Tag Archives: film reviews

Sister Act

Carmen

by George Wolf

Before the end of the year, there are two Carmen films being released. This is the other one.

Writer/director Valerie Buhagiar isn’t interested in updating that classic opera. But she is interested in what happens when one repressed woman begins to indulge an impetuous nature that would make the legendary operatic gypsy proud.

It is the 1980s on the Maltese Islands, the middle-aged Carmen (Natascha McElhone – outstanding) has been serving as housekeeper for her brother the priest (Henry Zammit Cordina) since she was 16 years old.

The Monsignor (Paul Portelli) promises Carmen that she will indeed be rewarded for her years of service to the Church – when she dies. In this life, though, there is little joy until fate intervenes.

Carmen’s brother suddenly drops dead, and when a replacement is slow to arrive, Carmen herself is mistaken for the new priest. Slipping into the anonymity of the confessional booth, she dispatches advice that actually improves the lives of the locals (especially the women). Contented townsfolk mean an overflowing collection box, which Carmen dips into with a heavenly vow to repay.

She gets a new look, indulges herself, and soon catches the eye of men about town, including the younger Paulo (Steven Love), and the older Tom (Richard Clarkin).

It’s a wonderful lead role for the veteran McElhone, and she makes the most of it. Even early on, we get the sense that there is still a passionate spirit alive in Carmen, just one that’s been buried by years of serving both a country and a religion with little interest in a woman’s fulfillment.

McElhone reveals Carmen’s journey of self with a mischievous indulgence that feels both genuine and joyous, even if the opening “mistaken identity” setup lands as a tad contrived.

The character arc also seems personal to Buhagiar. A Malta native, she deftly uses Carmen’s backstory and her lifetime of longing to comment on the xenophobia she’s seen in her homeland, and the oppression she’s felt from her Church.

The film’s sense of awakening and romance is propelled by gorgeous photography (hat tip to cinematographer Diego Guijarro) and sly use of visual imagery.

Sure, that dove that’s following Carmen around can easily be seen as a religious symbol. But it’s also a reminder from Buhagiar that Carmen’s famous name is no accident. Much like the titular opera’s description of love, this Carmen’s heart is still “a rebellious bird that none can tame.”

And it sure is fun watching her follow it.

Sound + Vision

Moonage Daydream

by George Wolf

Longtime David Bowie fans know of his early fondness for the “cut up” method to writing songs – literally cutting up lines of written lyrics and then shifting them around in search of more enigmatic creations.

Director Brett Morgen takes a similar approach to telling Bowie’s story in Moonage Daydream, a completely intoxicating documentary that immerses you in the legendary artist’s iconic mystique and ambitious creative process.

Bowie’s estate gifted Morgen with the key to the archives, and the celebrated documentarian (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Jane, Cobain: Montage of Heck) pored through the thousands of hours of footage for moments that could stand on their own while serving a greater narrative. The result is a glorious explosion of sound and vision, revealing Morgen’s choice to trust himself as film editor was also a damn good one.

Anchored by atmospheric bookends that evoke Bowie’s image as the ethereal “man who fell to Earth,” Morgen unleashes a barrage of concert sequences, still photos and interviews clips, interspersed with bits of old movies, news reports and pop culture references. It’s a luscious and cinematic (especially in IMAX) mashup, and one that slowly unveils a subtle but purposeful roadmap.

The music is thrilling and visceral, of course, but the interview footage reveals Bowie to be tremendously inquisitive and philosophical. We see him as a truly gifted artist who felt satisfaction when he “worked well,” but apprehension with new projects (such as painting) that didn’t yet meet his standards.

At first, Morgen’s approach may seem scattershot, as he appears more concerned with blowing our minds than chronological purity. But what becomes clear is that Morgen’s commitment leans toward grouping slices of Bowie’s life that speak to who he was (i.e. juxtaposing a “Rock and Roll Suicide” performance from the 70s with comments about his “sellout” 80s period). And by the time Bowie’s looking back fondly on his first meeting with wife Iman, an appropriate and touching timeline has emerged.

