By William Wolf

BOOK CLUB  Send This Review to a Friend

It is impossible to believe that the four star actresses of “Book Club,” charismatic even at their age, would be characters who would need “Fifty Shades of Grey” to stimulate their sexual appetites. Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen are so magnetic that they look totally at odds with the premise and plot of “Book Club,” directed by Bill Holderman, who wrote the largely inane screenplay with Erin Simms. But the film’s asset is that watching these stars can be enjoyable, even in such a shaky vehicle.

Bergen, for example, plays Sharon, a federal judge and divorcee who hasn’t had sex for ages and, goaded by her friends, opts for trolling an internet dating site. Fonda plays Vivian, a wealthy hotel owner who likes her sex casual, with no romantic commitment. Steenburgen is Carol, a successful chef in a sexless marriage. Keaton is Diane, a widow living in California and whose two grown daughters think she is over the hill and in need of their care that justifies moving her to live with them in Arizona. The four friends meet monthly to discuss a book, and when “Fifty Shades of Grey” is suggested, that gambit sets the stage for examining their lives—and for some changes.

Keaton is the most sympathetic, in that her portrayal of Diane allows her to especially open up to an ardent pilot (Andy Garcia), whom she meets on a flight and with whom she launches into a liberating adventure. Fonda as Vivian is impressive in her independent way, as she tries to fend off a former boyfriend (Don Johnson), to whom she is attracted anew. Bergen as Sharon, while amusing, has a tough time trying to convince us that she initially is so reticent about seeking sex.

As for Steenburgen’s Carol, she tries to be alluring to her totally uninterested husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson). One of the funnier bits—even if thoroughly corny—occurs when she is convinced to put Viagra into her hubby’s beer, and he develops a raging erection with no intent to use it. A woman traffic cop, when she pulls him over for driving recklessly, is aghast at the sight of his protruding trousers. Carol’s frank explanation adds to the embarrassment.

There are some occasionally droll lines and amusing scenes, such as one in an Arizona mall, where Diane’s shopping daughters have planted her in a section where a totally decrepit bunch of old ladies are lounging in a collective stupor.

But the plot strains so hard to make sense out of anything that one can find the film terminally silly even though able enjoy seeing these superb actresses and screen icons going through the paces dreamed up for them. A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed May 22, 2018

MEASURE OF A MAN  Send This Review to a Friend

To call “Measure of a Man” a coming-of-age story is partially true, but it is much more than that. Blake Cooper’s appealing performance as the overweight 14-year-old Bobby Marks becomes a stand-in for all youngsters who have trouble finding and asserting themselves. It also involves tension between locals and summer vacationers, and when you add the performance by Donald Sutherland as one who recognizes Bobby as someone promising who needs nurturing with tough love, you get a film with a special dimension.

“Measure of a Man” has been scripted by David Scearse based on Robert Lipsyte’s novel “One Fat Summer.” It has been ably directed by Jim Loach, who, it is interesting to note, is the son of noted director Ken Loach.

Bobby is the victim of bullying, something he will have to overcome during the summer of 1976 when he vacations with his parents at a lake. Danielle Rose Russell gives a winsome performance as Joanie Williams, with whom Bobby bonds as a friend and for whom he also harbors romantic thoughts. The two communicate with walkie-talkies when they are not seeing each other in person.

There is marital trouble for Bobby’s parents. Bobby’s teenage older sister is feeling her sexuality, and she is attracted to a local lothario. As for Bobby, he wants a job and applies to be a handyman on the property of Dr. Kahn (Sutherland) even though he has no skill at lawn-cutting and the like. He is about to give up when first rejected, and Dr. Kahn berates him for being willing to bow out that easily. He hires the lad for a pittance, and Bobby learns to toil away, even in the face of resentment by a local whom he replaces.

