Banderas shines in Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory”

Pain and Glory (Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penelope Cruz, Nora Navas) – It is a foregone conclusion that Parasite will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  The only other real competition is famed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory.  Starring Antonio Banderas, P&G follows the later life of movie writer and director Salvador Mallo, whose life has faded into sickness, despair and depression.

Mallo is barely existing in his well-appointed apartment, choking when he eats almost any solid food and suffering from myriad physical problems.  But it is his emotional infirmities that leave him a shadow of his former self.  Then, one day, he is asked to present one of his most famous films, which has been restored, at a special screening.  The invitation is actually to present it jointly with the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), with whom he has not spoken since the film was released 32 years earlier.

Mallo is reluctant to do it but is convinced by a friend, Mercedes (Nora Navas), that it would be good for him to do something other than rot in his apartment.  He visits Crespo to persuade him to join him in the presentation.  It is there that Mallo tries heroin for the first time.  Of course, he gets hooked as the drug gives him some respite from his overwhelming pain.  In his stupor, he relives his childhood, re-explores his complicated relationship with his mother (played as a young woman by Almodóvar’s frequent collaborator, Penelope Cruz), and forces him to face his now empty life.

The rest of the film is Salvador’s flashback journey through time, the diagnosis of his illness, and his reunion with an old love, which reawakens his passion for writing and film.

Banderas, who was nominated for Best Actor, sparkles in every shade of Salvador.  As with all great performances, you lose the actor in the character, a rare joy for the audience.  The film is vintage Almódovar, including the twist at the end.

If you can’t see it in the theater, it is available to rent on a couple of the streaming services for less than it costs at your local movie house.  It is subtitled, of course, so settle in for one man’s journey into the truth of his life.

“Jojo Rabbit” fails as satire about Hitler

Jojo Rabbit (Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson) – Jojo Rabbit is another rip-roaring film about Adolf Hitler or, more descriptively, a member of the Hitler Youth whose enthusiasm for the Fuhrer wanes as he gets to know the Jewish girl his mother is hiding in their house.  I am being facetious, of course. There haven’t been a lot of movies depicting Hitler as a funny guy, in this case influencing the imagination of a young 10-year-old, Jojo (Golden Globe nominee Roman Griffin Davis), whose goal is become Adolf’s friend.

The movie is a spoof, a comedy of sorts.  It attempts to be Springtime for Hitler (from The Producers) with a cavalcade of silly Nazis – Hitler (writer/director/star New Zealander Taika Waititi), polite SS officers, and the disgraced head of the Hitler Youth (Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf).  The latter is running an office full of idiots and misfits, including Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) and some male assistant with whom Klenzendorf is apparently attracted.

I would describe the plot, but I kept falling asleep.  I was awake to see Scarlett Johansson play Jojo’s mother, Rosie, a surprisingly normal, fun-loving, free-spirited German who is providing shelter for a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).  Johansson’s performance garnered an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress despite very little screen time.

The underlying story is more serious, of course. Jojo gets close to Elsa and finds out that Jews are real people.  As he gets to know Elsa, he falls out of love with Hitler.  By the end of the film, Elsa is freed, Jojo has matured, and Rosie is dead (sorry for the spoiler!).

Jojo Rabbit (you’ll find out why Jojo got this nickname) is another movie that audiences liked and critics (by and large) didn’t.  The film feels a bit like a West Anderson pic in the spirit of The Grand Budapest Hotel or a Mel Brooks spoof, but it just doesn’t cut it.

I am going out on a limb here: Jojo Rabbit will not win any of the six Academy Awards for which it has been nominated.  At least, I hope not.

“Joker” is no laughing matter

Joker (Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz) – Delve deeply below the surface of a psychopathic killer and you will find a highly disturbed individual with delusions of grandeur and unfulfilled ambition.  Such is this dark, frank portrait of Arthur Fleck, the man who would become the Joker, archenemy of Batman and nemesis to Gotham City.

In this prequel to the Batman saga, Joaquin Phoenix brings all of his personal baggage and enigmatic personality to the complicated character of Arthur, who is anything but the one-dimensional villain we have met in multiple Batman films and TV shows.

Arthur lives with his mother and is her primary caregiver.  Through the film, we find out about her, including her history working for Thomas Wayne, the soon-to-be mayor of Gotham. It is Wayne’s son, Bruce (we meet him only briefly as a young boy), who would later become Batman.  Arthur has trouble holding a job.  Currently, he is working as a clown, entertaining kids in hospitals or twirling one of those signs advertising on a street corner.  He is pretty good at it.  But Arthur has a temper and a mental illness that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, often when he is under stress.  He is under the care of a mental health counselor from whom he gets his drugs and for whom he keeps a diary of his demented thoughts.

