By William Wolf

THE GENTLEMEN  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Guy Ritchie is up to his familiar style again with messy, although sometimes entertaining, results. With “The Gentlemen,” its screenplay by Ritchie from a story by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, he is fortunate to at least have a very watchable cast. But one can grow tired of the smart-assed dialogue and the intricate plotting involving obnoxious characters and violent action. This is a film primed for Ritchie devotees who revel in his stuff. It was produced by—are you ready?—Miramax. (See Search for the review of Ritchie’s much better 1998 “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”)

Hugh Grant, playing against his usual suave screen image, is Fletcher, a nasty, scruffy private-eye writer who has a screenplay titled “Bush.” The gimmick here is that the screenplay is all about the real-life gangsters he has observed in the drug trade. The script, with blackmail as its aim, is illustrated throughout by the real-life drug battles. The film within a film approach gets complex as the guts of the story unfold, lives are snuffed out and Ritchie’s tale of violence and woe accelerates.

Matthew McConaughey has a showy role as Mickey Pearson, an American involved in British crime. Charlie Hunnam plays Ray, Pearson’s drug-trade aide. Pearson, who has a smart, stylish looking and equally ruthless wife, Rosalind, played accordingly by Michelle Dockery, would like to sell his drug business for enough loot with which to retire.

The film has consistently strong visuals, including a huge underground layout for growing marijuana—quite a site and the envy of those who would like to rob it or buy it at a relative bargain. Other cast members include Colin Farrell, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Jason Wong, Henry Golding and Tom Wu.

“The Gentlemen” is rife with killings. One would-be escapee goes out a window to splatter on the ground. There is a frozen head in a small freezer. Another frozen body is suspended in a large freezer. Blood is splattered into a beer in a pub. Guys are brutally battered. Rosalind is handy with a pistol that doubles as a paperweight. You get the idea.

The busy mayhem, loaded with action and peopled by a collection of hoods who meet assorted fates in a bevy of realistic locations, provides a picture of collective sleaze and muscles, with heavily accented dialogue that on occasion can be in-your-face funny. Is this your particular cup of crime? A STX Films release. Reviewed January 24, 2020.

LES MISÉRABLES (2019)  Send This Review to a Friend

Although “Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly, is not an adaptation of the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo, there are a few unmistakable connections. For one thing the drama rooted in contemporary poverty and anti-immigrant bias is set in the same Paris suburb, Montfermeil, appearing in Hugo’s story. There is also a nasty cop who may remind you of the novel’s dreaded Inspector Javert. Even more importantly, an eventual revolt by the area’s harassed young inhabitants of color with immigrant heritage conjures up the spirit of the student revolt depicted in Hugo’s plot.

That said, the story that we follow, scripted by Ly, Alexis Manenti and Giordano Gederlini, and vigorously directed by Ly, is of our era, when local cops look down upon the neighborhood predominantly dark-skinned boys in housing projects and methodically terrorize them.

This part of the population that considers itself French is depicted at the outset as proudly joining the street demonstrations celebrating France’s World Cup victory in 2018.

The drama’s basic situation begins to come into focus when a police unit its joined by an assigned newcomer, Ruiz, stoically played by Damien Bonnard, a decent and ethical chap appalled by the nasty behavior of Chris (Manenti), who gets a kick out of bearing down on the neighborhood youths. His black partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga) goes along with the atrocious behavior.

We also get a picture of the power-wielding ethnic adults in the neighborhood, one known as the “mayor,” who tries to keep a lid on things, and another, a Muslim leader with a shady past, to whom youths go when they need someone with clout to solve problems.

Given the behavior of the marauding cops, we know trouble will arise and escalate. The situation is lit when a young lad, Issa, (Issa Perica), is accused of stealing a lion cub from a local circus. When he is pursued violently and wounded in the face, another boy who likes to fly drones captures what happens on a video from the drone, thus making him a target of Chris, who needs to get the proof of the shooting squelched.

How the story unfolds is a revelation, thanks to the realistic, intense filming and the expert portrayal of all involved. If you expect all to be worked out in the end, you are in for a surprise, as the film concludes by making us wonder what will happen in a crucial standoff.

The film hauntingly packs power in its depiction of the explosive situation in France’s immigrant centers, and the anti-immigrant feelings there, and by inference, elsewhere. But the story suggests that there is a revolutionary spirit that can take hold, just as that which Hugo depicted in his time. Released by Amazon Studios in 2019. Reviewed January 13, 2020.

LIKE A BOSS  Send This Review to a Friend

The utter lack of reality in “Like a Boss” is shown when two women pals and partners in a failing cosmetic business sign a deal with a voracious beauty company titan without so much as reading the contract let alone submitting it to a lawyer. The stars in this misbegotten comedy could have used a lawyer themselves to get them out of the embarrassment of making this movie.

