By William Wolf

LATE NIGHT  Send This Review to a Friend

One can stretch credibility standards when it comes to comedy, and especially when there is a highly entertaining performance by Emma Thompson, as is the case in “Late Night,” directed by Nisha Ganatra. There are other attributes as well, including the focus on a woman night show host instead of the male monopoly, and also a likable turn by Mindy Kaling as a newcomer who helps the star become more affable in a dramatic comeback.

It is mainly Thompson’s spotlight in the role of Katherine Newbury, who for nearly 30 years has been a TV late night powerhouse in competition with well-known men. However, her show has been getting stale, resulting in lower ratings, and Caroline Morton, the woman head of the network, sternly played by Amy Ryan, gives her notice that she will be replaced. Since the show is Newbury’s life, it is crisis time and Newbury has to fight to retain her spot.

The screenplay, written by Kaling, while including much humor, strains to provide emotional redemption for Newbury, who has been acting like a controlling bitch with her writing team and just about everyone else. She doesn’t even know that one of her writers died a few years ago. The film takes us into the writing room operation, with a group a far cry from the kind of legendary writers of earlier days (Mel Brooks, Neil Simon etc.) Those depicted here are not an especially creative lot and operate mostly in competitive self-interest.

When the urgent need arises to add a woman writer, the inexperienced Molly Patel, of Indian ethnicity, is given the job, which is highly unlikely in view of her being a novice. Of course, she has problems integrating into the condescending group of male writers. But Kaling makes her a principled, amusing (she does standup comedy on the side) and endearing character. Although she and Newbury clash at first, Newbury learns to listen to her sage advice, which leads to Newbury’s transformation into a host her audience begins to adore again. Thompson is excellent throughout and is eminently enjoyable to watch. But the screenplay that tries to balance comedy with sentimentality is contrived hokum. But at least it delivers a blow in behalf of women. There is also side story involving Newbury’s husband, Walter, played warmly by John Lithgow, who is ill and probably not long for this world. He and his wife are devoted to each other, but, spoiler alert, both the marriage and Newbury’s status are rocked by a scandal that complicates everything. “Late Night” has a screenplay that knows no limits.

As I missed the press screenings, I saw the film on opening day and found the large theater packed at an afternoon showing. The audience seemed to embrace “Late Night,” and at the end I asked a woman sitting next to me what made her want to attend. She said she was looking for a comedy and all of the advertising hype on TV made the film look promising. Whatever drew others as well, indications are that “Late Night” could turn out to be popular, with credibility issues falling by the wayside. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed June 8, 2019.

PAVAROTTI  Send This Review to a Friend

No matter how much we hear about the personal life of the late Italian opera star Luciano Pavarotti, he will go down in history for his great tenor voice and be remembered for his magnificent performances. Fortunately there are film and audio records of his triumphs for future generations. Now director Ron Howard has given us a terrific documentary that captures Pavarotti’s skill and also explores his life.

There is sheer pleasure in listing to Pavarotti’s wonderful voice in his various stage appearances highlighted by his commanding high C’s. Howard has done a tremendous job collecting film footage, and he has also interviewed key people in Pavarotti’s life. The overwhelming upside is emphasized rather than searching for downsides.

What emerges is a portrait of a larger-than-life man who took joy in singing as an expression of himself, and a man who wanted to help so many others through performances dedicated to charity. Doing that gave him much satisfaction, as one can see in so many of the scenes captured.

Opera purists tend to resent when a star performs more broadly, and there was such resentment against Pavarotti. But he enjoyed expanding and popularizing his skill. The film shows how he teamed with Bono, for example, and also used their performing together for charitable purposes. There were also his famous ‘Three Tenors” performances (with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras), and their singing together resulted in vast recording sales. In one especially touching moment during a concert Pavarotti gave, he directs his singing to Princess Diana, who, all smiles, is sitting in the audience.

Pavarotti’s personal life was fodder for scandal in the press. He was married, but it took many years before there could be a divorce, given the Catholic Church’s rules. He could not marry again in church, so he had to pick another venue.

In addition to interviews with his former wife, Adua Veroni, there is an interview with soprano Madelyn Renee, who had a long affair with him, but ended it because he remained married at the time. There is an interview with Nicolette Mantovani, the woman with whom he finally found marital happiness. There is also an interview with a daughter who had become became estranged from Pavarotti but finally reconciled with a show of emotion that emerges in Howard’s film.

The brilliance of this documentary is that it manages to depict the fullness of the star’s life, from the most wonderful displays of his talent to the days when he was becoming ill and singing with a voice no longer what it was. After Pavarotti died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 71, the film shows his cortege moving through crowds of onlookers paying tribute to the great artist whose operatic success echoed that of the famous Enrico Caruso. Howard’s documentary is certainly among the best and most important films of the year thus far. A CBS films release. Reviewed June 7, 2019.

ROCKETMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Dexter FLetcher’s “Rocketman,” in which Taron Egerton stars as Elton John, is built in Lee Hall’s screenplay around John’s group therapy sessions in rehab for his drug an alcohol abuse. By the end of the film a note says that John has been clean for 28 years, that he is in a gay marriage and that he and his husband have two children. But in the course of the exploration of John’s life we see him going through addiction hell along with his climb to phenomenal artistic and financial success.

Egerton’s performance realistically captures the depth of both John’s talent and his emotional wreckage. His high-octane singing and the flamboyant aura John could create are impressively on display in this visually arresting film. The film’s style is a mix of realism and the movie musical genre. We get day-to-day John mingled with imaginative flights into John’s psyche as he breaks into song off the performing stage.

Essential biographic elements are there, including his long-time friendship and collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (played with credibility by Jamie Bell) and tensions that erupt between them. Importantly, there is John’s straining to come to terms with being gay at a time when that was still something to conceal in England. At one point John enters into a heterosexual marriage, but the effort fails, as we quickly see.

The film also covers the cold relation with his father and the turbulent interaction with his mother, as well as the professional associations along the way.

Best of all in the film is the recreation of John’s intense, supersized, energetic and wildly colorful rock singing that catapulted him into his vast popularity with recording sales in the millions and all the money that flowed from that, giving him the wherewithal to indulge in hard drugs and alcohol until the point of a breakdown and the need for rehab.

The personality and talent of Sir Elton is depicted in larger-than-life fashion. The mix of reality and the imagined doesn’t always work smoothly, but the overall splash and the depth of Egerton’s very credible acting as John is there, along with some of his best known numbers that he wrote and performed.

“Rocketman” is prime viewing for John fans and an entertaining introduction for those unfamiliar with what Sir Elton brought to the music world. A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed June 16, 2019.

BACK TO THE FATHERLAND  Send This Review to a Friend

An interesting concept is frittered away in a rather lifeless documentary in which young Israelis explain why want to move to Germany and Austria despite the persecution of Jews in those countries during the Nazi era. Their desires, contrasting sharply with elders who survived the horrors, are expressed in low-key conversations.

The problem of the film, directed and produced by Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon, is that the young people are not especially interesting and the filmmakers don’t do enough to make them more so. The discussions have an academic quality rather than emotional depth, although special interest arises from some of the misgivings cited about life in Israel with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The directors, who became friends while college students in New York a decade ago, approach the subject from personal as well as historical angles. Rohrer is from Austria, Levanon is from Israel. Rohrer’s grandfather was a Nazi officer. Levanon is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.

They thus have an interest in pursuing reasons why some Israelis want to emigrate to the crime scenes under new post-Holocaust environments. They also are aware of why survivors would look askance at a new generation finding appeal in moving to Germany and Austria.

The co-directors focus on three families involved in the issue, and the interviews included are intelligent in the reasoning and reactions. Unfortunately the overall effect of the film is on the bland side and it is tough to get excited over the younger generation mulling over the direction to take in their privileged lives. A First Run Features release. Reviewed June 14, 2019.

THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE  Send This Review to a Friend

The story of Moe Berg is an incredible one, with nothing like it in the history of baseball. Berg, an esteemed athlete who played as catcher for numerous baseball teams in the 1920s and 1930s, also distinguished himself as an American spy who repeatedly risked his life gathering information aimed at preventing the Nazis from developing an atomic bomb during World War II.

Director Aviva Kempner has made a fascinating documentary surveying the life and exploits of Berg. “The Spy Behind Home Plate” tells Berg’s story based on research and including interviews with a host of people who fill in various details of Bergs’s unusual life. The film stands as an important testament about this unusual American athlete and hero.

Berg, who was Jewish, grew up in Newark, N.J., and in addition to his athletic achievement, had a notable education, including a degree from Princeton University and one from Columbia Law School. He also attended the Sorbonne in Paris.

His baseball record includes playing for the Brooklyn Robins (later becoming the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox. Berg died in 1972 at the age of 70.

The film covers his recruitment in the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA. He was honored for his espionage service that was judged extremely valuable to the United States. Director, who previously made a film about Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, packs much detail and commentary in her survey of Berg’s remarkable life. It is both informative and entertaining in its dealing with such a unusual story.

Berg has long been a subject of legend. Nicholas Dawidoff, who comments in the film, wrote the book “The Catcher Was a Spy,” subsequently adapted into a feature film. Kempner further cements the Berg story with intelligence and dedication. A Ciesla Foundation release. Reviewed May 31, 2019.

