By William Wolf

CRAZY RICH ASIANS  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Jon M. Chu’s screen version of Kevin Kwan’s novel is different than anything in movie theaters these days. Apart from its being cast almost totally with Asians, a major breakthrough in itself, “Crazy Rich Asians” transports us into the sumptuous Singapore environment of the enormously wealthy. Perhaps Singapore’s disadvantaged whom we don’t meet would argue for equal time. But as a result of its setting, the film is dazzling to watch (cinematography by Vanja Cernjul), including broad shots of Singapore that may make you curious and want to book a flight, even though the screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim is shamelessly clichéd.

The characters depicted, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic, are amusing to watch despite the banal plot—a rich guy is in love with a woman with no money or social distinction and she faces a hostile reception when brought home to mother. In the buildup the gal is almost overpowered by the utter luxury and massive rejection that she faces. Care to guess how it works out?

The lovers are Nick Young, ardently played by handsome Henry Golding, and Rachel Chu, enacted with charm plus by Constance Wu. Rachel is a professor of economics at New York University. She and Nick look every bit meant for one another, but among Rachel’s drawbacks in the eyes of Nick’s mother is that she is Chinese-American, viewed as a deviation from pure Chinese in the tradition of the Young family dynasty. The occasion for returning to Singapore is a wedding at which Nick is to be best man.

Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, played by Michelle Yeoh, is a piece of work. Dominating and imperious, she wants her son back after a year of his absence and wants to get rid of Rachel in a hurry. It is amusing to watch the performance of Ms. Yeoh, who as Eleanor establishes her power in an earlier London hotel scene. When she is denied her reservation as a result of discrimination, with a phone call she quickly arranges for her husband to buy the joint, and into her suite she moves. Rachel has a formidable adversary. Can she stand her ground and survive a face-off with her potential mother-in-law from hell?

The film is populated with a wide assortment of characters, including Rachel’s oddball friend comically played by Awkwafina. There are expensively dressed women galore, who are mostly portrayed as bitchy and hopelessly vacuous. Conversely, within its plot the film also strikes a blow for women becoming more independent.

The flashy opulence is overwhelming. The wedding is unbelievably spectacular, and a bachelor party aboard a ship looks like a Hollywood extravaganza. It is easy to see why “Crazy Rich Asians” can achieve popularity. While its casting alone makes it unique, audiences may crave something very different, and as clichéd as the plot is, the lead performers are likely to make many root for the lovers despite the corn. Singapore anyone? A Warner Bros. release. Reviewed August 20, 2018.

THE WIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

With all of the current talk about the need for women to be more recognized in relation to men, “The Wife,” directed by Björn Runge, is certainly timely even though set in 1992. Glenn Close is hauntingly excellent in her portrayal of Joan, the wife of author Joe Castleman, portrayed with conceit and obliviousness toward her feelings by Jonathan Pryce. Joe is being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his writing and Joan, whose own talent at writing has never been recognized, accompanies him to Stockholm for the ceremony.

The screenplay by Jane Anderson is based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, and the adaptation gains from the performances of Close and Pryce. Close is particularly fascinating to watch as she plays a woman seething with resentment, but trying to keep it under control as the good wife. Although she is in love with her husband, there is a secret in their relationship that steadily drives her emotions to a breaking point.

In Stockholm all is set for the grand celebration and acceptance that showers honor upon Joe, who revels in being the award recipient. Joan’s duty is to be the loyal wife and bask in her husband’s celebrity.

The bubble is jabbed by the presence of Christian Slater as conniving journalist Nathaniel, who wants to write a biography of Joe. He senses a juicy situation and pressures Joan for information, but she tries to protect herself and her husband. Meanwhile Joe has the problem of a son, David (Max Irons), who resents his father’s control.

One can sense by the buildup and the performances that an explosion is coming, and we can venture a guess as to the back story. When the dam finally bursts, there is an emotional outpouring in which the past surfaces. How will it be resolved?