The film, directed by Miguel Arteta, with a screenplay by Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly from a story by Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, conjures up a few laughs along its broad-comedy way, but is so heavy-handed that one may cringe at the portrayals of women in their absurd power struggle. Since this is a comedy with a tinge of sentiment, one can’t expect realism, but that doesn’t mean excusing a film bereft of any sense of likely behavior.

Two of the film’s stars, Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne play Mia and Mel, who have grown up together as buddies and team their alleged talents to found a makeup business. But instead of success they are drowning in debt. However, along comes a cosmetic powerhouse named Claire Luna, overplayed outrageously as a mean-spirited conniver by Salma Hayek, who sees potential profits by acquiring Mia and Mel. Knowing human nature, the busty Claire figures she can bust up the pal relationship and completely take over their business.

But Mia and Mel prove to be fighters, not only with each other, but ultimately against Claire. The way the plot works out is totally ridiculous as the over-stuffed film struggles to find laughs amid the inanities. One waits for the mess to be over but the idiotic behavior seems to go on forever.

Billy Porter manages to earn some sympathy as well as a few laughs as the gay assistant fired by Mia and Mel at the insistence of Claire, although his role also drowns in the overall silliness.

If “Like a Boss” was meant to comment humorously on women’s efforts to succeed in business it instead comes a across as a tiresome affront. A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed January 10, 2020.

LITTLE WOMEN (2019)  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Greta Gerwig knows exactly what she wants to achieve in adapting Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic novel and she succeeds admirably, infusing the original with fresh energy and perspective. Her cast is splendid, especially Saoirse Ronan, who towers as the feisty Jo, obviously seen by Gerwig as embodying ahead-of-her-time determination not to be deprived of opportunities because she is a woman.

I have only two misgivings about this version—Gerwig’s insistence on mixing time frames and using a loud score that however creative is often intrusive in competing with the dialogue it threatens to drown out.

Gerwig’s screenplay shuffles the time deck somewhat, adding a bit of confusion, but the decision is not serious enough to undercut the basic success of the story telling and characterizations.

The director’s choice of cast members imbues the film with vitality, and her insight into Alcott’s writing enables the director to stress what the story has to say that is relevant to young women today. Jo has a key speech to illuminate the need for a level of independence. Also showing Jo standing tough in a negotiation to get her novel published increases the overall impact.

Laura Dern also excels as Marmee, mother of the four March daughters, and gives the film a particular glow as she sympathetically sets the standards for their outlook toward others, especially those less fortunate. The other sisters are convincingly played by Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth).

Meryl Streep stakes out her own territory as Aunt March, who has her own vision of what the young women should do with their lives. As usual, Streep is utterly believable in her characterization.

As for the men, Gerwig taps Timothée Chalamet to play Laurie, the young man who unsuccessfully woos Jo. Chalamet has already shown himself to be a major actor, and he further cements that reputation here. Chris Cooper plays Laurie’s grandfather, another important role. A further male contribution to the film is that of intriguing Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer, who at first tells Jo he doesn’t like her writing, a prelude to what comes later.

The settings, costumes and cinematography anchor the film to Alcott’s century, and also make the film a delight to watch. Being a male, I have never been privy to the kind of horseplay Gerwig shows between the young sisters. Sometimes it seems a bit much, but I have to take it on faith that Gerwig knows more about such matters than I do.

Despite the various previous adaptations of Alcott’s novel, there is always room for one more if it is a good one. Gerwig has succeeded in giving a new vision for this generation, and as with any good adaptation, it communicates once again why Alcott’s “Little Women” has remained so beloved. A Sony Pictures release. Reviewed December 25, 2019

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2019  Send This Review to a Friend

(The films on this ten list have been selected from those that have opened in New York City theaters during the year and are in order of preference.)

1.The Irishman

2. Clemency

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

4. By the Grace of God

5. Peterloo

6. Pain and Glory

7. Ash is Purest White

8. Non-Fiction

9. Pavarotti

10. The Farewell

Other outstanding films of 2019 listed in no particular order include:

Parasite; Harriet; Marriage Story; Judy; Working Woman; Late Night; The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; Booksmart; 62 Up; Photograph; Shooting the Mafia; The Two Popes; Tolkien; Jirga; I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians; Rosie; Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; Britt-Marie Was Here; Feast of the Seven Fishes; Loro; Promise at Dawn; Motherless Brooklyn; Young Ahmed; 1917; Bombshell; Be Natural—The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache; The Spy Behind Home Plate; Toni Morrison—The Pieces I Am; Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese; Fiddler—A Miracle of Miracles; Where’s My Roy Cohn?; Heading Home—The Tale of Team Israel; Linda Ronstadt--The Sound of My Voice; Varda by Agnès; This Changes Everything; Three Peaks; Official Secrets; A Hidden Life; Knives Out; Ford v Ferrari; Downton Abbey, Just Mercy, The Report, One Child Nation, Les Misérables and The Lighthouse.