BOOKSMART  Send This Review to a Friend

At first one may think this is just another ditsy film about teenagers. But as director Olivia Wilde (yes, the actress) unveils her take on the scene in her filmmaker debut, the way in which “Booksmart” scores as different takes hold. Not only can one enjoy the escapades of two girls about to graduate high school, but beyond the laughs and outrageous events there are serious observations about friendship, frustrations and the fear of losing a bond when the gal pals move into the lives ahead of them.

The set-involves Beanie Feldstein as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy, who have been best friends as they studied hard in school to get places in top universities and earn a bright future. Their intense efforts and good grades have come at the expense of not partying as some of the students on whom they look down do. Much to the shock Molly and Amy get, they find that the partying classmates also get into top schools despite their playing around instead of working their butts off.

That realization sets Molly and Amy off on a furious quest to find a raging party on the night before they go to the graduation ceremonies. A big chunk of the film follows their trail and what happens when they hit the ultimate bash.

Along the way we learn about their personalities and cravings. Amy has come out as gay, but there isn’t any sexual relationship with Molly. It is pure friendship, but they do talk a lot about sex with amusing candor. (A hilarious interlude of animated, sexual puppetry is a clever touch.)

At the party Amy meets a woman who is open to a lesbian encounter. As the women undress, the scene begins to look hot. Then, they—and maybe we—are disappointed as Amy suddenly vomits all over her would-be lover.

In a scene the next morning Molly gazes through a window as Amy and her new friend talk despite their stomach-upset fiasco. Molly, frantically trying to get Amy’s attention and with an expression of astonishment, indicates at least momentary jealousy.

There is a madcap rush to get to graduation after the night of partying and a final touch indicates that Molly and Amy will try to hold onto their bond. The supporting cast does an excellent job, whether the roles are other students or adults. It is easy to see why a lot of film fans, particular among the younger set, will take this school-days romp to heart. Four screenwriters collaborated on the script—Katie Silberman, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Susanna Folgel—and their insights into the characters and their behavior undoubtedly gain from the female perspective they and Wilde bring to “Booksmart.” An Annapurna Pictures release. Reviewed May 25, 2019.

PHOTOGRAPH  Send This Review to a Friend

A tender and moving love story from India, “Photograph” explores class differences involving a street photographer and a woman whose picture he took. It has been directed with smoothness and sophistication by Ritesh Batra, who previously made the successful film “The Lunchbox,” also set in India. “Photograph” emerges as among the best films of 2019 thus far.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Rafi, who in Mumbai roams tourist sites to take pictures. It is a meager living as he struggles to pay off a family debt. He is being bugged to marry by his grandmother, colorfully portrayed by the veteran actress Farrukh Jaffar, who is coming from her village to visit Rafi. To appease her, Rafi convinces Miloni, a shy woman whom he has photographed, to agree to pretend to be his intended bride. His grandmother is an all-knowing woman who cannot be easily fooled and she dispenses some wise advice to Rafi for his future.

Sanya Malhotra is cast as Miloni, and her performance is nicely modulated. As one might expect, a real attraction between Rafi and Miloni deepens, but the class differences pose an obstacle.

Miloni lives in a middle class environment complete with a housekeeper to whom she is close. Rafi shares a crowded attic dwelling. When he and Miloni go to a neighborhood movie, a rat scampers across her feet. She tries to ignore it. But director Batra quietly underscores the differences between the lives of Miloni and Rafi, even while the screenplay, which Batra wrote in addition to directing, moves them closer and closer in their feelings toward one another.

Will love conquer? Batra in the end leaves it up to the viewer to decide. On the one hand, he drops a hint after Miloni exits a film before it is over. Rafi follows and says she didn’t miss anything, as the stories all end the same with the man not getting the girl because he’s from a different class. Yet, on the other hand, we see Rafi and Miloni walk away together.

The city of Mumbai comes across as an added character as a result of the excellent location filming. The performances ring true in this setting, and once again, Batra has created a convincing story entertainingly told with delicacy and an understated emotional buildup. The result is a very special achievement. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed May 16, 2019.

THE TOMORROW MAN  Send This Review to a Friend

John Lithgow plays Ed, who is obsessed with planning ahead for the disastrous turn of events that he fears coming. But what about the present?

Blythe Danner is cast as the likable but loner Ronnie, a woman who enjoys staying at home and watching war documentaries. The two meet in a supermarket. Ed falls for her and persuades her to have coffee with him. After some tentative romantic sparring with the potential of a relationship lurking, the two become closer.

Ed harbors a secret, which he finally reveals to Ronnie. He has a garage stored with food for a future emergency. As they become more and more a couple, Ed’s concern with what lies ahead, fueled by internet influence of survival extremists, increasingly disturbs Ronnie.