Both Close and Pryce do some of their best work here. Each contributes mightily to the film’s impact. Close in particular excels, given how much she must show with expression and demeanor until Joan finds the words and courage to state her long-suppressed case. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed August 17, 2018.

BLACKKKLANSMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

Spike Lee is back with one of the best films of his career. His “BlacKKKlansman,” is a riveting and suspenseful take on white racism, and even though taking place during the 1970s and the Vietnam War, it is brought menacingly up to date. Lee is refreshingly creative in how he pulls together a story based on actual events, then tops it with clips that reference the racism at Charlottesville, Va., and President Trump’s scandalous equating of the racists and protestors.

The screenplay, written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee, is based on the book by Ron Stallworth. The story is rooted in the strange achievement by an African-American cop, Stallworth, who working within the Colorado Springs police force goes undercover to join and expose the Klu Klux Klan’s local chapter. The twist is that Stallworth connects via phone but a doubling white co-cop is the one who actually presents himself in person to the Klan.

Stallworth, the first to break the racial barrier in the Colorado Springs police department, is played with pride and guts by John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington), topped with a dominant Afro. His white stand-in, the Jewish Flip Zimmerman, is played by the excellent Adam Driver. With Zimmerman being Jewish, Lee uses the situation to link the attacks of hate groups against Jews as well as African-Americans. The hate speech is blunt all around with plenty of use of the N word and canards such as holocaust denial and Jews ruling the world. Lee really goes on the attack.

The film bluntly displays Alec Baldwin as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a virulent commentator making a video of his racist denunciations and proclaiming the need to take America back as a pure Aryan race. By also using the mass wounded soldier scene from “Gone With the Wind,” Lee evokes the Civil War, and by interspersing clips from D. W. Griffith’s racist “The Birth of a Nation, ” he further ties the film to the history of slavery and hatred of African-Americans. At a later and especially ugly KKK meeting, “The Birth of a Nation,” surfaces again as the members raucously shout praise at the glorification of the KKK and cheer on hooded riders in the film’s racist portrayal of white womanhood needing protection from the vicious depiction of alleged black rapists.

As one might expect, there is the danger of the infiltrators being exposed, and there are suspicions aroused in the KKK chapter, which goes by the more innocuous name of The Organization. Its members are portrayed as a rather dim-witted lot, but nonetheless dangerous in their dedication to racism and their plan to stage a bombing.

Lee mines humor from the situation with the interaction on the phone between Stallworth and the racist leader David Duke, played with restrained menace by Topher Grace. It is also funny when Police Chief Bridges (sternly enacted Robert John Burke) designates Stallworth, still unknown as the interloper, to guard Duke when he arrives to make a speech in Colorado Springs. That meeting is counterpointed with Harry Belafonte, who as himself addresses college students and recounts a horrendous past lynching that influences his life.

The complex film also contains a relationship between Stallworth and a young Angela Davis-type college student leader, Patrice Dumas, played with black power commitment by Laura Harrier, who also sports a huge Afro. Infiltrating a college meeting and wearing a wire is Stallworth’s first undercover assignment as he attends and records the militant gathering mesmerizingly addressed by guest speaker Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name taken by Stokely Carmichael. Stallworth has to go through with it to burnish his credentials. He also comes on to Dumas In pursuit of a relationship. She hates cops, considering them all pigs. When, after his act of heroism in attempting to save her life, he confesses that he is a cop, although she has warm feelings for him personally, his being a cop is a romantic deal-breaker for her.

After a film loaded with the menace of racism, Lee inserts clips of the racist rally at Charlottesville, Va., and the destruction that occurred, including the killing of a young woman, paid tribute in the film. Lee interjects racist comments by the real David Duke and the now-famous obnoxious statement by Trump. The connective update is chilling in its message that racism is still a clear and present danger, including by the current president of the United States.

