself as a law professor at Rutgers University. Her life and career are forever changed, though, when Martin presents her a gender-based tax case involving a bachelor who was denied a tax deduction based upon the fact he never married. The Ginsburgs see it as an opportunity to start breaking down every law in the country that discriminates against gender, but first they must win their case, which proves to be more daunting than Ruth could have ever imagined. It all sets up a dramatic courtroom climax that we have seen in some variation or form many times before. 

“On the Basis of Sex” is an inspiring film with nice performances and a nice story. However, there isn’t a wow factor to it or anything that leaves a lasting impression afterwards, with a possible exception of Jones’ solid performance. Ginsburg’s impressive legal career is already well-documented, yet we don’t see enough of what her private life was like, much less what she was like while growing up. There is an emotional connection we are not able to quite establish with her because of this void, albeit there is one brief story Martin relates to their teen daughter about Ruth’s relationship with her mother. 

The story flows easily but it fails to get down and dirty considering the offensiveness of the situation women of the times faced then, and still face today. And to be fair, where is the inspirational movie about the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court – Sandra Day O’Connor? Shouldn’t her tale of sacrifice and ceilings shattered be told as well? “On the Basis of Sex” is a decent film that’s enjoyable but not impactful.

Film Review: “Green Book”

GREEN BOOK
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins
Universal

 Nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in five categories at the upcoming 2019 Golden Globes, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, “Green Book” is one of the most acclaimed films of 2018 with 49 nominations from various cinema-related organizations. Inspired by a true story, this period drama is a surprisingly complex, emotional work considering its director, Peter Farrelly, is best known for comedic fare like “Shallow Hal” and “Dumb & Dumber.” With “Green Book,” Farrelly captures the stark racial divide of 1962 America with an exploration of the relationship between Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as they travel across the Midwest and Deep South. 

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Tony Lip is a man you don’t want to mess with as he is the kind of tough guy who will hit you when you get out of line and will hit you harder if you strike back. Tony is thus the right fit as a bouncer at a New York City nightclub that’s frequented by wise guys from the Italian mob. However, despite their efforts to lure him to their line of business, Tony stays on the straight and narrow, sort of, as he is more than happy with being a devoted family man. Now while that’s all well and good, Tony has a set of racist attitudes towards people of color, exemplified when he tosses two water glasses into the trash after two black handymen drink from them in his house. When the nightclub he works at is shut down for remodeling, Tony Lip resorts to all sorts of ways to earn money for his family, including his participation in an impromptu eating contest that gets him fifty dollars. Thanks to his reputation as a man who can get things done, Tony Lip is called in to interview for a job as a driver for famed classical pianist Don Shirley.

It doesn’t go well at first because while Tony Lip is about as uneducated and uncultured as they come, Don holds multiple degrees and can speak several languages. Ultimately, Don hires Tony Lip because he needs someone who can protect him during a two-month concert tour that will take them through the heart of the segregated Deep South. As the two men learn more about each other, the more their divides begin to melt away to be replaced with curiosity and even friendship. This is helped by the conditions they witness as Don experiences for the first time the true pain of segregation and Tony Lip has his eyes opened to the injustice of it all.

Farrelly’s creation, with its terrific music selection, costumes and lingo, puts us in a time machine that takes us back to an America that had yet to lose its so-called innocence to assassinations and the Vietnam War. “Green Book” reminds us that that innocence was tainted with bigotry and hatred. It also reminds us how ignorance can be overcome with unity. In addition to its smartly written script and solid direction, “Green Book” contains a pair of dare I say Oscar nomination worthy performances. Mortensen dazzles with his knack to bring to life every subtle nuance of the characters he plays. This role is no exception as he helps make Tony Lip someone we can truly care about even though in the beginning it’s a little tough to do. Ali, a 2017 Oscar winner for “Moonlight,” gives Don a vulnerable sophistication while also breathing out a certain degree of naivete without seeming to break a sweat. It all adds up to “Green Book” being the type of rare movie where everyone can feel a little bit happier about the world when the lights go back on.

Film Review: “Fantastic Beasts : The Crimes of Grindelwald”

 

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston
Directed by: David Yates
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 14 mins
Warner Bros.

Is “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” fantastic or criminal? The answer falls somewhere in the middle. This second installment of what is intended to be a series of “Fantastic Beasts” films, all from the mind of “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling, is a long-winded tale that lacks the charm of its 2016 predecessor. The story is predictably darker in tone, but a bulk of the over two-hour running time is a snooze fest.

Set in 1927, “Crimes of Grindelwald” begins excitingly enough as we watch Johnny Depp play the steely fanatical villain Gellert Grindelwald, regarded as one of the two most powerful wizards around, make a daring yet well-planned escape from the British Ministry of Magic. That’s when the story comes to a screeching halt as we are then forced into the world of mild-mannered Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he tries to get his international travel ban lifted.

