By William Wolf

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN  Send This Review to a Friend

Fans of ABBA songs get a chance to hear more, often danced to, in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go again,” written and directed by Ol Parker. As for the story, once again it is used to highlight the music, and there is a confusing back and forth between past and present. Still, as far as sequels go (and partly a prequel), the film offers plenty of visual splendor, enthusiastic singing and cavorting and the sort of in your face entertainment that made the stage musical so successful and was carried over into the original film.

But lovers of Greece have a right to be disappointed. This time the film was not shot in Greece but on the Croatian ilse of Vis, a stand-in for Greek island magic. Other filming was done in England.

The musical early on introduces a young Donna, a role originally portrayed by Meryl Streep, with Lily James now playing her graduating from school and in a ceremony bursting into a rousing performance of “When I Kissed the Teacher,” with everyone exuberantly joining in.

But in the updated setting Donna has died, and her daughter Sophie is played by Amanda Seyfried, whose love, Sky (Dominic Cooper), wants to pursue the hotel business in New York and not follow her to the Greek island, where she is committed to opening the Hotel Bella Donna in honor of her departed mother. There is much mourning for the late Donna, and we might also mourn the absence of the ever-wonderful Streep from most of the film. But coming to the rescue, Streep does turn up elegantly in ghostly fashion near the end.

So does Cher as Sophie’s grandmother, who was not invited to the opening party, but descends from a helicopter ride and makes a dazzling impression, especially when she bursts into song at the festivities. (Try the arithmetic of Cher playing the mother of Meryl Streep.)

Seyfried, over-the top bubbly and cutesy as Sophie, steams with energy. Holdover characters from the first “Mamma Mia” are there, including the three men, one of whom as a result of Donna’s’s dalliances could be Sophie’s father. She treats all of them her as her dad, played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard.

Rest assured that through all of the plot manipulations basic romantic problems are worked out. The character population is too voluminous to list here, from the young men of the past to the young men of the present, and to the other veterans of the previous “Mamma Mia.” Plot aside, the ABBA songs are the real stars of the film, including “One of Us,” “Waterloo,” “Kisses of Fire,” “Angel Eyes,” “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando,” “Super Trouper” and many more favorites. The choreography is lavish with everyone often in motion and the look is glitzy. This is the sort of easy-on-the eyes-and-ears movie musical that defies too serious analyzing. It’s aimed at audiences who enjoy the music and can go along with the humor, shameless sentimentality and unabashedly showy performances. A Universal Pictures release. Reviewed July 22, 2018.

THE THIRD MURDER  Send This Review to a Friend

If you are in the mood for a really good detective yarn, you will find it in “The Third Murder,” a thoroughly engrossing Japanese film written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, who previously gave us the excellent films “After the Storm” and “Like Father, Like Son.”

The story is a search for the truth by dogged defense attorney Shigemori, played with steely determination by Masaharu Fukuyama, with respect to a client who has already confessed. Misumi. portrayed enigmatically by Kôji Yakusho, served a prison sentence for another murder 30 yaers before. At the outset of the film we see a killer burning the body of a victim, and Misumi says that he is that murderer.

This time Misumi will face execution if he is convicted, as the murder is said to be in connection with a robbery. His lawyer wants to save his life, and as the film proceeds, the lawyer investigates other possibilities. For example, could the victim’s wife be responsible in order to collect insurance? Could Misumi have a hidden motive for committing the murder?

The director skillfully deepens the mystery as members of the victim’s family are introduced, and the detective pursues them to find out about their lives in order to shed light on the the case and potential explanations. We get hooked into the story, as well as being fascinated by a confrontation in prison between Shigemori and his difficult client, who doesn’t want to take advice that if followed might help spare his life. Hovering beneath the surface is the moral question of capital punishment itself.

Evenutually, of course, we learn the truth, as well as what the title of “The Third Murder” means. To tell you more about the film would be a spoiler. This is a detective tale for those who enjoy a legal thriller laden with plenty of atmosphere, excellent performances, different motive possibilities and the engrossing process of getting to the bottom of things and trying to save a life. A Film Movement release. Reviewed July 20, 2018.

RBG  Send This Review to a Friend

I regret that I am so late in reviewing “RGB,” the documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as it is one of the best films of the year. Co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “RBG” not only is a moving and inspiring portrait of Justice Ginsburg, but it is packed with information about and exploration of major issues in the context of her time, with clear expression of her contributions toward advancing legal rights both before her Supreme Court appointment in 1993 and then via her votes in the court’s decisions.

The film colorfully details her life and her rise with vital liberal positions. Many fearful of the court’s swing to the right under President Trump say that they wish she could live forever. Now 85 and a cancer survivor, she continues to be energetic, as evidenced by her regular physical workouts that might challenge the most athletic of us.

