By William Wolf

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND EXTENDED)  Send This Review to a Friend

The not very likable Meyerowitz family depicted in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest opus is a dysfunctional mess, but wry humor and solid acting come to the rescue. There isn’t much sympathy to be found for the characters, but at least they are miserably colorful. The father, Harold, as grumpily played by excellent Dustin Hoffman, is an aging, disgruntled sculptor. He feels he deserves more recognition and he can be very nasty toward those around him. Does he really have that much talent?

There are his two sons. Ben Stiller plays Matthew, who has done well in the business world in Los Angeles. His ineffective brother, Danny, played effectively by Adam Sandler, is unfulfilled, including in a marriage that has resulted in a split. When Matthew comes back to New York on a visit emotional hell breaks loose between the brothers and that scene of long-simmering conflict coming to a boil is one of the best in the film. The trouble is one is hard pressed to sympathize with either of them, but at least Baumbach enables us to laugh at the friction that erupts.

Danny’s college daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) provides mirth with her aspirations toward filmmaking, We watch a snippet from her student film, which turns out to be comically pseudo-pornographic. Elizabeth Marvel is in a world of her own as Danny’s sister, Jean. Emma Thompson manages to elicit laughs from a rather thankless role as Harold’s wife.

The film is rather disjointed but pulls steadily together so that by the end we get an overall indelible portrait of the Meyerowitz family members. The film is neither comedy nor high drama, but the acting manages to keep one interested. My problem is that I don’t much care about anyone, and therefore watching the film is like peeking in through a window at certain specimens of New Yorkers without having much concern for the truths to be found about their lives. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 13, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--THE SHAPE OF WATER  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Guillermo del Toro has gone all out with “The Shape of Water,” which he wrote with Vanessa Taylor, and which is an outrageous stretch even for him. A woman in love with a monster from the deep? Thanks to the imagination of the screenplay and a touching, endearing performance by SaLLy Hawkins, the film works.

The year is 1963 and the setting is a U.S. government laboratory, where shy Elisa (Hawkins), who is mute, works along with Zelda, played with panache by Octavia Spencer, with the janitorial duty of keeping the place clean. Elisa becomes fascinated when a monster found in the sea is brought in a crate to be housed for observation and then destruction.

Michael Shannon is cast as a federal agent whose job is to watch over the creature, played sympathetically by Doug Jones. But the agent is a nasty sort who taunts the captive and would like to kill it sooner than later. Shannon’s performance is properly villainous, and reflects both the pressure and frustrations of his having to follow orders from above.

Elisa secretly gets to know the creature and feed him, and they develop a rapport that is amusing and tender to watch. She not only becomes his ally, but aware of the danger to him, concocts a plan to kidnap him and put him back in the water. She eventually gets help from Zelda and from her sympathetic neighbor, Giles, colorfully portrayed by Richard Jenkins.

The episode that follows thrusts everyone into danger, but del Toro takes the situation a daring step further by setting up a sexual relationship between Elisa and her new-found friend. Are you ready for that? The bathtub scene we see is attention-grabbing, to say the least.

In the beginning the film has been framed as a fairy tale, which pays off eventually when, after a violent battle, there is the surprise fairy tale ending too beautifully filmed to describe here with a spoiler.

“The Shape of Water” qualifies as the most unusual film of the year and is further evidence of del Toro’s fertile imagination and his ability to translate his ideas into enthralling visuals. On this occasion there may also be award consideration for Hawkins, given her commanding performance as the shy young woman who finds herself through this odd relationship. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed October 9, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--CHAPPAQUIDDICK  Send This Review to a Friend

Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy turned out to be an outstanding Democratic U.S. Senator despite the scandal that temporarily marred his reputation as a result of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. After the assassination of his brothers, there were hopes he might become president. But all hell broke loose on the night in 1969, when after partying he and an aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, went for a drive that ended in plunging off a bridge and into the water below. He escaped, she didn’t. What followed was desperate maneuvering to cleanup Kennedy’s role.

