Film Review: Babyteeth”

  • BABYTEETH
  • Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn
  • Directed by: Shannon Murphy
  • Rated: Rated MA-17
  • Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins
  • IFC Films 

The tragic teen love story about a girl or boy who is terminally ill yet finds true love with minutes left on the clock is the poster child for cliched storylines. At first glance, “Babyteeth” appears to be nothing more than just that. However, with a quartet of interesting, complex characters trying to find their way in the shadow of a young girl’s terminal cancer, “Babyteeth” becomes something quite unexpected – pure cinematic art. The kind of art that provokes a deep, emotional reaction which will stay with you long after the final credits had disappeared off the screen. 

Based upon the stage play by Rita Kalnejais, who also wrote the screenplay for the film version, and directed by Shannon Murphy (“On the Ropes,” “Rake”), “Babyteeth” starts us at a train station where Milla (Eliza Scanlen, “Little Women,” “Sharp Objects”), bedecked in her high school uniform, stands gazing at the tracks in a way that suggests she is pondering death. This is when Moses (Toby Wallace, “Boys in the Trees”), a rat-tailed young man a few years her senior, bumps into her. When her nose starts to bleed, Moses, who may be high on something and possibly homeless, bends over backwards to help her, and from that point on Milla is smitten with him.

 Scanlen draws us in with a profound sense of innocence, despair and longing all rolled into one. There is an air of tragedy about her so thick that it is hard to breathe. Still, a visible spark is ignited within her and Scanlen plays it masterfully as Milla’s passion to live life is reawakened by what will become her first and only love. Wallace, the recipient of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress at the 76th Venice International Film Festival for this very role, is damaged goods himself. He longs to have a relationship with his estranged mother, but Moses would rather play the tough, street thug card. On the surface, his character seems stereotypical, yet Wallace manages to subtly infuse several degrees of complexity into his role that is both surprising and rewarding. 

Rounding off the quartet is Milla’s psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, “Ready Player One,” “Rogue One”) and her pill-popping, former classical pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis, “True History of the Kelly Gang,” “Assassin’s Creed”). With his daughter’s terminal diagnosis looming over him, the pressure on Henry to get through each day keeps growing. It eventually pushes him to make a pass at his pregnant, much younger next-door neighbor, who symbolizes a way out to a more normal or at least alternative existence for him. All the while, Anna takes a wide array of pills as her way to escape from a reality that she knows deep down will not include her daughter for much longer. 

Mendelsohn and Davis share a great onscreen chemistry with one another as they face any parents’ worst nightmare. There are times when, especially towards the end of Milla’s life, they press on with a sense of grace that tightens their bond. They are even able to laugh at the craziness of letting Anna date a small time drug dealer in Moses who even breaks into their house at one point to steal Anna’s pills. However, how can they deny her the experience of a first love? Especially one which serves as a means for Moses to transform himself. 

We know how “Babyteeth” is going to end. It is clear as day. The brilliance of Murphy’s direction is that when we do reach the end, we are still emotionally moved to the point of tears.

Film Review: “The Other Lamb”

THE OTHER LAMB
Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman
Directed by: Malgorzata Szumowska
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins
IFC Films 

Officially, it is listed as a “drama/horror” film. However, “The Other Lamb,” currently streaming on-demand, is neither dramatic nor horrific. While it does have an interesting concept involving a mysterious cult leader and his all-female flock, “The Other Lamb” misfires on nearly every single level imaginable. In a remote section of forest dwells a small commune of women, ranging in approximate age from eight to thirty-somethings, who are held together by a man only referred to as the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, “The Age of Adaline”). While doing his best to resemble the Caucasian version of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd exudes an inexplicable magnetism that his multiple wives are captivated by. 

There is a noticeable “Handmaids Tale” look to it all with the stark contrast of red and blue uniforms the Shepherd’s wives and daughters are forced wear against the often bleak, natural landscape around them. Unfortunately, “The Other Lamb” does not provide any background for the female characters other than the hint that they were once all “broken” women. Only his daughter, Selah (Raffey Cassidy, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) and a wife, Sarah (Denise Gough, “’71”) who has become disillusioned with the Shepherd, are given anything resembling depth. It is akin to looking at a coloring book without any colors filled in.

 We also never glean much about the Shepherd either, whether it be his past or how he can wield such control over the women. As a result, there is a psychological dynamic that is missing. All we see is him standing around looking stoic and telling the women how if they behave, they will have his grace, which they scream hysterically over like he was Elvis Presley.

 The director, Malgorzata Szumowska (“Mug”) inserts symbolic imagery throughout the film to explain what is going on in Selah’s head as she begins to spiral down into her own rabbit hole. Some of the images are intended as an allusion to Selah becoming a woman, yet, it often comes across as a boring, gimmicky acid trip. 