There is much footage culled from her interviews and platform appearances, and she comes across as a likable, often amusing and, more importantly, a profound thinker about the law. Included is evidence of her affable friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia despite their polarized viewpoints. We also see students responding enthusiastically to the advice she gives in her speeches.

Most touching is the relationship she had with her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, who from the very beginning of their dating as students appreciated her for her mind as well as her looks (she was very pretty) and was ultra supportive of her career aspirations. Clips showing their amusing interplay during an interview demonstrate their togetherness. His death after their 56-year-long marriage was a major blow that she had to deal with, and his loving note to her from his hospital bed could make one tearful.

A key element in the film is reportage about the victories she won for the right of women to be treated equally. The film does an excellent job in running snippets of text on screen that deftly summarize the legal points involved.

Many notables contribute, including Bill Clinton, who talks about how she quickly won him over and made him decide to appoint her to the Supreme Court. Excerpts from her facing the Senate in her confirmation hearing reveal how her candor, legal principles and expertise impressed even Republicans, such as Orrin Hatch. Others, among them activist Gloria Steinem and legal expert Nina Totenberg, talk impressively about Ginsburg’s contributions.

The film includes Ginsburg’s gaffs, falling asleep during a State of the Union address, and more importantly her mistake of denouncing Donald Trump, a departure from the judicial need to stay out of politics, for which she apologized. But this remains worrisome beyond the account in the film. What if an issue involving Trump comes before the court while she is still on the bench? Most likely she would be pressed to recuse herself.

The broad scope of the film coupled with the deeply engaging close-up of the distinguished jurist’s life makes this a documentary of rare power. It is a must-see for anybody who cares about the law and the fate of our nation. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed July 15, 2018.

EIGHTH GRADE  Send This Review to a Friend

Teenage angst movies aren’t particularly high on my must see list, but “Eighth Grade” turns out to be the exception. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, it is lit up by a wonderful, ultra natural performance by Elsie Fisher. She stars as the troubled Kayla, who in her last week of eighth grade is desperately striving to find herself and shed the awkwardness that bedevils her every move as students talk about what’s cool.

Kayla’s personality comes alive when she is alone in her room posting advice videos, such as telling others how to be yourself. At such moments she is the opposite of the way she behaves among her peers. She is addicted to her smart phone and laptop, which becomes her world. She exasperates her dad, played with fatherly bewilderment by Josh Hamilton, exemplified in a dinner scene in which he can’t tear her away from her social media. (There is no mother in the film.)

Kayla, her face littered with pimples, moves awkwardly, and when she is pressed into going to a pool birthday party, she looks out of place in her conservative bathing suit among the other more sexily-clad girls. The gift that she brings is frowned upon by the birthday girl.

Kayla has her eyes on a boy who is supposed to be particularly cool, although he really looks rather silly as an imagined catch. In one scene with another boy, she is alone in the back seat of a car and in playing truth or dare, she chickens out when asked to remove her shirt. She is only too glad to escape, even if embarrassed to tears afterward.

But Kayla wants to learn. There is a funny scene in which she is watching a woman on YouTube talk about how to perform oral sex, the details of which turn her off. Yet she tries to practice with a banana in the kitchen when her father walks in.

Eventually there is a very sensitive scene in which she and her dad connect verbally and emotionally. Kayla is gradually getting to be the self she always wanted to be, exemplified when she tells off a few snobbish female classmates. It will be onward to high school, where presumably she will fare better.

Fisher is so extremely touching that one feels for her all the way. The environment that writer-director Burnham creates seems painfully real, from the way in which the students talk to one another (Kayla in her videos repeatedly uses “like” in every sentence), and the overall school atmosphere. The music accompaniment is savvy as it is used to accentuate the anxieties, as when Kayla focus on her dream boy or summons courage to march into the dreaded school social combat.

The film may make you hark back to personal experiences. When I was in school, there were plenty of tensions, but not fueled by smart phones and devastating social media, which makes everything more addictive than the process of getting up the nerve to pick up a telephone to make desired contact.

“Eighth Grade” is that rare teenage film that can really get through to an adult, as well as to today’s teenagers who may recognize the mirror images of their lives. An A24 release. Reviewed July 16, 2018.

LIVES WELL LIVED  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Sky Bergman’s has created an extraordinary and uplifting film, “Lives Well Lived.” Bergman is a successful photographer whose work has been widely displayed internationally at major museums, and who is a professor of photography and video at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. Some of her photographs can be seen in her book, “The Naked & The Nude: Images from the Sculpture Series.”

The saga of her Italian grandmother, whom she found vibrant at 103, inspired Bergman to look into lives of other seniors. The result is a captivating film that introduces an assortment of impressive seniors who talk about what they have done and are doing with their advanced years.