Though the last years of Bowie’s life are skirted just a bit, Moonage Daydream is like no music biography that you’ve ever seen. It’s a risky, daring and defiant experience, which is exactly the kind of film David Bowie deserves. Expect two hours and fifteen minutes of head-spinning fascination, and a sense that you’ve gotten closer to one Starman than you ever felt possible.

Watching the Detectives

Confess, Fletch

by George Wolf

Casting Jon Hamm as the new Fletch seems like a bullseye. He has leading man charm, sharp comic timing and plenty of skill handling a one-liner.

Really, the only minus is that he might be too handsome. He doesn’t really seem like a hat guy, so that Lakers cap on his head in Confess, Fletch feels like a forced homage to the Chevy Chase original. But Hamm is wise enough to avoid imitating Chase outright, teaming with director/co-writer Greg Mottola for an Irwin M. Fletcher that’s closer to the star of Gregory McDonald’s source novels.

We catch up with Fletch as he’s left the newspaper game behind, disenchanted with the effects of the digital age. But his rep as an L.A. investigative reporter “of some repute” lands him freelance sleuthing gigs, like searching for a stolen Picasso that his Italian girlfriend Angela (Lorenza Izzo) needs as ransom for her kidnapped father.

But then a dead girl turns up in Fletch’s rented Boston townhouse and the local detectives (Roy Wood, Jr. and Ayden Mayeri) just want him to confess already. And they’d also like him to stop taking his shoes and socks off.

Of course, Fletch remains sarcastically cool throughout their surveillance, investigating on his own and uncovering a few other suspects: his stoner neighbor (Annie Mumolo), a germaphobe art dealer (Kyle MacLachlan), Angela’s mother aka “The Countess” (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, hamming it up) and even Angela herself.

Mottola’s (Adventureland, Superbad) story building doesn’t stray far from the structure of Michael Richie’s 1985 original, which may not be ambitious but is at least understandable, considering the same novelist assembled both mysteries. The major difference is the lack of inspired silliness, which brings us back to the casting of Hamm.

The fake names Fletch gives out aren’t so outlandish, and you won’t find any SNL-ready skits about playing for the Lakers or going undercover at Dr. Jellyfinger’s office.

But all that was catered to what Chevy Chase did best, which was playing Chevy Chase. Hamm is actually acting. The irony here is that while the character of Fletch is now more fully formed, the movie itself just isn’t as consistently funny.

There are plenty of smiles, though. The cast of unusual suspects can be a hoot (especially Mumolo) and running gags about Fletch’s fluency in Italian, his bare feet and his attempts at charming the detectives bring some chuckles. A Mad Men reunion with John Slattery as Fletch’s salty old newspaper editor is a nice touch, as well.

Years from now, you won’t be quoting any lines from Confess, Fletch. But the hour and a half you spend with this breezy whodunit isn’t a waste, and might leave you feeling like you just met the real I.M. Fletcher.

Divided We Fall

God’s Country

by George Wolf

It’s only September, but I’m taking out my Oscar scorecard, and writing in Thandiwe Newton. With a pen.

Because if she doesn’t get noticed for her astounding performance in God’s Country, there’s somerthing wrong with all of us.

The film is also an incredibly assured sophomore effort from director and co-writer Julian Higgins, expanding on the themes and insight hinted at nearly twenty years ago in his feature debut Mending Wall.

Newton stars as Cassandra Guidry, a professor at a small college near the mountain wilderness. The grief from her mother’s recent death is deep, but she’s committed to teaching her students the importance of persistence in the strive for change.

“Sandra” hopes that leaving a note on the truck windshield will change the behavior of two hunters (Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White), who trespass on her property. It does not, and a battle of wills slowly escalates into a powder keg that Higgins uses to comment on the divides in this country that often seem impossible to navigate.

While Sandra struggles with the reaction from the local sheriff (Jeremy Bobb), we learn more about her past, and about things that make her keenly aware of where this situation could he headed. And as Higgins advances the narrative with onscreen text marking off the days, Sandra’s belief that “we all gotta play by the same rules if this is gonna work” can also apply to her push for diversity in the university’s search for a new Dean.