She needs to live in her present and their relationship teeters. But the film’s writer-director Noble Jones has serious stuff on his mind and develops the film accordingly. What if Ed’s fears are well-grounded? There is a side angle of Ed’s troubled relationship with his son, who resists his father’s relentless gabbing about the future.

“The Tomorrow Man” is a patently contrived tale. But when there are excellent actors like Lithgow and Danner as oldsters, the performances can at least hold one’s interest no matter what one thinks of the flimsy story and phony climax that stresses what is important is finding happiness in the momentary present under threat of eclipse. A Bleecker Street Media release. Reviewed May 22, 2019.

NON-FICTION  Send This Review to a Friend

Sophisticated and witty, “Non-Fiction,” a French film written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is an up-to-the minute story about the publishing world in the new digital age. Perfectly cast and often very funny, the film involves intimate relationships and sexual betrayals that combine the business world with personal machinations. Having been shown at last fall’s New York Film Festival and now getting a commercial release, “Non-Fiction” is one of the best films to open his year.

How much about real-people does a writer put into his novels with characters others will recognize as themselves? Such parallels can have unsettling effects, as is the case with novelist Léonard Spiegel, earthily played by Vincent Macaigne, who in the early stage of the film is being fobbed off at a lunch by Alain Danielson, his editor, played suavely by Guillaume Canet, who recognizes certain elements in the manuscript Léonard wants published.

Guess what? Léonard has been in a romance with none other than the editor’s wife, Selina, exquisitely enacted by Juliette Binoche in a fresh major screen achievement. It is always enjoyable to watch Binoche at work, and she is at the top of her game here playing a successful television actress frustrated with her career, and trying to convince her husband to publish her lover’s novel even as she is on the verge of ending the relationship.

Of course, editor Alain has been quite busy with his own bedroom shenanigans. He is having a fling with Laure (Christa Théret), whom he has hired to take the publishing company into its new digital level. (Although all of the talk about the digital age concerns what’s happening in France, the situation is patently pertinent to the United States as well.) The skill with which Assayas sets up the entanglements is remarkable, and the cast members strike exactly the right attitudes to establish French sophistication masking what happens between the sheets.

“Non-Fiction” is also notable for the appearance of Nora Hamzawi, until now known primarily as a standup comedian. She contributes colorful acting as Valérie, an outspoken activist involved in promoting a left-wing candidate. She not only adds a political dimension, but she is involved with Léonard. The relationship between Valérie and Léonard turns out to be especially interesting and sensitive.

Some of the best scenes occur when those having affairs are thrown together, the betrayers and the betrayed, and are attempting to be discreet and above it all. The film is loaded with smart dialogue and humorous lines, all adding up to a film unlike anything an American film would be likely to attempt. That goes for all of the serious conversation about the changing world of publishing as well as the way in which the film addresses infidelity. As you can gather, the very entertaining “Non-Fiction” is definitely a favorite of mine. An IFC Films release. Reviewed April 30, 2019.

TOLKIEN  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Dome Karukoski’s “Tolkien” is an old-fashioned biopic that examines the early life of J. R. R.Tolkien, who was born in 1892 an died in 1973, in a manner that shows the literary seeds that led to his becoming the famed author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings." Nicholas Hoult gives a creditable performance as the author-to-be in the film, with a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Mostly, the territory covered is the period of Tolkien’s education when he bonds with a group of fellow students who commit to friendship forever.

There is, however, a forced structure of flashbacks that become annoying. Tolkien is depicted as a soldier in World War I who is trying to survive amid the horror of trench fighting, and is also looking desperately for one of his buddies in hope that he can find him alive. What’s annoying is the repeated back and forth from that situation to the earlier days. One flashback and a later return to the battle scene would have been enough.

The film does depict the school days atmosphere well, and there is a warm handling of the problematic relationship between Tolkien and the effective Lily Collins as Edith, whom he leaves because of pressure in the first stages of their romance by Colm Meaney as the priest who looks after him following the deaths of his parents. But the lovers later connect and he and Edith will eventually marry.

One especially pleasing scene occurs when as a student, he takes Edith to an opera, but finds there are no more seats he can afford, only the expensive dress circle. He then tries to sneak into the opera with Edith through a side door. But they find themselves stuck in the basement, which is stacked with costumes. Edith dons one and mouths the words she hears from the stage, and the two dance romantically. Somewhat corny, yes, but deeply felt.

The style of the film is tradition-bound, but there are many effective moments as we see Tolkien’s life being shaped, and the horror of World War I and the toll it took on young men is emphasized. We also get some insight into what an Oxford education was like at the time. Derek Jacobi has a role as a tough professor depicted as being an inspiration to Tolkien. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed May 10, 2019.

  

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