The relationship that Bobby develops with his tough-minded but inwardly kind employer is a gem, and as we watch Bobby’s development, the film takes on warmth while also being amusing and touching important bases. How Bobby manages to mature under pressure, and how he conquers being bullied makes for a fascinating plot. The summer turns out to be a special one for him—and for us—as “Measure of a Man” evolves into an entertaining and uplifting story with an assortment of revelations and developments and a perfect freeze-frame ending.

The supporting cast is excellent and colorful, and while we can especially appreciate Cooper’s performance, we are also reminded anew of what a charismatic performer Sutherland can be when he gets the right role, which is often and is certainly the case here. A Glass Half Full Media release. Reviewed May 11, 2018.

THE ESCAPE  Send This Review to a Friend

Gemma Arterton is a very special actress and she solidly anchors “The Escape” in the role of Tara, an overburdened housewife in suburban London. The film has been written and directed by Dominic Savage with an eye for zeroing in realistically on what it means to be a woman in that situation.

Life has become a bore and a chore for Tara, who is a mother of two and charged with looking after them and the household. The problem, including lack of fulfillment sexually, is compounded by total absence of understanding by her husband, played by Dominic Cooper, a hard-working chap who has trouble dealing with his own life.

Arterton enables us to see the deep frustration Tara endures, even though she is not a complainer as she goes about her daily routine. We feel for her and wonder what her breaking point might be.

One day she takes a bold decision and leaves secretly on a trip to Paris in hope of gaining a new self-fulfilling experience. Can she really leave her family behind so spontaneously? Paris beckons with the possibility of new adventures, and at first there is an air of liberation.

The gambit, of course, shocks her husband as well as fills him with concern for her. Where will Tara’s rebellion lead?

The problem is that for all of the momentary escape, there is nothing that can substantially change the life that has led her to such desperation. On the one hand, there is the excitement we feel for Tara’s breakaway. On the other is the realization that escape is not just a matter of buying a ticket to Paris. Through it all is Arterton giving a remarkable, sensitive and touching performance . An IFC Films release. Reviewed May 11, 2018.

LET THE SUNSHINE IN  Send This Review to a Friend

The exquisite Juliette Binoche, adored by the camera, gives one of the finest performances of her career in “Let the Sunshine In,” insightfully directed by Claire Denis from a screenplay that she wrote with Christine Angot. The story clearly unravels from a woman’s viewpoint, reflecting the perspective of Denis and Angot and given life by Binoche.

Isabelle (Binoche) is an artist who consistently gets involved with the wrong men as she seeks romance and a permanent relationship. She likes sex, but is depressed when it doesn’t lead to what she would want in life. Isabelle has a young daughter from a broken marriage, but we only get a glimpse of her, as the film concentrates on Isabelle’s relationships with men, including a bedroom fling with her ex.

She isn’t likely to find happiness with the boorish married man we find her with at the outset of the film, a banker well played by Xavier Beauvois, who is married and makes it clear that he will never leave his wife. There is an ugly side to him in his condescending behavior toward his mistress. Their sex together is unsatisfactory, as we see at the outset in a very explicit lovemaking scene.

Isabelle also falls for an egotistical but sexually appealing actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle.) We quickly know that tumbling into bed with him won’t lead anywhere either. And so it goes.

What Isabelle really needs is to come to terms with her own self-worth, and grow from a life being defined by relationships with men. As part of her journey, she seeks the advice of a fortune teller who turns up near the end of the film and is played by Gérard Depardieu. It is a very amusing turn by Dépardieu, who spouts a series of what-ifs about who may be coming into her life and how she should react, hypothetical situations with contrary advice. It adds up to a load of soothsayer bull, and it is fun to watch Dépardieu’s performance and also to see Binoche’s facial expressions that show her reactions, including hopes and disappointments as the litany is laid out before her.

In fact, one of the strong points of Binoche’s acting is how effectively she registers reactions. She dominates “Let the Sunshine In” almost completely, and Denis gives her free rein to delineate a portrait of a woman in turmoil. One can lose patience with the character as someone who keeps acting against her own interests. But one is thoroughly enthralled by Binoche, who gives a powerfully impressive performance and is the main reason for seeing this smartly conceived and directed film. An IFC Films release. Reviewed April 26, 2018.

