By William Wolf

SORRY WE MISSED YOU  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Ken Loach, building on his reputation for searing views on problems faced by the working class, can break your heart again with his latest, “Sorry We Missed You,” with a poignant screenplay by Paul Laverty.

Set in Newcastle, the incisive drama focuses on Ricky Turner, movingly portrayed by Kris Hitchen, and his wife Abbie, performed in depth by appealing Debbie Honeywood. They have two children. Abbie has a demanding social agency job which requires her to provide aid and comfort to house-bound clients who have trouble fending for themselves. She is a woman with a great heart trying to balance the rigorous demands of her job with her duties as a homemaker.

Every day is one of struggle for Ricky and Abbie. Ricky is given the opportunity to work for a delivery company, and a tough boss, Maloney, played with bluster and a short temper by Ross Brewster, sells him a bill of goods that he can thrive in business for himself if he can get his own truck. The entrepreneur stuff is pure bull, as in reality it is a way of exploiting him without the benefits that could come from his being a regular employee.

How can Ricky get enough to put down a payment on a delivery truck? By selling the car Abbie needs for her work, requiring her to take a bus instead. The delivery time pressure is fierce, and seeing the film makes one think, even though this is set in Newcastle, about what happens here in the U.S. With all of the online orders and the promise for next day deliveries, one can’t help but wonder about the pressure workers in the business on this side of the Atlantic also face.

To compound matters further, the Turners have a teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), an often-nasty rebel who gets in trouble and cruelly regards his dad as a failure. His attitude is in contrast to the well-behaved sympathetic younger daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor). Thus, apart from the daily economic pressure, Ricky has to work to overcome Seb’s hostility so that they form a closer father-son bond and to educate Seb as to the realities of life and put him on a more constructive path in which he can take advantage of his artistic ability.

As you can see, there are multiple ingredients for powerful drama, and Loach doesn’t let up impressing upon us the problems for this family, emblematic of the large-scale injustices heaped upon the struggling working class. The brilliance and effectiveness of the film are in its not coming across as a polemic, but emerging as a wrenching, believable story. I find this one of the best films so far in 2020. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed March 5, 2020.

THE WILD GOOSE LAKE  Send This Review to a Friend

In “The Wild Goose Lake” Chinese director Diao Yinan, who also wrote the screenplay, has concocted a story around a small-time mob boss, played by Hu Ge, who unintentionally kills a cop. Now he is a hunted man desperately trying to stay alive. The film has a fascinating noir look and ambiance as we follow the plotline and admire the cast.

There’s one more aspect special about this film, an importance unforeseen when it was being made. It was shot in Wuhan, China, presumed source of the Coronavirus Director Yinan packs the film with local atmosphere and gives us an idea of what at least part of the area looks like, including a sampling of its abundance of lakes.

The key male character, Zhou Zenong, played by Hu Ge, is a sullen type, with an estranged wife. He is very much the petty gangster who is trying to keep hoods in line. Having killed the cop, whether intentional or not, becomes an imminent threat to his life.

Every noir has to have a femme fatale. Here she is Liu Aiai, portrayed intriguingly by Gwei Lun Mei. A big temptation confronts her. She can reap a large reward by turning in Zhou. What road will she take?

There is a steamy quality about the film, also laden with action. It would appear that the writer-director is trying to summon his knowledge of other films and apply it to creating his venture into crime. He succeeds to an extent with his complicated plot and noir-type characters. A Film Movement release. Reviewed March 8, 2020.

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY  Send This Review to a Friend

An important oddity in “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” based on the Charles Willeford’s novel, is the appearance of none other than Mick Jagger as a rich art collector. What’s more, Jagger as Joseph Cassidy, with a luxurious estate along Lake Como, has a pivotal role--engaging an art critic to steal a painting from a reclusive artist who keeps his work secretive.

The critic in this film, directed by Giuseppe Capotandi from a screenplay by Scott B. Smith, is James Figueras, played by Claes Bang, whom we meet while he lectures to a group of tourists in Milan and keeps them transfixed with a story that he then surprisingly says is a con. Figueras is a charmer, but dangerous to others and to himself.

The artist tagged to be robbed is Jerome Debney, played by Donald Sutherland, distinctive as usual given his ability to slip effectively into any character assigned him.

The film gets added fizz from Elizabeth Debicki as Berenice Hollis, who, if this were a film noir, might be called a femme fatale. We first see her sitting in the back of the tourist group that Figueras is manipulating. She finds him intriguing, and needless to say, he feels the same about her, and—well, the plot thickens.

The story gets increasingly outrageous, especially after the critic and artist meet, and given the personality of Figueras and the goal of Cassidy, what ultimately happens highlights the film’s spotlight on art world shenanigans. “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” while far from a work of art itself, does hold one’s attention. And it is amusing to see the craggy face of Jagger on screen in dramatic role. A Sony Pictures Classcs release. Reviewed March 9, 2020.