Higgins’s camerawork is barren and cold, buoyed by starkly beautiful cinematography from Andrew Wheeler. His script treads with care and precision. Nothing feels like a cliche, even though God’s Country lives in areas where cliches often roam freely. These characters and their flaws feel familiar, but Higgins finds intimate ways to offer hope for redemption, if only for the briefest of exchanges.

And why won’t Sandra let the parking thing go? Newton makes it achingly personal, carrying the weariness of swimming against the current in her every steely glare. Her final scene, though nearly dialog-free, is exquisitely devastating and sure to follow you home.

Just how many “no big deals” are allowed before there is indeed a big deal? And who decides?

God’s Country is full of the persistent ugliness that plagues ours. Yet none of its issues are raised with a heavy hand. Measured and often visual storytelling is at work here, carried on the shoulders of a sensational lead performance.

Strings Attached

Pinocchio

by George Wolf

I saw a tweet not long ago that suggested Disney should stop with the live-action remakes and instead, re-do their classics with the Muppets.

That logic is sound. Disney now owns the necessary rights, of course, and Muppet treatments would at least ensure creative visions that run deeper than “because we can.”

Heck, Tom Hanks could still star in them, as he does in this new live-action version of Pinocchio. Really, it would be more of a surprise if Hanks didn’t play the kindly Geppetto, and he’s just as fitting as you would expect a GD National Treasure to be.

And since the film mixes Hanks and other live actors with impressive digital animation, seeing the name Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Polar Express, Welcome to Marwen) as director and co-writer gives you confidence the entire project will be well-crafted and satisfactory.

And it is. But if true magic is what your heart desires, keep wishing.

Young Benjamin Evan Ainsworth is in fine voice as the legendary puppet who longs to be a real boy, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt strains for that distinctive Jiminy Cricket phrasing and lands a little too close to South Park‘s Mr. Hankey.

But more importantly, Zemeckis and co-writer Chris Weitz seem too eager to justify their project via modern sensibilities. And in turn, they end up short-changing elements that made Disney’s original such an enduring favorite.

New songs add little beyond pop flavor, while one new character, Sofia the seagull (Lorraine Bracco) exists mainly to over-explain character motivations. Pinocchio’s friendship with Sabina (Jaquita Ta’le), a skilled puppeteer in Stromboli’s (Giuseppe Battiston) show, is well-intentioned but forced. Keegan-Michael Key’s foxy Honest John tempts Pinocchio with fame through references to “influencers” and Chris Pine.

Luke Evans does make a delightfully devilish Coachman, who leads Pinocchio to an effectively realized Pleasure Island that glimpses some darker themes. Exploring more of these layers would have strengthened the fairy tale roots, but it’s the tale of the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) that gets the shortest shrift.

“When You Wish Upon a Star” is not just a song for Disney. By now it’s the bedrock of their entire, world-conquering, fantasy-selling enterprise. And Erivo has a beautiful voice.

Let her let it gooooo! (pun intended). Yes, the song comes early in the film, but go ahead and hit us with an extended mix of full-blown goosebump orchestration while the fairy dust goes to work, then a reprise over the credits. Erivo deserves it.

It could have been a magical moment, and Pinocchio needs more of them. Much more than it needs Chris Pine.

Scare BnB

Barbarian

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

When you see as many movies as we do – especially horror flicks – taking us places we did not see coming is much appreciated.

Barbarian certainly does that, mashing horror, dark comedy and social commentary to wild and mostly satisfying ends.

Tess (TV vet Georgina Campbell) is in Detroit for a job interview. She books an Airbnb in an unsavory part of town, only to find out Kieth (Bill Skarsgård) booked the same place on HomeAway. What to do?

They talk, flirt a little, and Tess agrees to stay in the bedroom while Keith takes the couch. They’ll sort it out in the morning.

In his feature debut, writer/director Zach Cregger (The Whitest Kids You Know) lulls us with a competent but familiar hook. What’s really going on? Can Keith be trusted? Creeger throws in some creepy camera angles, terrific lighting maneuvers and jump scare fake-outs to build tension.

