Movie reviews: Richard Crouse's naughty and nice films of 2019
This image released by Sony Pictures shows, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in a scene from "Little Women." (Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures via AP)
THE NICE (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):
“1917” is a simple story of duty wrapped up in a high gloss technological package that delivers a vividly immersive look at life during wartime. The horrors of war are duly represented—there’s barbed-wire, dead, rotting bodies litter the landscape and a bombed-out town is nothing more than the skeletons of buildings—but “1917” doesn’t focus on that. This is a contemplative story of a mission and the men who sacrifice their own safety for the greater good.
It highlights the ever-present danger of attack but it’s the character’s emotional journey that makes for the compelling story. Blake wants to stop his brother from walking into a trap while Schofield is driven by a sense of duty. Both men are working for the collective, which in our era of the individual, is a potent reminder of the importance of cooperative effort. “1917” is a beautifully grim movie.
Death lurks around every corner and the success of Blake and Schofield’s mission is never assured. Hope is a remote, elusive concept in the theatre of war but Mendes weaves in enough humanity—the relationship between the soldiers, a scene with a French mother and her daughter—to give us a window into the horrors of war.
You’ve seen the moon landing before but you have never seen it like this. To create the eye-popping new documentary “Apollo 11” director Todd Douglas Miller, along with a team of folks from NASA and the National Archives, catalogued and restored 11,000 hours of film that had been languishing in dusty archives since 1969. Just in time for the mission’s fiftieth anniversary comes a new look at an old subject.
“Apollo 11” ignores the Cold War politics of beating the Russians to the moon. Instead it celebrates the achievement, leaving the viewer with a sense of awe at the precise work that created one of the most dramatic events in (out of this) world history.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
Rudy Ray Moore may be the most influential entertainer who is not exactly a household name. The actor, comedian, musician, singer and film producer is best known under his stage name Dolemite, his motor-mouthed pimp persona from the 1975 film “Dolemite.”
Featuring a mix of clumsy kung fu action, flashy clothes and sexually explicit dialogue and action, it has a well-earned a reputation as one of the best bad movies ever made. No one will ever confuse the “Dolemite” movie or its sequels “The Human Tornado” and “The Return of Dolemite” with great art, but the character, vividly brought to life by Eddie Murphy in the new biopic “Dolemite is My Name,” was a trailblazer. His vocal delivery, a blend of braggadocio and raunchy rhymes, was a direct influence on hip hop pioneers like Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes and 2 Live Crew, setting the template for a generation of rappers.
“Dolemite is My Name,” from its wild costumes by Oscar-winning designer Ruth E. Carter, to the fun performances from Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, Keegan-Michael Key, Snoop Dogg, Craig Robinson and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in supporting roles, to the music and the comedy to the evocation of the 1970s, is an entertaining and heartening story of a life lived large.
“Based on an actual lie,” reads the opening title credit of “The Farewell,” a new dramedy with “Crazy Rich Asians” breakout star Awkwafina. It’s a funny reminder that the story is actually taken from director Lulu Wang’s life experience of visiting her terminally ill grandmother under false pretenses.
“The Farewell” is a lo-fi family drama that brims with heart and humour. Wang maintains focus, never veering from the central premise of a family taking on the burden of pain, sparing their much-loved Nai Nai any feelings of distress. There isn’t much actual drama, no screaming matches, very little interpersonal conflict; just nicely observed naturalistic behaviour. It’s a slow burn, a movie that builds to a poignant climax that not only feels earned but deserved.
“The Irishman,” starring septuagenarian powerhouses Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, is based on “I Heard You Paint Houses” Charles Brandt’s book about a man who claims to have offed mobster Crazy Joe Gallo and Teamster Jimmy Hoffa. It’s familiar territory for the trio of stars, all of whom have made a career out of playing wiseguys, and for director Martin Scorsese, but it feels different.