BACURAU  Send This Review to a Friend

There is excitement and bonding in “Bacurau,” written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles and set in an imaginary town deep in Brazil and projected into the future. A community is threatened by armed tourists linked to politicians and the marauders try to take over a village. But the locals cleverly come together to fight the assailants, and the result is a film exalting in what people can accomplish when unified and brave.

“Bacurau,” showcased at the 2019 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release, comes across as an allegory indicating how a local politico uses others in hoping to wipe out people who stand in the way and the film becomes awash in violence and blood.

A group of armed American tourists are encouraged to use villagers for target practice. Behind them, as it turns out, is a corrupt mayor, Tony, Jr. (Thardelly Lima, who has his own devious reasons for wanting to seize control.

The film has a colorful aggregation of characters, as for example, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), who has returned to the village for the funeral of her grandmother. There is also the venerable Sônja Braga in the role of a drunken doctor.

Once we learn the general set up, the film swings into bloody action as the battle rages with the villagers uniting to fight for their existence. “Bacurau” is a visionary film with ideas to express amid the chaos. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewd March 6, 2020.

FIRST COW  Send This Review to a Friend

“First Cow,” directed by Kelly Reichardt and previously shown at the 2019 New York Film Festival, is set in America’s Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s. Two men seeking their fortune team up and find a way to exploit a situation, but crime will out and they run into trouble.

Early on there is a shot of the remains of two people. And the plot, often with humor, but ultimately serious, tells how those bones got there. While somewhat far-fetched, “First Cow” features good acting and effective scenery. The screenplay is by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond based on his novel.

The inventive marauders are Cookie Figowitz, played by John Magaro, and King-Lu, portrayed by Orion Lee, and their crime is comically absurd but financially rewarding. During the dead of night on repeated forays they sneak over to someone else’s cow and milk her. Their teaming up as partners and the resulting escapades are entertaining. But the men face life-threatening trouble when the angry owners of the cow find out what is happening and set out to trap the thieves. The cast also includes Toby Jones and the late Rene Auberjonois.

This oddball story is set against the atmosphere of the old northwest, and the film achieves a kind of retro movie western look. One can’t take it very seriously even though the personal stakes become high. Let’s just say that along the way director Reichardt milks it for laughs. An A24 release. Reviewed March 6, 2020.

GREED  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Michael Winterbottom has come up with a nasty satire of how the super rich make their money, and the subject is timely in view of the accusations about the gross inequity between the so-called one percent and the rest of us. The point is made not only via the drama but with the tacked on statistical information at the end. Heavy handed? Yes, but nonetheless effective.

The villain in chief is self-made British billionaire Sir Richard McCreadie, wickedly portrayed by Steve Coogan in a role far different from some of his lighter weight often amusing performances. An investigation has tarred his reputation as a prime fashion businessman earning his pile of money.

McCreadie is about to be 60 years old, and to celebrate, in addition to trying to resurrect his reputation, he has set up a lavish birthday party on the Greek island Mykonos. The scene affords the opportunity for plenty of atmosphere and the attendance of celebrities to honor him. On hand is Nick (David Mitchell), who is writing a biography of the tycoon. An eyesore is the group of refugee immigrants who congregate on the beach. McCreadie concocts a resolution.

The island revels are a far cry from the sweatshops in Sri Lanka, where women toil arduously for meager wages and under dangerous conditions to turn out the garments sold for maximum profits. The point is obvious.

“Greed” is rich in satire and McCreadie blusters his way amid the gathering with his customary arrogance as he treats people nastily. He is not a character who engenders likability.

Winterbottom lays everything on thickly, and while we can either laugh or recoil, ultimately, although very uneven as a film, “Greed” makes the sociological and economic points crystal clear. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed February 28, 2020.

THE WHISTLERS  Send This Review to a Friend

How’s your whistling ability? You may feel like trying to perfect it after seeing noted Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Whistlers,” a crime film with the very odd plot involving the need for a detective in Bucharest to learn a secret tribal language that consists of whistling. P.S. The guy is susceptible to corruption.

Vlad Ivanov plays Cristi, a Bucharest cop who goes to La Gomera, a Canary Island, where the art of whistling as a tribal language becomes a key element in the story. The whistles may seem like bird sounds, but have the effect of communicating in a secret code.

The screenplay, written by Porumboiu, is packed with intrigue, atmosphere and action, ingredients for a good crime story. Humor bubbles along as well, but on balance, the film, although often enjoyable, is on the thin side and is not always believable.

“The Whistlers” is helped by a good cast in colorful assortment of roles. The acting contingent includes Rodica Lazar, Catrinel Marion, Sabin Tambrea, Agusti Villaronga and Julieta Szonyi. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed February 28, 2020.