Then Tess makes her way down to the basement. Yikes.

But even after Tess’s startling discoveries, we’re still feeling like we have a grip on what’s ahead.

And then Cregger takes us to Hollywood, where producer AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) is sacked from his latest project due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Um…what?

AJ’s story suddenly crosses paths with a tale set in the same house in 1982, this one starring Richard Brake. While that’s often great news for viewers, it is rarely good news for other characters.

What could start to feel disjointed and episodic instead congeals into a bizarre and brutal minefield of surprises. There are times when these surprises hang together with unrealistic decision-making, but Cregger’s sly script overcomes most of its conveniences and missteps.

Not every moment works. Certain choices feel ridiculous and breaks of levity keep the film from being as disturbing as maybe it should be, given the content. But most of that is forgivable, mainly because of the surprises Cregger has for us, and the nimble way he brings them out of hiding.

Tricking the Scales

The Good Boss

by George Wolf

For awhile, The Good Boss (El buen patrón) seems to reflect that elusive uncertainty principle the characters often discuss. The more we try to pin it down, the less we know of its nature.

And then writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa reveals his hand in a delightfully satirical manner, only to end up tipping the scale in the opposite, obvious direction.

And that would cause a furrowed brow from Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem), head of the Blanco Industrial Scales corporation. Blanco’s life – and work – is about perfectly equal measures.

“Hard work, balance, loyalty” is the company motto. Employees are family. Their problems are Blanco’s problems. And just when he’s a finalist for a prestigious business excellence award, Blanco’s got plenty of problems.

A longtime worker’s son is in trouble with the law. His production head’s wife might be banging another employee. And that new young intern (Almudena Amor) is returning Blanco’s frequent glances.

But worst of all, a guy he “had no choice” in firing (Óscar de la Fuente) is camped out across the street, protesting Blanco with signs and a bullhorn. And the guy will not leave.

As de Aranoa ticks off the days of the week, there are some glimpses of playful humor in the drama. But when Thursday rolls around, and Blanco’s security guard starts complementing the bullhorn guy’s rhyme schemes, The Good Boss starts having finger-wagging fun with the myth of benevolent “job creators.”

Bardem, no surprise, is a wonder. He slowly reveals cracks in Blanco’s facade of ethical bullshit, while never causing us one moment’s doubt about Blanco’s firm belief in this image he’s created. For Blanco, as long as the scales appear balanced, they are, regardless of the tricks it took to get there.

And anyway, he needs that award and the government subsidies that come with it. We don’t want “those artists” to hog the award money, do we?

Yes, the satirical fruit can hang pretty low, and de Aranoa’s subplot juggling skills start to waver as his narrative becomes more madcap. But right to the bitter end, Bardem can be trusted most when Blanco deserves it least, making sure The Good Boss is a satisfying day at the office.

The Work of Hope

Kaepernick & America

by George Wolf

I’ve been a fan of the San Francisco 49ers for about fifty years, so I had a Colin Kaepernick jersey long before he started taking a knee during the national anthem.

And when I continued to proudly wear that jersey, I quickly learned how effectively Kaepernick’s peaceful protest had been twisted into hateful knots of white grievance.

In Kaepernick & America, directors Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker revisit the protest’s timeline with insight and proficiency. But the subtle power of their documentary comes from its patience in deconstructing how Kaepernick’s true motives were distorted to fuel a racist narrative and a divisive election year.

And for those who don’t know Kaepernick’s personal history, Hockrow and Walker wisely begin with his upbringing as a trans-racial adoptee, and then follow his journey to NFL stardom, to falling one play short of winning Super Bowl forty-seven, to essentially being kicked out of the league.

It’s then that the film gives Kaepernick’s worldview a more distinct social and political context through archival footage and interview commentary (including CNN’s Don Lemon, an executive producer on the film).

With the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement after the 2014 death of Michael Brown, Kaepernick sought to speak out against police brutality in America. His silent act of social disobedience eventually made news, and activist DeRay McKesson becomes instrumental to the film’s success at revealing the historical nature of the resulting uproar.