GODARD MON AMOUR  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 and now wisely renamed “Godard Mon Amour” for its commercial release here, 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 and entertaining 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 crowded meeting when he makes insulting remarks, including anti-Semitic and other 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. Both Godard’s restlessness in his filmmaking and his quirky personal side are highlighted and integrated.

The new woman in his life after his marriage to actress Anna Karina, Anne Wiazemsky, is intriguingly portrayed by stunning Stacy Martin. (The film is based on a memoir by Wiazemsky.) 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, a man who pays little attention to the needs of his wife. His own restless talent and his onslaught of provocative declarations are also seen as his undoing, as is the way in which he insults admirers who approach him. In a way he becomes a tragic figure unable to relate well to anyone but himself, and even then he is filled with contradictions.

There is much attention to the student and worker revolt that shook France in 1968, when protests resulted in the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with the upheaval. (I was at Cannes that year and it took maneuvering to find a car that could get one out of France in the wake of closed gas stations and overrun rental agencies.)

Hazanavicius cleverly mimics Godard’s style with comments directed to the viewer and other staccato interruptions and in-joke references. One of the funniest scenes occurs when both Godard and Anne are full-frontal naked and discussing the use of nudity in films.

“Godard Mon Amour” rises to the level of an extremely important achievement--a work that defines Godard, so important in any survey of French cinema. Hazanavicious merits applause for this milestone in his career. “Godard Mon Amour” is an illuminating film that should be seen by anyone interested in Godard and French film, as well as in the world of cinema itself. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed April 20, 2018.

LOU ANDREAS-SALOMÉ --THE AUDACITY TO BE FREE  Send This Review to a Friend

What do you know about Lou Andreas-Salomé? Born in 1861 in St. Petersburg, Russia, she grew up to be a writer and the world’s first woman psychoanalyst. In this German import, written and directed by Cordula Kaplitz-Post, we are swept into the life of Andreas-Salomé in her later years and in flashbacks over the trajectory of her turbulent, ground-breaking life, including coming under the influence of Sigmund Freud.

It is a dramatic period, right up until the time when she is threatened by arrest under the Nazis and wants to burn her papers to keep them from being discovered. It takes different actresses to portray her at various ages in this sprawling film. The film is anchored by Nicole Heesters as Andreas-Salomé at the age of 71. But as her saga unfolds we also meet her as a child, played by Helena Pieske, in the person of Liv Lisa Fries at 16 and Katharina Loren from 21-50.

What makes the film especially interesting, in addition to her personal life and problems, is the interaction with famous persons of the time, including poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Julius Feldmeier), philosophers Paul Rée (Philipp Haub) and Friedrich Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer).

The film gets off to its dramatic start when publisher Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier) approaches her in 1933 at her home in Gõttingen, Germany, ostensibly to get psychiatric help, but has another personal motive. He winds up helping to write her memoirs. Given that he somehow reminds her of Rilke, whom she loved, the set-up is a jumping off point into the past.

We are privy to her background, her rejection of the church, her not wanting to marry and the relationships she has along the way, including her fraught friendship with Rée and the evolving of her writing career. You’ll be struck by how much is packed into this bio-pic.

The strongest aspect comes from the excellent portrayal of the protagonist from the later perspective, as enacted by the impressive Heesters, who leaves us best remembering the mature portrait of Andreas-Salomé. But the entire film adds up to putting a spotlight on a pioneering psychoanalyst who should be better known to the general public, especially in this time of focusing on the achievements of women. A Cinema Libre Studio release. Reviewed April 20, 2018.

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 and gives us glimpses into her desperation in trying not to drown. She is also depicted with dignity in scenes leading up to the tragic event.

Jason Clarke gives a fine, 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 the 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 that ended his hopes to ever become president. An Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures release. Posted April 5, 2018.

JEANNETTE: THE CHILDHOOD OF JOAN OF ARC  Send This Review to a Friend

One film that annoyed me in this year’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema series was “Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc,” written and directed by Bruno Dumont and now in commercial release.

