By William Wolf

BY THE GRACE OF GOD  Send This Review to a Friend

French writer-director François Ozon has made a mesmerizing and deeply human film that not only has sweep and power dealing with a searing problem in France, but has something to say for our own country as well in view of so many similar events occurring here. Ozon has taken a real-life moral and legal case and has explored it deeply with a drama that is close to the actual situation and right out of the headlines. At the end there is an update informing the audience of outcomes since the film’s completion.

The story involves three adult men who courageously unite to seek justice against a priest in Lyon who abused them when they were boys, and also to expose the Catholic church cover-up that enabled the priest to continue working with youth. The film achieves depth by showing the bravery it takes to come forward and the effect their action has within their families.

The men are Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), François Debord (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), and all three are performed very convincingly. I can’t stress enough the way the film digs into family reactions, which makes it much more than a polemic as it probes the human side of undertaking such an effort. Viewers will recognize that what the men go through in coming forward is similar to what men and women here struggle with in deciding to speak out against various types of earlier abuse. The film shows how deeply hurt the boys were, and how their experience continued to haunt them in later life.

The pedophile priest, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), has become a pathetic figure after the accusations surfaced, and the issue is raised as to whether there can be any forgiveness. One might feel slightly sorry for the by now hapless, exposed priest as acted by Verley, but only fleetingly, in view of the harm he has done and his thinking mainly of his own plight rather than the toll taken on his victims, Another leading character is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), who has been convicted of concealing the sins of Father Preynat. A key performance is also contributed by Martine Erhel as Régine Maire, a church aide who talks to the victims, supposedly with sympathy, but contributes to the cover-up.

“By the Grace of God” follows the case and the efforts of the men to obtain justice, and their deepening determination as they encounter delays and stalling, finally having to go to court to seek justice. A problem faced is the need to find a victim not beyond the statute of limitations.

Although packed with detail, the film always maintains its human focus, and there are moments likely to bring tears to one’s eyes. There is also some well-placed humor, as when the campaign mounts ideas are tossed about in a meeting on how to gain public attention, such as have a giant penis floating along in the sky (fortunately not accepted).

The cast of the film is fleshed out with impressive supporting performances, so that we get a solid sense of reality, almost as if this were a documentary, which the director has said he originally intended to do before opting for the present form. Put this down as among the best films of the year, not only for its pertinent, pressing content, but for the film’s artistry in the skillful hands of Ozon. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed October 15, 2019.

PARASITE  Send This Review to a Friend

Quite a stir has been caused by “Parasite,” the provocative South Korean film directed by Bong Joon Ho from a screenplay he wrote with Han Jin Won. It was showcased by the 57th New York Film Festival and is currently in commercial release. Why has “Parasite,” which won the top prize of Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, become such a much-discussed art film?

The answer lies in its unusual take on class differences in present-day South Korea. The renowned director injects dark humor into a plot involving polarized families, one the financially upscale Park family, the other the struggling lower class Kim family living in a basement.

How the director brings them together and what happens are carefully plotted, and while there is plenty of amusement in the situation he creates with colorful characters and settings, the film also evolves into an outburst of revolt and violence. While I especially appreciate the cleverness and the entertaining and sociological elements, I do have trouble with violent scenes that are hard to watch, but it is important to recognize that the violence is central to the director’s overall perspective and even his comic vision.

At the core is the film’s clever satirical thrust. The poor Kim family, headed by Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) and trying to get by in whatever ways possible, also consists of Ki-taek’s devoted wife and two siblings, a daughter and son. The plot takes hold when the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik), gets an opportunity to be hired to tutor the Park family daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso), and that sets the stage for the interaction between the disparate families as other Kims deceptively manipulate their way into also working for the Parks.

Thus the film is geared to sharp commentary about the disparities in Korea today, but juxtaposed in a very original way by incorporating the film’s gallows humor into the mix. The cast that the director has assembled is first-rate.

“Parasite” is likely to emerge at awards time, so on that basis alone, you may want to keep up with this year’s cinema by seeing it for yourself. A Neon release. Reviewed October 11, 2019.

PAIN AND GLORY  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s new film “Pain and Glory,” included in the 57th New York Film Festival, is awash in memories, feelings, compelling characters and his customary expertise in communicating depth with the aid of extraordinary visuals. What’s more there is a strong, intricate performance by Antonio Banderas, long associated with Almodóvar’s films, as a director whom many might take to have autobiographical inferences to Almodóvar himself.