“Chappaquiddick,” directed by John Curran from a screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, dramatizes all of this, not stinting on details of Kennedy’s shabby behavior, including not reporting the accident to the police until much later and telling conflicting accounts of what happened. We see the various meetings by Kennedy advisors trying to come up with viable stories to mitigate his behavior and responsibility. Meanwhile, the film stresses the terrible loss of Mary Jo (Kate Mara) to her grieving family.

Jason Clarke gives a credible performance as the Senator, including his clumsy handling of things, and Bruce Dern is memorable as his ailing father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., known to habitually denigrate Ted. But the father still hoped for Ted’s political future and the scandal was a blow. There is a wonderful scene when the patriarch, his face contorted from a stroke, manages a telling smile when listening to a broadcast in which Ted follows the clever tactic of using a broadcast to ask the people of Massachusetts if they want him to continue in office.

The film is fascinating in its delineation of the intrigue taking place and the difficulty of cleaning up the mess. A woman’s death, and the possibility that Kennedy had been driving under the influence, coupled with the idea that he might have saved her had he not just tried to save his own life hover over everything.

Director Curran tells the story without histrionics, which makes the events all the more disturbing as they speak for themselves. It is a tribute to Ted Kennedy that, whatever his misdeeds then, he managed to build a powerful reputation as Senator afterwards, winning widespread respect. But the new film will remind us once again of the tragedy and the political work that went into attempting to manage the scandal. Reviewed October 9, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL--DOWNSIZING  Send This Review to a Friend

A nutty idea is the basis for “Downsizing,” about Norwegian scientists who believe the world’s over-population can be solved via a secret formula that reduces human beings to mini people who take up so much less space. With Matt Damon in the cast and a touch of humor, the film has a measure of appeal despite its inherent silliness.

Directed by Alexander Payne from the screenplay he wrote with Jim Taylor, “Downsizing” obviously offers the opportunity for excellent special effects. But when you get down to close-ups of the experimental colony of little people, all looks normal, except when the image is jarred by placing them against a regular sized object or person.

Damon plays Paul Safenek, an ordinary guy struggling to make a living, and Kristen Wiig plays his wife, Audrey, and they are tempted to opt for what is promised to be an easy life with no financial headaches in the mini project. They report in for the medical process, but, there is a hitch (no spoiler here as to what it is).

How far can an idea like this go? Payne milks it by finding humor in life’s details and the special effects. There are also amusing characters, including Christoph Waltz as a grand manipulator. There is also Hong Chau as the amusing Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tan, who falls in love with Paul, but demands in outspoken accented English after they first go to bed, exactly what kind of f—k he gave her. She enumerates the various possibilities, but hopes it was a love f—k.

That gives you an idea of the kind of humor that you’ll find. The plot is pushed too far when the film veers toward another scheme that is even more ambitious. However, there are pleasures to be found along the way given the expertise with which the film has been made and the cast. A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed October 9, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--REDOUTABLE  Send This Review to a Friend

Of all the films that I saw at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival “Redoutable,” written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is the most important with respect to knowing the history of cinema. The French filmmaker, who had a hit with “The Artist,” has fascinatingly explored the life and career of Jean-Luc Godard.

This is a monumental undertaking, as Hazanavicius attempts to show the up and down sides of the renowned New Wave director and explore his ideas about cinema, his personality and what a pain in the butt he has been as a result of his dogmatism. This all makes for high drama.

Cleverly, Hazanavicius has made much of the film mimicking the Godard style, and that often gives the project an amusing flair. Importantly, the director has found exactly the right actor to play Godard—Louis Garrel, who manages to look enough like Godard and act convincingly as well.

Godard is shown in all his fury demanding a revolution in filmmaking and as an important figure in the movement that led up to the 1968 political upheaval. His tendency to alienate others is also dramatized, as in a meeting when he makes insulting remarks, including statements met with boos.

His attitude toward his work is covered, including his denigration of his own early films as he seeks new ground for exploration. Godard’s restlessness in his fimmaking as well as in his personal life is highlighted.

The new woman in his life after his marriage to actress Anna Karina, Anne Wiazemsky, is portrayed by Stacy Martin. (The screenplay is based in part on Wiazemsky's roman à clef "One Year After.") She tries her best to be supportive and deal with his moods, but Godard is shown as an almost impossibly difficult man to live with. His restless talent and onslaught of provocative declarations are also seen as his undoing, and in a way he becomes a tragic figure unable to relate well to anyone but himself, and even then he is filled with contradictions.