Not much has changed with our hero since the original – he refuses to take sides, rarely makes eye contact with anyone, and has trouble communicating with the opposite sex. Newt is offered the chance to work alongside his brother for the Ministry of Magic in order to locate the powerful yet troubled Obscurial Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, “Justice League”), but he refuses. However, he cannot turn down his former teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) so he travels secretly to Paris with his Muggle sidekick in-tow, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who’s fighting with wizard girlfriend Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).

It’s all rather sluggish and overly contrived as we are bombarded with a dizzying array of plot points for not only this film, but also for the “Fantastic Beasts” sequels that are already planned. There is little in the way of suspense even though more and more characters are introduced who are trying to find Credence for a variety of reasons, some more mysterious or nefarious than others. Rowling’s story also tries to rekindle the endearing romance in the first film between Newt and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Unfortunately, Rowling’s screenplay fails as their bumbling stumbling relationship feels like something straight out of a TV sitcom.

The character of Newt ends up becoming a boring, overshadowed distraction instead of a hero as we are left with wanting more of Law and Depp. Both are a treat to watch on the silver screen with Law successfully being able to make his own mark on a character already forged in the minds of “Harry Potter” followers by Michael Gambon and the late Richard Harris. Depp delivers one of his better performances as Grindelwald as he stays away from being overly quirky and gives his character a magnetic solemnity.

The pace is picked up in the last third of “Crimes of Grindelwald” as secrets are revealed, characters die, and those still living chose sides. Plenty of magical special effects abound but none are necessarily ground breaking or spell binding. Maybe it’s a sophomore slump and the “Fantastic Beasts” series will get better, but in the meantime it’s a disappointing pill to swallow.

Film Review: “Overlord”

OVERLORD
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell
Directed by: Juluis Avery
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins
Paramount
 
Produced by J.J. Abrams, “Overlord” is not your father’s John Wayne-type World War II flick. Other than the title being derived from Operation Overlord, the codename for the June 6, 1944 Battle of Normandy, best known as D-Day, “Overlord” has little to do with the actual invasion. A mix of action, horror and science fiction, “Overlord” contains a predictable storyline with a degree of vagueness high enough to undermine the plot. However, watching crazy, evil Nazis getting blown apart by the good guys is always excellent fun to watch.
 
The first third of “Overlord” is the most intense of the film as planes full of American paratroopers are flying into Nazi-controlled France on the eve of D-Day. Their mission, as ridiculous as it sounds, is to knock out a singular German radio tower or else the Allied invasion will fail. It’s a chaotic, tense-filled scene as the American fleet tries to survive withering anti-aircraft fire from German positions. Director Julius Avery (“Son of a Gun”) does a wonderful job of making us feel like we are on the plane with lots of shaky camera work. We can almost smell the vomit and the fear.
 
From the moment we meet him we know that Pvt. Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”) is going to be the story’s hero even though he doesn’t have the respect of many of his fellow soldiers. He is especially harassed by Pvt. Tibbet (John Magaro, “Not Fade Away”), a sniper whose bad faux-accent is as annoying as nails on a chalkboard. Amidst the plane’s green soldiers is brooding explosives expert Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell, “22 Jump Street”), the obvious grizzled veteran who doesn’t take any guff from anyone.
 
Eventually it comes down to just four GIs, including our three named American heroes, who must find a way to sneak into the heavily guarded radio tower, which sits on top of a French church. Pvt. Boyce stumbles his way inside, but once there he discovers horrific experiments are being conducted on French villagers, American soldiers, and even dead Germans. Think Captain America soldier serum meets “The Walking Dead.” Some sort of mysterious liquid underneath the church is being refined by a Nazi scientist to make invincible soldiers, which isn’t that the goal of every evil scientist in a war-related movie? Yawn.
 
Ultimately, our heroes, with the assistance of a local girl (Mathilde Ollivier, “The Misfortunes of Francois Jane”), must save the test subjects and destroy the tower while trying to evade a sadistic Nazi officer (Pilou Asbaek, “Game of Thrones”). Oh, and don’t forget they are to ensure that D-Day succeeds.
 
“Overlord” sometimes feels like a version of the Wolfenstein video game, only with slightly better acting. The intensity of the beginning is lost because of predictability and near-campiness of the story. The plot is paper thin with a climax that unfolds like a B-movie. Still, “Overlord” is a bit of a guilty pleasure so get plenty of popcorn.

Film Review: “The Old Man and the Gun”

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN
Starring: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek
Directed by: David Lowery
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
Jesse James. Cole Younger. Billy the Kid. Bonnie and Clyde. All were criminals who robbed and murdered their way into history thanks to being turned into distorted Robin Hoods by dime store novels, bleeding newspaper headlines, and eventually a variety of movies. The supposed glory days of stickup artists arguably ended by the time the 1940s rolled around, yet one man named Forrest Tucker (1920-2004), who had a flair for the dramatic, probably stole more than all the aforementioned bandits combined. His life of crime, which began at the age of 15, is detailed in the current drama “The Old Man and the Gun,” starring Robert Redford in the alleged last acting gig of his career. Redford goes out with a bang in a performance that is charming and engrossing.
 