The story involves Salvador Mallo (Banderas), in his sixties, with a slew of medical issues and worry about lack of inspiration, at a time when a film that he made 30 years ago is being shown in a revival. There are unpleasant memories associated with making that film because he feels his leading actor messed up what he aimed to do. However, after harsh words in a new encounter, Salvador wants to patch up the bad feelings and surprises the actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) in his home. Alberto has a liking for cocaine and wants Salvador to join him.

Important and intriguing parts of the film are flashback into Salvador’s childhood when he was nine years old (played by Asie Flores) and being raised in poverty by his mother Jacinta, given an earthy performance by Penélope Cruz. Young Salvador undertakes to teach reading and writing to a handyman, Eduardo (César Vicente), who is very muscular. When Salavador gets a view of Eduardo’s physique, he begins to have feelings he doesn’t yet understand. Later in the film there will be a fresh and poignant connection that occurs.

There are also later scenes demonstrating Salvador’s close feelings for his mother (the elderly mom portrayed by Julieta Serrano). She is ill and envisioning impending death. The acting is excellent, but in terms of looks, it is difficult to accept her as an aged version of Cruz.

“Pain and Glory” is packed with so much detail and has a broad scope that keeps one enthralled. If I had to pick one scene that stands out above everything else, it is the encounter between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a man from the past, and it turns out both Salvador and Federico have clung to happy memories and old sexual feelings that are now rekindled in a tender emotional encounter that sums up so much of what “Pain and Glory is about. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed October 4, 2019.

JUDY  Send This Review to a Friend

Given Judy Garland’s iconic status, it is a challenge for anyone to try to portray her. Yes, she has had her share of impersonators. But In “Judy,” Renée Zellweger steps up to the task and gives an Oscar-potential performance that can rip your heart out. She even does her own impressive singing of Garland’s signature numbers, and she gets into the very soul of Garland in London when she was a mess of booze and pills, financial headaches, personal battles and in a state of total collapse in her late 1960s efforts to fulfill a gig at the nightspot Talk of the Town.

“Judy” is based on “End of the Rainbow,” the powerful 2012 play by Peter Quilter (See Search for my review), and fleshed out into film territory. Zellweger’s performance once again brings to mind an observance I had of Garland in her disintegrated state. As I wrote in my play review, “When I was writing for Cue Magazine in the 1960s, we had a gala at which Garland showed up with her entourage. She was clearly off the wall, literally being held up to enable her to walk. Some jerk approached her and asked why her daughter Liza wasn’t as talented as she was. The stupid question triggered an outburst of profanity by Garland with just about every swear word in the book delivered in the stupor she appeared to be in. I felt so very sad to see this side of Garland first hand.”

“Judy” early on shows the aggressive treatment of the young Judy (Darci Shaw) by hovering MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). She is weaned on pills and dieting in a look at the exploitation that sent her on a destructive road even as she increasingly captivated audiences.

Zellweger as the adult Judy succeeds in conveying her immense and unique talent as well as her persona in the final segment of her life and self-destruction. Jessie Buckley plays Rosalyn Wilder, the young woman assigned to try to steer her through her problems. We see others in Judy’s life—Finn Whittrock as her last husband Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell as earlier husband Sidney Luft, Bella Ramsey as daughter Lorna Luft and Gemma-Leah Devereaux as daughter Liza Minnelli.

The film, directed by Rupert Goold from screenplay by Tom Edge and Quilter, has many elements of typical bio-pics but contains various special touches. A nod to how Judy was appreciated by gay men is reflected in a segment in which in a moment of loneliness she befriends two gay fans, goes back to their apartment and gives them a treat they’ll remember for the rest of their lives when she sings for them.

Best of all in the overview of the film is Zellweger’s astonishing embodiment of Garland in the last stage of her life and Garland as a performer. The film ends in corny fashion in its efforts to hit us emotionally, but when all is said and done this is Zellweger’s moment of triumph in fulfilling the difficult task of bringing a legend to life in a believable and deeply moving performance. An LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions release. Reviewed September 27, 2019.

BRITT-MARIE WAS HERE  Send This Review to a Friend

Add to films about women trying to find themselves “Britt-Marie Was Here,” sensitively directed by Tuva Novotny and featuring an exquisite performance by distinguished Swedish actress Pernilla August in the title role.

For some 40 years Britt-Marie has been carrying out the duties of an obedient wife to her husband, Kent, played by Peter Haber. She is bored, and his infidelity leaves her with no reason for continued loyalty. Britt-Marie summons the inner courage to go out and look for a job.

However, it is not easy at her age to find something. When she is offered a position not many would take, Britt-Marie seizes the opportunity and heads to the small Swedish town of Borg to start work in a youth center as, of all things, coach of children’s soccer team.