It is certainly a valid idea to reach back to examine the development of Joan of Arc and see what impelled her to follow the path that led to her heroism and becoming a legend. But although exquisitely shot to capture the ambiance of the French countryside in 1425, the film becomes numbing.

We first meet Jeannette when she is eight and tending sheep. (The director has used non-actors.) I suppose if one is steeped in religion the film could connect emotionally. But I quickly tired of this kid singing and praying, singing and praying, and already at an early age obsessively devoted to God above anything else. It is the same as she grows up in different stages (embodied by different casting). More singing and praying. The film is being touted as a musical.

We follow her trajectory with her child and adult relationships, including with twin nuns, until ultimately she mounts a horse and sets out to do battle in the still-raging Hundred Years’ War. The rest is history but at least we don’t have to endure more of a kid singing and praying. Posted April 13, 2018.

LEAN ON PETE  Send This Review to a Friend

Directed by Andrew Haigh and based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “Lean on Pete” starts strong as a sensitive, sympathetic story but mid-way begins to slide downhill.

Steve Buscemi makes an impression as the tough-as-nails Del Montgomery, owner of race horses, including Lean on Pete, a quarter horse that has seen better days. Pete’s terrain is second-class tracks and when a horse can no longer make it, he doesn’t think twice about selling it.

Into his life comes 15-year-old Charley Thompson, played appealingly by Charlie Plummer, who has had a difficult time in a hardscrabble upbringing. He and his struggling and distant father Ray (Travis Fimmel) come to Portland, Oregon, seeking a new start in life. Likable Charley is given a job by the skeptical Del, who is harsh and demanding in breaking him into the stable assistant routine.

Working with Del is his long-time jockey Bonnie, played by Chloë Sevigny. Despite her customary solid acting, she looks much to tall for a jockey, as well as not lightweight enough. If you can believe her as a jockey, good luck.

Charley begins to get attached to Lean on Pete despite Del’s advice never to get too fond of a horse. There is warmth to the film as we watch Charley gain self-confidence and be able to be independent of his father’s problems. And his affection for Lean on Pete is touching. When he learns that Del is going to sell him, Charley gets deeply upset. His solution is to steal Lean on Pete and go off with him.

What happens next becomes increasingly unbelievable—Charley wandering about with the horse and trying to lead it to a country space where they can live happily ever after. The situation grows increasingly difficult and the film founders with improbabilities. We know at the outset that it can’t end well, although for Charley it will at least turn out to be a learning experience. An A24 release. Reviewed April 6, 2018.

WHERE IS KYRA?  Send This Review to a Friend

Michelle Pfeiffer goes all out in an intentionally bleak performance as Kyra, a troubled loser in what is a very understated and sad film directed by Andrew Dosunmu from a screenplay by Darci Picoult. The acting by Pfeiffer is a classic example of an actress playing a role in counterpoint to her customary screen images.

We see Kyra in Brooklyn caring for her elderly, ailing mother. After her mother dies, Kyra is alone in her struggle for survival. She is in an increasingly desperate financial situation, owing rent, unable to find work and growing more and more frantic.

A ray of hope in her life is getting into a romantic relationship with a decent chap played by Kiefer Sutherland, but he can’t lift her out of her troubles, and when he learns what she is up to, he is reluctant to go along with it, although he really wants to help her. Kyra takes to disguising herself as her dead mother and proceeding to illegally collect benefits that her mother has been getting. The image of Pfeiffer dressed as an old lady is a striking one, and the actress makes the most of her trudging along and carrying out her deceptions.

We know that eventually she must get caught—one can’t get away with such a deception forever. How it all happens is well dramatized, and we watch the further descent of Kyra. It is a bold performance by Pfeiffer and the director keeps the film at a steadily depressing level. But watching this tragedy unfold is a bummer of an experience despite the film’s all-around quality. A Paladin release. Reviewed April 6, 2018.

  

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