We watch Arthur turn from misfit to victim to killer to instigator.  It is very disturbing.  Should we have empathy for this bullied, battered, and abused man-boy?  Does his background story warrant a second look at the comic book character depicted as a one-dimensional menace to society?

These questions rest at the heart of Joker, director Todd Phillip’s dive into a fantasy world that seems all too real to the plight of people with deep-seeded mental illness.  Indeed, Joker is a comic book movie but it feels more relevant than that.  Phoenix’s performance is magnificent … regardless of what you think of him.  His talent is undeniable.  Four Oscar nominations prove that.  His two Golden Globe wins, for this and his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, prove that he belongs in the pantheon of current American actors.

Joker has been an audience darling and a critical catastrophe.  The movie is no fun whatsoever.  It is a psychological thriller with graphic violence and disturbing images.  It is quite a ride into hell.  Missing is the sly wink of the Batman films or the campiness of the Batman TV show.  Clearly, Phillips had no desire to recreate anything but the look and feel of Gotham.  That he accomplishes spectacularly.  Joker is a very big movie about one man’s plummet to the dark side.

With 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any 2019 film, and more than $1 billion in box office, it deserves more than casual attention.  It is a spectacle worth viewing and worth pondering.

“1917” is an epic personal drama

1917 (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) – It has been more than a century since the end of what H.G. Wells called the “war to end all wars.”  How could a movie about World War I possibly find an audience in the country that has gone to war too many times to count in the last 100 years?

1917 is a very personal account of the war.  The film tells the story of a pair of British soldiers charged with alerting forward troops about the trap the Germans have laid for the good guys.  Shot almost exclusively with Steadicam, the technology allowing moving cameras to track the subject on screen without herky-jerky movement, it follows the pair as they try to reach their colleagues through the wasteland created by combat.  Be prepared to see carnage – human and otherwise.

When most of us think of war, we think of big battles.  War movies follow familiar patterns and are often big, star-studded spectacles like Tora, Tora, Tora, Midway, and The Longest Day.  Recent films like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Green Zone tend to take a small slice of a war and examine it closely with box office stars in the lead (think Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, and Jessica Chastain).

1917 is different.  The only stars in this film, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth, appear in short cameos.  The lead actors, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are unknowns just like the grunts who fight wars.  Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) manages to create a “little” film on a massive set with some of the most impressive special effects and computer graphics ever seen outside those cookie-cutter comic book movies.

For two hours, Mendes creates the agony, fear, and horror of war through the eyes of these two soldiers, (SPOILER ALERT): one doesn’t make it).  The audience assumes the mission will be accomplished but the obstacles to success seem overwhelming.  Do they make it in time to save the 1,600 men whose lives depend on them?  The outcome is far from certain.  And as we know, war is hell.  At the heart of every war is a person, often not a natural hero, following orders and trying to stay alive and serve his/her country.  That is what 1917 is really about.

Mendes creates a powerful, tense, exhilarating, exhausting drama that brings tears and frustration, sadness and hopelessness. In short, it creates a moving moviegoing experience of the highest order that is one of the leading contenders for the Best Picture Oscar and several others.

Parasites abound in best foreign language film of 2019

Parasite (Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yao-jeong, So-dam Park) – Last year, it was Roma, the Mexican film that garnered 10 Oscar nominations, three wins, and a Best Picture nomination.  This year, all the Oscar buzz surrounds Parasite, the Korean entry that won Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes (someone has to explain to me what a foreign language film is to the Foreign Press Association – wouldn’t English films be foreign language to foreigners?).

With sterling critical reviews and audience ratings, Parasite defies easy definition.  At its heart, it is the story of two families, one dirt poor, one unabashedly rich. Critics looking for deep meaning in the film will drone on about “class struggle” as the central message here.  I don’t think so.  To me, this is a typical “things go bad” movie.

It starts innocently enough as we meet a poor family living in squalor.  The parents are out of work while the daughter and son seem unmotivated.  With the help of a teenage friend, the son gets a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family, the Parks.  Before it’s all over, each member of the poor family gets a job working for the Parks in what essentially turns out to be a confidence scheme.  (Note: if the poor family were so good at manipulation and masterminding this scheme, how did they get so poor?)

The tone of the movie is upbeat, even amusing to this point.  After all, what’s the problem?  Both families are happy, the money is flowing and, despite the false pretenses, life is good.  This lasts right up to the time that the Parks’ previous housekeeper shows up at the front door of the Parks’ home in the middle of a deluge while the Parks are out of town.  What follows is more horror film than deep drama.  In some ways, this reminds me a bit of 2017’s Get Out, a surprise hit that combined family drama, comedy and horror.

