By William Wolf

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.

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.

OLYMPIC DREAMS  Send This Review to a Friend

A charming love story set against the background of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, “Olympic Dreams” combines the atmosphere of the event and personal lives of those who have gathered in the athletes’ village to compete or assist. What more appropriate day could be selected for the film’s release than Valentine’s Day?

“Olympic Dreams” has been directed by Jeremy Teicher, who wrote the script with Alexi Pappas and Nick Kroll. Pappas and Kroll also star in the film.

There couldn’t be a better choice for lead actress than Pappas, as she comes to the role of Penelope with first-hand experience. A Greek-American, in addition to being a writer and filmmaker, she holds the Greek National record in the 10,000 meters with a personal best of 31:36 set at the Rio Olympics.

The plot of the new film has Penelope, 22, who skis in the competition, falling for Ezra, 37, played by Kroll, a volunteer dentist who has the task of caring for Olympians who need their teeth looked after. This is not a blazing love affair, but a pleasing attraction between two people who meet under unusual circumstances.

Ezra, on the shy side, is already involved in an iffy romance with a break being taken at the insistence of his fiancée. He is unsure about what will happen. Ezra is a decent chap who is not out to seduce, but is smitten with Penelope despite personality differences. She is also attracted to him, but their feelings are not outspoken. Yet she is more aggressive in trying to elicit his affection. We see a step-by-step relationship building even though the situation is frustrating with its hesitant romantic moves.

What will ultimately happen? As the Olympic Games come to an end, the two have a more candid confrontation and decisions will have to be made. All is handled with charming subtlety and amusement.

The feelings that are being explored are in the context of Penelope competing unsuccessfully in the games along with striking photography that captures the dynamic setting. Lots of little touches add to the overall atmosphere, and one can admire the technique and care that has gone into creating this low-key but endearing film. An IFC Films release. Reviewed February 11, 2020.

THE TIMES OF BILL CUNNINGHAM  Send This Review to a Friend

The personality and dedication of the late street photographer Bill Cunningham, whose photos appeared in the New York Times for decades, come through appealingly in this film built around an interview with him by Mark Bozek, who parlayed it into “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” with a narration by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Cunningham, who died in 2016, speaks candidly about how he got started and his approach to snapping photos of those who intrigued him during his prowling of Manhattan’s streets on his succession of bicycles. It is clear how much he loved the work that defined his life.

At one point he is seen tearing up and having to pause to get his bearings. The cause is his grief at the deaths of friends during the AIDS epidemic, tragedies too grim to bear.

What gives the film particular life is the avalanche of Cunningham’s photos shown throughout, from his capturing of Greta Garbo to the parade of subjects who intrigued him for their fashion, celebrity of other standout features and oddities.

This is both a plus and a frustration. While the extensive photo examples are fascinating, it is also frustrating to see them rush by so quickly. It is like running through a museum. One would like to linger on so many shots. Of course, that is not convenient in a film that would be made so very much longer. But the impulse to rest a while on so many images is there.

Bozek’s film contributes importantly to the lore that has been built round Cunningham’s remarkable and unique career, and helps us get to know the man and his mindset, marked by his very human feelings toward others and toward his life’s work. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Reviewed February 14, 2020.

THE TRAITOR  Send This Review to a Friend

Corruption and exposure is depicted in “The Traitor,” which was showcased at the 2019 New York Film Festival and is now in a well-deserved commercial release.

The excellent, taut crime drama is a return to the screen by iconic Italian director Marco Bellocchio, now 80, who shows that he retains the ability to create a powerful and engrossing film, just as he has been doing throughout the years after his sensational early films such as “Fists in the Pocket” (1965), “China is Near” (1967) and “In the Name of the Father” (1972).

“The Traitor” is based on real-life case of Tommaso Buscetta, who was a bigwig in the Italian Mafia in Sicily, but in the 1980s turned against the Mafia to become an informer for the authorities. Bellocchio wrote the screenplay with Valia Santella, Ludovica Rampoldi, Francesco Piccolo and Francesco La Licata.

Bellocchio has cast Pierfrancesco Favino in the juicy role in this realistic drama, and Favino delivers impressively in communicating the resolve it took for Buscetta, nicknamed Masino, to defy the Mafia and turn into a prosecution witness.