Written and directed by David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), “The Old Man and the Gun” is based upon a January 27, 2003 article of the same name in “The New Yorker” by American journalist David Grann. Like the title implies, we meet Tucker in his older years when he should be enjoying retirement somewhere sunny or at the very least staying out of trouble with the law. However, we quickly discover that Tucker cannot give up the thing he loves the most no matter what his age is. With fellow thieves Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) in tow as part of what the press dubs the Over the Hill Gang, Tucker continues a nationwide bank heist spree in 1981 that garners the attention of detective and family man John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt and Tucker are complete opposites of each other, but there is a bit of mutual respect as a cat-and-mouse game evolves before Hunt’s case is taken over by the feds.
 
In the middle of it all, Tucker encounters Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a single woman with a small horse farm in the country. He beguiles her with his charm, which Redford fleshes out effortlessly in scenes not only with Spacek, but also in scenes when Tucker is holding up banks with smiles and courtesy. Their chemistry on the silver screen is tangible and watching these two acting masters at work is a special cinematic treat to be savored like a fine wine. Of course, their relationship becomes more complicated when she discovers his real line of work, which is growing increasingly perilous as he continues to take chances despite mounting press coverage of his crimes.
 
Lowery has crafted a wonderful little film that flows smoothly from beginning to end with great acting and solid dialogue. Waits is subtly fantastic as a hardened tough guy while Glover quietly plays a worrywart and Affleck is solid in a nice supporting role. Beneath the entertaining Hollywood veneer, though, is a man who was in and out of jail his entire life, which included 18 alleged successful escapes from various detention centers and prisons. The film glides by how many lives were adversely affected by Tucker’s criminal activities and it only gives a brief nod to what happened to his family. Much like the dime store novels of the 19th century, “The Old Man and The Gun” sentimentalizes Tucker by taking a lot of dramatic license with reality. So much so that Tucker achieves a certain level of sympathetic status that whitewashes the fact he was a habitual criminal.

Film Review: “Museo”

MUSEO
Starring: Gael García Bernal
Directed by: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Vitagraph
 
Every so often a work of cinema is created that is so fantastic and brilliant that it belongs in a museum where it can be forever enshrined. The new Mexican drama “Museo” is not one of those films. “Museo” is the tale of the 1985 robbery of Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology during which over 100 pre-Columbian artifacts were stolen. Never mind the recognition it received at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival, “Museo,” misfiring on nearly every cylinder, is two hours-worth of distorted history, obnoxious musicality, bad writing and directing.
 
The son of a successful doctor, Juan Nuñez (Gael García Bernal, “Y Tu Mamá Tambien,” “Mozart in the Jungle”) is dissatisfied with his upper middle-class lifestyle and family. He claims to be studying for a degree veterinary medicine, but it appears to be a lifelong pursuit because he lacks all motivation to finish. The same is true for his best friend, Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris). While Benjamin may not have quite as comfortable of an existence, he lacks any friends and has little in the way of desire.
 
To alleviate their boredom, Juan hatches a scheme to pull off the greatest heist in Mexico’s history. It seems impossible that could ever work, yet miracle of miracles the two half-wits succeed easily during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Day. They are amazed by the subsequent coverage and how the news media portrays the thieves as part of an international conspiracy. However, their victory is a hollow one.
 
Benjamin proves to be more worried about his ailing father than Juan cares for while Juan himself begins having visions of a Mayan king that lead to having feelings of guilt. It all puts a great stress on their longtime friendship, especially after they meet an unscrupulous artifact dealer who points out to them that their stolen goods are both priceless and worthless at the same time. Despair falls upon them as the manhunt by Mexican authorities begins to breathe down their necks.
 
Extremely little accuracy is paid to the actual events besides that the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City was indeed robbed by two men. Director Ruizpalacios tries to create suspense by having the two imbecilic friends almost get caught by museum security. Never happened. Nor did they try to sell their artifacts right away or develop a guilty conscience as one of the two main culprits in real life was arrested in 1989 while participating in a drug trafficking ring. The dramatic license taken goes beyond absurdity.
 
The choice of musical score is a complete disaster as it is loud, brash, and fails to heighten the nonexistent suspense. It plays like a bad, offensive sample of a Hitchcock film. Making matters worse are a series of ill-suited, quasi still shots of the dynamic duo as they rob the museum. Combine that with some random shaky camera footage, add a rambling sense of storytelling without any tightness and you get a cinematic mess. Bernal is adequate for his role, but his acting is only pushed in one lone, actual memorable scene involving Juan and his stoic father. The only drama you will find in “Museo” is if you can sit through its entirety.