The heady, rambunctious filmmaking of “Goodfellas” and “Casino” is gone, replaced by the richly, contemplative tone of a man at the end of his life wondering if he did the right thing. The holy trinity, De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, hand in late career work that feels like the culmination of a lifetime of character studies. This is an examination of men who live by a brutal code that leaves little wiggle room for mistakes and disrespect but each actor find ways to humanize their characters. Rich in detail, these actors riff off one another, finding internal rhythms in the repetitious way they speak to one another.
“The Irishman” is an event, a movie that feels like the obvious conclusion to the gangster stories the director and cast have been telling for decades.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a captivating new drama starring Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, wonders aloud if Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote, “You can’t go home again.” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is about many things. Nostalgia. Love of friends and city. It’s about how gentrification in San Francisco has marginalized people of colour creating housing inequality. Mostly, though, it’s about the bittersweet romanticizing of the past with a healthy dose of reality.
Perhaps Wolfe was right, but simply because the home in question is four walls and a roof, not a panacea to Jimmie’s feelings of emotional displacement. Jimmie’s expectations linked to the idea of home, in this his case feelings of family unity, are likely never to be met. It’s melancholic and beautifully rendered in a film that feels like a tone poem of love and loss.
“The Lighthouse,” an expressionist nightmare captured in shadows and light by director Robert Eggers, is a period piece that pits Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson against the primal forces of paranoia and pathological behavior. Despite the presence of two very popular actors “The Lighthouse” is not exactly a mainstream movie. Instead it is more of an expertly rendered gothic slow burn that brings with it an atmosphere of dread shrouds the film like fog rolling into shore.
Director Greta Gerwig keeps the bones of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” in the new big screen treatment of the 19th century story, but reshapes the March sisters’ coming-of-age in fresh and exciting ways.
Told on a broken timeline, “Little Women” forgoes the linear structure of the novel to jump back-and-forth in time. It’s a clever device that takes some getting used to—at first it’s not immediately obvious the story is skipping around like a flat rock skimming across a lake—but ultimately it provides insightful perspective on the characters and why they make the decisions they do.
Gerwig has fiddled with the story’s collision of feminism, romance and family dynamics just enough to amplify its resonance for a modern audience. Playing around with a well loved and well-worn classic is risky, but Gerwig pulls it off with panache, aided by an extraordinary cast who bring the material to vivid life.
“Marriage Story” is not a first date movie. It is a three hankie, emotionally fraught movie about appealing but damaged people whose divorce is filled with a sense of loss and a growing shroud of incivility. On my way into the press screening for “Marriage Story” a publicist handed me a small package of Kleenex branded with the movie’s logo.
“I won’t need these,” I thought. “I’m a professional, here to dispassionately judge this film on its merits. I made it through ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ like a dry-eyed superman and if I can do that, I can do anything.”
I’m not too proud to tell you that I was glad I had the Kleenexes. “Marriage Story” is so agonizingly vivid, so without melodrama, that I felt at times as though I was a voyeur, that I shouldn’t be watching some of these emotionally charged scenes. As Charlie and Nicole drift apart and lawyers, like the ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern in full beast mode), become involved the idea that they might have a chance of staying friends once this is all said and done becomes heartbreakingly remote.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD
There will be no spoilers here. I can say the various narrative shards dovetail together in a frenzy of grindhouse violence near the end, but “OUAT… IH” isn’t story driven as much as it is a detailed portrait of a time and place, the moment when the sea change was coming.
Piece by piece Tarantino weaves together a nostalgic pastiche of b-movie tropes and expertly rendered sights and sounds to create a vivid portrait of a time and place. With the setting established, he plays mix and match, blending fact and fiction, creating his own history that feels like a carefully detailed memory play. “
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is unique in its feel. Tarantino has always been singular in his filmmaking but this one feels different. It’s clearly rooted in the b-movies that inspire his vision but here he is contemplative, allowing his leads—DiCaprio and Pitt in full-on charismatic mode—to channel and portray the insecurities that accompany uncertainty. The film is specific in its setting but universal in portrayal of how people react to the shifting sands of time. Funny, sad and occasionally outrageous, it’s just like real life as filtered through a camera lens.