There is a bit of a mystery as to what happens to baby boys born in the Shepherd’s flock, something that is eventually answered in a memorable way as they trek to find a new home in the wilderness. It is also a turning point for Selah as she becomes increasingly revolted by the Shepherd whose actions turn more heinous, including incest. 

Overall, “The Other Lamb” is a rambling mess that wanders aimlessly across the screen until it reaches a conclusion that is meant to be unsettling but is unsatisfying.

Film Review: “Resistance”

  • RESISTANCE
  • Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy
  • Directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs
  • IFC Films 

The name Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) is synonymous with mime artistry as he was the godfather of the silent artform. While his name conjures white face paint and silent, comedic stagecraft influenced by Charlie Chaplin, there was a tremendous heroism behind the façade that had started to dim with time. However, the new war drama, “Resistance” seeks to remind us of the incredible actions Marceau undertook as a member of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation. 

An attempt to create a tone for “Resistance” is set during its opening scene, which takes place on the infamous night of November 9, 1938 in Munich, Nazi Germany. Known ever since as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, German Jews were targeted by Nazi paramilitary forces throughout the country. Thousands of businesses and hundreds of synagogues were destroyed while thousands of Jewish men were arrested. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Hands of Stone”) gives us a harrowing depiction of this horrific event through the eyes of a young girl who watches helplessly as her parents are murdered in the street during the assault. It’s a powerful sequence meant to grab our attention, but that momentum is quickly dissipated. 

We are suddenly transported to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany where Gen. George S. Patton (Ed Harris) addresses troops under his command at a former Nazi rallying point. Harris does not capture the emotional spirit of Patton as he stoically tells his men about a resistance fighter who made their sacrifice worth it. It is then that we are whiplashed back to Strasbourg, France shortly after Kristallnacht. Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose real last name was Mangel, is a self-absorbed, wannabe thespian whose disapproving Jewish father would rather see him become a butcher. 

Marcel’s life is forever changed when he is brought in by his cousin, Georges Loinger (Géza Röhrig, “The Chaperone”) to entertain over 100 German Jewish children, who were left orphaned after Kristallnacht, when they are brought over to France. Marcel becomes emboldened to join the French Resistance and finds an inner strength in the process as he and his fellow resistance members try to save Jewish children by crossing the Alps into neutral Switzerland. 

Eisenberg is at his best when he is portraying Marcel doing mime, particularly when it is in front of American troops. Even so, his overall performance fails to get us too deeply invested on an emotional level with his real-life character. This is representative of the entire film as it does not leave a lasting impression as say other titles like “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” or “Son of Saul.” For lack of a better word, “Resistance” is generic. There are moments of darkness and terror, punctuated by scenes involving Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer, “100 Things”) who is a little overplayed. 

Despite its subpar quality, “Resistance” is still an important film to be watched as it sheds light again on a true hero plus, it reminds us all again that we should never forget what happened to the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims.

Film Review: “Blow the Man Down”

  • BLOW THE MAN DOWN
  • Starring: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor
  • Directed by: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins
  • Amazon Prime Video

 With a title borrowed from a classic English sea shanty, “Blow the Man Down” is an average, yet entertaining mystery/drama with a multitude of secrets that emanates a “Fargo”-like vibe. First-time feature length directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, who also co-wrote the film that debuted on Amazon Prime, have crafted a smooth-paced work of cinema with a few flashes of well-timed suspense. 

Set in the small, picturesque fishing village of Easter Cove, Maine, “Blow the Man Down” begins with the Catholic wake of one Mary Margaret Connolly. Her two daughters – Priscilla (Sophie Lowe, “The Beautiful Lie”) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor, “Homeland”) – are naturally saddened by the loss of their mother, whom they had to care for in recent times. The girls, though, seem surprised to hear tales from their mother’s three closest friends – Susie Gallagher (Academy Award nominee June Squibb, “Nebraska”), Gail Maguire (Academy Award nominee Annette O’Toole, “A Mighty Wind”) and Doreen Burke (Marceline Hugot, “The Messenger”) – of how Mary had saved their bacon on several occasions. 

Interspersed within this sadness is a scene in which a nameless woman frantically jumps out of a car and runs screaming from an angry man who eventually tackles her. All the while a woman we come to know as Enid Nora Devlin (Margo Martindale, “August: Osage County”) watches silently from a second story window. We get the sense she may approve of the violence that is transpiring and thus has no interest in helping the woman. It’s brief but it’s an important nugget of things to come.

 Back at Mary’s house, the younger Mary Beth is dismayed to learn from Priscilla that their mother has left them with nothing. Mary Beth leaves in an explosion of anger and ends up at a dive bar where she latches onto a man who proves to be far more dangerous than she had ever considered. This is followed by a killing and cover-up that leads the sisters down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies involving prostitution, bribery, murder and a police force that either looks the other way or is incompetent. 