Opposing views are supplied by anti-Kaepernick protesters and political candidates of the time, effectively rebutted by former U.S. Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer. Though Kaepernick’s protest began as a sit-down, he switched to kneeling after Boyer’s advice on a more respectful action. As we revisit the accusations and troop-shaming that were aimed at Kaepernick, Boyer’s recollections are a vivid reminder about just who was interested in thoughtful dialog amid conflict.

More concerned with correcting the record than breaking new ground, Kaepernick & America seems graceful and unassuming when placed against the vitriol spurred by the taking of a knee. But the film reminds us that protest is “the work of hope,” and ultimately looks toward a future of redemption for Kaepernick, and healing for a nation.

Double Fault

McEnroe

by George Wolf

Start typing “John McEnroe” in the search bar, and “angry moments” still pops up as one of the top choices.

But why was he so angry? And why are we still drawn to his legendary outbursts?

Answer the questions, jerk!

Showtime’s McEnroe doesn’t shed much insight on either one, but it does serve as a fine celebration of a great champion and a fascinating personality.

Director Barney Douglas interviews McEnroe over the course of one long night in his native New York. John tells his tales in a sit down Q&A, then wanders the streets in the wee hours while the occasional passerby shouts his name.

And what do we learn? That John’s father was a perfectionist who withheld affection, and John is also a perfectionist who rarely let himself enjoy success. Not much is said about John’s relationship with his mother, which leaves a noticeable blank space in the film.

Douglas weaves in the archival footage to great effect, with thrilling tennis sequences and charming callbacks to pop culture of the late 70s and early 80s. There’s also a steady stream of commentators that ranges from Billie Jean King to Keith Richards. It’s all completely entertaining.

And ultimately, John is capable of some honest self-reflection, revealing late in the film how he recognizes his failures as a father and a husband (to Tatum O’Neal, who does not participate, and current wife Patty Smyth, who does), and is committed to being a better man.

But he’s not asking for us to feel sorry for him. And that’s good, because it’s hard to. John admits he had it pretty good growing up, he just wanted a better relationship with the old man. He excelled in a “sport for killers” by exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses and compartmentalizing his frequent anger. Fair enough.

So don’t come to McEnroe looking for a breakthrough psychoanalysis, you cannot be serious! Come to McEnroe to remember why we care about him in the first place.

Jerk!

Family Feud

The Invitation

by George Wolf

If you thought Get Out was too nuanced, Ready or Not too wickedly funny, and what they both needed was some trusty Twilight obviousness, The Invitation is waiting for you.

Nathalie Emmanuel (Some Furious films, Game of Thrones) stars as Evie, a struggling art student in NYC who takes a DNA test and finds she has some new kin overseas.

Evie lost her dad when she was just a teen, and is still hurting from her mother’s recent passing only months ago, so this news lifts her spirits enough to accept a free trip to London for a lavish new-family wedding.

The country estate reeks of wealth, and Walter, the Lord of the Manor (Thomas Doherty) is handsome and charming. Flirtations help distract Evie from the ghostly apparitions, bumps in the night, and blood sucking.

Everyone’s very interested in Evie, giving little thought to the bride and groom who seem nowhere to be found.

Huh.

Director and co-writer Jessica M. Thompson borrows liberally from better films while leaning on tired devices such as red herring jump scares, waking from a nightmare, and handy clues that are nice enough to present themselves right when you need them.

But even those clues seem subtle next to the contrived exposition that takes liberties with vampire lore while it telegraphs the get out of jail free card that Thompson and co-writer Blair Butler (the dreadful Hell Fest) have for Evie. And by that time, all the character names taken from Stoker feel less like homages and more like desperation.

This invite promises only bargain-priced goth, watered-down frights and surface level commentary on classism and white privilege. The pivot from the Get Out setup to the Ready of Not revenge tour is much too long in coming, with a payoff that just isn’t worth the wait.

So wherever that bride and groom are, I bet they’re having more fun.