By William Wolf

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS  Send This Review to a Friend

In the tradition of costume dramas, “Mary Queen of Scots,” directed by Josie Rourke from a screenplay by Beau Willimon, covers the historical territory but only lights up on occasion. There is a modern tinge, especially with Mary in a candid sex scene, and then when she finally confronts her rival, England’s Queen Elizabeth, in a face-to-face meeting that is never supposed to have occurred in real life.

When it comes down to basics, the film’s main attractions are the performances by Saorise Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth. The film begins with Mary’s execution, then flashes back to her life in Scotland, when she arrives from France. What evolves is her power struggle, her giving birth to a son, and eventually winding up being vilified as a “whore” and escaping Scotland for England, where she has claim to the English throne. Always there is context of religious conflict. Mary is catholic, Elizabeth protestant.

Ronan plays Mary rather blandly and stoically early on, but gradually heats up her performance as the woes thicken. The meat of the film is the confrontation in England, with Mary in the countryside and Elizabeth journeying to see her. Elizabeth is troubled but stern. Her offer to Mary is protection if Mary doesn’t persist in her claim to the throne. But Mary defiantly stands her ground despite the peril she faces.

We later see Elizabeth very conflicted over what she feels she must do but finally signing the execution order. And for Mary it is off to the chopping block and the toll history takes.

The film is modern in the sense of emphasizing strong women in the realm of men trying to be dominant. And it is interesting to see Mary sexually demanding intercourse when her bedmate can’t perform with enough of an erection and goes down on her. But she is furious and wants more. Is that historical progress on screen? You be the judge. A Focus Features release. Reviewed December 7, 2018.

BECOMING ASTRID  Send This Review to a Friend

Put “Becoming Astrid” down as among the best films of 2018. It is a deeply moving fact-inspired drama that I heartily recommend, both for the lead performance and the subject matter--the shaping of the life of Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the renowned Swedish writer of “Pippi Longstocking” and a host of children’s books published throughout the world. Her works have been translated into 85 languages, with some 165 million copies printed world-wide. “Becoming Astrid,” astutely directed by Danish filmmaker Pernille Fischer Christensen, takes us back to show how it all began and reveals emotional elements in Lindgren’s life that fused with her desire for independence and literary success.

At the heart of this movie triumph is the performance by actress Alba August as Astrid. She is luminous and dynamic, appealingly effective every step of the way in a demanding, emotional role. (The star is the daughter of Danish director Bille August and Swedish actress and director Pernilla August.)

We first see Astrid as an elderly woman sifting through letters from children who want to tell her how important her books have been to them. The story then swiftly moves back in time to when Astrid was a teenager living with her church-going mother, father and siblings in rural Sweden. She aspires to write and is delighted when offered the opportunity to become an assistant to Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen, excellent), the editor of a local newspaper.

Blomberg, so much older, is smitten with her. She is attracted to him and with the nerve of youth, makes the first serious move, and they start an affair. When Astrid finds herself pregnant, the horror of scandal for her and her family arises. Blomberg, who is married but separated and loves Astrid, does the honorable thing and wants to marry her, but unless he gets a divorce, he is in danger of being convicted of adultery in the moralistic atmosphere of the time and place. The situation sets off a major plot direction, including the need for Astrid to have the child in Denmark with the assistance of a kindly woman, Marie, played with sensitivity by Trine Dyrholm, who looks after children whom others are temporarily unable to care for.

“Becoming- Astrid” fascinates on so many levels. We see attitudes of her parents, and her mother not wanting her to marry Blomberg unless Astrid really loves him. In the context of the time Astrid weighs whether marriage is what she wants at the moment in light of Blomberg’s traditional expectation of a wife as a homemaker and mother, a reflection of the role of women in that society. There is also the issue of employer-worker sex, which resonates with the discussions going on today. There is the older man, younger woman issue that still upsets some people.

There is also the question of to what extent Lindgren can fill the role of a mother, and how a child must learn to relate to a mother he has rarely seen. We are privy to the feelings of Astrid that influenced her later accomplishments writing stories for children.

All of the above is solidly placed in the director’s portrait of society in that era, with excellent cinematography showing assorted locations. The screenplay, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson with director Christensen, works to keep one engrossed in Astrid’s life, the various characters depicted and the ultimate romantic outcome, neatly handled without unnecessary elaboration.

On all counts this is a film that works splendidly, and once having seen Alba August, you are likely to fondly remember her extraordinary performance. If there is any justice, she should be considered favorably at awards time. So should the film. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed November 16, 2018.