Even with a solid story, “Blow the Man Down” does contain some mystery clichés so don’t expect anything fresh when watching it. Additionally, the two leads are fine enough in their roles, but they are overshadowed greatly by the much older, supporting female cast. Squibb, O’Toole and Hugot are a hoot as a trio and they excel at making us feel like there is something more to their characters without giving too much away too quickly. 

Overall, the real star is Martindale who is simply a delight to watch. A woman with a ton of secrets and a hardened, mean streak a mile wide and a mile deep, Enid is someone that proves to be a perfect antagonist. Martindale also infuses her character with a level of complexity that the other cast members are not quite able to achieve. 

Call it a poor man’s version of “Knives Out,” “Blow the Man Down” is a nice way to spend 90 minutes in front of a screen at home.

Film Review: “The Way Back”

THE WAY BACK
Starring: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins
Warner Bros. 

Having its release date delayed several months was not a good sign for the new sports drama “The Way Back” starring Ben Affleck. However, instead of just being another piece of cinematic rubbish that is typically released at the beginning of each year, “The Way Back” proves to be one of the greatest cinematic surprises in recent memory. With one of Affleck’s finest performances to date, this sports drama about an alcoholic who becomes a high school basketball coach ranks among the pantheon of such classics as “Hoosiers” and “Bull Durham.”

 The life of construction worker Jack Cunningham (Affleck) has boiled down to this: wake up and have a beer while showering; drive to work while having another beer; work all day while drinking some more; drive back home while drinking; and then either drink a case of beer in his run-down apartment or drink himself into a stupor at a local bar. It’s a tragic life as he is clearly on a path to drinking himself to death. 

One day, Jack receives a coaching offer from the priest who oversees his alma mater – a private Catholic school that is experiencing some hard times thanks to diminishing enrollment. We learn that once upon a time, Jack was a high school basketball phenom and was recruited by NCAA Division I programs. However, Jack walked away from basketball after high school and never looked back. 

Reluctantly, Jack takes on the role, but he soon discovers that his team is less than stellar and his assistant coach (Al Madrigal, “The Daily Show”) is a math teacher with no real experience. There are some predictable things that subsequently occur, but for the most part, the story evolves beyond general sports clichés, which typically dominate this subgenre, and deals with real life issues, thus giving “The Way Back” substance over style. 

Whether he likes it or not, Jack becomes a mentor to his players, particularly so for the team’s lone standout. Yet his newfound lease on life is shaky at best because of the underlying issues that remain, which are brought to the forefront again when his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, “True Blood”) reaches out to him. Inevitably, Jack hits rock bottom in a painful and sad way. 

Once upon a time, yours truly was offered a position as a basketball coach at a private high school. Strictly basketball speaking, Affleck nails the evolution of Jack’s growth as a rookie coach and as a mentor to young men, notwithstanding his profane tirades. Director Gavin O’Connor (“The Accountant”) also brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the little gymnasiums that these schools play in as well as bringing an authenticity to the depiction of games played. 

Affleck has been open about his own battle with alcoholism in recent years and it is easy to see that he gave everything he had to the role. As the lone “star” of the film, Affleck lives up to the challenge with a fantastic performance as a man in great pain that is raw and authentic. In the end, like a Steph Curry jump shot, “The Way Back” is nothing but net.

Film Review: “Ordinary Love”

ORDINARY LOVE
Starring: Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville
Directed by: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 32 mins
Bleecker Street Media 

Nearly everyone has been affected by cancer in some way. Whether you have had to battle it yourself or had a family member, friend or acquaintance to be diagnosed with it, cancer, as we all know too well, is non-discriminatory as to who it invades. In the somber British drama “Ordinary Love,” this hideous disease inflicts a toll on the relationship of a devoted married couple still haunted by a tragic loss. The ups and downs they experience during one long year are portrayed with absolute brilliance and humanity by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”). 

By the time we meet Tom (Neeson) and Joan (Manville), their relationship has developed into one that feels like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. There is a tangible ease about how they interact with each other, punctuated by wonderful chemistry between the two leads. Initially, they have all the appearances of carefree empty nesters enjoying the autumn period of their lives. However, when Joan discovers a lump in her breast, we learn that underneath the pleasant exterior of their marriage is a scar that runs deep in their souls.

 Somehow, their marriage endured the death of their daughter long ago, but cancer threatens to put them through an altogether different ordeal. Despite trying to maintain a stiff upper lip about her diagnosis, Joan is racked with fear of the unknown while Tom swims in denial while trying to do his best to be supportive. What unfolds over the course of a year are challenges they meet with a variety of emotions, ranging from gut-wrenching despair to laughter to anger born from frustration. Through it all there is a grace which carries them through. 

“Ordinary Love,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is a serious work of cinematic art that will leave its mark on you. It is raw and unfiltered. Neeson and Manville are terrific at making us feel the painful intensity of their characters’ emotions. For her part, Manville, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” delivers a gut-wrenching performance as a woman trying to endure a disease that takes its toll on the mind, body and spirit. 