Rather than spoil the rest, let’s just say that the plot thickens, the poor family is about to be exposed, the rain finally stops, the rich family goes blissfully forward, and “there will be blood.”  And then ponder, “Who (or what) is the parasite?”

It is true that there is no protagonist in the film.  The poor family is deceitful if generally likable.  The rich family is entitled but well meaning.  Even the old housekeeper evokes pity as well as scorn.  As the story evolves into absurdity, the audience is drawn in.  As Johnny Carson used to say: “You buy the premise; you but the bit.”

I can’t say that this is a great film.  It certainly never felt boring; it kept me guessing; and it kept me engaged for all two-plus hours. Would this have been one of the best films of the year if it had been an American film?  I doubt it.  So, I expect, like Roma, it will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and be nominated for Best Picture and perhaps Best Director (Bong Joon Ho).

Should you go out of your way to see it?  Absolutely if you don’t mind subtitles and enjoy journeys into the absurd.  Otherwise, you can wait for it to show up on Netflix.

“Just Mercy” is about way more than just mercy

Just Mercy (Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Jamie Foxx, Tim Blake Nelson) – If you see this film, you are going to get mad at the injustice that happened … and is still prevalent … in this country today.  If you watch this movie, you are going to find it impossible to separate this story from the hatred and bigotry that has re-emerged in the oft-proclaimed “greatest country on Earth.”

Just Mercy is actually a story of INjustice and NO mercy so the title is clever for its double meeting but doesn’t exactly apply.  “Based on a true story,” Just Mercy centers on an African American, Harvard-trained, newly licensed lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (whose book inspired the screenplay), who heads to Alabama after passing the Bar Exam to represent inmates on death row.  He is inspired, naïve and totally committed.  It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he’s not in his native Delaware anymore.  On his first visit to the jail (the setting is the late 1980s), he is stripped-searched, which is simultaneously insulting, humiliating, and depictive of the worst of the South’s justice system.

Michael B. Jordan, who was so impressive in Creed and Black Panther, stars as Stevenson.  Assisted by a local white woman, Eva (Oscar winner Brie Larson), Bryan establishes the Equal Justice Initiative with a federal grant and finds plenty of resistance from local law enforcement and prison personnel. He is not welcome in town, and is viewed skeptically by the death row inmates, too.  They have seen their share of lawyers, some incompetent, some out to make money, and others just seeking glory.  Stevenson sets out to prove he is there to help.

The film focuses on the case of Walt McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Jimmy D., who was wrongly accused of murder, set up by the police, and placed on death row a year before his trial.  Based on the testimony of one convicted felon (played by Tim Blake Nelson is a stunning performance), he was sentenced to death by electrocution.  He had been waiting for more than five years when Stevenson arrives.  Reluctant at first to work with the impeccably dressed and refined kid lawyer, he eventually relents after Bryan visits Jimmy D’s family.  In many ways, the rest of the film is a traditional courtroom drama punctuated by a compelling story of discrimination, southern injustice, and overcoming the odds.

Despite its 2 hours and 15 minutes, the film is riveting … and maddening.  It is compelling filmmaking from little-known writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton.  Make no mistake about it, this film belongs to the actors, particularly Jordan, Foxx, and Nelson.  Jordan’s earnestness is only exceeded by Foxx’s rawness and Nelson’s physicality.  These fine actors are in prime form.

But the movie is not without its faults.  Brie Larson is pretty well wasted as Eva because her character’s development is so very thin.  The prosecutor and sheriff characters are pure ultra-stereotypes (even if true).  Chalk it up to an inexperienced director blessed with a great story and a fantastic cast.

Just Mercy is a must-see for people who feel like our society still hasn’t come far enough on race relations and who are appalled that 11 percent of all death row inmates have been proven to be innocent.

Little Women: A new take on an old classic

Little Women (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet) – “It’s a movie about women for women,” was my answer to my wife’s question of “What did you think?”  I suppose that may sound sexist.  I was one of three men in a relatively full theater.  Greta Gerwig, Oscar nominated director and writer, felt compelled to make yet another movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel to mark its sesquicentennial year.

Gerwig’s film is a more modern take on the classic, featuring outstanding cinematography, a memorable score, and an (almost) all-star cast led by 3-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan with substantial roles for the incomparable Laura Dern (2 nominations), Meryl Streep (3 Oscars, 21 nominations), and Chris Cooper (1 Oscar).  Ronan, who starred in Gerwig’s Lady Bird, portrays Jo March, the ambitious, headstrong daughter who serves as the focal point of the film (and, arguably, the book).  In the semi-autobiographical book, Alcott, one of four sisters, is a writer and a fearless woman in a time when men dominated.