What makes the film special is that it is not only informative, but invitingly entertaining. The subjects visited and asked to express themselves are articulate and rich in anecdotes from their longevity. One woman does yoga at the age of 85. A 92-year-old doctor finds pleasure in making mozzarella. There are happy couples, as well as widows and widowers, and in the interviewing by director Bergman, they are prompted to tell the various ways they have found to keep enriching their lives.

No need to worry about such a documentary becoming pedantic. It is a pleasure to meet the folks, and while the film should entertain and even inspire oldsters, it should also be a wake-up call to today’s younger generation of viewers about appreciating what can be learned from the experiences of those in the older generation and also indicate the pleasures to be derived from interacting.

You meet 40 people as the subjects in “Lives Well Lived,” and they represent 3000 years of collective life experience. Think about that. A Shadow Distribution release. Posted July 18, 2018.

GAUGUIN: VOYAGE TO TAHITI  Send This Review to a Friend

Even a cursory dip into the history of French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) will show how slim the film portrait is in “Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti,” directed by Eduard Deluc and inspired by the artist’s memoir “Noa Noa.” But as one might expect, the tribute to Gauguin is visually striking, both for the integration of his art and the locale depicted. The screenplay has been written by Deluc, Etienne Compar, Thomas Lilti and Sarah Kaminsky.

We get the historical setting when Gauguin is shown being fed up with the world in which he moves in Paris and struggles as an artist, including the relationship with his wife and his fatherly obligations. With his wife refusing to join him, off he goes to find new inspiration in the dramatically different, far-away Tahiti.

The artist is played by bearded Vincent Cassel, who imbues the character with mystique, intensity and longing to fulfill himself as an artist. A large part of the story involves the local marriage to his muse and model, the very young Tehura, played by Tuheï Adams, whom he takes for granted as his love object.

As the story develops, Tehura is shown to want more than her status and her attention, not unexpectedly, begins to wander elsewhere, fueling Gauguin’s jealousy.

Gauguin is also increasingly restless as life on Tahiti is also frustrating with respect to finding a market for his work. Ultimately he is no happier in this retreat than he has been in Paris.

The strongest aspect of the film is the attention to distinctive aspects of his art that made his work so different, colorful and important. One can view the film as an interesting surface contribution to the total picture of the man and his place in the art world, but far from any more complex addition to a biography. A Cohen Media release. Reviewed July 11, 2018.

LEAVE NO TRACE  Send This Review to a Friend

A haunting film that is as important for what it barely tells us as to what we experience, “Leave No Trace” is likely to turn up on best lists for this year. It has been directed by Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) from a screenplay that she wrote with Anne Rosellini from Peter Rock’s novel, “My Abandonment.” The story, enhanced by exquisite nature scenes in Oregon, keeps one glued with its quiet progression that feeds our hope for a happy resolution.

At the outset we are introduced to a father and his teenage daughter living in the woods with a strong, loving bond with each other. The father, Will, is played stoically by Ben Foster. The daughter, Tom, Is portrayed with total naturalism by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, whose quiet innocence and composure are admirably effective. Her schooling has been entirely in the hands of her father.

Their lifestyle is interrupted when they are found, questioned and forcibly brought to be sheltered by the Veteran’s Administration, separated for a time, but soon reunited and given a place to live under supervision. By that point we know that Will is one of those vets suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, although nothing is revealed about his war experience. At one point when Tom is going through some of her dad’s belongings there is a quick glimpse of a newspaper clipping referring to vets trying to take matters into their own hands.

But Will can’t be confined and kept from his desire to live apart from society. He leads his daughter, whom we see gradually wanting to savor aspects of the world that she has been missing, to escape together and take to the forest again. A crisis brews when Will suffers a serious injury, including a battered leg. Will and Tom are aided by kind folks who lead communal lives.

How long can Tom endure the life of living in the woods with its dangers and isolation and continue to lovingly follow her dad with total obedience? The most telling line in the film is delivered by Tom in an ultimate confrontation, when she says to her father, “What’s wrong with you is not wrong with me.”

In its quiet way “Leave No Trace” is a movie about results of war without seeing war itself. Will is among the ranks of those who have returned from fighting with grave stress conditions that can result in odd behavior, inclinations toward suicide or other psychological damage that urgently require care.

The excellent acting throughout and the sensitive direction via wise understatement, coupled with the film’s superb cinematography by Michael McDonough, create a strong impression. In its unique way “Leave No Trace” is deeply moving and can leave a lasting impression. A Bleecker Street release. Reviewed June 29, 2018.