Described as a “pitch black fairy tale,” Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is the story of two families on either side of the economic divide. The wealthy Park family and the street-smart Kim clam. Fate (and some very ingenious scams) brings them together but when the fragile upstairs-downstairs relationship between the two is threatened class warfare erupts. A study in hubris and greed, this satire is ripe with dark humor, suspense and social commentary.
It has been a long time, possible forever, since anyone has written that one of the year’s very best movies stars Adam Sandler. Nope, it’s not a rerelease of “Billy Madison” or the director’s cut of “Happy Gilmore;” it’s a crime thriller from acclaimed indie filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie called “Uncut Gems.”
Watching “Uncut Gems” is an exhausting experience. Howard’s jittery personality is brought to vibrant life by Sandler. For two hours he’s like a NYC traffic jam come to life, complete with the shouting and jostling. He’s the architect of his own misfortune, constantly in motion, bringing chaos to all situations. With handheld cameras the Safdies capture Howard’s gloriously scuzzy behavior, luxuriating in the character’s foibles.
Sandler has breathed this air before—most notably in “Punch Drunk Love”—but he’s rarely been this compelling. He brings his natural likability to the role but layers it with Howard’s neurosis, frustration, conniving and even joy. It’s a remarkable performance, powered by jet fuel, that, by the time he is locked in the trunk of his own car, naked, will draw you into “Uncut Gems’” dirty little world.
Director Jordan Peele followed up the Oscar-winning success of his social thriller “Get Out” with a trip to the “Twilight Zone.” No, not his reboot of the famous anthology series (that will come to small screens later this year) but to a storyline he says was inspired by an episode of the Eisenhower-era show called “Mirror Image.”
According to Rod Serling’s original opening monologue when look-a-likes torment a young woman, “circumstances assault Millicent Barnes’s (played by “Psycho’s” Vera Miles) sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block.” Peele updates the doppelgänger danger premise but also ups the horror elements to tell the story of a trip gone wrong for the Wilsons, overprotective mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), goofy dad Gabe (Winston Duke) and young kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex).
Peele proves, as if there was any doubt, that “Get Out” was not a fluke. He skilfully navigates “Us’s” story, establishing the Wilsons as a regular, likable family with a teen daughter prone to rolling her eyes and a father who’s always quick with a dad joke. When the going gets grim Peele uses ingenuity, humour, a creepy kid choral score and some very scary images to add life to what might have been a simple home invasion movie. From the opening scenes in a California carnival to an audaciously choreographed climax, Poole crafts a memorable horror film with a message.
“Waves” feels like two movies in one. The first a story of teen angst writ large with a tragic outcome. The second is a tale of reconciliation and compassion. They dovetail to form one of the year’s best films. No spoilers here.
The beauty of writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s film is the discovery of it, being drawn into the story and the characters. Shults doles out emotional moment after emotional moment and yet there isn’t a melodramatic second to be seen. That’s partially due to the uniformly wonderful, naturalistic performances but also from a story that feels grounded in real life.
Fueled by a soundtrack by from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, “Waves” details the hardships that come with difficult decisions but also the redemption that can come with forgiveness.
THE NAUGHTY (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):
Based on the 2013 book of the same name by Rhidian Brook, most of “The Aftermath” is fiction but the idea of a British soldier sharing his requisitioned house with its former occupants was borrowed from the experience of the author’s grandfather Walter Brook. Unfortunately the love story at the heart of the story feels torn from the pages of a not-so-steamy Harlequin Romance.
Characters change abruptly, hissing one second, cooing the next. Kiera Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård’s emotional arcs suggest that the thin line between love and hate is even thinner than previously thought. Their love affair is born out of a desire to feel something, not out of actual desire and, as such, is about as steamy as a cold shower first thing on a Monday morning.