HAPPY AS LAZZARO  Send This Review to a Friend

A film that starts in the tradition of Italian neo-realism, “Happy as Lazzaro,” which was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and now goes into commercial release, veers into a highly imaginative mode that escalates its creativity and establishes the work from Italy as among the year’s best. It stands as an important social commentary on class differences and exploitation. In addition, there is an implicit Biblical reference.

Alice Rohrwacher has done a superb job of direction from her screenplay, and she has as her leading actor the non-professional Adriano Tardiolo giving a riveting and deeply sympathetic performance in the title role of a young man with an ethereal screen-worthy face. The film is set in the past, with Lazzaro willing to cheerfully take on any task demanded of him in the community of tobacco farm workers exploited by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). The men and women are treated as serf-like sharecroppers.

The story is inspired by a 1980s case of a rich noblewoman, who became known as the tobacco queen and similarly exploited workers who had been cruelly kept ignorant of the fact that such sharecropping had been outlawed. The film details the daily lives of the characters under the Marchesa’s rule until they are rescued when officials discover the illegal abuse.

Before that plot development, we see the Marchesa’s layabout son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), making a friend of the impressionable Lazzaro, whom he personally exploits. Lazzaro thinks this is a sincere friendship. Eventually (spoiler here) tragedy strikes as Lazzaro tumbles to his death from a high cliff.

Anyone familiar with the Biblical story of Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead, can make the film’s connection as it jumps to the present when Lazzraro appears looking exactly as he did in his youth, much to the amazement of those who, now older, encounter him and are flabbergasted.

The film, rich in imagination, takes on a new dimension. Some of those freed from their lot as sharecroppers now are scrounging for a living in various ways. The Marchesa, having been exposed, is reduced to poverty. Lazzaro encounters the older Tancredi (now played by Tommaso Ragno) and a bizarre episode unfolds, demonstrating the moral superiority of those who had been the sharecroppers.

Rohrwacher’s film rises to become very special in its religion-tinged allegorical outcome. Scene after scene is superbly photographed (cinematography by Hélène Louvart). Perhaps the film could be trimmed a bit, but “Happy as Lazzaro” emerges as a film that may haunt your memory and engender special respect for this rare accomplishment. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 28, 2018.

ROMA  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has searched into his own life to create “Roma,” his film set in the early 1970s in Mexico City, showcased as the centerpiece of the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. It is both an intimate story and a look at the larger picture of society, within which the lives of a middle-class family and its devoted nanny and housekeeper unfold.

Central to the story, which is filmed impressively in black and white (the director was also the cinematographer) with all the realistic advantages the style communicates, is Yalitza Aparicio in the role as the dedicated Cleo. Remarkably, given her deeply sympathetic performance, Aparicio is not a professional actress. Cleo looks after a family, consisting of Sofia, the mother (Marina de Tavira), four children (three boys and a girl) and their grandmother. We briefly meet the unfaithful father, who goes off on a business trip with another activity in mind. There is also the important family cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia), who is very close to Cleo in friendship as well is in work.

There is special poignancy in Cleo’s relationship with the children, who are a handful, and one harrowing scene at the beach emphasizes how much Cleo cares for them. She works for modest wages, but when she gets into trouble, help is provided.

The trouble arrives when she finds herself pregnant after an encounter with a lout who refuses to have anything to do with her when she confronts him and says it is his child. Aparicio’s understated performance is what holds the film together even though we also become involved in the other characters.

Cuarón makes a point of stressing life in Mexico City, starkly dramatized by including shots of a major controversial event, a protest demonstration by students brutally confronted by rampaging police—an episode in 1971 called the Corpus Christi Massacre. The director handles this by showing what is happening from the viewpoint of Cleo and the grandmother who observe the demonstration and the police attack.

Thus we do not get just an isolated portrait of the family for whom Cleo works and its daily lifestyle and crises, but also the director’s take on the Mexico City he knows. All is surveyed masterfully in human terms via the story, casting, involving performances and direction, a combination that results in a major film of the year. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 21, 2018.

SHOPLIFTERS  Send This Review to a Friend

A family of grifters (not all blood relatives) who live by stealing can win your heart in the touching “Shoplifters,” a film by skillful Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-da. It was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and is now in commercial release. It also won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

We see the mode of operation early on. The middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky), and 10-yeer-old Shota (Kairi Jyo), signal to each other to facilitate stealing from a grocery store, thus helping to sustain life in the poor flat where they exist. Osamu’s partner is Nobuyo, portrayed by Sakura Ando) and “Grandma” is played by Kilin Kiki. OsAmu and Nobuyo also struggle in low-paying jobs. Grandma is collecting the pension of her late ex-husband. There is also a daughter, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who earns money performing at a strip joint. The group will soon have an addition.