The film’s brevity, at just over an hour-and-a-half, means less time the story can explore the medical/hospital elements of Joan’s cancer. As such, these moments seem rushed and too abbreviated, thus lessening how truly impactful “Ordinary Love” could have been. Some elements are also predictable, yet this can be overlooked as a negative because of the overall emotional potency within the film. “Ordinary Love” is certainly not ordinary and will hit close to home for anyone who has been touched by cancer. 

Film Review: “Emma”

EMMA
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Rated: Rated PG
Running Time: 2 hrs 5 mins
Focus Features 

Patience is a virtue and you must be virtuous indeed to eventually enjoy the newest adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 classic novel, “Emma.” This is due to its initial pacing, which is lethargic, and it takes a bit to get comfortable with the cadence of the dialogue. Anya Taylor-Joy (“Glass,” “Split”) delivers a solid performance as the strong-willed title character, but excepting Bill Nighy as her character’s somewhat eccentric father, the remaining supporting cast doesn’t provide much that is memorable. Some of the blasé quality can arguably be attributed to “Emma” being the feature-length film debut for American director Autumn de Wilde, whose previous endeavors have predominately been video shorts. The trick for something so well known, and thus predictable like “Emma” is for it to be unpredictable. Sadly, it fails to surprise in any way. 

This silver screen adaptation of Austen’s work begins by telling us that, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition… and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Having grown up in a privileged, aristocratic existence, Emma is spoiled and is vain about her matchmaking abilities. Her own self-aggrandizement has caused her to be blind to the dangers of playing with other people’s hearts. 

With no wish to become married herself, even though she pines away for an often talked about yet unseen Frank Churchill (Callum Turner, “War & Peace”), it has become Emma’s desire to follow-up her most recent matchmaking success by finding a suitable suitor for her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, “Suspiria”). Harriet is a nice girl with a pleasant disposition but is not as high on the social ladder as Emma, which is a challenge for her because she wants to upgrade Harriet’s status.

 Emma proves to be ignorant of a good thing right in front of her in the form of one George Knightley (Johnny Flynn, “Clouds of Sils Maria”), a gentleman of means who lives within walking distance. Generous and kind-hearted, George doesn’t mince words with Emma as he often expresses disdain for her meddling in other people’s affairs. Ultimately, Emma finds herself in an ostracized position and must look inward in order to make things right.

 “Emma” contains some beautiful costume designs, wonderful locations, and good cinematography throughout its running time. It’s nice icing on the cake, but the cake itself is what’s truly important. There are a few moments that produce laughter, especially ones involving Nighy being a scene stealer, but de Wilde’s retelling fails to pull on the heartstrings enough to evoke a deep, emotional reaction when the climax arrives. It’s a decent enough film so that one doesn’t feel like they have wasted two hours of their life, yet “Emma” isn’t something that’s so impactful that you will still remember it say two years from now except, of course, for perhaps diehard Austen fans.

Film Review: “The Call of the Wild”

THE CALL OF THE WILD
Starring: Harrison Ford
Directed by: Chris Sanders
Rated: Rated PG
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins
20th Century Studios 

The 1903 novel “The Call of the Wild” by American novelist John “Jack” London (1876-1916) was written after the author had spent nearly a year in the wilds of the Canadian Yukon. It is arguably his most popular work and has been adapted to film several times – a silent film in 1923 followed by a 1935 version starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and numerous others since. Its indelible mark on American literature cannot be discounted as Hollywood has yet again decided to release another silver screen adaptation. Directed by Chris Sanders (“The Croods,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) and starring Harrison Ford, this newest incarnation is a dullish version of London’s classic tale. It’s tragic because the original story is full of harrowing adventure and timeless themes. However, its clear that Sanders and 20th Century Studios, formerly 20th Century Fox, wanted to make a more politically correct and kid-friendly story. 

Set in 1897, we meet Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, at the Santa Clara Valley home of one Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). A highly intelligent, happy-go-lucky pet, Buck has a knack for getting himself into trouble. It’s all nice and cute and feels like a Disney movie at this point, but what becomes annoying perpetually forward is that Buck is a CGI creation, and a poor one at that. It gives the film a phony quality, but of course it might have caused too much controversy if a real dog had been used instead. Be that as it may, after one trouble-filled occasion, Buck is forced to stay the night on the porch, which proves to be a fateful decision by Judge Miller. A nefarious local steals Buck for the money he will receive from those looking for good sled dogs in the Yukon. 

After learning the law of the club, Buck is purchased by a mail deliverer and his assistant who need a new dog for their sled team. (Amidst this, Buck has his first encounter with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man with a wounded soul looking to disappear into the northern wilderness.) Gradually, Buck, guided by a black wolf that represents his inner call to the wild, learns to be a part of a pack, but he ends up butting heads with the team’s menacing sled leader, Spitz for leadership. This conflict, for example, has been watered-down to the point it fails to reflect the struggles of nature that London related in his work. However, it’s par for the course as London’s original, brilliant story is repeatedly gutted. 