Concert Review: FOO FIGHTERS in Kansas City

 

 Foo Fighters
 Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO
 October 12, 2018
 
During an introduction a few years ago on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman,” the now-retired host said this about the Foo Fighters, “We can all sleep easy at night knowing that somewhere at any given time, the Foo Fighters are out there fighting Foo.” With founder Dave Grohl at the helm, Foo Fighters did plenty of that and then some in front of a packed audience for three wild hours on Friday night (Oct. 12) at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
 
After hitting the multi-generational crowd with three songs – “Run,” “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” and “La Dee Da” – from their ninth studio album “Concrete and Gold,” Grohl, who somehow manages to not blow out his vocal chords, took a break from wailing to let drummer Taylor Hawkins perform an epic solo, which was upon a miniature stage that rose a couple stories above the main stage. This led into “Something From Nothing,” also from their current album, before Grohl and company – bassist Nate Mendel, guitarist Pat Smear, Hawkins, guitarist Chris Shiflett, and keyboardist Rami Jaffee – took the Sprint Center on a rock journey across their 23-year music career.
 
Using just the right amount of laser lights and other visuals to complement their music, the Foo Fighters often went on extended, improvised versions of such classic hits as “The Pretender” and “Learn to Fly.” Without missing a beat, the audience was impressively able to sing every song word for word when called upon by Grohl, who once again proved he is a master showman. Some singers can bore you to tears when they decide to stop and talk in between songs. Grohl is a brilliant exception. Even with plenty of f-bombs to spare, Grohl, much like he did while sitting in a guitar throne three years ago during their last Sprint Center appearance, kept his spectators engaged and entertained.
 
The Foo Fighters took a break from their hit parade to allow each band member to have their own feature solo. No one in the house was disappointed as they demonstrated masterful musicianship, highlighted by a fantastic rendition of “Blitzkrieg Bop” with Smear taking the lead and “Under Pressure” with Grohl on drums and Hawkins on lead vocals. However, perhaps no more fun was to be had than when Grohl explained how important music can be to healing differences with Jaffee playing “Imagine” in the background. With everyone expecting to sing along with the John Lennon classic, Grohl surprised everyone by doing Van Halen’s “Jump” lyrics to the music of “Imagine,” again showing their versatility and playful side.
 
The Foo Fighters wound up the raucous evening of pure American rock with classics “My Hero,” “Monkey Wrench” and “Best of You” before diving into a slightly surprising encore. It featured Grohl inviting an 11-year-old kid onstage to play “Enter Sandman” on guitar, which was to the gleeful delight of the crowd, before the group ultimately ended with mainstay “Everlong.”

SET LIST:  Run, The Sky is a Neighborhood, La Dee Da, Sunday Rain, Something From Nothing, Walk, These Days, Arlandria, The Pretender, Times Like These, All My Life, Learn to Fly, Breakout, Another One Bites the Dust, Imagine/Jump, Blitzkrier Bop, Under Pressure, My Hero, Monkey Wrench, Best of You.  ENCORE:  Enter Sandman, Dirty Water, This is a Call, Everlon.,

 

Film Review: “Blaze”

BLAZE
Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
Rated: R
Running Time:  2 hrs 9 mins
IFC
 
Having grown up listening to the music of country artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, etc., I was surprised I had never heard of Blaze Foley (1949-89). After watching the biopic of the obscure yet influential Austin-based singer/songwriter, I felt saddened that he did not realize the full potential of his artistry. “Blaze” is a tragic tale that flows like a sad country song with little in the way of silver linings. Based upon the 2008 memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” features a powerful breakthrough performance by musician Ben Dickey in an emotionally complex role. Unfortunately, writer/director Ethan Hawke’s endeavor is so draggy at times that it makes a meandering creek look like a raging river.
 
Hawke bravely chose to tell his tale from three different time lines – sometime after the death of Foley within the confines of a radio booth interview; the night of Foley’s death; and the beginnings of his life as an artist when he meets Rosen (Alia Shawkat, “The To Do List”). The interview portion is entertaining as we watch Hawke, who never exposes his face, interview Foley’s friends – singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), who had his own demons to deal with, and Zee (Josh Hamilton). Van Zandt embellishes to the point where you don’t know if he is telling the truth or creating the lyrics to another lonely country song.
 
The portions involving the night of Foley’s death are rather lackluster. Of course, some of the edge is taken off because we know what’s coming, but Hawke fails to make us feel like we are dancing along a razor. It plays more like a Hank Williams, Jr. tune that never made the final cut in the editing room. Dickey still manages to be a steady presence on the silver screen, but it’s the story of his innocent beginnings with Rosen that truly grab our attention and leave the most lasting impression.
 
Much of the story’s focus, and rightfully so since Hawke heavily used the real Rosen’s novel, is on the years when Foley and Rosen met, and lived for a time in a tree house. Dickey towers in these sentimental scenes like a seasoned veteran of the acting craft. While he sometimes forgets to maintain the limp Foley had, Dickey appears to capture the man’s essence with breathless ease. He hits every note with perfection as he portrays a man who fell hard from carefree joy and blossoming artistry into a dark haze of alcohol and drugs that cost him everything – love, career and life.
 