“Redoubtable” rises to the level of an extremely important achievement as a work that defines Godard, who is so important in any survey of French cinema. Hazanavicious merits applause for this achievement, a milestone in his career. “Redoubtable” is an illuminating and entertaining film that should be seen by anyone interested in Godard and French film, ss well as the world of cinema itself. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed October 7, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--THE DEATH OF STALIN  Send This Review to a Friend

You might not think that the death of the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin would be fertile ground for comedy, but director Armando Iannucci and his co-screenwriter David Schneider have found a way to make the occasion hilarious for most of the way.

The key to their comic coup is portraying the infighting after Stalin’s demise to grab power, combined with the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, which might come back to haunt an official if someone he slurred were to become the new top dog. The challenge of getting the right cast has been met with often uproarious results.

The comedy is eerie when Stalin suddenly dies in 1953. There is initial humor in the planning of his funeral, and it doesn’t take long for the manipulations and back-stabbing to begin. The most amusing casting is that of Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev. With his tough-guy American accent, Buscemi is consistently funny in a role one would never think he would play.

You can get an idea of how droll the film is by surveying other cast members—Jeffrey Tamboor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, and Simon Russell Beale as the obnoxious Beria, the secret police chief who we know from history wound up executed himself after dispatching so many others during years of terror. The film handles the Beria episode with comic comeuppance.

Much of the humor lies in the backroom discussions and maneuvers, directed with abundant dark comedy. If the director intended the film as a more universal example of corruption beyond Russia, the viewer has plenty to think about.

Although most of the dialogue is in English with a bevy of different accents, the aura is Russian as a result of the production design and the overall look of the film. “The Death of Stalin” emerges as superb political satire. An IFC Films release. Reviewed October 7. 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--C'EST LA VIE!  Send This Review to a Friend

One of the funniest films that I saw at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival was “C’est la vie!” Co-written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, it is a rowdy romp that takes place at a wedding being catered at a fancy chateau. It turns out to be a wedding from hell, with the caterer and his staff beset by problems from within and without.

Max, played to the hilt of exasperation by the noted Jean-Pierre Bacri, is fed up by a long stretch of dealing with weddings, but what is depicted on this occasion becomes the apex of trouble. Part of the problem is the result of personality quirks and demands of attendees. But there is also dissention within his staff with comical eruptions of anger and profanity.

Logistical difficulties also arise. On finding food spoiled, he has to send for emergency supplies from a caterer friend, which means delaying tactics to keep the guests in limbo.

To make matters more complicated, Max is having problems with his girlfriend, Joisette, played amusingly by Suzanne Clément. Max burns with jealously when she makes a point of flirting with a younger member in the company.

“C’est la vie!” is blessed with a colorful supporting cast and is loaded with funny slapstick, and although at times the doings get a bit much, there are always hilarious moments that come to the rescue. On balance you can find plenty of laughs in this depiction of a catering disaster that spoofs the profession, as well as people who plan their weddings with a view toward impressing their guests and themselves. Reviewed October 7, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--THE FLORIDA PROJECT  Send This Review to a Friend

The gritty side of life centered at a seedy motel near Disney Word in Orlando, Florida, is depicted with pathos and humor in director Sean Baker’s film, showcased at the 2017 New York Film Festival and also in commercial release. The motel in “The Florida Project” is called the Magic Castle, but the only thing magical in the movie is the way Baker, working from the screenplay he wrote with Chris Bergoch, puts upsetting ingredients together to make a compelling story.

At the core is six-year-old Moonee, played by captivating Brooklynn Prince, who makes Moonee mature beyond her years. She has to be, as her mom, Haley, played by the wonderful Bria Vinaite, is a wreck. She hustles any way she can, cons anyone she has to and expletives pour from her mouth in a steady stream. Moonee, who loves her mother, must cope with all of this. She does so by having adventures with two kid pals, one a boy, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), the other a girl named Jancey (Valeria Cotto). The children make their own little world.

Haley, always pressed for money, runs the risk of having authorities want to declare her an unfit mother because of her behavior and take Moonee away. Haley’s life is that tenuous and tragic.