Lee’s dynamic film grips one’s attention, and he is masterly at mixing all of the elements into one overwhelming message. The story itself is amazing because it is such an unlikely cop saga, and yet it is based on what actually is said to have happened. Add “BlacKKKlansmen” to your must-see list of films among the best this year. A Focus Features release. Reviewed August 10, 2018.

MEMOIR OF WAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation of writer Marguerite Duras’s 1985 semi-autobiographical novel, “War: A Memior,” based on her wartime experience, is impressively faithful to Duras’s pensive, poetic style in her extensive writing and movie directing. The tone of the film rings with authenticity.

There is also the good fortune of having Mélanie Thierry in the role of Duras, as she gives a haunting performance as the author in the tortured position of longing for her husband, who has been taken prisoner by the Gestapo during World War II and sent to Dachau.

In “Memoir of War,” set in 1944, Duras is shown belonging to a tightly-knit resistance group, as was her husband Robert Antelme. She hungers for news of him, and as prisoners begin to return, he does not. Other key characters include her husband’s friend and fellow resistance fighter Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), with whom she grows closer as time advances. There is also a very touching performance by Shalumit Adar as a woman who desperately awaits in hope for the return of her daughter from internment. Duras takes the mother in to live with her.

Duras cultivates a friendship with Nazi collaborator Rabier, played deviously by Benoît Magimel. His purpose is to get her to turn against her resistance members and supply information. Her goal is to get him to intervene in behalf of her husband. It is a precarious balancing act, but she holds her ground firmly and rejects his romantic advances.

The film is rich in poetic tone thanks to voiceovers of Duras’s thoughts taken from her novel. There is the chilling depiction of the underground tenseness and debate among Duras’s comrades over what she is doing. We also get a picture of the Nazi collaborators as they frequent the restaurants and bars while knowing that their days are numbered as the defeat of Germany is becoming inevitable.

There is a point at which one may feel that the story could be tightened, as Duras’s agony is prolonged, but the film intensifies as word comes through underground efforts to reach her husband that he is in terrible, probably fatal, shape as result of the wretched treatment of war prisoners.

How Duras copes is the capstone of the film, and Thierry’s performance continues to be deeply moving. It is a major acting performance of the year, and one comes away deeply impressed with her interpretation of Duras’s recollections. Finkiel’s film makes an indelible mark and adds importantly to the cinematic literature about France during its ordeal of occupation. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed August 13, 2018.

KING COHEN  Send This Review to a Friend

An enthusiastic ode to independent filmmaker Larry Cohen, “King Cohen,” directed by Steve Mitchell, makes no pretense at objectivity. The documentary is an affectionate salute to Cohen, now 77, who has been a writer, producer and director who found his niche making unusual films outside the control of the studio system, as well as amassing many television credits.

Nothing would deter his determination to make the films that he wanted to make, and his taste ran the spectrum. Low budgets were his mode of keeping his independence. At the time Cohen began to flourish, I was writing for Cue Magazine and reviewed some of his films.

“Black Caesar,” for example, was a very violent film in tune with the trend toward making black action films. Cohen also loved horror fantasy, as with his film “The Stuff,” a satire of business working to flood consumers with products. The plot involves a yogurt-like substance becoming addictive, turning people into zombies and eventually engulfing all in its path. Among his many films were such titles as “The Winged Serpent,” “It’s Alive” and “The Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover.”

Cohen also his made his mark as a screenwriter on films made by others, as with “Phone Booth,” directed by Joel Schumacher with a screenplay about a killer sharpshooter who threatens to kill a man if he ventures outside the phone booth that he is in.

Cohen is a colorful character and “King Cohen” is replete with his comments about the films he has made, experiences in creating them and his work with those who became part of his projects. The film is also filled with comments about him and his movies by notables in the film world.

Director Mitchell interviews Fred Williamson, the star who appeared in “Black Caesar’ and is very vocal about working with Cohen. There are also comments from Martin Scorsese, Yaphet Koto, Michael Moriarty, John Landis, J.J. Abrams, Robert Forster, Barbara Carrera, Eric Roberts and others. Especially important are many clips from the films themselves that illustrate points beng made.