“Blaze” is a tragic story, yet if you subtract Dickey from the equation it feels stuck in neutral while cameos by a pair of stars, one a recent Oscar winner, feel contrived and over the top. Overall, it’s a story that could have used a lot tightening up and more cohesivity. Otherwise, Hawke’s effort falls short of his other tragic-musician tale in the form of 2015’s fantastic “Born to Be Blue.”
 
Having grown up listening to the music of country artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, etc., I was surprised I had never heard of Blaze Foley (1949-89). After watching the biopic of the obscure yet influential Austin-based singer/songwriter, I felt saddened that he did not realize the full potential of his artistry. “Blaze” is a tragic tale that flows like a sad country song with little in the way of silver linings. Based upon the 2008 memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” features a powerful breakthrough performance by musician Ben Dickey in an emotionally complex role. Unfortunately, writer/director Ethan Hawke’s endeavor is so draggy at times that it makes a meandering creek look like a raging river.
 
Hawke bravely chose to tell his tale from three different time lines – sometime after the death of Foley within the confines of a radio booth interview; the night of Foley’s death; and the beginnings of his life as an artist when he meets Rosen (Alia Shawkat, “The To Do List”). The interview portion is entertaining as we watch Hawke, who never exposes his face, interview Foley’s friends – singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), who had his own demons to deal with, and Zee (Josh Hamilton). Van Zandt embellishes to the point where you don’t know if he is telling the truth or creating the lyrics to another lonely country song.
 
The portions involving the night of Foley’s death are rather lackluster. Of course, some of the edge is taken off because we know what’s coming, but Hawke fails to make us feel like we are dancing along a razor. It plays more like a Hank Williams, Jr. tune that never made the final cut in the editing room. Dickey still manages to be a steady presence on the silver screen, but it’s the story of his innocent beginnings with Rosen that truly grab our attention and leave the most lasting impression.
 
Much of the story’s focus, and rightfully so since Hawke heavily used the real Rosen’s novel, is on the years when Foley and Rosen met, and lived for a time in a tree house. Dickey towers in these sentimental scenes like a seasoned veteran of the acting craft. While he sometimes forgets to maintain the limp Foley had, Dickey appears to capture the man’s essence with breathless ease. He hits every note with perfection as he portrays a man who fell hard from carefree joy and blossoming artistry into a dark haze of alcohol and drugs that cost him everything – love, career and life.
 
“Blaze” is a tragic story, yet if you subtract Dickey from the equation it feels stuck in neutral while cameos by a pair of stars, one a recent Oscar winner, feel contrived and over the top. Overall, it’s a story that could have used a lot tightening up and more cohesivity. Otherwise, Hawke’s effort falls short of his other tragic-musician tale in the form of 2015’s fantastic “Born to Be Blue.”

Film Review: “Where Hands Touch”

 

WHERE HANDS TOUCH
Starring: Abby Cornish, Christopher Eccleston
Directed by: Amma Asante
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs 2 mins
Vertical Entertainment
 
The historical drama “Where Hands Touch” glances upon a subject that has been largely overlooked – the persecution of German citizens with African descent by the Nazi government. While their pre-World War II numbers were relatively small (less than 30,000), the Nazis still sought to isolate them socially and economically. They also implemented a barbaric plan of sterilization that was perpetrated against many African Germans. Much of this is brought to light in “Where Hands Touch,” but unfortunately the film, despite its’ horrifying subject matter, is often clunky and lacks the emotional impact of say a “Schindler’s List” or even “Defiance.”
 
We are introduced to Leyna (Amandla Stenberg, “The Hunger Games”), the daughter of an unnamed French African soldier and a German mother (Abbie Cornish, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Bright Star”), in the Spring of 1944 in the German Rhineland. She has recently turned 16 years old and the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s secret state police, has taken an interest in her. Desperate to keep her daughter out of harm’s way, Leyna’s mother flees to Berlin with both her and Leyna’s younger half-brother where she mistakenly believes they can disappear.
 
Leyna’s aunt and uncle don’t want her around nor does the school she briefly attends. All the while, Leyna catches the eye of Lutz (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”), a teenage boy who is an active member of the Hitler Youth and whose father (Christopher Eccleston (“Doctor Who,” “Thor: The Dark World”) is an officer in the Nazi SS. As she begins to fall under increased scrutiny, Leyna and Lutz develop a romance, much to the chagrin of Leyna’s mother who warns her it will only lead to their ruin. The budding teen romance, which becomes sexual, is suddenly halted when Lutz is called up to the Russian front by increasingly desperate Nazi regime and Leyna is hauled off to a concentration camp.
 
