Tag Archives: Movies (2019)

‘The Report’ builds more myths in its quest for truth

An audience exists for The Report: people who believe men and women of steel hearts and constitutional sonorities ringing in their heads can transcend party loyalties for the sake of preserving our republic. Scott Z. Burns, a screenwriter for co-producer Steven Soderbergh, brings moral zeal to his fictional film about Senate staffer Daniel Jones’ years-long investigation into the CIA’s torture program created after the 9-11 attacks, an investigation that produced the eponymous report released five years ago in the waning days of Democratic Senate control. Taking a just-the-facts approach brings back the tumult of memories that the Obama and Trump administrations have not erased. Burns is clear about blame: the Bush White House for a program that never extracted useful (“actionable” to use Company jargon) intelligence from detainees it couldn’t have procured using conventional means; the Obama White House for the sake of bipartisan comity and, two years into the president’s first term, basking in the triumph of assassinating America’s Public Enemy #1. In a sense Burns’ approach is a kind of BothSidesism. But his failure to lay the blame at the feet of craven senators atrophies his film. Continue reading

‘By the Grace of God’ approaches its grim subject with wit

A Gallic eel of preternatural slipperiness, François Ozon has often embraced schlock. He casts beautiful actors like Melvil Poupaud and Charlotte Rampling in films that revel in their absurdity (it’s as if he writes his scripts so that he can watch his favorites work out the complications). Hence the seismic shock of By the Grace of God: a sober depiction of Lyon-based Cardinal Bernard Preynat’s sexual abuse. The press material quotes Ozon reflecting that he “imagined a film in the spirit of Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film about Boston’s Catholic pedophilia ring in the 1980s. That Oscar winner focused on the investigative reporters; Grace focuses on the victims, all of whom shun victimhood itself. A vigorous, febrile, whiplash-paced film, Grace triumphs on the strength of Ozon’s screenplay, ecumenical (no pun intended) editing, and a mixture of tones.

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Toothless ‘Jojo Rabbit’ wants to be sharp and sentimental

Jojo Rabbit is not the first film unable to maintain its veneer of do-you-get-it joshin’, but it’s the first film to fail because it asks the audience to extend a sympathetic, unwitting hand to Nazis, even young ones. After the perfunctory laffs of the first third, Hitler Youth member Johann  Betzler struggles with a thawing heart on learning his mother (Scarlet Johansson) has hidden a Jew in the attic. Taika Waititi’s work on Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt for the Wilderpeople showed an impish sensibility unbowed — for the most part — by mass market conventions. Predictable and craven, Jojo Rabbit is as subversive as eating a turkey leg at high tea. Continue reading

Very bad things: ‘The Lighthouse’ is a dim, grueling horror flick

In her review of the John Boorman WWII picture Hell in the Pacific (1968), Pauline Kael asked, “Haven’t you always longed for a movie full of Toshiro Mifune grunting and Lee Marvin muttering to himself?” The Lighthouse is almost two hours of Willem Dafoe grunting and Robert Pattinson muttering to themselves. Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch (2015) uses the churning grey waters and perpetual rain of an isolated New England location as the backdrop for a story about two men who drive each other mad. If readers have seen publicity photos of the actors posing for their own daguerreotype, they’ll have an idea of the pedigree — the tradition of the Cinema of Quality — that Eggers brings to what is otherwise a rote psych horror flick. Continue reading

Nostalgia makes Pedro Almodóvar soft in ‘Pain & Glory’

The natural light in Pedro Almodóvar’s eighth collaboration with Antonio Banderas has a fullness, especially when cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine focuses on the deep greens of trees in gardens and the dust-caked sunlight of rural Spain. The choice makes sense for what publicists and the director himself have called his most autobiographical or, worse, “personal” film, and, perhaps as a result, what is a second-tier effort from an artist for whom the diminishing returns of outrage haven’t yet produced material adequate to his talents. You’ll have a good time watching Pain & Glory: it offers ample pleasures, visual and performative, especially a marvelous Banderas turn. But it’s not as poignant as Almodóvar thinks: He’s coasting on the assumption that the audience thinks, “Haven’t the last thirty-five years of our shared lives been wonderful?”

The first, rather hamhanded shot of Salvador Mallo (Banderas) sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool suggests a return to amniotic immersion. Invited to a restored screening of one of his classics (Sabor) and not doing much else thanks to a creative block, the ailing Salvador revisits moments from his past. He reconciles with his pugnacious former leading man Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who returns the favor by getting him hooked on smack. In Salvador’s hazes he sees visions of his past: his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) and the village women singing a tune while doing the washing riverside; a white-washed cave in which his father insists they live; the handsome laborer (César Vicente) whom he teaches to read and write. A dig into Salvador’s computer files unearths an unpublished monologue that Alberto insists he deliver before an audience. Wouldn’t you know that this monologue eulogizes Salvador’s adolescent affair with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who happens to be sitting, devastated, in that audience? Of course! This is an Almodóvar film.

The distancing device, used to exemplary effect in 2004’s Bad Education, of employing narrators within narrators to share the director’s most personal moments mitigates the bathos. Otherwise Pain and Glory is a surprisingly unconvoluted — in every sense — valentine from Almodóvar to his audience for sticking by him for thirty-five years (Almodóvar’s first serious American screenings took place at what was then the Miami International Film Festival).  Manipulating eyes the color and shape of burned almonds, Cannes Best Actor winner Banderas gives a performance of intense warmth; despite his ill health and languor the intelligence and wit of Salvador comes through. A quiet reunion with Federico — two ex-lovers who may or may not have another chance at possible happiness — is a master class in generating romantic frisson.

The rest of Pain and Glory hews to the usual pattern of a director getting misty-eyed about his golden youth. The last forty-five minutes consist of one character after another expressing his or her gratitude for what Salvador’s done for them: Alberto and Federico are enough, but does adoring minder Mercedes have to light incense too? Fans of Cinema Paradiso will award it a more generous reception. Which is why Almodóvar must be grateful Julieta Serrano plays Salvador’s aged mother, seen in flashback. According to Salvador’s memories, she told him he’d been a disappointment as a son, hadn’t fulfilled her wishes. In these scenes set in a hospice and Salvador’s museum-like home (albeit “museum with Almodóvar as designer/curator”), Serrano shows such good sense and simplicity playing this dying woman that Pain & Glory stops for her; I might even claim that it honors its title. Every film made comprises a series of inevitable decisions about choices. To walk out of Pain & Glory is to wonder how a movie about Jacinta — a renowned filmmaker’s mother — might’ve played.

Portions of this review appeared in a blurb for Miami Film Festival’s GEMS series. 


GEMS Film Festival 2019 among its queerest

Programmed as an autumnal amuse-bouche before the rigors and glories of the full-blown event a few months hence, Miami Film Festival’s GEMS offers four days of films starting with tonight’s screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. Beside the South Florida debuts of the Eddie Murphy blaxploitation comedy Dolemite Is My Name and the dramatization of the clash between Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Francis (Jonathan Pryce) called The Two Popes, GEMS will also show Noel Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Céline Sciamma’s Cannes-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire. 

The festival screened a few offerings for me, a couple of which I reviewed below.

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