If there is a downside, you won’t find it in this celebration of him as a unique, adventurous filmmaker. My personal experience was a pleasant one when we had dinner in a favorite steakhouse of his when I interviewed him many years ago. It wa clear then that Larry Cohen was his own man who wanted to make films as he envisioned them. A Darkstar Pictures release. Reviewed August 3, 2018.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE--FALLOUT  Send This Review to a Friend

There’s action aplenty in this latest edition of the “Mission Impossible” franchise as Tom Cruise delivers one astonishing feat after another under the direction of Christopher McQuarrie. Cruise is celebrated for doing his own stunts, and we see abundant evidence of his stalwart daredevil contributions. As if that weren’t enough, check the film’s end credits for the vast list of stuntmen needed to flesh out the almost non-stop succession of physical action in a variety of international settings.

See Tom Cruise as good guy Ethan Hunt racing through Paris streets on a motorcycle. See him skydiving out of an airplane. See him in the cockpit of a helicopter battling another copter. Watch him in hand-to-hand combat. What’s the mission?

The screenplay by McQuarrie and Bruce Geller (based on the television series) concocts a situation in which plotting villains have harnessed plutonium for a plan to set off nuclear explosions that would wipe out populations. Can Hunt and his buddy operatives get to the bombs before they go off as the countdown proceeds? The situation is complicated by shady dealing, wicked adversaries and agency infighting. Naturally, there are attractive women in the mix, including Vanessa Kirby as the so-called White Widow, and other characters played by Angela Bassett, Rebecca Ferguson and Michelle Monaghan. Among key men in the cast are Sean Harris and Alec Baldwin.

The plot, of course, is broad hokum, but you don’t see this film for the solidity of the plot. Action is an order of the day. One can enjoy Cruise for his fleshing out of his character. One can also find pleasure in his stalwart buddies, the amusing Ving Rhames as the tech-savvy Luther and Simon Pegg as Benji, who looks unassuming but can come through gloriously in the crunch.

Also nestled very importantly in the plot is excellent Henry Caville as Walker, officially assigned to keep tabs on Hunt and oversee the mission. But is Walker what he seems?

There is plenty of tension in the screenplay. And director McQuarrie makes the most of the buildup to the climax. Also count on the signature musical theme to erupt at just the right moments. The vast effort that went into making this “Mission Impossible” edition is evident throughout, including great work by the special effects department. For action fans and “Mission Impossible” devotees there is certainly the payoff. I would say that even skeptics about such movies are likely to find themselves riveted by the sheer intensity and bravado of it all. And certainly by Cruise. A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed July 27, 2018.

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN  Send This Review to a Friend

Fans of ABBA songs get a chance to hear more, often danced to, in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go again,” written and directed by Ol Parker. As for the story, once again it is used to highlight the music, and there is a confusing back and forth between past and present. Still, as far as sequels go (and partly a prequel), the film offers plenty of visual splendor, enthusiastic singing and cavorting and the sort of in your face entertainment that made the stage musical so successful and was carried over into the original film.

But lovers of Greece have a right to be disappointed. This time the film was not shot in Greece but on the Croatian ilse of Vis, a stand-in for Greek island magic. Other filming was done in England.

The musical early on introduces a young Donna, a role originally portrayed by Meryl Streep, with Lily James now playing her graduating from school and in a ceremony bursting into a rousing performance of “When I Kissed the Teacher,” with everyone exuberantly joining in.

But in the updated setting Donna has died, and her daughter Sophie is played by Amanda Seyfried, whose love, Sky (Dominic Cooper), wants to pursue the hotel business in New York and not follow her to the Greek island, where she is committed to opening the Hotel Bella Donna in honor of her departed mother. There is much mourning for the late Donna, and we might also mourn the absence of the ever-wonderful Streep from most of the film. But coming to the rescue, Streep does turn up elegantly in ghostly fashion near the end.