Willem Dafoe has a solid role as the manager of the Magic Castle, and he does his best to be helpful to Haley and Moonee, but his patience is perpetually tried. He wants to protect children, and in one scene he sees a man hanging around as if a child molester and he vigorously chases him away.

I’ve never been to that part of Florida, but the locale as depicted by Baker is in lowly contrast to the beckoning lure and glitter of neighboring Disney World.

As one follows the exploits of the youngsters, one can appreciate their resilience, and as one follows the trajectory of Moonee’s mom one can be moved by her plight even without liking her. Baker has a sharp eye for detail and for depicting this environment in a way that at times almost makes the film seem like a documentary. An A24 release. Reviewed October 6, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--FACES PLACES  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Agnés Varda doesn’t run out of steam. “Faces Places,” shown at the 55th annual New York Film Festival and already in commercial release, is as lovely a film as she has ever made. I’ve been reviewing her films since way back, and it is gratifying to see that at the age of 88 she has come through yet again with a film consistently delightful to watch.

She has as her accomplice in traveling through various parts of France the photographer and her co-director known as JR, who is only 34, but who appears thoroughly in tune with his older collaborator. Together they photograph and interview a wide variety of people, and thereby provide a portrait of faces and places, as in the title.

The approach is extremely low-key, which enables them to get intimate portraits. They are amusing in themselves, JR with sun glasses, and Varda looking spry and engaging as she dominates the assorted inquiries.

The film also has a fine perspective, paying special attention to women. My favorite sequence was at a dock loading operation where we meet the men doing the heavy lifting. But we also meet their wives, who are spotlighted in a unique way. Their photographs are blown up to spectacular heights and displayed against piles of crates, thereby dwarfing the men who look miniscule posing in front of the super-size portraits. Doesn’t that say something?

There is a prickly segment when Varda decides to visit her fellow New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. But when she gets to his door, she finds that he has left a dismissive note, which she deems insulting and angering. It is a moment in the film in which she appears visibly upset.

In one sense “Faces Places” is a travelogue. But in another, it reflects the very human approach to life and her art that Varda has generally taken. Here, abetted by JR, Varda, continues to demonstrate her skill and fertile imagination. May her career continue! A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed October 6, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--DARKEST HOUR  Send This Review to a Friend

In a film that is both historically informative and deeply personal, Gary Oldman gives a remarkable performance as British leader Winston Churchill in the throes of a political and military crisis.

“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, is set at the time when British soldiers are trapped at Dunkirk and the pressure is on for them to surrender. Churchill is faced with those who want to work out a peace agreement with the Nazis with go-between negotiations arranged via Mussolini’s Italy. It would in effect mean Britain’s surrender to end the war.

Pressure is applied on Churchill by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, played obstinately by Stephen Dillane. His chief ally is Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), with a history of not wanting to fight. While Churchill is convinced that Britain should not give in, he is deeply troubled by assuming responsibility for the possibility of mass death of troops at Dunkirk.

We, of course, know how the Britain rallied with an navy of small boats going to Dunkirk and ferrying troops to safety. The film dramatizes how this comes about through Churchill’s patriotic appeal to his countrymen.

There is high drama as the issue of fight or surrender is hammered out behind closed doors, and there is an episode in which Britain’s King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) visits Churchill to give his support for whatever Churchill as Prime Minister decides. Other cast members include Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill.

The film gets a bit hokey, whether or not the episode is based on fact, when Churchill takes a rare ride in the underground and is recognized by passengers. He chooses a few to ask their opinion-- fight or surrender--and that sets off an emotional agreement among passenger after passenger that Britain should stand firm against Hitler. The rallying experience encourages Churchill to make the decision he wants to make.

“Darkest Hour” vividly recalls that critical time by not focusing on the battlefield as war pictures usually do but by taking us behind the scenes into the crucial decision that must be made. It also reminds us again what a powerful force Churchill was by inspiring Britain to rise to the occasion and fight despite the odds. It also provides the opportunity for Oldman, dressed and made up to look very much like Churchill, to give an award caliber performance. A Focus Features release. Reviewed October 4. 2017.

  

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