Masino has a personal motive—vengeance. Two of his sons have been killed by one Mafia faction. Extradited to Italy after living in Brazil, Masino has a decision to make. Fausto Russo Alesi plays prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who faces his own danger in trying to break up the powers that be in the Sicilian crime world.

Bellocchio skillfully and colorfully depicts the 1986 trial in which defendants are held in courtroom cages. They are depicted as rebelliously defiant in the face of authority. They are not gangsters ready to go down quietly.

Masino is not romanticized. While Favino makes him human rather than just a symbol, he is also shown as self-serving in his ultimate betrayal of his bosses despite his attempt to cloak his behavior as adhering to old Mafia values.

It is a pleasure to see Bellocchio in top form with this addition to films that expose the power that the Sicilian Mafia as wielded over life in that part of Italy. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed January 31, 2020.

BEANPOLE  Send This Review to a Friend

Previewed at the 2019 New York Film Festival, “Beanpole,” now in commercial release, is a most unusual Russian film directed by Kantemir Balagov that takes us to Leningrad after World War II.

The film stirs my own memories of having visited Leningrad, which has since gone back to its earlier name of Saint Petersburg. A city tour took me past the vast cemetery reflecting the enormous casualties suffered in the war by Russians bravely defending the city against the massive German onslaught.

“Beanpole” surveys ways in which the war affected two surviving women. They are played by impressive actresses new to the screen, Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina.

The acting rules the day in this film, although the story of what is happening to the women can seem like a stretch at times. Yet the overall vision, creativity and emotional upheaval in “Beanpole” make it special.

Iya, called Beanpole (Miroshnichenko), is a tall, slender nurse who has served in the military and in 1945 is working in a hospital where war victims are being treated. The hospital is a sorry sight of affliction, and Beanpole herself is seen being revived from a seizure. She is shown to have son, Sasha, who is small and frail and appears with her at the hospital.

The story gathers momentum when we meet Masha (Perelygina), who has been a soldier and is a friend of Beanpole’s. I won’t go into the surprising course taken in the screenplay, written by director Bagalov and Alexander Terekhov, but the relationship between the women becomes the guts of the story.

Through it all we get the reflection of the human toll that the war took and the upheaval it brought to so many lives as symbolized by this particular situation and relationship. This take on the aftermath differs from what we have seen in other Russian films, and that originality, fueled by the extraordinary acting, makes “Beanpole” very worthwhile. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed January 29, 2020.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE  Send This Review to a Friend

Of all the selections at the 57th annual New York Film Festival, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of my favorites. It is also among the best films I have seen this year. Writer-director Céline Sciamma has created a work of great beauty and sensitivity, with captivating central performances by actresses who are a pleasure to see as they enhance the film’s emotional depth.

There is a late 18th century period setting on an island off Brittany, when artist Marianna, played with sophistication by Noémie Merlant, is hired by an Italian countess, portrayed imperiously by Valeria Golino, to be a companion to her daughter and to secretly paint a wedding portrait of her. The daughter, Héloise, the exquisite Adèle Haenel, after having been in a convent, is mourning the mysterious death of her sister. She does not want to get married and resents being slated to marry the chosen man from Italy, and she has already resisted an attempt to paint her.

Under the mother’s scheme the artist and subject arrangement is unusual. The painter is to observe Héloise during their time together but paint her in private. The essence of the film involves the slow process by which the two women get to know one another, with all the nuances of a developing friendship that becomes much more and their secret.

Their growing bond, with the painting process proceeding all along, is compelling to behold, and these two actresses become mesmerizing in their attraction for one another during their deepening private relationship. Throughout the cinematography by Claire Mathon and the production design by Thomas Grézaud are extraordinary, with all the beauty of a classic period story.

Of course, Héloise and Marianna enter into a lesbian relationship, which is filmed with loving care in its intimacy, and an audience can delight in the way in which these two women unite and express themselves to each other, all in the context of what life would have been like for many women living in that era.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is filled with all sorts of meticulous detail, and Sciamma has to be congratulated for how she has put so much together in grand style, told a compelling story and also artistically used the fiery symbolism suggested by the title for emphasis. The film emerges as a work of rare accomplishment and is certainly worth repeated viewing. A Neon release. Posted December 3, 2019.

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.

  

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