By William Wolf

CHAPPAQUIDDICK  Send This Review to a Friend

Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy turned out to be an outstanding Democratic U.S. Senator despite the scandal that temporarily marred his reputation as a result of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. After the assassination of his brothers, there were hopes he might become president. But all hell broke loose on the night in 1969, when after partying, he and an aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, went for a drive that ended in plunging off a bridge and into the water below. He escaped, she didn’t. What followed was desperate maneuvering to cleanup Kennedy’s role.

“Chappaquiddick,” directed by John Curran from a screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, dramatizes all of this, not stinting on details of Kennedy’s shabby behavior, including not reporting the accident to the police until much later and telling conflicting accounts of what happened. We see the various meetings by Kennedy advisors trying to come up with viable stories to mitigate his behavior and responsibility. Meanwhile, the film stresses the terrible loss of Mary Jo (Kate Mara) to her grieving family and gives us glimpses into her desperation in trying not to drown. She is also depicted with dignity in scenes leading up to the tragic event.

Jason Clarke gives a fine, credible performance as the Senator, including his clumsy handling of things, and Bruce Dern is memorable as his ailing father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., known to habitually denigrate Ted. But the father still hoped for Ted’s political future and the scandal was a blow. There is a wonderful scene when the patriarch, his face contorted from a stroke, manages a telling smile when listening to a broadcast in which Ted follows the clever tactic of using the broadcast to ask the people of Massachusetts if they want him to continue in office.

The film is fascinating in its delineation of the intrigue taking place and the difficulty of cleaning up the mess. A woman’s death, and the possibility that Kennedy had been driving under the influence, coupled with the idea that he might have saved her had he not just tried to save his own life hover over everything.

Director Curran tells the story without histrionics, which makes the events all the more disturbing as they speak for themselves. It is a tribute to Ted Kennedy that, whatever his misdeeds then, he managed to build a powerful reputation as Senator afterwards, winning widespread respect. But the new film will remind us once again of the tragedy and the political work that went into attempting to manage the scandal that ended his hopes to ever become president. An Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures release. Posted April 5, 2018.

JEANNETTE: THE CHILDHOOD OF JOAN OF ARC  Send This Review to a Friend

One film that annoyed me in this year’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema series was “Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc,” written and directed by Bruno Dumont and now in commercial release.

It is certainly a valid idea to reach back to examine the development of Joan of Arc and see what impelled her to follow the path that led to her heroism and becoming a legend. But although exquisitely shot to capture the ambiance of the French countryside in 1425, the film becomes numbing.

We first meet Jeannette when she is eight and tending sheep. (The director has used non-actors.) I suppose if one is steeped in religion the film could connect emotionally. But I quickly tired of this kid singing and praying, singing and praying, and already at an early age obsessively devoted to God above anything else. It is the same as she grows up in different stages (embodied by different casting). More singing and praying. The film is being touted as a musical.

We follow her trajectory with her child and adult relationships, including with twin nuns, until ultimately she mounts a horse and sets out to do battle in the still-raging Hundred Years’ War. The rest is history but at least we don’t have to endure more of a kid singing and praying. Posted April 13, 2018.

LEAN ON PETE  Send This Review to a Friend

Directed by Andrew Haigh and based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “Lean on Pete” starts strong as a sensitive, sympathetic story but mid-way begins to slide downhill.

Steve Buscemi makes an impression as the tough-as-nails Del Montgomery, owner of race horses, including Lean on Pete, a quarter horse that has seen better days. Pete’s terrain is second-class tracks and when a horse can no longer make it, he doesn’t think twice about selling it.

Into his life comes 15-year-old Charley Thompson, played appealingly by Charlie Plummer, who has had a difficult time in a hardscrabble upbringing. He and his struggling and distant father Ray (Travis Fimmel) come to Portland, Oregon, seeking a new start in life. Likable Charley is given a job by the skeptical Del, who is harsh and demanding in breaking him into the stable assistant routine.

Working with Del is his long-time jockey Bonnie, played by Chloë Sevigny. Despite her customary solid acting, she looks much to tall for a jockey, as well as not lightweight enough. If you can believe her as a jockey, good luck.

Charley begins to get attached to Lean on Pete despite Del’s advice never to get too fond of a horse. There is warmth to the film as we watch Charley gain self-confidence and be able to be independent of his father’s problems. And his affection for Lean on Pete is touching. When he learns that Del is going to sell him, Charley gets deeply upset. His solution is to steal Lean on Pete and go off with him.

What happens next becomes increasingly unbelievable—Charley wandering about with the horse and trying to lead it to a country space where they can live happily ever after. The situation grows increasingly difficult and the film founders with improbabilities. We know at the outset that it can’t end well, although for Charley it will at least turn out to be a learning experience. An A24 release. Reviewed April 6, 2018.