CLEMENCY  Send This Review to a Friend

There are two anti-capital punishment films opening this week. One is “Just Mercy” (see review under Film and Search) and the other is “Clemency,” the one about which I was completely enthusiastic when it was among those showcased at this year’s New Films/New Directors series. “Clemency,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu, arrives with the credential of having won the Jury Prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is a wrenching drama dealing with capital punishment from a two-pronged perspective.

Alfre Woodard gives a memorable, deeply felt performance as Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who has been overseeing executions on death row in an unidentified state. First, it is unusual to have an African-American woman warden in a prison yarn. This one is told from the perspective of both the warden and a prisoner who is scheduled to die for a crime he insists he did not commit. The film is more concerned with the issue of capital punishment than with the alleged crime itself or the guilt or innocence question. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) has admitted taking part in a robbery but denies having fired the gun that led to a fatality.

“Clemency” opens with a harrowing botched execution in which a condemned man suffers greatly before he can be pronounced dead. Warden Williams is sickened by it, and has become increasingly upset with the responsibility of putting people to death. However, she is committed to work scrupulously by the book and do her job professionally no matter what.

The drama intensifies when Williams becomes closer to Anthony, the next prisoner set to be killed. He is given a powerful performance by Hodge, who veers from stoicism to an attempt at suicide. One becomes deeply involved in Woods’ plight in response to Hodge’s mesmerizing acting. His lawyer is desperately trying hard to save his life, and Williams clearly would like that to happen, but she has to go through with the execution if clemency is not granted.

The build-up is extremely intense, and there are complications, as a woman with whom Woods has had a son comes forward to talk with him after keeping a low profile to protect the boy and her from the stigma. Meanwhile, widespread protests have been taking place, and they are described by his lawyer to make Woods feel that he is not alone and will at least be remembered if he is denied clemency.

While we are led to feel sympathy for Woods, we are also induced to sympathize with the warden as she gets more and more upset about the idea of the state putting people to death and her role in the process. The job takes a toll on relations between her and her husband Jonathan, well-played by Wendell Pierce.

“Clemency” emerges as one of the important films of this year and on my Best Ten list as capital punishment is increasingly debated, evidenced, for example, by the temporary moratorium on executions declared by the governor of California. The film is extremely well done and lands like a punch in the gut.

Woodard merits award consideration in the best actress category and Hodge gives what should also be considered as an award-worthy performance. A Neon release. Reviewed December 25, 2019.

JUST MERCY  Send This Review to a Friend

One of two anti-capital punishment films opening this week (see review of “Clemency” in Film and Search), “Just Mercy” also explores racism in the deep South and the work of a real-life crusading African-American lawyer who goes from a Harvard Law School education and his Delaware roots to fight for justice in Alabama. “Just Mercy” is based on the book by Bryan Stevenson, who is portrayed impressively by Michael B. Jordan.

The real case of Walter McMillan, known as Johnny D and played movingly by Jamie Foxx, is at the core of the film, which includes a clip from the CBS show “60 Minutes” blasting apart the trumped up case against McMillan. Johnny D was accused of murdering an 18-year-old white woman working at a cleaning establishment. Much of the film is harrowing, with scenes of life on death row and the execution of one of Stevenson’s clients, heartbreakingly portrayed by Rob Morgan.

In Alabama in the late 1980s, Stevenson encounters racism all around him as he quickly gets an education of every-day conditions and the attitudes of law enforcers. He joins the organization called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and battles alongside brave white activist Eve Ansley, played with firm commitment by Brie Larson. Every step of the way is against the odds.

Thus the film is a portrait of justice gone awry and the racism embedded in a society that, as Stevenson sees it at the time, is still affected by the history of slavery and inflicted with racism. “Just Mercy” is directed with solemnity by Destin Daniel Cretton, who wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham.

Among the supporting performances is the fine acting by Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers, the troubled witness who after trying hard not to become further involved admits having been pressured into giving the false testimony that convicted Johnny D. His confession becomes the basis for Stevenson to fight against the establishment to free Johnny D from death row.

The film will keep you riveted to await the final outcome. At the end there is posted on screen the notation that Stevenson has been fighting for justice for 30 years, and that Equal Justice Initiative has won more than 410 cases, getting relief, reversals or freedom for inmates. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed December 25, 2019.

1917  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Sam Mendes gives us a harrowing story about two British soldiers assigned to a desperate, urgent messenger mission in World War I in his new film “1917.” The acting and action are riveting. Although the story line is based on a gimmicky premise, once the mission begins, the film makes us root for the endangered men who must go through hell to warn commanders of a 1600-men unit not to undertake a planned charge against the Germans because the soldiers will fall into a trap and be slaughtered.