Eventually, Buck acquires yet another new master, but this one is cruel, naïve and blinded by gold lust. When Buck is worked nearly to death, it is Thornton who saves him and takes him in. Perpetually mourning the loss of his son, Thornton answers a call to adventure and sets out with Buck to find the wildest place they can. Once there, Buck is put in a position to decide if he wants to stay in the world of man or answer his ancestral calling. The real calling, though, that everyone should answer is stay away from this movie. Instead, pick up London’s book, or download it, and read it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Film Review: “The Gentlemen”

THE GENTLEMEN
Starring: Matthew McConaughey abd Charlie Hunnam
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
STX Entertainment 

There’s little that’s gentlemanly about the sordid cast of characters in director Guy Ritchie’s new action crime thriller “The Gentlemen.” However, there is plenty to enjoy in this wonderful caper that’s brimming with sharp dialogue, a delicious plot and a few laughs along the way. It is certainly Ritchie’s best effort since 2011’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and is only surpassed by 2000’s “Snatch” as his greatest overall work. With a talented, all-star ensemble cast, and a terrific hook at the start, Ritchie takes us on an exciting, twisting journey that’s certainly not for the kiddos. 

From an impoverished childhood in the United States, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) rose above his situation to earn a Rhodes Scholarship to England’s esteemed Oxford University. Instead of becoming a law-abiding scholar, Mickey saw the monetary potential in selling marijuana to his fellow students. Those humble beginnings led Mickey, often through violent means, to build a multi-million-dollar illegal empire. Despite the power, and prestige he commands, Mickey has grown tired of the game and wants out to spend time with his beloved, yet equally criminal wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey”), for whom he will do anything. 

Much of this background information is told to us during an extended, elaborate conversation between an unsavory, thick-accented private investigator named Fletcher (scene stealer Hugh Grant), who’s been hired by a jilted tabloid editor snubbed in public by Mickey, and Mickey’s righthand enforcer, Ray (played with subdued rage by Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”). For his efforts, which he has typed up in a screenplay form, Fletcher wants 20 million British pounds to keep his scoop silent. 

Meanwhile, Mickey finds a potential buyer for his empire, but there is a concern that this will show competitors that he has become weak. Blood is spilled in the water when one of Mickey’s illegal sites is robbed by a group of young, social media savvy thugs led by a man known simply as Coach (Colin Farrell). The plot only thickens with the introduction of overly ambitious, young Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”) and the accidental death of a Russian mobster’s son. 

McConaughey is perfect for this role. Of course, he is quite adept at playing it cool, calm and collected, as demonstrated in a variety of his previous performances. What makes this more notable is the vengeful side he fleshes out while playing Mickey. It’s something we don’t normally see from him and he is brilliant at unleashing the lion in “The Gentlemen.” For their parts, Golding is a nice surprise as a villain and Farrell is marvelously entertaining, harkening back to Brad Pitt’s unintelligible performance in “Snatch.” 

Written by Ritchie, the plot is chock full of twists and surprises that keep one glue to the silver screen, waiting on edge as to what is going to happen next. There are some laughs amidst the violence, which is brutal enough, along with adult-oriented lingo, to make “The Gentlemen” non-kid friendly. Ritchie’s pacing is just as quick as the dialogue with nary a dull moment. In the end, “The Gentlemen” is a jolly good time and the best release of the new year thus far!  

Kansas City Stage Review: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the Musical

  • “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
  • The Kauffman Center – Kansas City, Missouri
  • January 21, 2020 

Oh, how sweet it is! Filled with colorful costumes, magical set designs, and wonderful songs that will put a smile on your face, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” now performing at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center in Kansas City, Missouri, is a terrific musical the whole family can enjoy. Based upon the 1964 children’s novel of the same name by British novelist Roald Dahl (1916-90), “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was first adapted for the silver screen in 1971 and then again in 2005 before premiering as a musical in 2013 in London.

 The musical version takes us to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory where, after being shut up for 40 years, the legendary chocolatier (Cody Garcia) decides to venture out into the real world to find an heir. Disguised as a chocolate shop owner, Willy ends up befriending, in a small way, a local boy named Charlie Bucket (Ryan Umbarila). Charlie lives an impoverished life just down the block with two sets of grandparents, who never leave their bed, and his widowed, overworked mother. 

Charlie is a dreamer to the tenth degree and so, it’s only natural that he becomes enamored with the idea of getting a Wonka chocolate bar in order to get a golden ticket. The five lucky recipients of which will get to go on a tour of Willy’s factory with the chance to win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Of course, the whimsical and quirky Willy has other plans. Charlie ultimately proves himself to be a good-hearted lad, especially when compared to the other four children who reveal themselves to be brats, each meeting their own unique, laughable fate during the tour. 