WHERE IS KYRA?  Send This Review to a Friend

Michelle Pfeiffer goes all out in an intentionally bleak performance as Kyra, a troubled loser in what is a very understated and sad film directed by Andrew Dosunmu from a screenplay by Darci Picoult. The acting by Pfeiffer is a classic example of an actress playing a role in counterpoint to her customary screen images.

We see Kyra in Brooklyn caring for her elderly, ailing mother. After her mother dies, Kyra is alone in her struggle for survival. She is in an increasingly desperate financial situation, owing rent, unable to find work and growing more and more frantic.

A ray of hope in her life is getting into a romantic relationship with a decent chap played by Kiefer Sutherland, but he can’t lift her out of her troubles, and when he learns what she is up to, he is reluctant to go along with it, although he really wants to help her. Kyra takes to disguising herself as her dead mother and proceeding to illegally collect benefits that her mother has been getting. The image of Pfeiffer dressed as an old lady is a striking one, and the actress makes the most of her trudging along and carrying out her deceptions.

We know that eventually she must get caught—one can’t get away with such a deception forever. How it all happens is well dramatized, and we watch the further descent of Kyra. It is a bold performance by Pfeiffer and the director keeps the film at a steadily depressing level. But watching this tragedy unfold is a bummer of an experience despite the film’s all-around quality. A Paladin release. Reviewed April 6, 2018.

READY PLAYER ONE  Send This Review to a Friend

I have never played a video game, nor do I want to, and therefore I come as a total novice to director Steven Spielberg’s video game spectacle “Ready Player One.” Working with the complicated, imaginative screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on Cline’s novel, Spielberg, like a boy with a toy, has gone all out to make an unusual film with enough special effects to go-around for ten movies. Get the special effects Oscar ready.

The film is loaded with explosions and the kind of violence one would expect in the imaginary world of video games. This is make-believe about make-believe, but still those who see “Ready Player One” should know what to expect in the violence department.

The plot involves interaction between those who make video games and those who play them, which also means becoming avatars in the game. All begins in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045 in an ugly depressed area with grim housing units piled vertically and appropriately called Stacks. Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts, our guide into the story. The imaginary world is called Oasis, and the battle begins with the competitive goal of finding three keys to a hidden egg. Whoever finds the egg will become rich as the controller of Oasis and inheritor of its assets.

Sounds simple? But when Spielberg and his creative screenwriters get going, all digital-style hell breaks loose, involving chases, fights, uprisings and elaborate visuals, sound effects, assorted creatures, a touch of romance, some social relevance and enough “in” references to past movies and characters to please film fans like Spielberg.

For example, in one sequence a theater playing Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is entered. It becomes a huge space, but there is a more intimate scene in which an attractive naked woman is taking a bath. She gets out, and stands bare facing her amazed onlooker. Then suddenly she changes into a withered, face-crumbling old hag who charges forward ferociously wielding a knife.

Others in the cast include Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Olivia Cooke, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki and Simon Pegg. But the real star of the film is its production. In many respects Spielberg, abetted by the wild, ultra-imaginative action-filled Penn-Cline screenplay, has outdone himself.

I first interviewed Spielberg when he was a young fellow making “Jaws.” He mentioned how as a boy he would make little films with his video camera. Now, as one of the most successful filmmakers in the world, he was probably having the boyish time of his life pushing the envelope with “Ready Player One.” He is in effect inviting the public to play a massive video game with him, and whatever the reaction, the film comes across as a visual powerhouse of digital-age know-how. A Warner Bros. release. Reviewed March 31, 2018.

THE LAST MOVIE STAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Burt Reynolds, now 82 and a far cry from his action image in such films as “Deliverance” and “Smokey and the Bandit,” clips from which are worked into “The Last Movie Star,” gets a meaty role here that veers between anger and sentiment.

Writer-director Adam Rifkin has said that he created this role expressly for Reynolds, who plays aging former star Vic Edwards, now a forlorn heavy drinker and all but forgotten. At first when he gets an invitation to be honored at a film festival in Nashville he doesn’t want to go. But ultimately he decides to be so honored.

What he finds is a grave disappointment. The festival is a tiny affair held in a bar and attended by a motley group of young fans. Edwards was given a list of famous stars previously honored. He learns they were honored in absentia.

Things go wrong from his arrival. He is booked into minimal accommodations. He is met by Ariel Winter as Lil, a loud-mouthed, rude driver who treats him without the fawning respect he expects. Edwards would like to leave.

But the film eventually dips into sentiment when he comes to appreciate the sincerity of those who admire his past work, and even more importantly, he takes a trip down memory lane to where he grew up in Knoxville.

The story is a stretch, but it does give Reynolds the opportunity to turn age into a plus and at this stage of his life play an oldster effectively. It is a convincing performance in less than convincing circumstances. An A24 and DIRECTTV release. Reviewed March 30, 2018.