The fictional sisters – Meg, Amy and Beth — are played by Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen. The sisters are extremely different … and extraordinarily close.  Their mother, Marmee (Dern), is loving, permissive, and supportive.  Her husband, the girls’ father, is off in the Civil War.

The female characters are deeply explored; the male characters are more thinly drawn, all of which makes perfect sense in a film about women.  Jo may have been the first American, unapologetically feminist character in literary history, certainly the most well-known.  Her sisters are more traditional but admire Jo’s writing and her ambition.  Jo’s best friend is the rich next-door neighbor, Teddy (known as Laurie to everyone else), who is clearly in love with her.  But love is the furthest thing from her mind.  Meanwhile, Laurie (Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet), is loved by Amy.  We meet a cacophony of characters, including Teddy/Laurie’s generous grandfather, Mr. Laurence (played by Chris Cooper); the girls’ surly Aunt March (Meryl Streep); and the publisher at Roberts Brothers (Tracy Letts), who prints Jo’s stories.

The film is a generally light and breezy story about the maturation of these four Little Women in a safe and toney community in Massachusetts near the end of the Civil War.  Under Gerwig’s deft hand, the girls play together, share their lives, and hug a lot.  That feels unnatural by today’s standards, but it serves to bind the audience to the sisters.  We feel attached to them, which makes the story timeless, maternal, and ultimately satisfying.  As the girls live and love, grieve and grow, they ultimately must face disconnection.  As the audience, we know it before they do.

Gerwig has crafted a version of Little Woman that should do well at the box office this holiday season but faces a less certain future from the Academy.  It will be interesting to see what Oscar nominations it might garner.  The Golden Globes only nominated Ronan and the score, and the Academy may be dismissive as well.  In an age where more women are helming films in the middle of the #MeToo movement, we will see if the Academy recognizes all of these not-so Little Women.

Sandler sparkles in high-volume “Uncut Gems”

Uncut Gems (Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett) – Not so long ago, Adam Sandler was the top box office star in Hollywood.  His raunchy comedies, starring his troupe of buddies, were studio gold.  Every once in a while, he tried a more serious role, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me.  Both movies were critically acclaimed, lost money, brought in less than $25 million, and didn’t have Rob Schneider in them.

Now comes Uncut Gems, a jewel of a film that blares at you until you feel exhausted and unsatisfied.  From the opening scene in a mine in Africa to the closing scene at the jewelry store owned by Sandler’s character, Howard Ratner, the movie screams at max volume.  From the dialogue to the soundtrack, Uncut Gems takes you into the slimy underbelly of the jewelry district in New York.

Ratner is a Jewish wheeler-dealer caught between the legitimate and corrupt world of gems.  Ratner is a player.  He runs a little shop with plenty of shiny, expensive jewels.  He bets on basketball.  He supports a family in the suburbs while maintaining an apartment with his girlfriend/employee.  One day, Boston Celtics’ star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) comes in the shop, lured by a Ratner “employee” who caters to African American sports celebrities.  He looks around but is particularly intrigued by a raw, uncut opal containing numerous gems.  It’s the same rock that we saw in the opening sequence of the film.  Garnett wants to show off the opal, which is slated for auction, and gives Ratner his NBA championship ring as collateral.

The rest of the movie is about getting the gem back; Rattner taking the ring and pawning it to make a parlay bet on Garnett and his team; the mob trying to collect past debts from Ratner; the disintegrating family relationships; and the opal not being appraised at the value Ratner expects.  On the tension scale, the movie never dips below maximum.

Ratner is not a sympathetic figure yet he is the only protagonist in the film.  He is a terrible husband, a jealous boyfriend, an opportunistic bullshitter and the unluckiest lucky gambler ever.

Sandler’s performance is spot-on yet I couldn’t see the character without seeing Sandler, which is the first test of a great performance.  Idina Menzel, also playing against type, portrays the wronged wife with a much-deserved bitterness.  Julia Fox is wonderful as the paramour who loves Ratner while working in a high-end dance club entertaining high rollers.  Garnett is passable as the rich athlete with expensive tastes who becomes a guest in this seamy world. On the downside, the women are victims and the gangsters are stereotypically thuggish and stupid.

Should you see it?  Yes, if you want to see an interesting story that will keep you squirming.  You’ll need to see it to determine if Ratner is a guy who, despite his flaws and foibles, always seems to win in the end.  No, don’t go it if you don’t like movies that blast at top volume, have a fair amount of violence and tension, where there are no good guys, and/or you like Rob Schneider.