The first half of the show contained a couple of heartfelt moments between Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (Steve McCoy) that pulled at the heartstrings. Umbarila had an overall nice stage presence but was overshadowed a bit by McCoy’s charismatic delivery of his comedic lines. Despite Charlie’s underdog nature, the most fascinating character remained Wonka himself. However, his portrayal during the first act was a little flat, which was accompanied by a sluggish pace even with a few entertaining dance sequences. 

The true highlight of the night’s show was the second act. It was fun, lively, colorful and thoroughly entertaining. Garcia delivered a superb performance down the stretch run with a portrayal that was reminiscent of a blend between Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. Supported by a solid orchestral performance, the musical’s second act was punctuated by well-choreographed Oompa Loompas who generated the biggest laughs of the night. 

In the end, don’t wait for a golden ticket in a candy bar to see “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” because it will be gone before you know it. 

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” runs in Kansas City at the beautiful Kauffman Center through January 26th. For tickets in KC or for the rest of the tour, click HERE.

Film Review: “Three Christs”

THREE CHRISTS
Starring: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage
Directed by: John Avnet
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins
IFC Films 

When you think of great films with mental hospitals as the setting, indelible titles such as 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or 1990’s “Awakenings” probably come to mind. With a similar backdrop, the drama “Three Christs,” starring Richard Gere, boldly attempts to delve into the realm of paranoid schizophrenia by exploring a time when pre-fontal lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, and electroshock therapies were standard treatments. Directed by John Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), “Three Christs” alas fails to achieve any level of greatness as it is saturated with terrible melodrama and an overall lack of emotional connectivity.

 An adaptation of the 1964 psychiatric case study “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by psychologist Milton Rokeach, “Three Christs” takes us back to December 1960 when a bruised Dr. Alan Stone (Gere) is recording a defense of himself against accusations leveled at him by a disciplinary board. It’s a nice hook as it gives off a sense of mystery. We are soon taken back to the beginning during the summer of 1959 when he arrives at the Ypsilanti State Hospital.

 Having left a prolific teaching and writing career to pursue a study of delusional patients, Dr. Stone, with the help of his new assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, “The Theory of Everything”), finds three men who all claim to be Jesus Christ. Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) are tragic figures with sad pasts. Each has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics and left to essentially rot in near-barbaric conditions. 

With the encouragement of his wife (Julianna Marguiles), Dr. Stone challenges his peers and a reluctant hospital head by using more modern methods that don’t involve inflicting pain. The irony is that he is treating three men collectively who believe they are Christ while he himself does not believe in organized religion. Gradually he makes progress, but countless roadblocks make it a treacherous path. 

Despite having a solid cast, “Three Christs” falls flat on nearly every level imaginable. The story is without any unique qualities as it feels like any other run-of-the-mill medical drama. Its characters are nothing special and Gere seems to just rely upon every facial gesture he has ever used in his past films instead of pushing for something more. The pacing is sluggish, and the plot is predictable. Gere is also not believable as the father to two young, pre-teen daughters considering he was roughly 67 years old at the time of filming. Furthermore, we are supposed to believe Dr. Stone fought in WWII and Korea. Assuming his character matches his age, then Dr. Stone would have been 59 or 60 while fighting on the front lines against North Korea. Uh, no. Of course, to be fair I should mention the rest of the cast, which can be covered in one statement – every actor is so over-the-top with their performances you have to wonder how on earth the film ever got released, much less contemplate if Avnet should ever direct again. 

In the end, “Three Christs” is a strikeout.

Film Review: “1917”

1917
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Universal Pictures 

With three Golden Globe nominations, “1917” is not only a masterful example of the war film genre, but it is also a masterpiece of cinema in general. Directed by Oscar-winning British filmmaker Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “The Road to Perdition”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”), “1917” is a highly accurate depiction of the Great War with a plot that is essentially Great Britain’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

 The story takes place during Operation Alberich, a strategic German military withdrawal lasting from February 9 to March 20, 1917 in France. Its purpose was to shorten German lines along a section of the Western Front in order to consolidate forces along the Hindenburg Line. “1917” plays upon this event by thrusting two young men into what appears to be an impossible mission.

 British Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, “The King,” “Game of Thrones”) and Schofield (George MacKay, “Where Hands Touch,” “Captain Fantastic”) are suddenly pulled away from their unit on orders from their overall commander, General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The general needs a message dispatched deep into German territory to stop the advance of a Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes he is pursuing a defeated enemy when in fact it is a trap that will cost the lives of 1,600 men including Lance Corporal Blake’s brother. 

Lance Corporal Schofield is the more seasoned veteran of the two and is wary of crossing No Man’s Land as he believes they are the ones who are walking into a trap. However, Lance Corporal Blake is doggedly determined go through with the mission, which must be completed by the next morning when the fateful offensive by Colonel MacKenzie is planned. In their way lies a myriad of obstacles including endless amounts of mud, deep craters, barbed wire, booby traps and German snipers. It is a heart-pounding, near-continuous sequence of events that will leave you riveted to the silver screen. 