Historically speaking, writer/director Amma Asante (“Belle,” “A Way of Life”) does a sound job of portraying the ever-looming danger African Germans had to endure. Through Leyna’s terrified eyes we also see the atrocities committed against anyone else the Nazis deemed not human, best epitomized in a shocking execution scene. However, the damage caused by the bombing of Berlin by the Allies during the winter of 1943-44 is barely reflected on camera and the concentration camp scenes misfire.
 
Cornish delivers a performance that deftly captures a mother’s desperation and Eccleston shines as a father who makes a ghastly decision. Beyond that, the acting is mediocre at best and downright clumsy at worst. It often feels like an overly long, bad stage play, with uninspiring camera work in the beginning despite Asante’s good intentions. “Where Hands Touch” is certainly a work cinema brimming with good intentions as it’s a story that should be told amidst a myriad of Holocaust-related stories which should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, the quality of work is less than average.

Film Review – “Puzzle”

PUZZLE
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Directed by: Marc Turtletaub
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins
Sony Classics
 
It’s sounds cheesy I know, but there’s nothing puzzling about “Puzzle,” a wonderful new drama based upon a 2010 Argentinian film of the same name. Directed by Marc Turtletaub (“Gods Behaving Badly”), who is perhaps better known as a producer of such silver screen works as “Loving” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Puzzle” is an engaging tale about a woman’s empowerment after being taken for granted for at least all her adult life. The spark which fans the flames comes from nothing less than a 1,000-piece puzzle set.
 
Anges (Kelly Macdonald, “Brave,” “No Country for Old Men”) is a suburban, soft-spoken, anti-technology housewife stuck in the same routine every day – getting her husband, Louie (David Denman, “The Office,” “13 Hours”) up for work, cleaning, shopping, cooking for three men, and volunteering at church. That’s pretty much her entire life. She does know she is stuck in this monotonous cycle, but she is unwilling or unable to break free.
 
We get a taste of this right at the beginning when a birthday party turns out to be one she has thrown for herself, complete with a house full of guests and a cake. However, Agnes, for whom we instantly feel a great deal of frustration for, is more intent on fixing a broken plate than being around other people. Afterwards, she discovers a gift from a friend – an orange and brown-hued map of a world she has only dreamed of seeing. With the simple placement of one piece the art of puzzling suddenly becomes an obsession for her.
 
The thrill she gets gives her the confidence to text Robert (Irrfan Khan, “Jurassic World,” “The Lunchbox”), a champion puzzle player who is seeking a doubles partner. A wealthy inventor who spends most of his days watching catastrophes on the news, Robert is surprised by how fast Agnes is. It turns out, though, that they are both lonely souls. Robert is recently divorced while Agnes suffers from being constantly belittled and taken for granted by Louie. When sparks fly it sets Agnes’s world on fire and while it scares her to death it also gives her a newfound confidence.
 
Turtletaub has crafted an evenly-paced work of cinema with subdued colors throughout. The exceptions are often the puzzles themselves when color is emphasized. He also draws out an excellent performance from Macdonald, which could be the best she has delivered. Macdonald effortlessly fleshes out her character’s extreme timidity while infusing her with enough likability that you can’t help but root for her as she transforms into a ferocious butterfly. The physical chemistry between her and Khan comes off as awkward, but the dialogue they share is beautifully written and delivered. Throughout his career, Khan has often had a soulful, philosophical way of conveying lines and he doesn’t disappoint here.
 
“Puzzle” is certainly not a ground-breaking work of cinematic art nor will it probably rank among the pantheon of the best movies of the year. Still, it remains a sweet, delightful work that is as pleasing as finishing a puzzle on the porch while a gentle spring rain pitter-patters on the roof above.

Film Review: “Crazy Rich Asians”

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yoeh
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs
Warner Bros.
 
Romantic comedies can often be a dime a dozen with about as much substance contained in the atmosphere of Mars. Of course, there are brilliant, diamond-like exceptions such as 2017’s “The Big Sick” or 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” While the new “Crazy Rich Asians” may not be nearly as creative or fulfilling as those movies, it’s still at least as good as an unpolished sapphire.
 
Directed by Jon M. Chu, best known for such “legendary” works as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Now You See Me 2,” “Crazy Rich Asians” is based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Singaporean/American novelist Kevin Kwan. It begins in a flashback when Eleanor Young (Michelle Yoeh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is denied entrance into a posh New York City hotel when the white manager sees that she is of Chinese descent. What the racist manager doesn’t know is that Eleanor and her husband, whom we strangely never meet during the movie despite being very much alive, are the hotel’s new owners. It’s a scene that sets up her fierceness, which we later see in an unfavorable light.
 
Flash forward to present day when brilliant American economics professor Rachel Chu (played sweetly by Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat”) is invited by her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (British/Malaysian actor/model/TV host Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. However, charming Nick has not been completely forthright with Rachel when he reveals on the plane that he comes from a wealthy Singapore family, the scope of which she is too naïve to fathom yet.
 