SUMMER IN THE FOREST  Send This Review to a Friend

A gentle and emotionally touching film, “Summer in the Forest” provides impressive evidence of the importance of L’Arche, a movement designed to help those with disabilities, including such conditions as Down syndrome, lead happier lives.

Our guide through the documentary is Jean Vanier, now in his 80s, who in 1964 created L’Arche, a center outside Paris to help those with learning disabilities. By now Vanier’s vision has developed into a federation in more than 35 countries.

We see the evidence in quietly effective scenes that demonstrate the care and results of bringing opportunity and dignity to those in need. A countryside picnic, for example, details how participants are helped and gives us insight into behavior and the lifting of spirits, as well as interaction between those needing assistance and those providing it.

There is one sequence in Bethlehem, where we see how L’Arche is a boon to Palestinians with similar disabilities. The key to what we witness in the various encounters visited is the opposite of what used to be the norm, when people with problems such as Down syndrome were locked away as unfortunates. “Summer in the Forest” shows us the potential that can be developed through loving care.

Vanier provides narration at various points, and at times he pontificates with a bit of excess. More impressive is the filming of his interactions when he visits various locations where ongoing efforts are illustrated by the filming. Randall Wright, the director, relies on subtlety in approaching the subject, and reaches our emotions more tellingly than if the film had been more flamboyant. He thereby brings us close to those being observed in an atmosphere that is one of respect and intimacy. Reviewed April 2, 2018.

THE CHINA HUSTLE  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Jed Rothstein has made a documentary that adds to the already extensive evidence of fraudulence in the investment industry. “The China Hustle” exposes the cynical ploys of selling stocks in supposedly successful companies in China.

The problem was that the companies involved were often miserable little enterprises of little value. Thus, those who were sold on them got a royal screwing.

The method of the film is to collect assorted interviews revealing the extent of the problem and the knowing duplicity involved. Some of the film gets to feel repetitive, but Rothstein succeeds overall in putting together a documentary indictment of wrongdoing, which can serve as a warning to those who might fall victim to future schemes. Reviewed March 30, 2018.

GEMINI  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Aaron Katz attempts a modern version of film noir with a mystery set in Los Angeles. But there’s a problem. The contemporary characters are vacuous and lacking the magnetism of those in Hollywood noir in its prime. Therefore, although all of the mechanisms are in place in “Gemini” and the surrounding atmosphere is there through location and cinematography, it is difficult to care much about what happens and the ultimate revelation.

The set-up involves Heather, an actress played by Zoë Kravitz, who is reluctant to take on a scheduled role, and her personal assistant, Jill (Lola Kirke). The filmmaker who is angry at Heather’s rejection is Greg (Nelson Franklin).

To say more about the plot would be a spoiler for those undeterred who want to give the film a shot. Suffice it to say that a crime is committed and Jill, a suspect, runs away. Another key character is John Cho as a detective.

Savvy film fans can spot certain parallels to the kinds of films made in the heyday of much superior noirs. But without more interesting characters at the core, it is difficult to get caught up on the intended thriller. Maybe young television-oriented audiences will not feel this problem. A Neon release. Reviewed March 30, 2018.

BACK TO BURGUNDY  Send This Review to a Friend

Wine lovers will have much to enjoy among the vineyards that serve as the setting for the intense family drama “Back to Burgundy,” directed by Cédric Klapisch, who co-wrote the screenplay with Santiago Amigorena and Jean-Marc Roulot. The story involves two brothers and a sister deciding how to deal with ownership of the family vineyard, and the resentments that have flourished over the years.

Jean, played by Pio Marmaï, has been traveling the world and has his own vineyard in Australia. He has been away for 10 years and has not been in touch, especially about the death of his mother. Now he has returned because of his father being fatally ill.

There is special resentment on the part of his brother Jérémie, portrayed tautly by François Civil. Not so on the part of their sister Juliette, played warmly by Ana Girardot, who is happy to see her brother again and also takes the lead in the vineyard responsibilities.

To complicate matters, Jean has ties back in Australia with his romantic partner and their child and he spends time on the phone trying to explain his continued visit to France and his delayed return. What will happen to that relationship? Will Jean decide to remain at the vineyard?

The death of their father leaves the siblings with a forbidding tax bill as they inherit the property. In addition, Jérémie has a father-in-law who is a wine tycoon and looks down upon the prospect of his son-in-law and siblings rising to the occasion of enabling the vineyard to survive.

There has to be some resolution to all of the problems, which one might chalk up to plot clichés. But all the while there is the atmosphere of the beautifully filmed vineyard and the Burgundy winemaking country. It would be nice if only one could drink a glass or two while watching the movie unfold.

However, the good acting and visual splendor give the film its own high at times, and how all is resolved makes sense as family drama. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed March 23, 2018.

  

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