Britt-Marie, who is at heart a warm and caring person as played by the wonderful August, bonds with her charges and although it isn’t a team that can be immediately turned into a winner, the spirit that she instills is a winner in itself. For Britt-Marie, there is recognition and appreciation that she has never felt, as she transforms from neglected wife into a person of her own.

We are led into feeling happy for her newly-found status, and when her husband arrives to try to convince her to come back to him, one hopes that she will refuse. Britt-Marie has been able to realize that yes, she at last is someone who was here. A Cohen Media release. Reviewed September 22, 2019.

CUCK  Send This Review to a Friend

It looks at first as if we are going to see what’s behind the headlines after an inevitable shooting spree when we meet in the leading character Ronnie (Zachary Ray Sherman), a loser filled with hatred of immigrants and people of color and consumed by the threat he sees to white society. But before Ronnie, who buys gun and spews his right wing bigotry over the internet, goes on his rampage, the film takes a distasteful detour into making porn films that muddies whatever constructive point the film might have been able to make. The result is just a plunge into ugliness and bloody mayhem.

The title “Cuck,” directed by Rob Lambert from a screenplay he wrote with Joe Varkle, refers to a slang label applied to wimpy, ineffective men. Ronnie, the cuck in the story, lives with his mother (Sally Kirkland), from whom he steals, is demeaned in life and has no relationship with a woman. He spends time masturbating while watching porn. His internet diatribes lead to a meeting with his right-wing idol who enlists him into action, including showing up at a rally.

When Ronnie sees a sexy blond on a lawn he knocks on her door and asks for a job and is given one as a handyman. It turns out that’s not the real job. Candy (Monique Parent) and her husband Bill (Timothy V. Murphy) make porn films and cast Ronnie into the demeaning position of being mocked as the cuck who masturbates while watching Candy have sex with powerful men (one a muscular African-American). All of this fuels his mounting anger, especially when he sees himself humiliated in the porn films that go public.

Mixing the porn with the political as the trigger for Ronnie’s violent explosion that we know must come deprives the film of serious meaning, and the violence becomes ugly to watch but for naught. A Gravitas Ventures release. Reviewed October 4, 2019.

AD ASTRA  Send This Review to a Friend

There have been many films about father and son problems. “Ad Astra,” directed by James Gray, takes the clichés and rockets them into space in the near future. But apart from striking visuals and special effects, this father-son drama scripted by Gray and Ethan Gross, remains earthbound.

Brad Pitt, compelling on screen as usual, plays astronaut Roy McBride, son of a legendary astronaut, H. Clifford McBride, who disappeared into space nearly 30 years before while searching for life, and has been presumed lost.

News flash. Roy is informed that his father is believed to be alive on Neptune, so off Roy goes on a mission to find him. That’s after there have been some strange, destructive disturbances that Roy had to survive in his previous mission.

Roy has nurtured resentment against his father for paying more attention to his career than being a dad. But who is he to blame, dad or the space agency? And can Roy really trust the space agency? Could there be a plot against his father?

Is there any doubt that the two will meet? When they do we find effective Tommy Lee Jones in the role of the senior McBride. At least in the reunion Roy doesn’t exclaim “Daddy!”

In addition to the emotional aspects of the discovery, the screenplay then evolves into a space action film with personal bonding and perils to survival. The visuals are more effective than the story, thanks to the enormous production efforts that go into such films. The extensive end credits say it all. Others in the cast include Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, and Donnie Keshawarz. A 20th Century Fox release. Reviewed September 22, 2019.

WHERE'S MY ROY COHN?  Send This Review to a Friend

The last thing I feel like watching is a film about sleazy Roy Cohn. However, Matt Trynauer has given us an important documentary that reminds us how evil incarnate Cohn was, and will inform a new generation of the evidence. Cohn died of AIDS back in 1986, which is a long time ago from the perspective of those not even born then.

The title of the film, which can be attributed to a remark by President Trump, tells us a lot about Cohn in that Trump admires him. Consider who Cohn was. As the film shows in detail, he was an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the odious hearings that destroyed reputations in promoting the red scare of the 1950s.

He was also an unscrupulous prosecutor in the conspiracy to commit espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell. As journalist Sam Roberts points out in the film, Cohn had illegal ex-parte conversations with judge Irving Kaufman urging him to condemn the Rosenbergs to death, a sentence that shocked the world and led to mass protests.

Those examples show Cohn as a political horror. But the film also goes into his pile of assorted illegalities, which led to his eventual disbarment. We get a personal portrait of him via various interviews of those who knew him, and also via assorted film clips.