Upon their arrival in Singapore, Rachel is swept away by a night out in Nick’s vibrant hometown with his best friend and his fiancé. Despite descriptions he gives of his family and their business empire, it’s not until Rachel visits her outlandish college friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina, “Ocean’s 8”) that she learns just how influential the Young family is. The real problem, though, is not necessarily the vast gulf between Nick’s upbringing and hers. Instead, it’s the fact that she is an American of Chinese descent and not directly from China, which is something Eleanor is less than fond of.
 
So, between Eleanor and a myriad of jealous, petty Singapore girls who do everything they can to drive her off, Rachel has her work cut out for her if she wishes to see her relationship with Nick continue.
 
“Crazy Rich Asians” has nothing all that new to offer to the romantic comedy genre. It has all the prerequisite boxes you can check off like clockwork – resistant parents of one or both members of the couple; crazy, jealous exes; a goofy best friend that can always be depended upon; a goofy friend that no should ever count on; an impending marriage of some sort; etc. In that sense, “Crazy Rich Asians” is about as crazy as a block of wood.
 
Despite its stereotypical characters and plot we have seen a plethora of times in various forms, “Crazy Rich Asians’ still manages to be an entertaining flick. There are plenty of genuine laughs to be had, especially in scenes involving the hilarious Awkwafina and/or her character’s equally goofy father played by “Hangover” alum Ken Jeong. The romance itself will undoubtedly pull at some heartstrings plus there is a fantastic side story of eventual female empowerment that will make anyone feel good.
 
All in all, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a great date flick for any couple of any age, but don’t expect go into expecting to see something that truly separates itself from general, romantic comedy fair.

Film Review – “The Cakemaker”

THE CAKEMAKER
Starring: Tim Kalkhof and Sarah Adler
Directed by: Ofir Raul Graizer
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
Strand
 
Sometimes it takes just a little patience for a cinematic experience to blossom into a piece of work that can be appreciated for its artistic endeavor. While the Israeli drama “The Cakemaker” may be littered with delicious looking pastries, it takes about half of its nearly two-hour running time before it offers something you can sink your teeth in to. Directed and written by Israeli filmmaker Ofir Raul Graizer (“Dor”), “The Cakemaker” is slow to develop during that first half and it leaves us wondering if it is going somewhere. Thankfully, it saves itself from blandness and leaves us wondering something entirely at the end.
 
Premiering at this year’s 52nd annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, “The Cakemaker” introduces us to Israeli Oren Nachmias (Roy Miller, “When Heroes Fly”) when he steps into a Berlin bakery where a young, talented German baker named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, “Homeland”) is working. In quick order it is revealed that Oren is living a secret life as a gay man while maintaining the life of a happily married family man in Jerusalem. Their affair continues for a quite some time as Oren routinely travels to Berlin on business. However, it all comes to an end when Oren is killed in a car accident after returning home on one of his trips.
 
It takes a while for him to find out, but when Thomas does he is left in a daze. Armed with information he gleaned from Oren during their relationship, Thomas travels to Jerusalem to find Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler, “Foxtrot”). While keeping his knowledge of Oren a secret to himself, Thomas eventually garners a job at Anat’s struggling kosher café. His pastries, however, turn her business around, much to the chagrin of some in Anat’s Jewish neighborhood.
 
It’s all quite dry and laborious, but there is a tangible creepiness to Thomas’s actions as he inserts himself deeper and deeper into his former lover’s life. He even goes so far as to wear a pair of Oren’s swimwear and run in his jogging shorts. What Thomas doesn’t count on is the attraction that the still grieving Anat begins to develop for the troubled German. It puts him in awkward position, but it also appeals to his yearning to experience Oren’s life.
 
Graizer’s story is nothing extraordinarily original, yet he inserts enough small twists in it to make it passably interesting. The relationship between the two men is poorly developed in the beginning, which makes it difficult to become invested in the story. Important elements are brought to light much later, which helps the second half of the film but still leaves the first half high and dry. Graizer’s pacing is also sluggish with too many moments of utter silence with nothing of interest transpiring. Yawn.
 
Miller’s performance is just a blip on the radar and Adler’s is merely satisfactory without enough depth of emotion. Contrary, Kalkhof wears a terrific mask on his face as Thomas is a perplexing character to figure out. What exactly is his end game? Does he want to live a lie, or does he want to do harm to everyone in the middle of the night? His blue eyes speak of someone who is moving along with clear thoughts, but there is a churning, pent-up ocean of emotion rolling around inside him.
 
“The Cakemaker” is a solid endeavor of average cinema with an ending that at least everyone can sit around and debate for a while.

Film Review: “Three Identical Strangers”

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
Starring: Robert Shafran and David Kellman
Directed by: Tim Wardle
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Neon
 
“Three Identical Strangers” is the best documentary thus far in 2018 and one of the best overall films of the year. The well-deserved recipient of a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for storytelling at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “Strangers” is a compelling work that is thoughtful, compelling, moving and leaves a lasting impression for many moons after the credits have faded to black. Even though it’s been 38 years since long lost triplets miraculously reunited, it remains a story with ripple effects being felt to this very day.
 