In a moving moment, Osamu and Shota spot a pitiful little girl, cute four-year-old Juri (Miyu Sasaki), alone on a neighborhood balcony and shivering in the cold. They decide to take her back with them to where they live. Marks on her body indicate that she has been abused by her parents, so a decision is made to keep and take care of her as another mouth to feed rather than return her to her life of abuse.

With Juri gone missing, the situation escalates into an accusation of kidnapping. Of course, that was not the intent, but good intentions can morph into trouble.

Kore-eda is masterly in the portrait he paints of his characters and their struggle to exist happily in the face of their poverty. He elicits sympathy as well as builds suspense and makes us care for what happens to them. By focusing on these individuals, he also shows them against the background of life about them and the pathos of people being marginalized in an affluent society.

The juxtaposition comes across as a salute to the courage of those who struggle to find the means to survive but also show compassion for an abused little girl at risk to themselves. “Shopifters,” reminiscent of the post-war Italian neo-realism, ranks high among the superior films of the year. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed November 23, 2018.

THE FAVOURITE  Send This Review to a Friend

The unusual film “The Favourite,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, was the opening night selection of the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now in commercial release. It’s a work that further demonstrates director Lanthimos’s broad imagination. With a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos explores freely perceived bedroom escapades during the 18th century reign of Queen Anne between her and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, and also between the queen and servant Abigail Hill.

Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702 to 1707, and then, after Scotland and England were merged into Great Britain, she ruled from 1707 to 1714, when she died at the age of 49. Queen Anne suffered from gout and other illnesses, and she had a disastrous record of childbirths. There were some 17 pregnancies, including miscarriages and babies dying at birth or shortly afterward. Of five successful births, four children died before the age of two.

The queen is played by Olivia Colman and she is shown as clumsy, overweight and frequently wracked with pain, with a badly swollen leg, and having great difficulty walking. The duchess, given a stark performance by Rachel Weisz, cares for her, and we see them having sex.

Emma Stone sassily portrays Abigail. Young and beautiful, Abigail gains the affection of the queen, much to the consternation of the duchess, and nasty, scheming competition erupts. The situation is complicated by the queen’s frequent tantrums. One minute she can be friendly, the next angry and cruel.

Much of what happens is seen as funny from the perspective of the screenwriters and director. The film comes across as a satire on royalty, and certainly on hidden bedroom cravings, which play out as bizarre rather than erotic.

All this is wrapped in the trappings of palace luxury and lifestyle, and the colorful palace grounds and environs are strikingly photographed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. While political aspects are introduced, the main concentration is on the three women and what occurs between them, sexually and otherwise.

“The Favourite” is such an oddball film that it is assured divided reactions, but those who find Lanthimos’s work appealing are likely to be pleased and amused by his foray into 18th century royalty and his imagining what happens behind the scenes. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed November 23, 2018.

THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET  Send This Review to a Friend

As someone who will take a bus to go six blocks, I am in awe of Matt Green, who has vowed to walk every block in New York City and is seen walking along briskly in this unusual documentary directed by Jeremy Workman, with Jesse Eisenberg as executive producer.

Green has been into his mission for seven years and he has already walked 8,000 miles of New York streets. He has in the past also trudged across the United States. What’s striking is that he is basically a homeless walker. Green doesn’t maintain an apartment. He crashes with sympathetic friends. It costs him, he says, about $15 a day for food and getting to and from where he has chosen to walk.

What’s interesting is that he doesn’t just walk, but relishes examining the history and culture of New York’s boroughs, and in the film he points out landmarks as he comes across them. He expresses deep curiosity about nearly everything he sees, and knowing much about New York’s history appeals to him.

Green has done so much walking that you can’t say it is a publicity gimmick. It seems more of an obsession, and the filmmaker has captured the spirit with which Green goes about his life of covering the territory he has committed himself to traversing.

Although the film itself is stimulating as well as informative, have a good rest before you see it. Unless one enjoys walking too, the challenge of just watching Green in action may tire out the less physical among us. I immediately went to catch a bus. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Reviewed November 21, 2018.

AT ETERNITY'S GATE  Send This Review to a Friend

Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” is especially important for two reasons. It provides a new look at the final days in the life of artist Vincent van Gogh and excellent actor Willem Dafoe gives an extraordinary and memorable performance as the artist.

Collaborating on a screenplay with the eminent Jean-Claude Carrière and also with Louise Kugelberg, director Schnabel peers into the sad fate of van Gogh and the pitiful situation in which he never sold a painting. The screenplay also depicts the artist’s death in a way that counters the more accepted idea of his having committed suicide.