So does Cher as Sophie’s grandmother, who was not invited to the opening party, but descends from a helicopter ride and makes a dazzling impression, especially when she bursts into song at the festivities. (Try the arithmetic of Cher playing the mother of Meryl Streep.)

Seyfried, over-the top bubbly and cutesy as Sophie, steams with energy. Holdover characters from the first “Mamma Mia” are there, including the three men, one of whom as a result of Donna’s’s dalliances could be Sophie’s father. She treats all of them her as her dad, played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard.

Rest assured that through all of the plot manipulations basic romantic problems are worked out. The character population is too voluminous to list here, from the young men of the past to the young men of the present, and to the other veterans of the previous “Mamma Mia.” Plot aside, the ABBA songs are the real stars of the film, including “One of Us,” “Waterloo,” “Kisses of Fire,” “Angel Eyes,” “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando,” “Super Trouper” and many more favorites. The choreography is lavish with everyone often in motion and the look is glitzy. This is the sort of easy-on-the eyes-and-ears movie musical that defies too serious analyzing. It’s aimed at audiences who enjoy the music and can go along with the humor, shameless sentimentality and unabashedly showy performances. A Universal Pictures release. Reviewed July 22, 2018.

THE THIRD MURDER  Send This Review to a Friend

If you are in the mood for a really good detective yarn, you will find it in “The Third Murder,” a thoroughly engrossing Japanese film written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, who previously gave us the excellent films “After the Storm” and “Like Father, Like Son.”

The story is a search for the truth by dogged defense attorney Shigemori, played with steely determination by Masaharu Fukuyama, with respect to a client who has already confessed. Misumi. portrayed enigmatically by Kôji Yakusho, served a prison sentence for another murder 30 yaers before. At the outset of the film we see a killer burning the body of a victim, and Misumi says that he is that murderer.

This time Misumi will face execution if he is convicted, as the murder is said to be in connection with a robbery. His lawyer wants to save his life, and as the film proceeds, the lawyer investigates other possibilities. For example, could the victim’s wife be responsible in order to collect insurance? Could Misumi have a hidden motive for committing the murder?

The director skillfully deepens the mystery as members of the victim’s family are introduced, and the detective pursues them to find out about their lives in order to shed light on the the case and potential explanations. We get hooked into the story, as well as being fascinated by a confrontation in prison between Shigemori and his difficult client, who doesn’t want to take advice that if followed might help spare his life. Hovering beneath the surface is the moral question of capital punishment itself.

Evenutually, of course, we learn the truth, as well as what the title of “The Third Murder” means. To tell you more about the film would be a spoiler. This is a detective tale for those who enjoy a legal thriller laden with plenty of atmosphere, excellent performances, different motive possibilities and the engrossing process of getting to the bottom of things and trying to save a life. A Film Movement release. Reviewed July 20, 2018.

RBG  Send This Review to a Friend

I regret that I am so late in reviewing “RGB,” the documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as it is one of the best films of the year. Co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “RBG” not only is a moving and inspiring portrait of Justice Ginsburg, but it is packed with information about and exploration of major issues in the context of her time, with clear expression of her contributions toward advancing legal rights both before her Supreme Court appointment in 1993 and then via her votes in the court’s decisions.

The film colorfully details her life and her rise with vital liberal positions. Many fearful of the court’s swing to the right under President Trump say that they wish she could live forever. Now 85 and a cancer survivor, she continues to be energetic, as evidenced by her regular physical workouts that might challenge the most athletic of us.

There is much footage culled from her interviews and platform appearances, and she comes across as a likable, often amusing and, more importantly, a profound thinker about the law. Included is evidence of her affable friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia despite their polarized viewpoints. We also see students responding enthusiastically to the advice she gives in her speeches.