Historically, “1917” delivers the goods with its accurate depiction of trench warfare ranging from the uniforms worn to the hellish conditions to the psychological effects on the soldiers. Painstaking care was clearly made to get every battlefield detail right as well as an accurate depiction of the Germans’ scorched earth policy as they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line. “1917” also delves into the toll the German occupation had on the French civilian population, best embodied by a young woman barely surviving in a burned-out city. 

Chapman and MacKay deliver solid performances throughout the film as they humanize their characters, thereby making it easy for us to become emotionally invested in their epic journey. The biggest praise, though, is reserved for Mendes direction. For example, the first half of the nearly two-hour film, which does not feel that long, is shot so seamlessly that it has all the appearance of being one, long continuous take. His orchestration of mass chaos with a multitude of extras and cameras, not to mention how his hand-held work puts us right in the trenches, is worthy of an Oscar for best cinematography. “1917” is nothing less than one of the ten best movies of 2019.

Film Review: “Richard Jewell”

RICHARD JEWELL
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 59 mins
Warner Bros 

Richard Jewell. I cannot help but wonder how many Americans recognize the name and the heroic actions associated with it. Better yet, who can recall how Jewell’s heroism during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia was tragically stained by an assumption of guilt by the FBI and the news media, which subsequently caused millions to believe he was a domestic terrorist. Thankfully, someone in the form of iconic, Oscar-winning filmmaker Clint Eastwood did not forget and has now made a poignant drama that pays tribute to a simple man who saved dozens of lives one hot summer night. 

It’s 1986 in Atlanta where Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, “BlacKkKlansman”) has just started work as a mailroom employee at a law firm. Portrayed as respectful and observant with a dose of simple-mindedness, Jewell catches the eye of attorney Watson Bryant (Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell). A pivotal friendship develops between them with long-term consequences and when Jewell announces that he is leaving to become a security guard, a first step in what he dreams will become a career in law enforcement, Watson, a bit of crusader, warns him to not let the badge go to his head.

 Flash forward ten years later where Jewell, who lives with his doting mother, Bobi (Oscar-winner Kathy Bates), is fired from his job as a college campus security guard after a series of events that include him unlawfully pulling over students on the road as they return to school grounds. Having previously been dismissed as county sheriff’s deputy, it would seem likely that Jewell would have a hard time getting another security guard job. However, with the arrival of the Olympics in Atlanta, bodies are needed, so Jewell, almost delusional about being a member of law enforcement, gets another chance to patrol Centennial Park. 

No one takes Jewell seriously, that is until he finds a suspicious backpack filled with pipe bombs. Two people do perish as a result of the subsequent explosion and dozens are wounded, but it would have been much worse without his actions in a pre-9/11 world that wasn’t quite as vigilant. Jewell is hailed as a hero, but he is quickly labeled as a villain by fictional FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm in a one-dimensional performance), a man desperate to get vengeance, and newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs (played with over-the-top acting by Olivia Wilde), an unscrupulous and brash journalist willing to do anything to get a headline, even if it means destroying Jewell’s life in the process. 

One of the most sacred principles of our judicial system is the presumption of innocence. That all persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty. “Richard Jewell” reminds us all just how terribly wrong things can go when that fundamental adage can be so easily forgotten by a rush to judgment fueled by motives that are less than noble. Although Jewell was exonerated, his case remains a stain on our nation’s history. While Eastwood’s effort does not rise to the level of cinematic achievement as some of his other later works, such as “Gran Torino,” it is still a solid film that successfully plays the emotional heartstrings. Rockwell is a joy to watch, but the breakout star is Hauser. On the surface, his portrayal of Jewell appears too simplistic. However, as the film flows along, his performance reveals itself to be far more complex and impactful than what we first realize. By the end, his role makes you so invested in the story that it will stick with you long after the curtains close. 

Overall, Eastwood and Hauser are successful in accomplishing at least one thing – making us remember who real heroes are. 

Film Review: “Queen & Slim”

Film review: “Queen & Slim”
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 132 minutes
Universal Pictures

Ideally, a great work of art will have a deeply emotional and even an intellectual impact on the viewer. It is no different with the genre of cinema. A rare, special example of such a work is the new drama “Queen & Slim.” Erroneously labeled by some as a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, “Queen & Slim” brilliantly explores the fear and outrage felt by many in America over numerous fatal shootings in recent years of black men, often young ones, by white law enforcement officers. While its climax is heavy-handed and the overall portrayal of the police is insultingly generalized, “Queen & Slim” remains a terrific specimen of cinematic art.