ANGEL HAS FALLEN
If action movies are the heavy-metal of the film world then “Angel Has Fallen,” starring Gerard Butler in his third turn as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, is the Ywengie Malsteen of the genre. It’s too loud, too frenetic with too many notes.
“Angel Has Fallen” plays its hand at every turn, telegraphing the obvious, making sure the audience, who likely aren’t paying attention to the dialogue in anticipation of more explosions, get every detail. That means no suspense, just loud noises. Lots of them. Former stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh loves to blow things up, filling the screen with flames and your ears with booms. It’s the stuff of action movies, but when coupled with dialogue that sounds like it was run through the Cliché-O-Matic—”I’m not going to stop until I prove you really did this!”—the action is more of a distraction from the story than a compliment to it.
In a summer packed with sequels came a movie that isn’t a sequel but feels like one.
“Anna,” the action-adventure from writer-director Luc Besson, is a new story but breathes the same air as fist-in-the-air Luc Besson thrillers like “La Femme Nikita” and “Lucy.” “Anna” plays with time. The presentation of the story can’t rightly be called a broken timeline as much as a shattered, twisted and torn timeline.
Besson loves his “Five Years Earlier,” “Six Months Later” and “Three Years Earlier” title cards to the point of distraction. H. G. Wells didn’t tinker with time as much as Besson does here. “Memento” seems linear by comparison. What is meant to be a playful storytelling device bogs the movie down to point of narrative puzzlement.
In “Escape Room,” the new psychological thriller starring “True Blood’s” Deborah Ann Woll, the young characters don’t have time to mull over the past. They’re too busy thinking of the future and whether or not they will survive long enough to actually have one.
The story centers around six good-looking people (Woll, along with Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis and Nik Dodani) trapped in a series of immersive escape rooms. The twist? Whoever leaves last is necessarily the winner. “Escape Room” won’t exactly make you want to escape the theatre but it doesn’t really give you a great reason to be there in the first place.
“Gemini Man,” a glossy action-thriller starring Will Smith, feels like a cinematic stew of ideas lifted from other movies. Mix and match “Looper” and “Replicant” with a dash of “Deadpool” and “Unforgiven” and you have a film with that feels like a mild case of déjà vu.
Shooting in 60 frames per second and in 3D, Lee fills the screen with hyper-realistic images that seem to pop off the screen. Shrapnel cascades into the audience and a gravity defying ninja hop scotches across the screen to great effect but, for my money, the digital imagery treatment doesn’t have the warmth of film. It feels hard-edged and stark, like old-school video tape, which works well in the action scenes—e motorcycle chase in Columbia is breathtaking—but less so in the more intimate moments.
“Gemini Man” will likely garner more attention for its startling look than for its content. An olio of clone and one-last-job movies it feels out of date, like a slick looking relic from the age of direct to DVD action movies.
I like a twist as much as the next person. I still remember having my head knocked back by movies like “The Crying Game” and Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” but can we now call a moratorium on multiple twists? Shyamalan has made a career out of subverting people’s expectations but there are more twists in the last twenty minutes of “Glass” than you can shake a Syd Field book at. In this case more is not more.
Leading up to the twist-o-rama is an examination of what would happen if we learned that superheroes are real. To accomplish this director M. Night Shyamalan has Sarah Paulson’s good doctor spend a good portion of the running time trying to convince the superhero that there is nothing special about them. It’s less than dramatic. Worse, the film’s ideas on the existence of extraordinary beings (AGAIN, NO SPOILERS HERE) have been beaten to death in everything from the “X-Men” films to “Watchmen” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”Despite a bit of fun from McAvoy’s ever shifting characters “Glass” is a slog. Talky and meta, it’s being billed as a “film that took 19 years to make,” (aa the sequel to the 2000 movie “Unbreakable”) but doesn’t feel worth the wait.