Most touching is the relationship she had with her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, who from the very beginning of their dating as students appreciated her for her mind as well as her looks (she was very pretty) and was ultra supportive of her career aspirations. Clips showing their amusing interplay during an interview demonstrate their togetherness. His death after their 56-year-long marriage was a major blow that she had to deal with, and his loving note to her from his hospital bed could make one tearful.

A key element in the film is reportage about the victories she won for the right of women to be treated equally. The film does an excellent job in running snippets of text on screen that deftly summarize the legal points involved.

Many notables contribute, including Bill Clinton, who talks about how she quickly won him over and made him decide to appoint her to the Supreme Court. Excerpts from her facing the Senate in her confirmation hearing reveal how her candor, legal principles and expertise impressed even Republicans, such as Orrin Hatch. Others, among them activist Gloria Steinem and legal expert Nina Totenberg, talk impressively about Ginsburg’s contributions.

The film includes Ginsburg’s gaffs, falling asleep during a State of the Union address, and more importantly her mistake of denouncing Donald Trump, a departure from the judicial need to stay out of politics, for which she apologized. But this remains worrisome beyond the account in the film. What if an issue involving Trump comes before the court while she is still on the bench? Most likely she would be pressed to recuse herself.

The broad scope of the film coupled with the deeply engaging close-up of the distinguished jurist’s life makes this a documentary of rare power. It is a must-see for anybody who cares about the law and the fate of our nation. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed July 15, 2018.

EIGHTH GRADE  Send This Review to a Friend

Teenage angst movies aren’t particularly high on my must see list, but “Eighth Grade” turns out to be the exception. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, it is lit up by a wonderful, ultra natural performance by Elsie Fisher. She stars as the troubled Kayla, who in her last week of eighth grade is desperately striving to find herself and shed the awkwardness that bedevils her every move as students talk about what’s cool.

Kayla’s personality comes alive when she is alone in her room posting advice videos, such as telling others how to be yourself. At such moments she is the opposite of the way she behaves among her peers. She is addicted to her smart phone and laptop, which becomes her world. She exasperates her dad, played with fatherly bewilderment by Josh Hamilton, exemplified in a dinner scene in which he can’t tear her away from her social media. (There is no mother in the film.)

Kayla, her face littered with pimples, moves awkwardly, and when she is pressed into going to a pool birthday party, she looks out of place in her conservative bathing suit among the other more sexily-clad girls. The gift that she brings is frowned upon by the birthday girl.

Kayla has her eyes on a boy who is supposed to be particularly cool, although he really looks rather silly as an imagined catch. In one scene with another boy, she is alone in the back seat of a car and in playing truth or dare, she chickens out when asked to remove her shirt. She is only too glad to escape, even if embarrassed to tears afterward.

But Kayla wants to learn. There is a funny scene in which she is watching a woman on YouTube talk about how to perform oral sex, the details of which turn her off. Yet she tries to practice with a banana in the kitchen when her father walks in.

Eventually there is a very sensitive scene in which she and her dad connect verbally and emotionally. Kayla is gradually getting to be the self she always wanted to be, exemplified when she tells off a few snobbish female classmates. It will be onward to high school, where presumably she will fare better.

Fisher is so extremely touching that one feels for her all the way. The environment that writer-director Burnham creates seems painfully real, from the way in which the students talk to one another (Kayla in her videos repeatedly uses “like” in every sentence), and the overall school atmosphere. The music accompaniment is savvy as it is used to accentuate the anxieties, as when Kayla focus on her dream boy or summons courage to march into the dreaded school social combat.

The film may make you hark back to personal experiences. When I was in school, there were plenty of tensions, but not fueled by smart phones and devastating social media, which makes everything more addictive than the process of getting up the nerve to pick up a telephone to make desired contact.

“Eighth Grade” is that rare teenage film that can really get through to an adult, as well as to today’s teenagers who may recognize the mirror images of their lives. An A24 release. Reviewed July 16, 2018.


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