LOVE, CECIL  Send This Review to a Friend

The life of Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) is fascinating on many counts, and Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, “Love, Cecil,” digs richly into his life and work. The British-born Beaton wore many hats, including as photographer, costume designer, writer, painter and acquaintance with many notables of his era.

The film relies on archival footage that helps span his career, and a sophisticated narration by Rupert Everett, including readings from Beaton’s diaries, adds to the portrait of this colorful, prolific career.

Beaton’s life as a gay man is evident, but more significcant are his achievements, such as his appreciated photography for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and the elegance of his theater and film costume designs, especially for “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi.”

On the flip side was a controversy involving what was regarded as anti-semitism, for which he apologized. But Beaton deserves to be primarily remembered for all of his achievements, as celebrated in Vreeland’s portrait of this iconic figure.

The director is clearly an admirer of Beaton’s work, and the film, in addition to being entertaining in its depiction of Beaton, is a major contribution to remembering the triumphs of one so important in so many areas of his work and life. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed June 29, 2018.

BOUNDARIES  Send This Review to a Friend

Christopher Plummer lights up “Boundaries” as Jack, an oldster kicked out of a retirement home for his practice of selling marijuana. The film has been written and spiritedly directed vby Shana Feste.

What do to with Jack? His daughter, Laura, amusingly played by Vera Farmiga, already has enough problems. She is a divorced mom raising Henry, an oddball of a son, played accordingly by Lewis MacDougall. He loves to draw naked pictures, for which he has been kicked out of school. The examples that we see of his drawings are amusing. Laura has her own weakness for rescuing and collecting pets that overrun her home in Seattle.

Jack and Henry bond, and that provides the film with its warmth and thrust toward adventure. Laura, Jack and Henry set off on a road trip with Laura intending to park her father with her reluctant sister, played by Kristen Schaal. What Laura doesn’t realize is that Jack has enlisted Henry into aiding him in completing pot deals along the way with old friends. There is a big stash in the trunk of the old Rolls.

This gives Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda a chance to turn up amusingly as the acquaintances. Laura also makes contact with her ex, Leonard, played by the excellent Bobby Cannavale, and has a roll in bed that only ends up in an argument.

Plummer is a reliable hand at delineating characters, and he steals this film, although the other cast members are entertaining in their respective ways. “Boundaries” has a light touch throughout and comes across as generally amusing if not earthshaking. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed June 22, 2018.

OCEAN'S 8  Send This Review to a Friend

The Metropolitan Museum of Art better beef up its security in case would-be criminals get inspiration from the new film “Ocean’s 8,” about a group of women who plan a heist at the Met’s annual gala. The plot stems from the “Ocean’s” series, but this time it has a feminine twist which gives the idea fresh interest, especially since some appealing stars play the culprits. Although the result is lightweight, the film is a pleasant, entertaining diversion because of the gals involved.

We first meet the brains of the outfit, Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, sister of Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney in the predecessor romp), as she is convincing a parole board that she is reformed and should be sprung from her sentence for another crime. When she sweetly says she just wants a simple life, we immediately know she is conning, and she quickly proves it after her release when she manages to rob items from Bergdorf with an amusing ruse.

The film then proceeds to the way in which she rounds up accomplices, not a very exciting portion, but serving to create the setup. Bullock is superb in the role, and her entourage includes her friend Lou (Cate Blanchett); hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna ); master at pick-pocketing (Awkwafina); a fence (Sarah Paulson); an Indian jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling), and a very kooky Helena Bonham Carter as Rose, a fashion designer with a key task. Her job is to arrange for Ann Hathaway as Daphne Kluger, a celebrity and special guest at the gala, to wear a diamond necklace worth $150 million dollars borrowed from Cartier and accompanied by a heavy security guard. The camera loves Hathaway the most; she is strikingly beautiful here, with smooth acting to match.

Plans are to swipe the necklace and have it speedily taken apart with everyone getting a share. But as we learn as the story progresses, Debbie’s wily plans involve a great more than that, including a way to get even with Richard Armitage as Claude, whose ratting on her sent her to prison. As you see, the screenplay by director Gary Ross and Olivia Milch becomes ultra complex.

The most fun is at the gala, which provides an opportunity to fill the film with celebrities playing themselves (Anna Wintour, Kim Kardashian West and Heidi Klum, among others). The setting also enables costume designer Sarah Edwards to come up with fabulous, eye-catching attire. It is also amusing to watch all of the elements in the grand caper design come together, even if you doubt how this far-fetched stuff could really happen and succeed. You may also wonder why the Met would cooperate with such a robbery plot.

James Corden adds a nice touch as an insurance investigator. Also, “Ocean’s 8” has an underlying theme of larceny at heart, with everyone tantalized by the opportunity for big bucks. It’s a far cry from the films of old in which crime was never supposed to pay. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed June 9, 2018.


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