The reason for the urgent personal mission is the fear that if ordinary communications are used, the Germans will intercept them. But if you think about that—so what? The risk is that the Germans will feel thwarted and cut off their plans, which would solve the immediate problem. But without that thinking on the part of the British command, there would be no film.

However, once you get past that quibble in the screenplay Mendes wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, “1917” takes off powerfully. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is extraordinary, as is the acting. George MacKay plays the lead soldier, Lance Corporal Schofield, and Dean-Charles Chapman plays his buddy, Lance Corporal Blake, who both know the dangers that face them when they set out, racing against time to get the commander to call off the attack before it starts. Also Blake has a personal interest; his brother is endangered in the poised army.

Multiple dangers greet the two as they plod their way toward their goal. The screenplay is inventive in setting up the obstacles and risks. There is also an earthy look to the film that gives us a sense of how it would have been with respect to the terrain and the mess of trench warfare.

Mendes has succeeded in creating a film that adds to the compendium of films dealing with World War I and the effect the so-called war to end all wars had on those who fought and survived, and the tragedies that befell those who were killed in the butchery. A Universal Pictures release. Reviewed December 25, 2019.

THE SONG OF NAMES  Send This Review to a Friend

Basically “The Song of Names," directed by François Girard (“The Red Violin”), is a different sort of Holocaust film. It poses the question: Why doesn’t a gifted young Polish-Jewish violinist show up for the planned concert showing off his skills in 1951 London?

The screenplay by Jeffrey Caine, based on a novel by music critic Norman Lebrecht, concerns the disappearance by violinist Dovidl Rapoport and the subsequent hunt 35 years later by his childhood friend, Martin (Tim Roth) to find him and express his anger for his leaving Martin’s gentile family in the lurch.

In the back story, Dovidl’s father has sought refuge for him from the war and arranged for him as a violin prodigy to be raised by a gentile family in London and get musical training. When Dovidl is taken in and his expertise developed, he and Martin grow up together practically as brothers. Martin’s father invested heavily in setting up the 1951 concert. There is a mix of anger and curiosity on the part of Martin as to why Dovidl skipped the event and vanished, and therein lies the film’s mystery waiting to be solved.

The film’s complexity weighs it down somewhat, but the acting is effective, and there is a certain amount of suspense as the film moves toward its climax. Music plays a major role, both in the violin soloing and with respect to Dovidl and his family.

Dovidl is played as a youngster by Luke Dolye, then by Jonah Hauer-King and later by Clive Owen. Martin is played at at various ages by Misha Handley, Garran Howell and Roth.

The screenplay provides a rich story encompassing relationships, the need of Polish Jews to find refuge, the quest to give full opportunity to a budding violin virtuoso, and the fate of Jews who could not escape and deserve to be remembered. There is also the issue of a bond of brotherly-like friendship being broken and whether the closeness can be resurrected.

That’s a lot to cover and “The Song of Names” takes us meticulously on that journey. A Sony Pictures Classicas release. Reviewed December 25, 2019.

BOMBSHELL  Send This Review to a Friend

Directed by Jay Roach and scripted by Charles Randolph, “Bombshell” recounts the trail of sexual abuse at Fox News and the resulting downfall of honcho Roger Ailes. The film is colorful in its depiction of what was going on, and it boasts a superb cast. But why isn’t it a better film?

The strongest element is the casting. The key character, Megyn Kelly is given a lively interpretation by the excellent Charlize Theron. We also have Gretchen Carlson, effectively portrayed by Nicole Kidman. There is Kayla Pospisil, the fictional character in the group, depicted by the talented Margot Robbie. As for Ailes, John Lithgow is barely recognizable in the oppressive role, as he is fattened from jowls to belly with costuming and makeup. Abetted by the disguise, he does an excellent job as the predator in chief, who has trouble coming to terms with his exposure and ouster.

There is another noteworthy performance. The venerable Malcolm McDowell, now, of course, looking older than when he first earned recognition with such films as “A Clockwork Orange” and “O Lucky Man!,” does a brief but nifty job as Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch.

Despite the interesting subject and the worthy attempt to focus on the abuse of women, “Bombshell” has a repetitive feeling as it goes about filling out the narrative. It seems too diffuse as the atrocities pile on, and the overall impact is lessened. However, the ultimate retribution gives the film a lift. One can also applaud depiction of the demeaning scenes in which Ailes is shown acting completely piggish.

The film succeeds in providing a portrait of the inner workings at a prominent network with its battles and tensions. But as “Bombshell” progresses we get more of the same, and missing is the overall blast that the film needs to deliver. Still, it is to be recommended for what It does accomplish as an entertaining contribution to efforts to wipe out sexual abuse in the workplace and elsewhere. A Lionsgate release. Reviewed December 13, 2019.

  

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