Initially, “Strangers” reels us in with an infectious enthusiasm we feel radiating from Robert “Bobby” Shafran who describes with a gregarious smile how he stumbled upon his identical twin brother, Edward “Eddy” Galland. Their reunion made headlines across the country, but it became even crazier when a third brother, David Kellman saw doubles of himself in a newspaper. The triplets became overnight sensations and appeared on a multitude of media outlets at a blistering pace, which was only matched by their wild partying. Both David and Bobby recount those days, as well as how they started families, with great fondness. However, things start to take dark turn as “Strangers” begins to develop a grittier, tragic tone with its probe into how they were separated in the first place.
 
As it turns out, the triplets improbable, 1980 reunion in New York set a series of disturbing events in motion that began with a negative meeting between the brothers’ angry parents, who were upset their sons had been intentionally split apart, and an adoption agency with some shadowy backers. It’s paired with an author/journalist in Texas who uncovers a secret study that, as David describes, turned the brothers into lab rats.
 
The sinister background to it all begins with late child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Peter Neubauer (1913-2008). Neubauer was an Austrian Jew who was able to escape his Nazi-controlled country by fleeing into neutral Switzerland where he completed his training before moving in 1941 to New York City. It sounds heroic enough until we learn that like the Nazis he fled from, Neubauer initiated an inhuman, concentration camp-like experiment by orchestrating a program in which several sets of twins and one set of triplets, the brothers in “Strangers,” were deliberately separated during infancy as part of a clandestine “nature vs. nurture” experiment. Even more shocking is that it was the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services who helped Neubauer with a program that led to a variety of mental health issues among its unwitting participants as they entered adulthood.
 
Naturally, Bobby and David, among others, continually try to demand answers, but he ended the program in 1980, Neubauer, realizing his work would be controversial, had his study sealed upon his death at Yale University until the year 2066, thus insuring its participants would be dead by the time its findings would be released to the public.
 
“Strangers” is a superb example of documentary filmmaking as it entertains, educates and causes thought provoking discussion of the subject matter. All of director Tim Wardle’s interview subjects are engrossing to listen to and his overall storytelling flows naturally like winding stream. His work shines a light on a dark tragedy that almost disappeared into the shadows. This is a film that should not be missed.

 

Film Review: “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot”

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 54 mins
Amazon Studios
There is little doubt that the late cartoonist John Callahan (1951-2010) was as politically incorrect as they come. However, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, he had enough of a good life, or at least enough of an interesting one to base a movie on. After several years in limbo, Callahan’s biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” has finally hit the silver screen. Directed by Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Drugstore Cowboy”), this emotionally charged drama is one of the best films of 2018 thus far. This is due in large part to epic performances by three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master,” “Walk the Line,” and “Gladiator”) as the lead and Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Moneyball”) in a supporting role.
Based upon Callahan’s memoir “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?”, “Don’t Worry” is not a step-by-step biopic flick as it subtly dances back and forth among time frames during his life. An extra curve ball is thrown into the mix when some of his more notable drawings interject themselves across the screen to punctuate what his critics labeled as off-color humor. What we do learn about Callahan is that he was abandoned at a Catholic orphanage soon after birth and grew up in an area of Oregon called The Dalles near Portland. An alcoholic starting at the age of 12, Callahan became a quadriplegic at age 21 when on one evening in 1972 the equally inebriated driver (played by Jack Black) of his Volkswagen crashed into a utility pole at 90 miles per hour.
After months of rehabilitation, Callahan is eventually released back into the wild, but he continues to drink, something that is not played as darkly as it could have been. A day eventually comes when he hits rock bottom and he joins an Alcoholics Anonymous group sponsored by the guru-like son of rich parents, Donne Green (Hill). Green speaks continually of being honest and of recognizing a higher power to Callahan as he slowly makes his way through a 12-step program. Through it all he develops a relationship with a pixie-like flight attendant (Rooney Mara) from Sweden whom he first meets shortly after his spinal surgery. It’s an unlikely relationship and one that seems out of place within the film. It impedes the overall pacing of the story as it also eliminates other aspects of the real Callahan’s life that could have been examined – his earning a degree at Portland State University, his troubled childhood, or the six-year bender he went on after his accident, for example.
Don’t worry, this film is not all gut-wrenching sadness and pain as there is joy to be found in watching Callahan discover his true gift in life, a gift that led him to becoming a successful newspaper cartoonist despite his physical limitations. Phoenix delivers a raw, emotional performance as dives into his character with abandon. It ranks as one of his best roles and deserves to be remembered when Oscar season comes around. The same can be said for Hill who shines in a career defining role as an AA sponsor with his own set of demons. It is a genuine pleasure to watch them both as “Don’t Worry” won’t leave you any time soon after you leave the theater.