Theron’s astonishing Megyn Kelly is a “Bombshell”

Bombshell (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon) – Get your Oscar ballots out and write down Charlize Theron’s name for Best Actress for her depiction of Megyn Kelly in this scathing look at sexual harassment at Fox News.

The toxic culture created by Roger Ailes and practiced by Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and others has been explored in magazines, newspapers, and in the devastating TV mini-series The Loudest Voice.  In short, Ailes (Lithgow) was a pig.  He was also a brilliant propagandist and a formidable kingmaker.

An all-star cast led by Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie provide an insider’s view into Fox News, just one piece of the Rupert Murdoch-owned media empire.  As told by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short), Fox News is a house of open secrets, run by men and a passel of enabling women.

Its female anchors either comply with Ailes’ not-so-subtle sexual advances or they get fired or relegated to low-rated timeslots.  Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) was the first to come forward.  Having been taken off the morning Fox & Friends and given a lousy afternoon time, she makes too many waves, gets fired, and files a lawsuit against Ailes.  An internal investigation follows led by Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James.  Meanwhile, Kelly, the only prime-time anchor at Fox, struggles with whether to support Carlson.  She owes her career to Ailes, who sexually harassed her early in her career at Fox but backed off. Kelly, a lawyer, uses her investigative skills are her staff contacts to do some research of her own.  By the time she gets interviewed by the investigators, other women have told their stories.  But Kelly holds the key to the story going viral.

Robbie plays a composite character, Kayla Pospisil, whose career ambition gets the better of her.  She moves from Carlson’s show to O’Reilly’s, then parlays an elevator conversation with Ailes’ assistant, Faye, into a private meeting with the boss.  It turns ugly.  But Kayla goes back again and again.

Bombshell is a skewering of Fox News.  John Lithgow is positively creepy as Ailes.  Padded with a fat suit and prosthetics, he makes a better Ailes than Russell Crowe in The Loudest Voice.  Plus, there are so many cameos that it looks like actors lined up to be part of this expose: Allison Janney (as Ailes’ lawyer), Kate McKinnon (as a closeted lesbian), Malcolm McDowell (as Murdoch), Connie Britton (as Beth Ailes), Holland Taylor (as Faye), and Richard Kind (as Rudy Giuliani).  The actors depicting O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Wallace, Brett Baier, Jeanine Pirro, Geraldo Rivera, and Greta Van Susteren all do a creditable job.

But the star of this film is Theron (who is also one of the producers), who looks, talks and moves so much like Megyn Kelly that I doubt you could tell them apart in a photo or in a live-action video clip.  It is by far THE best physical portrayal of a real person I have ever seen.  You will swear that Kelly is playing herself. But her performance is much more than that.  It is agonizingly real, strong and tortured.

If you hate Fox News, you will love this movie. If you are a Fox News lover, you might enjoy it, too.  Either way, Bombshell is a realistic depiction of the toxic work environment that shapes the way millions of people get the news.

“The Two Popes” blessed by great script and acting

The Two Popes (Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce) – In 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was selected to succeed John Paul II following the popular pontiff’s death. He was selected over Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio by the College of Cardinals.  The Netflix film, The Two Popes, begins when Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, summons Bergoglio to the Pope’s lavish summer home.

As depicted in the film, which is “inspired by actual events,” Pope Benedict dresses down the Argentinian as too liberal.  Yet these two philosophical opposites develop an unexpected chemistry.  As history will note, Benedict eventually retires/resigns after eight years as Pope. Bergoglio succeeds him as Pope Francis.

Writer Anthony McCarten, whose credits include outstanding screenplays for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, imagines this magical visit as a journey of personal connection rather than one of ecclesiastical reconciliation.  The script is clever and funny, not brooding or confrontational.

To make it work, Oscar-nominated Director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) gives his two veteran actors, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, plenty of space.  The chemistry is palpable.  We see flashbacks of Bergoglio as a young priest who was sometimes viewed as an appeaser to Argentine strongman Juan Peron.  He sees himself as a flawed man trying desperately to atone.  Meanwhile, Pope Benedict struggles with his own failure to confront sexual abuse by priests worldwide.

Hopkins and Price make the movie.  Expect Oscar consideration for both, for McCarten and perhaps for the film. Remember, of course, that the story is not history; it’s supposition and perhaps rationalization.

If this film were strictly playing in theaters, you may want to wait for it to get to video or streaming.  But since it is playing on Netflix, sit back and enjoy the interplay of Hopkins and Pryce.