Set in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen, New York and based on the DCVertigo comic book title of the same name, “The Kitchen” stars Tiffany Haddish, Elizabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy as mobster wives who take care of business when their husbands are sent to jail. The powerhouse trio at the center of “The Kitchen” can’t sell the film as an effective mob movie or feminist thriller. The characters are quick change artists, morphing from stay-at-home mob wives to stone cold killer criminals seemingly overnight. It’s jarring as are many of the film’s myriad plot twists and turns.
Nothing quite adds up, character or story wise, and what might have been an interesting and timely look at dismantling of patriarchal structures it instead finds its female empowerment within violence.
LUCY IN THE SKY
“Lucy in the Sky” is the only movie I can think of that would have been improved by the addition of adult diapers. Loosely based on the exploits of former naval flight officer turned NASA Astronaut Lisa Nowak, the new Natalie Portman movie recreates the troubled astronaut’s cross-country drive minus one juicy detail—the diapers she allegedly wore to eliminate the need for rest stops. The story that inspired the film is ripped straight from the tabloids, all lurid details, but “Lucy in the Sky” glosses over most of them (i.e.: the adult diapers) in favor of an oversimplified look at mental illness that never takes flight.
People who complain trailers give away too much or that movies have become predictable may find something to keep them guessing in “Serenity,” the strange Matthew McConaughey thriller. Or is it a metaphysical drama? Or should I call it a new age noir? I honestly don’t know what to file this under. However you classify it, this weird film will keep you guessing for better and for worse. Strange days indeed.
You don’t just see a movie like “Serenity,” you witness it. It is one of the most baffling movies to come along in years. McConaughey is in full-blown “are-we-all-just-pawns-in-a-great-big-game?” mode while Hathaway convincing channels femme-fatale Veronica Lake. Both give heightened performances but the tone of the piece is so off kilter I can’t decide whether they are sleepwalking through this toward a paycheque or doing some edgy work. If nothing else “Serenity” takes chances, not the kind of chances that are likely to please an audience but at least you can’t guess how it will end. Intrigued?
Near the end of “Replicas,” a sci film starring Keanu Reeves, a clone assesses the state of her being. “I am dead.” She’s referring to her former self, the template for her current physical state, but she could just as easily have been talking about her film, a movie about creating life that arrives DOA in theatres.
The creation of life has always fascinated storytellers and audiences alike but “Replicas” is so scattershot—Cloning! Artificial Intelligence! Robots!—it likely should have been titled “Replican’t” for its inability to interestingly explore any of its unfocused ideas. With no interest in the ethical or theological ramifications of the work the movie simply becomes a thriller and not a good one at that.
Reeves looks like he’s putting in some effort—he has more dialogue here than in his last three movies combined—but is in full blown “Sad Keanu” meme mode. Downtrodden and desperate, he veers from monosyllabic to bug-eyed, delivering lines with a gravitas that borders on camp. Once upon a time “Replicas” would have gone straight to DVD, decorating delete bins and quickly forgotten. On the big screen it makes no impression, neural or otherwise.
Remake happy Hollywood goes intercontinental, casting its eyes to France for this Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart film. “The Upside’s” based-on-a-true-story odd couple story of a wealthy quadriplegic and his ex-con caretaker is lifted from “The Intouchables,” a movie so popular it was voted France’s cultural event of 2011.
Despite strong performances “The Upside” is a slight feel good movie that values melodramatic and manipulation over real emotion.
X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX
Progressive ideas about acceptance are still at the heart of “Dark Phoenix” but all the nuance is consumed in a cosmic bonfire of CGI flames and the messaging is delivered with a mallet.
“They can never understand you! What they can’t understand they fear and what they fear they seek to destroy!”
The film’s biggest (and only intentional laugh) comes with a good and timely line courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence. “The women are always saving the men around here,” says a huffy Mystique to Professor X. “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.”
Despite the pyro on display “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t catch fire. The tone is flat, passionless even as a hectic CGI-A-Thon of eye blistering action eats up much of the last reel.