Cohn never admitted to being gay. He didn’t even admit to having AIDS, although that was the diagnosis of his death. The film recalls when he and David Schine, an assistant in the McCarthy hearings, traveled together and there were inferences of their being lovers, although there was never any evidence of that. Cohn got in trouble for seeking special treatment for Schine in the army.

The film does a basically comprehensive job in tracing Cohn’s ever-shady life, and following his trail as a power broker sought out by those who relied on him to get things done no matter how. One candid illustration is Cohn’s statement that it would have been simple to solve President Nixon’s problem that led to his resignation. Cohn says he could have just destroyed the tapes.

Director Trynauer’s film deserves to be seen as a vital historical document that contains lessons for today. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed September 22, 2019.

THE WEDDING YEAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Mara, an ultra-perky aspiring photographer, played with abundant energy and flair by Sarah Hyland, attends weddings of friends and acquaintances. She has no desire to get married at the moment herself, but is open to finding Mr. Right, a difficult task, even in the age of computer matches.

Mara is endlessly bubbly and adept at trying to help others, as when Mara takes over intrusively in a shop run by her friend to convince a soon-to-be bride what gown to wear. A busy atmosphere is created, as Mara drives around Los Angles, chats endlessly on her cell phone and experiments meeting men on line.

Life for her takes a sharp turn when she falls for the handsome Jake, who works in a restaurant and aspires to be a chef. He is played impressively by Tyler James Williams. They quickly and passionately tumble into bed.

Of course, complications intrude. Jake has had a former relationship with the beautiful Nicole (Camille Hyde), and although that has ended, we can suspect that she’ll turn up again. But we know that eventually all will work out for Mara and Jake—it’s that sort of a film.

“The Wedding Year” has been directed by Robert Luketic from a screenplay by Donald Diego. Although the cuteness of Hyland begins to get somewhat tiresome, there are various appealing touches in the film. Jake is African-American but there is no acknowledgment of differences—all is played as just between two people who fall in love.

Another plus: The wedding year also includes a gay marriage between Mara’s friend Alex (Matt Shively) and Zak (Tom Connolly). Much warmth is depicted in their match.

On a comedic note, the cast includes the always funny Wanda Sykes in two roles, one of which is as Jake’s vociferous grandmother, who prefers Nicole and needles Mara with her view that a wife should have plenty of children. An Entertainment Studio Motion Pictures release. Reviewed September 22, 2019.

LORO  Send This Review to a Friend

Ripped from Italy’s headlines, “Loro,” written (with Umberto Contarello) and directed by exceptionally talented Paolo Sorrentino, is an inspired-by-reality drama trying to capture the essence of the political world of the ever-controversial former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It is a sprawling, free-wheeling story spanning assorted locations and packed with a huge cast of characters, enticing women, and exposed corruption. Above all, there is a dynamic performance as Berlusconi by the superb actor Toni Servillo.

Sorrentino has been known for such impressive films as “The Great Beauty,” and here he pulls out all the stops in his excursion into the social climbing, ambitions and greed that have fueled the political and social scene in modern Italy. How much is true and how much is imagined can be left to those closer to Italian politics and court cases.

There is another top performance by Riccardo Scamarcio as Sergio, a schemer who runs an escort service catering to the rich and powerful. In his quest for money and influence, he aims to impress Berlusconi with his smarts and ability to provide women, but he underestimates whom he is up against. Berlusconi is portrayed as a master manipulator with contempt for underlings.

Politically discredited and subjected to a raft of legal entanglements, the very rich Berlusconi is depicted as aiming to regain power by whatever means necessary, including knowing the weaknesses of those he needs to bribe. Servillo gives a larger than life performance in the role, adding to his stature demonstrated by his previous fine work in “The Great Beauty” and “Il Divo.” Elena Sofia Ricci excels as Berlusconi’s finally fed-up wife.

I suppose “Loro” comes under the category of political satire. But it is much more than that. The satire reveals disturbing truths, and it also is a tribute to expansive, eye-popping cinema, in a effect something of a “La Dolce Vita” for our era.

Special credit is due cinematographer Luca Bigazzi for the superb job done in bringing to life visually so many key elements that add to the overall impact. Also credit Stefania Cella’s lavish production design.

There are many memorable scenes. My favorite was a confrontation between Berlusconi and a young woman whom he approaches sexually by dangling the prospect of what he can do for her. She counters with the film’s rare example of honesty and decency by mocking his age and giving him a firm rejection. An IFC Films release. Reviewed September 20, 2019.

  

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