Throughout Dafoe is superb in the portrait he gives us of van Gogh, a nuanced look at what his life was like in intimate terms. The supporting cast is first rate too, including Rupert Friend as his supportive brother, Theo, Oscar Isaac as Gauguin, Mathieu Amalric as the important Dr. Gachet, Emmanuele Seigner as Madame Ginoux and Mads Mikkelsen in a key role as a priest.

As one has come to expect from Schnable, he creates an impressive artistic atmosphere that in this case creates a vivid sense of the time in which the artist’s final days unfold. The superb cinematography by Benoît Delhomme helps enormously in achieving the affecting visuals.

An unusual mourning scene is chilling, with van Gogh’s coffin in the center of a room, and his paintings on surrounding walls, as visitors select art that he could not sell during his life. The scene is an inkling of the fame that will eventually embrace him posthumously and the enormous prices his work will ironically command. A CBS Films release. Reviewed November 16, 2018.

SHOAH: FOUR SISTERS  Send This Review to a Friend

Claude Lanzmann has gone down in history as the primary film chronicler of the Holocaust, leaving a profound legacy of testimony on screen. The final work he has left us, “Shoah: Four Sisters,” stands as further evidence of how horrors unfolded in different ways. Lanzmann was 92 when he died last July.

The women whom he interviewed in this two-part film are not actual sisters, only spiritual sisters in the sense of what each endured in different ways. There is an installment for each in the footage, which he shot originally for his “Shoah” masterwork. Taken together they are deeply moving.

Symbolically, one episode that haunts me was reported by Ada Lichtman in the part titled “The Merry Flea.” Her job in an extermination camp was to clean and prepare dolls taken from executed Jewish children so that German personnel could give those dolls to their own children. More than the process itself, is the harrowing thought of Germans callously giving such dolls to their own kids, and taking the step further, the thought of German kids innocently playing with dolls that belonged to murdered Jewish children.

More directly obscene was the intimate tale told by Ruth Elias in a section titled “The Hippocratic Oath.” Elias, a Czech Jew, had the misfortune to fall into the hands of Josef Mengele when pregnant. Mengele seemed to befriend her during her pregnancy. But there was something on his mind that he did not reveal. After the birth of the baby, he gave orders not to have the baby fed. He wanted to see how long a baby could live without nourishment. The baby, of course, eventually died as a result of one of Mengele’s experiments, a loss with which Elias had to cope.

Another interviewed was Hanna Marton in the segment titled “Noah’s Ark.” She is a Hungarian Jew saved as a result of a deal negotiated between Rezso Kasnztner and Adolf Eichmann. In another segment, Paula Biren, a Polish Jew and survivor, epitomizes various Jews who managed to come through but harbor guilt about managing to live while so many others died. In her case she functioned in the Lodz ghetto in a Jewish women’s police force and speaks candidly about her experiences there.

Viewing this film, one is subjected to accounts of very different experiences by women with different personalities, adding up to further testament as to the horrors of what the Nazis inflicted. For those revelations we owe thanks to Lanzmann and the four who agreed to tell him—and eventually us—their stories despite the obvious pain they must have felt in digging into their recollections of the suffering they endured. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed November 14, 2018.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS  Send This Review to a Friend

Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to come up with a film that’s different, as they have with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release. They have created a half dozen Western tales, presented as if based on a book, which is fictional and evidence of the extensive imagination shown by the Coen brothers.

The first episode makes it seem as if we are entering a blaze of satire. It is an often rollicking look at a singing cowboy, The Kid, played by Tim Blake Nelson. He is fast on the trigger, and when he walks into a bar, watch out. Nelson is extremely amusing in the role, and the Coens have come up with a gunplay variety, including one that is a particular hoot.

But the leading hilarity gives way to a mix, some of it also funny, but other portions serious, wistful or tragic. The Coens show storytelling command throughout as they spin tales set in the atmosphere of old west. The casting is smart too.

James Franco is Cowboy, who robs banks, which gets him into deadly trouble. In another episode, very sad, Liam Neeson runs touring show exploiting a deformed man who draws spectators. But when would-be customers turn their attention to another attraction, the impresario switches gears at the expense of his former lure.

Among the many cast members are Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays, Bill Heck, Granger Hines and Saul Rubinek. The segments vary in length, and at times one may wish the brothers had shortened the 132-minute opus.

There’s a section titled “The Mortal Remains,” consisting mostly of a stagecoach ride. Those assembled may make you think of the John Ford classic, “Stagecoach,” and I particularly enjoyed Tyne Daly as a passenger with a mission as she rides along with others and the talk becomes intense.

The effect of seeing this latest Coen film is like having gone back in time for a trip prompting thoughts about what made American westerns so unique, yet also standing as a hip modern take on it all from the perspective of two movie buffs who enjoy being different. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 8, 2018. `

  

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