The story begins innocently enough in a black-owned restaurant where Ernest “Slim” Hines (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out,” “Black Panther”) and Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith, “Jett”) are having their first date. Ernest seems almost outclassed by Angela, an experienced attorney who only said yes to him because she was lonelier than normal on this night in Ohio. During the drive back to her place, a white police officer pulls them over because Ernest forgot to use a turn signal on a deserted street. The situation escalates when the officer forces Ernest out of the car and pulls his gun despite the latter’s cooperation. A struggle ensues, resulting in Ernest fatally shooting the officer in self-defense, all of which is caught on the officer’s dashcam.

Considering her knowledge of the law, Angela inexplicably and fatefully convinces Ernest that they should flee the scene. Thus, begins an arduous journey to the Deep South while trying to avoid a nationwide manhunt that produces a large bounty for their heads. They eventually make it to Louisiana where Angela’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), a pimp suffering from PTSD because of his war service, reluctantly helps aid their quest to get to Florida. Once there, their plan is reach Cuba. This is also when the duo realizes how much of a media sensation they have become across the country and how they have become a symbol to those tired of racial injustice. This is touched upon in one powerful scene, but in the film’s totality it is a paltry effort to explore an important aspect of the story by first-time, feature-length director Melina Matsoukas, who is best known for her music videos, short films and the HBO series “Insecure.”

Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are magical on the silver screen together. Their chemistry is smooth as silk and their powerful, emotional performances, brimming with fear, anger, love and bravery, are worthy of Oscar consideration. Woodbine delivers the best acting of his long career with a brief, yet complicated portrayal of a man swimming in pain beneath the surface of his tough exterior. He, too, should be considered for a nomination come Academy Award time.

It is a misnomer to compare Ernest and Angela to Bonnie and Clyde, who seem to still be mistakenly labeled as some sort of folk heroes like the James brothers. Here is a refresher from a trained historian – Bonnie Parker (1910-34) and Clyde Barrow (1909-34) are credited with murdering at least four civilians and nine law enforcement officers as well as numerous armed robberies and kidnappings. They were not Robin Hood-type characters and bare no resemblance to Ernest and Angela, who go out of their way to not harm anyone during their attempt to get out of the country before being potentially gunned down.

Overall, “Queen & Slim” is a thought-provoking story that is relevant to our times and is so emotionally powerful that it will stick with you long after you have left the theater.

Film Review: “21 Bridges”

  • 21 BRIDGES
  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller
  • Directed by: Brian Kirk
  • Rated: Rated R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins
  • STX Entertainment 

Perhaps the greatest consequence of watching the crime drama “21 Bridges” is how much it makes you appreciate actual great movies. Some of the words that come to mind while reflecting upon 99 minutes of what were presumably good intentions to make a quality film are predictable, stereotypical and cliched. Despite having a bankable star in the form of Chadwick Bosman (“Black Panther”) in the lead role, Irish-born director Brian Kirk (“Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire”) fails to make much of an impression with his first foray into feature-length films. 

We meet Andre Davis (Bosman) when he is a little kid attending the funeral of his father, a NYPD officer who is described with such sappy, glowing prose that it is easy to feel like you are being hit over the head with a radioactive mallet. Unsurprisingly, when we fast forward 19 years, we see that Andre has grown up to become a driven NYPD detective with a history of fatally shooting his suspects. Some credit is due to Kirk because at least he tries to provide a glimmer of insight into Det. Andre’s motivations, but it is so fast-paced that neither he nor Bosman are able to turn the lead character into someone that is more than just a cliché cop. 

Kirk does grab our attention for a bit when two military veterans – Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch, “John Carter”) and Michael Trujillo (Stephan James, “Race”) – pull a late-night heist that goes completely sideways. It goes so wrong that eight NYPD officers are gunned down. Of course, who is the first person called in to lead the investigation? You guessed it, the most famous detective in all of New York City. Everyone believes he will track down the two thugs and shoot them dead without any questions being asked. However, Det. Andre has some questions of his own as he begins all-night investigation the requires all twenty-one bridges leading into Manhattan to be shut down, thereby preventing the two gunmen’s escape.

 Shockingly, Det. Andre doesn’t like having partners, but he is saddled with narcotics Det. Frankie Burns (a bland Sienna Miller) who often acts as a cheerleader as she roots for their prey to be shot down like dogs. The vice squeezes tighter on the cop killers as they try to figure out both a way out and how they ended up in the situation they are in. (We are left to wonder how they never seem to run out of bullets.) It all leads to a giant conspiracy that is so blatantly obvious that it would cause Sherlock Holmes to turn over in his grave, if such a thing is possible for a fictional character.

 Kirk is consistent as he maintains his swift storytelling from beginning to end, which does occasionally give an artificial sense of suspense. His lone bright spot is Bosman, whose presence is about the only thing that makes “21 Bridges” watchable. Bosman does the best he can with material that should have had a team of writers to rework to prevent it from being something less than satisfactory. Oh, and Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons is in it but his character in the Farmers Insurance commercials is far more multi-dimensional and interesting.