YOUNG AHMED  Send This Review to a Friend

Indoctrination of a teenager into becoming a dangerous extremist Muslim is the subject of the engrossing character study by the Belgian director-writer brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Those familiar with their past work know how skillful the Dardennes can be in creating a gripping atmosphere while unfolding a story that reveals so much about whatever aspect of the human condition on which they choose to concentrate.

In “Young Ahmed,” shown in the 57th New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release, the Dardennes focus on the intense journey of 13-year-old Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), son of a white mother (Claire Bodson) and an absent Arab father. At an impressionable age, Ahmed, who lives in a small Belgian town, falls under the influence of a local imam, Youssouf (Othmane Moumen), and becomes ultra religious and a believer in jihad.

Ahmad takes to praying five times a day, berates his mother for drinking, considers his sister slutty for the way she dresses, and adopts twisted aspects of the Muslim religion. At school he has a sympathetic teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), but refuses to shake her hand because of the doctrine that he is not supposed to touch a woman.

So far that would just present difficulties that would become annoying to others, but Ahmed takes jihad so seriously that he becomes committed to killing the teacher. After an attempt goes awry, authorities attempt to straighten Ahmed out and as part of rehabilitation effort send him to a farm.

That’s as much, perhaps more than enough, than you need to know, except that Ahmed is not amenable to rehabilitation, which further fuels the plot that takes on an element of suspense. Still, the ability of the Dardennes to give a film depth engenders a measure of sympathy for Ahmed.

One can pity his falling victim to extremism even while absorbing a lesson in how vulnerable youths can become so indoctrinated that they grow into a menace on a larger scale than this one limited example that the Dardennes compellingly examine. A Kino Lorber release. Posted February 21, 2020.

STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN  Send This Review to a Friend

For a film about a guy who longs to be a standup comedian there are very few laughs. That’s obviously the intention of “Standing Up, Falling Down,” which is really about grappling with failure and learning to deal with life’s disappointments. Excellent acting defines key characters and gives weight and perspective to this modest film, directed by Matt Ratner from a screenplay by Peter Hoare, that generates respect as it moves along.

Ben Schwartz portrays likable but troubled 34-year-old Scott Rollins, who has failed at being a standup comic in Los Angeles and has returned home to live with his parents on Long Island. He still tries his luck at comedy clubs, but we can see that he’ll never thrive as a comic. He’s a bit funny, but not that funny.

Scott becomes friends with a quirky dermatologist whom he meets at a bar, and the film immediately gets a lift. Marty, the doc, is played by Billy Crystal in a performance thoroughly against type. Marty suffers even more from life’s hard knocks, including a failed marriage to a woman with emotional problems and a loving marriage to a woman who died.

Crystal, looking portly and aged, adds depth and sadness to the story, as well as a few laughs, as Marty and Scott become carousing buddies. Marty has an adult son from his first marriage and while Marty tries to make amends, his angry son will not forgive him for walking out on the ill wife and mother to marry the woman with whom he has fallen in love.

While still hoping to make it as a comic and not take an ordinary job, such as a postman, Scott is nursing a crush on a former girlfriend Becky (Eloise Mumford), who has since married a good friend of Scott’s. One can spot trouble.

Scott has a sympathetic sister, Megan, nicely portrayed by Grace Gummer. Their mother (Debra Monk) is very solicitous and worries about Scott while their father keeps pressing Scott to forget comedy and get a job. There’s a humorous incident when Scott passes a postman on the street and asks whether he likes his work. The postman happily assures him that he does.

As the plot develops with successive complications, for Scott there finally may be some light at the end of the tunnel, not in the standup profession but toward the possibility of a new relationship. He may not always be falling down. A Shout Studios release. Reviewed January 25, 2020.

VITALINA VARELA  Send This Review to a Friend

The most noteworthy aspect of “Vitalina Varela” from Portugal is its boredom. Directed by Pedro Costa, it is a painfully slow observance of what happens when a woman from Cape Verde returns to attend her husband’s funeral after a long estrangement from him. The actress playing the title role is, as in the title, Vitalina Varela. Shown at the 2019 New York Film Festival, the film is now getting a commercial release.

Varela arrives too late, learning that her husband has already been buried. She is grief-stricken, and the bulk of the film involves her sitting abut, looking pained and trying to come to terms with her emotions and memories.

Granted that Costa is capable of providing cinematic atmosphere, that is not enough to compensate for a lengthy, brooding film with little action. Varela has a strong, austere-looking face, but that also is not enough to keep one riveted.

Costa’s films are an acquired taste, and while some may appreciate what he does here, for this filmgoer sitting through “Vitalina Varela” was a chore. A Grasshopper Film release. Reviewed February 21, 2020.


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